Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Eastgate Arcade and Coffee Tavern, Eastgate

Almost opposite Nos. 266 and 267 was the Eastgate Arcade. Eastgate was the name of the small area immediately outside of the city wall that had built up over centuries in the shadow of the East Gate. Similar areas existed at the city's other gatehouses e.g. at Southgate. By the beginning of the 20th century Eastgate was almost indistinguishable as being anything other than an extension of the High Street. The East Gate had gone and much of the city wall which had stood on either side of the gatehouse was buried behind other buildings.

On the left side of Eastgate was the London Inn Square onto which fronted both the New London Inn and the Regency Royal Subscription Rooms with exits into Northernhay Place and Longbrook Street. A little further on, on the right, was the entrance into Southernhay and then the entrance into Paris Street before Sidwell Street began. Today the entire area has been so completely altered by post-war rebuilding that it is almost impossible to recognise how the old street plan fitted into the 21st century city.

The image right shows part of Eastgate as it existed at the beginning of the 20th century overlaid onto a modern aerial photograph of the same area. The site of the old East Gate fortification is marked with a cross. Nos. 266 and 267, built from the remains of the gate, are highlighted in light blue. London Inn Square is to the north of Eastgate, with the New London Inn itself highlighted in purpe and the Royal Subscription Rooms of 1820 in red. The Eastgate Arcade, running parallel with the exterior face of the city wall, is coloured green and the Eastgate Coffee Tavern in yellow.

From c1770 until 1880 the site of both the Eastgate Arcade and the Eastgate Coffee Tavern had been occupied by the substantial residence of the headmaster of St John's Hospital School, later Exeter Grammar School. Attached to the back of the headmaster's house was a very large playground. The site of the school was sold in November 1879 and the headmaster's residence, along with the accompanying playground, was purchased for £4,500 by the Exeter Coffee Tavern Company.

The plan left, drawn in 1878, shows the 18th century headmaster's residence fronting onto the High Street, the ancient city wall acting as a physical boundary between the playground and the rest of the school. (This entire section of the wall, a Schedued Ancient Monument, was demolished by the local authority during the post-war redevelopment in the 1950s). This was the extent of the parcel of land purchased by the Exeter Coffee Tavern Company in 1879, a company backed by the Temperance Movement. The problem for the Company was that the site was massive, occupying nearly three-quarters of an acre and it far exceeded the amount of land they actually needed to build their new coffee tavern.

The idea for an indoor shopping arcade in Exeter on the same site had first been raised several years earlier but had come to nothing. It was only after the site had been purchased by the Exeter Coffee Tavern Company that interest in creating an arcade similar to those still found in many other cities in Britain resurfaced. The Exeter Coffee Tavern Company needed to get rid of the land which was surplus to their requirements. As reported in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post', a "company was then formed to purchase the remainder and build thereon an Arcade which should connect High Street with Southernhay". The Exeter Arcade Company purchased the surplus land for £4,000.

The photograph below shows the completed Eastgate Arcade c1910. The Arcade itself is to the left, its arched entrance clearly visible with a clock set into the gable of the roof. Most of the buildings shown were destroyed in 1942 and none survive today.

The headmaster's residence was demolished and by May 1880 work on the foundations of the new building was in progress. During these excavations the remains of one of the drum towers of the old East Gate was uncovered along with many animal bones which had thrown into the city's defensive ditch. Despite the fact that both the companies were two completely separate entities they worked in tandem in creating both the Coffee Tavern and the Arcade within a single, architecturally unified building. Its architect was James Crocker, a local architect who worked from Queen Street, although known to most Exeter historians now for his invaluable 1886 work 'Sketches of Old Exeter'.

The unusual postcard left shows a rare view into the interior of the Arcade c1900. The main facade on the High Street was shared by both the Coffee Tavern and the Arcade.

Built from red and white brick with limestone dressing, the facade was 40ft high, divided into three floors under a roof of Welsh slate. In the centre was the entrance into the arcade, a large archway above which was a limestone panel engraved with "Eastgate Arcade". To the left of the entrance, accessible from both the High Street and the Arcade was the Coffee Tavern. To the right of the entrance were two shops. The Coffee Tavern consisted of a basement containing the kitchens and storerooms. Above this, on the ground floor, was the coffee tavern, fitted out with a semi-circular mahogany and marble counter behind which were four floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Around the sides of the room were seats upholstered in maroon velvet with marble-topped tables. Next to the bar was a private members' room containing a billiard table. Access to the upper floors was via two staircases with mahogany handrails and wrought-iron balustrades. The first floor had a large lecture room while the second floor contained five bedrooms and a committee room.

The Arcade was 225ft long with eleven shops on each side and with entrances from both the High Street and from Southernhay. The distance between the shops on either side was 15ft and the whole building was spanned by an ornamental glass and ironwork roof measuring 35ft from the floor to the apex. Set into the southern gable of the roof was a large glass and iron rose window while the interior of the atrium was given additional illumination by gasoliers i.e. gas-powered chandaliers. Each of the 22 shops had a basement, a plate-glass shop front on the ground floor with a dining room at the back and two rooms on the first floor. The foundation stones, one for the Coffee Tavern and one for the Arcade, were laid on 02 August 1880 accompanied by a "numerous and influential company of ladies and gentlemen" and a speech prepared by Robert Dymond on the long history of the East Gate site. The Arcade's foundation stone read: "This Arcade was erected by the Exeter Arcade Company Ltd., and this stone was laid by the Mayor, chairman of the company, on the 2nd day of August 1880. James Crocker, architect; Stephens and Sons, builders". The Bishop of Exeter laid the stone for the Coffee Tavern.

Both the Coffee Tavern and the Arcade opened for business in 1881. The Arcade seemed to be particularly popular. Every year the Arcade was decorated for Christmas. An 1892 edition of the 'Exeter Flying Post' reported that "a centre of much attraction just now is the very pretty decorations which, according to the usual custom, have been effected in the Eastgate Arcade." Evergreen foliage, stars, coloured lights and flags were festooned throughout the Arcade which, combined with the "artistically set out shop displays" would "tend to popularise this much frequented avenue." One of the first shops to open was 'The Fernery' above left which sold fresh flowers, ornamental fish and exotic birds.

Both the Arcade and the Coffee Tavern survived relatively intact until 04 May 1942 when the entire building was severely damaged by high-explosive bombs and incendiaries. By the following afternoon the structure had collapsed and nothing remained except a smouldering pile of bricks, twisted iron and broken glass. The Victorian arcade was replaced with Eastgate House right © Devon County Council, part of which consisted of the concrete Co-op building that had been built in the 1930s and which was the only building in the badly bomb-damaged section of the High Street which was reused in the post-war reconstruction of the area. A giant fibreglass statue of Henry VII stood high up on the side of the post-war building commemorating the king's visit to the city in 1497 and replacing an earlier statue that had stood in the High Street prior to 1942.

In 2005 work began on the demolition of Eastgate House as part of Exeter City Council's redevelopment of the Princesshay area. The statue was taken down and put in storage and Eastgate House was replaced with the inappropriate glass behemoth which now squats on the corner of Paris Street and High Street below. I can't think of anything positive to say about it so I'll leave the story of the Eastgate Arcade there.



Sal said...

Hi there!
I have only just discovered your blog and I am so glad that I have done so! I love the city of Exeter!
I'm looking forward to browsing and reading through your posts.;-)

wolfpaw said...

Hi Sal. I love the history of the city of Exeter too ;-) I hope you enjoy reading the posts as much as I enjoy writing them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Wolfpaw, what a fantastic website. I particularly like your composite images of the East Gate.
I've come to the conclusion that this City has had some of the worst planners ever over the last 200 years. When I compare Exeter to York, Wells, Winchester, Salisbury and Cambridge I'm appalled at what they've done to her. Even now it continues when you compare how tastefully Bath incorporated it's new shopping centre into the old city and how Princesshay has been slapped together I despair. Caleb's model makes me sad when I look at it. This said thank god we have a beautiful cathedral green, the Guildhall and substantial fragments of North, Fore, South and High Street which are still there. Enough ranting now... what a great website !

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