Tuesday, 26 October 2010

St Catherine's Chapel and Almshouses, Catherine Street

Yet another piece of medieval Exeter which went up in flames in 1942. Even with the help of the information plaque attached to a nearby wall, it's difficult to make sense of the mass of ruins which now sit on the corner of Catherine Street and Egypt Lane.

The ruins are in fact the remains of two quite distinct and separate medieval complexes: the 15th century almshouses and accompanying chapel dedicated to St Catherine and a canon's house first established in the 1200s.

The canonry, a house built for one of the cathedral's many canons, predated the almshouses by over a century and was constructed within the walled boundary of the cathedral precinct. According to Peter Thomas, part of the precinct's 13th century wall remained standing between the canonry and the almshouses until it was demolished during the post-war demolition of the war-damaged ruins in 1959. The history of the canon's house is long and complex as the structure went through numerous transformations until the site was badly bombed in 1942. Something which should be remembered when looking at the ruins today is that the canonry was originally three or four times larger than the area occupied by the almshouses.

The image right is based on the 1905 Ordnance Survey map of Exeter combined with an aerial view of the same area today. The location of the almshouses and chapel are highlighted in red. The approximate extent of the canonry in the 13th century is highlighted in purple. As can be seen, the almshouses occupied by far the smaller portion of the site, although the state of the ruins today gives the opposite impression as so little of the canonry has survived (only two large fireplaces, a couple of windows and a fragment of wall).

St Catherine's Almshouses below left and top were founded c1450 by Dr John Stevens, a Canon Residentiary of the cathedral. The almshouses were dedicated to St Catherine and were designed originally to house thirteen poor men nominated to reside there by the cathedral's Dean and Chapter. Fortunately the original petition made by Canon Stevens to found the almshouses still survives. In the petition he states that he had bought "a parcel of ground, void at the time of purchase and not built upon, adjoining to the closure of [the] cathedral church". The almshouses and chapel appear to have been constructed in 1458.

Writing in 1915, Lega-Weekes described the medieval almshouses as "a picturesque low building of red sandstone, with a bold curve in its walling, instead of a sharp angle, as it turns the corner of Catherine and Chapel Streets, an irregular roof, or group of roofs, a stone arched doorway, and diminutive stone windows, some arched and moulded, some oblong and plain chamfered".

The entire complex was constructed from the local red sandstone known as Heavitree breccia, with dressed blocks of purple volcanic trap used for mouldings around the doors and windows as well as for the fireplaces. Entry into the almshouses was through an arched doorway via Catherine Street. A covered passageway led through into a small courtyard, possibly with external stairs leading to the rooms on the second floor, with a rectangular well built into the north face of the first courtyard. A further passageway led to another small courtyard, with yet more small cells built around the sides, in the centre of which was the oratory, a chapel dedicated St Catherine and constructed as place of worship for the almshouses' residents.

According to Jenkins writing in 1806 the chapel had a vaulted roof and a stone crypt under the floor. The roof was of the waggon variety, built of oak, but there seems to have been little evidence of a stone crypt. A single bell hung at the western end. (One interesting suggestion has been made by Richard Parker and Anthony Collings. It's possible that the building referred to by Jenkins as a 'chapel' wasn't the almshouse chapel at all but a quite different building associated with the adjacent canonry and which might well have had a crypt under the floor.)

The chapel is believed to have been originally divided horizontally, creating two separate rooms, the upper room accessed via an internal staircase.

The photograph top shows the side wall of the chapel inset into which are two external doors. One gave access into the ground floor chapel and the other gave access to the staircase leading to the upper floor. On the ground floor was the altar with an elaborate traceried window at the east end. In the south wall, near the altar, were the remains of a piscina, used for washing the communion vessels.

Near the entrance in the exterior wall was a stoup for keeping holy water. The photograph above shows a very rare view of the interior of the chapel c1915. The traceried lower east window is to the right, the arched entrance door visible to the left.

The photograph above left shows the remains of one of the surviving mid-15th century fireplaces. In 1806 Jenkins found the chapel 'much desecrated' and used as a carpenter's workshop. It seems to have been used for domestic purposes throughout the 19th century until both the chapel and the almshouses were restored by Lady Hotham in 1894 and given over to the Church Army as a hostel for the destitute. The 'Exeter Flying Post' reported in January 1894 that, during the restoration of the chapel, "many of the architectural features are being brought to light which have long been hidden", including "the interesting old open roof" which was "in a good state of preservation". The report concludes with the confident expectation that "the little chapel will be an addition to the attractions of Exeter, worthy of the highly historic neighbourhood in which it stands."

During the Baedeker Raid on Exeter in May 1942 the medieval almshouses and chapel were gutted by fire, leaving only the walls remaining. The city council, rigorously following its ideology of refusing to restore or reconstruct Exeter's most important war-damaged buildings, decided to retain the ruins as a memorial to those killed during the bombing raid, although there's no significant mention of the city's casualties anywhere on the site.

Thomas Sharp in 'Exeter Phoenix', his published report for the reconstruction of Exeter after World War Two, stated that the almshouses and the adjoining Country House Inn (containing parts of the medieval canonry) were less damaged than the Hall of the Vicars Choral in South Street but were "nevertheless so far ruined that restoration would amount to rebuilding - and that would mean that the buildings would lose both their worth and their significance". Sharp advocated leaving the ruins "more or less as they are now". Unfortunately the ruins of the almshouses weren't left more or less as they were then, and far more remained of the ruined buildings in 1942 than is currently visible today. Photographs taken after the war, such as that shown above, prove that the walls of the almshouses survived up to roof height.

One wonders why, given the then extensive nature of the remains, the almshouses weren't simply refitted with a roof and floors and put back into use. At least a year after the Blitz, the city council embarked on a process of making the ruins 'safe' and in doing so demolished most of the still-standing structure. Their current appearance above is nothing more than the product of extremely brutal tidying up after 1942. The ruins today are scrappy and incoherent, and not particularly impressive. Complete reconstruction of the almshouse complex was always a possibility but it never seems to have been considered.

One interesting consequence of the destruction was the archaeological excavation which took place after the Second World War. It found the remains of a large Roman house with significant fragments of a tessellated pavement dating to the 4th century AD. It was originally the floor of a corridor which connected a range of rooms and perhaps came from a Roman workshop at Dorchester in Dorset where similar examples have been found. The mosaic below was recovered and it is now on display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. The remains of St Catherine's Almshouses have been designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.


1 comment:

Starcross News said...

Thankyou for the wealth of information on your blog. I wanted to illustrate the appearance of stonework using Heavitree breccia. I hope it's OK that I've linked to your photo of St Catherine's almshouses on http://starcrosshistory.blogspot.co.uk/

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