THE ROYAL CLARENCE FIRE
THE HISTORICAL LOSS & SURVIVAL
Saturday, 5 November 2016 at the Barnfield Theatre
Dr Todd Gray MBE opened the proceedings explaining that historians work on their own in isolation and he welcomed the fact that he was talking to so many people interested in the same subjects. He said that while we were concerned about loss perhaps the more important story is about survival. One result has been a lot more attention given to the medieval buildings on the Green and in the High Street and this is what John Thorp, Richard Palmer and John Allen will be talking about.
When asked by the Council to organise this talk Todd explained that he was not a buildings archaeologist nor a specialist on the Clarence hotel. So the specialists who have given of their time here today are three people who, with their particular skills based on years of dedication investigating little bits of wood, often on their hands and knees, then come up with detailed analyses which are often astounding.
Todd said it’s been a rough old week and I’m so grateful to all three for giving up their time for free today and Monday to give these two talks. Not to forget the 150 men from the fire services, police and ambulance.
One area of discussion is that we suggest rebranding this compact little area including St Martins Lane, the Cathedral and Broadgate. It is an important part of Exeter and we suggest calling it St Martin’s Island.
Exeter had a famous fire in the late 1800s - the Theatre Royal. But in the Blitz we lost over a thousand buildings and people died. This week we lost two buildings and had a handful of damage. This generation, for the first time, had a small inkling of what it was like in 1942.
On that Friday morning Todd was called out for one interview. Then there was another and then another and over the next ten hours it became apparent that the first building was being destroyed.
Todd joined a knot of journalists watching something they couldn’t control. In the heat and smoke the flag came down in the middle of the morning. He blagged his way into a cherry picker between shifts and watching from there was much more emotional than anticipated. He said it was absolutely horrific - and then there was the sound of the collapse of the dying building. An awful moment.
Soon Todd realised that no one present was aware of the danger to the invaluable buildings in the High Street. The fire service of course was concentrating on putting out the fire but it was imperative that they realised how important those buildings at the back of the hotel were – Costa, Thorntons and Laura Ashley. Todd’s knowledge, based on the work of these three here today, enabled him to guide the fire services towards protecting those buildings, which they they immediately did.
People need to love, respect and cherish these buildings. Like Ethel Lega-Weekes who defended Exeter’s historic buildings in Victorian times. She would be mad as a wet hen today. She made herself pretty unpopular by going around saying this building, or that window, that arcade, is important. It is hoped that everyone here will do the same. Checking out the important things and telling neighbours, friends and visitors why they are important.
The hotel building dates back to the 1500s with constant reconstructions and then late in 1760 it was remodelled by French man Pierre Berton to create a newly fashionable hotel. When the Duchess of Clarence, later Queen Adelaide, visited it was renamed in her honour. Other famous people who stayed there included Beatrix Potter, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Beatles.
In closing, Todd recommended visiting the RAMM to see there the model of these buildings. The Clarence can be identified and the café when it was a bank.
JOHN THORPE promised to talk about the High Street buildings we need to cherish and which so nearly caught fire and the Well House.
Laura Ashley is in fact two merchants’ houses built in 1564 divided by stud walls and upper floor fireplaces. The upstairs rooms get bigger as they go up and each is a mirror plan of the other. There are winding stairs between the front and back rooms.
A surviving 16th century painting shows the bays on the original shop fronts of both houses and where the front door was which probably led into a side passage to the stairs and also the bays on the original shop fronts of both houses. The ground floor has largely been stripped. However, the first floor front parlour of the eastern house is the finest surviving. It was painted red with white stripes, copying the then fashionable brickwork, and had a little warming oven. The fireplace has lost its original lintels but has a replacement one.
To the left of the fireplace is a tiny fragment of a full size picture of a fashionable man. It only shows part of his torso and one arm now and was recorded in the 1970s. The rear room and front are lavishly painted in emulation of stud work with green and orange stripes. This apparently continued along the wall dividing the two houses. It is interrupted by an interesting little painting of what at first was thought to be a unicorn. Later it was agreed that it was a horse and rider with a lance. On the right side of the chimney breast is a flowery scene and nearby is a hint of very fine mural art with a dragons neck and perhaps its tail. This was unfortunately damaged by 19th Century brickwork when the chimney was rebuilt.
A different painting on the beam marks a special place in the room. Yellow stripes with an interlaced pattern are a sign that this part of the room seems to have survived into around 1700. It was covered by a piece of very high class woven multicoloured cloth from Rouen, probably a wall hanging fixed by a batten. The surmise is that when it was no longer wanted it was cut down but a piece stuck to the wall was left. This has been unintentionally preserved by having been plastered over !
Then in the eastern rear chamber is a most interesting layout not seen before. It has an obvious toilet function with a 16th Century seat over what is basically a shute to the cellars.
At the side of the fire place is a fire box with a shallow depression presumably for a metal bowl to warm water for a wash. There is also a little partition, perhaps for a counting room - a tiny little office for the merchant to go through his accounts or whatever.
The rear parlour of the western house has a secondary doorway to a little gallery across the back courtyard. The door is marked by some colourful scroll work, swirls of red, brown, black and blue. It is likely to be from the early 1600s and gives a very good insight into the high quality of merchant life at that time.
The bedchambers are on the next floor. This western house has decorative paintwork of orange and blue stripes under a frieze which no one has so far been able to read ! Usually these contain prayers. The back room has another painted design over stud work with a 2-colour frieze.
Up in the roof space, probably for the use of children and servants, there was a bit of very faint rather crude paintwork of a very fashionable young man in stylish Italian clothing.
Recordings were made during a refit of the Well House. It has two houses under their own gables, as with Laura Ashley. The right hand one has bay windows added later although some appear to be original. The third floor windows show the plainer aesthetic coming through from the 1680s at the time when the Custom House was built. Indeed these windows are very similar to those at the back of the Custom House. An intriguing sketch from the 1930s shows what seems to be a mid late 16th century truss buried between the two arms of the Well House in the adjoining wall.
RICHARD PARKER then gave us details of the two destroyed buildings, the Royal Clarence Hotel and the Castle Art Gallery, and then spoke about some of the High-Street houses, Costa, Thornton’s and L’Occitane.
It is believed that the Clarence originated as a canon’s house in the 13th Century – or even as early as the 12th – with a long range at right-angles to the street and a gateway alongside opening onto the churchyard. The layout is similar to existing houses at 7, 8 & 9 The Close. To our knowledge the front wall of the Clarence and the ballroom wing have preserved thick masonry, possibly of medieval date.
Luckily we have an amazing resource in the Cathedral Library, in the form of lease plans made by John Tothill in the 1760s. These plans show two long, thick walls running straight towards the frontage and a smaller wing next to this with a gateway at the side. In the angle between these wings is a smaller and perhaps later wing. These are almost certainly the remains of the medieval canon’s house. An 1850s map shows these same features, so the plan of the medieval house may be interpreted as having a large hall range running right the way back, with chambers towards the front and kitchens at the rear and a gatehouse alongside this leading to a yard. This property belonged to the Dean and Chapter; the adjoining Exeter Bank building and the Well House to the Vicars Choral.
In 1766 this property was purchased by a man called William Mackworth-Praed. He reconstructed it in the Georgian manner by adding the two top storeys above the medieval walls, making new, regularly-spaced windows and adding two pillared porches and an assembly room for dancing at the back. The timber-framed façade and the stone frontage of the medieval canon’s house was plastered over. Praed intended the building to be converted to two separate houses if the hotel failed, and this can still be seen in the design of the façade. Following the fire, early fabric may well have survived in the lower floors. The hope now is to find out more about the history of this building through access to areas formerly hidden by the modern hotel interior. The fire may have revealed the older fabric by destroying the modern plaster.
An 1866 engraving by William Spreat shows the plain Georgian frontage of the hotel, and a photo of 1879 shows some small changes made by the Victorian owners to cheer it up a little, including the addition of low bay windows and a fancy balcony. By 1920 the two bays had been increased to two storeys and the large ballroom had been subdivided and refurbished in beaux arts style as the Clarence Room. The interior of the hotel was completely remodelled in the 1920s, 1930s and 1980s. One of the treasures of the Clarence, a magnificent 18th-cemtury metal mace rack, was recently found in the basement and returned to be displayed in the ballroom. It is unlikely that it can have survived the recent fire.
The Exeter Bank building at the corner of Martin’s Lane originates as a Vicars’ Choral property, but was rebuilt as an early 18th-century house, as shown in a drawing by Arthur Glennie. The large semi-circular window in the attic storey survived through numerous later refurbishments and can still be seen today. The original brick front was covered in plaster in about 1820 and grilled defensive windows were added at the same time for the bank.
In about 1900 the building became a branch of Deller’s Café. This had a superb Art Nouveau interior for about 10 years, but this was sadly removed after 1919, when the building became part of the hotel and Deller’s moved to Bedford Street. The hotel asked the stained glass-artist Maurice Drake to install one of the greatest treasures of the site; a collection of 27 Flemish stained-glass roundels dating from the 16th & 17th centuries. One of these roundels shows the beheading of Goliath and is extremely rare, the only one known in Europe. The collection is of great importance; it was fortunately recorded and published by David Cook in 2008-9. These roundels are a major treasure and, though some have certainly been lost, it is hoped that most may have survived the fire.
Turning to the Castle Art Gallery, this was a stunning building, a rebuilding of an older house for the dental Surgeon E. E. Brand. The architect is unknown, but though the whole front was rebuilt further forward, on the line of the pavement, essentially the older building still survives behind. The interior was outstanding and completely bonkers, with an amazing 4-storey stairwell where each flight crossed the void in a narrow bridge which got narrower on each floor. It was dizzying and disconcerting – not what you need when visiting the dentist! The beautiful mahogany doors all had mirrored panels and Corinthian pilasters.
The first floor front room was the most remarkable. The ceiling had enormous gilded brackets and the walls were entirely mirrored, with cut glass drops trailing across them, between narrow bands of Pompeian-style decoration. The room is all mirrors and dazzle but the lavish interior decoration was in fact printed on paper and stuck on the walls - it looked sumptuous but was very home made! The original moulds for the plaster lions supporting the fireplaces were stored in the basement cellars and the hope is that they are still there and can be reused when the building is restored.
The room under the domed roof had four arched trusses supporting high level windows all round and a viewing gallery. This room was either an art studio or an architect’s office, probably the drawing office of the local architect Robert Medley-Fulford. Brand probably intended the building to serve as commercial chambers for letting to many smaller businesses.
The houses in the High Street, which have fortunately survived the fire with only slight damage, are especially significant. It is important to point out that in Exeter the frontages of properties do not always reveal the treasures within. Costa Coffee, next to Thornton’s, occupies three separate houses, including probably the last surviving merchant’s hall house in the city. The present structure was originally built as a pair of houses fronting the High Street alongside a street called Lamb Alley. In about 1650 a third little house was inserted into Lamb Alley, filling it in and completely masking the side fronts of the neighbouring houses, including Thornton’s, which is still decorated with rich carvings facing the alley. The original pair of houses both had open halls. The roof of one of these still survives in the middle part of Costa; a magnificent medieval structure supported by true crucks (roof supports made of whole tree trunks) and with wind braces showing smoke-blackening from the open hearth under later painted patterns. The interior of the hall was later divided into many chambers by inserted floors, but these have since been removed and the open hall still survives today. Finally, all three houses were given modern fronts in the 18th century.
In all of these houses, ancient and wonderful buildings remain behind some very ordinary fronts. Thornton’s and L’Occitane show this very clearly. They were built in around 1500 as a pair of identical timber houses, but have been transformed by later alterations so they no longer look alike. If you go in behind, up into the upper floors and under the later roofs, you can still see the earlier rooflines and chimney stacks as well as very rare features like an amazing little 17th-century open gallery leading to the back block.
JOHN ALLAN said he had four points to make.
First, this is a very important archaeological site. Despite the damage caused by digging cellars, sufficient survives to require us to give very careful consideration to the question of buried archaeology as the rebuilding proceeds. All St Martin’s parish lies within the Roman legionary fortress, which underlies the centre of the modern city. The Royal Clarence lay towards the fringe of the fortress; buildings which were probably barrack blocks covered this area.
Excitingly, when the Clarence undertook work in their kitchens in 2000, it emerged that a good sequence of archaeological deposits is left there. The interpretation of the stratification under the kitchen floor shows that at the bottom of the sequence we are right back in the time of Nero when Exeter was a fortress. On top of that there are Roman dumps, overlain by medieval walls and deposits, followed by Tudor and Stuart features, with still later features from the time the site became a hotel in the 18th century. Analysis of environmental remains found between the floors of the buildings of the legionary fortress, carried out by English Heritage, found wheat and chaff and other organic remains. The sample was not fully investigated but it is quite clear that more organic evidence will survive there. This reminds us that even small-scale sampling can reveal a great deal.
Regarding the post-Roman period, a fascinating discovery was made in 2006 when Cathedral Close was repaved and archaeologists examined the top surface of the deposits beneath the old paving. Burials were found below the road, right up to the front door of the Clarence. The cemetery is extremely ancient and precedes the Anglo-Saxon re-foundation of Exeter in the late 9th century. What we hope now is to find out whether the cemetery does extend under the hotel.
Turning to the re-foundation of Exeter in the late Saxon period, the properties between High Street and Cathedral Green show a very striking pattern of property ownership. This is shown well on the 1876 Ordnance Survey map, a wonderful example of Victorian cartography, which is a key source for understanding historic Exeter. In this parish there are wide tenement strips belonging alternately to the Dean and Chapter and the Vicars Choral. When were they laid out and what do they indicate? It must have been at a very early period in the life of the town when such large tenements were laid out – surely as early as the 12th century and probably in the Anglo-Saxon period. This is a key piece of evidence about the early character of the town; the pattern is quite different from the very narrow burgage plots we are familiar with in the high medieval and later period. It is hoped that small-scale investigations may tell us more about this pattern.
Second, he emphasised the importance of the archive of detailed building studies for this parish. The talks of Richard and John Thorp have shown how detailed recording has been undertaken on specific fire-damaged properties. These are in fact just samples of a major archive of drawings, photographs and texts relating to the parish; there are similar detailed records for about a dozen of the old tenements in St Martin’s parish. For the last 40 years Exeter ratepayers have supported the gradual accumulation of an archive recording these buildings – a rich resource for understanding the fabric of the town. When John Thorp first did this sort of work in the 1970s it was pioneering; there was no equivalent in other towns in the region. We must pay tribute to the City Council who paid for this work, not always knowing in detail what it was supporting. Now there exists a wonderful archive accumulated even up to the recent past.
At the Clarence, Gary Young, the Unit’s wonderful photographer, took over 550 photographs in 2006, an incredibly good record of every room of archaeological interest: roofs, cornices, repairs etc. For example, when the Exeter Bank was being converted into Michael Caines’ café we found the cage of solid iron bars surrounding what had been the strong room of the bank. Among hundreds of other records accumulated by Gary are records of the glass, including the Flemish roundels described by Richard Parker and other antiquarian glass panels of great charm. These records will have a new relevance; they still await further study and are held in the Cathedral Library. The Clarence also has good historic records including Edwardian architectural drawings showing the reconstruction of the bank in 1919.
Third, the cumulative picture which can be built up from these records presents a most unusual opportunity to form an overall picture of the evolution of Exeter houses from late middle ages to Victorian times; this could hardly be achieved anywhere else in the city. The sequence of buildings in this area starts with The Ship in St Martins Lane, which we now know is actually a terrace of late 14th- century ordinary one-up, one-down, 2-room houses. (All that rubbish about “My Olde Shippe” is nonsense.) Very few of such humble later medieval houses survive; Richard Parker’s brilliant drawings provide a marvellous record of the way they were disguised by changes in subsequent centuries.
The story of the Exeter house can be taken up on the High Street, where nine adjacent properties (Nos 39-47) are the best surviving block of old houses in the city. Seven have been investigated by John, Richard, Gary Young, Keith Westcott and others; it should surely be possible in the course of the repairs to investigate the other two and follow up this work. The earliest is the pair of open hall houses now occupied by Costa, described by Richard (Nos 43-44), followed by a second pair (Nos 46-47, now Thornton’s and its pair) which shows the fundamental change to houses built without the tall central hall but floored out in the modern way. That changeover is a national phenomenon with the subdivision of the medieval space and the emergence of the modern house on successive floors. Further houses were added in the 16th century, the best preserved being Laura Ashley, described by John. There has not been much change in the overall volumes of these houses since the start of the 17th century. Elsewhere in Britain, the redevelopment of major towns which enjoyed much stronger growth than Exeter in the 19th and 20th centuries was so powerful that whole streets of old properties like this rarely survive. These shops are a quite remarkable survival and we now have an opportunity really to make something of them. The detailed recording work done so far needs to be taken a stage further and not just left sitting in archives where people can’t enjoy it. And surely we should let Richard loose to produce his amazing reconstruction drawings!
In closing, John’s fourth point was that although what has happened at the Clarence is a profound tragedy for its people and buildings, and many people’s personal lives have been deeply affected, this is also an opportunity for building historians and archaeologists. This can be illustrated by what happened at 18 North Street, the last serious historic buildings fire in the city. That was a heroic example of the fire services’ work. They got in there extremely quickly and without that this building in North Street would have been destroyed. The fire started to expose earlier fabric, including panelling. Much of the panelling had seemed quite unexciting until it was cleaned and now we are lucky to have a restored building where you can actually see more of the fabric than before the fire.
So St Martin’s parish presents a remarkable opportunity for us to see the evolution of the central part of the city in the late middle ages up to the modern period. I hope we will try to get an overall study of this published so we can all enjoy it.
Todd Gray then closed the meeting with a plea to all to spread interest in our remarkable heritage. Buildings don’t have to be just about ‘crucks’. The Elizabethan toilet emptying into the basement from the top floor must be something to tell your children.
The talks were followed by a Question & Answer Session with representatives from Exeter City Council, the Fire Brigade and the Police joining the speakers on the stage. Listed below are their responses (to assemble all the Fire Service responses together, the order of the replies has been changed slightly).
The Council will be having discussions with the owners and project manager of the Royal Clarence Hotel as to how this amazing knowledge we have acquired will get fed into the restoration process and we will advise them to bring in local expertise.
The hotel owner has stated publicly that he wants to see a sympathetic restoration of the hotel and certainly that is the view of the City Council as well. It is down to the owner to decide what he wishes to do. The Clarence is listed and the listing can limit what can be done but it is still the owner’s decision.
The appeal money is firstly to help alleviate hardship for people directly affected by the fire – members of staff for instance - also any ongoing counselling or support those people might need. It will focus on people in small business who might not have such comprehensive insurance and the business owners who are suffering hardship as a result of the fire. It will also contribute to sympathetic restoration.
World Heritage status is probably not available but the Council will investigate. Perhaps there should be a national debate about how we deal with our heritage.
City Council staff have been involved working flat out with different groups such as small businesses and environment groups, liaising with engineers on site re safety and looking at the heritage aspects. If it appears that there is a role for the City Council that will certainly be examined.
For insurance claims the Council is hoping to provide some kind of central point of reference for the number of different insurance claims. They have the potential to coordinate all these claims and therefore make the process as effective and speedy as possible.
The Archeology Field Unit no longer operates as part of the council due to financial cuts. The Council will work out a strategy with the hotel on how to go forward in protecting archaeological matters.
The restoration will be a long, long process. The owners, insurers and structural engineers are already meeting.
Historic England have offered their help and have been supportive. There are legal requiremenst on the recording of rebuilding. This is a remarkable opportunity to produce an in-depth report rather than a series of individual reports.
Compliments are due to the hotel’s night porters who ensured that all the 60+ guests sleeping in the hotel were safely removed in good time.
The police remarked on the compassion shown by Exeter residents. No one was tetchy or irritable at the barriers and police on the ground reported that all people were positive, coming out to support and feeling responsible as a community because something had gone wrong.
People working in historic buildings are not always aware of the constraints. There is a legal planning process and alterations should be cleared with the Council who are always glad to give advice about any modifications. In the 60s through to the 80s some unhelpful alterations have been made in these buildings.
Richard Parker explained that some of these High Street buildings have been completely cleared at ground level with the upper floors largely under-used. Even access staircases have been removed to provide more commercial space. These unused spaces are like time capsules and John said he remembered investigating an upstairs property where the only access was by climbing through a sash window on the roof !
It is hoped that the details of the fire and what is being done now will provide a resource to improve people’s knowledge both in terms of looking after a historic property but also if anyone were to find themselves in such horrible circumstances they would know what to do and what not to do.
The fire service did an admirable job working with such complicated structures. In due course a full debrief on this incident, looking not just at the incident itself but also the surrounding areas, will take place. The Service did have an operational risk plan for the hotel but will now reassess the whole of the area to see if the plans need changing.
The fire service does have salvage plans for historic building but with this incident when they arrived at 5am the art gallery was burning from end to end and top to bottom so there was nothing that could be done for that building nor for internal areas of other buildings. With Todd Gray they worked out which historic buildings they should try and prevent the fire spreading to. Great efforts were put into High Street buildings such as Costa Coffee and Laura Ashley to prevent the fire spreading but even then, when opening out the back of the shops, the fire was at the joists and for some artefacts within the building they were not unfortunately able to effect any rescue.
The fire service had a good hydrant in Southernhay and another in the High Street but actually over ran those hydrants which was unprecedented. They had a contingency plan for water from the Quay with pumps and 9” hoses but this took time to set up. The Council confirm that hydrants are SWW’s responsibility not theirs.
Sprinklers are only legally required in certain sizes of buildings. Installing them would be problematical in very old buildings with upheaval and high financial cost. Since 2006 fire services no longer have to conduct an annual check on fire safety. Now annual checks are up to the “responsible person” – usually the owner. However, the fire service does check buildings like the Clarence in terms of the safety of their personnel. For instance, because of previous inspections, they knew they would require hydraulic platforms. But these inspections are for their own purposes rather than fire safety and fire protection for occupants of buildings.
Fire equipment was drawn from all over Devon and Somerset. Platforms came from as far away as Torquay Taunton and Plymouth. In all they had 38 fire engines in attendance which was unprecedented. Dorset and Wiltshire provided fire engines as standby to towns from where we had pulled equipment. It was a massive incident.
Todd Gray closed the event by then suggesting that If anyone has memories they would like to record there was a book at the top of the theatre’s stairs and another in the Guildhall.
He remarked that from his own perspective he found it extraordinary how concerned a group of rufty tufty guys (the firemen) were. Through Saturday, Sunday and Monday they were still providing updates and there was a very keen understanding that all these buildings were important.
He saw the fire from the top of the Guildhall and it’s a very short distance away. He said he could still feel the chill from watching flaming debris fall onto the church. It was frightening and what came across was this very earnest desire to protect and to save. While he was looking at it from a historian’s viewpoint those men were risking their lives. When you see someone coming out of Laura Ashley and Costa from those terrible conditions cramped at the back in the dark with flames and smoke putting out fires because a historian thought that was a building worth saving…
Well, now looking back he could only praise the tremendous work that was done.