Last update 10th April 2012
This is one of the most attractive, tree lined streets in England. Bordered with fine Georgian townhouses and tastefully designed modern offices, this is the heart of Exeter's commercial area with banks, insurance companies, solicitors and regional company headquarters. It was known as Southernhay as far back as 1265. It follows the line of the great town ditch, just outside the city wall that was known as Crulditch. This comes from the word, crull, meaning 'curly', as the ditch followed the curve of the city wall. Southernhay itself, means the 'southern enclosure'.
In 1278 new rules for the running of Lammas Fair were drawn up and that: 'The whole Soyl or Plot of Southenhay is the Lords of the Fair during that time, and till twelve of the Clock the Day after the end thereof' (Izacke) Lammas Fair remained at Southernhay until about 1830 when it was relocated to Bonhay.
In November 1557, the unfortunate Agnes Prest was
burnt at the stake in Southernhay for her denial of the doctrine of
It would seem that schemes to make the poor work for little return are not a new idea, for Izacke wrote that Southernhay had been used for a 17th Century employment scheme. In 1638 the city: 'Ordered that southenhaye bee foorthw th rayled in & A pitt there be filled vpp w th earth chiefly to keepe the poore on worke'.
It has long been a place for leisure time, where people could stroll among the trees. After Charles II took the throne in 1660, Exeter embarked upon creating new public gardens - the first in the country. Izacke recorded that in 1667:
'A ffootpath in southenhaye to bee made & gravelled & A style there to bee erected to preserve ye said pathe'.... and..... 'Southenhay was now levelled & pleasant walkes made therein & about Two-hundred younge Elmes in several rowes there planted'
Southernhay narrowed at its northern end to join London Inn Square where Paris Street is now located. This top section known as Gatteys Row in 1806, only disappeared when the whole area was rebuilt after the war, and Paris Street, realigned. The modern northern entrance to Southernhay, from Paris Street, cuts through the land formerly occupied by the fine houses of Matthew Nosworthy's Dix's Field.
At its southern end, the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital was built in 1742, while opposite, in the Southgate Hotel car park was the Trinity burial yard. During the 1832 cholera outbreak, some of the victims were buried in the yard, until a riot, caused by the belief that, people were either being buried alive or, the authorities were not paying enough respect to the departed. According to Cossins, the same ground was used in the 1820's by Wombwell's Menagerie and for other shows from time to time. A bowling green was located on Dix's Field and the site of the Congregational Church according to Benjamin Donn's 1765 map of Exeter.
After the hospital was built, speculative builders moved in to construct housing for the gentry. Matthew Nosworthy developed Southernhay West with four terraces of fine town houses in the 1790s. Acting as both architect and builder, Nosworthy's houses lent an air of respectability to Southernhay. Two of Nosworthys terraces were lost in the 1942 blitz, when the rear of the houses were destroyed, leaving only a thin facade that was later demolished to become a car park before it was developed as Broadwalk House.
Southernhay was fast becoming the place for the well-to-do to live as Hooper's 1820 Chichester Place in Southernhay East and Dix's Field and Barnfield Crescent, both just off Southernhay were developed.
In 1821 a rather grand neo-classical bathhouse was constructed on the corner of Southernhay and Dix's Field. A natural spring had been discovered on the site which was utilised to feed the complex of hot and cold baths and showers, some of which were medicated. The facility was open between 7am and 10pm in summer and 8am to 10 in winter – they would even open in an emergency. This was no wash house for the poor, but rather a social meeting place for the wealthy to congregate and discuss the state of the nation and indulge in local gossip. Over the entrance was a classical figure of Poseidon clutching a trident flanked by a mythical seahorse. The bathhouse was demolished in 1868 and replaced with the Congregational Church.
The Bank of England opened several provincial banks in towns across the country, after there had been a failure of several country banks in 1825. They opened their Exeter branch at 18 Southernhay on 17th December 1827. The front door had a steel plate behind, and removable bars to further strengthen it, and the basement had a strengthened vault installed. Probably because of the loyalty of Exeter's business men to the existing banks around Cathedral Close and the High Street, and Southernhay being relatively inaccessible, the bank lost money and was relocated to Plymouth on the 30th April 1834, making it the shortest lived, provincial Bank of England in the country.
James Cossins, a regular contributor to the Flying Post in the 1870s wrote of his memories of Southernhay when he was a boy:
"Southernhay.-The upper green was an open space, a resort for children to play, also used at fairs and other times for menageries, shows, &c.; the horse fair the other side of the road, (Chichester Place) extending from Dix's Field to the Barnfield, also opposite on one site of No. 2 green. I have seen as many as three hundred tied up awaiting purchasers. It was almost impassable and dangerous with the restlessness, and trying the speed and action of the animals. No. 4, the lower green, was a rough piece of ground, used by children playing; the site of the houses opposite was a deep incline used for depositing refuse from old buildings, &c. At the end, in front of these large old trees,was also used for menageries, shows, &c. In front of the Hospital (which was built in 1741) and down to Magdalen-street road, widened 1827."
Many of the fine buildings were destroyed or damaged during the blitz, but much was restored of the surviving William Hooper and Matthew Nosworthy's fine Georgian developments; the restorations have left the front facades largely intact, although the interiors have lost most of their Georgian features. The modern Broadwalk House is perhaps one floor too high. The northern end of Southernhay is seeing some redevelopment within the new Princesshay scheme.
The Reverend T B Hardy VC MC. DSO, was born in Barnfield House, Southernhay East in 1863 - he is the most highly decorated non-combatant in the British Army. He died from his wounds in 1918 after winning the Victoria Cross in April of the same year.
Southernhay East in Edwardian times, with the Congregational Church. Southernhay West - no 18 was the Bank of England. The Southernhay Gardens. The Southernhay Bathhouse. Southernhay West after the bombing - this is now the site of Broadwalk House.
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