Poor Mary Arches Street is nothing but an unmitigated disaster on every level. Everything which could go wrong has gone wrong, and despite once being one of the most prosperous areas of medieval and Tudor Exeter, nearly all of the historically interesting buildings have disappeared, the church has been defaced and the street has been widened beyond all recognition. It now serves as a rat-run to get from one side of the city centre to the other or as the entrance into the abominable Brutalist car park on Bartholomew Street East.
Archaeological excavations have revealed that this was once the area of the officers' quarters when the city was a fortress of the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. It's likely that the street itself was first laid out in the 880s when the city was refounded by Alfred the Great and until the middle of the 20th century it remained a narrow lane which linked Fore Street to Bartholomew Street East. The partial spoilation of the church of St Mary Arches from which the street gets its name is covered in a separate post but the photograph above left shows the church itself c1930. The neo-Classical facade of the Lower Market in Fore Street is just visible at the end of the street. This narrow lane was typical of many which existed throughout Exeter at the beginning of the 20th century. Note the cobbled road surface with guttering on either side and the stone flagged pavements. It was streets like this which once gave Exeter it's distinctive character, and its appearance in 1930 was a product of an evolutionary process that spanned a thousand years.
Mary Arches Street (Arches Lane) is one of Exeter's street which appears on the Braun and Hogenberg map of the city from 1587 right. The church of St Mary Arches (shown with a steeple) is depicted to the right. A 15th century crenellated structure with a square tower is also shown, almost certainly the building which the historian Alexander Jenkins, writing in 1806, called "an ancient house, with a battlemented roof". It was here that Sir John Maynard founded the Bluemaid's School for Girls in 1658 using money derived from the estate of Elize Hele. He purchased the property for £600 with the purpose of educating "a certain number of poor girls". The Bluemaids' Hospital, later known as the Maynard School, became the third oldest girls' school in England (the Maynard School still exists within the city but in a different location. Hele's School is also still in existence.) Part of the school was probably used to produce coinage as there are references to a mint being established in Mary Arches Street in 1696.
Little is known about the building itself but fortunately an article about the school appeared in an 1855 edition of the 'Exeter Flying Post' and contained the following brief information: by the mid-19th century the structure had been divided into various tenements but, according to the article's author, "this interesting old battlemented building bears vestiges of older architecture" which pre-dated the school's mid-17th century foundation: "It is entirely built of red Heavitree sandstone, and there are two curious old oak doors of the napkin pattern [i.e. linenfold], well worthy of observation, and some strange grotesque old rooms, and passages, and armorials in the windows." The article describes Mary Arches Street as a "maze of brick edifices, lanes and messuages", a "labyrinth of roofs, skylights and passages".
In 1862 the British Archaeological Association visited Exeter and during a tour of the city "some old houses in Mary Arches Street were looked at". According to the BAA's report, the old houses "belonged to one Crofton, bishop's registrar, early in the sixteenth century, from whom they passed to dean Sutcliffe, in 1587, and subsequently became the property of Hele's trustees". Presumably these buildings were the ones that John Maynard used when he founded the school in 1658. A pencil sketch of the buildings exists in the Westcountry Studies Library. It is dated 1863 and shows a large, three-storey, square building fronting directly onto the street, with a central doorway and numerous irregular windows. Unfortunately it seems that all of the ancient school buildings were demolished by 1876.
The image above left shows a detail from Hedgeland's wooden model of Exeter as it appeared in 1769 and which he completed in 1824. The houses which fronted onto Mary Arches Street are highlighted in red. The model is full of fascinating details. St Mary Arches church is to the upper right. Next to the church is the open yard where the White Ball inn had its stables. Moving to the left and the street's pronounced dogleg bend is clearly visible, the corner of one of the houses is chamfered to ease the passage of carts and carriages. Near the bend is a narrow alleyway through which it was possible access North Street, now Synagogue Place. The large, three-storey square building to the far left is almost certainly Hedgeland's representation in miniature of the main Bluemaids' Hospital building. Most of the houses shown would've dated to the 16th and 17th century and many of them remained until the end of the 19th century and beyond.
The drawing right dates to the 1830s, soon after Hedgeland had completed his model, and shows the street's striking medieval character. The bell turret of the church is just visible above the roof of what was No. 12 Mary Arches Street.
Mary Arches Street also possessed a number of ancient inns. The Courtenay Arms, a former Jacobean townhouse with a superb decorative strapwork plasterwork ceiling, stood on the eastern side of the street near to the sharp bend. It is listed on the 1876 Ordnance Survey map of Exeter but was demolished c1910. (More can be read about the beautiful ceiling here.)
The White Ball inn stood opposite the church, the horses being stabled in the yard next to the church. The White Ball in was gone by 1900. A much larger inn called the Golden Ball stood close to the White Ball until 1909. In 1884 three timber-framed houses from c1580 stood next to the church forming part of the yard of the White Ball inn stables, their jettied upper floors oversailing the pavement below. These were destroyed c1900, but a pencil sketch of the street dated 1927 below right © Devon County Council shows that a significant number of jettied, timber-framed houses remained well into the 20th century, although most of these historically interesting properties were demolished in the 1930s. A guide to the city of 1912 states that "many of the old streets in this quarter of the city are worth visiting, for in the narrow thoroughfares are some interesting old houses".
The building shown just off-centre to the right in the pencil drawing was No. 12 Mary Arches Street. In the 1960s it was the premises of a motorcycle repair shop, by which time the house was already three hundred years old. No. 12 Mary Arches Street had been built c1670 and was constructed of light-weight timber-framing, perhaps for an Exeter merchant. At the time it would've been a fairly luxurious house. The accommodation was spread over three floors, with a large hall or living room fronting onto the street and a kitchen at the rear. There were further rooms on the upper floors as well as a number of fireplaces with chamfered oak lintels. The portion of the house containing the kitchen was almost at right-angles to the front of the property, suggesting that it had been distorted to fit between pre-existing buildings when it was constructed in the latter-half of the 17th century. The entire building was destroyed by the local authority without record in the summer of 1963 for road-widening.
The street remained almost untouched by the bombs of 1942. Although the church was badly damaged when the 15th century barrel-vaulted roof caught fire, and the corner with Fore Street was destroyed, the narrowness of the lane survived practically unscathed, even if most of the timber-framed houses had been swept away. As part of the post-war redevelopment the remaining buildings on the street were almost entirely removed in order to widen the road in anticipation of the creation of a bus route which never materialised. Even the dogleg in the course of the street, which was itself probably a reminder of an Anglo-Saxon building or enclosure which predated the laying out of the street, was eliminated. The only survivals from before 1900 that front onto the street itself are the church, No. 22, a heavily disguised timber-framed building from c1670; No. 23, an early-19th century brick building with a much-altered facade and a commemorative stone tablet recording a water conduit that was erected in 1839.
The city council's own conservation report admits that the east side of Mary Arches Street is 'a disaster', an epithet which could just as easily be applied to the west side. In the words of Pevsner and Cherry it is "all dereliction and car-parking". Almost everything of visual or historic interest has gone. The site where the Bluemaids' Hospital stood is now a car park. The entire street is an eyesore, the western side mostly filled with grim, utilitarian buildings which wouldn't look out of place on an industrial estate. It is abysmal and it's hard to imagine the mindset which ever believed that this was acceptable: