Tuesday, 26 June 2012

George's Meeting, South Street

George's Meeting on South Street left is a real cracker. It has survived both the Exeter Blitz and post-war reconstruction and is now one of Exeter's Grade I listed buildings. Only 2.5% of all listed buildings in England fall into this category, reserved for structures of exceptional interest.

George's Meeting was built as a Unitarian chapel in 1760, the year in which George III acceded to the throne. According to Allan Brockett, "it was named George's Chapel in remembrance of the benefits that English Protestantism, and the Dissenters in particular, had gained from the Hannoverian Succession". The south west of Britain has a long history of Nonconformism. Dissenting congregations i.e. those who had broken away from the established Church of England, were only able to worship freely without fear of interference in their own meeting houses following the Declaration of Indulgence in 1687 and the Toleration Act of 1689. One of the first of these meeting houses was James's Meeting, named after King James II, built by the Exeter Presbyterians in 1687. It was located in James Street, a narrow street almost opposite George's Meeting and close to the South Gate. (The original James's Meeting of 1687 was converted into houses in 1760 and survived until it was demolished by the city council in the 1960s.)

Two other early Dissenting meeting houses emerged in Exeter at the end of the 17th century. One was the Bow Meeting, probably located in Smythen Street within the parish of St John's Bow on Fore Street. The other was Little Meeting located in Waterbeer Street. James's Meeting, Bow Meeting and Little Meeting were collectively known as the Three United Congregations of Presbyterian Protestant Dissenters.

George's Meeting in South Street was constructed as a replacement for the earlier James's Meeting. In the words of Hugh Mellor, the new meeting house was "built on a scale unsurpassed by any other [Dissenting] chapel in the south west". Funds for the new building were raised partly through the sale of both the old James's Meeting house in James Street and the Little Meeting house in Waterbeer Street. £400 was borrowed from a fund and the rest was raised through subscription, paid for by members of a congregation described as "large and genteel" by Jenkins in 1806. Some of those who donated money were members of the Kennaway family, one of Exeter's wealthiest families by the end of the 18th century. (John Kennaway was raised to the Baronetcy of Hyderabad in the East Indies by George III in 1791. The family still live on their 18th century estate at Escot, some 12 miles from Exeter.) Allan Brockett has surmised that the total amount available for building George's Meeting was around £2500 to £3000.

The building was never intended to be seen as it appears today. Prior to the 1960s George's Meeting was set back from South Street, surrounded by other properties which hemmed it in on either side.

The aerial view left shows George's Meeting highlighted in purple. Bomb damage from 1942 is highlighted in red. The area affected by post-war redevelopment is highlighted in yellow. The adjacent buildings were demolished in the late 1950s for road-widening leaving George's Meeting exposed on all sides. Today the structure looks like a huge barn, pierced on the sides with arched windows. Only the neo-Classical front was originally designed for public display.

The meeting house is built from the beautiful locally-fired, burnt-red bricks that were once a common sight throughout the Georgian city (e.g. at Bedford Circus, Dix's Field and Southernhay West). The restrained street frontage has a number of neo-Classical details e.g. the pedimented porch supported on a pair of stone Tuscan columns, the brackets supporting the arched windows, the rendered quoins at each corner and the modillion cornice which runs along the roof line with a high curved parapet above. The parapet serves to disguise the large hipped roof from street level. (When the New Theatre was constructed in Bedford Street in 1787 it took a form that was similar to George's Meeting in South Street, including the red-brick walls, hipped roof, distinctive curved parapet, etc. The New Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1820.)

Pevsner and Cherry described the interior of George's Meeting as "sombre and magnificent". There are three galleries supported by square, fluted, Ionic piers right c1960 © Devon County Council. The west gallery includes a late 17th century clock, but the highlight is probably the enormous pulpit, carved with drapery, transferred from the original James's Meeting in James Street. In 1767 there were plans for a new mahogany pulpit but nothing seems to have come of this. Allan Brockett believed it was unlikely that any replacement would've equalled the one recycled from the old meeting house anyway. A vestry was added at the rear in 1781 and the ceiling was lowered by 3ft in 1809 to improve the acoustics, but the building has remained essentially unchanged since the middle of the 18th century.

It is astonishing that the city's post-war townplanner, Thomas Sharp, regarded the meeting house as disposable, recommending its demolition as part of the redevelopment of Exeter following World War Two. If George's Meeting hadn't been set back from the street in 1760 it would probably have been demolished for road-widening. Fortunately the local authority rejected Sharp's proposal and George's Meeting received listed building status in 1953.

The meeting house fell into disuse in 1983 and is now a Weatherspoons pub. The bar has been constructed underneath the full length of one of the galleries. It's a pity that such an important building couldn't have been used as a venue, retaining the original space, but all of the historical fittings have been left intact, including the pulpit, and at least the building is being maintained. Its situation at the end of South Street, surrounded by post-war redevelopment and close to the city's inner ring road, means that George's Meeting probably doesn't get the full attention it deserves.


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