Waterbeer Street, left c1905, is one of the oldest streets in Exeter. It runs parallel with the High Street, joining North Street to what was once Goldsmith Street. There is evidence that it formed part of the Roman civitas, possibly dating to the very early years of the town's formation between c70AD and 80AD. A large number of Roman finds, especially coins, have been unearthed in the street over the last two hundred years as well as several large fragments of tessellated pavements.
The modern name of the street is mentioned as early as 1253 when it appears on a deed as 'Waterberestrete' and again in 1327 as 'Waterber Strete'. According to most commentators the name is occupational, like Goldsmith Street, Preston Street, Smythen Street and Milk Street, and probably means 'the street of the water bearers'. Clean water was a valuable commodity in the Middle Ages and many people would've relied upon water sourced from wells and springs within the city walls. Fresh water wasn't piped into the city through the underground passages until c1200, and even then it was initially only for the use of the cathedral clergy and, from 1226, the monks at St Nicholas's Priory.
For citizens without access to a private well the water sellers would've walked the streets of Exeter selling water from jugs carried on their back. If they congregated or lived in Waterbeer Street then that would explain the origins of the name. An alternative theory was suggested by Robert Dymond at the end of the 19th century. Dymond thought the name could refer to the ecclesiastical office of the 'bearer of Holy Water' although I think this is far-fetched. The image right shows part of the 1587 Braun and Hogenburg map of Exeter. The houses on Waterbeer Street are highlighted in red.
Exeter's first purpose-built theatre opened on Waterbeer Street on 30 December 1734, although plays had been performed in the city since the Middle Ages (e.g. the mayor and chamber are known to have attended a play at the Dominican Friary near Bedford Street in 1409.) The new theatre is named on Donn's 1765 map of Exeter and appears to have been set back from the street and accessed through a passageway between properties on Waterbeer Street itself. It was located on the same site as the big flower bed now opposite the back of the Guildhall.
Baring-Gould tells a story that following a visit to the city by the Methodist preacher, John Wesley, in 1743 "the local comedians were prosecuted as vagrants and forced to give up their theatre in Waterbeer Street". The temporary closure of the theatre was probably the result of issues relating to the Licensing Act of 1737. Either way, the Methodists appear to have rented the building temporarily, using it as a chapel until the actors resumed occupation. The theatre continued in use until 1787. The presence of the theatre led to Waterbeer Street being called Theatre Lane until the theatre closed, at which point the street reverted back to its old name.
The image left shows a detail from Caleb Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter now in the city museum. All of the houses which fronted onto Waterbeer Street are highlighted in red. St Kerrian's church on North Street, rendered and whitewashed and with a little bell turret on the roof, is visible at the bottom. The bulk of the Guildhall is visible at the top, the rear part of the hall set back from Waterbeer Street itself.
One particularly intriguing building is described by Jenkins in 1806: "In Waterbeer-street...lately stood a very ancient building; it originally consisted of three semicircular arches, supporting an angular front, with an arched window in the centre: those arches or gateways led into a spacious hall, which (according to tradition) was the Praetorium or town-hall; while some respectable antiquarians judge it to be the remains of a religious edifice". The praetorium was a sort of governor's house found in cities and towns across the Roman Empire which could also function as a court house. The building on Waterbeer Street was also believed to be the architectural forerunner of Exeter's Guildhall, which has been on the High Street since at least 1160. It was probably neither the Saxon/early-Norman Guildhall or the Romans' Praetorium so what exactly was it?
Two depictions of this building survive. One was drawn by Jenkins himself and shows the southern gable end, above right. The other appears on Hedgeland's model left, shown as a hall-like structure with two arched windows in the north wall. Jenkins dismissed the idea of the structure being a church as there were "no remains of a vaulted roof" or any of those "grotesque embellishments so common in the religious edifices of our Saxon ancestors". According to Jenkins, the 18th century antiquarian Andrew Ducarel supported the theory that the building had a religious function and was "the first stone building erected in this city". This was also almost certainly incorrect too. The building was demolished in 1803, being "of a very ruinous state", and replaced with Kingdon's iron foundry. (Later known as Garton & King, foundry buildings of some sort remained on the site until they were demolished in 1963.)
Some parts of the building were exposed during the demolition. Jenkins recorded that "the back part appeared to be designed for a prison, under which were strong stone walls, surrounding a square vault, (in which were a privy and sewer) probably a dungeon." Several Roman coins were discovered and a silver groat from the reign of Henry VIII. Unfortunately nothing else is known about the building. It was presumably genuinely ancient and the round arches mentioned by Jenkins could've placed the building in the 11th or 12th centuries. It's true date and function will probably remain a mystery. Jenkins also describes "a large ancient roomy house", which was attached to the mystery building, and which was used as a boys' charity school.
Much of the north side of the street was widened between 1876 and 1905 resulting in the loss of most the older properties on that side. One major late Victorian development was the construction of a new police headquarters complete with cells and courts left. In 1887 houses on Waterbeer Street and in Pancras Lane were demolished to provide a site for the new buildings. The police station was sited almost opposite the rear entrance of the Guildhall, the same location occupied by the theatre 150 years earlier. As the foundations were being dug three large fragments of tessellated pavement decorted with a geometric design were unearthed about 2ft below the surface level. The fragments were lifted and relaid in the foyer of the police station along with a plan showing where they had been found.
Aileen Fox thought that this pavement was the same one recorded by the antiquarian William Stukeley in 1723, described by him as "a great Roman pavement of little white square stones". The pavement was probably a corridor mosaic installed in the private house of a Roman citizen. The new police station was an attractive structure in its own right. Constructed from red brick with dressed stone windows and door surrounds, its most distinctive feature was a large turret with a tall conical tile-hung roof which projected out from the corner of the building at the junction between Waterbeer Street and Pancras Lane. The turret had three tall traceried windows with a series of quatrefoils running beneath the roof line. The building cost £5000. Peter Thursby's 1977 bronze sculpture 'Looking Forward' right marks the site of the police station today.
Until the post-war period the south side of the street still contained an almost unbroken line of historically interesting buildings, most of which were timber-framed and dated to c1700 or earlier. Those which survive include: No. 14, now the Devon Camera Centre. Dating to the 17th century it has a hipped gable roof and a 19th century shop front. Nos. 15 and 16 is a three storey red-brick warehouse from c1800. Next to this is the rear of the Guildhall. This part of the Guildhall dates to 1838 and was built as a replacement for two cells used as a female prison since 1558. On the first floor is a jury room lined with 17th century panelling taken from St Katherine's Priory at Polsloe. Adajcent to the back of the Guildhall is what was formerly the rear of the Turk's Head on the High Street. Then there are Nos. 17a, 18 and 19. Each has a gable of a different size and it's likely that the core of these buildings are much older than the facades suggest. All of the buildings are Grade II listed and are shown in the photograph below.
The street's late 19th century appearance remained little changed until the post-war period. This part of the city, including most of North Street, Waterbeer Street, Pancras Lane, Goldsmith Street, Queen Street and Paul Street survived the Exeter Blitz of 1942 completely unscathed. The Waterbeer Street police headquarters closed in 1959 when the city police moved to new premises in Heavitree. (The new police building was on the site of William Hooper's Higher Summerlands, a row of 11 large red-brick townhouses from c1804. All but one of these fine houses was damaged or destroyed in 1942 and the sole survivor was demolished in the 1950s). The police station and court rooms in Waterbeer Street was demolished soon afterwards. The Roman tessellated pavement in the foyer was lifted again and transferred to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum where it was erroneously identified as a fake by one of the curators and subsequently destroyed.
As mentioned above, the foundry was demolished in 1963 and between 1972 and 1976, many of the remaining buildings on Waterbeer Street was bulldozed to create the Guildhall Shopping Centre.
The image right shows a detail from the 1905 map of Exeter overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. Nearly all of the plots highlighted in red were demolished between 1960 and 1976 and none of them survive today leaving just a quarter of the pre-war street intact. All of the standing buildings on the north side, most of which were Victorian, were demolished and over half of the south side was also demolished.
This included the loss of at least four buildings of some antiquity. No. 21 Waterbeer Street was a Grade II listed property built on four floors. Cased in brick it was of timber-framed construction and probably dated to c1700 or earlier. The south end of the building fronted onto the High Street as No. 198 High Street. No. 21 Waterbeer Street was granted listed status in 1974 but was demolished soon after.
To the right of No. 21 was No. 22 Waterbeer Street. It too was timber-framed with a hipped gable roof and also dated to c1700 or earlier. This formed part of No. 197 High Street. The Ordnance Survey map of 1951 shows that both No. 197 and No. 198 were two long medieval burgage plots probably created in the 15th century by the subdivision of a larger single tenement plot. Hoskins wrote about these two properties in his 1960 book 'Two Thousand Years in Exeter'. They were both part of a quirk in the parish boundary line of St Martin's church which saw the parish boundary leap across the High Street to include Nos. 197 and 198 High Street. According to Hoskins, the tenement plots of Nos. 197 and 198 High Street, "both of which extend back into Waterbeer Street" and which were "two adjoining properties", had been "in St Martin's parish for nearly 750 years". Like its neighbour at No. 21, No. 22 Waterbeer Street was demolished.
No. 23 Waterbeer Street was also built on four floors with a slate gable roof. It had a stucco facade inset into which were Georgian sash windows. It too dated to c1700 or earlier and was associated with the same burgage plot on which stood the remnants of the late 16th century townhouse at No. 196 High Street. No. 196 High Street was demolished, along with Nos. 21, 22 and 23 Waterbeer Street partly to create a pedestrianised entrance into the shopping precinct from the High Street. The building at the back of No 195 High Street which also contained 16th century elements was demolished at the same time.
The photograph above shows the north side of Waterbeer Street today. The police station stood to the far right of the image, beyond the end of the red brick wall. Another building razed to the ground c1974 was No. 20 Waterbeer Street, an attractive two storey brick-faced property with a stone string course dating to c1800, possibly hiding an older core. Snell's Buildings, a small terrace of 10 little houses at a right angle to Waterbeer Street and accessed through a covered passageway were also destroyed. The former New Market Inn on the corner of Goldsmith Street and Waterbeer Street dating to c1800 or earlier was another casualty, along with nearly every building on Goldsmith Street itself.
Bizarrely, these buildings were all destroyed without any archaeological record being made so it's now almost impossible to say exactly what was lost. Only 25% of the Waterbeer Street buildings shown on the 1951 Ordnance Survey map of Exeter still survive today. The photograph right shows the view into Waterbeer Street from its junction with North Street.
It's an ugly story, particularly in light of the destruction already wrought on other parts of the city by the slum clearances and the 1942 air-raid. Even uglier was the red-brick expanse of the shopping centre which took the place of the demolished buildings. In the words of Pevsner and Cherry, the precinct is "a crushing disappointment" full of "banal commercial building" in which the surviving medieval church of St Pancras makes "a pathetic and inappropriate centrepiece" now "deprived of its homely and historic setting of small streets". But compared with the shopping centre's impact on North Street and Paul Street, described as both "disastrous" and "catastrophic", the area around St Pancras church and in Waterbeer Street seems positively Arcadian.
There is little reminder today that Waterbeer Street was even once a separate street in its own right. The impression now is of a small group of surviving historical properties staring out onto an open public space tacked onto which is a pedestrian passageway with completely modern commercial structures on either side. The city council's own 2002 conservation report included the rebuilt Nos. 21, 22 and 23 Waterbeer Street and the whole of the Guildhall Shopping Centre as some of the buildings which "make a negative contribution" to the area but nearly 40 years later and the entire precinct now seems relatively subtle in comparison to the overbearing redevelopment of Princesshay.