Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Demolition of No. 38, North Street

Despite a century of the almost continual destruction of Exeter's historical architecture, during the slum clearances of the 1920s and 1930s, during World War Two, during the much-criticised post-war reconstruction, during the creation of the city's inner ring road and the massive Exe Bridges traffic management system in the 1960s, incredibly, after all historical buildings were still being demolished.

In the early 1970s the local authority decide to destroy some of the last remaining medieval properties left within the circuit of the city walls. The destruction of No. 38, North Street in 1972 was inexcusable on every level. The west side of North Street, mostly consisting of 16th and 17th century timber-framed houses, had already been completely defaced and/or demolished by 1900, but prior to 1972 the east side retained at least three properties which dated to the 1500s or earlier, as well as the 17th century tavern known as the Elephant Inn. And yet almost the entire east side of the street, including all of the remaining historically important buildings, was demolished to build the monstrous Guildhall Shopping Centre.

The history of No. 38 is long and complicated. Exeter's most important 20th century historian, W. G. Hoskins, who examined the property ten years before its destruction, described it as being "a good example internally of a 15th century dwelling house of a particularly wealthy merchant". It probably dated to c1500. Until its demolition it was the finest example in the city of the building arrangement known as 'gallery and back block', an unusual floor plan peculiar to south-west England in which an accommodation block on the street front was joined to a kitchen block at the rear by a gallery which spanned a courtyard lying between the two blocks (the best remaining example in Exeter now is probably the much reduced specimen at No. 18, North Street).

The photograph above © RAMM shows the early 17th century timber-framed construction of the gallery at No. 38 North Street during its demolition in 1972. The main house is to the left with the back block at the rear.

Internally there was a small late-15th century hall in the centre of the property, extending from the ground floor to the roof with blocks of rooms on either side. According to Derek Portman, who examined the property in the 1960s, the hall had retained its "very fine arch-braced roof". A number of medieval fireplaces also survived, including a massive example in the kitchen block at the rear. The house underwent modifications in the first half of the 17th century. A new timber-framed facade, described by Hoskins as one of the finest left in the city, was added c1650 (a photograph of the facade just prior to its destruction can be seen here). Another 17th century addition, dating to c1630, was an important decorative plaster ceiling with a complex design of motifs featuring animals and foliage. At the start of the 20th century there were a number of similar ceilings in Exeter but by the 1970s the example at No. 38 was one of the only ones of its type to survive within the city.

The photograph above © RAMM shows part of the plasterwork ceiling during demolition. As it was being destroyed, bits of the ceiling were collected as fragments by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. More information on this ceiling can be found here.

During the 18th century some rebuilding took place at the rear of No. 38, but the building was essentially a medieval merchant's house with 17th century alterations. The facade had in fact been removed in 1899 to allow for yet more road-widening when the building was known as the Eagle Brewery. An account of the removal of the facade appeared in an edition of Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' dated 20 May 1899. According to the report, the walls on either side of the property were made of stone. These were firewalls, built not only to support the sides of the house and a place for the installation of fireplaces and chimneys but also to prevent fire spreading between neighbouring properties. This firewall showed signs that at one time the front of the building projected out into the street, "in accordance with the practice followed in the days of narrow streets" and would've dated to the 15th century. The plasterwork ceiling, mentioned above, was "richly moulded in a kind of star pattern, suggesting the famous star chamber at Westminster." Half of the ornate Jacobean plasterwork was removed at this time and ended up at Lew Trenchard in the home of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (where it can still be seen today). The other half remained in situ and the mid-17th century facade was reconstructed, piece by piece, by the property's owner.

Despite the efforts of Hoskins and others, No. 38, North Street was completely demolished in 1972. The construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre destroyed everything: the ornamented facade and plaster ceiling of the 1630s, the medieval walls, the arch-braced roof structure and mullioned windows, the timber-framed gallery, the moulded beams and fireplaces. Nos. 34 and 35, dating to the mid-16th century, were also demolished at the same time along with the 17th century 'Elephant Inn' and No. 36, an almost identical merchant's house from the late-15th century which also had a fine arch-braced roof. The site where these buildings once stood is shown right, and this is the city which was once frequently regarded as amongst the most picturesque and attractive in southern England.

Compared with many other historic English cathedral cities, Exeter today is architecturally disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps many of the buildings which were destroyed during World War Two would've succumbed to the wrecking ball of the local authority anyway. Would Bedford Circus really have survived into the 21st century even if it hadn't been damaged in 1942? Or would the allure of the retail value of the land on which it stood have proved too tempting to resist? I'm not aware of another example of two almost adjacent 15th century arch-braced roofs being demolished as late as 1972 anywhere in England. Either way, the mindless demolition of this small group of historic buildings in North Street was a complete disgrace and nothing more than cultural vandalism inflicted upon the city by the very people who were supposed to be its custodians.

Sources

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Working my way back through the blog, I continue to find it equally fascinating and heart-breaking. That this could have happened so recently, relatively speaking, is so sad.

Is there any record of any of the decision makers who condemned Exeter's historic buldings to destruction talking about their decisions with hindsight or of them being made to account for them?

wolfpaw said...

I can't understand the mindset either! I'm reminded of a comment by James Crocker that he made in the 1880s about a beautiful Jacobean window being replaced in a house in North Street: "It is, to me, a source of the greatest marvel that any person, however ignorant or indifferent, could persuade themselves to substitute the hideous bow window on the first floor, for what they must have destroyed in order to find a place for their own wretched handiwork." Ignorance and/or indifference. Unfortunately, for whatever, reason Exeter's historical architecture has never been valued. It's not even a recent development. The Georgians happily destroyed all of the medieval gatehouses set into the city wall and the Cathedral Close wall (but at least they gave us the beautiful houses of Bedford Circus and Southernhay in return!). Centuries-old timber-framed houses were pulled down by the dozen for road-widening at the end of the 19th century and in the slum clearances of the 1920s and 1930s. For me the game changer was the Blitz of 1942. The destruction could've either led to a greater appreciation of what remained or it could've hastened its removal. The city council opted for removal (which itself isn't perhaps a surprise considering what had been going on in the pre-war years). With so little left you would've thought that perhaps properties like No. 38 North Street would've been rejuvenated and saved. Instead it seems that they were regarded as weird aberrations, obstacles to improvement and things of no worth whatsoever, especially when compared with a new retail opportunity. Ignorance and indifference have worked hand-in-hand throughout Exeter's 20th century history. I don't think readers of the blog will believe how much of Sidwell Street, for example, survived the bombing of 1942 only to be destroyed afterwards and replaced with some of the most horrific post-war architecture in the city. I'm not convinced that the attitude of the local authority has changed a great deal now we're in the 21st century either. There's no question in my mind that the Rougemont Castle site should've been purchased by the council, but it can willingly throw hundreds of thousands of pounds around to cater for John Lewis. As proven by cities like Bath, York and Salisbury, history can be its own draw for visitors. Unfortunately Exeter has missed the boat on that option. If the council wants to promote Exeter as the Cribbs Causeway of Devon then at least it's an accurate reflection of their attitudes. It does irritate me though when it also tries to promote the city using images of the Cathedral and the Guildhall. The city is no longer a great historic centre and to present it as such borders on dishonesty. I go into Exeter as little as possible as I simply don't enjoy the shopping environment, and the problem with researching Exeter's past is that the more you discover what it was like the more dissatisfied you become with the way it is now. Thanks again for your comments and I hope you continue to enjoy reading the blog!

Tom Cadbury said...

It might interest you that some of the salvaged pieces of the 38 North Street ceiling will go on display in RAMM in August. The display will be part of 'A Symphony of Curves' an exhibition looking at the work of the contemporary plasterworker Geoffrey Preston and setting his work in the context of the history of Devon plasterwork. The show runs from 18 August to 14 October.

Greg Finch said...

This is a really interesting piece of work - well done. The tragedy of the demolition is almost personal for me as I only fairly recently discovered that my great great grandfather, Charles Samuel Finch, lived at 38 North St for almost twenty years from the 1870s until 1892. In partnership with his brother George he took on the Eagle Brewery, for which there was somehow space at the back of the property, and by the time they sold out to the Heavitree Brewery in 1892 they had a number of pubs in the city and surrounding area (although I don't think this included the Elephant Inn next door). I hadn't appreciated, until I read your blog, that 38 North St had such a fine ceiling. Curiously, where George lived, 144 Fore St Hill, where they ran a wine and spirits business, also boasted a fine moulded ceiling, described by Richard Parker in the Devon Archaeological Society's proceedings for 2001. Completing what I think is an unusual family hatrick, Charles's eldest son, my great grandfather, also Charles Finch, was for several years the licensee at the Half Moon Hotel before its own demolition in 1912 - and I was delighted to see that some of IT'S fine old ceiling plasterwork was also salvaged and is now on display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Charles junior and his brothers and sisters will have spent their formative years at 38 North St, so it's a personal loss that such an important old building was swept away only 40 years ago, by which time you'd have hoped we'd have known better than to sweep away such heritage so casually.

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