Friday, 5 November 2010

Allhallows Church, Goldsmith Street

For centuries, until 1906, the tiny church of Allhallows stood on the corner of Goldsmith Street and the High Street, just up from the Guildhall. It was typical of many other medieval parish churches once scattered throughout the city, built of red Heavitree breccia and not particularly distinguished as architecture.

But the foundation itself was ancient, a church having been on this location since at least 1222, and it is cited in a document of 1291 as being the "Ecclesia omnium sanctorum in Aurifabria" (Church of All Saints where the Goldsmiths work). The photograph left shows the church from the High Street, c1900. Note the exceptionally narrow entrance into Goldsmith Street to the left, the bell-turret at the west end and the chancel to the east. In c1546 the tower was either rebuilt or added.

To pay for the tower the church wardens sold a cross and a chalice to a local goldsmith, William Smyth. After the English Civil War the number of functioning parish churches in Exeter was reduced to just four, and Allhallows was one of those which was either auctioned off or used for other purposes. Fortunately the church was saved by a local parishioner, Robert Vilvaine, who purchased it on 11 May 1658 for £50, for within the walls of Allhallows lay the graves of his parents, buried there in the early 17th century. Despite the efforts of Robert Vilvaine, the church appears to have entered a period of decline as its congregation gradually relocated to the larger church of St Stephen's in the High Street. In 1767 the height of the tower was reduced by 20ft and the bells were sold to the church of St Sidwell, beyond the city walls.

And yet the church itself remained, despite decades passing by without even a service taking place. Jenkins described the church in 1806 as being "small and gloomy; and not being made use of is consequently dirty, and in bad repair within" but adds that "the whole church bears the marks of great antiquity", and Jenkins describes the carved oak Tudor pulpit, and a font and altar, as being "very ancient". Allhallows was only 56ft long and just 20ft in breadth at its widest.

By this time the church was almost invisible from the High Street and hidden behind a number of houses. The image left © Devon County Council shows the view towards Goldsmith Street from the High Street c1879, the eastern wall of the chancel obscured by No. 210 High Street, a jettied house from c1618. The church was almost demolished in 1820 when the City Chamber obtained an Act of Parliament sanctioning its removal but they spent so long deliberating on whether to order the church's destruction that the church authorities decided to restore the building. Some antiquity did remain however, including a number of memorial tablets from the 17th century onwards, the chancel arch from c1380 and some 14th century windows. The square, box-like turret visible on top of the roof was a skylight, inserted in 1822 to improve the light inside, and Allhallows was the first church in Exeter to be lit with gas.

Further renovation took place throughout the 19th century. During the 1850s the medieval roof over the chancel was replaced, a mummified cat being found lurking amongst the ancient beams. In 1879 the houses crowding around the chancel were removed. During the work a medieval stone piscina and aumbry (for washing and storing communion vessels) were discovered, but these were later destroyed during the demolition. In 1887 the western wall was rebuilt and a new window inserted, coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign.

The image above right shows a 1905 map of the city overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. Allhallows is visible as the tiny building marked 'Ch' at the entrance from the High Street into Goldsmith Street. Only those buildings which stood within the parish boundary of Allhallows in 1905 are shown. This area was left untouched by bombs in 1942. The only buildings still surviving from within the parish and which predate 1905 are highlighted in purple. The areas highlighted in red show buildings that have been demolished since 1905, nearly all of them as a consequence of redevelopment in the 1970s.  The demolition of the corner of Queen Street with the High Street in 1971 was particularly offensive. The eventual fate of the church itself is best described by Beatrix Cresswell, who visited the church prior to its destruction and later recorded how it all ended:

"For many years longer the threat of demolition hung over the church; once again the Exeter Corporation Act of 1900 empowered the city to remove Allhallows and use the site for the purpose of street improvements, and neither its record of a thousand years, nor the dust of the dead within could save it. For a few years, as if on sufferance, it occupied its ancient corner, and the bell in the western gable tinkled for occasional services. In the spring of 1906 the work of demolition commenced, and "Ecclesia omnium sanctorum in Aurifabria" no longer exists."

The pulpit and several memorial tablets were moved to the nearby church of St Pancras and the bones of the dead were moved to the Higher Cemetery at Heavitree. The rest was destroyed. The image left shows how the tiny church sat on its "ancient corner", overlaid onto a photograph of the same location today. The once-narrow entrance into Goldsmith Street was significantly widened in 1906. The building on the right dates to the 1980s, the building to the left, No. 207 High Street, dated from the early-19th century but was demolished in the 1970s. A concrete cast was taken of the original facade and that is what can be seen today. The only trace of there ever having been a church on the site is a small plaque below on the wall of the building to the right, Nos. 211 and 212, High Street.


paperboy said...

The Western Times - Tuesday 03 March 1908 - records two interments in Allhallows on the Walls in February of that year. 13 year old Frank Stevens Jarvis and 43 year old Edwin Dommett were buried there. According to your posting, this is some while after demolition commenced. Can you explain this?

wolfpaw said...

Yes, indeed I can! Allhallows-on-the-Walls was an entirely separate church that was located in the large green area near Bartholomew Street West. It's now been demolished but there are some tombstones surviving in the grass. During the Middle Ages, the church was originally located on the city walls at the bottom of Fore Street but it was demolished when the Georgian Exe Bridge and New Bridge Street were created in the late 18th century. Hope that helps!

paperboy said...

Many Thanks. That was very helpful indeed.

Angelcake said...

Hello there

I have just discovered that my Grandfather was organist and choirmaster at Allhallows. I wonder if there are any records existing anywhere of church personnel?

His name was Percy George Reginald Curtis.

Many thanks


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