Monday, 27 September 2010

The Slum Clearance of Stepcote Hill

At the beginning of the 20th century Stepcote Hill in Exeter's ancient West Quarter was a magnet for artists and photographers wanting to capture both the social life of Britain's poor and a visual reminder of England's medieval past. The image left shows Stepcote Hill c1890 as it ascended the steep slope towards the plateau on which most of the historic city was built, and still lined with numerous late medieval and early post-medieval timber houses.

It has been conjectured that the route itself is Roman in origin but in the Middle Ages Stepcote Hill was probably the main thoroughfare into Exeter from the west. Having crossed the medieval Exe Bridge, you would've passed under the West Gate set into the city wall before travelling up into the city itself. The street only fell out of use in the 1770s when a new bridge replaced the old medieval one.

According to Hoskins the name itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon word 'stype', meaning 'steep', and even today it remains the steepest route into the city. 'Cote' probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for an enclosure. It's recorded c1270 as Styppecotehyll.

As befitted a major thoroughfare, Stepcote Hill was once lined with the houses of Exeter's wealthiest medieval merchants, eager to have premises in what was essentially Exeter's commercial centre. Much of the rest of the land contained within the city's encircling defensive wall was taken up with the ecclesiastical precincts of various churches and monasteries, especially the Benedictine foundation of St Nicholas, the Dominican friary near the East Gate and the Cathedral precinct itself. This part of Exeter, including Smythen Street, Preston Street and Coombe Street was therefore a mainly secular maze of narrow lanes, courts and streets consisting of merchant houses, workshops and warehouses, known collectively as the West Quarter. For a map showing the extraordinary extent of demolition in the West Quarter during the 20th century see the post on the church of St Mary Major.

After the land-grab of the Reformation many more domestic properties were built on land once owned by the religious houses and gradually, over a period of several centuries until the 1800s, the social and economic importance of Stepcote Hill, and the West Quarter generally, diminished, even if much of its medieval architecture remained intact.

The photograh left shows the narrow entrance into Stepcote Hill from West Street c1930, the medieval church of St Mary Steps just visible on the left. By the 19th century the area was a notorious slum and the frequent location of outbreaks of cholera and in the 1930s the city authorities decided to relocate the poorest inhabitants to a new area beyond the city wall. However well-meaning the philanthropic intent, it was a catastrophe for Exeter's architectural heritage as every building on the Hill, including all the jettied, timber-frame merchant houses, was totally demolished without any record being made of what was being destroyed. Only one late-15th century house survived, on the corner of Stepcote Hill and West Street.

In the process Exeter lost some of its most important surviving medieval and 16th century domestic houses from one of its most important surviving medieval streets. Today there is little to see of any architectural or historical interest. The only remaining historical feature, apart from the corner house and the wall of St Mary Steps church, is the ancient cobbled street surface with its central gutter and steps on either side. This is Grade II listed. The city council website calls Stepcote Hill 'picturesque'. It really isn't. The merchant houses were all replaced with bland, functional brick-built properties that have little to recommend them and which wouldn't look out of place on any estate in any suburb in any city in the country.

Sources

7 comments:

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House Clearance Battersea said...

The vendor homes were all changed with dull, efficient brick-built qualities that have little to suggest them and which would not look out of position on any property in any suburban area in any town in the nation.

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