Friday, 28 January 2011

The Disappearance of George Street

Little seems to be known about the origins of George Street, also known as St George's Lane. The name itself derived from the church dedicated to St George the Martyr which stood on the corner of George Street and South Street for over a thousand years until its demolition in 1843. The street was really little more than a narrow alley leading from South Street, past the south elevation of the church and into Milk Street.

George Street appears on Hedgeland's model of Exeter depicting the city in 1769 left. South Street runs from left to right at the top. The street's buildings, including the church of St George, are highlighted in red.. The model is one of the very few surviving visual representations of the street and shows that it was lined with houses on both sides, despite its narrowness. Until the mid-19th century at least, many of these properties would've been of timber-framed construction, the street remaining little changed since the 15th or 16th centuries. The name itself seems to have been a relatively recent invention appearing for the first time only in the 19th century.

It must've been known by other names although it's possible that these haven't been documented. But how old was it and when did it originate? It appears on both the Rocque map of 1744 and the Tozer map of 1793 and a street in exactly the same position also appears on Hooker's map of 1587. A Saxon church from the 9th or 10th century stood on the site of the later medieval church of St George. It's possible that George Street itself was also Saxon in origin and provided access to Saxon buildings that once fronted onto South Street.

The image right © Devon County Council shows a sketch executed in 1920 by the Canadian artist Gyrth Russell which purports to show George Street. The view is looking towards South Street. It is too vague to make out many details but there are a few hints of timber-framed buildings with jettied upper stories oversailing the street. I've never seen a photograph of George Street although presumably some do exist somewhere.

The narrowness of the street is cited in a report from the 'Exeter Flying Post'. At a meeting of the Commissioners for Improvement in 1833 one of the commissioners, John Cooke, proposed the idea that £300 should be spent on "widening and improving" the thoroughfares of "St George's Lane, Milk Street and the entrance into the country Butcherow." Butchers' Row were the late-15th century butcher shops which were demolished when the Lower, or Western, Market was constructed in the late 1830s. Cooke wondered whether it was fair, given the "portly appearance" of the city's butchers and their wives, for them to have to access St George's church via the "extreme narrowness of George's Lane". In Cooke's opinion, two people "possessing anything like rotundity" could not walk abreast down George Street. How flattering.

The drawing left © Devon County Council is by George Townsend and depicts George Street from South Street c1840, looking down towards the arches in the side wall of the Lower Market. The tower of St George's church is on the right.

Cooke's road-widening idea seems to have been put on the backburner because the Commissioners already had plans to move the public water conduit in South Street to an area near George Street and they expected some alterations to take place when the new conduit was built. This happened just a few years later, when the Lower Market was built. The corner of Milk Street and George Street was demolished in 1835 and a small public square was created, the site of the new water conduit which supplied both the Lower Market and the surrounding neighbourhood.

The conduit consisted of three brick cisterns which could hold up to 100 hogsheads of water (nearly 24,000 litres), housed within a brick building "and conveyed in pipes to an obelisk of granite". The granite obelisk stood in the centre of the square, the cisterns also providing water for a second conduit in Mary Arches Street, built in 1839. The water originally came from the natural spring at Lion's Holt in the parish of St Sidwell but by the 1870s the water was piped in from a reservoir at Dane's Castle, some distance beyond the city walls. In 1874 a major leak in the pipes lead to the city surveyor having to "open the whole of Milk Street" in search of the leak, eventually found near the junction of Milk Street with Fore Street.

A plan of 1904 shows at least 11 properties still fronted onto the street itself. The entire area around George Street was completely destroyed by bombs in 1942. Almost nothing seems to have survived except the remains of a Saxon doorway that was once embedded within a house in George Street and which was later moved to the ruins of the Hall of the Vicars Choral. The doorway was probably associated with a Saxon church.

During the post-war reconstruction the City Council decided against rebuilding the street and every trace of it was obliterated by the construction of new shops in South Street. The route of George Street lay at a right-angle near to the green-lidded dustbins in the photo above. In fact much of the area's historic street plan was changed completely. George Street disappeared, as did Sun Street. The length of Guinea Street was reduced by 50% and the route of Milk Street was hardly reinstated at all. A new road was created nearby that ran parallel with South Street and Market Street and this was named George Street below, although it has nothing to do with its ancient predecessor. Today it's all remarkably dismal and grim.


Sunday, 23 January 2011

St George's Church, South Street

I wonder how many hundreds of buildings have been demolished in Exeter under the pretext of 'road-widening', what Cresswell called in 1908 "Exeter's perpetual excuse for destroying old buildings".

Several hundred pre-war properties at least came down in the 1960s and 70s to build the inner bypass road system, but the church dedicated to St George the Martyr was an early victim of the same mindset, back in 1843. The image above © Devon County Council is a depiction of St George's from South Street by George Townsend prior to its demolition. It shows the east face of the church, the chancel on the right, the south aisle on the left with the western bell tower. The arches just visible in the distance, at the end of George Street, is the side elevation of Charles Fowler's neo-Classical Lower Market. The church was sited on the west side of South Street, nearly opposite the 14th century Hall of the Vicars Choral and on the corner of South Street with a narrow alleyway called George Street.

The foundation itself was ancient and a church dedicated to St George had probably been on this same location since at least the 9th or 10th century. This early Saxon church, constructed long before the Norman Conquest of 1066 was even thought of, was built of coarse rubble masonry, with a simple floor plan of a single aisle and chancel. At the very least, the stone-built Saxon St George's shows that Exeter was a flourishing Anglo-Saxon settlement with some relatively high status buildings in the early Middle Ages. (St George didn't become the patron saint of England until Edward III created the Order of the Garter in 1348.)

The photograph right shows a detail from Caleb Hedgeland's early-19th century wooden model of Exeter. The appearance of the church, highlighted in red, closely matches the drawing by Townsend top. The dining hall of the Vicars Choral, highlighted in purple, is on the opposite side of South Street

As with so many of Exeter's churches, the first documented reference to St George's appears in a Deed of Assignment (similar to a will) made by a wealthy Exeter citizen called Peter de Palerna sometime between 1200 and 1216. Peter de Palerna left money to 28 of Exeter's existing churches and chapels and fortunately the Deed mentions them all by name. St George's church was one of those that received one penny, to be paid on 04 February every year. According to Cresswell, during the Middle Ages St George's was appropriated to the mother church of Plympton Priory near Plymouth but it became a parish church in its own right in 1222. (In fact the medieval priors of Plympton had a townhouse nearby in South Street. Until it was partially destroyed by fire in the 1870s, part of the Priors' residence survived as the Black Lions inn. The inn stood nearly opposite the Bear Inn, once the townhouse of the medieval abbots of Tavistock, also long since vanished.)

The image left shows St George's church depicted on a map of 1587 by Braun and Hogenberg. After the English Civil War the church was sold to its parishioners for £100 on 11 May 1658 and seems to have remained relatively untouched until the 19th century. Jenkins visited in 1806 and left the following description: "the church is small, consisting of a nave, chancel, and small aisle under the tower, from this aisle there is an aperture made thro' the wall, for the convenience of that part of the congregation to behold the elevation of the host, (the custom before the Reformation). The church is kept in good repair, and is neatly seated; the tower is large but not lofty". Jenkins also noted that the tower had "a clock without a dial". This seems to suggest that the clock was used to strike the time on a bell rather than show the time on a dial.

It's likely that at least the footprint of the 14th century chancel and the nave respected the outline of the Saxon church. Even with the addition of a south aisle in the 1400s it wasn't a big building. The nave was 33ft by 15ft; the chancel 11ft by 15ft, and the aisle was 30ft by 16ft making it almost as large as the nave itself. It's interesting that the pre-Reformation arrangement survived. The "aperture made thro' the wall" was a squint or a hagioscope. The tower was 15th century in date and contained five bells recast from three earlier bells in 1740. Entrance into the church was either via a short flight of steps under an early-18th century hood from South Street or through a door near the tower in the south wall.

The church was constructed from the ever-present red Heavitree breccia which was typical of all of Exeter's medieval parish churches. Inside was a large depiction of the coat of arms of Charles II, probably put there after the Restoration in 1660 when the church regained its parochial status. The church had a number of monuments and memorial tablets, including one to Richard Vivian from 1740, another to Thomas Baron, a former Exeter mayor who died in 1708 and one to a former Rector of St George's, William Chilcote, who died in 1711. The ceremonial cup and paten (used to hold the Eucharistic wine and bread) dated to 1684.

The parish boundary of St George's church was very strange. The vast bulk of the West Quarter, which should've been the natural catchment area of St George's, actually fell within the boundary of St Mary Major on the other side of South Street. From what I can ascertain St George's church was not contiguous with its own parish but was actually situated within the parish of St Mary Major too.

The parish itself was sited further south, adajcent to the parish of St John. It took in the south side of Smythen Street, part of Stepcote Hill and half of King Street before returning, since the 1830s, to the Lower Market. The image above right is based on the medieval parish boundary of St George's Church. It shows a 1905 street plan of the parish overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. St George's Church is far away in the top right corner. Buildings highlighted in red have been demolished since 1905, most of them as a consequence of pre-war slum clearances, although further demolition in the area took place in the 1950s and 1960s. Only one solitary building, highlighted in purple, remains that is older than 1905. This is the nondescript former Wesleyan School on King Street, built in 1862.

The top of South Street, one of Exeter's four main roads, was widened in 1830 but the portion of the street onto which St George's fronted was still very narrow. A later 19th century account reported that in places the street was so narrow that "the upper parts of some of the houses were just within shaking hands distance", a product of timber-framed, multi-jettied houses from the 16th and 17th centuries teetering towards each other across the carriageway. It was into this thoroughfare that the "church projected very much". The projection into the street is depicted on Hedgeland's model of the area.

The Reverend John Kingdon Cleeve was appointed as the Rector of St George's in 1818 and in the late 1830s entered into a battle with the Exeter Improvement Commissioners who wanted the church removed. An account left by his grand-nephew, Mr G Dunsford of Mount Radford, describes what happened next. The Commissioners "made several applications to the rector to set back the building", and he in turn asked to be given two feet at the rear of the church for every foot that was lost at the front. Naturally, the Commissioners rejected the terms and waited, the Rector insisting that "as long as he lived his Church should not be touched". Fateful words indeed, as the Reverend Kingdon Cleeve died in 1842 and the church of St George came tumbling down in 1843.

Some of the monuments were transferred to St John's church in Fore Street, with which the old parish of St George was united, along with the five bells from the tower (St John's itself was demolished 1937, after which the monuments were transferred to the church of St Mary Major in Cathedral Yard, which was in turn demolished in 1971!). Until 1942, most of the area where St George's church had stood was preserved as a small garden, bounded by iron railings with some of the other memorial floor tablets from set into the ground. During the post-war reconstruction of the area in 1953 a number of burials from the site of the old church were dug up and reinterred at the Higher Cemetery.

But it seems that not all of the church was actually destroyed in 1843 after all. Only the south wall and the east wall were completely demolished as parts of the west wall and the north wall appear to have survived, reused within later, mid-19th century buildings. When South Street was bombed on 04 May 1942 part of the medieval church's west wall was exposed, and there within the rubble were significant fragments of the Saxon church that had stood on the same site over 1000 years earlier.

Of particular interest were the remains of the west door of the Saxon building above, blocked up long ago but clearly identifiable as such by the distinctive use of the so-called 'long and short' work in the quoins of the doorway. The wall was constructed of local purple volcanic trap, probably pinched by the Saxons from the remains of the Roman city wall. Also embedded in the wall was the recycled debris of other Roman buildings which had been built in Exeter in the 3rd and 4th centuries, including part of a limestone column 9 inches in diameter, Roman terracotta roof tiles and the moulded base or capital of another column. Tests later showed that the Saxon mortar contained ground up fragments of more Roman roof tiles.

The historical importance of the find was identified after the bombing by two distinguished local historians: Ethel Lega-Weekes and Arthur Everett and they persuaded the Ministry of Works to try and salvage the remains. Unfortunately the very substantial north-west corner of the ruins fell down in 1945 and only the doorway and part of the west wall were eventually preserved. It's incredible though, to think of the Saxons in 9th or 10th century Exeter digging up pieces of classical Roman buildings and fashioning their own church out of what they found, and then a thousand years passing by before their work was suddenly revealed again in such destructive circumstances. In 1954 the Saxon remains were moved across South Street and relocated in the middle of the ruined 14th century Hall of the Vicars Choral. And there they sit today, possibly unique in the city, one of the very few architectural links with Exeter's Saxon past. During the post-war reconstruction of South Street the road was widened to 44ft, almost double it's pre-war width, and the site where the church once stood was irretrievably lost.


Thursday, 20 January 2011

Lost Jacobean Plasterwork Ceilings I

In 1909 a book was published, written by George Bankart and entitled 'The Art of the Plasterer'. It was a comprehensive survey of the art of plasterwork decoration in England from the 16th to the 18th century, extensively illustrated with numerous plans and photographs. In researching the book Bankart visited Exeter and wrote the following, prophetic words: "Exeter is rich in examples of seventeenth-century plasterwork. Numerous examples of the interlacing square and kite-shaped panels formed by single moulded beams abound in this city" but which, he added, were "rapidly disappearing".

Bankart selected the city's finest remaining examples for use as illustrations in his book. He left out some notable ceilings, including the late-17th century examples at the Custom House, at the Half Moon Inn and the 'Apollo' ceiling at the New Inn, but he did include what were Exeter's greatest surviving Jacobean decorated ceilings, at No. 229 High Street, Bampfylde House, No. 38 North Street, St Nicholas's Priory, the 'Courtenay Arms' in Mary Arches Street, No. 171 Fore Street, No. 79 Fore Street (part of the 'Chevalier Inn') and No. 67 South Street. Shockingly, only two of these buildings survive today (part of the Benedictine priory and No. 67 South Street), the rest having been either demolished or destroyed.

The ceiling in the parlour at St Nicholas's Priory is Elizabethan and is probably the earliest surviving decorative plasterwork ceiling in Exeter top. Some of the Priory's buildings were converted into a townhouse at the time of the Reformation in the 1530s and later additions in the 1580s included the insertion of the ceiling. The design is relatively simple: a series of large quatrefoils delineated by narrow raised ribs and spread out over the ceiling at regular intervals, the internal corners blossoming into sprays of foliage and variations on the fleur-de-lis motif. The quatrefoils are joined together with rhombuses, elaborated with further bursts of foliage, inset into which are little four-petalled stylised flowers. Another motif is the Tudor rose which appears six times and the presence of which helped to give the parlour its alternative name: the Tudor Room. The ceiling has survived intact and can be visited at Exeter today.

A second early ceiling to survive is the one at No. 67 South Street right. This dates probably to the early years of the 17th century. The decorative plasterwork displayed here is minimal. The ceiling is divided into two panels by a beam. The edges of each panel feature a moulded cornice and where the cornice meets a spray of flowers blooms from each mitred corner. Bankart states that the modelling of the sprays in particular are "of much interest". This ceiling is not accessible to the public, but at least it still exists.

Of the greatest architectural and historic importance was No. 229 High Street, a treasure store of late-Elizabethan and Jacobean interior design. In one of the rooms was a large decorative plasterwork ceiling measuring 20ft by 20ft below left. This was probably created c1585 for the building's exceptionally wealthy owner, George Smith. It was infinitely more complex than the ceiling at St Nicholas's Priory. The design was based on a series of geometric shapes, squares and triangles joined together with curves and loops and all picked out by raised ribs. There were flourishes of fleur-de-lis and other floral motifs, and in each corner, set into a square, was the profile of a lion passant.

Appearing no less than six times within the design were the initials of Queen Elizabeth the First: ER. No. 229 was demolished in 1930 and the interiors were flogged off to William Randolph Hearst in the United States.

The loss of No. 229 is succinctly summarised by Peter Thomas in his book 'The Changing Face of Exeter': "The destruction of many of Exeter's buildings is more than regrettable, being an indictment of attitudes towards the city's historical fabric. The utter destruction of No. 229 High Street was perhaps one of the worst examples."

No. 229 High Street had a number of late-Tudor plasterwork ceilings. At least one was salvaged and appears today in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City along with intricately carved Jacobean panelling and a magnificent early-17th century fire surround and overmantel, also from No. 229, but the fate of the ceiling with the initials of Elizabeth the First and illustrated by George Bankart is unknown. It was either salvaged and sold or it was destroyed during the demolition.

Part two of this post can be found here.


Lost Jacobean Plasterwork Ceilings II

The example left was a plasterwork ceiling found in one of the bed chambers at Bampfylde House and covered an area approximately 20ft by 10ft. This ceiling either dated from the first few of decades of the 17th century or, more likely, from the time of the building's construction in the 1590s. In some respects it was similar to the ceiling in the Tudor Room of St Nicholas's Priory. Quatrefoils, a standard motif in both Gothic and Renaissance design are used once again, outlined by thin ribs, but now a square has been added to the centre of each quatrefoil leading to a greater complexity in the overall design.

Plain plasterwork beams divided the ceiling into four panels. In the two larger panels the quartefoils merge, with sprays of flowers festooning the corners of the each of the central squares. The two smaller panels both held a slightly different design, a single quatrefoil and square, but with a greater abundance of floral motifs.

A similar ceiling existed in the dining room, but both that one and the ceiling in the bed chamber were completely destroyed during the air-raid of 01 May 1942.

An even greater loss at Bampfylde House was the elaborate Jacobean plasterwork ceiling in the parlour, also known as the Oak Room. It measured approximately 20ft by 15ft and was certainly one of the greatest examples of its type that had ever been constructed in Exeter below right. It dated to the 1620s or 1630s when the skill of the Jacobean plasterer was at its height and when the most elaborate designs were being executed all across England. Now the emphasis was on the geometric complexity of the pattern and the plainer ribs used in the above-mentioned ceilings had been replaced with what was known as strapwork, heavily decorated plaster ribs that criss-crossed the ceilings in an exuberant display of craftsmanship.

Ceilings such as this were both extremely expensive and time-consuming and were a sign of high status. The techniques would differ from ceiling to ceiling but the general idea was to plaster the ceiling as normal over a series of oak lathes. Once done the plasterer could begin to draw the outline of the design directly onto the flat ceiling before building up the strapwork itself, using moulds to create the cornices and to give each rib a finished appearance. Once the strapwork was complete the application of various motifs could take place. These would all have been prepared from moulds and then applied individually onto the strapwork by hand. In the Oak Room at Bampfylde House most of the strapwork was enriched with a running foliage design but also included the sprays of foliage familiar from other ceilings in Exeter, growing out of the geometric shapes like two-dimensional bunches of flowers. The entire ceiling was destroyed in 1942.

The next ceiling illustrated by Bankart is a slight mystery. It was part of the public house known as the 'Courtenay Arms' which, at least in 1909, was situated near to the church on the eastern side of Mary Arches Street but at the moment I know little about the building or its origins. This is perhaps the most immediately attractive of all of the Exeter ceilings illustrated by Bankart left. The strapwork was slightly less ornate than that seen in the Oak Room at Bampfylde House but all the spaces within the geometric design were flooded with masses of curling flowers and foliage.

And in amongst the thicket of leaves were beautifully naive depictions of birds and animals: a horse; a very cheerful lion with a long, straggling mane; two falcons and a deer; three intertwined fish; dogs with short ears; dogs with long ears; a rabbit; a snake and a very strange creature that looks like a griffin or a dog with wings.

It was an incredible piece of work. It measured approximately 18ft by 15ft and was divided into two panels by a beam, each panel being a rough mirror image of its neighbour. I have no idea what happened to it. The building that housed the ceiling was gone well before World War Two and it's almost certain that the ceiling was destroyed within a few years of its being recorded by Bankart. As far as I'm aware Bankart's illustration is the only depiction of this wonderful ceiling that exists.

The next example is from No. 79 Fore Street, one of the two 17th-century timber-frame houses that together were known as 'The Chevalier Inn' and which stood near the junction of South Street with Fore Street. Like the Oak Room ceiling in Bampfylde House, this ceiling at No. 79 Fore Street featured enriched strapwork but within a slightly less complex geometric design. The date of its installation was somewhere around 1630, soon after the house had been constructed.

The main feature of the design right were three over-lapping quatrefoils but, compared with earlier examples, these quatrefoils were hardily recognisable as such. The curves had been replaced with sharp corners, but the abundance of foliage springing from both the corners of the quatrefoils and the inset squares are very familiar. As at Bampfylde House, the strapwork itself was decorated with a profusion of running leaves that snaked across every part of the corniced ribs. It measured approximately 10ft by 20ft.

The Chevalier Inn had a number of other decorated ceilings of a similar date but with simpler narrow ribs instead of the ornate strapwork highlighted by Bankart. Both of the houses that comprised the inn were totally destroyed in the bombing of 04 May 1942 and all the ceilings were lost forever.

Part three of this post can be found here.


Lost Jacobean Plasterwork Ceilings III

Bankart's penultimate example was to be found at No. 171 Fore Street which stood near the junction of Fore Street with Mary Arches Street. Similar to No. 229 High Street but less well-documented, No. 171 Fore Street was one of the pre-eminent Jacobean townhouses in the city. On the first floor was a magnificent plaster ceiling (left) measuring approximately 14ft by 28ft. Described in 1901 as being "in the style of Inigo Jones", the ceiling was very similar to the strapwork ceiling in the Oak Room at Bampfylde House and was certainly its equal in terms of size, quality and the complexity of the geometric design. As at Bampfylde House, the strapwork ribs on the ceiling at No. 171 were lavishly decorated with a running leaf motif accompanied by intricately modelled sprays of flowers and foliage that sprung from nearly every corner. The ceiling dated from the 1620s or 1630s.

In the early 1930s the entire house was demolished. Ironically, the building that replaced it was itself destroyed in 1942 and so the destruction of the Jacobean building was inevitable one way or another. A few bits of carved woodwork from the facade found their way into the city museum. The early-17th century fittings, including an oak-panelled dining room, were probably sold off although the whereabouts of the panelling is currently unknown. The fate of the magnificent strapwork plaster ceiling is also unknown. It was either taken down in sections and sold or it was destroyed during the demolition, which is exactly what happened to the last of Bankart's featured ceilings.

In 1909, the same year that Blankart's book was published, an edition of the 'The Connoisseur' fine arts periodical featured an article on Exeter's civic plate, regalia and seals. The author also made the following comment: "Among the other sights of Exeter I must mention a portion of a fine sixteenth century ceiling, consisting of panels with floral insets and a coloured frieze showing birds and bosses, which can be seen in its original setting at 38, North Street". My original post on No. 38 North Street can be found here but to recap it was a merchant's house from the 1400s that was remodelled as a Jacobean mansion in the early-17th century. A number of 15th century features survived intact, including windows, fireplaces and the original hall roof, as well as much of the Jacobean remodelling. The entire building, along with its 15th century and late-17th century neighbours, was demolished by Exeter City Council in 1972 to make way for a shopping centre. One of the casualties was the plasterwork ceiling mentioned in 'The Connoisseur'.

Blankart's plan (right) shows only part of the original ceiling. When the building was modified for road-widening the front of the property was taken down and a portion of the front rooms was removed before the original facade was reinstated. This action included the removal of half of the original ceiling. The lost portion was salvaged by the renowned antiquarian and scholar, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and installed at his ancestral home at Lew Trenchard, a small village in West Devon, where it still exists today. (Baring-Gould's Regency birthplace near Dix's Field in Exeter was destroyed during World War Two.)

It's now believed that the ceiling at No. 38 North Street dated to the 1620s rather than being late-16th century, as 'The Connoisseur' suggested. The portion that survived until 1972 consisted of two panels, measuring approximately 24ft by 14ft, divided by a plasterwork beam decorated with vines and leaves, birds and animals. The geometric design was a complex mix of kites and squares infilled with a prodigious display of foliage and fleur-de-lis. Instead of removing it in sections the ceiling was hacked down in 1972 on the orders of the local authority and small fragments found their way into the local museum.

By 1972 the ceiling at No. 38 North Street was the best of its type left in the city, even in its truncated condition. In fact, given the demolitions of the 1930s and the destruction of World War Two, it was one of the very few that were left of any type. Today the only decorated Elizabethan/Jacobean plasterwork ceilings left in Exeter are the ones at the Priory and South Street, both mentioned by Bankart, a relatively complex ceiling at No. 144 Fore Street featuring a camel, monkey and lion, along with other exotic creatures, two at No. 7 Cathedral Close, and a relatively simple, geometric, narrow-ribbed ceiling at No. 1 Cathedral Close but which has none of the lavish adornments that made Jacobean ceilings such works of art. There are none that exhibit the highly ornate Jacobean strapwork once found in Bampfylde House, No. 80 Fore Street or No. 171 Fore Street. There are none that display the abundance of flowers and animals found at No. 38 North Street or the Courtenay Arms.

But there were other ceilings not mentioned by Bankart. In 1915 a group of local antiquarians toured Exeter during their annual meeting. A part of their itinerary included a walk down Paul Street, during which they noted that the north side "is in process of demolition - several ancient houses, including Oriental plastered ceilings and half-timbered fronts, already having been pulled down." The 'Oriental' ceilings were either Elizabethan or Jacobean. An amateur artist recorded one of the Paul Street ceilings in 1915, just prior to its destruction, above © Devon County Council. Her illustration shows an exceptional coved ceiling from the early 17th century complete with the now-familiar enriched Jacobean strapwork and geometric design. No-one kept a record of the demolition of the medieval and Tudor buildings in Paul Street so it's impossible to say what else came tumbling to the ground.

And there was another large ceiling in King Street, probably located in a late-Tudor building that actually stood on Stepcote Hill. It too was recorded by the same amateur artist, in 1912, and whose plan (above © Devon County Council) shows yet another geometric design picked out in narrow plaster ribs with sprays of foliage and a single Tudor rose, the four panels separated by wide plaster beams. This ceiling almost certainly survived until the 1930s at which point, along with almost every other historic feature in the West Quarter, it was demolished as part of the slum clearances. Again, no records were made of the demolition so the historic and architectural losses can only be a matter of conjecture.

And there were others, from the late-17th century, including the ceilings at the Half Moon Inn (demolished in 1912) and the 'Apollo' ceiling at the New Inn (destroyed in 1942).

In 1909 'The Connoisseur' wrote that "Exeter has indeed has much to be proud of - in her possessions, her history, her cathedral and many beautiful buildings, shops, streets and gardens, and her surroundings. Those who once visit this ancient and loyal city will assuredly not fail to retrace their steps again and yet again to this fascinating spot". Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, the fabric of the historic city that survived even as recently as 1909 has almost completely ceased to exist.

Part one of this post can be found here.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Southernhay Baths, Southernhay East

An extraordinary building, and a very short-lived one, the public bath house in Southernhay East was one of Exeter's earliest experiments in Greek Revival architecture. The story begins with the construction of the late-18th century townhouses of Barnfield Crescent, another Georgian housing scheme planned by Matthew Nosworthy in Southernhay. According to Alexander Jenkins, "in digging a drain behind these buildings, the labourers discovered a Bath". The remains of the bath were angular in shape and "built with grey bricks, very hard burnt, and strongly cemented together." Steps led down into the bath but apparently no-one, including Jenkins, had the slightest idea where it had come from for "it did not seem to be of a very ancient date". Roman is the obvious answer but I assume Jenkins discounted this possibility (a large Legionary bath house from the 1st century AD is buried outside the West front of the Cathedral).

The fact that the old bath at Barnfield was being fed from a natural spring suggested "to the architect" the possibility of creating a public bath house, the absence of which in the city had "been long complained of". Jenkins writes that the area was "abounding in fine springs" and "a handsome and very commodious [bath house] is now erected". The problem is that Jenkins' "now" is in 1806 and the Greek Revival bath house shown above wasn't built until the 1820s. Perhaps Nosworthy built a temporary structure that was later elaborated into something else. Who knows.

The Greek Revival Southernhay Baths were constructed between the corner of Dix's Field and the site where a year or so later William Hooper would construct the colonnaded expanse of Chichester Place. The bath's architect was John Lethbridge, one of the founder members of the Institution of Civil Engineers. For inspiration he took one of the most-quoted buildings from antiquity: the choragic monument of Thrasyllus which stood in Athens until its destruction by the Turks in 1827.

In 1789 a plan of the monument's facade above right appeared in volume two of 'Antiquities of Athens' and over the next 60 years the monument, both in its overall design and in its details, was referenced in buildings across Europe. For example, in the early 1800s William Wilkins used the Thrasyllus monument as a model for the side elevation of Northington Grange in Hampshire left.

Lethbridge's bath house consisted of three large entrance porticos, each supported at the corner with pairs of square columns. The entablature was a mixture of angular blocks with balsutrading creating in effect an Attic storey. On the frieze, at the corners of each portico, were classical wreathes. The wreathes, the square columns, the angular blocks of the entablature, all were lifted directly from the monument of Thrasyllus. Surmounting the central portico was an enormous statue of Poseidon, holding a trident and flanked by a sea horse, a suitably watery god to use on a bath house. The bath house opened to the public for the first time on 03 December 1821.

A guide to Exeter published in 1828 stated that the baths offered "cold, hot, plunge, shower, vapour and medicated baths" with an "elegant" interior. In 1828 at least the baths were open from 7am until 10pm during the summer and from 8am until 10pm in the winter but, "in cases of emergency, at any hour"?! However it seems as though the baths quickly ran into difficulties. In 1829 another guide included the following statement: "The public baths...exhibit a classical exterior, and are replete with every internal accommodation, but, unfortunately, the establishment has not met with that success which it so fully deserves".

By 1868 the bath house had proved to be a failure and the entire building was demolished. Robert Dymond, writing in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' in 1879, recollected that "the classical architecture design had some merit, but was being carried out in stucco, or rather plaster, which had become extremely shabby for some years before the removal of the structure." On the empty plot arose the Neo-Gothic, Noncomformist Southernhay Congregational Church, now the Southernhay United Reform Church.

The church was destroyed by bombs in 1942 and only the octagonal 180ft spire and tower survived. The rest of the church was rebuilt in 1956 right using brick, with a shallow copper pitched roof, and in a modernist style totally at odds with both the church it replaced and the late-Georgian terraces that survive nearby. Of the bath house from 1821 nothing remains at all.


Sunday, 9 January 2011

No. 237, High Street: The West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company

Before 1942 one of the most impressive neo-Classical facades in the city was at the former head office of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company left © Aviva.

The company was founded in Exeter in 1807 by Samuel Milford, a Deputy Lieutenant of Devonshire, as a response to a devastating fire in the small town of Chudleigh, about 10 miles west of the city. On 22 May 1807, at a bakehouse in Culver Street, a pile of dried gorse that was used to stoke the ovens caught on fire.

After weeks without rain the town rapidly went up in smoke as the fire spread through the narrow streets igniting the thatched roofs of the houses. Within just four hours the town had been almost completely destroyed with only the church and seven houses left intact. The West of England Company bought their first fire engine in Exeter in late 1807 and named it 'Little West' and was soon issuing both fire insurance and life insurance, backed by the enormous sum of £600,000.

It was the first company to issue life insurance policies outside of London and operated primarily throughout Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset, but by the 1820s it had agents in most of the major towns in England. The head office was initially situated on the corner of the High Street and North Street, but in 1821 the Company moved to No. 237 High Street.

The image right shows a detail from the 1905 map of Exeter overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. The West of England Fire and Life Company's location on the High Street is highlighted in red, almost opposite St Stephen's church.

As with so many of Exeter's buildings which no longer exist, accurate information concerning the Company's offices is as rare as hen's teeth and I can find only two descriptions of the building itself. The first as a footnote in a book entitled 'Domestic Architecture' published in 1841: "The front of the West of England Fire Office in High Street, Exeter, though inappropriate in its style of architecture, is an exceeding good copy from Sir John Soane, particularly the rotund hall within the building. It was composed by the late Mr. Paty, a native architect of great taste, but he being a copyist cannot rank high." The second comes from the 'History, Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Devon' from 1879: "[The Company's] chief office is a large and elegant building at 237 High Street, erected in 1833. The facade of this edifice is of Portland stone, and is about 50 feet wide and 26 high. It has a portico in the centre surmounted by a pedestal, on which stands a figure of King Alfred. Behind this is a large building, erected in 1820, and containing an excellent board-room and the secretary's residence."

The image left shows a tin plaque issued to policy holders and which were attached to properties covered by the Company. The figure represents King Alfred, the emblem of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company.

The "late Mr. Paty" was actually Andrew Patey*, a local architect who designed a significant number of buildings in Devon, including St Leonard's church in Exeter, and the Assembly Rooms and the neo-Norman St Michael's in Teignmouth. Andrew Patey also submitted a design for Exeter's Higher Market building which earned him third place in the architectural competition and the sum of £25.

Patey certainly designed the 1833 neo-Classical facade in the High Street but what about the rest of the building? It's clear that the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company commissioned a new building on the site c1820, prior to its departure from its premises on the corner with North Street, and that must've been when the "excellent board-room and secretary's residence" was built. But was the "rotund hall" mentioned in the first quote a circular board room? Or was the author referring to a rotunda used as a public space behind the facade? Was Andrew Patey also the architect of the 1820 building? Or was he brought in just to design the facade 13 years later? The 1905 map of Exeter shows a building of two halves divided by a central courtyard. Maybe the portion of the building north of the courtyard was the 1820 structure with Patey's design being the remaining half which fronted onto the street. As far as I am aware there are no photographs or plans of the interior prior to its destruction. I contacted the archivist for Aviva and she said that the archives don't contain any images showing the interior.

The 1833 facade was certainly a great stylistic change from everything else which had been built in the High Street up until then, and nearly all of Exeter's great neo-Classical public buildings, including the Lower Market, the Higher Market and the new Post Office in Queen Street were still several years in the future (although the Royal Subscription Rooms, destroyed in 1942, were constructed in 1820).

Clearly the owners of the company wanted something prestigious. As a building material, Portland stone was almost unheard of in Exeter at the time and much of the High Street would still have contained a significant number of timber-framed houses from the 16th and 17th centuries (the building next door, to the east, was the mid-17th century timber-frame townhouse of the Earls of Morley).

The single-storey facade consisted of six fluted limestone columns crowned with Corinthian capitals supporting a plain architrave with a modillion cornice above. The central portion of the facade above right projected slightly towards the High Street and served as the main entrance. The entrance was framed with pairs of columns behind which was the enormous doorway topped with a classical triangular pediment. Ranged along the top of the building was a series of limestone blocks with mouldings and a cornice, an Attic storey, interspersed with sections of stone balustrade. Perched on top of this, like miniature radar dishes, were a number of circular and semi-circular medallions inset with scallop shells and flowers. And finally, in the centre, with one hand on his sword and looking over the city towards the east, was a colossal, almost twice-life sized statue of King Alfred the Great, the Company's emblem.

The photo left © Express & Echo shows the view down the bomb-damaged High Street towards the Guildhall, the remains of the 1833 facade visible on the right.

The rotunda, the board-room, the secretary's residence and all the other rooms were totally destroyed by fire during the air-raid on Exeter in 1942. But the flamboyant facade was still standing, almost completely undamaged and it could easily have been salvaged if the city council had chosen to do so. Instead, as happened with nearly all the war-damaged buildings in the city centre, under the council's orders the entire facade was smashed to pieces and demolished. Only the head of the statue survived, apparently being knocked off when the edifice came tumbling to the ground.

During the post-war reconstruction the High Street was massively widened, the north side being set back considerably. Today the former location of the facade of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company is actually in the middle of the pavement close to the current Lloyd's bank building below.

*Andrew Patey died of consumption in Exeter on 01 September 1836 just three years after the facade of the building was completed. The West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company merged with the Commercial Union Fire Insurance Company in 1894 (Commercial Union was still operating out of the building on the High Street in 1942). Today Commercial Union is part of the Aviva insurance group. The Exeter Company's first fire engine, 'Little West', still exists.


Saturday, 8 January 2011

St Lawrence's Church, High Street

Located in the High Street, the 15th century church of St Lawrence left was the only medieval parish church within the city walls that was destroyed as a direct consequence of World War Two.

A church was definitely in existence on the same site at the start of the 13th century, and it's possible that the foundation itself pre-dated the Norman Conquest of 1066.

George Oliver, in his History of the City of Exeter, cites a deed of c1202 showing that the church belonged to the abbot and convent of St Mary de Valle in Bayeux, France. During the reign of Henry III, in 1272, the French abbey surrendered its possession of St Lawrence and ownership of the church was granted to the Augustinian priory at Merton in Surrey. In the late-13th century the then Bishop of Exeter, Peter Quivel, requested that the church be given to the diocese of Exeter in exchange for an interest in St John's Hospital, a short way up the High Street towards the East Gate and on the opposite side of the road. This rather tortuous series of transfers and exchanges enabled the church of St Lawrence to fall within the ecclesiastical grasp of the Bishops of Exeter. Like many of the city's parish churches, the church of St Lawrence was sold-off during the Commonwealth but it was purchased for its parishioners on 21 September 1658 for £100 by a wealthy Exonian.

The church was rebuilt in the mid-15th century in a style typical of Exeter's parish churches, the walls and tower constructed from the red Heavitree breccia with decorative mouldings, windows and tracery in white limestone. The south wall was rebuilt in 1674 and the west wall in 1830, but apart from those renovations much of the church in 1942 dated to the 1400s.

The south wall, that faced onto the High Street, was pierced by three large 15th century Perpendicular windows. The large bell tower to the south-west originally held three bells but two of these were sold in 1780 to raise funds for repairs to the fabric of the church. By 1942 only one bell remained, a late medieval one cast by the Exeter bell-founder, Robert Norton. Jenkins was very dismissive of the tower, complaining that it was "a clumsy ill-proportioned building, much too large for its height". He also stated that it was finished at the top with only a "coping wall without battlements" which gave it "a very odd appearance". Later photographs of the church show that both the south wall and the tower were crenellated so at least the tower decoration must've been added later, perhaps during the renovations of the 1850s.

The image left shows a 1905 map of the city overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area.

Only those buildings that lay within the parish boundary of St Lawrence are highlighted. Buildings destroyed since 1905, the vast majority during the Exeter Blitz of 1942, are highlighted in red.

Surviving properties that pre-date 1905 and which once lay within the parish of St Lawrence are highlighted in purple. The site of the church itself is marked 'Ch' with the little graveyard clearly visible at the rear.

The most interesting aspect of the exterior was the south porch which allowed access into the church. In 1590 a new water fountain, or conduit, had been constructed in the High Street near to St Lawrence's (not to be confused with the medieval Great Conduit that stood at the Carfoix near the South Street/North Street crossroads). Built from pale Beer limestone, like so much of the Cathedral itself, the conduit was decorated with statues of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as well as Exeter's coat of arms. The conduit was demolished in 1694 and the materials were reused to construct the south porch of the church. Standing above the arched entrance of the porch, in a Gothic niche, was the statue of Elizabeth I.

The interior lay-out was simple, consisting of just a nave and a sanctuary (with a small niche that held the organ in the north wall at the eastern end). Dividing the nave and the sanctuary was the church's greatest treasure: an exceptionally fine screen with stalls, carved in oak, with ogee arches and ball-flower pinnacles which dated from the 1400s right © Devon County Council. The woodwork was part of the 14th century choir stalls at Exeter Cathedral which were removed during the mid-17th century. Jenkins doesn't mention it so it's not known exactly when the carving arrived at St Lawrence's.

Spanning the nave and sanctuary was a 15th-century barrel-vaulted roof complete with painted oak bosses "carved with faces, knots and foliage" (Cresswell). Where the ribs terminated at the walls there were carved angels holding shields. The massive hexagonal stone font was decorated with quartefoils with blind Gothic arches around the base. It was probably installed in the 1850s. A letter in The Ecclesiologist from 1842 suggested that prior to the installation of the stone font a glass jar, like a pot-pourri bowl, and kept in a recess in the west wall, was used for baptisms! There was also some Jacobean oak panelling near the altar that Cresswell dated to between 1621 and 1626 and which she believed originated from the Cathedral because of the inclusion of the coat of arms of Valentine Cary, Bishop of Exeter during the reign of Charles I. Also inside the church were a number of wall memorials and memorial slabs dating from the end of the 1600s to the 19th century.

The photograph above © Express & Echo shows the High Street following the Baedeker Raid of 04 May 1942. The crenellated tower of St Lawrence's can be seen about halfway up on the left, behind the neo-Classical facade of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company building.

St Lawrence's was one of the few parish churches with its own cemetery. Until the 19th century most of the residents of the city who died were either buried in the Cathedral Close or, after 1636, at a new burial ground at Bartholomew Street West. The little churchyard at St Lawrence's was opened in 1692 having previously been a parishioner's garden. It was accessed from the High Street down a very narrow lane that ran underneath the house adjacent to the church's tower: "Just beside the tower is the narrowest possible slip which surprises the enterprising wanderer by leading him into a tiny courtyard where there are two little houses, their porches overgrown with white jessamine, and a fat friendly cat offers a welcome." So wrote Beatrix Cresswell in her 1927 book 'Rambes in Old Exeter'. She called the courtyard "a delicious corner of the old city, with the red wall and cusped windows of the old church at one side of it". It was all destroyed in 1942.

On 04 May 1942, along with many of Exeter's other historic buildings, the church of St Lawrence was severely damaged by a German bombing raid.

All the shops and houses both opposite and next to the church were destroyed. The church itself was completely gutted by fire with only the south wall and the tower left standing. Nothing at all survived of the interior, the medieval roof or the 15th century oak screen. The remains above left were cleared away as part of the post-war reconstruction. The approximate site of the church became part of the Commercial Union building with only a plaque on the wall to remind pedestrians of St Lawrence's existence.

An interesting footnote relates to the statue of Elizabeth I that once stood in the south porch. The porch itself survived the Blitz but was demolished along with the rest of the ruined church, at which point the statue found a new home in the Commercial Union building that arose on the site. It was displayed inside the building until the company moved to new premises in Barnfield Road in 1973. After the move the statue disappeared until it was traced by Peter Thomas, one of Exeter's most prominent historians, to the company's warehouse in Southampton. Following efforts made by Peter Thomas, the late-16th century statue was donated by Commercial Union to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and can be seen today in the interpretation centre at the Underground Passages.


Friday, 7 January 2011

The Demolition of the Edwardian Exe Bridge

"Where else but in Exeter during the 1960s, a decade notorious for civic destruction of Blitz proportion, would an elegant Edwardian steel bridge be irretrievably broken up, the shady banks of the river beneath it ironed out between concrete barriers and the whole meshed into a cat's cradle of busy roads?" So writes Hugh Meller in his book on Exeter's remaining fragments of historic architecture. "Where else but in Exeter?" It's a question with an almost infinite number of continuations, and unfortunately most of them are negative.

The postcard above shows the view across the river looking west out of Exeter. At the multi-gabled building in the background it was possible to turn left in Alphington Street or right into Cowick Street. Nearly every building shown was demolished between 1963 and 1972 and nothing of the scene survives today.

The Edwardian bridge which was destroyed in 1972 was built between 1904 and 1905 as a replacement for the beautiful late-18th century bridge that stood on exactly the same site. (More about the medieval Exe Bridge can be found here.) The Georgian bridge was demolished in 1904 for several reasons e.g. an increase in traffic crossing in and out of Exeter to the west but also because of the need to allow electric trams to cross the river. The inaugural journey of the first electric tram in Exeter coincided almost exactly with the opening of the new steel bridge. A temporary wooden bridge was erected parallel to the beautiful three-arched bridge from the 1770s, then the Georgian bridge was demolished and the new steel bridge was constructed on exactly the same alignment as its predecessor, in line with the 18th century entrance into the city known as New Bridge Street.

The image above shows the view into Exeter via New Bridge Street and Fore Street with the Edwardian Exe Bridge in the foreground. Once again, nothing of this scene survives today.

It seems that at least some people were dismayed at the prospect of the old bridge's demolition. The Exeter Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society, as early as 1894, had stated their preference for the new bridge to be built "a little below [the Georgian bridge] to take the heavy traffic". Naturally such ideas were rejected out of hand. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1900 authorising the rebuilding of the Exe Bridge and the old bridge came down, but its replacement was a significant structure in its own right.

The Edwardian bridge of 1905 was designed by Sir John Wolfe-Barry, the youngest son of Sir Charles Barry, the architect behind much of the present-day Houses of Parliament. Today Wolfe-Barry is best remembered as the engineer responsible for Tower Bridge that crosses the Thames in London. The new Exe Bridge was designed with a three-hinged arch. The trusses were secured at the base with steel pins and another pin was used to secure them in the centre where they met. This method allowed the bridge to contract and expand without jeopardising its structural integrity. What made the bridge at Exeter special though was the care and attention that had gone into its Gothic detailing.

The balustrade on both sides was intricately decorated with Gothic quatrefoils. At regular intervals along the balustrades there were blind Gothic arches, in the centre of which was the three-castle motif derived from the city's coat of arms. The huge spandrels of the bridge were covered in richly-wrought details, with Art Nouveau swirls and scrolls combined with a direct reference to a pattern of 14th century tracery found in the windows of Exeter Cathedral. The crossing was lit with superbly-crafted lamp stands: two on either side of the carriageway at each end and with a further two in the centre. The Gothic details extended even to these lamps with the use of pointed Gothic arches and ball-flower pinnacles with more references to Exeter's three-castle motif.

The photograph right shows one of the two surviving lamp stands, now relocated to the Quay. These two exceptional stands are the only parts of the Edwardian Exe Bridge which still exist and provide some indication of the high quality of its decoration. The image below left shows some of the swirling Gothic detailing in the spandrels of the bridge under which is the exact same design as seen in one of the 14th century Decorated Gothic windows in Exeter Cathedral.

In appearance at least the Edwardian Exe Bridge at Exeter closely resembled the great Lendal Bridge which crosses the river Ouse at York, even down to the lamp stands and the quatrefoil detailing on the balustrades. Fortunately the Lendal Bridge still exists. The bridge at Exeter cost around £25,000 to complete and was opened on 29 March 1905. I don't know exactly when the city council started to plot its destruction. Plans for a new inner bypass to the south of the city, towards the bridge, were being hatched as early as 1949, but in 1959 it was announced that a second bridge was going to be installed across the river, leaving the Edwardian bridge intact. However in 1960 an event occurred which provided the perfect excuse for the bridge's demolition.

The river Exe has always flooded as rainwater and river water drain from the hills of North Devon and Exmoor and force their way past the crossing point at Exeter. Floods have been recorded throughout Exeter's history e.g. in 1286 part of the medieval Exe Bridge was washed away by flood water. With the encroachment of residential and industrial areas onto what was formerly marshland, flooding of businesses and homes was inevitable. On 27 October 1960, after torrential rain, 42,000 tons of water every minute flowed through the river Exe. The river burst its banks and innundated 2500 buildings. Just a few weeks later, on 03 December, a similar deluge occurred.

It was thought that the Edwardian bridge had held the water back, causing it to bottleneck and flood into the nearby roads. The decision was therefore taken to unite the newly-complete inner bypass system with a new project: the Exeter Flood Prevention Scheme. The scheme was carried out between 1964 and 1977 at enormous cost, both financially and for its impact on Exeter's cityscape. Various schemes were proposed, including one which would've involved constructing tunnels to carry away surplus water from the river, but obviously these less destructive alternatives came to nothing and Wolfe-Barry's bridge was replaced with two concrete road bridges. (Ironically, many of the properties affected by the 1960s' flooding were subsequently demolished anyway as part of the wider redevelopment!)

The aerial view above right shows the area affected by the construction of the two new Exe Bridges and accompanying road system, with the former location of the Edwardian Exe Bridge highlighted in red. Prior to the construction of the road system there were properties and streets extending up to the edge of the river. By the early-1970s huge tracts of the city had been bulldozed in order to implement the scheme.

The inner bypass was extended on both sides of the river and hundreds of buildings dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were demolished in the process. It must be remembered that unlike the eastern side of the city, this side of Exeter had escaped the destruction of World War Two almost completely unscathed. The results have been predictably appalling. The photograph above shows the dismal western approach into the centre of Exeter today via one of the two current bridges. What a lovely welcome it makes to the city...

The Edwardian Exe Bridge was cut into pieces and removed, and today nothing remains of it except for the two ornate lamp stands which once adorned the crossing. Having lived in York for four years I know that the Ouse sometimes floods and inundates riverside properties, but York is fortunate that the local authority there didn't decide to adopt Exeter's solution in an attempt to remedy the problem. The bridges over the Exe at Exeter now look like this:

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