The early 20th century history of Paul Street is just a really sad story of the complete demolition of what was one of Exeter's largest surviving groups of medieval and post-medieval timber-framed houses. The photograph left © Devon County Council shows the north side of Paul Street c1910, looking down towards the Iron Bridge at the bottom of North Street, and still lined with houses from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
Archaeological excavations have shown that Paul Street lies on top of what was once the wall of the Roman fortress constructed over 1900 years ago, but the actual line of the street itself dates to the Saxon period and it takes its name from what was once St Paul's Church which stood on the corner of Paul Street and Goldsmith Street for a thousand years. (According to Hoskins, the name of Paul Street, or 'Poulestrete', has been in use since at least 1240.) Like much of the West Quarter, Paul Street had descended into slum conditions by the 20th century, with many families living in poverty within the rabbit warren of medieval lanes and courts which made up the entire area, places like Maddocks' Row, Rouse's Court, Lake's Cottages, St Paul's Place, Hodge's Buildings, Cornish's Court, Richmond Place and Barbican Place.
The illustration right © Devon County Council dating c1911 shows the interior of a room belonging to a house in Paul Street. The intricate, high status Jacobean decorative plaster ceiling dated from about 1625 and featured a complex geometric design outlined in raised moulded ribs known as strapwork. Both the ceiling, and the house it belonged to, were completely destroyed shortly after the drawing had been executed.
Before the creation of Queen Street in the early 1830s it was only possible to access Paul Street either from North Street, Goldsmith Street or from Gandy Street. When Queen Street was built it chopped through Paul Street as it ploughed on through the city wall, which is why the short passage running up the side of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum is today known as Upper Paul Street.
The photograph below left © Devon County Council shows a small courtyard surrounded by a group of properties known as Arthur's Buildings. It lay within the network of lanes behind the main elevations on Paul Street. Everything shown in the photograph had been demolished by the 1920s.
St Mary Steps church all came from the foundry in Paul Street, the remains of which now lie under the Harlequins shopping centre).
The photograph below right © Devon County Council shows an area known as Lake's Cottages. This too had been flattened by 1920. From a historical and architectural perspective, disaster struck at the beginning of the 20th century. However well-meaning they might've been, the slum clearances which swept Exeter during the 1920s and 1930s destroyed the vast majority of medieval and post-medieval timber-frame houses which had survived into the 20th century and almost no record was made of what exactly was being destroyed. In Paul Street, Smythen Street, Preston Street, Stepcote Hill, Frog Street, Edmund Street and Catherine Street, numerous ancient properties and centuries-old alleys were simply flattened.
Often, as at Exeter, the clearances resulted in the removal of the oldest and most interesting houses. These houses might've been slums in the 20th century but when built in the 1500s and 1600s they were the townhouses of some of the city's exceptionally wealthy merchants. The richness of the architecture and the history it represented meant nothing as the entire area was pulled down, irrespective its historical value. As the Cornish-born author Anne Treneer quite rightly said: "We had blasted much beauty ourselves before the Germans came to work more rapid destruction for us, breaking in a mad few hours the cohesion of centuries."
The street plan for 1905 shows that many buildings fronting the street and in the alleyways behind still existed on narrow medieval tenement plots that had been in use for hundreds of years. Starting in 1913 the entire area between St Paul's church and the city wall was demolished. The many families who lived there were relocated to newly-built houses in the suburbs and the empty lot to the north of Paul Street was used as a bus station until as recently as the 1980s.
According to the Westcountry Studies Library, from whose archive it came, the photograph left
© Devon County Council was taken during the demolition of 14th century
houses on Paul Street, although a date of c1530 is perhaps more
Fortunately, just prior to the complete demolition of the north side of Paul Street, a number of photographs were taken which showed some of the areas lost. Nothing was saved and, apart from these images, very little was recorded. There is now simply no way of knowing what once existed on the street. Another narrow alleyway was called Maddock's Row and was accessed via a small archway which had been let into the city wall at the back of the tenements (the archway still survives today behind the tawdry expanse of the Harlequins shopping centre). In fact hardly a single building survived on the north side of Paul Street from its junction with Lower North Street up to its junction with Queen Street. After the demolitions the site was left empty, to be used as a bus station until the Harlequins shopping centre was constructed in the 1980s. In 1931, just a few years after the most destructive of the clearances, Harbottle Reed wrote that "most of the vanished buildings were of over-sailing timber framing, some of elaborate character".
right © Devon County Council shows Cornish Court just prior to its demolition. The south side of Paul Street survived relatively intact although ironically the buildings here, with the exception of St Paul's church, were both historically and architecturally of lesser importance. The late-17th century parish church came down in 1936 and in the 1970s, with the construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre, every single surviving building on the south side of Paul Street, from Queen Street down to North Street, was bulldozed by Exeter City Council, part of the ironically named 'Golden Heart Project' which ripped much of the remaining pre-war cityscape to shreds.
The consequences of the pre-war slum clearances and the post-war redevelopment are nothing more than disastrous. It is a bitter irony that this area of Exeter was left completely untouched by bombs in 1942. There's not much to say about Paul Street today really, apart from the fact that it's often choked with cars and comprises one of the least appealing cityscapes in Exeter. Considering it was a tightly-knit community for over one thousand year there is rarely a pedestrian in sight. The south side of Paul Street consists of nothing but the towering monolithic backside of the Guildhall shopping precinct. The north side is just a car park with entrance into yet another shopping precinct. After nearly 2000 years Paul Street is now without any visible historical or aesthetic value whatsoever and without a single surviving building which predates 1970. The only feature of interest are the remains of the city wall which are hidden behind the Harlequins shopping centre. Today Paul Street looks like this: