Exeter’s Cathedral Yard Fire & Surrounding Buildings

Destruction and a reawakening.

The destruction immediately provoked a fierce reawakening of popular interest in the city’s remaining historic buildings

 The fire in Exeter’s Cathedral Yard on 28 October 2016 has had one unexpected legacy: there has been an unprecedented revival of public interest in the city’s historic built environment.

Two buildings were destroyed and many more had severe or incidental damage.  The fire developed into an international news story because it concerned 'England’s oldest hotel'.  No single event in Exeter has had such extensive media coverage since the Second World War.

 In Devon, and particularly in Exeter, the main building (the Royal Clarence Hotel) was an iconic structure and its loss is keenly felt.  Because of this the destruction immediately provoked a fierce reawakening of popular interest in the city’s remaining historic buildings. This curiosity had evolved into a palpable desire to engage with the future of Exeter’s built heritage.

The blaze at Exeter's Cathedral Yard, being tackled by fire-fighters.
The blaze at Exeter's Cathedral Yard, being tackled by fire-fighters. © Todd Gray

The research response

A considerable number of arts projects have taken place but the St Martin’s Island Project supported by Historic England preceded them and culminated with the publication of a lengthy book in November 2018.  The research focused on the five structures which were mainly affected along with another thirty-seven which are situated alongside them.  These form a block of buildings which encompasses nearly the entirety of the ancient parish of St Martin.  The project rebranded this block 'St Martin’s Island'.  Their position between the cathedral and High Street has made them highly familiar with the public although little was generally known about their history.

By chance the Island is particularly appropriate to study for a number of reasons other than the outbreak of the fire.  Firstly, Exeter has nearly two dozen ancient parishes and that of St Martin is one of the best documented.  An extensive range of deeds, leases and other papers survive in the city’s two main archives and other relevant ones were identified and used for the first time in Somerset. Moreover, Exeter has the largest collection of historic images in Devon and many drawings, sketches, maps, building plans and photographs have survived for the 42 buildings in the study.  These have been used to show the development of individual building plots over four hundred years.

The Island was also untouched by the Blitz of 1942.  In April and May of that year the city centre was targeted by three nights of bombing in which some twenty per cent of the buildings were destroyed.

Further losses in the city in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s dramatically reduced the number of Exeter’s historic structures

 Coincidentally, the bombs fell in 1942 to the immediate west and east of the Island.  It left the Island without damage. Unfortunately four historic buildings, including two which were listed, were subsequently destroyed in the 1960s and an arson attack in the 1970s was responsible for the loss of three eighteenth century buildings.  The Island now has four twentieth-century buildings with two of them being particularly distinguished.


View looking down at Cathedral Yard Exeter showing fire damage.
Cathedral Yard with the buildings destroyed or damaged by fire to the right. © Todd Gray

New discoveries

The Island is one of the oldest sites in Exeter: the buildings rest on Roman remains.  In previous years Anglo-Saxon graves were found under the hotel and archaeological work this summer should start to reveal additional artefacts.  The St Martin’s Island Project has uncovered the earliest date known for the eighteenth-century rebranding of an inn as 'the hotel': this was in the summer of 1769.  Research has also shown that two neighbouring buildings, now known as The Well House, were rebuilt and enlarged throughout the seventeenth century.

Other less assuming buildings have been studied.  One has been revealed as having been built in 1907 by John Boot for his national chain of chemist shops.  The elaborate timber carving on the front was the work of Harry Hems & Son, a national carving firm which was located in Exeter. These grotesques had, until now, been ignored by Exonians.

Architectural detail: a carved Victorian grotesque, a devil-like figure in a medieval style.
One of Harry Hems’ grotesques at 53 High Street © Todd Gray

The fire originated in The Mansion House, a building which was erected in 1870 by an eccentric dentist.  He appears to have originated the design which was derided at the time as being 'in a sort of French chateau style'.  The elaborate interiors were lost in the fire.

Some of the Island buildings were built in the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, and they survive substantially behind unremarkable later fronts

 The unexpected feature of the Island is a series of early buildings on High Street. Some had already been studied by building archaeologists and further work is now being undertaken.

Exeter largely fell asleep in the late eighteenth century after three hundred years of considerable prosperity achieved through what had been a booming woollen cloth industry.

By 1800 the High Street looked unfashionable including these buildings in the Island. Some of them, which were built as pairs in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, survive behind unremarkable later fronts. The most obviously Elizabethan building has been shown to have been occupied by a series of apothecaries for at least three hundred years. It is tempting to think that one room, with a shallow warming dish and toilet, could be an early medical treatment room. A very early toilet seat survives. Another structure retains its medieval hall roof and internal Gothic panelling. A rear block has two chimney stacks over which rest seventeenth century roofs.  Each of these buildings is situated in the very heart of the city centre.

Victorian paining of a three storied jettied building with shop front to the ground floor.
Painting of 45 to 47 High Street, Exeter, by Sidney Endacott, late 1800s. © Todd Gray

One of the features of the project has been the compilation of lists of occupiers for at least two hundred years for each building.  These have proved to be a focus of attention for local people and have also generated a wealth of original recent and Victorian material from the homes of Exonians.  The lists have provided insights into the development of buildings.  For example, in the early 1800s a preponderance of the first floors in the High Street buildings were used to sell bonnets and other items of women’s clothing.  A row of buildings in Martin’s Lane were rebranded in the early 1800s 'Luxury Lane': these small retail spaces were ideal in offering delicatessen foods.  Likewise, smaller buildings facing the cathedral were used in the nineteenth century for the sale of Honiton Lace.

Appreciating our built heritage

The study of the Island has brought into focus the sharp differences between the built environments of the centres of Devon’s two cities.

 In Plymouth much of the main central area is post 1945 while in Exeter there is a cluster of historic buildings within the ancient walls. 

The continuing prosperity of Exeter rests partly on the pleasing environment which is provided by its built heritage.

 The study has revealed architectural surprises and treasures which demand not just lasting protection but genuine appreciation.

Cover illustration for St Martin's Island Book
Book cover of 'St Martin’s Island; An introductory history of forty-two Exeter buildings.' © The Mint Press

The public response to the project has been overwhelming and it is now a common sight to see Exonians and visitors stopping in the main street to point out features of the buildings which were previously unsuspected.

 It is not so much a testament to the ability of academic work to be able to reach all strands of society in such a compelling manner but evidence of the genuine interest and support that the public has for its historic buildings.

About the author

Todd Gray

Dr Todd Gray MBE

Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter University

Todd is a historian and author of several books on Exeter including, with Sue Jackson, St Martin’s Island; An introductory history of forty-two Exeter buildings.  His other books include Exeter Unveiled and Exeter Engraved (in two volumes) and Devon’s Ancient Bench Ends.

Further reading

Gray, T and Jackson, S 2017 St Martin’s Island; An introductory history of forty-two Exeter buildings. Exeter, The Mint Press

Gray, T, Jackson, S and Allan, J, forthcoming 2019 Exeter’s Lost Buildings. Exeter, The Mint Press

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