Paul Street, Goldsmith Street, Paris Street, Mary Arches Street, South Street, Sidwell Street, North Street, Guinea Street, Bear Street, John Street, Kalendarhay, George Street, Catherine Street, Pancras Street, Frog Street, Rack Street, Milk Street, Sun Street and much of the High Street, Preston Street is another of Exeter's medieval streets which today shows very few traces of its lengthy history.
Until the end of the 19th century, the old West Quarter was particularly rich in surviving timber-framed domestic houses from the late-Middle Ages to the 17th century, most notably in Coombe Street, Rack Street, Frog Street, Stepcote Hill, Smythen Street and Preston Street as well as in many small courts and alleys. Almost none of them have survive today, mostly the victim of slum clearances between c1880 and the 1930s. By the time the bombs fell in 1942 nearly all of them had already gone.
The West Quarter was a sprawling jumble of alleyways, courtyards, lanes and streets, full of inns, workshops and houses, the commercial and, to a large extent, residential heart of medieval Exeter. By the 1800s, following a process started in the 16th century, the wealthier citizens of Exeter had moved from the West Quarter up into the High Street and, in the late-18th century, to Bedford Circus, Southernhay and the suburbs beyond the city walls at St Leonard's and Pennsylvania. In the 19th century the West Quarter had become a slum comprising dozens of rotting tenements, many of which had been carved out of what were once the dwellings of some of Exeter's wealthiest medieval and Tudor citizens. The poor lived in the cast off houses of the rich.
right shows Preston Street as it appears on Caleb Hedgeland's wooden model of Exeter. The model was built between 1817 and 1824 but depicts the city as it was in 1769.
All of the houses which made up Preston Street are highlighted in red. Up until the mid 19th century most of the street consisted of timber-framed frontages dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries.
It was a narrow, straggling street, one of the longest in the medieval city, starting at its junction with West Street in the west and exiting into South Street. (Although included in the highlighted properties, the upper quarter of the street was known as Billiter Lane, later Sun Street, and was eventually regarded as a street in its own right. More information about Sun Street can be found here.) Even if there is no trace of its antiquity today, Preston Street is ancient, probably dating to the 9th century and the time of Alfred the Great.
The name of the street itself is self-explanatory being simply "the street of the priests". Hoskins cites the name as being as early as the reign of Henry II in the mid-to-late 12th century. He goes on to suggest that, because there were no parishes of the sort which are familiar today, the priests of Exeter's numerous churches and chapels congregated in one area, much like the blacksmiths did in Smythen Street and the milk sellers in Milk Street. This theory is borne out by George Oliver in his 'History of Exeter' in which he quotes a lease of 1296 which mentions Prustene-Street or Vicus Presbyterorum (literally, "the street of priests").
The image left, a detail from Hedgeland's model, shows the Grendon Almshouses on Preston Street, also known as the 'Ten Cells'. Founded c1404, they were demolished in 1878. By the late-13th century Exeter had acquired a network of parishes and the priests would've lived within each parish, but clearly the name had stuck. Over 800 years later it is still called Preston Street. It is continuity like this which makes living in a historic city so enjoyable, although unfortunately in Exeter the street names are frequently the only historic element of the townscape that still survive.
Preston Street fell within the huge ecclesiastical parish boundary of St Mary Major, and a number of interesting properties once stood on the street including the Grendon Almshouses, endowed by Simon Grendon at the beginning of the 15th century. The Dolphin inn was located on the corner of Preston Street with Market Street. The Dolphin was an ancient tavern once owned by the Earls of Devonshire and the Guild of the Merchant Adventurers. It dated to before the 16th century but, according to Dymond writing in 1880, it had been significantly rebuilt and was later destroyed in 1942. Another inn of great historical interest was the Mermaid, accessed from Preston Street. Dymond states that, as an inn, it was almost the equal of the New Inn on the High Street in terms of its importance. It was a sprawling, rambling building. Features inside included a large oak staircase with a carved handrail and a huge room, 56ft by 17ft, frequently used as an assembly room in the 19th century, which had an arched and moulded ceiling, "enriched with gold and colour", and a stone chimneypiece dated 1632, emblazoned with the arms of the Shapleigh and Slanning families. It had been completely demolished by 1880. The Mermaid inn was described T.J. Toce as "the house of Tudor days and personalities, down to recent times, and a noble and old building. The destruction and wrecking of its goodly timbers was a grievous loss to Exeter".
Further down, on the corner of Preston Street and King Street, was the so-called 'Norman House' right © Devon County Council. The building was spared during the slum clearances of the early 20th century and restored, although the exact history of the property remains unclear. It was damaged in 1942 and subsequently destroyed during the post-war reconstruction. It's a bitter truth that of the very small number of buildings on Preston Street which were affected during the Exeter Blitz one of them should've been the street's oldest and most historically significant surviving structure.
The photograph at the top of this post was taken c1900 looking down Preston Street from the junction with Rack Street. Apart from the fine pair of gabled house on the left, which possibly dated to the 16th century, of particular interest is the paved street with its central gutter. Everything shown in the photo, including the street surface, no longer survives. An even finer pair of houses from c1600 existed in the street prior to the slum clearances. They were built on four floors with pitched roofs and small windows set into the gable end (a wonderful photograph of them can be seen in Peter Thomas's book 'Exeter's West Quarter and Adjacent Areas')
A medical officer's report from 1865 stated that "In Preston Street I visited a house of six rooms, each let to a separate tenant. There were in all 11 adults and 20 children, the largest of these families being 2 adults and their 5 children, who thus had only one upstairs room for all their necessities". In 1866, during an epidemic of cholera, the residents of Preston Street were described as dying "like sheep". Another contemporary report stated that "the disease raged very severely in Preston-Street, where 17 of the deaths occurred, two or three in a day". Regarded as unsafe and unhealthy, much of the street was consequently cleared of its buildings between c1880 and the 1930s. The old timber-framed houses were demolished and the street itself was dug up and massively widened.
Fragments of historical interest did linger on into the 1970s. The Sawyers Arms was an inn which appeared to be two timber-framed houses from c1700. It was demolished in 1970s. No. 15 Preston Street left was another fragment. It was granted Grade II listed status in 1974. Dating to c1570, No. 15 was a small timber-framed house built on three floors with an oversailing top storey. It really was almost the last of its kind, not only in Preston Street but in the entire West Quarter. Only Nos. 5 & 7 West Street and the house formerly known as No. 16 Edmund Street now remain. No. 15 Preston Street was demolished without record by the city council soon after it had been listed.
The only buildings of any age which survive on Preston Street today are a small cul-de-sac of late-Victorian terrace houses called Grendon Buildings (built on the site of the almshouses which were demolished in 1878), a couple of red-brick late-19th century warehouses (one of which houses the Spacex art gallery) and a dull red-brick Victorian school. All the rest is either semi-detached, two-storey houses from the 1930s or post-war blocks of flats and modern terraces. As happened so often in Exeter, over the course of the 20th century nearly everything which remained of historical or architectural interest in Preston Street was simply obliterated. The street today, shown below, is sterile, utilitarian and drab, and it would fit in perfectly well in an outlying suburb in any city in England. To find it in one of Exeter's most historically important areas is depressing. Since the 1960s, instead of opening into West Street and the city wall, Preston Street now ends abruptly at the four-lane inner bypass.