Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Destruction of Bedford Circus

The historian W.G. Hoskins called it "one of the finest pieces of Georgian town-planning in England"; for Sir Albert Robertson it was an "excellent grouping" and "representative of the refinement of the day"; Professor Derek Portman believed it was Exeter's "Georgian minor masterpiece"; Thomas Sharp, the city's post-war town planner, wrote that it was "one of the best examples of unified urban architecture in England: something near perfection of its kind, the quintessence of the 18th century philosophy of town building"; and into the 21st century the destruction of Bedford Circus is often regarded as one of Exeter's biggest architectural losses. The history books often state that it was destroyed during World War Two, but it wasn't. Most of it was fire-damaged during World War Two but it was only actually destroyed completely by the city council in the post-war rebuilding of the city. The decision to remove it was a blatant act of cultural vandalism.

The idea for Bedford Circus started with Robert Stribling, a speculative architect/builder who, in 1773, who began the construction of 14 townhouses on the site of John Russell's Bedford House, itself a remnant of a Dominican Friary which had been on the same location from the 13th century until it was dissolved in 1538 during the Reformation.

The image left is based on Caleb Hedgeland's model of Exeter. The model depicts the city as it was in 1769, prior to the construction of the Circus. Bedford House is highlighted in red. At least one of its three ranges was formerly part of the Dominican Friary. Bampfylde House, on the corner of Catherine Street and Bampfylde Street, is highlighted in green. Chapel Street, also known as Egypt Lane, borders the Cathedral Precinct to the bottom left. The completed Circus, based on the 1905 map of Exeter, is highlighted in purple. It's easy to see how the north-eastern crescent, the first of the houses to be built, was constructed on top of Bedford House. The first stone of Bedford Circus was laid 27 May 1773.

According to Jenkins "in digging for the foundation, great numbers of human bones were dug up, with the foundation of a church, broken mouldings [and] fragments of sepulchral monuments", all left over from the medieval friary. Lead coffins were unearthed and a lead box containing "three or four human skulls, and bones." The lead coffins were salvaged for scrap and the bones, much to Jenkins' disgust, dumped "among the rubbish, to the disgrace of humanity". Stribling's 14 houses took the form of a sweeping crescent, facing south-west towards the cathedral and were originally known as Bedford Crescent. The ground facing the crescent was taken up with stables and other buildings, including Brown's Coach and Harness Manufactory. Tozer's 1793 map of the city clearly shows that the first crescent had been completed by the end of the 18th century.

The photograph right shows one of the beautiful entrances which accompanied each townhouse. Tuscan columns with acanthus leaf capitals stood either side of an arched doorway above which was a scalloped-edged fanlight.

After a hiatus of nearly 50 years preparations began for turning the crescent into an architectural circus. It seems that the creation of a circus had always been part of Stribling's original plan as it was being called Bedford Circus as early as 1803, over 20 years before steps were taken to complete it. A report in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' dated 19 May 1825 states that "active measures are being taken for commencing the new houses on the Bedford estate in this city in order to complete the Circus as originally intended; Mr T. Horrell is the architect and builder; and we understand the Duke of Bedford has, with his usual liberality, satisfied all those who had any claims on the old building which has so long been a great nuisance, and disgraced this part of the city." The ground was still owned by the Dukes of Bedford but the report appears to suggest that remnants of old buildings associated with the sprawling Bedford House estate might still have existed on the site even after the completion of the first phase of the construction in the 1770s.

Nine matching townhouses and an extra-parochial neo-Classical chapel (completed in 1832 and shown left) were eventually built in another crescent facing the one from the 1770s. In 1832 workmen digging a shaft for new sewerage pipes for the later houses discovered a new collection of human bones, including two skulls. When completed the overall effect of the Circus was of a gigantic ellipse, entered from the High Street via Bedford Street, with a small private park situated in the centre filled with mature trees and surrounded by iron railings.
All the houses in Bedford Circus were of a similar type. They were built of locally-fired brick, earthy-red in colour, a white stone string course being used to separate each floor visually. The windows on the third floor of the later houses were slightly different but the architectural details were secondary compared with the overall impression of the whole scheme. The image at the top of this post is a composite of three separate photographs and is an attempt to try and give some indication of the magnificent visual impact of Bedford Circus as entered from the High Street. I'm not aware of any photographs which show the entire arrangement at ground level. Even today, had they survived, a wide-angle lens would've been needed to capture both crescents and the chapel in the same shot.

The photograph below shows Robert Stribling's original crescent of 14 houses from c1773 as seen from the entrance into Southernhay. Careful scrutiny of the first floor of the facades will show the coat of arms of the Russell family, carved in stone and reclaimed from the entrance porch of old Bedford House. Beneath the coat of arms, on the ground floor, can be seen the late-19th century bronze plaque (shown further below) commemorating both the Circus and Bedford House.

As an example of Georgian town-planning Bedford Circus was exceptionally rate and similar set-pieces could only be found in England in such places as 18th century Bath and the Bloomsbury area of London. For me, the most extraordinary aspect of Bedford Circus was that it was situated within the boundaries set by the original Roman city, laid down nearly 1800 years earlier. It wasn't built in a new suburb but was shoe-horned into a small medieval city, obviously designed to be a showpiece and a tour de force of domestic architecture, which it was. Although there were already a number of brick neo-Classical houses in the city by the 1770s (e.g. the Notaries' House in the Cathedral Close and Paragon House in South Street) they were still vastly outnumbered by timber-framed buildings of the preceding centuries. Stylistically, the creation of the Circus was something entirely new in the architectural history of Exeter. The size of its footprint rivalled that of the Cathedral itself. Only the superlative surviving fragments of Georgian architecture in Southernhay provide a hint as to what Bedford Circus was like.

By 1874 "the quiet old Circus" was regarded as one of Exeter's "most characteristic features...admired by everyone who came to the city." As Peter Thomas states in his book 'Aspects of Exeter', "the aesthetic qualities of Bedford Circus were appreciated from the time its first houses were built until its substantial remains were completely removed by the local authority." It seems that the only people who didn't appreciate it where those responsible for its final destruction in the immediate post-war period.

The aerial view right shows the full magnificence of Bedford Circus as it stood in the summer of 1928. Few cities in England could boast of anything comparable.

The end began in the early hours of 04 May 1942 when German bombs set light to much of Exeter's historic centre. The fire from burning buildings in the High Street spread east into Bedford Circus. By the morning many of the townhouses had been gutted by fire with only the walls remaining, although some did survived intact with just broken windows and missing roof slates. In almost any other European country Bedford Circus would've been reinstated and restored to its former state. It would've been too important to lose. Many of the walls remained sound and the task of reconstruction would've been relatively straightforward. Instead, the inexplicable decision was made by the city council to remove the Circus in its entirety. The burnt-out buildings were bulldozed, the few surviving townhouses were demolished, the railings ripped up and the old trees chopped down. Even the outline of the road fronting each crescent was erased during the post-war rebuilding. There is no excuse for what happened as Exeter lost, forever, one of its finest architectural treasures.

The image left © Express & Echo shows the site of the completely destroyed Abbots' Lodge in the foreground with the badly damaged Choristers' School to the left. Highlighted in red in the background is the curving rear elevation of one side of Bedford Circus, with broken windows and damaged roofs, but structurally still intact, proving that parts of the Circus survived and could've been repaired and reconstructed with relatively little difficulty had the city council decided to do so.

It's interesting to speculate exactly why the city council decided to destroy the Circus completely. The evidence suggests that once it was damaged they couldn't get the ruins down fast enough. Thomas Sharp, the town planner behind much of the city's post-war reconstruction wrote in 1946 that: "Bedford Circus has gone. The bombs shattered it to bits. It is so utterly destroyed that a man returning to Exeter can walk over its site without knowing he is doing so". Sharp was either lying through his teeth or he had been completely deceived about exactly what survived the Blitz of 1942 and what didn't. If he had seen the ruins perhaps he would've recommended a faithful reconstruction as he did with the Georgian townhouses of Dix's Field (although, despite this recommendation, the city council destroyed the remains of Dix's Field anyway as well as the facades of the two damaged terraces in Southernhay West).

The council moved swiftly to remove almost all bomb-damaged buildings and it's likely that when Sharp arrived in the city to survey the damage all he saw were the cleared plots rather than the ruins themselves. John Summerson in his 1949 book 'Heavenly Mansions' stated that Bedford Circus had been "utterly destroyed by enemy action", and that myth has remained widely believed up to the present day, but the Blitz of 1942 in no way "shattered it to bits" or "utterly destroyed it". As Gavin Stamp writes in his book 'Britain's Lost Cities', in which Exeter has the dubious accolade of having a chapter dedicated to it: "Photographs taken for the newly established National Buildings Record show that, immediately after the raids, the Georgian facades of Bedford Circus and the damaged parts of Southernhay were still standing: surely they could and should have been shored up and retained?".

The image right shows an aerial view of the city in 2011 overlaid onto which is the 1905 map of Bedford Circus. It give some rough idea where the two crescents were positioned in relation to the recent redevelopment of the area.

So why wasn't Bedford Circus restored? The reasons probably include the economic reality of the times, as well as a more general desire to embrace Modernism, with its deluded promise of a cleaner, better society. One reason was a disinterest towards Georgian architecture in general in the first decades of the 20th century. But surely anothr reason which can't be overlooked is that of sheer, iconoclastic ignorance. The same city council had no qualms about the demolition of dozens of medieval and Tudor townhouses during the slum clearances in the first third of the 20th century. It never seemed to occur to them that Exeter was targeted in 1942 precisely because of buildings like Bedford Circus. It never seemed to occur to them that in clearing away the damaged remains of so many historic buildings they were actually finishing a process that the Germans had already started themselves.

The subsequent decades have shown that in Exeter historic buildings had almost no value whatsoever beyond a merely commercial one. If it was in the way of a new road then it came down. If it was in the way of a new shopping centre then it came down. If it could be replaced with something which provided more retail space then it came down. A building's historical or aesthetic value ranked well down the list of considerations.

Thomas Sharp himself reflected on the fact that the city council's own pre-war guide to the city made absolutely no mention of Exeter's stunning Georgian architecture, despite the fact that A. E. Richardson had singled out the city's Georgian buildings for particular praise in the 1920s. Clearly it simply wasn't seen as being of any importance whatsoever. Exeter's historic architecture has been relentlessly squeezed between the two demands of catering for an increase in traffic and catering to commercial interests. The result was inevitably wholesale demolition in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that involved hundreds and hundreds of buildings, most of them in or around the historic central core of the city. And it wasn't a building here or a building there. It was acres and acres of property, entire streets and districts, totally flattened and redeveloped.

In 1946 Thomas Sharp wrote that Bedford Circus was "so good that many people want it rebuilt as it was, want it restored in the fullest sense". (Even as late as 2004, when the Bedford Circus site was in the process of being redeveloped and decades after the original had been destroyed, letters to the local newspaper were fruitlessly calling for its reconstruction.) But the local authority had no intention of restoring it, let alone rebuilding it from scratch. The remains of the Circus were pulled down, although the chapel walls remained standing up to 1949. In its place Thomas Sharp planned a pedestrianed shopping precinct, allegedly the first of its kind in England, to be known as Princesshay above right. Part of this was to occupy the site of the north-eastern side of Bedford Circus. The rest of the site was taken up with a much-altered Bedford Street, including a row of low shops standing where the south-western crescent and chapel had stood. It was all mind-numblingly mediocre. Bridget Cherry called these post-war shops "depressingly shack-like", adding that it was all "a poor compensation for the loss of the Georgian Bedford Circus."

Between 2005 and 2007, the entire area was demolished again and rebuilt as yet another clone shopping precinct. The improvements are negligible as the new precinct's architecture is as banal as its predecessor. It already looks dated and no doubt in 20 years time it will in turn be demolished and something else built in its place, and so on and so on. The image below shows part of the new Princesshay shopping precinct that now stands on the site of one side of Bedford Circus. Drag the handle with your cursor to see before and after images!


History has judged the council's demolition of Bedford Circus justifiably harshly. W.G. Hoskins, probably Exeter's most significant 20th century historian and one of the founder members of the Exeter Civic Society in 1961, called it an "unforgivable act of vandalism". Peter Thomas states that "to have destroyed it all is unforgivable." According to Todd Gray, a contemporary historian, Bedford Circus was "destroyed partly through the Blitz in 1942 but more due to the indifference of city planners."



Anonymous said...

It is good to value what is most important in life... and to me, the most important thing in life is quality. Indeed, life without quality, well, perhaps that is not actually life. What has happened? Maybe someone had some advantage in the construction of the post office? Perhaps some of those in positions of influence despise quality. Maybe some of these despise even life itself?

wolfpaw said...

After the war Exeter City Council embarked on a land grab that would've made Henry VIII envious. The council wanted complete control of the reconstruction and in order to accomplish this it issued compulsory purchases orders for all of the war-damaged areas. Once the council owned the land it could dictate the direction of the reconstruction, lease the land and collect the rent, which it has been doing ever since. I think that was certainly part of 'the advantage'. It's one of the reasons why I'm condemnatory of the city council in so many of my posts. From the smallest details of the post-war reconstruction to the most extensive demolitions of the 1960s and 1970s, the city council has had total control over what has happened. The appearance of the vast majority of the city centre today is a direct consequence of city council decision-making. If the buck stops anywhere then it stops with the council. The Nazi bombing in 1942 was an unavoidable disaster. There was nothing that anyone in Exeter could do to prevent it. Everything that happened afterwards, including the total demolition of Bedford Circus, was a result of decisions taken in Exeter, and the 2000-year-old city deserved better.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha. I was lied to by the recent Bike Shed Theatre production on the Exeter Blitz then.

Anonymous said...

The council seemed to quietly sweep the fact that they (albeit not those currently serving) demolished most of Exeter, rather than the Germans, under the carpet in the recent displays. It seems to make people happier/sits more easily to blame it on the German bombing.

wolfpaw said...

The architectural history of almost any city is a very complex subject and Exeter is no different, especially when we think about what was happening in the 20th century. There's absolutely no question that the Blitz of 1942 destroyed a large part of the city centre's buildings completely. But throughout the blog I hope I've tried to differentiate between what was destroyed, what was damaged and what was left untouched. A damaged building isn't a destroyed building, although obviously the damage can lead to complete destruction in the form of demolition.

Perhaps in order to simplify a complex subject, it has been repeated again and again that 1942 resulted in the destruction of the city e.g. "Bedford Circus was destroyed during the Blitz". No, it wasn't. It was salvageable, as was most of Exeter's Georgian architecture that disappeared during the post-war reconstruction e.g. Dix's Field, the two terraces in Southernhay, even the Lower Market. If just these few areas had been repaired then today we would've had no Princesshay, no Civic Centre in Paris Street, no St George's Hall at the top of Fore Street, no Broadwalk House in Southernhay. This alone would've made a big difference to reclaiming at least part of Exeter's pre-war integrity as a historical cathedral city.

The same can be said of Sidwell Street, huge stretches of which survived the war intact only to be demolished for later redevelopment. Those two hideous buildings raised up on columns, where Iceland is, running from Debenhams to the churchyard, replaced an entire row of pre-war properties, most of which dated from the late 18th century, which had been completely untouched by the Blitz, but they came down anyway on the orders of the city council.

I always feel that the Blitz was an unavoidable crisis but that the subsequent rebuilding was a totally avoidable disaster. There's nothing anyone could've done to prevent Exeter being bombed in 1942. The city had no defences whatsoever. What happened afterwards, and for the next 30 years, was all a product of decisions made by the local authority. But then Exeter isn't alone in having its historical cityscale mauled by the people in charge of it. Most cities in England have suffered similarly although circumstances have contrived to make the situation at Exeter particularly extreme.

The best way to view Exeter's 20th century architectural history is as a process involving three separate phases: slum clearances between 1900 and 1941, followed by the Blitz of 1942 and then the post-war reconstruction and subsequent redevelopment between 1947 and 1979. The problem is that each of these three phases rarely overlapped, so the areas affected by slum clearances weren't the areas most damaged in 1942, and the areas most affected by the post-war redevelopment i.e. the river, Cowick Street, Alphington Street, Magdalen Street, Southgate, Holloway Street, weren't the areas which had experienced slum clearances or war-time bombing. This is the basic reason why over 70% of the city was demolished during the 20th century.

These does seem to be some element of sweeping facts under the carpet. If you go into the museum there's a display of old locks and hinges which had been picked out of the ashes following 1942. The information plaque states that "After so much destruction, people were determined to look after the historic buildings that had survived". It is of course utter nonsense as a large number of historical buildings continued to be demolished throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70, but when the museum itself is peddling such tripe it's small wonder that people believe it.

Jacky Hughes said...

Such a shame. I may or may not have ancestors who lived there. There is a Hunphry and Elizabeth Sellers, but I have never established any connection with the Sellers who are definitely ancestors who started a coach works in Egypt Lane. I guess that they would have got the business from Bedford Circus as well.

What a shame the buildings were not listed.

Brian Randell said...

This is an excellent and very well-illustrated, account. I'm involved in writing an article (for Family Tree Magazine) about the destruction of all Devon's pre-1858 wills when the Probate Registry (which was at No 6 Bedford Circus) was destroyed in 1942. I'd like to include the photograph that you have as the first illustration in your account. I'd be grateful if you could give me permission to do this, or point me to wherever I should go for such permission.

Richard Hardy said...

Fantastic website. Fantastic but profoundly sad if you care about our historical built environment.

Rob Shergold said...

As I come to realise what has been lost in Exeter I can see that there is a great need to change the way that councils are organised and their ability to make such awful decisions that ruin and degrade this once great City. I am very thankful that there are others of like mind that continue this cause.

Georgina Connor said...

As an exiled Exonian who has always loved her city, what you have written here confirms what I was told by my late father, an Exonian who returned to his City after 4 years in a prisoner of war camp, to find his beloved City, as he said, little more than a smoking ruin. Private Eye said, vis a vis the construction of the horrendous C+A building, that what Hitler had not destroyed, the planners did. How true, how sad. I could weep.

Oliver Nicholson said...

Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini.

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