Friday, 28 January 2011

The Disappearance of George Street

Little seems to be known about the origins of George Street, also known as St George's Lane. The name itself derived from the church dedicated to St George the Martyr which stood on the corner of George Street and South Street for over a thousand years until its demolition in 1843. The street was really little more than a narrow alley leading from South Street, past the south elevation of the church and into Milk Street.

George Street appears on Hedgeland's model of Exeter depicting the city in 1769 left. South Street runs from left to right at the top. The street's buildings, including the church of St George, are highlighted in red.. The model is one of the very few surviving visual representations of the street and shows that it was lined with houses on both sides, despite its narrowness. Until the mid-19th century at least, many of these properties would've been of timber-framed construction, the street remaining little changed since the 15th or 16th centuries. The name itself seems to have been a relatively recent invention appearing for the first time only in the 19th century.

It must've been known by other names although it's possible that these haven't been documented. But how old was it and when did it originate? It appears on both the Rocque map of 1744 and the Tozer map of 1793 and a street in exactly the same position also appears on Hooker's map of 1587. A Saxon church from the 9th or 10th century stood on the site of the later medieval church of St George. It's possible that George Street itself was also Saxon in origin and provided access to Saxon buildings that once fronted onto South Street.

The image right © Devon County Council shows a sketch executed in 1920 by the Canadian artist Gyrth Russell which purports to show George Street. The view is looking towards South Street. It is too vague to make out many details but there are a few hints of timber-framed buildings with jettied upper stories oversailing the street. I've never seen a photograph of George Street although presumably some do exist somewhere.

The narrowness of the street is cited in a report from the 'Exeter Flying Post'. At a meeting of the Commissioners for Improvement in 1833 one of the commissioners, John Cooke, proposed the idea that £300 should be spent on "widening and improving" the thoroughfares of "St George's Lane, Milk Street and the entrance into the country Butcherow." Butchers' Row were the late-15th century butcher shops which were demolished when the Lower, or Western, Market was constructed in the late 1830s. Cooke wondered whether it was fair, given the "portly appearance" of the city's butchers and their wives, for them to have to access St George's church via the "extreme narrowness of George's Lane". In Cooke's opinion, two people "possessing anything like rotundity" could not walk abreast down George Street. How flattering.

The drawing left © Devon County Council is by George Townsend and depicts George Street from South Street c1840, looking down towards the arches in the side wall of the Lower Market. The tower of St George's church is on the right.

Cooke's road-widening idea seems to have been put on the backburner because the Commissioners already had plans to move the public water conduit in South Street to an area near George Street and they expected some alterations to take place when the new conduit was built. This happened just a few years later, when the Lower Market was built. The corner of Milk Street and George Street was demolished in 1835 and a small public square was created, the site of the new water conduit which supplied both the Lower Market and the surrounding neighbourhood.

The conduit consisted of three brick cisterns which could hold up to 100 hogsheads of water (nearly 24,000 litres), housed within a brick building "and conveyed in pipes to an obelisk of granite". The granite obelisk stood in the centre of the square, the cisterns also providing water for a second conduit in Mary Arches Street, built in 1839. The water originally came from the natural spring at Lion's Holt in the parish of St Sidwell but by the 1870s the water was piped in from a reservoir at Dane's Castle, some distance beyond the city walls. In 1874 a major leak in the pipes lead to the city surveyor having to "open the whole of Milk Street" in search of the leak, eventually found near the junction of Milk Street with Fore Street.

A plan of 1904 shows at least 11 properties still fronted onto the street itself. The entire area around George Street was completely destroyed by bombs in 1942. Almost nothing seems to have survived except the remains of a Saxon doorway that was once embedded within a house in George Street and which was later moved to the ruins of the Hall of the Vicars Choral. The doorway was probably associated with a Saxon church.

During the post-war reconstruction the City Council decided against rebuilding the street and every trace of it was obliterated by the construction of new shops in South Street. The route of George Street lay at a right-angle near to the green-lidded dustbins in the photo above. In fact much of the area's historic street plan was changed completely. George Street disappeared, as did Sun Street. The length of Guinea Street was reduced by 50% and the route of Milk Street was hardly reinstated at all. A new road was created nearby that ran parallel with South Street and Market Street and this was named George Street below, although it has nothing to do with its ancient predecessor. Today it's all remarkably dismal and grim.


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