They look like late-19th century structures today, but behind the plain brick facades of Nos. 17 and 18 lie two of Exeter's few remaining 17th century timber-framed merchant houses. Both houses had survived intact until the end of the 19th century when the city authorities hacked off 8ft of the frontage to widen the road in North Street. The facades of the early 1600s were replaced with the brick elevations visible today.
The photograph shows No. 17 to the left with No. 18 to the right, the apex of its early-17th century roof still visible above the brick parapet. Even in its mutilated condition No. 18 is one of the most historically important domestic houses in Exeter. A particular type of house construction, known as 'gallery and back block', became something of a speciality in south-west England during the 16th and 17th centuries. A house, comprising the main living accommodation, was constructed on the street front with a separate block, usually containing a kitchen and service rooms, built at the rear. Connecting the two and providing access was a timbered gallery, hence the term 'gallery and back block'. The rare two-storey gallery survives at No.18 although the kitchen block was destroyed by a bomb in 1942
The photograph right shows Nos. 17 & 18 highlighted in red, the original line of the demolished facades shown as a red dotted line. Both Nos. 17 and 18 were originally constructed with four floors with a cellar, the destroyed facade of No. 18 being particularly fine with projecting pedimented oriel windows on the first and second floors. The exterior arrangement of No. 17 had been altered in the 18th century with the insertion of sash windows.
A fire at No. 18 in 1995 exposed some previously hidden painted wooden panelling. The panelling was removed for conservation, partially funded by Exeter City Council, and subjected to dendrochronology ordered by English Heritage in July 2008. A felling date of between 1573 and 1609 was suggested for the oak boards, consistent with a construction date for the building of c1600. As well as the panelling, No. 18 also retains at least one original early-17th century fireplace, lined with the local purple volcanic rock and a late-17th century staircase.
Another important surviving feature of No. 18 is the panel-lined passageway left that runs underneath the building and which still provides entry into the house itself. The oak partitioning, with ovolo mouldings and chamfered rails, is contemporary with the early-17th century construction of the house. The steps up into the passageway are visible in the photograph at the top of this post. It is the only example of its kind left in the entire city but at one time such passageways would've been widespread. No. 18 has now been converted into flats, with a restaurant on the ground floor. No. 17 also has several original features, including a 17th century staircase, although the gallery and back block plan is missing.
It is a great pity that these two buildings didn't make it into the 20th century without having their facades ripped off and the front rooms destroyed. Today they stare out at the inane brick cliff of the Guildhall Shopping Centre and I would suspect that most people who drive past them every day have little idea that they are important relics from Exeter's past. At least they did survive, even in their mutilated condition, which is more than can be said for nearly all of the buildings on the other side of the street.
The photograph right shows the gallery and back block arrangement at No. 18 North Street, the gallery itself highlighted in red, the block a replacement of the 17th century structure which was destroyed in 1942. The original back block was approximately 28ft long and 16ft wide, with three of its walls built of Heavitree breccia and the fourth, the one facing the house, constructed from timber-framing. The connecting gallery is particularly important as it consists of two stories, an arrangement which is today unique in the city.
I don't have Copyright access to any photos showing Nos. 17 & 18 in their original state but there is one available to view online here. It shows the view down North Street c1890 (note the narrowness of the street prior to road-widening). Nos. 17 & 18 are the two tall gabled houses to the left.The magnificent property to the right of them, with the semi-circular window set into the gable end, is No. 19. It was completely demolished soon after this photograph was taken. No. 20, with a similar facade, had already been destroyed. It is extraordinary that such remarkable buildings were so casually disposed of. With so little surviving in Exeter the best place to see intact examples of 16th and 17th century houses with the distinctive 'gallery and back block' arrangement is now probably in Totnes, approximately 23 miles south-west of Exeter. This small town has 66 domestic houses which have been shown to date from before 1700 and many of them represent the type of layout which was once relatively common in Exeter.