Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Destruction of Stephen Street

The image above © Devon County Council shows an evocative jumble of 17th century properties on the east side Stephen Street in 1923. The photo must've been taken from a first-floor window in St Catherine's Almshouses. The 15th century almshouses stood in Catherine Street almost opposite the narrow entrance into Stephen Street.

The photograph right © Devon County Council from 1911 shows the view down Stephen Street towards the High Street as seen from Catherine Street. St Stephen's Bow is visible at the far end of the street. The tall slate-hang wall on the right was associated the premises of the New Inn which formerly stood at Nos. 25 & 26 High Street. The left side of the street is dominated by a large brick-built structure from c1890 but the right side retains a number of interesting properties including the 17th century timber-framed building on the corner which faced into Catherine Street.

Stephen Street was little more than a narrow lane connecting the High Street to Catherine Street, much like St Martin's Lane does today. Stephen Street continued across Catherine Street in a straight line where it became Egypt Lane, later Chapel Street. Like a number of other streets in Exeter, Stephen Street was named after a nearby church. (Other examples include Mary Arches Street, Paul Street, St Martin's Lane, George Street, John Street and Pancras Lane.)

St Stephen's Church stood in the High Street on the north west corner of Stephen Street. It seems likely that Stephen Street was coeval with Egypt Lane and was probably laid out as part of Alfred the Great's refounding of Exeter at the end of the 9th century. In the 13th or 14th century the church was enlarged eastwards. The presence of Stephen Street resulted in St Stephen's Bow, an archway spanning the narrow street above which was a side chapel dedicated to St John the Evangelist. This permitted both the expansion of the church and the continued use of Stephen Street. The photograph left shows the view under St Stephen's Bow into Stephen Street as seen from the High Street c1908.

By 1900 the most notable building on Stephen Street, apart from St Stephen's Bow, was the Devonshire Arms public house. The Devonshire Arms had been converted out of a large twin-gabled timber-framed house from the 17th century or earlier. It had been used as an inn since at least 1828 and stood next to St Stephen's Bow on the east side of the street. The property was built on four floors and probably had a cellar. The second floor appeared to have a 10-light window which stretched across much of the facade. The first floor had a similar window of 6 or 8 lights. In each gable was a little 3-light window which looked out into Stephen Street. The chimneys were built against the two sides walls of the property.

The fascinating photograph above © Devon County Council was taken in 1923. The sloping slate roof of St Stephen's Church is in the foreground on the left. In the background is the slate-hung side wall of the former New Inn. The twin gables of the Devonshire Arms are in the centre of the photo. Part of the 10-light window on the second floor is also visible. It's a great pity that no detailed record survives of the building.

Unfortunately the historically interesting buildings on the east side of Stephen Street, with the exception of St Stephen's Bow, were demolished c1925. By 1929 they had been replaced with a single large structure of little architectural merit, highlighted in red on the pre-war aerial view right. With its plain, linear facade, rectangular windows and lack of decoration, it could be described as one of Exeter's first Modernist buildings (although not, alas, its last). It's just one example out of many which illustrate how the city's character was already rapidly changing even before the Exeter Blitz of 1942. Between 1900 and 1942 nearby Catherine Street had been largely rebuilt resulting in the loss of a number of ancient timber-framed houses.

The area was largely destroyed by bombs in 1942, including the whole of Stephen Street. St Stephen's Bow was restored after the war and the west side of Stephen Street was left vacant as a public square. The east side was rebuilt and is now the site of St Stephen's House below.


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