The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street has recently reopened following a four-year refurbishment. Much of the ground floor display area is devoted to telling the story of Exeter's history.
One of the most interesting and historically valuable artifacts is a vast wooden model left depicting the city as it appeared in 1769, all painstakingly constructed by Caleb Hedgeland at the beginning of the 19th century. The exhibit is unmissable for anyone interested in the city's many lost buildings.
Caleb Hedgeland was born in 1760 and baptised at St Edmund's church on 05 November the same year. He was the son of Thomas Hedgeland and in 1786 he married Mary Pike at St George's church in South Street. Caleb Hedgeland was a builder and modelmaker. In 1814 he was awarded a silver medal by the Society of Arts for a model he made of Exeter Cathedral, and in 1817 Hedgeland began work on an enormous project, presumably for no other reason than his own satisfaction. The idea was to create a large model showing the city of his childhood. He chose the date 1769, the year in which the first of the city's medieval gates, the North Gate, was removed, the demolition of which he was taken to see a child. He must've worked both from personal recollection and eyewitness reports. Much of the city which existed in 1769 would still have been intact in 1817 and so in many instances Hedgeland would've been able to model buildings which were still standing.
The model was designed to be taken apart, each section of the city being built on small pieces of board which were then slotted into a large frame. Hedgeland confined himself to modelling only that area of the city contained by the city wall, an enclosure which had been laid out by the Romans in c200 AD, approximately 93 acres in total.
The level of detail is astonishing. Exeter's many medieval parish churches were depicted in miniature, along with accurate copies of Rougemont Castle, Exeter Cathedral, all of the many streets and alleyways, numerous almshouses, towers, the city gates, the gates around the Cathedral Close, and the Guildhall as well as many other individual public and private properties. All of the key buildings which were present in the city during the last quarter of the 18th century were reproduced.
Hedgeland made models of buildings which, in 1769, were on the cusp of destruction, e.g. the ancient facade of St John's Hospital in the High Street, Russell's Bedford House, the Treasurer's House in the Cathedral Close and the city gates themselves. He also recorded dozens of buildings which now no longer exist, destroyed or demolished between the completion of the model in 1824 and the present-day. The rise and fall of the land, the topography of the city, was partially factored into the model. The detail at the top of this post clearly shows how the extinct volcanic cone upon which Rougemont Castle was built rises up in the northern corner of the walled city. Each building was hand-painted and even trees and orchards were included. The completed work measured 2.5m long by 1.5 metres wide. (It is now presented in a glass display case which, combined with the subdued lighting, makes it a difficult object to photograph).
The model isn't an exact representation of the city, either as it was in 1769 or even in 1817. Some of the buildings are more accurate than others as depictions of reality and the courtyards and back blocks tend to be less faithfully modelled than the street frontages (although it must be remembered that Hedgeland was working without the advantages of aerial photography!); but the scale is generally accurate, as are the locations of the buildings, the houses all lined up on their individual burgage plots, and the street plan itself. In fact a surprisingly high number of the less important buildings are recognisable from either drawings or old photographs.
One thing the model does vividly convey is the visual atmosphere of the old city, how cramped and confined it was, the houses piled up onto the medieval street plan. It also shows how Exeter remained a city which its Tudor citizens would've found largely recognisable, a situation which remained unchanged until the mid-19th century. The great majority of the buildings were timber-framed, of 15th, 16th or 17th century origin, festooned with oriel windows, the upper floors tumbling out over the pavements below until the roofs of opposing houses nearly met in the centre of the street. In its general appearance at least, it shows that Exeter survived as an ostensibly medieval city long after the Middle Ages were over.
Only a microscopic percentage of the buildings shown on Hedgeland's model still survive today. All of the gates were down by 1825. Bedford House was replaced with the eastern crescent of Bedford Circus in the 1770s. St George's church, where Hedgeland was married, was demolished in 1843, St Kerrian's in 1878; other churches were rebuilt; the College of the Vicars Choral was nearly all demolished by 1893, to name just a few examples. And there was an inevitable, constant gnawing away as the new replaced the old, especially from c1850 onward, although in many cases only the facade of a building was altered according to fashion leaving the older core undisturbed behind.
Between c1880 and c1980 Hedgeland's vision of old Exeter was almost totally obliterated. Road-widening, slum clearances, war-time bombing and thirty years of extensive post-war demolition has destroyed most of what remained. At least the truly remarkable model itself survives and captures the imagination in a way which is perhaps unique amongst all of the museum's many exhibits.
It's worth mentioning a little more about Caleb Hedgeland. He and his wife had at least two children: John Pike Hedgeland, baptised at St George's church in 1791 and Charles, baptised at the same church in 1793. Both sons pursued careers as architects. John Pike Hedgeland also worked as a church glazier specialising in stained glass (John Hedgeland's son, George Caleb Hedgeland, designed the West window in Norwich Cathedral). Charles Hedgeland worked on the enlargement of St Petrock's in the High Street in 1828-1829 as well as buildings in Queen Street and the former rectory at Manaton on Dartmoor. In 1872 he gifted his father's model to the Devon and Exeter Institution.