Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Nos. 266 & 267, High Street

Buildings that are historically interesting aren't necessarily the most architecturally important. A good example were Nos. 266 and No. 267, located just inside the boundary of the city walls at the eastern end of the High Street. From an architectural perspective this building, two shop fronts within a single structure, was a fairly unremarkable late-18th century townhouse, spread over three floors with a simple cornice at roof level. But it was exceptionally interesting and of great historic value because the facade had been constructed out of the building materials of the old East Gate, which, until 1784, had stood just a couple of metres away.

The photograph above left © Devon County Council shows Nos. 266 & 267 to the right, the statue of Henry VII just visible in its niche on the first floor, c1915.

The East Gate, rebuilt in 1511, was demolished in 1784 to improve access into the city from the east, and someone had the brilliant idea of recycling the tough purple volcanic ashlar blocks from the early-Tudor gatehouse into a refined neo-Classical edifice. The blocks weren't the only element of the East Gate that found their way into Nos. 266 and 267. When the East Gate was rebuilt in 1511 a memorial to Henry VII had been placed in a niche over the arched entrance into the city (Henry VII had died in April 1509).

The photograph right shows a model of the East Gate with the Henry VII memorial in its original position.

The upper half of the memorial consisted of a two-thirds life-size statue, carved of limestone, showing the king dressed in robes and carrying an orb and sceptre with a crown upon his head. The lower half of the memorial, also carved from limestone, featured a series of heraldic details. In the centre was the royal arms of England, three lions quartered with the fleur-de-lis of France, above which was a large crown. Supporting the arms on either side was a collared greyhound and a dragon (the greyhound was often used by Henry VII as a replacement for the more usual lion as it was particularly associated with the House of Richmond). Framing the supporters were two decorated twisted columns. In the background were four portcullises. The portcullis was an heraldic device used by Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort. Both the statue and the heraldic motifs were originally painted in bright colours. For example the dragon would've been red and the greyhound would've been silver with a red collar.

The image left shows a drawing of the statue that appeared in "An Elizabethan Guild of the City of Exeter", printed in 1873.

When the East Gate was demolished both the statue and the coat of arms were carefully taken down and then reset within its original niche in the centre of the first floor of Nos. 266 and 267. From the beginning of the 19th century until 1942 many people writing about the city's history mentioned it: "This Statue, and the Arms, are preserved, they are placed in the front of a house erected on the scite, and built with part of the materials of the old gate", Jenkins (1806); "A statue of Henry VII, which graced the East Gate, now decorates the front of a house in High Street", History, Gazetteer and Directory of Devonshire (1850); "Near the site of the East Gate in High Street we find a curious statue of Henry VII", The Archaelogical Journal (1873); "In a niche of the house opposite the new Post Office is a small statue of Henry VII, removed there from the ancient East Gate", The Guide to Devonshire (1898). In 1880, in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post', Robert Dymond wrote that the statue "now graces the front of Mr Mark Rowe's establishment".

The photograph below right © Devon County Council shows Nos. 266 & 267 looking down the High Street from the site of the East Gate. Every building shown on both sides of the street disappeared during World War Two.

Mark Rowe was a local entrepreneur whose name often appears throughout the commercial records of mid-to-late 19th century Exeter. During the last half of the 19th century he acquired Nos. 266 and 267 and the premises were used to sell drapery, curtains, sheets, bed linen, mattresses, and bed frames. The company, later known as Mark Rowe & Sons, also owned warehouses where space could be hired to store furniture. Mark Rowe was a shareholder in both the Exeter Coffee Tavern Company and the Exeter Arcade Company, and the company fitted out cabinets in the Arcade as well as the carpet, seats and hangings in the rebuilt Theatre Royal in 1889.

Nos. 266 and 267 were still in the possession of the company when the entire building was obliterated on 04 May 1942. The facade built from the stones of the East Gate was completely destroyed as was the 431-year-old statue of Henry VII. The only part of the building to be salvaged was the bronze plaque set on the wall in the late 19th century to commemorate the site of the East Gate itself. Mark Rowe & Sons opened a new store on the site of the 18th century building in 1954. Today it is part of Boots the Chemists and naturally, either architecturally or historically, there is nothing to be seen of any interest whatsoever.

The photograph below shows the site of Nos. 266 and 267. The building stood almost exactly where the large window is in the current post-war structure.


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