Friday, 17 February 2012

The Destruction of Sun Street

As far as I know not a single photograph or illustration exists which shows Sun Street prior to the destruction of its buildings in 1942. The image left is a detail from Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter. The accuracy of the individual houses is questionable but at least it gives some idea of the character of the street c1800. The properties which fronted onto Sun Street are highlighted in red. The continuation into Preston Street is at the top and the exit into South Street is at the bottom.

In reality Sun Street was little more than an extension of Preston Street. It exited into South Street at a point almost opposite Bear Street. Like Preston Street, Sun Street was probably late Anglo-Saxon in origin. The two streets formed a long route up into the city centre from West Street and the early industrial district beyond the city walls on Exe Island. At some point the upper 270ft (80m) of Preston Street became known as a named route in its own right and Sun Street was born. A deed of 1566 relating to Grendon's Almshouses refers to Sun Street as 'Bellewtere Gate' and Benjamin Donn's 1765 map of Exeter shows that Sun Street was formerly called Billiter Lane.

Hoskins wrote that "the meaning of Billiter is uncertain but it may derive from billet, "a note" - hence "writers' lane", where the medieval scriveners congregated". I wonder if there wasn't another source for the unusual name. 'Belyetere' is a Middle English word for a bell founder. Excavations between 1977 and 1978 at Mermaid Yard, almost at the conjunction between Preston Street and Sun Street, uncovered a waste dump including fragmentary clay-loam moulds in which bells were cast in the late medieval period. No structural evidence was found but it's possible that it was the site of Robert Norton's bell foundry. Norton was made a freeman of the city of Exeter in 1423 and he was still manufacturing bells in the 1440s. One of them hangs in the bell turret at the little church of St Pancras in the Guildhall Shopping Centre.

By the 1830s 'Billiter Lane' had largely given way to 'Sun Street'. On the north side of Sun Street stood the Sun Inn, from which the street derived its new name. According to Hoskins the Sun Inn had been in existence since the 1690s although an advertisement from 1855 claimed that there had only been a successful business on the site since c1810. The inn had a bar, bar parlour, tap room, kitchen, club room, drawing room, five bedrooms and a large cellar. A very narrow passageway led down the side of the inn into Guinea Street. The image right shows a detail from 1905 map of Exeter overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. The Sun Inn was the largest plot fronting onto the street, the passageway running north to Guinea Street clearly visible on the 1905 plan.

The Sun Inn was the site of an early attempt to establish a trade union in Exeter. According to Hoskins again, on 15 January 1834 two men from London planned to hold a secret meeting at the Sun Inn. Around sixty Exeter workers, mostly bricklayers and masons, assembled at the inn where they were spied upon by a policeman who had bored a hole through a partition wall. Once the ceremony initiating new members had begun, the policeman ran to the Guildhall and alerted the rest of the police force. They descended en masse to the Sun Inn and, after much shoving against bolted doors, eventually arrested forty men. They were taken to the Guildhall where the mayor and an alderman were waiting for them. Eventually all but 15 were released and the rest were bound over and set free, a noticeable difference in comparison with the fate of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who, just seven years previously, had been deported to Australia for committing a similar 'crime'.

The detail from a postcard c1900 left is the closest I've seen to anything depicting Sun Street. It actually shows the view looking down South Street but the entrance into Sun Street can be glimpsed disappearing off to the right. It appears that the corner property was removed in the 19th century perhaps to widen the entrance into Sun Street. The 1876 Ordnance Survey map clearly reveals that at least one of the corner plot buildings had been demolished. In the postcard view this plot is occupied by a single-storey shop adjacent to its jettied timber-framed neighbour.

With no surviving photographs, illustrations, archaeological reports or descriptions of its buildings, it is impossible to say what was lost when the entire street was destroyed during the bombing raid of 04 May 1942. The Sun Inn had ceased to be a public house by 1917 although the building itself survived until 1942, but absence of evidence shouldn't be taken as evidence of absence. The more one reads about pre-war Exeter the more apparent it becomes that vast amounts of the medieval and early post-medieval city survived into the 20th century, often buried beneath later alterations. The Black Lions Inn on South Street, whose yard was formerly accessed via Sun Street, is one such example. A Georgian house from 1754 which stood behind houses on Sun Street is another. It was built upon medieval cellars and yet nothing is known about it as it too was destroyed in 1942 before it could be recorded.

Like George Street, Milk Street and part of Guinea Street, the route of Sun Street was obliterated during the reconstruction of the area in the 1950s. There is now no indication above ground that the street ever existed. The photograph below shows South Street today. The entrance into Sun Street is somewhere beneath one of the shops to the far left.


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