Friday, 29 June 2012

Holy Trinity Church, South Street

In 1908 Beatrix Cresswell claimed that the church of Holy Trinity on South Street "has been almost the worst architectural sufferer in the city". The candidate for that title, over a century later, is much longer than it was even in Cresswell's day but the complete demolition and rebuilding of the ancient church in 1820 was certainly unfortunate.

Built mostly from red Heavitree breccia, Holy Trinity stood just inside the city walls, almost adjacent to the South Gate. The church and the gatehouse were so close to each other that, from a distance, it appeared as if they were two parts of the same structure. Something of this effect can be seen in the drawing left. It shows the view at the bottom of South Street looking out of the city via the South Gate. Only the north-west tower of Holy Trinity is visible to the left, projecting out into the street. The main body of the church lies out of sight behind the timber-framed house, at a right-angle to the street and parallel with the city wall. A narrow passageway ran between the side of the church and the house shown to the immediate left of the tower.

The photo right, a detail from Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter, gives a clearer idea of the relationship between Holy Trinity and the South Gate. George's Meeting, further up South Street, James Street and the city wall can also be seen.

All of the city's medieval gatehouses had parish churches or chapels associated with them. St Cuthbert's was either close to or inside the North Gate. St Bartholomew's was almost certainly in an upper chamber inside the East Gate. St Mary Steps was just through the West Gate. I doubt it was a coincidence that places of worship and sanctuary grew up at what have been the main entrances into Exeter since the 2nd century AD.

Holy Trinity on South Street was in existence by 1200 although the exact date of its foundation is unknown. It's mentioned by Peter de Palerna at the beginning of the 13th century along with another chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity in Musgrave Alley, close to St Lawrence's church on the High Street. Given the great antiquity of the South Gate it's easy to imagine that a chapel of some sort was on the site before the Norman Conquest but there is no evidence for it. By the end of the 18th century the majority of the parish of Holy Trinity lay beyond the city walls and was described in 1806 as "extensive and populous". It included nearly all of Southernhay and the Quay as well as Magdalen Street and part of Holloway Street. The Trinity Burial Ground, now under the Southgate Hotel and car park, was established close to Holy Trinity church in 1664.

A detail from Hooker's 1587 map of Exeter is shown left with both the tower of Holy Trinity and the South Gate clearly visible. The gatehouse to the Bishop's Palace can be seen in the background.

Alexander Jenkins visited the medieval church in 1806, describing it as "a handsome Gothic edifice, kept in good repair". The tower contained "four small untunable bells, and a clock and dial". Both the gatehouse and the tower of Holy Trinity caused a significant narrowing of South Street as the thoroughfare passed under the South Gate. Jenkins mentions "an arched building adjoining the tower, once the habitation of the Priest, but now of the Sexton". The priest's house was located "over the king's high way" i.e. over South Street itself. In the early 17th century it was known as the Parsonage House and was entered from South Street via a Gothic doorway. According to Jenkins the interior of the church consisted of "a chancel, nave and one aisle". The aisle was separated from the nave by "six clustered pillars", and there were also two galleries. Jenkins also describes "a neat monument" on the north side of the chancel in memory of John Wyse, a merchant who died in 1686.

The image right is a detail from Benjamin Donn's 1765 map of Exeter showing the location of Holy Trinity just inside the city walls.

Little else would be known about the medieval building if it wasn't for the remarkable survival of one particular document. It was written in 1452 when Bishop Lacy held the See of Exeter and refers to an enquiry ordered by the Bishop following a request by Simon Chudleigh, then Rector of Holy Trinity. The enquiry revolved around the issue of when the church was first dedicated. The document reveals that the church was already so old and decayed by the beginning of the 15th century that some major rebuilding was necessary. The building works were carried out under a previous rector, John Govys, who assumed the position from 1402 until 1416. The repairs were extensive and it appears that the church was closed for a considerable period of time. The roof was replaced and the south and west walls were rebuilt. The north wall remained intact apart from some timber additions to the upper part to help support the roof. It's possible that these repairs deliberately coincided with a major rebuilding of the South Gate between 1410 and 1420. (Bishop Stafford held the See of Exeter between 1395 and 1419. A detail from his alabaster effigy in Exeter Cathedral, covered in post-Reformation graffiti, is shown below left.)

It was customary to celebrate annually the date when a church was originally consecrated. The problem at Holy Trinity lay in the fact that the church was closed for so long during the repairs that by 1452 no-one could be quite sure when the feast of dedication should take place or whether the church had been desecrated during the renovations. This is why the rector Simon Chudleigh approached Bishop Lacy and Lacy's enquiry attempted to rediscover the date of the consecration.

The enquiry took place in the church itself on 23 August. It was led by the Archdeacon of Exeter and nine of the oldest inhabitants of the parish were interviewed as witnesses. The witnesses included Ralph Ferrant, a blacksmith aged around seventy-six or more who had lived in Exeter for over sixty years; John Whytton, who was 80-years-old; Nicholas Bishop, a tucker who worked in the city's cloth industry and was aged over seventy-four, and Simon Riggeway who was over seventy. These people would've been regarded as exceptionally ancient given that the average lifespan was between 30 and 40!

None of the nine witnesses could remember when or by whom the church was first dedicated because their memories did not extend back that far but they all seemed to agree that the church's feast day was the 30 September, the feast day of St Jerome. They also declared that they had seen the church prior to the renovations and it had retained the signs of dedication. These 'signs' were twelves crosses which had been painted on the walls of the church prior to the feast of dedication (three on each of the four interior walls). Above each cross a nail was driven into the wall from which was suspended a candle that was lit as part of the annual dedication ceremony. The witnesses also swore that the church hadn't been desecrated during the building works over thirty years before.

The image right shows Holy Trinity and the two arched passageways of the South Gate as drawn by John Hooker c1555.

As well as relating the information about the earlier rebuilding of the walls and the roof, the witnesses also revealed that the church had contained "a soler" i.e. a gallery or loft from which members of the congregation could witness the service. There was also a high altar made of stone in the chancel and outside the chancel were three other stone altars. The central altar of the three was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Another was dedicated to St Giles and featured a wooden statue of the saint set within a niche or tabernacle in the wall.

Near the stone baptismal font was an effigy of the corpse of John de Susseter who had been made Rector of Holy Trinity in 1349. The nature of this effigy is a slight mystery. It sounds like a cadaver tomb which usually depict a sculpted decomposing corpse, or transi. Two examples of this macabre type of monument can still be seen in Exeter Cathedral, detail left. They didn't become widespread in England until c1420 onwards by which time John de Susseter was long dead. (The two examples in Exeter Cathedral are from the 16th century.) It's possible that Susseter's monument was a very early example or perhaps it was something quite different entirely. Unfortunately no further details about the effigy are given and its fate is unknown. The witnesses also testified to the fact that the place of John de Susseter's burial could be seen as the ground had sunk following the decomposition of the body. The enquiry concluded that the feast of dedication was indeed on 30 September and that the church hadn't been desecrated during the repairs. The document remained in the parish chest at Holy Trinity for centuries until it was framed, hanging on the wall of the vestry of the post-1820 structure. Today it is presumably either in the cathedral archives or the Devon Records Office.

The composite image right gives some idea of how the medieval church and the South Gate would appear today in South Street if they had both avoided demolition.

On 18 May 1529 the mayor granted the church a piece of land for a new aisle (presumably the aisle mentioned by Jenkins in 1806). Before this date the church probably consisted solely of a nave and chancel, as St Pancras' church still does today. A Corporation Act states that the aisle was to be 12ft wide, extending out "from the churche wall of the Trinity aforesaid, towards the wall of the Citie, and 32 fote of length". The church was to pay the city 2s every year in perpetuity for the use of the land. In 1656, during the Commonwealth that followed the English Civil War, the number of parish churches in Exeter was reduced to just four. On 19 June 1658 Holy Trinity was sold to its parishioners for £100. The parish was restored following the Restoration in 1660. Apart from the addition of the aisle in the 1520s, the fabric of the church appears to have remained largely unchanged from the early 15th century until Jenkins visited in 1806.

Plans for the demolition of Holy Trinity had surfaced by 1817. On 31 July both the church and the tower were described in a letter sent to the 'Exeter Flying Post' as "decayed and delapidated" and "a great and dangerous public nuisance...long and universally complained of." The tower blocking part of South Street seems to have been a particular source of irritation. It seems that not everyone agreed with the proposed demolition and rebuilding of Holy Trinity. One parishioner, calling himself 'Trinitarian', smelt a rat in the fact that the church had been declared unsound at what he called a "convenient time". It does seem strange that just ten years earlier Jenkins had claimed that the church was "kept in good repair".

Space was also an issue. The medieval church could only sit around 400 worshippers whereas there were approximately 1900 in the extensive parish of Holy Trinity. The two options were either to repair and enlarge the church or to demolish it completely and build a new one. On 03 December 1818 a parish meeting voted on a proposition brought forward by Samuel Milford. The proposal included "taking down entirely the present Church and rebuilding it of dimensions adequate to the population of the parish". The motion was carried unanimously and the church was demolished in the spring of 1819. The South Gate followed soon after.

It's unfortunate that the old church wasn't repaired and retained. Cresswell said that "nothing could check the all-devouring monster of 'street improvement'", which had "assimilated one old building in the city after another". Cresswell also refers to the "architectural deformities" of the replacement church, designed and built by Robert Cornish and his son, local architects, and constructed at a cost of £7000 above. Brick-built with a stucco exterior, the new church was opened on Christmas Eve 1820 and no-one seems to have a good word to say about it. Just a year after its completion it was described by George Oliver as "inelegant" and Robert Dymond called it "singular". More recently, Hugh Mellor described the building as "shabby" and wonders whether its destruction during the Blitz wouldn't have been "a merciful release". It doesn't help that post-war demolition of the surrounding area has left the building standing in such a prominent position, stripped of its context within a larger historical landscape. The church was deconsecrated in the 1970s and in 1977 was taken over by the White Ensign Club who divided it horizontally into two separate floors. No ecclesiastical fixtures survive, although one window contains a late 19th century nativity scene in stained glass. The White Ensign Club, as it is now known, is Grade II listed.

The photograph below shows the former Holy Trinity church on the right with South Street receding into the distance. The location of what was once one of the South Gate's huge round towers is picked out in brick on the pavement to the left.


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

George's Meeting, South Street

George's Meeting on South Street left is a real cracker. It has survived both the Exeter Blitz and post-war reconstruction and is now one of Exeter's Grade I listed buildings. Only 2.5% of all listed buildings in England fall into this category, reserved for structures of exceptional interest.

George's Meeting was built as a Unitarian chapel in 1760, the year in which George III acceded to the throne. According to Allan Brockett, "it was named George's Chapel in remembrance of the benefits that English Protestantism, and the Dissenters in particular, had gained from the Hannoverian Succession". The south west of Britain has a long history of Nonconformism. Dissenting congregations i.e. those who had broken away from the established Church of England, were only able to worship freely without fear of interference in their own meeting houses following the Declaration of Indulgence in 1687 and the Toleration Act of 1689. One of the first of these meeting houses was James's Meeting, named after King James II, built by the Exeter Presbyterians in 1687. It was located in James Street, a narrow street almost opposite George's Meeting and close to the South Gate. (The original James's Meeting of 1687 was converted into houses in 1760 and survived until it was demolished by the city council in the 1960s.)

Two other early Dissenting meeting houses emerged in Exeter at the end of the 17th century. One was the Bow Meeting, probably located in Smythen Street within the parish of St John's Bow on Fore Street. The other was Little Meeting located in Waterbeer Street. James's Meeting, Bow Meeting and Little Meeting were collectively known as the Three United Congregations of Presbyterian Protestant Dissenters.

George's Meeting in South Street was constructed as a replacement for the earlier James's Meeting. In the words of Hugh Mellor, the new meeting house was "built on a scale unsurpassed by any other [Dissenting] chapel in the south west". Funds for the new building were raised partly through the sale of both the old James's Meeting house in James Street and the Little Meeting house in Waterbeer Street. £400 was borrowed from a fund and the rest was raised through subscription, paid for by members of a congregation described as "large and genteel" by Jenkins in 1806. Some of those who donated money were members of the Kennaway family, one of Exeter's wealthiest families by the end of the 18th century. (John Kennaway was raised to the Baronetcy of Hyderabad in the East Indies by George III in 1791. The family still live on their 18th century estate at Escot, some 12 miles from Exeter.) Allan Brockett has surmised that the total amount available for building George's Meeting was around £2500 to £3000.

The building was never intended to be seen as it appears today. Prior to the 1960s George's Meeting was set back from South Street, surrounded by other properties which hemmed it in on either side.

The aerial view left shows George's Meeting highlighted in purple. Bomb damage from 1942 is highlighted in red. The area affected by post-war redevelopment is highlighted in yellow. The adjacent buildings were demolished in the late 1950s for road-widening leaving George's Meeting exposed on all sides. Today the structure looks like a huge barn, pierced on the sides with arched windows. Only the neo-Classical front was originally designed for public display.

The meeting house is built from the beautiful locally-fired, burnt-red bricks that were once a common sight throughout the Georgian city (e.g. at Bedford Circus, Dix's Field and Southernhay West). The restrained street frontage has a number of neo-Classical details e.g. the pedimented porch supported on a pair of stone Tuscan columns, the brackets supporting the arched windows, the rendered quoins at each corner and the modillion cornice which runs along the roof line with a high curved parapet above. The parapet serves to disguise the large hipped roof from street level. (When the New Theatre was constructed in Bedford Street in 1787 it took a form that was similar to George's Meeting in South Street, including the red-brick walls, hipped roof, distinctive curved parapet, etc. The New Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1820.)

Pevsner and Cherry described the interior of George's Meeting as "sombre and magnificent". There are three galleries supported by square, fluted, Ionic piers right c1960 © Devon County Council. The west gallery includes a late 17th century clock, but the highlight is probably the enormous pulpit, carved with drapery, transferred from the original James's Meeting in James Street. In 1767 there were plans for a new mahogany pulpit but nothing seems to have come of this. Allan Brockett believed it was unlikely that any replacement would've equalled the one recycled from the old meeting house anyway. A vestry was added at the rear in 1781 and the ceiling was lowered by 3ft in 1809 to improve the acoustics, but the building has remained essentially unchanged since the middle of the 18th century.

It is astonishing that the city's post-war townplanner, Thomas Sharp, regarded the meeting house as disposable, recommending its demolition as part of the redevelopment of Exeter following World War Two. If George's Meeting hadn't been set back from the street in 1760 it would probably have been demolished for road-widening. Fortunately the local authority rejected Sharp's proposal and George's Meeting received listed building status in 1953.

The meeting house fell into disuse in 1983 and is now a Weatherspoons pub. The bar has been constructed underneath the full length of one of the galleries. It's a pity that such an important building couldn't have been used as a venue, retaining the original space, but all of the historical fittings have been left intact, including the pulpit, and at least the building is being maintained. Its situation at the end of South Street, surrounded by post-war redevelopment and close to the city's inner ring road, means that George's Meeting probably doesn't get the full attention it deserves.


Monday, 18 June 2012

A Brief History of South Street

The photograph left shows half of the west side of South Street looking up towards the High Street at the end of the 19th century. The entrance into Coombe Street is to the far left. A narrow passageway underneath one of the buildings in the foreground led to Paragon House, a large, brick-built property of c1700 constructed around a medieval core. Many of the buildings shown dated to the 17th and 18th centuries and not a single one still survives today.

Given its current underwhelming appearance, it's hard to believe that South Street was for centuries the ceremonial entrance into Exeter and the location of some of the city's most important historical structures. Many of Exeter's wealthiest medieval, Tudor and Stuart citizens had private houses in South Street and it was the site of three medieval parish churches. Here could also be found the prestigious townhouses of the Priors of Plympton Priory and the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey. The 14th century kitchen and refectory of the College of the Vicars Choral also backed onto the street and, perhaps above all else, it was the site of the great South Gate, with its two enormous drum towers, described by Hoskins as "one of the most impressive things of its kind in England" through which passed many of the kings of England. The fact that almost none of these buildings has made it into the 21st century illustrates the magnitude of the losses.

The photograph right shows the east side of South Street from the same vantage point as the photograph above. The houses in the immediate foreground appear to date from c1700 or earlier. Of all the properties shown, only one survives today: the house built by Robert Russell in c1800 on part of the site of the Bear inn. Just the blank side wall of this property is visible in the photograph, about halfway up near the solitary dark figure in the road, just beyond the awning which stretches over the pavement.

The modern line of South Street doesn't follow its Roman predecessor. In the 2nd century AD, South Street ran slightly further to the west than it does today, skirting around the forum which occupied a large site in the centre of the city. Little is known about the development of Exeter in the four centuries following the end of the Roman administration but it seems likely that by the end of the 9th century the current line of South Street was established as a more direct route to North Street and the North Gate on the opposite side of the city. This would make South Street part of Alfred the Great's grid-like street plan that was laid out c880 AD. (Other late Saxon streets included Catherine Street, Goldsmith Street and Gandy Street.) Before 1942, George Street, Guinea Street, Sun Street, Coombe Street and James Street all had entrances into South Street from the west, from which it was possible to access the streets and passageways of the sprawling West Quarter.

The Roman South Gate that punctured the city wall at the end of South Street was modified by the Saxons before being remodelled in the 11th century and again between 1410 and 1420, when it achieved its vast late-medieval dimensions. (It's believed that the South Gate's Saxon archway survived all the later rebuildings until the entire structure was tragically demolished in 1819.) Just inside the city wall and adajcent to the South Gate was Holy Trinity church, possibly founded in the 11th century. The early 15th century structure (shown left c1800) was demolished at the same time as the South Gate itself and replaced with the mediocre building which stands near the site today. Further up, on the corner of South Street and Palace Gate, stood the short-lived church of St James. It was in existence by the end of the 12th century but its parish was merged with that of Holy Trinity and the church isn't heard of again after 1384. (Even today, beneath the post-war buildings, the ground is thick with the human remains of Exeter's medieval citizens close to the former site of the church.) St George's church was a Saxon foundation and stood on the corner of South Street and George Street. Although most of the medieval building was demolished for road-widening in 1843, part of the Saxon church was revealed following the blitz of 1942. Only a small part was salvaged before the rest collapsed.

No. 100 South Street was also the site of one of the most remarkable private houses in Tudor Exeter, known as King John's Tavern. The connection between the property and that particular monarch is obscure, and almost certainly fanciful, but the house itself dated to c1500. It stood opposite Little Stile, what is now the wide, post-war entrance into the Cathedral Yard at the top of South Street. The property was renowned for its opulent interior which included rich plasterwork ceilings with pendant mouldings, elaborately panelled rooms and a circular staircase, described in the early 19th century as "singularly beautiful" right.

The jettied upper floors of the exterior were supported on carved corbels decorated with "human and diabolic forms" and the entrance porch was supported on large grotesque figures carved from oak. 15ft of frontage was removed in 1835 and the rest of the property was demolished later in the 19th century. The more spectacular carvings as well as the panelling were salvaged during the demolition and were purchased by the travel writer, Richard Ford, to adorn his property in Heavitree. Constructed around an Elizabethan farmhouse, Heavitree House was transformed by Ford into a Gothic-Moorish fantasy, reflecting his interest in the Iberian peninsula. It's no surprise that Heavitree House was demolished by the city council in 1949 but the fate of the carvings from King John's Tavern remains unknown.

King John's Tavern was just one of many inns that once existed on South Street. As well as the Bear inn and the Black Lions inn, there was the the Black Horse, the Seahorse, the Mitre, the Grape, the White Hart (which still exists), the Lamb and the Bell, to name just a few. The Bell tavern was a particularly early recorded example and is mentioned in documents from 1447 to 1449. Apart from the White Hart, not a trace remains of any of them. Something of the street's general architectural character in the 16th and 17th centuries can be seen in No. 67 South Steet and in the two timber-framed houses which were demolished in 1855 to allow the rebuilding of the Baptist Chapel. A vivid description of South Street in its late medieval heyday can be found in the introduction of Ian Mortimer's book 'The Time-traveller's Guide to Medieval England'.

One curiosity about South Street is that for centuries it was called something else! From the Middle Ages into the 19th century each part of the street had its own separate name. The stretch extending from the corner with the High Street as far as Little Stile was called Cook Row, perhaps a reference to stalls that once sold food to passers-by. From Little Stile to Bear Street was known as Bell Hill Street. A lease of 1453 uses the name Bolehyllestrete and this must've been where the almost contemporary Bell tavern was located. From Bear Lane to the South Gate was called Southgate Street. These names were still being used well into the 1800s.

In 1660 the city's serge market was moved from the site of the cathedral's demolished cloisters to South Street. (Robert Lesyngham's late 14th century cloisters had been pulled down in 1656 following the English Civil War and the disbanding of the Dean and Chapter. An open cloth hall was built in place of the cloisters. Part of this mid-17th century hall still survives today.) Serge is simply a type of woven woollen cloth, the export of which made Exeter one of the richest cities in England until the trade collapsed following the Napoleonic Wars. The South Street serge market appears on Rocque's 1744 map of Exeter. Simply called 'The Large Market' it is shown occupying most of the area of Bell Hill. Donn's 1765 map, detail above left, explicitly labels the area outside the Bear inn as the 'Serge Market'. The market was held every Friday. Celia Fiennes visited Exeter in 1698 and described a "large market house set on stone pillars which runs a great length" upon which the packs of serges were laid. The street would've been heaving with people, full of noise and colour and packed with the city's citizens, merchants from all across Europe and people who had just come to see the spectacle. In 1727 Defoe described the South Street serge market as second only to Leeds as "the greatest in England".

In 1799 South Street became the location for one of the city's major water conduits. The magnificent Great Conduit, fed from natural springs via the city's underground passages, had stood near the Carfax (i.e. the crossroads at the junction of South Street, North Street, Fore Street and the High Street) since 1461. Described by Jenkins as a "very beautiful edifice", the Great Conduit was demolished and moved close to a house near the entrance into North Street in 1770. This was in turn removed in 1799 and a completely new conduit was built up against the rear wall of the refectory of the Vicars Choral in South Street above right.

The South Street conduit was the prime water source for anyone living in the overcrowded West Quarter. Thomas Shapter, who documented the city's cholera epidemic of 1832, recalled that "The conduit, situated in South Street, yielded a tolerably copious and constant stream to those, who waited with their long brown earthen-ware pitchers for their turn at the cock whence it was delivered." Writing some 50 years later, James Cossins recalled that "the supply at times was so limited that it would take half an hour to fill a bucket or pitcher". It wasn't uncommon to see thirty or forty people waiting anything up to three or four hours to fill their pitchers or buckets. Fights and broken pitchers were sometimes the result when the conduit, fed from the natural springs at Lyon's Holt near Sidwell Street, ran dry in the summer.

(The photograph right was taken c1890 from a point about halfway down South Street looking south towards the city walls. The entrance into Sun Street is just visible to the right. The then newly-built Catholic church, on the site of the townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock, is to the left.)

The South Street conduit, and the resulting crowd of users, proved to be an impediment to passing traffic and in 1835 the conduit was moved to Milk Street, next to Charles Fowler's Lower Market. The new conduit was marked by a stone obelisk which remained until it was damaged by bombs in 1942 and subsequently cleared away. The stone balls on top of the South Street structure were moved following its demolition and relocated to the top of the tower of the church of St Mary Arches, where they can still be seen today. Cossins also left a description of South Street as it appeared in the 1830s: "The conduit then extended some eight feet from the wall of the College Hall" and Bell Hill was so narrow, and the jettied floors of the ancient properties oversailed the street so much, that "the upper parts of some of the houses were just within shaking hands distance".

These must've been ancient houses indeed which had gradually been extended out into the carriageway over many centuries. It was said that a portion of Bell Hill was so constricted that it wasn't possible for two coaches to pass each other. On 29 March 1829 it was announced that "the Commissioners of Improvement in this city have it in contemplation to widen South Street and abate the declivity of Bell Hill by removing the houses near the conduit". Some of these houses can be seen in the background behind the conduit in the illustration shown above.

Unlike North Street, which was widened in its entirety, only parts of South Street suffered the same fate. In 1830 many of the houses projecting out into the street were removed, or their depth was reduced and new frontages were added. In 1915 Ethel Lega-Weekes examined the properties on South Street that extended from the corner of Bear Street up as far as the College of the Vicars Choral at Kalendarhay. She reported that although the facades were 19th century the backs of the houses all contained much older material. She called them "spliced houses", part 19th century and part medieval, the rear walls forming the ancient boundary between the city and the church precinct. When these properties were destroyed in 1942 the thick stone walls at the back were left standing (although they were subsequently demolished).

Unfortunately, even before 1942, much of street's historical character had already been eroded. The South Gate and Holy Trinity church had been removed in 1819. (The medieval entrance into South Street via the South Gate is shown in the image above right. The three timber-framed houses to the left of the gatehouse were built following the English Civil War and survived until their demolition in the 1960s for the construction of the inner bypass.) St George's church followed in 1843.

The former townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey was partly rebuilt c1800 but was totally demolished in the mid-1880s and replaced with the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. At least part of the former townhouse of the Priors of Pympton Priory remained as the Black Lions inn until it was destroyed by fire in 1873. Substantial medieval walls and windows survived the fire and were incorporated into the new building. (The 12th century stone capital shown above left was retrieved from inside the fire-damaged building.) The former medieval kitchen of the College of the Vicars Choral had also assumed the name of the Bear inn. The ancient structure was demolished in 1871 although Lega-Weekes claimed that parts of the old kitchen could still be seen in the cellars of the rebuilt premises. The south-east corner of South Street and Palace Gate was rebuilt in 1876, resulting in the demolition of several timber-framed properties. In 1912 oak panelling dating to the late 16th century was being levered from the walls at No. 3 South Street, probably prior to being installed at the neo-Tudor Gateacre Grange on the outskirts of Liverpool.

Despite the gradual modernisation of the facades in South Street, it's certain that many of the properties concealed much older cores. Alterations to No. 96 South Street in 1921 exposed timber-framing and very thick stone firewalls. The innocuous-looking house on the corner of South Street and Bear Lane concealed the remnants of a large 14th century stone tower. Until the 20th century, these "spliced houses" were common throughout Exeter, the ancient fabric hidden beneath later additions. If you scratched the surface then the past was everywhere, and South Street was no different.

The Destruction of South Street in 1942

South Street was badly affected during the Exeter Blitz of 04 May 1942, one of the so-called Baedeker Raids launched by Nazi Germany against some of England's most historic and picturesque cities. According to one eyewitness, D. P. Beckett, by the time the bombers left the city at around 2.50am, "South Street was impassable above Guinea Street owing to large fires on both sides". The prevailing wind was from the north-west causing the fires to spread down from the top of South Street, igniting one property after another. Beckett continued: "it became obvious that the firemen were unable to prevent the flames from spreading, particularly in South Street where, owing to the inflammable nature of the premises (all lathe and plaster) the fires were creeping upwards against the wind. After a building had been on fire for a few minutes, the beams would give and it would burst asunder, the entire structure collapsing like a pack of cards amidst a shower of sparks, leaving just a big heap of embers right across the street".

The photograph above right © Express & Echo shows the upper half of South Street soon after the Exeter Blitz. The ruins of the dining hall of the Vicars Choral can be seen in the centre. The aerial view left shows pre-war South Street running diagonally from top left to bottom right. Of all of the buildings visible only those highlighted in purple still survive today. The rest have disappeared either as a consequence of 1942 or following the construction of the inner bypass in the 1960s. The photograph illustrates the densely built-up nature of the pre-war city centre.

Over sixty properties fronting onto South Street were completely destroyed during the air-raid. Approximately twelve were demolished for road-widening during the post-war reconstruction and just fourteen pre-war buildings now exist today. The two main architectural casualties were the medieval refectory of the Vicars Choral and Paragon House, but it's impossible to say what else was lost as nearly all of the buildings were destroyed without any record made of their construction or history. (Paragon House itself, one of Exeter's loveliest buildings, is only known from a handful of surviving drawings and a couple of snapshots.) The Church of the Sacred Heart was only saved because Bear Street and the thick stone walls of the Bear Tower acted as a firebreak. The presence of Coombe Street helped prevent the fires spreading as far as the White Hart inn. Strangely enough, according to Thomas Sharp's colour-coded map of the damage, the timber-framed house of c1700 which stood on the north-west corner of Coombe Street and South Street survived even though its neighbour, of a similar construction, perished. Unfortunately the former property must've been demolished during the rebuilding. (This property is visible to the extreme left in the photograph at the top of this post.)

The drawing right © Devon County Council by George Townsend shows the picturesque north-east corner of South Street and Palace Gate in 1890, looking up towards the gatehouse of the Bishop's Palace in Palace Gate. This was the location of the church dedicated to St James which disappeared in the 14th century. The timber-framed property on the corner probably dated to the last half of the 17th century and survived the blitz unscathed. The late Georgian building, half of which is shown to the far left in Townsend's drawing, was damaged during the air-raid. Aerial photographs reveal that both the timber-framed property and the remains of the brick house were still standing in the mid 1950s. Thomas Sharp, Exeter's post-war townplanner, recommended the restoration of the damaged building, thereby reinstating a row of characteristic pre-war buildings stretching from the corner of Palace Gate to Bear Street. Instead, the corner properties were all demolished for road-widening in 1956.

The image left shows a modern aerial view of South Street combined with a pre-war street plan of the city. Based on Sharp's own map, the war-damaged sites are highlighted in red. Sites highlighted in yellow represent buildings that were demolished by the local authority during post-war redevelopment.

The 14th century Bear Tower and the medieval ruins of the townhouse of the Priors of Plympton, revealed for the first time since the fire of 1873, were swept away during post-war reconstruction as were several other surviving houses of a 17th century type. During the rebuilding of South Street the decision was taken to double the width of the pre-war carriageway. What were formerly narrow pavements, as can still be found in Fore Street, were extended to 15ft on both sides and the new shops were set back from the frontage line of their predecessors. The medieval street plan of Sun Street, George Street and Guinea Street was obliterated and a new, very wide entrance into Market Street from South Street was constructed, almost on the site of Paragon House.

The post-war architecture which replaced the destroyed buildings probably speaks for itself. It came from the desk of the city council's in-house architects and Hugh Mellor was being overly kind when he described it as 'drab'. Although they were designed to free up views of the nearby cathedral, several of the single-storey shacks are shockingly poor. (Pevsner and Cherry describe them as "mean, low shops".) Perhaps the grossest error of judgement came in the 1960s with the construction of Concord House (above, as seen from the inner bypass). It's hard to imagine a less appropriate building for its location and it dwarfs all the other post-war structures. The council's own conservation report calls the post-war structures "mediocre" and "nondescript" but quite rightly adds that later developments, including Concord House, "are worse". Having widened the street so drastically after the war to cater for wider pavements, more traffic and on-street parking, the city council has recently made South Street a one-way road.

The destruction of so much of South Street's architectural heritage in 1942 combined with the poor replacement architecture, the removal of the ancient street plan and the widening of the thoroughfare itself has resulted in the complete loss of the street's historical character. It has frankly been a total disaster. A few fragments do remain. On the east side, the Church of the Sacred Heart and the Grade I listed Unitarian George's Meeting of 1760 can still be seen left. The west side contains Nos. 58 to 68, a small collection of pre-war survivors all of which are Grade II listed below. These include the White Hart inn, built around the core of what was probably William Wynard's 15th century townhouse, and No. 67 South Street, a fine 17th century timber-framed property with important internal features. There are also several other buildings in this group, most of which are late Georgian with brick or stucco facades. It's perhaps symptomatic of the general post-war mentality that Thomas Sharp regarded the entire group as expendable and advocated their removal. Fortunately this plan was never carried through, although the properties are now isolated between Concord House and the post-war rebuilding of South Street on one side and the convergence of ten lanes of traffic at the site of the old South Gate on the other.

Views of modern South Street are shown below.


Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Medieval Chancel of St Mary Major

The image above shows one of the most familiar sights in the southwest of England: the 14th century west front and image screen of Exeter Cathedral. It's a view that would be recognisable to anyone who has visited the city over the last 650 years. Even today it's probably the most frequently photographed vista in Exeter. But this image is slightly different and the presence of one particular feature makes it amongst the rarest and most unusual surviving photographs ever taken in the old city.

To the right of the cathedral can be seen the medieval chancel of the church of St Mary Major. Although only part of the church is shown this is one of the very few surviving photographic records of the church before it was rebuilt, detail left. The medieval church of St Mary Major was demolished in 1865 and subsequently rebuilt so the image, an albumen print, dates to before the demolition. Very few images of the city exist from such an early date.

The long history of St Mary Major is covered in an earlier post, but the church stood on the site of Exeter's Saxon minister, the abbey church of a monastery founded in the 7th century. The existence of the minster predated the creation of the See of Exeter in 1050. In other words, there was a building on this exact site centuries before the current Gothic cathedral was built. The minster was used as Exeter's first cathedral until a new cathedral was built slightly to the east in the early 12th century. This explains the close proximity between St Mary Major and the west front of the cathedral, as shown in the image. Following the consecration of the Norman cathedral, St Mary Major was downgraded, modified, and in 1222 became a parish church in its own right.

Jenkins visited the church in 1806 and left the following description of the chancel as it still appeared in the mid-19th century photograph: "At the east end, through a loft gothic arch, it opens into a large chancel, which is of a different construction, and appears of a more ancient date than the body of the church; it has a separate entrance from the yard, and over the north window is a small tablet, representing St Lawrence in a state of martyrdom on a gridiron; and on the angles of this and the other windows cherubims supporting gridirons are represented in bass-relievo". Jenkins added that "tradition informs us that this chancel was a chapel, dedicated to St Lawrence, unconnected with the church". (A medieval parish church dedicated to St Lawrence existed in the High Street until it was badly damaged in 1942 and subsequently demolished.) The church was built of stone which was covered in lime render and then whitewashed.

The image left is an animated stereoscopic view of the west front of the cathedral originally taken in the early 1860s. The chancel of St Mary Major can just be seen on the far right.

George Oliver claimed that the chancel dated to the reign of Edward III primarily on the style of the windows and the fact that the high altar was rededicated by Bishop Grandisson in 1336. Oliver also believed that the representation of St Lawrence had been inset above the north door during 1700s or early 1800s.

The much-weathered sculpted vignette of St Lawrence inset above the crenellated north porch is visible in the detail above right. The stone tablet still exists and is one of the few remaining fragments of the medieval structure, below. When the church was demolished in 1865 it was rebuilt further west, away from the front of the cathedral. The replacement was in turn demolished in 1971.

The area today is just an expanse of grass. It's now impossible to say if the chancel really was "of more ancient date" than the rest of the church, as Jenkins believed. It's also a pity that the photographer didn't turn their camera and capture an image of the entire building or take more high quality images of other parts of Exeter. In the mid 19th century many of the city's streets still contained a large number of impressive medieval and post-medieval structures which have since disappeared. Although several drawings exist of the church as it appeared prior to its demolition, to have even part of it recorded in a photograph is an exciting discovery.

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