Friday, 22 March 2013

44-46 Magdalen Street: The House of John Matthew

In terms of the destruction of individual buildings rather than entire streets, the demolition of Nos. 44-46 Magdalen Street in 1977 ranks as one of the most shameful post-war acts of vandalism committed against Exeter's dwindling historical fabric. It even equals the unforgivable demolition by the city council of the late medieval open halls at Nos. 36 and 38 North Street in 1972. 

The photograph above © Express & Echo shows Nos. 42-46 Magdalen Street just prior to their demolition in June 1977. All the properties were Grade II listed buildings, but Nos. 44-46, highlighted in red, were of particular historical and architectural interest. The story begins at the end, with the creation of the inner bypass in the 1960s and 1970s. The destruction that ensued outside the South Gate is covered here, but to recap: the area where Nos. 44-46 Magdalen Street stood was deliberately burnt in 1645 by the Royalist defenders of the city during the English Civil War. Following the war the area around the junction of Magdalen Street with Holloway Street was gradually rebuilt, the empty plots being filled up mostly by the timber-framed homes of the city's merchants. The area remained rich in 17th century houses until they were all demolished for the creation of the inner bypass road system. Nos. 44-46 was one of the casualties, torn down in 1977.

The image right shows an aerial view of the area today. The buildings that comprised John Matthew's mansion are highlighted in red. It stood almost on the corner of Magdalen Street with the entrance into Southernhay. The photo below shows the grassy verge where the listed buildings once stood.

The property had received Grade II listed status on 18 June 1974, along with Nos. 42 & 43. Unfortunately, when the property was surveyed its architectural importance was completely overlooked. It wasn't uncommon for the survey merely to include the exterior of the buildings and to leave the interior unassessed. This was presumably what happened with Nos. 44-46 Magdalen Street. All five buildings, Nos. 42, 43, 44, 45 and 46 were listed as a "three storey stucco range probably circa 1830" with "moulded window architraves" and "good contemporary door surrounds". The city council purchased the buildings as part of the inner bypass construction and then wilfully neglected them. According to David Pearce, "council-owned, council-neglected, then council-condemned was all too frequently the fate of listed structures impeding redevelopment". Having allowed them to fall into disrepair the council then issued a Dangerous Structure Notice that circumvented their listed status and provided the perfect excuse for their demolition.

In June 1977, just three years after the buildings had been given listed status, work began on tearing them down. But during the demolition it was discovered that part of the listed group, Nos. 44-46, didn't date to c1830. It was actually the mid 17th century house of John Matthew, and it proved be one of Exeter's most architecturally important buildings. 

Following the damage caused during the English Civil War, one of the first properties to be built on the war-ravaged land outside the South Gate was the mansion of John Matthew. I don't really know anything about him. He was clearly wealthy, as will be seen from the house he built for himself, and it's possible that he was one of the men appointed to the city chamber in 1684.

The house was built on an L-plan and it was built of brick. This made it hugely significant. There is some debate over which is Exeter's earliest surviving brick building. The Custom House, constructed between 1680-81 is often cited as the earliest. Other candidates are The Notaries' House in Cathedral Yard right, which was probably built c1692 and No. 40 High Street, which has a facade of c1700 Other late 17th century brick facades survived into the 20th century in Fore Street and Paris Street but both have been demolished. The magnificent Pinbrook House in Cheynegate Lane on the outskirts of the city is brick-built and is dated to 1679 below left. Paragon House at 75 South Street was a late 17th century brick house but it was destroyed during the Exeter Blitz, below right. Another large brick-built property was Holloway House of c1700 but it was demolished by the city council in 1980. 

Although brick-built houses were popular in Exeter throughout the latter-half of the 18th century they were rarely used for major construction work before 1700. One reason was the cost of importing bricks and the material wasn't manufactured locally, even on a limited scale, until the middle of the 17th century. Before then most new houses built in Exeter were timber-framed with bricks only being used, from the beginning of the 16th century onwards, for fireplaces and chimneys. The first recorded large-scale use of brick in Exeter is in 1657 following the end of the English Civil War. £100 was spent erecting a brick wall over the choir screen inside the cathedral to divide the Presbyterian and Independent congregations. John Matthew's house was built just two years later making it, by some measure, the earliest known fully brick-built house to be constructed in the city and probably in Devon.

During the demolition of the house in 1977 a massive beam was discovered carved with the date 1659 and the initials I.M for 'John Matthew'. At the time of its destruction the property still contained 17th century panelling, two 17th century fireplaces and a fine 17th century staircase along with other original features. It was built with three storeys and had a cellar. It seems that the importance of the house had been lost until it was being destroyed. 

Around 1830 the property had received a modified stucco facade, the one recorded in the 1973 assessment, and was divided into three separate units, Nos. 44, 45 and 46 Magdalen Street. This is why, from the exterior, the house appeared to date to the 19th century. In reality the core of the building remained a single mid 17th century structure. Once the significance of the discovery was realised work halted on the demolition and an archaeological survey took place. Following the completion of the survey the destruction continued until the house had been razed to the ground. As if the demolition of Nos. 44-46 wasn't bad enough, the location where it stood didn't even impede the construction of the inner bypass. The road system completely missed it and the empty ground was left vacant until part of the charmless Southgate Hotel was built over it. It would've been perfectly possible to build the inner bypass and leave John Matthew's house standing.

Until the recent refurbishment of the city's Royal Albert Memorial Museum it was possible to view a large model of the property showing its massive scale, its surviving brick walls and the position of mid 17th century beams found during the archaeological survey. I managed to take a photo of it before it was mothballed above left

The original beams are shown slightly darker than later additions. It's pretty obvious that a lot of the 1659 mansion had remained intact until it was destroyed in 1977. Unfortunately, since the museum reopened, it seems that the model has now been relegated to the store room along with its tragic tale. It's a story that needs telling though as it was an important building and its pointless demolition was utterly reprehensible. The digitally-altered image below shows what Nos. 42-46 Magdalen Street might've looked like today if they had been restored rather than destroyed.


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