Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Destruction of the High Street Before 1942

"The city wears the marks of its history proudly; and the High Street has an aspect of antiquity without rival in the West. It ranks indeed among the most picturesque thoroughfares not merely in Devon, but in the is a paradise for the antiquary."

'Tourist's Guide to Devonshire' 1880

The image above is an albumen print from c1875. It is one of the earliest surviving photographs of Exeter's High Street, almost contemporary with the quote from the 'Tourist's Guide to Devonshire'. Almost none of the buildings shown still exist today. The most prominent exceptions are The Guildhall, its crumbling and blackened portico shown prior to later restoration of the stonework, and, to the far left, the lower floors of the Turk's Head inn. From this perspective at least, the High Street looks almost unchanged from the 17th century. The photo below shows the same view c1910. As can be seen, the High Street's "aspect of antiquity" was already vanishing.

For much of Exeter's history the High Street was the city's oldest, widest and most prestigious street. But today, apart from a handful of notable exceptions, very little of historical interest survives above ground.

So what happened to this "most picturesque" of thoroughfares? Clearly the Exeter Blitz played a major role as approximately 50% of the High Street was destroyed during a single bombing raid in 1942. Of the remaining 50% around half, including a number of listed buildings, was demolished between 1950 and 1980 by Exeter City Council for redevelopment.

The High Street on the eve of World War II was the product of centuries of architectural evolution. Much has been written about the damage inflicted upon Exeter during World War Two and it's tempting to write about the effect of the Exeter Blitz on the High Street in isolation (the buildings right were indeed destroyed in 1942). But in terms of the architectural losses at least, the bombing of the High Street must be considered as part of a more general history of destruction and demolition which started long before the outbreak of war. To understand what was lost it's perhaps necessary to understand what was there before.

From the 19th century onwards a theory has been put forward that the High Street is on the same alignment as a prehistoric ridgeway. This ridgeway is said to have run from over the high land of Stoke Hill, down Old Tiverton Road, through Sidwell Street and along the High Street to a large settlement overlooking the River Exe at a point close to where Bartholomew Street West is today.

It's a great theory and perfectly plausible but as far as I know there's no direct archaeological evidence for it. There were people living on the site of Exeter before the Second Augustan Legion arrived cAD55. An Iron Age round house was unearthed during the construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre in the 1970s, and in 2002 a small Iron Age farmstead was excavated at Southernhay. Unfortunately these scattered remains aren't enough to conclude that the site was a major prehistoric tribal centre or that it was connected to a ridgeway along the course of the High Street.

The street plan of the Roman town that evolved out of the legionary fortress cAD75 seems to have been largely replaced when Alfred the Great refounded Exeter at the end of the 9th century.

Nearly all of the streets within the city walls are either Saxon or later. But the High Street is one of the very few streets in Exeter that probably does have a Roman origin. It's believed to have evolved at the same as the Roman civitas of Isca Dumnoniorum and was the main Roman road through the settlement. Again, any direct archaeological evidence for the metalling of the Roman High Street seems to have been destroyed by the installation of underground water conduits in the Middle Ages and by the insertion of sewers and modern utility pipes.

The 1765 map above left is by Benjamin Donn. It shows the old city surrounded by the city walls. The extent of the modern High Street is highlighted in red. The surviving stretches of the grid-like Anglo-Saxon street plan are highlighted in purple. It's easy to see how the High Street and Fore Street form one major thoroughfare travelling through the city for east to west with smaller streets extending away from it. Donn labels the main thoroughfare "Fore Street or High Street". The names are often used interchangeably in earlier documents but everything mentioned in this post refers to the extent of the High Street as we know it today.

The image right is a detail showing the High Street from Hogenberg's 1587 map of Exeter. The East Gate is at the top. Below The Guildhall, depicted before it acquired its portico, is Broadgate with the Broad Gate leading into the cathedral precinct. The tower of St Petrock's is almost obscured by houses. At the very end of the street, standing in the centre of the road, is the Great Conduit where the High Street met North Street, South Street and Fore Street.

By the beginning of the 11th century Exeter was about the sixth richest settlement in late Saxon England and by the close of the same century it was a cathedral city. Chapels and churches had sprung up all across the city. During the medieval period there were a large number of chapels on the High Street. St Petrock's Church, still standing, is close to the corner of the High Street and South Street. The Guildhall, which has been in the High Street since at least the 12th century, had a chapel dedicated to St George, demolished when the portico was added in 1593. A little further up, on the corner of the High Street and Goldsmith Street, was Allhallows Church. On the south side of the High Street is St Stephen's Church. On the north side and closer to the East Gate was St Lawrence's Church (severely damaged in 1942 and later demolished). A chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew was probably located in an upper chamber of the East Gate itself. Next to it, from c1200 onwards, was the medieval hospital dedicated to St John, later St John's Hospital School, which also had its own chapel. At the west end of the street stood the Great Conduit, a colossal pinnacled Gothic water conduit built in 1441 and demolished in 1770.

As might be expected, there were numerous inns and taverns in the High Street. The 15th century New Inn next to St Stephen's Church was one of the largest medieval inns in Exeter. There was also the Green Dragon almost opposite St Lawrence's Church, the Swan near St Martin's Lane, as well as the Phoenix, the Rose & Crown and the Eagle. Prior to the East Gate's demolition, the Salutation was located in the gatehouse's huge drum towers.

Until the 18th century the High Street was also the home to many of Exeter's wealthiest citizens. A few of their houses still exist to show what much of the High Street would've looked like in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries e.g. Nos. 41 & 42 High Street left and No. 46 High Street below right. Dating to c1520, No. 46 is the oldest surviving domestic building on the High Street. In 1695 Celia Fiennes thought the High Street was comparable with any street in London and when the antiquarian William Stukeley visited Exeter in 1727 he observed that the High Street was "a street full of shops well furnished". Markets were held in the High Street until the creation of the Higher Market and Lower Market in the 1830s.

The poet Robert Southey stayed at Exeter in 1797 and left a vivid description of the city. "Exeter is ancient", he claimed, "and stinks. One great street runs through the city from east to west; the rest consists of dirty lanes". The "great street" was the High Street, including Fore Street. Southey's dismissal of the rest being "dirty lanes" is probably fairly accurate. In the words of Hoskins, "for centuries the High Street had been the only street of any consequence". This might be overstating it a little but it's hard to imagine now what Exeter must've been like before the middle of the 19th century. The city's other main streets, South Street and North Street, were much narrower than they are today. Curling away from the main routes was a network of even narrower streets, like Catherine Street, Gandy Street and Paul Street, or Preston Street, Smythen Street and Stepcote Hill in the West Quarter.

Areas of dense housing were connected by a tortuous network of passageways and alleyways. Musgrave's Alley and King's Alley, both destroyed in 1942, were two that led directly off the High Street. Further down the street were Lamb Alley and Exchange Lane, both leading into the Cathedral Close, as well as Bussel Lane and Parliament Street, leading into Waterbeer Street to the north. The fact that few of these streets and byways had a flagstone road surface meant that they probably really were just "dirty lanes". The High Street would've seemed exceptionally spacious in comparison with nearly every other thoroughfare in the city.

The painting by John Abbot White above dates to 1797 and shows a market taking place in the High Street. The artist must've been leaning out of the first floor window of No. 45 High Street to get this view (the decorative cornice of No. 46 is visible to the far left). It's a fascinating snapshot of what the High Street looked like at the end of the 18th century. A large number of oversailing houses from the 16th and 17th centuries are still evident. It's even possible to trace a little of the history of many of them, even though much has now been demolished. To the far right is No. 211 High Street, one of a pair of 17th century houses. Next to it is No. 210, built over the chancel of Allhallows Church. Then there's the narrow entrance into Goldsmith Street and what is now the site of 'Millets' on the corner. Some of the houses do still exist almost unchanged since Abbot White painted them, such as No. 200 High Street with a semi-circular window set high into the gable end. Fortunately The Guildhall is still standing.

The image below shows a detail from Hedgeland's model of the city as it appeared in 1769. This was townscape familiar to Southey. The image shows just one half of the High Street. The Great Conduit is on the far right almost blocking the entrance into South Street. St Petrock's Church is still obscured by houses as it was when Hogenberg engraved his map almost two centuries earlier. On the far left St Martin's Lane leads into the Cathedral Close spanned at its far end by St Martin's Gate, one of the precinct's medieval gatehouses. Allhallows Church can be seen, on the corner of Goldsmith Street, as can the barn-like structure of The Guildhall itself almost in the centre of the image.

One thing that is vividly conveyed by Hedgeland's model are the long tenement plots upon which the individual houses were built. Nearly all of the houses shown are built at a right angle to the streets. This maximised the number of properties that could front onto the street while allowing them plenty of space at the rear for other rooms and yards. Even such an eminent property as No. 229 High Street was built in the same way.

In many cases these tenement, or burgage plots dated back to the 10th and 11th century. In subsequent centuries they were sometimes subdivided and two houses built where there had previously only been one but the outline of the plots often remain the same. Even when a house was demolished and rebuilt it was often rebuilt on the same plot.

It was the resulting architectural variety that largely contributed to the pre-war character of not just the High Street but Exeter as a whole. The majority of these plots remained intact for nearly one thousand years until 1942 and the subsequent redevelopment of the city, even if the buildings that originally occupied the burgage plots were long gone.

People talk about history being lost when a structure is lost, which is true, but for me it was the destruction of these ancient footprints that destroyed the city as a living historical entity on a quite profound level. The aerial view above left shows one of the fragments of the High Street where the medieval tenement plots have remained intact. Compare these with the colossal redevelopment on the other side of the street (now 'Marks & Spencer').

Given both its central location and its importance the High Street was one of the first parts of the city to experience wholescale modernisation. According to Alexander Jenkins writing in 1806, it was around 1768 that "the spirit of improvement" began to manifest itself in Exeter. Jenkins cited the rebuilding of the Green Dragon inn by William Praed "in a more modern style" as the start of the process. Later in the 19th century this period in Exeter's history is given a slightly different slant. Referencing Jenkins, a report in the 1866 issue of the 'Transactions of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society' claimed that the years of 1768 to 1770 were "a terrible time for 'public improvements in Exeter', effected through the destruction of architectural antiquities".

The report cites the demolition of the North Gate in 1768 and the construction of the Royal Clarence Hotel over "some antique frontage" as well as the demolition of the Great Conduit in 1770, the demolition of Bedford House, "the ancient seat of the Dukes of Bedford", and the demolition of the Green Dragon inn "and other houses". Perhaps the Victorians shouldn't have protested too much given their own predeliction for razing historical structures to the ground (such as the College of the Vicars Choral). The vast and beautiful late medieval East Gate in the High Street above right came down in 1784. Jenkins, who liked to think of himself as something of an antiquarian, thought that this was "a very great and necessary improvement".

Throughout the latter half of the 18th century and well into the 19th century, a number of the older properties in the High Street received 'Georgianised' stucco facades with sash windows replacing oriels.

One such example which still exists is No. 195 High Street standing on the corner of Parliament Street and the High Street (the pale pink building left). It has a very plain facade dating to c1820 but behind the frontage is a timber-framed property of c1700 which was part of an even earlier house from the 16th century. No. 195 still contains a number of interesting features, including a fine late 17th century staircase, none of which are apparent just from looking at the exterior. Such alterations make it difficult to tell a building's age just by looking at the outside, especially if those buildings now no longer survive.

Unfortunately very little is known about the vast majority of historical buildings destroyed in Exeter over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, even if images of the properties still exist.

For example, the photo right shows a number of pre-war properties in the High Street which were destroyed in 1942. The gabled building at No. 6 High Street stood on the corner of the High Street and Bampfylde Street. (Bampfylde Street was a very narrow lane which, before 1942, led to Bampfylde House and Catherine Street.) No. 6 is clearly timber-framed and probably dated to the 16th or 17th century. But that's about as much as can be said about it. The house to the right of No. 6 was probably of a similar age with a remodelled facade but similar windows. The same was possibly true of the Three Tuns at No. 8 High Street. It's all possibly, perhaps and maybe. It's only relatively recently, with seemingly nondescript properties being subjected to rigorous archaeological investigations, that the often hidden history of Exeter's remaining buildings has come to light.

Anyway, be that as it may the High Street underwent a series of other major changes over the course of the 19th century. By 1820 the corner of the High Street with London Inn Square had been rebuilt with a terrace of four Regency townhouses (destroyed in 1942). The construction of the terrace and the contemporary Devon and Exeter Subscription Rooms resulted in the demolition of part of the city wall.

The Rose and Crown inn at Nos. 256-258 High Street (near 'Boots') left was demolished in 1834. The Phoenix inn and the Swan inn were demolished at around the same time for the construction of Queen Street. The Swan had an interesting porch supported by grotesque figures carved in oak (something similar once existed at the early 16th century King John Tavern in South Street). Nos. 206 & 207 High Street were both rebuilt c1830. The late medieval house of Thomas Elyot at No. 73 High Street was demolised in 1845.

St John's Hospital School was almost completely rebuilt in 1852. Since 1633 the school had been located on the site of a medieval hospital founded c1200 and dedicated to St John. The hospital's massive High Street frontage had already been largely remodelled in the late 18th century right but the work of 1852 resulted in the loss of the remaining medieval fabric, including parts of the original quadrangle around which the hospital had been constructed. The new buildings were largely demolished just under 30 years later in 1879 when a new Post Office was constructed on the site. The Eastgate Arcade, which opened in 1881, was also built on part of the former school. The Arcade and Post Office were both destroyed in 1942.

In 1876 No. 34 High Street, part of 'Colsons' where 'Dingles' stands today, was remodelled from the first floor upwards. (A large part of the 'Colsons' store survived the Blitz until it was demolished during post-war redevelopment in the 1950s). Bedford Street, leading to Bedford Circus and formerly as narrow as St Martin's Lane, was widened in 1878 resulting in several properties being demolished at its corner with the High Street (William Pread's "modern" building that replaced the Green Dragon inn disappeared at this time).

The image left is based on a sketch of c1860 by George Townsend. It shows, from left to right, Nos.  263-267 High Street. No. 263, with its oversailing upper floors and oriel windows dated to c1600 and was demolished around 1870. No. 264 High Street, its smaller timber-framed neighbour, was of a similar age and was destroyed in 1942. Next to it, with the half hipped roof, is No. 265. Dating from the 18th century or earlier it was demolished when the new Apothecaries' Hall was built in the site in 1893. Nos. 266 and 267 High Street were constructed from the recycled stone of the East Gate after it was demolished in 1784. Just visible is the statue of Henry VII that stood in a niche on the first floor. This building was also destroyed during the Exeter Blitz.

The peculiar little early 17th century house at No. 210 High Street, built over the chancel of Allhallows Church, was demolished for road-widening in 1879. A group of tall timber-framed houses from the late 17th century or earlier at Nos. 212-219 High Street, conspicuous in the albumen print at the top of this post, were gradually removed at the corner of Queen Street and the High Street between c1880 and 1900. Nos. 55, 56 & 57 High Street, including the Eagle tavern which dated to the 15th century, were all destroyed by a major fire in October 1881. The timber-framed Apothecaries' Hall at No. 246 High Street, which dated to the 17th century or earlier, was demolished in 1893

By now the High Street was clearly in danger of losing much of its historical character and ancient patina. As early as 1871 a report in the 'Exeter Flying Post' stated that "the High Street is wonderfully picturesque, with its quaint gabled houses" but that these houses were "gradually being improved away to give place to modern abominations of stucco".

A number of other unfortunate demolitions and alterations took place between 1900 and the 1930s. The corner of North Street and the High Street right, where 'Athena' is today, was rebuilt by the start of the 20th century. Who knows what lay behind the Georgianised facades. Allhallows Church was demolished for road-widening in 1906.

According to Harbottle Reed, No. 199 High Street had a central courtyard overlooked on one side by "a massive timber front of 15th century date having cusp headed lights". Although No. 199 still survives, hidden behind another plain stucco facade, the 15th century timber work described by Reed was demolished in 1904. Nos. 70 & 71 High Street, next to St Petrock's Church, were demolished for road-widening in 1903. The property was described by Reed as being "a very fine specimen of early 16th century timber work" with an interior "sumptuous with linen fold door panels and moulded framing". At No. 72 High Street a 16th century timber-framed facade that formed part of an inner courtyard was demolished in 1905. A second facade of a similar age, which overlooked the cathedral at the rear, survived until it was demolished by the city council in the 1950s.

No. 65 High Street, on the corner of the High Street and Broadgate, had a very unusual, early groin vaulted cellar made from brick before it was demolished in 1904. Several houses that obscured the north wall of St Petrock's were demolished at the same time.

The Half Moon inn left, which dated to the late 17th century, had already had its timber-fronted facade and oriel windows replaced in the 19th century. But the interior contained several very fine plasterwork ceilings from c1680, possibly the creation of Thomas Lane. The extensive premises were completely demolished in 1912. (One of the ceilings was salvaged in its entirety and can be seen in the city's museum.) The site was used for the renowned Deller's Cafe which opened in 1916 before being badly damaged in 1942. Nos. 23 & 24 High Street were two very tall gabled properties with oriel windows which stood next to the Half Moon inn. They probably dated to the 17th century and were demolished in 1923.

In 1925 the red brick late 17th century front of No. 234 High Street was replaced. Nos. 59 & 60 High Street were demolished c1925 and replaced with a single structure. No. 59 dated to the 18th century or earlier. No. 60 dated at least to the 16th century. Fragments of wall paintings dating to late 1500s were uncovered at No. 60 along with sections of a thick medieval wall, all of which were destroyed during the demolition.

Perhaps most shocking of all was the demolition of No. 229 High Street right. This late Tudor townhouse, again with a modified facade, contained some of Exeter's finest surviving Elizabethan and Jacobean interiors. The house was demolished in 1930 and the interiors were removed and shipped to America. The 15th century Church of St Lawrence's was destroyed in the bombing of 1942 but it had already been threatened with demolition in the 1930s. One of the last pre-war demolitions to take place was the removal of No. 190 High Street in 1933 (where 'MacDonalds' is today). Again, there's no record of what the building was like before it was destroyed.
described as "a modern intrusive shop".

The image left is an animated early stereoscopic photograph of the High Street from c1885.

I'm not sure there's necessarily any pattern to be traced in this brief history of the some of the documented demolitions that took place in the High Street between the start of the 19th century and 1942. Obviously cities, streets and individual buildings evolve over the centuries.

In England there never was the same level of preservation of historical cityscapes as could be found in pre-war continental Europe, particularly in Germany where entire city centres were filled with pre-industrial Gothic architecture almost untouched since the Middle Ages. Any gradual pattern or trend that might've existed at Exeter was interrupted by the almost total destruction of the upper High Street during the Exeter Blitz. It's not possible to know what might've been demolished in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s had the Blitz never happened.

Most English cities that were left largely untouched by air-raids during World War Two were subsequently defaced by post-war townplanners anyway e.g. Winchester and Worcester. Sadly, the post-war history of the High Street suggests that Exeter would probably not have fared any better. That said, and even though the pre-war High Street would never have been preserved in aspic anyway, it would certainly have been more characterful than it is today if the bombing of 1942 had never occurred. What exactly would've survived remains a matter of pure conjecture.  

Part Two of this series of posts, 'The Destruction of the High Street in 1942' can be found here. Part Three, 'Destruction of the High Street After 1942', can be found here.

Below are some colourised photographs of the High Street from c1900 to c1910.


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