Saturday, 2 October 2010

Smythen Street: Exeter in the Middle Ages

It's hard to believe it today, but in the 11th to 14th centuries Smythen Street, shown left c1905, was one of the principal medieval roads in Exeter. It was essentially a continuation of Stepcote Hill, which together with Smythen Street is believed to have functioned as the main access route into the centre of Exeter from the west.

As a street it has almost certainly been in existence since the 9th century, possibly even since the Romans first laid out the city in the 2nd century. In 1823 some workmen digging in the street unearthed a "curious medal in fine preservation" upon which was an image of the 4th century Roman Emperor Flavius Magnus Magnentius. (People at the time commented upon the resemblance between the face on the medal and that of Napoleon who had died two years earlier.) Excavations in 1931 on the south side of Smythen Street revealed the remains of a small stone-walled room, made from the same purple volcanic trap as the Roman city walls, which was believed to be the remains of a hypocaust. Exeter's Roman citizens certainly lived within the vicinity nearly 2000 years ago.

The name of the street, first recorded in the 11th century, derives from the use of the area as place where many of the city's blacksmiths both worked and traded. In Donn's 1765 map of Exeter the street is called 'Smithing Street' and on another map of 1832 the entire street is known as 'Butchers Row'. For many centuries the term 'Butchers Row' was interchangeable with 'Smythen Street'. Up until the 16th century the entire area would've been a complex of winding alleyways and courts, with warehouses and merchant houses built on narrow tenements vying for position on the street front.

A canon at Exeter Cathedral gave several tenements situated in Smythen Street to the quasi-ecclesiastical Kalendar Brethren in 1271. In the late 15th century a series of butcher shops were built at the top end of the street, and this part of the street became officially known as Butchers Row. As its name suggests, this was the place from which the city's butchers operated from 1499 until the 1830s.

The Butchers Row, or Smythen Street, right had probably changed little since the 15th century when Jenkins described it in 1806: "[It] consists of a narrow street, the buildings, in general, low and mean, with heaving hanging window-shutters; here the knights of steel reside in a kind of community among themselves". It seems like a strange place for the trade, given the topography of the city. Every day the butchers would sweep out their shops and slaughterhouses and the resulting mix of water, blood, dung and offal would've flowed freely down a central gutter in the middle of the street, down through the rest of Smythen Street, down past the doorsteps of those living in Stepcote Hill, before being channelled off into the nearby river Exe. It was, said Jenkins, a "noisome place in the summer". It must've stank to high heaven.

The image left shows a detail from Hedgeland's wooden model of Exeter depicting the city as it existed in 1769 and which can be seen in the city museum. All of the houses which fronted onto Smythen Street are highlighted in red. The street seamlessly merged with Stepcote Hill at the bottom. At the top of the street one could turn left or right into Milk Street or continue up via a slight deviation into George Street. When Hedgeland created his model between 1817 and 1824 the narrow street would've still been lined on both sides primarily with timber-framed houses from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, their jettied upper floors oversailing the pavement below. (The upper third of the street was demolished to build the Lower Market in the 1830s.)

The Protestant martyr, Thomas Benet, was living and teaching in Smythen Street when he was arrested for heresy. He was burnt at the stake at Livery Dole on the outskirts of the city on 15 January 1531. By the 1830s, like the rest of Exeter's formerly prestigious medieval West Quarter, the street was a notorious slum. An outbreak of cholera in 1832 resulted in the order for burning barrels of tar to be placed in the city's most densely populated areas (including Smythen Street shown below right), the idea being that the smoke from the burning tar would purify the air. It had always been the location for a number of inns and taverns, including The Unicorn, The Coachmaker's Arms and The Golden Fleece. One Mary Dixon was fined five shillings for using "very disgusting language" near to The Golden Fleece in 1850.

The street retained its medieval character almost intact until the 19th century. The first part to go were many of the old butchers' shops. In the 1830s Exeter's prestigious Lower Market building was opened, a purpose-built place specifically designed to cater for the city's meat trade as well as functioning as a corn exchange.

The construction of the Lower Market truncated Smythen Street and resulted in the demolition of much of Butchers Row. The rest of ancient Smythen Street disappeared gradually until the great slum clearances of the 1930s destroyed much of what was left. There were at least two timber-framed buildings from the 17th century in the street until at least 1949 but these were subsequently demolished.

The street today, like most of the old West Quarter, is a barren wasteland, with just a late-Victorian warehouse, a late-Victorian pub, some bland and nondescript modern housing and a large car park. Preston Street, which runs parallel with Smythen Street, is little better and both are truncated to the south-west by the post-war four-lane inner bypass road. There is almost nothing of interest to be seen and nothing to evoke the street's very long history. Two small fragments do however remain. The first a solitary medieval fireplace hanging high on the wall of a late-19th century warehouse. It is so pitiful a sight that one almost wishes that it wasn't there at all. The other fragment is the much-altered remains of No. 30 Smythen Street. It is believed to be a unique remnant of the last of the houses which comprised Butchers Row. Unfortunately it has recently been threatened with demolition.

Smythen Street is today a self-inflicted mess and no amount of redevelopment could compensate for the almost total loss of the street's historical fabric. The slum clearances left behind such a blighted landscape that the city's post-war town-planner, Thomas Sharp, likened Smythen Street and others affected in the 1930s to those parts of the city which had been bombed in 1942. I've lived in Exeter for nearly 40 years and I've probably been down Smythen Street two or three times at the most. Today it looks like this:



Anonymous said...

When I was a child, in the 1960's, my family and I lived above a jewellery shop in Fore Street. We entered the property from Smythen Street. At the end of what was then a garden and yard was an ancient timber framed house. One night it was set alight and as far as I can remember all that was left was the timber frame. It was so sad. My family thought that there was enough remaining to rebuild it, but, of course, it was demolished.

AP said...

I think I must have walked up Smythen street a number of times - its hard to tell - Id have passed by quickly without looking - what am abomination ! what a loss!

wolfpaw said...

It's quite incredible that the west quarter, one of the oldest and most affluent areas of the medieval city, should now have almost nothing of interest to see. It has nearly all been scoured off the face of the earth. When the slum clearances were going on in the 1930s there was some debate over whether to save a few of the more important historical properties but naturally it came to nothing.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...