Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Destruction of Guinea Street

Another of Exeter's city centre streets and another story involving the complete loss of a historical cityscape. The watercolour above is a rare depiction of Guinea Street c1900, looking towards its junction with South Street. The spire of the then recently rebuilt church of St Mary Major is in the background. To the left is the monumental main facade of Charles Fowler's Lower Market, the street still lined with a number of timber-frame properties from the 1600s and 1700s. Nothing remains today of any of the buildings shown. The map below right shows Guinea Street and the surrounding area c1900, at about the same time that the watercolour was executed. The Lower Market is clearly visible as is Milk Street, with its little obelisk and public square, as well as Sun Street and the entrance from South Street into Guinea Street. Very narrow lanes led off into semi-hidden places like Rowe's Court or provided shortcuts into the surrounding streets. The parts of the map highlighted in red show areas that were affected during World War Two and which have since been rebuilt.

The street's name is recorded in 1320 as 'Gennestrete', in 1421 as 'Gyne Stret' and in 1610 as 'Gennystrete'. It's thought that 'Guinea' is derived from 'ginnel', a word for a narrow alley or passageway that is still used in some Northern dialects and which is believed to originate in Old Norse. Situated off South Street and sandwiched between George Street and Sun Street, Guinea Street was part of Exeter's sprawling West Quarter, one of the city's most significant residential and commercial districts throughout the Middle Ages. Before that the area covered by Guinea Street had been within the footprint of the mid-1st century Roman legionary fortress, later transformed into a civitas cAD 80. A "mass of masonry" from a Roman building was discovered in October 1838 when new curb stones were laid in Guinea Street and various pieces of Roman pottery and coins were unearthed throughout the 19th century. It's now thought that the masonry discovered both then and since, as well as the remains of tessellated and concrete floors, belonged to buildings associated with the Roman public bath complex sited near the present-day Deanery on the other side of South Street.

A quarter of the street was demolished in 1835 for the construction of the Lower Market. The market's 127ft (39m) Guinea Street facade above would've dominated the narrow medieval street in much the same way that the Higher Market's rear facade towered over Goldsmith Street. The market was set back from the original line of the street frontages it replaced, doubling the width of Guinea Street in the immediate area outside the market itself but leaving the portion that exited onto South Street intact, an effect that can easily be seen in the watercolour view at the top of this post. No great historical events occurred in Guinea Street and apart from the Lower Market it's unlikely that many great buildings were ever erected there, but for centuries it had witnessed those scenes of everyday life that are the common currency of human experience, from the time of the Romans up until the present day.

For example, on 29 January 1807 a tremendous storm of hurricane-like proportions descended on the city, blowing several chimneys down onto the roof of the Royal Oak inn on Guinea Street, destroying the roof and killing a man named Humphreys, "a musician in the band belonging to the Montgomery Militia" who was in a room on the ground floor; on 14 October 1838 Julia Lamerton, the wife of a builder, died in Guinea Street and was remembered as "an affectionate and tender mother"; in December 1844 "Mr Morris Thurston of Guinea Street" died at his house having reached the incredible age of 108 years-old and who never allowed anyone inside his house for 60 years ; in 1856 John Webster was charged with leaving a waggon and two horses in Guinea Street and was fined 1 shilling; on 21 February 1859 Mary Smale was sent to prison for a week for "using abusive language in Guinea Street"; in September 1868 firemen had to put out a fire that was "raging in an uninhabited house in the lane leading from Sun Street to Guinea Street" and on 18 January 1874 a daughter was born to Mr and Mrs Chapple, etc. etc. People lived and worked and died in Guinea Street as they had for hundreds of years.

In the 19th century alone there existed in Guinea Street the Golden Lion Inn, the Royal Oak, the New Market Inn and the Pestle and Mortar, of dubious repute, and the premises of JT Burgess & Son, an ironmongers who were well-known to local poultry farmers and bee-keepers. The company of Burgess & Son had existed in Guinea Street for many years before its premises were destroyed in 1942. (The shop they operated from is visible to the right in the watercolour at the top of this post.)

On 04 May 1942 Exeter was blitzed as a reprisal for the RAF's attack on the Hanseatic port of L├╝beck in Germany and Guinea Street was completely destroyed, along with much of the surrounding area. Only the outer walls of the Lower Market remained standing, being made of stone, until they were foolishly demolished in the early 1960s. The photograph above right © Express & Echo shows Guinea Street, highlighted in red, several months after the devastating air-raid, the remains of one of the corner towers of the Lower Market clearly visible, pedestrians still walking on the old street's surviving pavements. Part of South Street is in the foreground, a faint trace of the very narrow George Street just discernible to the far right, running parallel with Guinea Street.

It's impossible to say exactly what was lost in Guinea Street. Like much of the city at the time of the Second World War, no detailed survey had been undertaken of the street's buildings at the time of their destruction. The bombing uncovered a previously hidden 14th century building in nearby Milk Street so it's likely that properties of similar antiquity had survived in Guinea Street up until 1942.

The area was thoroughly redeveloped in the post-war period, although at least in Guinea Street the basic medieval street plan was almost retained intact. Before 1942 the street had a slight bend in it but after the war this was straightened out and what had been the junction with South Street was reduced to a short covered pedestrian passage above left. Now the eastern end of the street terminates visually with the backs of the post-war buildings on South Street.

The real problem is the extremely poor quality of the post-war architecture. The area once occupied by the Lower Market is now an NCP car park. Brick-built and utilitarian, it has no redeeming features at all. The same can be said of the opposite side of the street, rebuilt in a style that is now common across much of the city centre: flat roofs and aluminium window frames randomly inserted into low-grade brick facades. The same type of building can be seen in long stretches of South Street, Paris Street, Sidwell Street, George Street, James Street, Market Street, Mary Arches Street, Bampfylde Street, Bude Street, Summerland Street, Verney Street and Cheeke Street. Anyone familiar with the Marsh Barton industrial estate on the outskirts of the city will recognise the style instantly.

The sad story of Guinea Street has been repeated across Exeter throughout the 20th century, either as a consequence of war or as the result of deliberate demolition, and its effect on the city's historical landscape has been disastrous. Comparing the photograph below with the watercolour at the top of this post, both from the same perspective, illustrates better than any words the sort of losses that Exeter has incurred over the course of the 20th century.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It just makes me cry to see the beautiful city of Exeter so ruthlessly destroyed and rebuilt in such a dreadful way - all in the name of commerce!

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