Friday, 29 October 2010

Catherine Street: Demolished and Destroyed

Catherine Street has been almost completely destroyed, disfigured, replaced and truncated over the last 100 years, despite having survived in some form since the 9th century. Today it is little more than a short passageway at the end of a post-war square.

And yet, like Paul Street and much of the West Quarter, just over 100 years ago it was lined with a number of timber-framed houses from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries left as well as having a complex of 15th century almshouses and significant fragments of a 13th century canonry. It is a perfect example of how a historic street can be totally ruined by demolition, war and insipid reconstruction. Catherine Street was one of a number of Exeter's streets that was first laid out under Alfred the Great at the end of the 9th century. The city had been besieged by the Danes in 876AD and 893AD, sieges that the Anglo-Saxon king had successfully managed to break. In response, the important Saxon stronghold of Exeter was refortified, its Roman city wall repaired and strengthened, and some of the city was divided into small tenements, or burgage plots i.e thin strips of land with narrow street frontages upon which a house could be built, with a long garden or yard at the back. Catherine Street was probably created as a lane off the High Street to give access to these tenements.

The image right shows the facade of a half-timbered house on Catherine Street c1850. Combined with the photograph at the top of this post, taken c1900, it shows how much of the street's medieval character survived intact into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Like many other ancient streets in Exeter, Catherine Street has undergone several changes of name. According to the 19th century historian, George Oliver, a small section leading from the corner of St Martin's Lane to the almshouses was sometimes called Paternoster Lane. A deed of 1280 refers to the street as Doddehaye-strete and describes it as lane as leading from St Martin's church to the Domincan Friary. It was known as Doddehay Street until the mid-15th century when it gradually took on the name of the almshouses dedicated to St Catherine which stood in the street from 1458 until they were gutted by fire in 1942. Hoskins suggested that 'Doddehay' was perhaps derived from an Anglo-Saxon landowner named Dodda. (The suffix 'Hay' is commonly found in Exeter e.g. Trichay Street, Southernhay, Northernhay, Kalendarhay, Friernhay, etc. and itself derives from the Saxon word 'hege' meaning an 'enclosure' and from which we get the modern word 'hedge').

Catherine Street (shown left c1886 in a drawing by James Crocker) was also once the site of one of the gates set into a security wall which encircled the cathedral precinct following the murder of the precentor Walter Lechlade in 1283. The gate later became known as St Catherine's Gate because of its close proximity to the above-mentioned almshouses. The gate predated the almshouses by over 130 years. Prior to the construction of the almshouses it was known as Bickly Gate or Ercenesk Gate, named after Reginald de Erceneske, a canon who probably lived in the canonry on Catherine Street, part of which would eventually become the Country House inn (also destroyed in 1942).

St Catherine's Gate was approximately 8ft wide, big enough to accept a pack horse laden with panniers. A lease for the Country House inn in 1814 contains a covenant to "give up the chamber over the gate" so at some point it had accommodation above it. St Catherine's Gate projected out from the front of the inn near a large stone arch, formerly a doorway, but altered into a window of the inn. Hedgeland's wooden model of Exeter in 1769 shows both Catherine Street and St Catherine's Gate. The gate was demolished c1814. Until 1942 the location of the gate was marked by an iron ring set into the wall of a house opposite the Country House inn. The metal ring was reset into a low wall during the post-war reconstruction but the recent redevelopment of the area has seen the ring disappear. Now there is no visible reminder that the gate ever existed.

The image right shows Catherine Street in 1905 overlaid onto an aerial view of the same area today. All of the buildings highlighted in red have been demolished since 1900, either through pre-war clearances or during the Blitz of 1942. Only those highlighted in purple still remain today. Much of the old street at its north-eastern end now lies under great swathes of post-war redevelopment.

Starting at St Martin's Lane, a walk through Catherine Street in 1900 would've taken in many timber-framed houses, with the ancient Swan Inn on the left, the medieval remains of the Canonry and the 15th century Almshouses on the right. There was a small crossroads where you could either go into Stephen Street, under the old bow of St Stephen's church and into the High Street or into Egypt Lane, along the backs of the townhouses in Bedford Circus and out into Southernhay. A little further on Catherine Street crossed Bedford Street, passing to the rear of the late-17th century Half Moon Inn, crossing the entrance into the Georgian housing scheme of Bedford Circus before reaching the corner of Bampfylde Street, upon which was the magnificent late-Tudor mansion known as Bampfylde House. In terms of varied historical architecture and sheer picturesque interest, streets in English cathedral cities simply did not get much better than this. It is difficult to imagine now how narrow all these old streets and lanes were at the end of the 19th century, how they twisted and turned and led you into unexpected corners of the city, many of them still possessing remarkable old buildings which had changed little for centuries.

And then, as has happened so often in Exeter, it all went hideously wrong. In the first decade of the 20th century, and long before the destructive bombing of 1942, most of the timber-framed buildings which existed on the street in 1900 were demolished. Of the ancient houses shown in the photograph at the top of this page, only the one to the far left of the image, dating to c1450 and with the sign "London and Bristol" over the entrance, survives today as No. 2 Catherine Street. (No. 1 Catherine Street still survives and is of a similar age). By 1928 much of the street had already been rebuilt.

On 4 May 1942, the area surrounding Catherine Street was heavily damaged during the Exeter Blitz left © Express & Echo. It's difficult to know exactly what was lost, but the 15th century almshouses were gutted as was the site of the 13th century canonry, then known as the Country House inn. Even if the timber-framed houses had survived then they probably would've burned to the ground anyway. The ruins of the almshouses and the canonry suffered further demolition in the post-war clear-up but at least they were retained as a reminder of the devastating air-raid. Despite the fact that the line of the street dated back to the 9th century, during the post-war reconstruction of the 1950s half of the street was turned into a no-through service road to supply the new shops which fronted onto the High Street and Princesshay.

A small public square was constructed opposite the ruins of the almshouses and, at least in terms of the number of buildings which now front onto it, the street has almost ceased to exist. As if that wasn't bad enough, the small amount late-1950s architecture which was built on the remains of the street is of quite exceptionally poor quality above. It's difficult to disagree with Gavin Stamp's assessment that the general post-war rebuilding of Exeter, led by the city's surveyor John Brierley, was "largely inappropriate, incoherent and dismal".

Either way, this was one of the few post-war shop frontages which was built on the original 9th century line of Catherine Street. The post-war decision not to respect the Roman, Saxon and Medieval street plan in Exeter did more fundamental damage to the historic roots of Exeter than even the German bombers managed to accomplish.

And it happened across the city: Bampfylde Street, Chapel Street, Musgrave Row, George Street and Sun Street, to name just a few, were all wiped off the map in the post-war reconstruction. The alignments of Southernhay and Paris Street were totally altered and South Street and the upper High Street were drastically widened. And this is before the other depredations inflicted on the city in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are taken into account.

Today almost nothing remains of the street as it appeared in 1900, except for the aforementioned ruins, the two 15th century timber-framed houses and a brick building called Oddfellows Hall built c1900. In his book "Aspects of Exeter", Peter Thomas refers to post-war Catherine Street as "pleasingly narrow" but for me there is very little that is either pleasing or narrow about the street now, especially in comparison with what it once was. Its one redeeming feature is the fact that it is pedestrianised, saving the street from the bus fumes which pollute the nearby High Street.

Drag the slider on the image below to switch between images of Catherine Street in 1900 and Catherine Street in 2012 or click on 'Show only then' or 'Show only now'.




Jacky Hughes said...

So this is where my ancestors lived! I would guess as they had an address that was alternatively Bedford Street and Catherine Street they were on the corner of both. It was a largish coach works as John Alexander Sellers - one of them as the coach works was there from 1829 to well into the 1860;s had nine men and eleven boys according to my mother's researches. They sold every kind of carriage and there was a blacksmiths on the premises. My guess is this blog is the nearest I will get to any pictures. Thank you!

wolfpaw said...

Hi Jacky. Have you looked at the Exeter Memories website? (A Google search will bring it up). There's quite a lot of social history on there that might be useful. As you said, your ancestors must've lived on the Bedford Street/Catherine Street corner. There's only one corner they could've lived on. One corner was taken up with the Half-Moon Hotel, one with the bank on the corner of Bedford Circus, and one with the first townhouse on Bedford Circus, so perhaps they lived on the last corner. It's interesting that your ancestor's coach works was so close to one of the largest coaching inns in the city: the Half Moon Inn. Maybe they operated with the inn to repair coaches and shoe the horses? The Half Moon had very large stables and could easly accommodate a number of coaches too and they would've needed a lot of maintaining. Either way, with so many coaches leaving the city every day in the 18th and 19th centuries, from so many different inns, I doubt they were short of work!

wolfpaw said...

A copy of 'The Gentleman's Magazine' from 1839 mentions one of your ancestors. Apparently a seal was discovered in Exeter that dated to the mid-15th century and which belonged to Anne, Countess of Devon. It was discovered with some old bottles and pots in the "foundations of an old house in Catherine Street, Exeter, the property of Mr. Sellers, coachmaker". Amazing.

Jacky Hughes said...

I think I have it now and why the address kept changing. Mr Sellers lived in Catherine Street. His coachworks seems to have covered works that were originally belonging to anyone in that vicinity. The address of Egypt Street which became St Stephen's Row is one edge of the coach works - this is because in 1849 it caught fire. It was next door to the Devonshire arms and I would guess that 'Sanders' the poulterer was next door to that. The fire originated in the Poulters and put the New Inn and the Half Moon Inn at risk. The New Inn was beside the Devonshire Arms. The coach makers had the whole works including a Blacksmith. I am certain now they operated with the Inns. I think they were in the right place at the right time and bought up all the surrounding coachmakers because in 1830 you have several in that area which are gone by 1850, but the Sellers coachmakers is in all of the streets they were in. So the coachmakers somehow stretches from Egypt Street round to Catherine and Bedford Street and touches the New Inn which as I now know bought up the coachmakers and extended into it in 1877.

Michele said...

Late to the party here - really enjoyed this article. I'm an American researching my family - my great-grandfather came here when he was 14, and his English birth certficate lists his address as 13 Catherine Street, Exeter, England. I was sad to find out how much damage has been done in the last 100 years, since he left England in the late 1800's (at 14).
Thanks for the info and pictures, though!

Anonymous said...

PS - When I say my great-grandfather came HERE, I was referring to America - sorry if that was not clear!

Ethel said...

Wow Michele. My grandmother was born at 14 Catherine Street!! She told me that many years back. She, her mother, and brother sailed to NY City around 1881. I'm an American researching my family history too ! Small world isn't it!! You are right. It is sad how much damage has been done. Good luck on your research.

Anonymous said...

My great great grandmother was born at 16 Catherine Street, a baker's daughter. She married Henry Lawless, a wine merchant and they had nine children. Her brother John briefly took over the bakery after his fathers death and then changed profession to become a tanner near Axminster. The historic tannery still exists today. The Baker family originated from Lympstone and I believe took over the bakery in around 1818. Any more info would be of great interest to me....Angela.

Jacky Hughes said...

Wolfpaw, I am here again, and digging around as it were So now I have the picture, John Seller of Broadclist marries Catherine Davills of Crediton and in 1829 he has enough money to stop being a coach man, move to Exeter and live in North Street. Later generatons move to Catherine Street where the coach works is, then they are found in Sidwell Street, or vice versa Fortunes increase and the family moves to Pennsylvania at 1 Pensylvania or Pensylvania cottage, Exeter. After that they are so rich they move to Huntingdon and sent their son to Ardley and he is a 'gentleman.' I think we found the Pensylvania hosue on google view and I am wondering if that is listed.

They were rich enough to completely rebuild that coach works when it was destroyed by fire, despite being thousands under insured.

Jacky Hughes said...

The coach works became extensive. It did cater to both the Half Moon Inn and the New London Inn. When it was sold in 1877 it seems to have become part of the New London Inn. In the 1840'a fire destroyed part of Catherine Street, including the coach works. This was under insured, but rebuilt as an even larger concern.

The coach works sold new and second hand coaches and caltered for every aspect of coach work and the horses needed to pull them.

Jacky Hughes said...

I am wondering where the seal went. Fragments of glass and other ancient things were also found underneath the coachwork and the Sellers Catherine Street house.

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