Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

St Martin’s Island

Talk by Todd Gray at Jury’s Inn

Thursday 8 September 2022 

Following the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II earlier that afternoon, Todd asked the assembled audience to observe a minute’s silence.


Todd then revealed how some years previously he had sought permission for the Exeter Salt (part of the Crown Jewels) to be on show at the Exeter Guildhall.  He was told that this would never happen.  However, the request was put before the Queen who, to everyone’s surprise, acceded to it.  So the precious item was conveyed to Exeter to be on show for several weeks where it was viewed by thousands of Exeter’s residents and visitors.


Todd then went on to explain his usual method of identifying a topic he wishes to research and the stages and processes involved.  He said that the Cathedral Yard fire was a completely different prospect as it related to a specific event, not one that he had chosen.  He had become aware of the fire by being contacted Early on the morning of 28 October 2016, Hamish Marshall, a BBC reporter, told him of the fire.  Unable to involve other people who were prepared to give interviews, Todd made his way to Cathedral Yard and from then on gave countless interviews to television and radio reporters – a very busy day from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.


 It was a weekend where nothing else happened in Exeter so Todd’s time was taken up on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday too, speaking to countless journalists as the fire became national news involving the country’s oldest hotel.  Todd knew that he was probably the best informed historian in Exeter as no-one in the Department of History at the University of Exeter was actively working on any local topics involving its history or buildings.  Todd had the added advantage of having read the archaeology report previously prepared on the Royal Clarence Hotel and he made Richard Lawrence from ITV aware that as historical as the Clarence was, his concern was about the far greater ancient adjoining buildings on the High Street. The Fire Brigade Commander, when informed of this, immediately shifted the priorities.  Todd warned that the Elizabethan buildings were in most danger and of national importance particularly because so many of the area’s buildings had been built as pairs then knocked through to make one building so the fire had quickly spread. Costa, for instance, backed on to the Clarence and the separating wall had quickly been destroyed.    


On the Monday an Inside Out programme was due to be broadcast from a cherry picker now located in the High Street.  The staff arrived late in arriving so a female reporter asked if she and Todd could go up in it before they arrived.  Permission was granted and he was able to look over the roofs of the buildings to see the devastation for himself. 


English Heritage became involved and were in favour of levelling the entire site occupied by the Royal Clarence, the two Well House buildings and the former Bank/Restaurant buildings either side.  Todd had pointed out that parts of them were brick built and worth saving and by slightly devious means made sure that on the Sunday Exeter City Council were thanked in interviews for saving the buildings (even if that was not their original intention).  Over the coming months Todd and several others were able to visit and survey the damage. 


English Heritage then asked if Todd would produce a book on the Royal Clarence but as this had already been done by another author, so Todd then offered to write about all of the buildings in St Martin’s Island.  He showed photographs of the Mansion House (the Fine Art Gallery) next door to the Well House where the fire had originally started.  It was already stated that the very ornate interior would not be replaced in any rebuilding.  Todd also showed photographs of other interesting Elizabethan features that had been revealed as a result of the fire as well as, according to an expert, mortar dating from 1210-1250 comparable to that used in the Cathedral.


Todd went on to talk about how research for the book was carried out for each one of the forty-two buildings.  He showed a map from Tony Collings’ research that showed many of the buildings in the Island had been owned by the Church.  Rich and well documented historical records remain for the individual buildings.  Exeter is fortunate that none of the Island’s buildings was lost in the Exeter Blitz although many in the city centre suffered heavily.  He showed images of ancient wallpaper and fabric swatches used by a tailor occupying one of the buildings, business cards that he had found at the British Library, ancient plans showing rooms still in existence.  We saw copies of documents revealing that the Clarence had been owned by a Peter Berlon who in 1769 advertised his premises as a coffee house then a hotel and café.  Because Queen Adelaide had stayed there it became known as the Royal Clarence Hotel.  Seven men had owned the premises and lost money during their ownership bur one woman had made a go of it by stressing it was a hotel. 


Todd showed us images of the exterior and interior of each building pointing out their interesting and ancient features and how the frontages altered with changes of ownership or occupation.  How the building (now the Pizza Express in Broadgate, formerly Tinleys) had been altered with various re-building, and how Victoria House (now Santander) confused everyone by having a bishop as one of its upper storey adornments until a find in the planning committee minutes at the Record Office revealed that it had been taken over by Boots the Chemist and Jessie Boot had used local historical features in each of his premises up and down the country.  The corbels were carved by Harry Hems and the façade also has four grotesque nude male forms. 


Todd showed that originally there had been a narrow lane called Lamb Alley leading from the High Street to Cathedral Yard but this had been filled in with a building (now the third Costa building) and had had a medieval roof, now disguised.  Another short alleyway accessed from Cathedral Yard was called The Exchange.  We saw images of very nice panelling and a corner window on the Thornton’s building which would originally have over-looked Lamb Alley and was now only visible from inside the building, also a 400 year old stairway and graffiti in an upstairs room. 


Todd had been able to visit the upper parts of L’Occitaine (unused by the shop), clearing a way through the remains of countless pigeons.  He had photographed a very large tom cat at the top of the stairs which had been living off the flesh of these pigeons, leaving their carcasses to litter the floor.  There was a widely accepted story among the shop assistants up and down the line of buildings that the noise the cat had created was evidence of a ghost, but Todd was confident that the roof spaces for each of the buildings very probably all linked up, hence a way through for the cat and a very real fire risk.


The book on St Martin’s Island by Todd Gray and Sue Jackson which was published to commemorate the anniversary of the fire is a lavish publication with photographs, other images and a history of each building.  This is based on research drawn from documents and leases gleaned from several archives by Todd up and down the country, plus a time-line of occupation supplemented by the census, street directories, Goad maps, wills and rate books at Devon Heritage Centre and many other documents.


The Mansion House was quite quickly rebuilt to its original façade but the fate of the Royal Clarence Hotel still hangs in the balance with no recent news as to its rebuilding.  The stated intention is to return the fronts of the buildings to their original facades, with the internal space no longer a hotel but private apartments instead rather than a modern frontage overlooking the historic Cathedral.  Interest in Exeter lies in the fact that it still has many historical buildings and features which are enjoyed by its residents, visitors and tourists.  It needs sympathetic rebuilding.


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