Photos taken November 2008
To take a stroll down Grove Street today you probably wouldn’t think much of it. Bereft of almost all of its housing (unless a current construction project actually goes ahead) the street is low on features but also strangely preserved in a timewarp, largely untouched by the modern world. This is quite odd really for a street which opens directly onto the High Street, in Cheltenham’s busy and ever-changing centre.
At a first glance Grove Street appears to be just one of several Victorian-era residential streets (minus any residents) forming parallel rows in this part of town, but it can claim an impressive vintage compared to its neighbours. A clue to its age is in how much narrower it is than the other streets either side of it. It seems to have existed since at least the 17th century and was originally called Day Lane or Day’s Lane. You have to bear in mind that until the early 19th century Cheltenham was basically a one-street town, comprising the High Street and very few turnings off it. At one time Day Lane was one of only nine roads leading off the High Street.
The southern end of the street, which joins up with New Street. The surviving buildings here are now A & L Waring’s fencing and timber yard, and you can just see the remains of bricked up doors and windows along the side from a previous incarnation.
Housing development began in 1804: “to be sold, newbuilt house in Grove Street, otherwise Day Lane”. The earliest map I have is dated 1806 and doesn’t include street names, but it clearly shows Grove Street (label added by me) already built up on its east side and running across open fields from the High Street to the Knapp. None of the adjacent streets or passageways existed then. The map also picks out the Shakespear Tavern (sic) on the corner where Grove Street joins the High Street, a fine old pub building which still exists today and is still called the Shakespeare Inn.
1806 map (orientation is weird – south-west at top). The number 31 indicates the position of the Shakespear Tavern.
A Post Office map of 1820 shows a much more developed setting, with the adjacent streets laid out and the whole of the west side of Grove Street filled in with development. Almost half the street on the west side was taken up by a substantial yard behind the tavern, and the rest made up of courtyards of cheap and pokey housing. A similar scene is shown on the 1834 map. Large scale maps show the erratic and piecemeal nature of the housing. In striking contrast to the neat terraced rows in Burton Street and Station Street either side, the houses in Grove Street take many different sizes and forms, some set back from the road with long front yards and others butting onto the street, but many more in cramped clusters around courtyards and down passageways. There were several of the notorious back-to-back types, and even the best of the houses were smaller than those in neighbouring streets. Some were so tiny they would only have had two rooms. Pigs and chickens inhabited the small yards along with outdoor privvies and shared drains. The map below shows the street in the early 1920s, shortly before slum clearance programmes erased most of the street.
The burial ground is shown in green. The long building to its left survives as Waring’s premises. Notice how the back yards in Burton Street have been squeezed to fit around the older development in Grove Street.
In the 1841 census Grove Street was already crowded and dominated by the poor, but residents had a wide range of occupations from chimney sweeps and cordwainers to cane makers, fruit sellers and washerwomen; a blacksmith, a whitesmith and a shop boy. One resident, 55-year-old Mary Hunt, was listed as being “On Poor Book”. Harper’s Directory of 1844 describes the street as having 26 houses, 9 lodging houses, a hay and coal dealer and a donkey mews. It had already become the heart of the local Irish community, mostly poor migrant labourers who came to Cheltenham looking for work.
Poverty was constantly snapping at its heels, and Grove Street was singled out as far back as 1849 for its squalid living conditions.
In the 1881 census the majority of the men in the street were unskilled labourers and their wives and daughters also had to work as washerwomen and charwomen. There were in most cases two families living in each house. Take no.4 for example. In 1881 it was a lodging house run by Patrick Flemming from Cork, Ireland. In addition to him and his wife there were twelve lodgers resident, plus a 13-month-old baby. And that’s not all … no.4 was divided into two households and the other ‘half’ housed a sailor and his wife and two kids, plus another lodger. Further down the street was another lodging house at Cumling Cottage, run by an Irish couple and home to an astonishing 21 lodgers across seven separate households.
The 1881 census provides some additional amusement because the enumerator who covered Grove Street was not that great at spelling. Names such as ‘Joeshif’, ‘Margrate’ and ‘Cristifer’ are given, and a Worcestershire couple are listed as having been born in ‘Kiddymister’.
Slum clearance began here as early as 1913 with the demolition of four houses “unfit for habitation” in Barnes Court, also known as Barnes’s Yard, a cluster of eight houses reached by a passage between numbers 6 and 7 on the west side of the street. The rest of this courtyard was listed as “insanitary” in 1922 and demolished in the main round of slum clearances in 1935-6. Among those cleared in the 1930s were Powell’s Cottages and a larger row of houses called Cumberland Buildings or Cumberland Cottages built in 1839. These were probably the same as the Cumling Cottages listed on the 1881 census (given the enumerator’s aptitude for phonetic spellings) which included thirteen cottages, two lodging-house “villas” and another six houses round the back in Cumling Yard.
The houses were replaced by light industrial buildings, and these too are mostly now gone. A large expanse of the street is now fenced off and awaiting redevelopment. The view above shows buddleias and scrubby grass growing over the land formerly occupied by the squalid courtyards, and in the background the rear ends of houses in Station Street and the spire of St Gregory’s (the local Catholic church, itself a legacy of the large Irish community in this area).
The photo below shows the narrow entrance of Grove Street at the High Street end, and the side of the Shakespeare Inn which fronts onto the High Street. The other corner also hosted a pub called the Harp Inn, a much smaller building which was demolished decades ago and remains as an empty space with advertising hoardings. In the 1880s it had a landlord with the curious name of Job Minty. On the opposite side of the High Street was the Cross Keys inn, which was there from at least 1787 and survived well into the 19th century. These days Grove Street faces out onto the Diamond Kebab House.
During the late 19th century there was a pub in Grove Street itself, the Shamrock Inn. It’s likely that this was no.19 Grove Street which appears in the 1881 census as a lodging house and pub run by John Howard, counting among its seven lodgers a 77-year-old tramp from Dublin. Its pub licence came to an end in 1918. The house itself survived well into the 1980s under the name of Shamrock House, and it was still a cheap lodging house for single homeless men right up until the time of its closure. It was then partially demolished and rebuilt with the same bricks, retaining its original staircase, and converted into a more salubrious hostel for homeless people, with better facilities, called Grove House.
The most interesting feature of present day Grove Street however is the remains of the Quaker Burial Ground, which is actually one of Cheltenham’s oldest surviving features, although it’s a shadow of its former self. There seems to have been a Quaker community in Cheltenham since 1658, a time when nonconformist religious meetings were still illegal. The burial ground in Grove Street was founded around 1703 (despite the date of 1700 which appears over the gate) in what was then a quiet rural spot in the fields, and it was another 100 years before the first houses were built in the street. Among those buried here is Elizabeth Skillicorne, wife of the man who founded Cheltenham’s first spa. The perimeter wall of the burial ground survives, including a portion of its original rustic Cotswold stone wall which has been augmented with brick over the years, and the old wrought-iron gate. The gateway is blocked, however, and the burial ground itself is now part of the yard of A & L Waring, although it’s still consecrated ground.