The site of Bear Street is ancient, lying within the boundaries of the mid-1st century Roman fortress. In 1953 part of a Roman drain or conduit was found in Bear Street. The drain carried waste water away from the public baths which stood near the Deanery's garden c180 AD. There is some archaeological evidence that Bear Street was first laid out on its current alignment as early as the 9th century. It might've once connected South Street with the Anglo-Saxon minster which stood just west of the present Gothic cathedral. According to this theory, Saxon Bear Street would've been much longer than it is today, extending across the city as far as what is now Princesshay. The street was considerably shortened in length when the boundaries of the cathedral precinct were established and by the end of the 13th century it only led to Deanery Place and Palace Gate, as it still does today. In 1286, following the murder of the precentor Walter Lechlade, the Dean and Chapter received a royal licence from Edward I to encircle the cathedral precinct with a wall and gatehouses, and one of these gatehouses was situated in Bear Street.
The Bear Gate
A document relating to the circumvallation gives quite precise details about the location of the gate, later known as Bear Gate. It was located at the top of Bear Street and consisted of one gate 8ft wide for pack-horses leading into "the lane between the house of the Dean of Exeter and the house now of Roger de Derteford". The gate had wooden doors that were locked every evening at the curfew. It must've been a relatively simple structure, especially in comparison with the great Broad Gate on the High Street. Hooker's 16th century plan of South Street shows Bear Gate with a simple pitched roof. On the Braun and Hogenburg map of 1587 the gate consists of just a stone archway right. The range of buildings on the right side of the street formed the north wall of the Bear Inn, the former townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey.
There's some evidence that by 1584 the gate had a chamber above it as a Mr Barcombe was required to pay two pence every year in consideration of "his new building over the gate going into the churchyard by the said Bear Gate". The Bear Gate was demolished in the Spring of 1813. According to Michael Fodor in his booklet 'Gates of the Close', the materials were salvaged by Thomas Matthews for £10.
The Bear TowerOf almost equal interest was the Bear Tower. It was embedded within a later property, close to the junction with South Street and opposite the side wall of the Bear Inn. It dated at least to the 14th century and was built from blocks of purple volcanic trap. A blocked Gothic doorway in the south wall of the tower once gave access directly onto Bear Street. There was also a very large blocked archway in the east wall, almost like the chancel arch of a church. The tower was perhaps 20ft high and approximately 15ft square at the base. Jenkins saw it in 1806: "The opposite corner of Bear Lane bears evident marks of antiquity. According to tradition it was a Nunnery". Lega-Weekes also recalled seeing the property in 1915: "The ancient side wall of the house at one corner of Bear Lane shews traces in its masonry of a large arched window or doorway at first floor level, and a smaller stopped window above that; and this, like other old masonry in the house is about three feet thick".
The drawing above left © Devon County Council is by local artist John Gendall and dates to c1840. It shows the interior of the Bear Tower. The partially open door which once exited onto Bear Street is visible in the centre. A stone spiral staircase can be seen rising through the centre of the tower. (The staircase was removed c1860.) No-one knows the function of the Bear Tower. Jenkins believed it was related to an Augustinian nunnery which was possibly on this site. It's also possible that it was connected to an earlier phase of the townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock, on the other side of the street. The townhouse was reputedly rebuilt in 1481 and perhaps the Bear Tower was part of the earlier townhouse. The Bear Gate always seems to have been located at the other end of Bear Street so it's unlikely that the Bear Tower was related to that. The purpose of the tower remains a mystery. The image below right shows Bear Street as it appears on Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter.
During the Exeter Blitz of 1942 the early 19th century house which had been built around the Bear Tower was destroyed by fire. But the fire was no match for the tower's thick masonry and a significant amount of the 14th century structure remained standing (much like the Gothic windows and medieval walls at the Black Lions Inn on the other side of South Street). The Bear Tower stood on the corner of Bear Street and South Street for a further 24 years.
Despite being listed as one of Exeter's ancient monuments in the 1950s, in December 1965 the city council obtained permission from the Minister of Public Works to demolish the tower completely. In an act of either gross stupidity or pig ignorance, the remains of the 14th century building were destroyed in January 1966. It's not surprising that some people believe the philistine post-war city council merely finished what the Germans had already started in 1942. The government had stipulated that the foundations be left preserved and exposed. Naturally, this didn't happen and today the site of the Bear Tower is a flower bed.
Nos. 2 to 8, Bear StreetThe image left shows a detail from the 1905 OS map of Exeter overlaid onto an aerial view of the same area. Properties demolished since 1905 are highlighted in red.
The Bear Tower wasn't the only historical structure on Bear Street which managed to stagger into the 20th century. Nos. 2 to 8 Bear Street occupied almost the entire north side of the street, facing out onto the side wall of the Bear Inn (and later the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart). An auction annoucement in 1809 stated that several of these houses, "situate adjoining Bear Gate, and fronting Bear Lane" were held "by lease under the Dean of Exeter". In fact all of these properties on the north side of the street were owned by the Dean and Chapter and were part of the boundary between the city and the cathedral precinct.
In the summer of 1871 the 'Exeter Flying Post' carried a report that the Dean, in conjunction with the city council, had decided to authorise the widening of Bear Street "on the north side by fifteen feet throughout, from the junction with Palace Street to the last house fronting South Street". The fronts of the houses on the north side of Bear Street were all apparently set back to allow the road to be widened. I'm not convinced that this actually happened to the extent suggested in the newspaper report. Either way, the rears of Nos. 2 to 8 Bear Street were much older than the street facades. Arthur Everett examined the row of properties in the 1930s and discovered that the back walls and roofs dated to c1500. The great age of the buildings was of little consequence as the entire lot was demolished in 1938. It never seems to have occurred to the local authority that Exeter's stock of medieval housing was a finite resource. It's a sobering thought that more medieval and early post-medieval buildings were probably demolished in Exeter between 1900 and 1939 than were ever destroyed during World War Two.
The location of the ancient houses today is a car park partially hidden behind a shabby wall. There's now no sign above ground of the Bear Gate or the Bear Tower, the ancient houses or the old Bear Inn. The photograph below shows the site of the Bear Tower, the foundations lying somewhere beneath the flowerbed to the right of the remarkably poor flat-roofed post-war shack on South Street. The entrance into Bear Street is visible to the far right.