Monday, 5 December 2011

No. 210, High Street: An Exeter Curiosity

The image left shows part of a rare albumen print of Exeter's High Street from c186
5. The photograph is one of the very few surviving visual records of a number of buildings which were replaced over the course of the 1880s. One of these buildings was No. 210 High Street, highlighted in red. Had it escaped demolition No. 210 would've become one of the most recognisable sights in the city, a magnet for any tourist wanting a photograph of something unique and memorable. Only the passing of centuries could throw up something so peculiar.

The property was located on the corner of the High Street with Goldsmith Street. The entrance into Goldsmith Street is traceable in the print by the curving of the curbs stones at the base of No. 210. To the left of No. 210, separated by the narrow entrance into Goldsmith Street itself, is No. 207 High Street showing its original facade before the property was demolished in the late-1970s. To the right of No. 210 are the mid-17th century pair of townhouses at Nos. 211 and 212. The late-Elizabethan portico of the Guildhall is just shown to the far left.

What made No. 210 remarkable was its relationship with the church of Allhallows. The church also sat on the corner of the High Street and Goldsmith Street and had been in existence since at least 1222. As Exeter's population increased throughout the Middle Ages and into 16th and 17th centuries building space within the city walls became more scarce. A location on the High Street, Exeter's most prestigious residential and commercial area, was an added bonus. It was probably for these reasons that No. 210 was constructed literally over the top of the chancel of Allhallows, almost enveloping the entire east end of the little medieval church.

The drawing by James Crocker c1879 right shows the extraordinary extent of the building's encroachment over the chancel of the church. Only the east window and part of the slope of the chancel roof are visible. The rest has been engulfed by No. 210, only a small part of which is actually resting on its own footprint. Crocker's drawing shows a small door to the left of the east window. Perhaps it was used to access the exterior of the church. Another view of No. 210 by George Townsend © Devon County Council is shown below left.

The story of No. 210 High Street begins during the reign of James I. In 1618 the Exeter Corporation (the 17th century equivalent of the city council) granted to Nicholas Duck, Robert Vilvaine and 13 other parishioners in the parish of Allhallows a newly-built shop with rooms above for a period 36 years. Both this shop and another one had belonged to a goldsmith called Peter Shapley and were rented out to the parishioners for 8 shillings a-year. As James Crocker rightly says in his 1886 publication 'Old Exeter', the "precise date of the encroachment over the Chancel is not known, and the fact of its being permitted is still more mysterious".

The house was four storeys high and only one room deep, but the shop on the ground floor was tiny, measuring just 8ft wide by about 6ft deep. Each of the floors jettied out over the other and the top floor must've been comparatively roomy. There was an entrance from the High Street with a side entrance in Goldsmith Street. The Crocker illustration even shows a chimney stack in the roof which must've only served the upper floor.

The image below right is a detail from John Abbot's 1797 painting of the High Street. It shows No. 210 from the opposite view compared with the 1870s albumen print top, the Guildhall visible to the left. Some freshly washed laundry can be seen strung on a line between No. 210 and its neighbour. At the time Abbot painted his picture No. 210 was the premises of Mr Newton, a chemist or pharmacist. One of Newton's apprentices was Matthew Wood, later Sir Matthew Wood, who became twice Lord Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament for the City of London in 1817. One of his sons was selected by Gladstone to become Lord Chancellor.

The building remained in use as a pharmacy when George Huggins took over from Newton, a function it fulfilled until George Huggins' death in 1876 at the age of 78. The demise of its owner was to foreshadow the demise of the building itself. The city council had long been eager to demolish the church of Allhallows as part of a road-widening scheme in Goldsmith Street. The church, and the ancient house which had grown over the top, were seen as a major obstruction.

In 1878 the house came up for sale and was sold at an auction held at the Globe Inn for £900 to Mr E Knapman. Just six months later the house was bought under a compulsory purchase order by the city council for £1500! An Act of Parliament was necessary before the council could force the issue of the removal of the church with the Cathedral's Dean and Chapter. At a council meeting in November 1879 discussion turned to the demolition of No. 210. One member advocated that no steps be taken to remove the old house as the outcome of the road-widening scheme was still uncertain. The city surveyor replied that "there was no difficulty in the way of pulling down the house, and the repairs which would be needed to the church would not cost more than £25". He added, to much laughter, that the house was in a state of disrepair anyway and that even if it hadn't belonged to the council then notice would've been served on the owner to either repair it or have it demolished. The meeting closed with agreement that the house be "pulled down". The house was demolished a few days later and so ended the history of one of Exeter's most unusual sights.

During another council meeting at the beginning of December 1879 one councillor remarked that "now the corner house was down it seemed that the council had paid a very large sum for so small a property". To the great annoyance of the city council, the Dean and Chapter refused to play ball and refused to consent to the demolition of the church! Someone complained that the "council pulled down Mr Huggins' house, and the site has remained open ever since, but unpaved and unsightly". The site was used as a pull-in for carts on busy market days.

As ever, the city council's determination to demolish a building that it had set its sights upon eventually came to fruition and Allhallows was indeed demolished in 1906.

All of the properties in the vicinity now only date to the 1970s. The photograph left shows the entrance into Goldsmith Street today. The postcard below shows the view into Goldsmith Street from the High Street c1900, after the removal of No. 210. The chancel of Allhallows sees daylight for the first time since the beginning of the 17th century. The east window was replaced and re-centered in the east wall following the demolition of No. 210. Unfortunately nothing in the photograph still exists today. The two 17th century houses to the right of the church were demolished c1910. The brick buildings to the far right were demolished in the 1970s, and as we've seen, the church itself came down in 1906.



Anonymous said...

Did you know that inside H Samuel shop are remnants of the old house??

wolfpaw said...

Hi - Is that not the H Samuel in the Guildhall Shopping Centre? It has the remains of a late-16th century townhouse embedded within it:

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