Saturday, 26 February 2011

St Kerrian's Church, North Street

First mentioned in 1194 as 'Capella Sancti Kerani', the little church dedicated to St Kerrian that stood in North Street until 1878 had one of the most unusual dedications of any church in Exeter.

Unfortunately no-one seems to know exactly which Kerrian was the church's saint. There are numerous possibilities, including two Irish saints, Ciarán of Clonmacnoise and Ciarán of Saigir, and another Irish saint called St Piran (the patron saint of tin miners), much venerated in Cornwall and possibly an alternative name for either of the two Irish Ciaráns. The village of St Keverne in the far west of Cornwall has a large parish church dedicated to St Akeveranus who had been equated with St Ciarán of Saigir by the mid-13th century. Any of these are possible, 'Kerrian' being simply a corruption of the saint's name. Beatrix Cresswell, along with most other 19th and early 20th century historians, believed that the church in Exeter was dedicated to St Piran but had retained its authentic Irish spelling with a 'C' or 'K' and that it was used by tin miners who came to Exeter to sell the tin mined on Dartmoor and in Cornwall.

The truth behind this unusual and rare dedication in Exeter is likely to remain unknown. The church almost certainly predated the Conquest of 1066 and was probably founded by Christianised Celts who are thought to have inhabited this part of Exeter after the collapse of the Roman city of Isca Dumnoniorum in the 5th century (other churches possibly founded by the Britons included St Petrock, St Paul (of Leon), St Mary Arches and St David). St Kerrian's is one of the churches mentioned by Peter de Palerna c1200.

The image right is based on the medieval parish boundary of St Kerrian's. It shows a 1905 map of the city overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area.

Buildings that were once within the parish boundary but which have been demolished since 1905 are highlighted in red. Surviving properties which pre-date 1905 are shown in purple.

The surviving buildings on the south-west side of North Street were largely rebuilt in the late 19th century for road-widening, although several 17th century townhouses of some importance do survive behind later brick facades. The demolished  properties on the north-east side of the street was nearly all destroyed in the 1970s for the Guildhall Shopping Centre. The parish suffered minimal bomb damge in 1942.

The church was united with the church of St Petrock on the High Street after the Reformation and during the Commonwealth, on 11 May 1658, it was sold to its parishioners for just over £63. Despite being put back into use after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the church appears to have gradually declined, but the parish itself was exceptionally wealthy. Hoskins believed that St Stephen's and St Kerrian's were the two richest parishes in Exeter at the end of the 17th century, a suggestion borne out by the existence of the towering early 17th century merchant houses that existed in North Street until the end of the 1800s. This was the area where the wealth of Exeter's cloth industry was centered and where merchants converted their money into immense timber-framed houses as proof of their financial success. But, as happened so often in Exeter, that money rarely enriched the city's parish churches which remained relatively modest. St Kerrian's was no different. The church only had one bell, recast from two earlier bells in 1758 by Thomas Bayley of Bridgwater and inscribed "John Coombe Clerk of St Kerrian".

Few descriptions of the church survive and one of the very few images of the church is that shown on the 1587 map of Exeter by Braun and Hogenburg, highlighted in red left. Unfortunately no photographs or accurate illustrations survive of either the exterior or the interior. Jenkins has little to say about the building that is complimentary in his description of 1806: "[The church] is dark and gloomy, and from its not being used for Divine Service, little attention is paid to its interior part; the tower, which is over the entrance, is low, and contains one bell and a clock, with a dial fronting the street; this church bears evident marks of antiquity."

It's probable that the church Jenkins saw dated from the 1400s and would've been constructed from the local red sandstone known as Heavitree breccia. It measured 48ft in length with a width of just 18ft. It was aligned east/west, the entrance being underneath the tower which faced onto North Street itself (this doorway is visible in the 1587 map). It seems that the only memorial of significance inside was a monument to Jonathan Ivie who died on 14 March 1717 "on the base of which is an excellent carving in bas-relief, representing the resurrection at the day of judgement" (Jenkins). This mural tablet was carved by a local sculptor called John Weston in the early 18th century and is regarded as one of the finest things of its kind in Exeter. (When St Kerrian's was demolished in 1878 this mural tablet, shown in the photograph at the top of this post, was relocated to St Petrock's on the High Street where it can still be seen today. A similar example from Ashprington church in South Devon, also by Weston, was removed in the 1960s but in 1991 it was purchased by Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum at auction for £4,680.)

The image right shows a detail from Caleb Hedgeland's wooden model of Exeter which he completed in 1824. It shows St Kerrian's, highlighted in red, facing onto North Street. Stylistically, there appears to have been relatively little change to the church since 1587.

By 1800 the church was surrounded on three sides by buildings but until the 14th century it had sat on the corner of North Street with a long narrow lane called Trichay Street. Trichay Street ran from North Street all the way to Pancras Lane, exiting almost opposite another tiny medieval church: St Pancras (now surrounded by the 1970s Guildhall Shopping Centre). Trichay Street had been in existence since at least 1349, the date when the rectory for St Kerrian's was constructed in the entrance from Trichay Street into North Street. The rectory effectively blocked Trichay Street at its western end. Hoskins writes that "it is odd that the city fathers should have allowed the rector of St Kerrian's to block the street like this", but apparently they demanded that right of way into the rectory be given to the city via "a key in time of war or whenever the need or use of the city may demand it". Hoskins believed that the little street's name was formed by the word 'hay', meaning 'enclosure' with the addition of an unknown prefix. Trichay Street survived until the early 1970s when it was totally obliterated by Exeter City Council to build the Guildhall Shopping Centre.

In 1875 the City Council started to plan the demolition of St Kerrian's. The church hadn't been used for regular services for many years and it was a prime candidate for destruction given the Council's intentions regarding the widening of North Street. Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' on 06 October 1875 reported that the Council wanted "to apply for power to take so much of the site of the Church of St Kerrian as might be required for widening of North Street at that point". The stumbling block was that the church was still on consecrated ground. A report was sent to a Parliamentary Committee which in turn suggested that the consecrated ground would create unnecessary difficulties and that it might be better to shelve the plans to remove the church. The councillors however were determined, believing that "the matter was rather more serious than the Committee might have first thought". A motion to re-refer the matter to the Parliamentary Committee was passed and on 13 November 1878, just over three years later, the church was demolished.

As happened at St George's in South Street, much of the site was fenced off with railings and a little commemorative stone was erected that recounted a brief history of the church. On 02 July 1879 a notice appeared in the 'Exeter Flying Post' left asking for tenders to construct a "clock turret and house" along with the installation of the railings. The clock tower was duly built of brick, with a small bell turret above and capped with a terracotta slate roof (a photograph of it can be seen here). After nearly a century the tower was demolished by the local authority, along with the Elephant Inn, No. 38 North Street and nearly every other surviving building on the east side of North Street in order to build the Guildhall Shopping Centre, and today there is no sign that the church ever existed:


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