Along with its contemporary at No. 23 Cathedral Yard, Nos. 55 and 56 on the High Street stands today as one of the city's most attractive examples of Gothic Revival architecture. The current property at Nos. 55 and 56, and the mediocre red-brick property at No. 57 (both shown left) only date to the mid-1880s. But through documents and images it's possible to trace the previous buildings on the site back through the centuries into Exeter's medieval past.
It seems very likely that this was the location of what is referred to in 15th century documents as the "Hospitium de le Egle", the medieval mansion of Robert Wilford first mentioned in 1420. The Wilford family were wealthy importers of woad throughout the 1300s and 1400s, and both Robert Wilford and William Wilford held the position of mayor of Exeter. The house itself probably dated at least to the mid-to-late 14th century, although I don't know why it is referred to as a 'hospitium'. It's unlikely that it was an inn in the way we understand the word today. More probable is that the house provided private hospitality and lodgings. The Wilfords were amongst the wealthiest of Exeter's late-medieval citizens and with their political and economic interests perhaps they enjoyed the status of accommodating any significant visitor to the city. The meaning behind the property's name is unclear as well. (Incidentally, the little lost chapel of St Peter Minor is believed to have stood overlooking the Cathedral near the back of the mansion until the chapel disappeared at the beginning of the 14th century.)
The Eagle House is referred to again in a grant of 1437 when it was granted by Robert Wilford to John Coplestone, John Hody, John Fortescue and John Mulys. The Exeter Corporation (the equivalent a modern-day city council) then seemed to have acquired it. Records dating to 1472 state that "the howse called the Egle over againste [i.e. opposite] the Guyldehalle shalbe employed and put to the use of a Clothe Hall". Any "foreyn" cloth merchants wishing to sell their cloth in Exeter were required to use the Eagle House only and were forbidden from selling it anywhere else in the city. It must've been a very significant and extensive property. In 1554 the equally ancient New Inn, further up the High Street, was used as a cloth hall instead and the Eagle Inn or Eagle House seems to disappear from the records for over three hundred years. A rare image of Exeter's High Street c1875 above right shows the projecting windows of No. 55 highlighted in red. The late-16th century portico of the Guildhall is on the left. To the far right, also highlighted in red, can just be seen one of the big oriel windows of No. 56.
The rate at which Exeter was destroying its ancient buildings as the 19th century progressed motivated a local architect called James Crocker to travel around the city making sketches and writing descriptions of old properties in danger of demolition. (Crocker designed the Eastgate Arcade in the High Street which was destroyed during the Blitz of 04 May 1942.) The result of Crocker's interest in Exeter's architectural past was an 1886 publication entitled 'Old Exeter'. One of the illustrations is of a group of buildings which Crocker believed almost certainly to be "The Eagle House or the Eagle Inn". The properties stood opposite the Guildhall, as described in the record of 1472, but externally at least they were no earlier than 17th century in date.
Crocker's illustration left shows Nos. 55, 56 and 57 as they existed c1880. If any of these buildings was the old 'Eagle House' then it was likely to have been No. 56, whose wide plot probably retained the original footprint of Robert Wilford's prestigious 14th century mansion. Visible to the far left in the sketch are the quoins running up the side of the still-standing No. 54, High Street.
J Webber, ironmonger, occupied a tall, thin property at No. 55 which had a windows projecting out over the street below. Next to it is No. 56. From Crocker's sketch it appears to have had a brick facade with quoins at the sides. The second and third-floor windows projected out over the street supported on brackets, the centre of each window topped with a little triangular pediment. Curiously, both No 55 and No. 56 are clearly shown as two separate structures but they are united under a single roof with windows in the attic. No 56 was the premises of Messrs. Davies and Davies, haberdashers, who sold gloves and blankets. The shop spread across into No. 57, to the right in Crocker's illustration, a four-storey timber-framed building from the mid-to-late 17th century with a stucco facade.
Disaster struck the properties just a few months after Crocker completed his sketch. The fate of all three buildings is vividly recounted in an edition of the 'Exeter Flying Post'. In the early hours of Sunday 09 October 1881 two policemen on duty near Holy Trinity church in South Street noticed a "strong smell of fire". A third policeman joined them and together they began a tour of inspection, searching along the Cathedral Yard and into Waterbeer Street in an attempt to locate the source of the burning. Nothing was discovered and the three had regrouped in the High Street outside Davies and Davies' haberdashery when the shop door of No. 57 flew open and Miss Davies "rushed out to give an alarm and seek help". The rear part of the shop was already ablaze. The remaining occupants of No. 57 were rescued from the upper floors of the property by a portable fire escape kept at the Guildhall opposite but the fire had already started to spread to adjoining buildings. No. 56 was occupied by around twenty people, including the family of W.G. Davies and his assistants who slept above the shop itself. No. 56 extended all the way from the High Street to the Cathedral Yard with a central courtyard dividing the property near the middle. W.G. Davies and his family escaped out into the Cathedral Yard. The assistants were attempting to grab what they could when "fire entered the building and taking possession of the landing and the staircase compelled the young women to make a hurried rush for the street".
The 1905 map below right shows the approximate extent of the fire-damaged area.
Chaos broke out when it was realised that one of the assistants, Miss L. Welsh, remained trapped in the building. Suddenly she appeared through the smoke at the second floor window and "screamed for help". By now a second, larger fire escape had been brought up from the Lower Market. Placing it against the wall of the burning building, Sergeant Guppy "ran up the ladder and brought the young lady down". Five fire engines were brought to the scene in an attempt to quell the conflagration, which had spread into Webber's ironmongers at No. 55. In less than two hours the roofs of the "three houses first attacked fell in". No. 58 was also destroyed in the fire. Soldiers from the 11th Regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery and the Militia were all called in to try and combat the fire and eventually, over five hours later, the inferno was extinguished. Several firemen were injured but there were no fatalities. Only the shop front of Webber's ironmongers at No. 55 remained standing. As the newspaper related, the "whole of the premises destroyed were very old, and constructed mainly of timber, filled in with brick of lath and plaster...From Mr Veitch's to the bank, nothing has been left standing but one or two massive chimney stacks, which appear to have been the principle supports of the houses which once occupied the site".
The apparent lack of any remaining masonry walls suggests that nothing of Wilford's mansion had survived into the 19th century. Any significant townhouse built in Exeter towards the end of the 14th century would've been constructed using thick stone walls. It wasn't until later into the 15th and 16th centuries, and beyond, that timber-framing became the default construction method of most of Exeter's large domestic houses. Even the Blitz of 1942 didn't manage to destroy either the remaining walls of a 14th century house at No. 8 in Milk Street or all of the stone walls of the late-14th century dining hall of the Vicars Choral in South Street.
Over the next few years a number of new properties arose on the site and which remain today. One of these, No. 57, is constructed of red brick and has a strangely asymmetrical facade, shown top. Perhaps it has been altered at some point. It did have a first-floor oriel window when first built but the building is now so undistinguished that it barely deserves mentioning.
Much more impressive is the single building occupying the plots of Nos. 55 and 56 (detail left and below right). As mentioned above, the properties destroyed in the 1881 fire ran from the High Street all the way back to the Cathedral Yard and it was here that Henry Wippell decided to build new business premises to replace the firm's old shop on the corner of Queen Street. Wippell's was founded in 1789 and by the 1880s had acquired a nationwide reputation for making high quality ecclesiastical furnishings, from stained glass to candlesticks as well as clerical robes. Nos. 55 and 56 was not only to be the company's new shop but also a factory containing workshops where the items were produced on-site.
The architects were Messrs. Best and Commin, based in Queen Street, and plans were drawn up and submitted to the city council in the autumn of 1882. Given the nature of Wippell's ecclesiastical work it was natural that the new building should be in the Gothic Revival style and by January 1883 work was already underway. Apart from some issues surrounding how far the building projected into the High Street work progressed smoothly throughout 1883. Another issue arose concerning the brackets of the oriel window in the High Street facade and these were replaced with banded corbelling. In May 1883 one of the builders, George Beer, fell 25ft onto the shop floor but he only received minor injuries. By February 1884 Wippell's new premises were nearly finished and were already in use. They were of such distinction that a double sheet of lithographs showing the completed buildings featured in an edition of the 'Building News' periodical.
The finished structure was really two distinct properties, one accessed from the High Street and the other from the Cathedral Yard but united by a common architectural style. The Cathedral Yard building was used for offices and as a carpet warehouse. The High Street building had a shop at ground floor level which housed woollen drapery and the clerical outfitting department. The whole of the first floor was used as a showroom for church furniture and school fittings. The other floors contained the workshops with lifts providing easy access between one floor and another.
The two facades are both constructed of creamy Bath stone with Gothic detailing, including blind Decorated Gothic tracery with red brick filling behind. The frontage at 23 Cathedral Yard above left is particularly attractive. Seven windows with stone mullions stretch across the entire facade at first-floor level with three paired windows above. Red brick brackets run underneath the parapet. Unusually for Exeter, the impressive original shop front has survived intact.
The High Street facade top is similar in its detailing with more Decorated Gothic blind tracery. The central bay rises to a moulded arch at the gable inset into which is a quatrefoil. The gable is topped with a stone finial. But the main feature of the High Street frontage is the large canted oriel window on the first floor right. When completed in 1884 the upper part of each of the seven windows on the first floor was decorated with stained glass depicting the Wippell craftsmen at work. There was a draughtsman, a carpenter, a church furniture maker, an engraver, a tapestry worker, a sculptor and a metal worker. Unfortunately these stained glass panels, made in the building into which they were fitted, have since been removed and replaced with clear glass. Even worse has been the complete removal of the ground floor shop front. What was formerly an impressive stone entrance with a pair of pointed arch openings has been replaced with the current modern shop front.
Despite the changes the building remains a striking piece of High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture in Exeter. Perhaps only the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street is a better secular example. The High Street property and the Cathedral Yard property have now been divided into two completely separate entities but both are Grade II listed structures. The government's description of the listed building as containing possibly "an earlier core" is clearly incorrect. Wippell's relocated to 88 Buller Road in Exeter in 1983 but still manufactures church furnishings and clerical and academic robes and is Exeter's oldest still-operating company. The next time you walk past Nos. 55, 56 and 57 spare a thought for Robert Wilford's medieval guests arriving for dinner or the cloth merchants from all across Europe gathered outside in the street complaining about the price of wool, or Sergeant Guppy running up a ladder to rescue a girl from a burning building.