Despite a century of the almost continual destruction of Exeter's historical architecture, during the slum clearances of the 1920s and 1930s, during World War Two, during the much-criticised post-war reconstruction, during the creation of the city's inner ring road and the massive Exe Bridges traffic management system in the 1960s, incredibly, after all historical buildings were still being demolished.
In the early 1970s the local authority decide to destroy some of the last remaining medieval properties left within the circuit of the city walls. The destruction of No. 38, North Street in 1972 was inexcusable on every level. The west side of North Street, mostly consisting of 16th and 17th century timber-framed houses, had already been completely defaced and/or demolished by 1900, but prior to 1972 the east side retained at least three properties which dated to the 1500s or earlier, as well as the 17th century tavern known as the Elephant Inn. And yet almost the entire east side of the street, including all of the remaining historically important buildings, was demolished to build the monstrous Guildhall Shopping Centre.
The history of No. 38 is long and complicated. Exeter's most important 20th century historian, W. G. Hoskins, who examined the property ten years before its destruction, described it as being "a good example internally of a 15th century dwelling house of a particularly wealthy merchant". It probably dated to c1500. Until its demolition it was the finest example in the city of the building arrangement known as 'gallery and back block', an unusual floor plan peculiar to south-west England in which an accommodation block on the street front was joined to a kitchen block at the rear by a gallery which spanned a courtyard lying between the two blocks (the best remaining example in Exeter now is probably the much reduced specimen at No. 18, North Street).
The photograph above © RAMM shows the early 17th century timber-framed construction of the gallery at No. 38 North Street during its demolition in 1972. The main house is to the left with the back block at the rear.
Internally there was a small late-15th century hall in the centre of the property, extending from the ground floor to the roof with blocks of rooms on either side. According to Derek Portman, who examined the property in the 1960s, the hall had retained its "very fine arch-braced roof". A number of medieval fireplaces also survived, including a massive example in the kitchen block at the rear. The house underwent modifications in the first half of the 17th century. A new timber-framed facade, described by Hoskins as one of the finest left in the city, was added c1650 (a photograph of the facade just prior to its destruction can be seen here). Another 17th century addition, dating to c1630, was an important decorative plaster ceiling with a complex design of motifs featuring animals and foliage. At the start of the 20th century there were a number of similar ceilings in Exeter but by the 1970s the example at No. 38 was one of the only ones of its type to survive within the city.
The photograph above © RAMM shows part of the plasterwork ceiling during demolition. As it was being destroyed, bits of the ceiling were collected as fragments by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. More information on this ceiling can be found here.
During the 18th century some rebuilding took place at the rear of No. 38, but the building was essentially a medieval merchant's house with 17th century alterations. The facade had in fact been removed in 1899 to allow for yet more road-widening when the building was known as the Eagle Brewery. An account of the removal of the facade appeared in an edition of Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' dated 20 May 1899. According to the report, the walls on either side of the property were made of stone. These were firewalls, built not only to support the sides of the house and a place for the installation of fireplaces and chimneys but also to prevent fire spreading between neighbouring properties. This firewall showed signs that at one time the front of the building projected out into the street, "in accordance with the practice followed in the days of narrow streets" and would've dated to the 15th century. The plasterwork ceiling, mentioned above, was "richly moulded in a kind of star pattern, suggesting the famous star chamber at Westminster." Half of the ornate Jacobean plasterwork was removed at this time and ended up at Lew Trenchard in the home of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (where it can still be seen today). The other half remained in situ and the mid-17th century facade was reconstructed, piece by piece, by the property's owner.
Despite the efforts of Hoskins and others, No. 38, North Street was completely demolished in 1972. The construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre destroyed everything: the ornamented facade and plaster ceiling of the 1630s, the medieval walls, the arch-braced roof structure and mullioned windows, the timber-framed gallery, the moulded beams and fireplaces. Nos. 34 and 35, dating to the mid-16th century, were also demolished at the same time along with the 17th century 'Elephant Inn' and No. 36, an almost identical merchant's house from the late-15th century which also had a fine arch-braced roof. The site where these buildings once stood is shown right, and this is the city which was once frequently regarded as amongst the most picturesque and attractive in southern England.
Compared with many other historic English cathedral cities, Exeter today is architecturally disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps many of the buildings which were destroyed during World War Two would've succumbed to the wrecking ball of the local authority anyway. Would Bedford Circus really have survived into the 21st century even if it hadn't been damaged in 1942? Or would the allure of the retail value of the land on which it stood have proved too tempting to resist? I'm not aware of another example of two almost adjacent 15th century arch-braced roofs being demolished as late as 1972 anywhere in England. Either way, the mindless demolition of this small group of historic buildings in North Street was a complete disgrace and nothing more than cultural vandalism inflicted upon the city by the very people who were supposed to be its custodians.