Bomb damaged remains of St Catherine's Almshouses and chapel and adjacent canon's house, 140m north of the Cathedral


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1019046

Date first listed: 08-Jun-2000


Ordnance survey map of Bomb damaged remains of St Catherine's Almshouses and chapel and adjacent canon's house, 140m north of the Cathedral
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Devon

District: Exeter (District Authority)

National Grid Reference: SX 92145 92684


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

Almshouses, in medieval and early post-medieval times, comprised a suite of buildings, usually a series of adjoining but self-contained rooms or cells, generally accompanied by a detached chapel, a common meeting hall, and a warden's house. Almshouses, as their name suggests were constructed for the poorest and most needy of their times. The earliest almshouses developed from medieval hospitals and were often based on the plan of a monastic infirmary whilst many others were newly built in the later Middle Ages and owed their foundation to endowments provided by wealthy citizens such as merchants or tradesmen. Such philanthropic acts were deemed both Christian and worthy, as the endowment of an almshouse supplied basic shelter, food and security, for a number of the elderly or the most impoverished men and women of the town. Although each inmate was provided with an individual room or small house, these rooms were usually beneath one roof or set in ranges around a courtyard and communal living was encouraged with meals taken together in the common room; the community also came together for worship where there was an attached chapel. Although almshouses continued to be built in later post-medieval and modern times, the emphasis on communal living and prayer diminished. Almshouses, which generally cater for small groups of individuals, should not be confused with the charitable housing estates of the 19th and 20th centuries which often provide a far larger number of properties for families as well as single people and which have more in common with today's terraced houses. Medieval and early post-medieval almshouses often survive with their associated chapel and are usually well known and recognised buildings within a town or city setting. Detailed documentary records were nearly always kept which relate to their foundation and upkeep. In addition, almshouses are particularly worthy of protection as they are frequently largely unaltered leading to the survival of their architectural detail and structural fabric and they often retain their original ground plan. Almshouses thus provide important information on the economic and social history of the medieval and early post-medieval periods and all those surviving with significant remains and their plans intact should be considered of national importance. St Catherine's Almshouses, its chapel, and part of the adjacent medieval canon's house have been the subject of excavation and recording projects and documentary research which has provided a wealth of information about the monument, which also includes the only known bomb damaged buildings in the city which have not been redeveloped or subjected to extensive clearance. St Catherine's Almshouses, near the centre of modern Exeter, provides a public place for rest and reflection and the mixture of local building stones makes an attractive contrast to the surrounding later architecture.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes the standing remains of the mid-15th century St Catherine's Almshouses and chapel and an adjacent part of a medieval canon's house which were badly damaged by German fire-bombing on the night of May 3rd 1942. The remains stand on the corner of Catherine Street and Chapel Street about 140m north of Exeter Cathedral, overlying an area rich in Roman remains. The remains of the almshouses, which are a Listed Building Grade II, have remained largely untouched since being bomb damaged in World War II, apart from the tidying-up necessary to convert them into a publicly accessible memorial. The remains extend some 26m in total from a 10m wide frontage on Catherine Street to a post-World War II rear boundary wall. The outer walls of the almshouses survive to the base of first floor level and in some places higher, and internal room divisions survive as low walls. The chapel, which is a Listed Building Grade II, has all of its four walls complete and is missing only its roof; all flooring above ground level has however been destroyed. The predominant building stone of the almshouses is local Heavitree breccia, which is a dark red conglomerate, whilst doorway and window mouldings are mostly of Beer Stone, a pale beige limestone from the East Devon coast. This contrast between the red and the beige stonework was used to effect by the builders, notably in the chapel where the Beer Stone bellcote perches above the north west gable end wall which, apart from window mouldings, is constructed entirely of breccia. The documentary records of St Catherine's Almshouses have been studied by local historians and it was established that the almshouses were endowed by the will of John Stevens in 1460 and, as originally conceived, the foundation would probably have provided 12 or 13 individual rooms or cells at ground level together with service rooms, a kitchen, and a garderobe (stone-built lavatory pit). The separate chapel building, which is surrounded by a narrow ambulatory, was sub-divided at ground level perhaps to provide a parlour in addition to the chapel itself. It is considered likely that the frontage above the forward rooms of the almshouses was given over to a separate tenement whilst the upper floor of the chapel acted as a common hall and it had a separate entrance at this level, probably approached by a wooden stairway and gallery, which was later blocked. Immediately to the west of the almshouses plot, and included within the scheduling, are the standing remains and foundations of a large 13th century hall-house which had been acquired by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral early in its life. Documentary evidence demonstrates that the house was occupied by successive canons of the cathedral from the last quarter of the 13th century and it remained in ecclesiastical hands until the Reformation. The house underwent many changes of use since it was first constructed, including its conversion into the Country House Inn during the post-medieval period. Despite these later periods of use, the major medieval structural walls survived largely unaltered until the bombing and the subsequent post-War clearance when much of the western part of the building was levelled. However, the easternmost walls survive to a height of about 3m and the kitchen, buttery, and pantry, together with the foundations for the east end of its hall were identified in excavation and recording work of the late 1980s. Several excavations of the immediate post-War period and later have revealed that the monument stands upon the site of Roman remains. A Roman town house of the late third to early fourth century was discovered which produced a corridor mosaic which was lifted and taken to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in 1988. At a greater depth, and underlying the town house, are features relating to the defences of the Roman fortress of the mid-first century AD. These include sections of two successive defensive ditches of Roman military character, a turf and clay rampart, and the sunken post-holes of a 3m wide timber interval tower which originally stood upon the rampart. Modern timber posts have been inserted into the excavated post-holes of the interval tower to mark their position. In the spring of 1942 Exeter was subjected to air bombardment as part of what became known as the Baedeker Raids after the series of guidebooks. These raids on historic English cities were ordered by Adolf Hitler personally. Exeter, with its concentration of historic wooden buildings crowded within a surviving medieval circuit of walls, was one of the five towns targeted. On April 24th- 25th 1942 German aircraft dropped conventional high explosive bombs on Exeter but failed to do much damage to the city centre. They returned at midnight on May 3rd with mainly incendiary bombs, about 8000 of which were estimated to have been dropped. It was during this raid that major conflagrations took hold and much of the historic centre of Exeter was burned down and a Georgian architectural masterpiece, Bedford Circus, was destroyed. Destruction was widespread along both sides of the High Street and the roofs and internal fittings of St Catherine's Almshouses and its chapel suffered heavy damage. The bombing of the almhouses can now be regarded as an integral part of the monument's history. All wooden benches and modern surfacing and paving are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 29698

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Rothnie, N, The Baedeker Blitz: Hitler's Attack on Britain's Historic Cities, (1992), 26-48
Fox, A, 'Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association' in Eighteenth Report of Archaeology and Early History, , Vol. 83, (1951), 36-42
Frere, S S (ed), 'Britannia' in Roman Britain in 1987 I. Sites Explored, , Vol. 19, (1988), 473
Holbrook, N et al, 'Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society' in Roman Mosaics from Catherine Street, Exeter, , Vol. 47, (1989), 43-52
Blaylock, S R, (1999)
Unpublished archive of St Catherine's Almshouses, 1989, Held by Exeter Archaeology

End of official listing