Saturday, 23 March 2013

Magdalen House: Nos. 39 & 40 Magdalen Street

Magdalen House at Nos. 39 & 40 Magdalen Street was another pointless casualty of the post-war inner bypass at South Gate. The property was built at the beginning of the 18th century for Dr Micheal Lee Dicker. Dicker was born at Exeter in 1683. In 1717 left Exeter to spend a year working with the eminent physician Herman Boerhaave at Leiden in The Netherlands. Upon his return to Exeter he set up a practice and, in 1741, was one of the founding physicians of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. According to George Oliver writing in 1821, "the doctor was a Quaker, and the smart house in Magdalen Street which he built for himself was his residence". Norman Penny commented in 1929 that Dicker had "resided in a large and handsome house erected by himself and still standing in Magdalen Street".The house is highlighted in red in the 1960 photograph of Magdalen Street above © Express & Echo.

Michael Dicker married in 1727 and it's likely that the house was constructed at the same time. It was a fairly early example of a large brick-built residence in Exeter, although surviving photographs show that it had a coat of white stucco covering the brick.

The house was built on three storeys, its facade divided into five bays and capped with a classical pediment. Beneath the pediment a richly decorated entablature ran across the entire face of the building. According to Jacqueline Warren in 'Aspects of Exeter', "the facade of Magdalen House was remarkable. The dentil band and ovolo decoration of its pediment, the shells, acanthus leaves and urns of its frieze made it unique in Exeter". The five bays of the house were divided 1-3-1 by four fluted pilasters capped with Corinthian capitals, one at each corner and one under each corner of the pediment.

Michael Dicker died in 1752, bequeathing a fine three-quarter length portrait of himself by Devon-born artist Thomas Hudson to the hospital. The portrait, above right © Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital, still hangs in the board room of the old hospital in Southernhay. The interior of the house was partially remodelled in the early 19th century when a large extension was added at the back. Soon after 1868 the house was sold and unfortunately divided into two separate properties, Nos. 39 & 40 Magdalen Street. The ground floor rooms were converted into shops and the property stayed like this until its destruction. At the time of its demolition in 1977 the house still contained a number of important historical features e.g. a fine Regency staircase lit from above by a glass cupola and panelling in the hallway from when the house was first built.

Magdalen House was of sufficient importance that it was among the first wave of buildings in Exeter to be listed, receiving Grade II listed status on 29 January 1953 (many others weren't listed until 1974 or later). Although threatened by the inner bypass the property didn't actually impede the creation of the road system at all. The bypass was essentially finished before the building was destroyed.

The aerial view left shows the location of the property highlighted in red. As can be seen, the modern pavement follows almost the exact same line as the one depicted on the 1905 Ordnance Survey map of Exeter. There was absolutely no reason why most of the entire row of historically interesting properties on the north side of Magdalen Street between South Street and the entrance into Southernhay couldn't have been retained. (The 1659 mansion of John Matthew at Nos. 44-46 was scandalously destroyed at the same time.) Trinity Street, which ran behind Magdalen House next to the city wall, was also cleared of all its remaining properties. According to Jacqueline Warrren, after 1974 Magdalen House "seemed safe, and it has never really been made clear why it was not properly looked after; why it was demolished instead of restored".

Whatever the reason, it is sadly typical of the sort of mindset that has predominated across England since the beginning of the 20th century. Change is, of course, inevitable, but before the 20th century change in Exeter had been a piecemeal process, with single buildings usually replacing other single buildings.

When large-scale developments did take place, as in Southernhay at the end of the 18th century, they usually took place on undeveloped land leaving the centre of the city relatively free from mass development (one notable exception was the creation of the Higher Market and Lower Market in the 1830s). It was this gradual evolution over a period of nearly 1000 years that characterised the city's landscape at the end of the 19th century. As far as its impact on Exeter's historical impact is concerned the Exeter Blitz of 1942 was clearly a disaster, but it is a huge mistake to view the Blitz in isolation without taking into account the pre-war slum clearances, the destructive nature of the post-war reconstruction, and the massive post-war redevelopment that took place for the Guildhall Shopping Centre, the flood prevention scheme and the inner bypass in the 1960s and 1970s, all of which were under the direct control of the local authority. It is little surprise that only around 25% of the inner city's pre-1900 buildings have remained standing.


1 comment:

Michael D said...

Cannot think he was any relation, my family are from Chagford.
Bu t who knows.
Michael Dicker , Torquay

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