Sunday, 23 January 2011

St George's Church, South Street

I wonder how many hundreds of buildings have been demolished in Exeter under the pretext of 'road-widening', what Cresswell called in 1908 "Exeter's perpetual excuse for destroying old buildings".

Several hundred pre-war properties at least came down in the 1960s and 70s to build the inner bypass road system, but the church dedicated to St George the Martyr was an early victim of the same mindset, back in 1843. The image above © Devon County Council is a depiction of St George's from South Street by George Townsend prior to its demolition. It shows the east face of the church, the chancel on the right, the south aisle on the left with the western bell tower. The arches just visible in the distance, at the end of George Street, is the side elevation of Charles Fowler's neo-Classical Lower Market. The church was sited on the west side of South Street, nearly opposite the 14th century Hall of the Vicars Choral and on the corner of South Street with a narrow alleyway called George Street.

The foundation itself was ancient and a church dedicated to St George had probably been on this same location since at least the 9th or 10th century. This early Saxon church, constructed long before the Norman Conquest of 1066 was even thought of, was built of coarse rubble masonry, with a simple floor plan of a single aisle and chancel. At the very least, the stone-built Saxon St George's shows that Exeter was a flourishing Anglo-Saxon settlement with some relatively high status buildings in the early Middle Ages. (St George didn't become the patron saint of England until Edward III created the Order of the Garter in 1348.)

The photograph right shows a detail from Caleb Hedgeland's early-19th century wooden model of Exeter. The appearance of the church, highlighted in red, closely matches the drawing by Townsend top. The dining hall of the Vicars Choral, highlighted in purple, is on the opposite side of South Street

As with so many of Exeter's churches, the first documented reference to St George's appears in a Deed of Assignment (similar to a will) made by a wealthy Exeter citizen called Peter de Palerna sometime between 1200 and 1216. Peter de Palerna left money to 28 of Exeter's existing churches and chapels and fortunately the Deed mentions them all by name. St George's church was one of those that received one penny, to be paid on 04 February every year. According to Cresswell, during the Middle Ages St George's was appropriated to the mother church of Plympton Priory near Plymouth but it became a parish church in its own right in 1222. (In fact the medieval priors of Plympton had a townhouse nearby in South Street. Until it was partially destroyed by fire in the 1870s, part of the Priors' residence survived as the Black Lions inn. The inn stood nearly opposite the Bear Inn, once the townhouse of the medieval abbots of Tavistock, also long since vanished.)

The image left shows St George's church depicted on a map of 1587 by Braun and Hogenberg. After the English Civil War the church was sold to its parishioners for £100 on 11 May 1658 and seems to have remained relatively untouched until the 19th century. Jenkins visited in 1806 and left the following description: "the church is small, consisting of a nave, chancel, and small aisle under the tower, from this aisle there is an aperture made thro' the wall, for the convenience of that part of the congregation to behold the elevation of the host, (the custom before the Reformation). The church is kept in good repair, and is neatly seated; the tower is large but not lofty". Jenkins also noted that the tower had "a clock without a dial". This seems to suggest that the clock was used to strike the time on a bell rather than show the time on a dial.

It's likely that at least the footprint of the 14th century chancel and the nave respected the outline of the Saxon church. Even with the addition of a south aisle in the 1400s it wasn't a big building. The nave was 33ft by 15ft; the chancel 11ft by 15ft, and the aisle was 30ft by 16ft making it almost as large as the nave itself. It's interesting that the pre-Reformation arrangement survived. The "aperture made thro' the wall" was a squint or a hagioscope. The tower was 15th century in date and contained five bells recast from three earlier bells in 1740. Entrance into the church was either via a short flight of steps under an early-18th century hood from South Street or through a door near the tower in the south wall.

The church was constructed from the ever-present red Heavitree breccia which was typical of all of Exeter's medieval parish churches. Inside was a large depiction of the coat of arms of Charles II, probably put there after the Restoration in 1660 when the church regained its parochial status. The church had a number of monuments and memorial tablets, including one to Richard Vivian from 1740, another to Thomas Baron, a former Exeter mayor who died in 1708 and one to a former Rector of St George's, William Chilcote, who died in 1711. The ceremonial cup and paten (used to hold the Eucharistic wine and bread) dated to 1684.

The parish boundary of St George's church was very strange. The vast bulk of the West Quarter, which should've been the natural catchment area of St George's, actually fell within the boundary of St Mary Major on the other side of South Street. From what I can ascertain St George's church was not contiguous with its own parish but was actually situated within the parish of St Mary Major too.

The parish itself was sited further south, adajcent to the parish of St John. It took in the south side of Smythen Street, part of Stepcote Hill and half of King Street before returning, since the 1830s, to the Lower Market. The image above right is based on the medieval parish boundary of St George's Church. It shows a 1905 street plan of the parish overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. St George's Church is far away in the top right corner. Buildings highlighted in red have been demolished since 1905, most of them as a consequence of pre-war slum clearances, although further demolition in the area took place in the 1950s and 1960s. Only one solitary building, highlighted in purple, remains that is older than 1905. This is the nondescript former Wesleyan School on King Street, built in 1862.

The top of South Street, one of Exeter's four main roads, was widened in 1830 but the portion of the street onto which St George's fronted was still very narrow. A later 19th century account reported that in places the street was so narrow that "the upper parts of some of the houses were just within shaking hands distance", a product of timber-framed, multi-jettied houses from the 16th and 17th centuries teetering towards each other across the carriageway. It was into this thoroughfare that the "church projected very much". The projection into the street is depicted on Hedgeland's model of the area.

The Reverend John Kingdon Cleeve was appointed as the Rector of St George's in 1818 and in the late 1830s entered into a battle with the Exeter Improvement Commissioners who wanted the church removed. An account left by his grand-nephew, Mr G Dunsford of Mount Radford, describes what happened next. The Commissioners "made several applications to the rector to set back the building", and he in turn asked to be given two feet at the rear of the church for every foot that was lost at the front. Naturally, the Commissioners rejected the terms and waited, the Rector insisting that "as long as he lived his Church should not be touched". Fateful words indeed, as the Reverend Kingdon Cleeve died in 1842 and the church of St George came tumbling down in 1843.

Some of the monuments were transferred to St John's church in Fore Street, with which the old parish of St George was united, along with the five bells from the tower (St John's itself was demolished 1937, after which the monuments were transferred to the church of St Mary Major in Cathedral Yard, which was in turn demolished in 1971!). Until 1942, most of the area where St George's church had stood was preserved as a small garden, bounded by iron railings with some of the other memorial floor tablets from set into the ground. During the post-war reconstruction of the area in 1953 a number of burials from the site of the old church were dug up and reinterred at the Higher Cemetery.

But it seems that not all of the church was actually destroyed in 1843 after all. Only the south wall and the east wall were completely demolished as parts of the west wall and the north wall appear to have survived, reused within later, mid-19th century buildings. When South Street was bombed on 04 May 1942 part of the medieval church's west wall was exposed, and there within the rubble were significant fragments of the Saxon church that had stood on the same site over 1000 years earlier.

Of particular interest were the remains of the west door of the Saxon building above, blocked up long ago but clearly identifiable as such by the distinctive use of the so-called 'long and short' work in the quoins of the doorway. The wall was constructed of local purple volcanic trap, probably pinched by the Saxons from the remains of the Roman city wall. Also embedded in the wall was the recycled debris of other Roman buildings which had been built in Exeter in the 3rd and 4th centuries, including part of a limestone column 9 inches in diameter, Roman terracotta roof tiles and the moulded base or capital of another column. Tests later showed that the Saxon mortar contained ground up fragments of more Roman roof tiles.

The historical importance of the find was identified after the bombing by two distinguished local historians: Ethel Lega-Weekes and Arthur Everett and they persuaded the Ministry of Works to try and salvage the remains. Unfortunately the very substantial north-west corner of the ruins fell down in 1945 and only the doorway and part of the west wall were eventually preserved. It's incredible though, to think of the Saxons in 9th or 10th century Exeter digging up pieces of classical Roman buildings and fashioning their own church out of what they found, and then a thousand years passing by before their work was suddenly revealed again in such destructive circumstances. In 1954 the Saxon remains were moved across South Street and relocated in the middle of the ruined 14th century Hall of the Vicars Choral. And there they sit today, possibly unique in the city, one of the very few architectural links with Exeter's Saxon past. During the post-war reconstruction of South Street the road was widened to 44ft, almost double it's pre-war width, and the site where the church once stood was irretrievably lost.


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