Friday, 17 February 2012

Grendon's Almshouses, Preston Street

Also known as the Ten Cells, Grendon's Almshouses stood in Preston Street from the beginning of the 15th century until they were demolished in 1879. Simon Grendon was a thrice mayor of Exeter, in 1395, 1398 and 1405. In c1400 he endowed a complex of ten houses for use by the poor in the parish of St Mary Major. The site chosen for the almshouses was in Preston Street, one of the main routes through Exeter's West Quarter. Perhaps remembered chiefly today as a notorious 19th century slum, the West Quarter was the mercantile hub of the city throughout the Middle Ages and early post-Medieval period.

Grendon gave his new almshouses the income from a field called Culverlands in the parish of St Sidwell. According to Izacke, Culverlands was located close to Scarlet's Cross, an ancient stone cross which formerly stood at the junction of Old Tiverton Road, Union Road and Mount Pleasant Road. The deed relating to the almshouses and the land is now lost but it was claimed to date to 1406. A number of other Exeter citizens endowed the almshouses in the subsequent centuries. In 1556 Alice Heath endowed the almshouses with land in East and West Teignmouth; William Herne, the parson at St Petrock's, arranged for the 12 pensioners to receive a penny per week in 1562; and in 1563 William Bucknam, a former mayor, gave the almshouses part ownership of the Bear Inn nearby in South Street. These are just three examples of many.

The almshouses appear on Benjamin Donn's 1765 map of Exeter as the "10 Cells". The ubiquitous Jenkins described the almshouses in 1806: "These houses are not built quadrangular, as most of our ancient buildings of this kind are, but in a direct line; each house having an upper and under room, with a small garden behind; they are kept in good repair, and in front they have a plain portico, or gallery, flagged with purbeck stone, which runs the whole length of the building, and makes a dry and comfortable communication of the aged inhabitants with each other". According to Richard Izacke, by 1674 the almshouses were "much decayed" and this was the year when Robert Lant gave £100 towards their rebuilding. Whether they were totally rebuilt or merely refurbished is unknown. It seems more likely that the walls were retained but roofs and windows replaced. The covered walkway which ran across the entire length of the ground floor elevation probably dated to the late-17th century works.

Fortunately a few depictions of the building survive. One is shown at the top of this post. It's a detail from Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter. Hedgeland's modelling of the almshouses is accurate and includes the little dormer windows in the roof, the pentice roof over the covered walkway and the small gardens stretching out behind each house. A pencil sketch above right © Devon County Council also shows the almshouses and gives a clearer view of the covered walkway. A similar walkway can still be seen on the very fine granite-built almshouses at Moretonhampstead in Devon.

The almshouses only appear rarely in the 19th century editions of the local newspaper, the 'Exeter Flying Post', but in March 1856 it was reported that "a deformed man, named Corsey, was charged with stealing a quantity of lead from the roof of one of the ten cells at Preston-Street". In the 1870s it was decided to demolish the almshouses completely and relocate the residents to new buildings far beyond the city walls at Grendon Road which runs between Heavitree Road and Polsloe Road. The ancient buildings came down in 1879 and in November the following year it was reported that "the site of the old Ten Cells Almshouses sold for £390, the late occupants (females) occupying the new ones built in Grendon Road, Heavitree".

On the site of the almshouses and gardens were built two opposing terraces of six houses, shown on the aerial view above left highlighted in purple. These are still known as Grendon Buildings. Dating to 1880, it is worth remembering that these twelve unremarkable small houses right are amongst the oldest standing structures in Exeter's entire West Quarter. Exeter's post-war town planner, Thomas Sharp, regarded them as 'outworn' and recommended their removal. The area suffered limited damage during the Exeter Blitz of 1942 but was systematically cleared of nearly all of its historically interesting properties through deliberate demolition in the immediate pre-war and post-war period. The last surviving 16th century building in Preston Street (a Grade II listed building at No. 15) was demolished in the 1970s.

The new almshouses on Grendon Road below were designed by Robert Best and built by Sharland. They are now Grade II listed buildings. Constructed from purple volcanic trap, Best's almshouses are extremely attractive examples of Victorian Tudor Revival architecture and are still known as Grendon's Almshouses. Adjacent to the Grendon Almshouses on Grendon Road are the Atwill Almshouses. The style is almost identical although the Atwill Almshouses were built from red Heavitree breccia and weren't completed until 1892. Nothing remains of the original almshouses on Preston Street.


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