Tuesday 28 September 2010

Bampfylde House: An Elizabethan Mansion in the Centre of Exeter

Before 1942, on the corner of Bampfylde Street, a very narrow lane leading to the High Street, stood the late-16th century Bampfylde House above. Bampfylde Street was once known as Raden Lane and was barely 14ft across. The house itself stood on the corner of Bampfylde Street with Catherine Street. At the time of its destruction it was, by far, the most important late-16th century domestic building in the city, renowned for the exceptional quality of its Jacobean interiors. Bedford House, the nearby residence of the 1st Earl of Bedford, John Russell, was significantly larger but was demolished in 1770s.

Construction of Bampfylde House began in 1590 for a wealthy Devon landowner called Richard Bampfylde, although archaeological excavations in the late 1940s confirmed that the house was built on the site of an earlier medieval building, probably the property that was mentioned in a will dating to 1394. The house took the form of a large accommodation block attached to which were two projecting wings forming a small central courtyard with a porch built into the right-angle at one side, all constructed from the local red stone known as Heavitree breccia, and with a slate roof on top. After the death of Richard Bampfylde in 1594 the house became the property of his son, Sir Amyas Bampfylde, who set about enriching it with the most ornate and elaborate interiors typical of the late-Elizabethan period.

Although the house no longer exists, it was visited in the late-19th century by Robert Dymond, a local historian and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. An article on the property appeared in the periodical 'The Archaeological Journal' in 1874. Much of the following information is derived from Dymond's account. Dymond noted that walls which immediately fronted onto Bampfylde Street contained no windows on the ground floor, the light being received instead through "three large mullioned windows" in the courtyard. The reason for this was one of security: "When the entrance to the court[yard] was closed, the inmates were secure from night marauders and civil broils. They might even hold out for a time after the City gates had yielded to the sudden incursion of an enemy." The front wall must've been at one time significantly higher than it appeared in the 19th century.

Dymond then goes on to relate an incident that took place on 19 July 1769 when the the 4th Duke of Bedford, owner of Bedford House, turned up at the Guildhall to be given the freedom of the city. The Duke, one of the most powerful political figures in 18th century England, had apparently made the mistake of agreeing with a clause in the Treaty of Paris which had ended the Seven Years War.

The disputed clause allowed for the importation of French fabrics at the probable expense of locally-produced materials. Needless to say, the local population was enraged as Exeter's economy was heavily dependent on the sale of wool and cloth. Upon leaving the Guildhall the Duke was met with the "hisses and threats of a furious mob" and, accompanied by the mayor and Sir Richard Bampfylde, he hurriedly seeked refuge in Bampfylde House. The Duke eventually fled Exeter under the cover of darkness and it was soon after this event that Bedford House was demolished by the Duke for the construction of Bedford Circus. Back to the house itself, and in one corner of the courtyard was a very large lead water cistern above left. It was, writes Dymond, "cast in lead of great thickness...the front side bears the letters Sr C.W.B. [Sir Coplestone Warwick Bampfylde] and the date 1724 surmounted by a representation of a fat stag pursued by three hounds and a huntsman on foot, bearing a spear."

The image below right is a detail from Caleb Hedgeland's superb wooden model of the city which he completed in 1824. It shows Bampfylde House, highlighted in red. The High Street is in the foreground with Bampfylde Street leading off towards the house itself.

Dymond speculated that the entrance porch set into the corner of the quadrangle was a slightly later addition "for it overlaps and partially obscures one of the upper mullioned windows". The posts were of oak and "enriched with lion's heads, of Elizabethan character, carved in relief, and connected by a carved frieze on the two external sides." The small chamber above the porch was an oak-panelled muniment room, used for keeping paperwork, deeds and documents. Entrance into the house was through the porch, which lead directly into the Hall, "a compartment of comparatively ample proportions".

The Hall was lit by a six-light mullioned window (visible in the photograph above left to the right of the lead water cistern). Inset into the panes of the window were various pieces of glass with armorial bearings, relating to the Bampfylde family, and which dated back to the 15th century, probably transferred from elsewhere. The Hall formerly possessed a magnificent overmantel depicting Charles I on horseback with figures of Peace and Plenty on either side and grotesque statues of a Cavalier and Puritan soldier. This was added to the house at the time of the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. It was still in situ when Jenkins visited the property at the start of the 19th century, but between then and the time of Dymond's article the overmantel was moved to the Bampfylde country estate at Poltimore on the outskirts of Exeter before being moved once again to a house in North Molton.

Beneath the Hall was a cellar, accessed via a flight of stone steps from the courtyard outside (the grating that covered the entrance into the cellar is visible in the photograph showing the lead cistern). The cellar had a groin vault made of red brick supported on a pier nearly 2ft square. Dymond believed that the cellar was "original work" but brick wasn't freely available in Exeter as a building material until the mid-17th century, although there are scattered documentary references to it in the cty as early as 1578.

In one corner of the Hall was the main staircase, described by Dymond as "broad and easy". Although the treads had been replaced, the oak newel post and the panelling on the walls were both of Elizabethan origin. For the servants a smaller, secondary staircase, "narrower and winding", had been installed at the rear of the property, its original octagonal newel post still remaining.

Upon arriving at the landing on the first floor a doorway led into what was not only the finest room in the house but one of the finest rooms of its type in England: the so-called Oak Room, described by Dymond as "a truly noble apartment". It was the appearance of this room in particular that made Bampfylde House a treasure trove of Elizabethan and Jacobean craftsmanship.

The walls of the Oak Room above were covered with oak panelling "extending from the floor to within a foot of the ceiling". The panelling was divided into sections with shallow fluted Ionic pilasters. The pilasters were crowned with superb grotesque masks "in bold relief and of most spirited design." Running between the masks were a series of carved panels depicting stylised flowers and geometric shapes, "consistent with each other in character, but freely varying in design". Between the top of the panelling and the ceiling was a plaster frieze depicting human figures, the hands merging into intertwining patterns of foliage.

The plaster overmantel was exceptionally ornate right. Placed in the centre was a large depiction of the Bampfylde coat of arms, impaled eight times with various other families and surmounted by a knight's visored helmet which was in turn surmounted by a lion's head in profile. On either side stubby-nosed lions peered out, and underneath the lions were swags of fruit. The fire surround was carved from limestone with yet more faces and lions set into the stonework amidst complicated geometric shapes.

The incredibly rich decoration of the walls continued in the extremely complex early-17th century plasterwork ceiling, "a fine example of the designer's taste and the modeller's skill", the strapwork design embellished with more foliage. The Oak Room was lit by three mullioned windows, one of which, three bays wide, overlooked Bampfylde Street. The other two, one either side of the overmantel, looked down into Catherine Street. In 1942, the Oak Room was certainly the finest room of its type left in Exeter, the similar rooms in No. 229 High Street having been broken up and sold or destroyed in the 1930s. More about the various plasterwork ceilings in Bampfylde House can be found here.

The other rooms in Bampfylde House were similar, if perhaps not quite so fine, and dated, like the Oak Room, from the end of the 16th century to the 1630s. There were two other rooms on the first floor, apart from the Oak Room. Both were partially panelled in oak and had decorative plasterwork ceilings, one of which also had a three-bay window that looked out over Bampfylde Street. The second floor contained several bed chambers, at least one of which had a simple plasterwork design in the ceiling as well as a large fireplace. Also on the ground floor was a large kitchen above which had a huge fireplace with a massive timber-framed partition wall made of oak. There were also a series of smaller service rooms at the rear of the property that were accessed through a small gateway to the right of the main entrance.

At least in the 19th century there was still a courtyard at the rear overlooked by a gabled window set into the roof. By the time Dymond visited, the garden which once stretched as far as the City Wall was covered with stabling. When Sidney Heath wrote his guidebook to Exeter in the early-20th century it seems as though this rear courtyard had been fiddled with. Speaking generally about the city, he wrote that "there has been an appalling amount of destruction, some of it apparently of an unnecessary kind, [such] as the recent dismantling of the beautiful old courtyard in the rear of Bampfylde House". The map left shows Bampfylde House on a street plan of 1905 combined with an aerial view of the same area today. The site is now part of the puerile new multi-million pound Princesshay shopping development.

In 1934 the City Council purchased the property from Arthur Guest, who had spent much time and money on restoring the interiors of the the house. An article on the acquisition appeared in The Times stating that Bampfylde House was "considered to be the finest sixteenth-century town house still in existence west of Salisbury" with the exception of the Red House at Bristol. The Council paid £5000 for Bampfylde House and turned the entire building into a museum, stuffing it with period tables, chairs, coffers, beds, wall hangings and pictures, and it opened to the public for the first time on 07 November 1934. It was therefore a massive loss to the city's architectural heritage when, just eight years later, Bampfylde House, along with all its contents and all its extraordinary interiors, was totally destroyed by incendiary bombs in the early hours of 4 May 1942.

By the following day there was nothing left except the broken remains of the walls right © Express & Echo. The photograph, frequently misidentified as Lower Market Street, actually shows the clearing of war-damaged property around Bampfylde House. The very narrow Bampfylde Street can just be made out running in front of the property from right to left. It's possible that enough of the building had survived to allow a reconstruction, but it was never going to be possible to replace the magnificent interior. Unfortunately, in the post-war rebuilding of Exeter, Bampfylde Street on which the house once stood was all but obliterated, and today there is no sign that the house ever existed. A tiny scrap of the plasterwork frieze was salvaged from the Oak Room and is currently in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. And that was the end of Bampfylde House.

Some semblance of old Bampfylde Street was retained during the post-war reconstruction. It consisted of a nameless, dirty passageway, twice the width of the original street, which led from the High Street into the pedestrianised precinct known as Princesshay. During the recent bland remodelling of the area this passageway was retained and renamed Bampfylde Lane below, but it is small recompense for the loss of one of the Westcountry's most significant historical buildings. People familiar with Devon might know The Walronds at Cullompton, built in 1605 for a lawyer named John Peter. Now a Grade I listed building it gives a some idea, in both size and design, of how Bampfylde House appeared prior to its destruction in 1942.



Geoff_S said...

From Advert in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post' 21 Jan, perhaps all or part of this house was a furniture showroom & factory in 1819

S Soper, jnr advertised removing from 259 High St to warerooms at Bampfylde House, Bampfylde St (nr the Post Office) where he manufacturers best designs of furniture & upholstery; also garden for let; in ', from http://newspapers.bl.uk

(Assume father, Samuel Soper Snr had been selling his furniture at Bedford Circus for years before.)

Unknown said...

Is there any further reading you would recommend on this?

Office Furniture Bedford

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