Friday, 30 December 2011

"Two Antique Buildings" and the South Street Baptist Chapel, South Street

According to W. G. Hoskins, the Baptist congregation in South Street was founded in 1652. The chapel was still located in South Street in 1806 when Jenkins described what he called "the Anabaptist Meeting House" as being "very commodious, and frequented by a large and genteel congregation". The chapel which Jenkins saw was "neatly seated" with "large galleries" and was "kept in good repair". The one drawback was "its situation behind the houses, which intercepts any exterior view".

The drawing left © Devon County Council shows the same houses which precluded Jenkins from getting a good look at the meeting house. To the far left can be seen an arched entrance, with 'Baptist Chapel' written on the arch. This entrance led down a narrow, covered passageway to the chapel itself, which was completely hemmed in on all sides by other properties. The exact nature of this early chapel remains unknown, although Hedgeland's model below gives some indications. In 1822 it was reported that the chapel had been closed because it was structurally unsound and a report of its condition contradicts Jenkins' assessment that the building was in "good repair". In the early 1790s the south wall collapsed, following which four ribs had to be placed inside to prevent the roof falling down. In 1814 "long, substantial props were passed through the adjoining houses, as buttresses", and in the autumn of 1822 nine other props were added "to preserve the neighbourhood from destruction"!

Rocque's 1744 map of Exeter right shows the constricted location of the chapel, highlighted in red. The narrow passageway from South Street is clearly visible. The section of South Street running outside the passageway is called 'The Large Market', a reference to the cloth market which had been relocated to South Street in the mid-17th century. Bear Lane was the site of one of the late-13th century gates into the Cathedral precinct. The Bear inn, shown just to the north of the chapel, was formerly the town residence of the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey until the Reformation, and in the bottom right corner of the map can be seen the quadrangular layout of the sprawling medieval house which belonged to the Archdeacons of Exeter.

Plans for a new Baptist chapel had been made as early as 1814 but it wasn't until 1823 that a new building arose on the same site of its much-propped forerunner. (A second Baptist chapel had been constructed in Bartholomew Street West in 1817, where it can still be seen today). The new chapel in South Street was a large red-brick building in a simple late-Georgian style but it was still completely obscured by the two old houses in front of it. These houses were part of an endowment and belonged to the chapel anyway, one of the rooms being used by the chapel as a vestry. By the mid-1850s portions of both houses were being let, one to Mr Dare, a greengrocer, and the other to Mr Mayo, a butcher, and in 1855 the properties were sold at auction, presumably for very little as the intention was to demolish them both completely. Fortunately two reports in the 'Exeter Flying Post' document the demolition and hint at the architectural and historical losses incurred.

(The image left shows a detail from Caleb Hedgeland's wooden model of the city which he completed in 1824. The model was based on how the city appeared in 1769, and although it's not completely accurate the overall layout is surprisingly precise. The barn-like Baptist chapel is to the right. In front of it are the backs of the two houses in South Street. Both chapel and houses are highlighted in red.)

The first report is dated 03 May 1855 and begins "We are happy to see that the two antique buildings in front of the Baptist Chapel, South Street, are in the course of demolition." The "quaint style of the old houses...excited more than ordinary interest and the street was "visited by several well-known antiquaries, who took hasty sketches of this relic of the good old times". It's difficult to know if the property was originally a single large house or, as is perhaps more likely, built as a matching pair. (The closest thing like it surviving in Exeter today are the pair of houses at Nos. 41 & 42 High Street.) Combining the information from both newspaper reports it is possible to piece together something of the houses' long history. During the demolition a testoon, or shilling, from the reign of Edward VI was discovered. Stylistically the houses could've been constructed in the 1550s or 1560s, the coin then lost soon after they were built. Each house was constructed on three floors and almost certainly had a cellar. In each house the ground floor room fronting onto South Street was probably used as a shop with a large hall on the first floor lit by a fine 10-light oriel window. The bed chambers would've been on the top floor. It's possible that there was a further block of accommodation housing the kitchen and other rooms behind but this might've been replaced by the first incarnation of the Baptist chapel.

There is evidence that the houses were enriched at several periods with some spectacular interior decoration. The second newspaper report refers to the buildings as being "richly stuccoed", probably a reference to plasterwork ceilings, the "patterns of stucco" being "rich and curious and of every variety of arabesque". Contained within the houses was "a great quantity of wainscot of the napkin or drapery [i.e. linenfold] and the mask and lion's head patterns". One room in particular, "supposed to have been the banqueting room of a wealthy woollen merchant", was particularly fine.

Something of the truly exceptional quality of the workmanship contained within the houses can be seen in the two images right and below. They show oak pilasters and sections of panelling carved in the Renaissance style with Classical capitals, cherubs and lion heads, the shafts of the pilasters festooned with great swirls of interlacing vines and foliage. Dating to c1600, the pilasters and panelling were ripped out of an unknown house in Exeter and ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Probably carved on the continent, the opulence of the pilasters and the frieze are particularly remarkable. Although they probably didn't originate from the houses in South Street they do give some indication of the high-calibre decoration inside the houses. (Bampfylde House and No. 229 High Street were just two other properties in Exeter which contained similar interiors. Given the wealth of some of the city's merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries, there would've been many others). When the rooms in South Street were broken up in 1855 John Gendall, an Exeter artist with antiquarian interests who was living at No. 10 Cathedral Close, purchased "many beautiful and elaborate specimens of the carved and wainscot panels, diversified with acanthus, lion's heads and arabesques". Gendall paid £12 12s for the panels when they were auctioned.

There were several other features of great interest. In the room used as the vestry was a representation of the Royal coat of arms of James I along with the date 1621. One of the newspaper articles repeated a tradition that James I had once stayed in one of the houses although unfortunately he never actually visited the city! Some people at the time believed that the date of 1621 recorded the commencement of the houses' construction, although if true the houses would've perhaps had more lavish external decoration, such as appeared at Nos. 19 & 20 North Street or Nos 78 & 79 Fore Street. The date might simply have recorded the year in which the coat of arms was installed. Over a fireplace in the same house was another "neat tablet", adorned with scrolls, upon which were the initials T.T and S.T above the date 1627. The second newspaper article suggests that these were the initials of Thomas Tooker (or Tucker) and his wife, Sarah or Susan. Thomas Tooker was a Sheriff of Exeter in 1638, his father executed at Heavitree in 1611 for having murdered his mother. The year 1627 could commemorate a marriage or a further enrichment of the property, but it's probably not the year when the house was completed as the 'Exeter Flying Post' believed.

The demolition of the "delapidated and dangerous" houses revealed numerous other forgotten items including a sixpence from the reign of James I and numerous 17th century trading tokens, one of which came from Nuremberg. The salvageable remains of the interiors were auctioned off and the site was cleared. The Commissioners for Improvement contributed £20 to the clearance and a written agreement was made with the Baptist chapel that the houses were not to be rebuilt. The site has largely remained empty ever since. The chapel was modified in 1875 and a five-sided extension was added which intruded slightly upon the old plots of the two houses.

The chapel narrowly escaped destruction in the Baedeker Blitz of 04 May 1942 but the replacement in the post-war period of the 1870s Gothic arched entrance with the current plain brick one is regrettable. The Baptist chapel today is a Grade II listed building. The image above right shows a 21st century aerial view of the area overlaid onto which is the street plan from 1905. The approximate site of the two "antique houses" is highlighted in red behind which is the original extent of the 1823 Baptist chapel, marked as 'Ch." The photograph below shows the Baptist chapel at street level with its five-sided extension from 1875. Set back from the road, it's easy to see the empty site of the two old houses, now used as a parking lot.


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