Monday, 18 June 2012

A Brief History of South Street

The photograph left shows half of the west side of South Street looking up towards the High Street at the end of the 19th century. The entrance into Coombe Street is to the far left. A narrow passageway underneath one of the buildings in the foreground led to Paragon House, a large, brick-built property of c1700 constructed around a medieval core. Many of the buildings shown dated to the 17th and 18th centuries and not a single one still survives today.

Given its current underwhelming appearance, it's hard to believe that South Street was for centuries the ceremonial entrance into Exeter and the location of some of the city's most important historical structures. Many of Exeter's wealthiest medieval, Tudor and Stuart citizens had private houses in South Street and it was the site of three medieval parish churches. Here could also be found the prestigious townhouses of the Priors of Plympton Priory and the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey. The 14th century kitchen and refectory of the College of the Vicars Choral also backed onto the street and, perhaps above all else, it was the site of the great South Gate, with its two enormous drum towers, described by Hoskins as "one of the most impressive things of its kind in England" through which passed many of the kings of England. The fact that almost none of these buildings has made it into the 21st century illustrates the magnitude of the losses.

The photograph right shows the east side of South Street from the same vantage point as the photograph above. The houses in the immediate foreground appear to date from c1700 or earlier. Of all the properties shown, only one survives today: the house built by Robert Russell in c1800 on part of the site of the Bear inn. Just the blank side wall of this property is visible in the photograph, about halfway up near the solitary dark figure in the road, just beyond the awning which stretches over the pavement.

The modern line of South Street doesn't follow its Roman predecessor. In the 2nd century AD, South Street ran slightly further to the west than it does today, skirting around the forum which occupied a large site in the centre of the city. Little is known about the development of Exeter in the four centuries following the end of the Roman administration but it seems likely that by the end of the 9th century the current line of South Street was established as a more direct route to North Street and the North Gate on the opposite side of the city. This would make South Street part of Alfred the Great's grid-like street plan that was laid out c880 AD. (Other late Saxon streets included Catherine Street, Goldsmith Street and Gandy Street.) Before 1942, George Street, Guinea Street, Sun Street, Coombe Street and James Street all had entrances into South Street from the west, from which it was possible to access the streets and passageways of the sprawling West Quarter.

The Roman South Gate that punctured the city wall at the end of South Street was modified by the Saxons before being remodelled in the 11th century and again between 1410 and 1420, when it achieved its vast late-medieval dimensions. (It's believed that the South Gate's Saxon archway survived all the later rebuildings until the entire structure was tragically demolished in 1819.) Just inside the city wall and adajcent to the South Gate was Holy Trinity church, possibly founded in the 11th century. The early 15th century structure (shown left c1800) was demolished at the same time as the South Gate itself and replaced with the mediocre building which stands near the site today. Further up, on the corner of South Street and Palace Gate, stood the short-lived church of St James. It was in existence by the end of the 12th century but its parish was merged with that of Holy Trinity and the church isn't heard of again after 1384. (Even today, beneath the post-war buildings, the ground is thick with the human remains of Exeter's medieval citizens close to the former site of the church.) St George's church was a Saxon foundation and stood on the corner of South Street and George Street. Although most of the medieval building was demolished for road-widening in 1843, part of the Saxon church was revealed following the blitz of 1942. Only a small part was salvaged before the rest collapsed.

No. 100 South Street was also the site of one of the most remarkable private houses in Tudor Exeter, known as King John's Tavern. The connection between the property and that particular monarch is obscure, and almost certainly fanciful, but the house itself dated to c1500. It stood opposite Little Stile, what is now the wide, post-war entrance into the Cathedral Yard at the top of South Street. The property was renowned for its opulent interior which included rich plasterwork ceilings with pendant mouldings, elaborately panelled rooms and a circular staircase, described in the early 19th century as "singularly beautiful" right.

The jettied upper floors of the exterior were supported on carved corbels decorated with "human and diabolic forms" and the entrance porch was supported on large grotesque figures carved from oak. 15ft of frontage was removed in 1835 and the rest of the property was demolished later in the 19th century. The more spectacular carvings as well as the panelling were salvaged during the demolition and were purchased by the travel writer, Richard Ford, to adorn his property in Heavitree. Constructed around an Elizabethan farmhouse, Heavitree House was transformed by Ford into a Gothic-Moorish fantasy, reflecting his interest in the Iberian peninsula. It's no surprise that Heavitree House was demolished by the city council in 1949 but the fate of the carvings from King John's Tavern remains unknown.

King John's Tavern was just one of many inns that once existed on South Street. As well as the Bear inn and the Black Lions inn, there was the the Black Horse, the Seahorse, the Mitre, the Grape, the White Hart (which still exists), the Lamb and the Bell, to name just a few. The Bell tavern was a particularly early recorded example and is mentioned in documents from 1447 to 1449. Apart from the White Hart, not a trace remains of any of them. Something of the street's general architectural character in the 16th and 17th centuries can be seen in No. 67 South Steet and in the two timber-framed houses which were demolished in 1855 to allow the rebuilding of the Baptist Chapel. A vivid description of South Street in its late medieval heyday can be found in the introduction of Ian Mortimer's book 'The Time-traveller's Guide to Medieval England'.

One curiosity about South Street is that for centuries it was called something else! From the Middle Ages into the 19th century each part of the street had its own separate name. The stretch extending from the corner with the High Street as far as Little Stile was called Cook Row, perhaps a reference to stalls that once sold food to passers-by. From Little Stile to Bear Street was known as Bell Hill Street. A lease of 1453 uses the name Bolehyllestrete and this must've been where the almost contemporary Bell tavern was located. From Bear Lane to the South Gate was called Southgate Street. These names were still being used well into the 1800s.

In 1660 the city's serge market was moved from the site of the cathedral's demolished cloisters to South Street. (Robert Lesyngham's late 14th century cloisters had been pulled down in 1656 following the English Civil War and the disbanding of the Dean and Chapter. An open cloth hall was built in place of the cloisters. Part of this mid-17th century hall still survives today.) Serge is simply a type of woven woollen cloth, the export of which made Exeter one of the richest cities in England until the trade collapsed following the Napoleonic Wars. The South Street serge market appears on Rocque's 1744 map of Exeter. Simply called 'The Large Market' it is shown occupying most of the area of Bell Hill. Donn's 1765 map, detail above left, explicitly labels the area outside the Bear inn as the 'Serge Market'. The market was held every Friday. Celia Fiennes visited Exeter in 1698 and described a "large market house set on stone pillars which runs a great length" upon which the packs of serges were laid. The street would've been heaving with people, full of noise and colour and packed with the city's citizens, merchants from all across Europe and people who had just come to see the spectacle. In 1727 Defoe described the South Street serge market as second only to Leeds as "the greatest in England".

In 1799 South Street became the location for one of the city's major water conduits. The magnificent Great Conduit, fed from natural springs via the city's underground passages, had stood near the Carfax (i.e. the crossroads at the junction of South Street, North Street, Fore Street and the High Street) since 1461. Described by Jenkins as a "very beautiful edifice", the Great Conduit was demolished and moved close to a house near the entrance into North Street in 1770. This was in turn removed in 1799 and a completely new conduit was built up against the rear wall of the refectory of the Vicars Choral in South Street above right.

The South Street conduit was the prime water source for anyone living in the overcrowded West Quarter. Thomas Shapter, who documented the city's cholera epidemic of 1832, recalled that "The conduit, situated in South Street, yielded a tolerably copious and constant stream to those, who waited with their long brown earthen-ware pitchers for their turn at the cock whence it was delivered." Writing some 50 years later, James Cossins recalled that "the supply at times was so limited that it would take half an hour to fill a bucket or pitcher". It wasn't uncommon to see thirty or forty people waiting anything up to three or four hours to fill their pitchers or buckets. Fights and broken pitchers were sometimes the result when the conduit, fed from the natural springs at Lyon's Holt near Sidwell Street, ran dry in the summer.

(The photograph right was taken c1890 from a point about halfway down South Street looking south towards the city walls. The entrance into Sun Street is just visible to the right. The then newly-built Catholic church, on the site of the townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock, is to the left.)

The South Street conduit, and the resulting crowd of users, proved to be an impediment to passing traffic and in 1835 the conduit was moved to Milk Street, next to Charles Fowler's Lower Market. The new conduit was marked by a stone obelisk which remained until it was damaged by bombs in 1942 and subsequently cleared away. The stone balls on top of the South Street structure were moved following its demolition and relocated to the top of the tower of the church of St Mary Arches, where they can still be seen today. Cossins also left a description of South Street as it appeared in the 1830s: "The conduit then extended some eight feet from the wall of the College Hall" and Bell Hill was so narrow, and the jettied floors of the ancient properties oversailed the street so much, that "the upper parts of some of the houses were just within shaking hands distance".

These must've been ancient houses indeed which had gradually been extended out into the carriageway over many centuries. It was said that a portion of Bell Hill was so constricted that it wasn't possible for two coaches to pass each other. On 29 March 1829 it was announced that "the Commissioners of Improvement in this city have it in contemplation to widen South Street and abate the declivity of Bell Hill by removing the houses near the conduit". Some of these houses can be seen in the background behind the conduit in the illustration shown above.

Unlike North Street, which was widened in its entirety, only parts of South Street suffered the same fate. In 1830 many of the houses projecting out into the street were removed, or their depth was reduced and new frontages were added. In 1915 Ethel Lega-Weekes examined the properties on South Street that extended from the corner of Bear Street up as far as the College of the Vicars Choral at Kalendarhay. She reported that although the facades were 19th century the backs of the houses all contained much older material. She called them "spliced houses", part 19th century and part medieval, the rear walls forming the ancient boundary between the city and the church precinct. When these properties were destroyed in 1942 the thick stone walls at the back were left standing (although they were subsequently demolished).

Unfortunately, even before 1942, much of street's historical character had already been eroded. The South Gate and Holy Trinity church had been removed in 1819. (The medieval entrance into South Street via the South Gate is shown in the image above right. The three timber-framed houses to the left of the gatehouse were built following the English Civil War and survived until their demolition in the 1960s for the construction of the inner bypass.) St George's church followed in 1843.

The former townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey was partly rebuilt c1800 but was totally demolished in the mid-1880s and replaced with the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart. At least part of the former townhouse of the Priors of Pympton Priory remained as the Black Lions inn until it was destroyed by fire in 1873. Substantial medieval walls and windows survived the fire and were incorporated into the new building. (The 12th century stone capital shown above left was retrieved from inside the fire-damaged building.) The former medieval kitchen of the College of the Vicars Choral had also assumed the name of the Bear inn. The ancient structure was demolished in 1871 although Lega-Weekes claimed that parts of the old kitchen could still be seen in the cellars of the rebuilt premises. The south-east corner of South Street and Palace Gate was rebuilt in 1876, resulting in the demolition of several timber-framed properties. In 1912 oak panelling dating to the late 16th century was being levered from the walls at No. 3 South Street, probably prior to being installed at the neo-Tudor Gateacre Grange on the outskirts of Liverpool.

Despite the gradual modernisation of the facades in South Street, it's certain that many of the properties concealed much older cores. Alterations to No. 96 South Street in 1921 exposed timber-framing and very thick stone firewalls. The innocuous-looking house on the corner of South Street and Bear Lane concealed the remnants of a large 14th century stone tower. Until the 20th century, these "spliced houses" were common throughout Exeter, the ancient fabric hidden beneath later additions. If you scratched the surface then the past was everywhere, and South Street was no different.

The Destruction of South Street in 1942

South Street was badly affected during the Exeter Blitz of 04 May 1942, one of the so-called Baedeker Raids launched by Nazi Germany against some of England's most historic and picturesque cities. According to one eyewitness, D. P. Beckett, by the time the bombers left the city at around 2.50am, "South Street was impassable above Guinea Street owing to large fires on both sides". The prevailing wind was from the north-west causing the fires to spread down from the top of South Street, igniting one property after another. Beckett continued: "it became obvious that the firemen were unable to prevent the flames from spreading, particularly in South Street where, owing to the inflammable nature of the premises (all lathe and plaster) the fires were creeping upwards against the wind. After a building had been on fire for a few minutes, the beams would give and it would burst asunder, the entire structure collapsing like a pack of cards amidst a shower of sparks, leaving just a big heap of embers right across the street".

The photograph above right © Express & Echo shows the upper half of South Street soon after the Exeter Blitz. The ruins of the dining hall of the Vicars Choral can be seen in the centre. The aerial view left shows pre-war South Street running diagonally from top left to bottom right. Of all of the buildings visible only those highlighted in purple still survive today. The rest have disappeared either as a consequence of 1942 or following the construction of the inner bypass in the 1960s. The photograph illustrates the densely built-up nature of the pre-war city centre.

Over sixty properties fronting onto South Street were completely destroyed during the air-raid. Approximately twelve were demolished for road-widening during the post-war reconstruction and just fourteen pre-war buildings now exist today. The two main architectural casualties were the medieval refectory of the Vicars Choral and Paragon House, but it's impossible to say what else was lost as nearly all of the buildings were destroyed without any record made of their construction or history. (Paragon House itself, one of Exeter's loveliest buildings, is only known from a handful of surviving drawings and a couple of snapshots.) The Church of the Sacred Heart was only saved because Bear Street and the thick stone walls of the Bear Tower acted as a firebreak. The presence of Coombe Street helped prevent the fires spreading as far as the White Hart inn. Strangely enough, according to Thomas Sharp's colour-coded map of the damage, the timber-framed house of c1700 which stood on the north-west corner of Coombe Street and South Street survived even though its neighbour, of a similar construction, perished. Unfortunately the former property must've been demolished during the rebuilding. (This property is visible to the extreme left in the photograph at the top of this post.)

The drawing right © Devon County Council by George Townsend shows the picturesque north-east corner of South Street and Palace Gate in 1890, looking up towards the gatehouse of the Bishop's Palace in Palace Gate. This was the location of the church dedicated to St James which disappeared in the 14th century. The timber-framed property on the corner probably dated to the last half of the 17th century and survived the blitz unscathed. The late Georgian building, half of which is shown to the far left in Townsend's drawing, was damaged during the air-raid. Aerial photographs reveal that both the timber-framed property and the remains of the brick house were still standing in the mid 1950s. Thomas Sharp, Exeter's post-war townplanner, recommended the restoration of the damaged building, thereby reinstating a row of characteristic pre-war buildings stretching from the corner of Palace Gate to Bear Street. Instead, the corner properties were all demolished for road-widening in 1956.

The image left shows a modern aerial view of South Street combined with a pre-war street plan of the city. Based on Sharp's own map, the war-damaged sites are highlighted in red. Sites highlighted in yellow represent buildings that were demolished by the local authority during post-war redevelopment.

The 14th century Bear Tower and the medieval ruins of the townhouse of the Priors of Plympton, revealed for the first time since the fire of 1873, were swept away during post-war reconstruction as were several other surviving houses of a 17th century type. During the rebuilding of South Street the decision was taken to double the width of the pre-war carriageway. What were formerly narrow pavements, as can still be found in Fore Street, were extended to 15ft on both sides and the new shops were set back from the frontage line of their predecessors. The medieval street plan of Sun Street, George Street and Guinea Street was obliterated and a new, very wide entrance into Market Street from South Street was constructed, almost on the site of Paragon House.

The post-war architecture which replaced the destroyed buildings probably speaks for itself. It came from the desk of the city council's in-house architects and Hugh Mellor was being overly kind when he described it as 'drab'. Although they were designed to free up views of the nearby cathedral, several of the single-storey shacks are shockingly poor. (Pevsner and Cherry describe them as "mean, low shops".) Perhaps the grossest error of judgement came in the 1960s with the construction of Concord House (above, as seen from the inner bypass). It's hard to imagine a less appropriate building for its location and it dwarfs all the other post-war structures. The council's own conservation report calls the post-war structures "mediocre" and "nondescript" but quite rightly adds that later developments, including Concord House, "are worse". Having widened the street so drastically after the war to cater for wider pavements, more traffic and on-street parking, the city council has recently made South Street a one-way road.

The destruction of so much of South Street's architectural heritage in 1942 combined with the poor replacement architecture, the removal of the ancient street plan and the widening of the thoroughfare itself has resulted in the complete loss of the street's historical character. It has frankly been a total disaster. A few fragments do remain. On the east side, the Church of the Sacred Heart and the Grade I listed Unitarian George's Meeting of 1760 can still be seen left. The west side contains Nos. 58 to 68, a small collection of pre-war survivors all of which are Grade II listed below. These include the White Hart inn, built around the core of what was probably William Wynard's 15th century townhouse, and No. 67 South Street, a fine 17th century timber-framed property with important internal features. There are also several other buildings in this group, most of which are late Georgian with brick or stucco facades. It's perhaps symptomatic of the general post-war mentality that Thomas Sharp regarded the entire group as expendable and advocated their removal. Fortunately this plan was never carried through, although the properties are now isolated between Concord House and the post-war rebuilding of South Street on one side and the convergence of ten lanes of traffic at the site of the old South Gate on the other.

Views of modern South Street are shown below.



Jacky Hughes said...

Cuthbertson's the Baker and Confectioner was at 57 South Street in the 1800's. What a shame as it looks like it just missed being preserved an listed. (Elizabeth Cuthbertson married into my family.) When a fire demolished the coach works her husband was safe as visiting his father in law and the next day her brother who actually worked for the coach works narrowly missed death when masonry fell on him. (Sorry probably that should go on a post you do about the fire if you have not already.)

wp said...

As usual the biggest destruction in Exeter has been the Exeter City Council.
Some of the destruction and replacement is nothing short of criminal. The penchant for council banality is not confined to Exeter but is a sterility that infects many historic towns throughout England. Acres of housing estates where "Grott is Good" prevail. Nowhere else in the world can this be matched....
Why is it that a lack of aesthetic and creativity is a prerequisite for the post of any council official.

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