Milk Street is typical of dozens of medieval roads and alleys that used to criss-cross the old city of Exeter i.e. it's ancient in origin but nothing survives today earlier than the 1950s. Like many of Exeter's medieval streets, the street adopted the name synonymous with the trades of the people who lived there e.g. Goldsmith Street, Preston Street, Smythen Street. Milk Street was simply the street where people bought and sold milk.
The image left is from the Hedgeland model of Exeter as it appeared in 1769. The buildings which either fronted onto Milk Street or which formed part of it are highlighted in red. Fore Street runs from left to right at the bottom of the photograph. The far end of Milk Street was a junction where it was possible to turn either left or right into Guinea Street. When Hedgeland constructed his model between 1817 and 1824 Milk Street, like much of Exeter at the time, was predominantly a city of timber-framed buildings from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. According to Hoskins, Milk Street has been in existence since at least the 12th century, being first recorded during the reign of Henry II. Until 1942 it was a narrow lane leading from Fore Street down to Guinea Street. From the 1830s, most of the right-hand side was dominated by the towering wall of Charles Fowler's neo-Classical Lower Market.
The street map right shows Milk Street, George Street, Guinea Street and the Lower Market in 1905. The buildings highlighted in red no longer exist i.e. nearly all of them. The area was comprehensively bombed on 4 May 1942. The Lower Market was gutted by fire and much of Milk Street, George Street and Guinea Street were reduced to rubble and ash. The obelisk survived the bombing relatively intact but was later demolished.
Before the construction of the Lower Market it was possible to access the medieval shops known as Butchers' Row right via Milk Street. It was so narrow it was sometimes necessary to remove joints of meat hanging in the shops to allow horses to turn the corner into Smythen Street. On the left side, before arriving in Guinea Street was a small square, with George Street, another very narrow and ancient lane, leading off it. In this square a water conduit was placed when the Lower Market was first built, having been moved from outside the 14th century Hall of the Vicars Choral in South Street. A stone obelisk marked the site of the conduit to which many people living in the cramped West Quarter would come to collect fresh water.
The line of the street itself could possibly even have been Roman in origin. The forum, the Roman city's main marketplace c200AD, is believed to have been located between Milk Street and South Street. Aileen Fox, who excavated the bombed areas of the city after World War Two, speculated that Milk Street might be a shadow of the Roman road which led from the forum to the South Gate.
Hoskins mentions that numerous previously-concealed medieval buildings in Exeter were exposed by the destruction of 1942. He writes that "one of these was a fourteenth-century building in Milk Street". Here the bombs had revealed a garderobe (a medieval shaft that functioned as a toilet) embedded within the wall of a bomb-damaged property. The remains of the house were demolished during the post-war clear-up.
Today the street barely exists. In the post-war rebuilding the line of Milk Street was reduced to a small passageway under the mediocre architecture that flourished in Exeter during the 1950s and 1960s and all traces of earlier buildings were removed. The photograph above left shows the post-war entrance into the remnant of Milk Street. The photograph below shows the view from the opposite direction, the entrance into Guinea Street on the left. It goes without saying that now there is absolutely nothing of any visual or historic interest to be seen. The small passageway leads through to the post-war market building and today the entire area is remarkably grim.