At South Gate the destruction of nearly all the historical structures in the area was a result of the inner bypass, a post-war ring road that now carves its way from the top of Sidwell Street, past South Gate, through the West Quarter and on towards Cowick Street and Alphington Street on the opposite side of the river. The scale of the destruction was immense as literally hundreds of pre-war townhouses, shops, courtyards, tenements, gardens and warehouses were bulldozed out of existence and replaced with what is now a multi-lane carriageway.
Edwardian Exe Bridge, Alphington Street and Cowick Street fared little better.
What made the destruction at South Gate particularly unfortunate was its historical importance to the development of the city and the architectural significance of some of its buildings. Following the Exeter Blitz of 1942 it remained one of the Exeter's last intact historical cityscapes and a large number of the buildings dated to the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. The photograph above shows the view into Magdalen Street from the bottom of South Street in 1960 © Express & Echo. Nearly all of the houses shown dated from between c1659 and c1720, some with later mid 19th century facades. The photograph below shows the same view today.
South Street, Holloway Street and Magdalen Street where they met outside the great South Gate, itself demolished in 1819. The earliest artifact ever found in the city was recovered at Magdalen Street: a 250,000 year-old flint hand axe. The top of Holloway Street was the site of a Roman legionary cremation cemetery in the 1st centry AD and the Roman road between Topsham and Exeter terminated here. Now a small, picturesque town some four miles from Exeter, Topsham was the Second Augustan Legion's supply base. This route still exists, divided into Topsham Road and Holloway Street. Used by thousands of people every day, it runs in a characteristically straight line between Exeter and Topsham.
East Gate but it's likely that it forked before reaching the city walls with a spur running along Magdalen Road, Magdalen Street and into Exeter at the South Gate. The fork in the road is still present where Heavitree Road splits at what is now Livery Dole.
The image above attempts to show how the Roman roads converged on Exeter in the 3rd century AD. The perimeter of the Roman city walls is highlighted in red. The Exeter-Topsham service road used by the Second Augustan Legion cAD60 is highlighted in orange. The main Roman road from Exeter to Dorchester, ending at the East Gate (2), is highlighted in purple. The spur that forked at what is now Livery Dole (3), which comprised Magdalen Road and Magdalen Street, and which terminated at the South Gate (1) is highlighted in yellow. Except where it was destroyed outside the South Gate in the 1960s and 1970s, and where Paris Street was rerouted following post-war reconstruction, the road plan has remained essentially unchanged.
Another ancient route that led into the area outside the South Gate was Quay Lane, used for hundreds of years to bring goods up into the city from the Quay. Built over the city's in-filled defensive ditch, Quay Lane was lined with small houses that backed onto the city wall, the variety and charm of its townscape the product of centuries of gradual evolution. In c1300 the Greyfriars of Exeter moved their friary from its site at Bartholomew Street inside the city to a large area outside the city walls just south of Holloway Street. Dissolved during the Reformation, some of the friary buildings survived until they were demolished during the English Civil War. The houses on Quay Lane were built within the precinct of the old friary and two roads south of Holloway Street are still known today as Friars Walk and Friars Gate.
In the autumn of 1645, during the English Civil War, the city's Royalist defenders deliberately razed around 80 houses on the south side of Exeter to clear the ground outside the South Gate and to have an improved field of view for cannon and muskets. Most of the houses outside the city walls in the South Gate area, including many in Magdalen Street and Holloway Street, were affected. In his book, 'Two Thousand Years in Exeter', published in 1960 before the 20th century demolition of the area began, Hoskins wrote that "there are a number of gabled houses of late seventeenth-century date in Magdalen Street and Holloway Street. These houses are those that were built again after the war was over to replace those that had been destroyed."
Benjamin Donn's 1765 map of the city left clearly shows Magdalen Street, Holloway Street and Quay Lane as they converge at the South Gate. It also shows that by the mid 18th century the area had recovered from the damage inflicted during the English Civil War. The evocative drawing below © Exeter City Council by Richard Parker appears on an information panel associated with the site of the South Gate. The drawing shows the junction of South Street, Magdalen Street and Holloway Street c1800. Magdalen House, with a classical pediment at roof level, can be seen on the far right.
Exeter historian Jacqueline Warren left a vivid description of one small part of Magdalen Street prior to its demolition: "Another of these Jacobean houses had a cobbled passage to a court from which a flight of stone steps led to the front doors of two dwellings. This was Bowden's Place, and in its happy, simple design, it had incredible charm. Beyond the first court, and past a fine, early nineteenth century iron gate was another little courtyard where a hefty sandstone buttress held the lower portion of a slate-hung house. The narrow cob-wall passage of one of the houses led to an alley from which could be seen the slightly sagging ridges of original slate roofs. Eventually, through this enchanting maze, one coud reach Holloway Street". Following the pre-war slum clearances, the bomb damage of 1942 and the destructive post-war reconstruction, the post-English Civil War houses around Southgate were some of the oldest domestic buildings still standing in Exeter outside of the Cathedral Close.
The image left shows the 1905 Ordnance Survey map of Exeter overlaid onto an aerial view of the same area today with the following numbering: 1 Site of the South Gate, 2 Quay Lane, 3 Magdalen House, 4 42-46 Magdalen Street, 5 The Valiant Solider Inn, 6 Magdalen Street, 7 Holloway Street, 8 Nos. 71-73 Holloway Street, 9 Site of Franciscan Friary. The route of the city wall is highlighted in purple. The buildings destroyed as a direct consequence of the inner bypass, well over 200 in total, are highlighted in red. Quay Lane was completely demolished, even though the bypass ran nowhere near it, as was most of Magdalen Street. Holloway Street was similarly decimated.
The pre-war aerial view right shows Holloway Street in the foreground running up to the former site of the South Gate (marked with a red arrow) and merging almost without a break into South Street. It shows how densely built-up the area was at the beginning of the 20th century. The majority of the buildings north of the red arrow were destroyed in pre-war slum clearances or during World War Two. The majority of the buildings south of the red arrow were destroyed during the creation of the inner bypass.
The inner bypass was initiated as early as 1949. It was designed to intercept heavy traffic arriving at Exeter from the east and bypass it across the river. In 1950 work began on surveying the proposed route between the top of Sidwell Street and Exe Bridge. Construction didn't commence at Belmont Park near Sidwell Street until 1953 and by 1960 the bypass had reached as far as Magdalen Bridge. 1962 saw the demolition of the Valiant Soldier inn and work started on continuing the bypass from Holloway Street to Exe Bridge. By 1965 the bypass was complete but work continued on creating a gyratory road system near to the old West of England Eye Infirmary. The last demolitions didn't take place at South Gate until 1977 by which time the road system achieved its present form.
The photograph above shows the view across the junction of Magdalen Street and Holloway Street in the 1940s. The three gabled houses to the right from c1680 are the same ones visible in the early 19th century depiction of the South Gate but with slightly altered facades. The very narrorw entrance into Quay Lane was to the left of the left-hand house.
In his book 'Conservation Today', published in 1989, David Pearce discusses the implementation of so-called Dangerous Structures Notices used by English city councils in the 1960s and 1970s to get rid of inconveniently sited old buildings: "Council-owned, council-neglected then council-condemned was all too frequently the fate of listed structures impeding redevelopment". The idea was that the local authority would purchase a building, willfully neglect it and then issue a DNS on the structure when it was deemed either structurally unsafe or unfit for habitation. As Pearce says, "Exeter swept away splendid seventeenth century merchants' houses as if vying with Bristol to disfigure itself". The photograph below © Express & Echo shows Magdalen Street in the early 1960s when demolition had started in Holloway Street (in the background). The Valiant Soldier inn had already been bulldozed.
Pearce continues: "A building does not need to be neglected for many years before grounds can be discovered for declaring it unsafe, or at the very least unfit for habitation. A classic case occurred in 1977 in Exeter where the city council condemned and destroyed seventeenth and eighteenth century listed houses in Magdalen Street, containing particularly rare plasterwork, which it had originally bought (and then neglected) in connection with what even the local newspaper called 'megolomaniac' traffic schemes". (Another property that suffered the same fate was Whipton Barton, a large 17th century farmhouse in Whipton village. The history of the site dated back to the Domesday survey. Whipton Barton was purchased by the city council in the 1950s, left to fall into disrepair and, despite being a listed building, was demolished in the early 1960s. A block of flats, known as Rennes House, was built on the site.)
The photograph above shows Nos. 42-46 Magdalen Street in 1975. Purchased by the city council they were allowed to rot before being demolished. The late Georgian facade of Nos. 44-46 concealed the mid 17th century brick mansion of John Matthew, a fact that was only discovered when the property was being demolished.
The specific buildings mentioned by David Pearce were Magdalen House and Nos. 42-46 Magdalen Street, all of which were Grade II listed structures. (Magdalen House was listed in 1953. Nos. 42-46 Magdalen Street were listed in 1974. They were all demolished just three years later.) It is shocking to realise that these particular buildings, on the north side of Magdalen Street, did not impede in any way the new road system. The current pavement is on the same alignment as it was before the creation of the inner bypass and where the houses once stood is just a big patch of grass in front of the modern Southgate hotel.
Eastgate during the post-war reconstruction). The houses in Quay Lane, another area that had little to do with the creation of the inner bypass, were also destroyed. The photograph above shows the large section of the city wall that was demolished to accomodate the inner bypass, now spanned by a pedestrian footbridge. The photograph below shows the view towards the Magdalen Street-Holloway Street junction today.
The loss of life caused by the Exeter Blitz shouldn't be forgotten but it seems strange that so much emphasis is placed on the physical damage wrought upon the city by German bombers in 1942 when the majority of the architectural losses over the course of the 20th century have been entirely self-inflicted.
Even some of those buildings which now survive, feted as important parts of the city's architectural heritage, only escaped through the post-war endeavors of protestors. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s the city council actively campaigned for the total demolition of the Higher Market in Queen Street, the late Regency houses in Bartholomew West, and the 16th and 17th century houses at No. 226 and No. 227 High Street. (The Higher Market was partially demolished anyway and Nos. 226 and 227 only exist today as shallow facades, their ground floors completely gutted.)
There are of course instances of the post-war city council salvaging historical buildings e.g. the remaining fragment of old Larkbeare House further down Holloway Street, the much-publicised 'House That Moved' (moved to the edge of the inner bypass) or, more recently, the restoration of Cricklepit Mill, but the extent of the demolition that took place around Exeter following World War Two is quite at odds with the museum's bold claim. It was only exceptional conservation cases that were considered to be of any importance. Although the general background noise of lesser streets and perhaps lesser buildings provided context, coherence and visual proof of organic development over centuries it was, unfortunately, regarded as expendable.
The other issue is the poor architecture that was built in the South Gate area following the creation of the road system. These squat blocks of flats have no redeeming features other than their lack of verticality (although at least if you're in it you don't have to look at it.) Like so much of Exeter's post-war architecture, they wouldn't appear out of place on an industrial estate. What was once the great historical approach into the city is today a barren wasteland of roads, junctions, roundabouts and traffic lights.