Friday, 7 January 2011

The Demolition of the Edwardian Exe Bridge

"Where else but in Exeter during the 1960s, a decade notorious for civic destruction of Blitz proportion, would an elegant Edwardian steel bridge be irretrievably broken up, the shady banks of the river beneath it ironed out between concrete barriers and the whole meshed into a cat's cradle of busy roads?" So writes Hugh Meller in his book on Exeter's remaining fragments of historic architecture. "Where else but in Exeter?" It's a question with an almost infinite number of continuations, and unfortunately most of them are negative.

The postcard above shows the view across the river looking west out of Exeter. At the multi-gabled building in the background it was possible to turn left in Alphington Street or right into Cowick Street. Nearly every building shown was demolished between 1963 and 1972 and nothing of the scene survives today.

The Edwardian bridge which was destroyed in 1972 was built between 1904 and 1905 as a replacement for the beautiful late-18th century bridge that stood on exactly the same site. (More about the medieval Exe Bridge can be found here.) The Georgian bridge was demolished in 1904 for several reasons e.g. an increase in traffic crossing in and out of Exeter to the west but also because of the need to allow electric trams to cross the river. The inaugural journey of the first electric tram in Exeter coincided almost exactly with the opening of the new steel bridge. A temporary wooden bridge was erected parallel to the beautiful three-arched bridge from the 1770s, then the Georgian bridge was demolished and the new steel bridge was constructed on exactly the same alignment as its predecessor, in line with the 18th century entrance into the city known as New Bridge Street.

The image above shows the view into Exeter via New Bridge Street and Fore Street with the Edwardian Exe Bridge in the foreground. Once again, nothing of this scene survives today.

It seems that at least some people were dismayed at the prospect of the old bridge's demolition. The Exeter Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society, as early as 1894, had stated their preference for the new bridge to be built "a little below [the Georgian bridge] to take the heavy traffic". Naturally such ideas were rejected out of hand. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1900 authorising the rebuilding of the Exe Bridge and the old bridge came down, but its replacement was a significant structure in its own right.

The Edwardian bridge of 1905 was designed by Sir John Wolfe-Barry, the youngest son of Sir Charles Barry, the architect behind much of the present-day Houses of Parliament. Today Wolfe-Barry is best remembered as the engineer responsible for Tower Bridge that crosses the Thames in London. The new Exe Bridge was designed with a three-hinged arch. The trusses were secured at the base with steel pins and another pin was used to secure them in the centre where they met. This method allowed the bridge to contract and expand without jeopardising its structural integrity. What made the bridge at Exeter special though was the care and attention that had gone into its Gothic detailing.

The balustrade on both sides was intricately decorated with Gothic quatrefoils. At regular intervals along the balustrades there were blind Gothic arches, in the centre of which was the three-castle motif derived from the city's coat of arms. The huge spandrels of the bridge were covered in richly-wrought details, with Art Nouveau swirls and scrolls combined with a direct reference to a pattern of 14th century tracery found in the windows of Exeter Cathedral. The crossing was lit with superbly-crafted lamp stands: two on either side of the carriageway at each end and with a further two in the centre. The Gothic details extended even to these lamps with the use of pointed Gothic arches and ball-flower pinnacles with more references to Exeter's three-castle motif.

The photograph right shows one of the two surviving lamp stands, now relocated to the Quay. These two exceptional stands are the only parts of the Edwardian Exe Bridge which still exist and provide some indication of the high quality of its decoration. The image below left shows some of the swirling Gothic detailing in the spandrels of the bridge under which is the exact same design as seen in one of the 14th century Decorated Gothic windows in Exeter Cathedral.

In appearance at least the Edwardian Exe Bridge at Exeter closely resembled the great Lendal Bridge which crosses the river Ouse at York, even down to the lamp stands and the quatrefoil detailing on the balustrades. Fortunately the Lendal Bridge still exists. The bridge at Exeter cost around £25,000 to complete and was opened on 29 March 1905. I don't know exactly when the city council started to plot its destruction. Plans for a new inner bypass to the south of the city, towards the bridge, were being hatched as early as 1949, but in 1959 it was announced that a second bridge was going to be installed across the river, leaving the Edwardian bridge intact. However in 1960 an event occurred which provided the perfect excuse for the bridge's demolition.

The river Exe has always flooded as rainwater and river water drain from the hills of North Devon and Exmoor and force their way past the crossing point at Exeter. Floods have been recorded throughout Exeter's history e.g. in 1286 part of the medieval Exe Bridge was washed away by flood water. With the encroachment of residential and industrial areas onto what was formerly marshland, flooding of businesses and homes was inevitable. On 27 October 1960, after torrential rain, 42,000 tons of water every minute flowed through the river Exe. The river burst its banks and innundated 2500 buildings. Just a few weeks later, on 03 December, a similar deluge occurred.

It was thought that the Edwardian bridge had held the water back, causing it to bottleneck and flood into the nearby roads. The decision was therefore taken to unite the newly-complete inner bypass system with a new project: the Exeter Flood Prevention Scheme. The scheme was carried out between 1964 and 1977 at enormous cost, both financially and for its impact on Exeter's cityscape. Various schemes were proposed, including one which would've involved constructing tunnels to carry away surplus water from the river, but obviously these less destructive alternatives came to nothing and Wolfe-Barry's bridge was replaced with two concrete road bridges. (Ironically, many of the properties affected by the 1960s' flooding were subsequently demolished anyway as part of the wider redevelopment!)

The aerial view above right shows the area affected by the construction of the two new Exe Bridges and accompanying road system, with the former location of the Edwardian Exe Bridge highlighted in red. Prior to the construction of the road system there were properties and streets extending up to the edge of the river. By the early-1970s huge tracts of the city had been bulldozed in order to implement the scheme.

The inner bypass was extended on both sides of the river and hundreds of buildings dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were demolished in the process. It must be remembered that unlike the eastern side of the city, this side of Exeter had escaped the destruction of World War Two almost completely unscathed. The results have been predictably appalling. The photograph above shows the dismal western approach into the centre of Exeter today via one of the two current bridges. What a lovely welcome it makes to the city...

The Edwardian Exe Bridge was cut into pieces and removed, and today nothing remains of it except for the two ornate lamp stands which once adorned the crossing. Having lived in York for four years I know that the Ouse sometimes floods and inundates riverside properties, but York is fortunate that the local authority there didn't decide to adopt Exeter's solution in an attempt to remedy the problem. The bridges over the Exe at Exeter now look like this:



Anonymous said...

Fantastic research. I am rebuilding the edwardian Bridge in 3D at the moment. Would love any other archive material you have.

wolfpaw said...

Thanks for the comment! I'm glad the information was useful. It sounds like an interesting projecting you're working. Maybe you'll get around to reconstructing the rest of pre-war Exeter in 3D!

The Exeter Memories website has some information on the Edwardian Exe Bridge but not that many photos. The best photos I've seen are in Peter Thomas's book 'Aspects of Exeter' as they show some of the Gothic detailing up close. The Lendal Bridge in York is painted with all the details picked out in various colours. I don't know how the 1905 Exe Bridge was painted originally. Photos from the late 1960s show it was a sort of dull, pale green colour but I've no idea if this was original. I wouldn't think so.

I've uploaded a photo onto Flickr ( that shows part of one of the massive spandrels next to a photo of some of the tracery in the Cathedral for a comparison (the window is in the south wall of the nave, although I think there's something similar in the north wall too). The likeness is too similar to be a coincidence.

There's always the Westcountry Studies Library. Apart from that I don't know of anything else. You would've thought that the bridge had been carefully surveyed before it was cut up! If it was then the records must be somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I do have almost all that you recomended, except the Flickr pic. So thank you. I shall get you some renders when done. I am really enjoying your Blog. Inspiring. The destruction of Exeter is an absolute tragedy and I so want to see what we have destroyed.

Ben said...

As someone who lives in St Thomas it's heart breaking to read that the destruction that I had, incorrectly, assumed was the work of the Germans was infact the result of almost unbelievable short-sightedness on the part of the council.

Even with the bombing Exeter could, and should, be a real jewel. How sad that it's now such an ugly city.

Ben said...

What's especially frustrating is that the current council appear to have learned few of the lessons of the past. Tucked in behind Cowick Street are a few rows of gorgeous Georgian terraced houses and Victorian terraced houses that, together provide a great little snapshot of history. What do the council do? Amazingly, they let Bellway build one of the ugliest housing developments yet right next to it on what was the County Ground. It's baffling.

wolfpaw said...

Hi Ben. Thanks for your comments! One of the aims of my blog was to show, as precisely as possible, how the city acquired its current appearance. I think many people assume that it was all the result of the Blitz as that event looms so large in Exeter's 20th century history. The 'destruction of Exeter in 1942' has almost become a myth, only part of which is actually true. Apart from some damage in Okehampton Street almost no bombs fell on the St Thomas side of the river and yet Cowick Street and Alphington Street especially have both been almost completely destroyed. I've not written about Cowick Street yet as I haven't finished covering the city-within--the-walls, but the demolition there has been staggering. From the perspective of the city's architectural heritage, the City Council turned the Blitz from a crisis into a disaster. As I've said in numerous posts, not only were hardly any of Exeter's significant war-damaged buildings restored, repaired or rebuilt but the local authority then spent the next 30 years embarking on an orgy of demolition involving vast areas of the surviving pre-war cityscape. All of the grim modern in-fill you see in Cowick Street, the Guildhall Shopping Centre site, numerous buildings in the lower High Street and nearly all of the inner bypass area from the river to Sidwell Street, including much of Sidwell Street itself, is the result of planned redevelopment in the 50s, 60s and 1970s, and has little to do with 1942. I'm sure there are plenty of people in Exeter who disagree, but I too think it's now an ugly city. It has some good areas, of course, like Rougemont and Southernhay, the area between Fore Street and Bartholomew Street, and the Quay, and St Leonard's is very attractive, but the majority of the 93 acres enclosed by the city walls is ugly. Take away the Cathedral and the Cathedral Close and what is left? 75% of the High Street is less than a century old, most of it being post-war. Then you have the Guildhall Shopping Centre which destroyed half of North Street and Waterbeer Street and all of Goldsmith Street as well as much of the Higher Market. North Street and South Street are simply ugly streets, as is Paul Street, Sidwell Street, the entire West Quarter of Preston Street, Smythen Street, etc. and the new Princesshay (which I personally loathe). I guess it's horses for courses to some extent. For many people Exeter is a perfectly attractive, liveable city with good shops. For me it seems desperately sad that one of England's oldest, most historic and formerly most picturesque cathedral cities should've been so comprehensively trashed over the course of the 20th century. The fact that much of it was self-inflicted by the local authority is extraordinary. Thanks again for your feedback!

Ben said...

I remember reading somewhere, I can't remember where exactly, the following;

'Exeter is a city with beautiful buildings, but not a beautiful city'

I think that sums it up pretty well! Thanks again for the blog, I look forward to future updates!

Ben said...

Meant to add that with a future requiring much less retail space approaching rapidly, the short sightedness of the council will really become apparent as we are left with more and more units stood empty on the sites of attractive historic buildings. What's especially sad is that tourism could have filled the void that will be left.

wolfpaw said...

I think the quote about Exeter being 'a city with beautiful buildings rather than a beautiful city' might come from WG Hoskins, but I'm not sure as I don't have my copy of his '2000 Years in Exeter' book to hand!

I agree that it's all been extremely short-sighted. After the war some people couldn't sweep the old city away fast enough. In one of his books Peter Thomas quotes a letter from someone saying that "the past can't buy bread and butter". Tell that now to cities like York, Norwich or Salisbury and Lincoln which are true tourist centres. Perhaps it's true that no-one could've foreseen the boom in private car ownership, but from 1945 until at least the 1970s, Exeter was rebuilt by a local authority in thrall to the motor car. All the war-damaged streets were massively widened and/or totally realigned, and we had the inner bypass carving through the intact area outside the South Gate and across the river into Cowick Street. And yet just a few decades later the council is desperate to keep those same cars out, creating one-way systems, bus-only areas and pedestrianised zones, etc. It has simply been a disaster for Exeter's historical architecture. Whether that actually matters or not is a question of personal preference. For me it does matter, hence my blog! :)

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