The Fleece Hotel, Westgate Street, Gloucester
Researching a historic inn to support its conservation and reuse.
The Fleece Hotel occupies a large site on the south side of Westgate Street, Gloucester. Westgate Street is one of the four original Roman streets in Gloucester and now links the spectacular medieval cathedral to the rest of the city. It has a wide array of surviving historic buildings including the 15th century timber-framed Fleece Hotel, The Folk Museum and the Judges’ Lodgings.
Since 2020 the street has been the Cathedral Quarter High Street Heritage Action Zone.
Gloucester City Council is looking to begin conservation work on the site, which has been out of use since 2002 and on the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register since 2013.
As part of the High Streets Heritage Action Zones programme, Historic England funded the initial stripping out of the building in early 2022. This has provided the opportunity to study the original timber framing of the building in much greater detail than was previously possible, as well as assessing the cost of repair. A detailed investigation of the three main ranges has been carried out by Historic England, in conjunction with survey work undertaken by Gary Butler of Butler Hegarty Architects. This will result in a Historic England Research Report which will provide a baseline of information to inform ongoing works.
Was the Fleece originally built as an inn?
The Fleece has been used as an example of a pilgrim inn, built by Gloucester Abbey to provide accommodation for those visiting the city and the abbey in the late medieval period. It has often been compared to the New Inn on Northgate Street, also built by the abbey in the 15th century. The New Inn is one of the country’s best examples of a late-medieval timber-framed galleried inn, with four ranges sitting around a central courtyard and galleries leading to the lodging rooms.
Initial survey work and dendrochronology on The Fleece in 2017 confirmed that it was built around 1476, the year after the abbey purchased the site. However, documentary research in the last ten years has cast doubt on the interpretation of the site as a medieval inn.
The survey of the building in 2022 has confirmed that the 15th-century structures of the Fleece do not have the typical features of a late-medieval inn. Its three ranges are arranged around a courtyard, but the documentary and structural evidence suggests that the street-front range was rented out and used separately from the rear ranges, forming a set of shops with accommodation for the shopkeepers above. Through this range ran a passageway which gave access to the courtyard and the two ranges to the rear.
The larger range, on the east side of the courtyard, incorporated a 12th-century vaulted undercroft, or cellar. The date of the cellar is suggested by the form of the columns which support the vault.
At ground-floor level it provided two large high-status rooms and a smaller service bay at the southern end. The high status of the northernmost room is indicated by an elaborate moulded finish to the posts and ceiling beams in this area. At first-floor level it had a series of large, interconnecting rooms. These led one into the other rather than having separate access in a gallery arrangement as is seen in the lodging ranges at the New Inn.
On the opposite side of the courtyard, the smaller west range appears to have functioned as a detached kitchen block. This had a smoke bay at its southern end, that is, a narrow bay which was open to the roof, to accommodate a fire. The soot from the fire is still visible on the sides of the bay and in the roof structure. The smoke bay would have been open to the kitchen, for use as a cooking hearth, with further rooms probably used for storage and accommodation.
This arrangement of structures with buildings around a rear courtyard was common for many houses in late medieval English cities. But the layout of the larger east range is not typical for a private high-status town house of the period, for it lacks a room which can clearly be identified as the hall: none of the ground-floor rooms, for example, appears to have been heated by an open hearth or a chimney. It seems likely that the ranges were used for a variety of functions, depending on the needs of the various tenants over the years. The documentary evidence seems to confirm this, with the lease sometimes belonging to relatively high-status local citizens, who may have been using their site for their private household, and at other times being let to brewers or vintners who may well have been using the site as an inn and perhaps taking advantage of the large storage capacity offered by the undercroft.
From the mid-17th century the Fleece appears to have functioned purely as an inn, a use that then continued uninterrupted until the start of the 21st century. As part of this permanent change alterations were made to the two rear ranges, including the construction of a short wing on the south end of the main range, and the insertion of ceilings over the upper rooms to create attics to provide additional accommodation.
It is first given a name in the rentals of the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral in the 1670s, when it was called the ‘Golden Fleece’.
The street-front range continued to be separately let as shops well into the 19th century, although this arrangement was fluid, with the building evidence suggesting that at times the shops may have rented space in the upper parts of the inn, or vice versa.
Further extensive changes were made soon after 1799, when most of the site was sold off by the Dean and Chapter. It was bought by a local businessman, Samuel Jones, who also owned the plot next door, and he appears to have used the Fleece’s land to extend his brush factory. The main ranges continued to be used as an inn, however. In the early 19th century the Westgate Street elevation was updated by giving it a brick front, removing the original double-jetty arrangement. By this date there was also extensive stabling in the southern part of the site, which could be separately accessed from Bull Lane to the west. This was rebuilt following a fire in 1874.
In the 20th century the main buildings were updated further, and the upper parts of the street-front range were bought into use by the hotel. In the 1920s the buildings were given a makeover to look more like a historic inn, with a fake gallery applied to the main elevation of the larger rear range, and fake timber framing applied to the Westgate Street elevation. The undercroft became a bar known as the ‘Monk’s Retreat’.
In the later 20th century the site progressively went out of use and in 2002 the undercroft bar, the last remaining business, closed. The site came into the ownership of Gloucester City Council in 2011
Looking to the future
Investigation is still underway at the site, with further research being done into surviving historic decorative features including evidence for early paint schemes and wallpaper.
The current work will support the initial conservation of the historic ranges while a viable commercial use for the buildings is identified.
It is important for the Fleece, and for the wider High Street Heritage Action Zone, that a sustainable new use, relevant for a revitalised Westgate Street, secures the future of this special building, allowing it to take its place once again as a valued feature at the heart of the city.
About the author
- Name and role
- Title and organisation
- Senior Senior Architectural Investigator South West Region at Historic England
- Rebecca worked in the commercial sector for six years as a buildings archaeologist, and latterly as a historic buildings consultant before joining the Architectural Investigation team at English Heritage in 2010. Rebecca drafted the Historic England guidance on Understanding Historic Buildings.
Lane, R Forthcoming: 'The Fleece Hotel, Westgate Street, Gloucester. Historic Building Assessment'. Historic England Research Reports Series.
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