Despite its obliteration and partial reinstatement in the second half of the 20th century the history of Egypt Lane is both long and interesting! It has probably undergone more name changes than any other street in Exeter but each change says something about the history of the surrounding area.
Egypt Lane was probably first laid out when Alfred the Great refounded Exeter in the late 9th century. It originally ran from its junction with Catherine Street all the way to the city walls near Southernhay. Little is known about the street until the 13th century when it starts popping up in various documents as Strikenstrete (c1265), Strikestrete (1286) and Stykenstrete (1297), and later as Stekeslane (1399) and Styckestreete (1458). It's possible that the name Stick Street or Strike Street was derived from the plural of the Anglo-Saxon word styrc, meaning a young bullock or heffer. By the end of the 13th century the entrance into Strike Street had been barred by the installation of a large wooden gate.
This seems to have been the result of a liasion between the cathedral's Dean and Chapter, who wanted to improve security within the cathedral precinct following the murder of the precentor William Lechlade in 1283, and the Dominican friars whose large monastic complex had Strike Street as its southern boundary. Anyone walking down Strike Street in the late-1200s would've seen the tall boundary wall of the friary on the left, probably with a postern gate for pedestrian access, and the back walls of the houses and gardens of the cathedral's canons on the right. The street was sandwiched in the middle and presumably closed off at its far end by the 25ft high city wall.
It was necessary for the city authorities to have access into Strike Street so that the interior of the city walls could be inspected and maintained, but the closing of the street theoretically prevented anyone not connected with either the friary or the cathedral from entering the street. The city's mayor also claimed right of access and a document from 1297 confirms that an agreement "concerning a gate in Styke Street" had been reached between the mayor, William Tauntifer and Robert de Ottery, the prior of the Dominican friary, and a right of way was subsequently granted to the city authorities.During the 15th century the street's name gradually changed from Strike Street to Freren Lane, first recorded c1448. (Freren Lane is visible to the far left in Hooker's 16th century plan of the cathedral precinct, shown above left, running parallel with Canon Street or St Martin's Street, as the Cathedral Close was once known. The boundary walls of Russell's Bedford House, inset into which is a little gatehouse, are clearly visible.)
Clearly the name was a reflection of the neighbouring community of Black Friars. They would've been a frequent sight in the area for over three centuries until the friary was dissolved during the Reformation. The street retained its etymological association with the friars of the Dominican order long after the walls of their church had been thrown down and some of the old friary buildings had been converted into Bedford House, the Exeter mansion of John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford. The gate at Freren Lane became just one source of a dramatic deterioration in the relationship between the cathedral's Dean and Chapter and the city's mayors in the 1400s.
It's likely that there was an element of what Lega-Weekes called "jealousy of prerogative", with both sides jockeying for a superior position, but in the mid-15th century one of Exeter's most notable mayors, John Shillingford, constantly "compleyneth" about matters arising from access into Freren Lane, described as lying along the "bakside joynant to divers mansions of divers chanons of the clos". In one document Shillingford complains that so much "earth, rubble and dung and other filth" is carried out of the canons' houses and dumped into Freren Lane that it had become almost impassable. In another document he accuses the clergy of having smashed the lock to the gate, replacing it with one for which only they had the key. In yet another surviving document Shillingford demanded that the gate should not be left open except for once-a-year when the mayor went to "over se yf eny nede be to repaire the towne wallys".
The rather naive postcard above from
c1900 shows a very rare view into Egypt Lane with St Catherine's
Almshouses to the right. Adjacent to the almshouses, on the far right,
is the Country House Inn. Formerly a 13th century canon's house, it was destroyed in 1942.
Another little description of the street survives in a document from 1458 when more problems were caused by rainwater and "other waters" (probably from garderobes and emptied chamber pots) flowing down Catherine Street from the direction of St John's Hospital and pooling at the "head of the lane which leads to the city walls, between the area of the Dominican Convent...and the houses of some of the Canons". The water was creating "a great nuisance by being a receptacle for filth and putrid carcases". The mayor proposed rebuilding the gate at the entrance of Freren Lane, "by which hay and fuel might be brought to the houses of the Canons, who had doors opening into the lane". A drainage channel running via the lane to the city walls and out into the town ditch was to be paid for by the cathedral. Writing in the 16th century, John Hooker describes Freren Lane as running "betwen St Katherens Almeshowses and certen Canons' Howses on the one syde, and the soyle of the late dissolved Howse of the Fryars Preachers, now the Erles of Bedford, on the other syde."
By at least the middle of the 18th century the name had changed again, to Egypt Lane. The origin of this name was a mystery for many years. Hoskins wondered whether it derived from some sort of local slang but it has recently been suggested that it referred to a community of gypsies. Gypsies were once thought to have originated in Egypt (hence the name) and it's perfectly plausible that either some gypsies from Europe or some itinerant workers settled in the area around Freren Lane.
John Rocque's 1744 map of Exeter (shown left with Egypt Lane highlighted in red) clearly shows that by the 1740s part of Egypt Lane, just labelled as Egypt, had been built over with numerous properties and it no longer ran all the way to the city walls. Tenements and other buildings had been constructed on the land once owned by the Dominican friars and on the former grounds of Russell's Bedford House. At least some of the buildings were the stables and coach houses for the New Inn and the Half Moon Inn which fronted onto the High Street (and both of these old inns are labeled on Rocque's map). Another group of buildings belonged to a builder called Mr Brown, as shown on a map of 1819.
According to Lega-Weekes, Egypt Lane was also known as Theatre Lane, named after the theatre that opened in 1787 as part of the first phase of the building of Bedford Circus (not to be confused with Waterbeer Street, which was also known as Theatre Lane for a short time); and a deed dating to 1815 refers to Egypt Lane as Johnasses Lane, the only recorded use of such a title. In 1773 Bedford House made way for Robert Stribling's crescent of fourteen red-brick townhouses. The opposite crescent, which completed the architectural circus, wasn't begun until 1825.
The construction of this second crescent resulted in the demolition of most of the existing buildings on the north side of Egypt Lane. The south side retained a jumble of different structures, old stables, etc., most of them still relating to the canons' residences that fronted onto the Cathedral Close. The entire street was once again reopened to its full length, running from Catherine Street, around the backs of the new townhouses and into the eastern entrance of the Circus near the city walls.
The completion of the extra parochial Bedford Chapel in 1832 resulted in yet another change of name and Egypt Lane became Chapel Street, a title which it retained until World War Two. (On John Wood's map of 1840 it is called Church Lane, although the street was still referred to by some as Egypt Lane well into the latter-half of the 19th century.) The building on the north side of the Chapel wasn't constructed as a townhouse, although it looked the same as all the others from the outside. This was the Atheneum, built for the Devon and Exeter Institution and designed as a "Theatre for Scientific and Literary Pursuits and Lectures". There were entrances from Bedford Circus, from a side entrance adjacent to the chapel and from Egypt Lane itself. The map above right shows the Bedford precinct c1900. Chapel Street is highlighted in red, the Atheneum in blue, Bedford Chapel in green and the city walls bordering Southernhay are highlighted in yellow.
Bedford Circus was partially damaged by fire in the air-raid of 04 May 1942 and some of the buildings associated with the canons' houses that backed onto Chapel Street was also affected. One of these was a 15th century building with its entrance onto Chapel Street (shown with war damage left). One of its side walls was built from cob, a mixture of mud and straw and a very rare survival in 20th century Exeter. The medieval roof remained intact and although one gable wall had been demolished by a high-explosive bomb the structure was salvageable.
But, this being Exeter, it was totally demolished as part of the post-war reconstruction, along with the whole of Bedford Circus. After nearly one thousand years of continuous history, Chapel Street, also known as Johnasses Lane, Theatre Lane, Egypt Lane, Freren Lane and Strikenstrete, was redeveloped out of existence. Part of the old gardens of the canons' houses were appropriated for a service road that was built 50ft (15m) to the south of the old street. This service road has been called Chapel Street ever since. The true line of the historic street was covered with single-storey post-war shacks.Between 2005 and 2007 the post-war buildings in Bedford Street were demolished as part of the much-vaunted £225 million Princesshay redevelopment.
As part of the scheme some lip service was paid to Exeter's past with the reinstatement of a small portion of the original line of Strike Street. Now once again called Egypt Lane it runs for approximately one-fifth of its original length. Little more than a featureless passageway, it is small recompense for the inappropriate designs of the newly-constructed buildings.
Only the ruins of the almshouses at the junction with Catherine Street survive as an indication of Egypt Lane's long and interesting history. The aerial view right shows the service road now known as Chapel Street highlighted in purple. The recently reinstated fragment of Egypt Lane is highlighted in red, a photo of which is shown at the top of this post.