Bennington Street

5 12 2010

Ah, poor old Bennington Street. One of the closest streets to the town centre – indeed it is the town’s original dead centre – it has been through a bit of a change of fortunes over the years. Now blighted with fag-butts, grime and litter, parts of its terraced housing clumsily demolished and left as scruffy makeshift car parks, this street was once the pride of Regency Cheltenham.

Bennington Street can count itself among the oldest streets in Cheltenham, as it appears, as an unnamed lane, on the 1806 map (which is essentially Cheltenham’s earliest meaningful street map). At that time there was nothing in it; it was simply a lane across the fields between the High Street and the Hon. Miss Katharine Monson’s big house on St. Margaret’s Road. Miss Monson’s house later became the office of the Black and White Coach station, before being blitzed to oblivion in a 1940 bombing raid, and the site remains today a very shabby public car park on the traffic-infested ringroad. However, in Miss Monson’s time, the late 18th and early 19th century, she would have had a lovely view across open fields to the back of the High Street. The map below, made in 1820, shows the beginning of development around the area of Bennington Street, but still very few buildings in the street itself, which was still without a name.

Bennington Street is shown here as a thin straight line between Margaret Street, now St. Margaret’s Road, and the High Street (this map has south at the top instead of north). If you look closely at where the big capital W is (that’s just part of the grid system of the map) the chunk of field is marked ‘New Market Place’, with the market being built there in the subsequent couple of years. Apart from that, the street is mostly occupied by gardens and plots belonging to properties in adjacent streets. On the left hand side is Rose and Crown Passage, which once led to the back of a pub of the same name, and on the right is Counsellor’s Alley which is now called Oxford Passage.

During the first half of the 19th century, the northern end of what is now Bennington Street was occupied by the town’s main market place, moved away from its traditional site in the High Street to avoid offending genteel visitors with stray scraps of smelly vegetables and the noise of rough types plying their wares. The market was formed into a tidy square – or rectangle – with stalls arranged round it in an orderly manner. The High Street end became the site of a beautiful Regency shopping area called the Arcade, built in 1822. All of this was paid for by Lord Sherborne, who was one of Cheltenham’s main landowners at the time. In the entranceway was a stone known as the Centre Stone, which was deemed to be the central point in the town, from which distances could be measured and cab fares calculated. James Hodsdon in his wondrous gazetteer suggests there may have been an older market cross on the site previously. The most striking thing about the Arcade was its entrance, which took the form of three Moghul-style Gothic arches, as shown in this 1820s print:

Yes, this really is Cheltenham High Street, at the entrance to Bennington Street. That lady with the fancy bonnet is walking past the place where the grotty street sign (at the top of this article) is today. Unfortunately the Arcade was a short-lived venture and the beautiful archway was demolished in 1867. Here is the same spot today, with a substitute Centre Stone moulded onto a Victorian building.

I believe the F. Hinds building was built over part of the entrance to Bennington Street, making it narrower than it originally was, and that the grey-fronted Stagecoach building shown in this photo is the same one shown on the right hand side of the engraving (i.e. it was originally the corner building, and the Hinds one was tacked on later). I could be wrong, but it looks that way from the position of the windows and chimneys. The F. Hinds building has curve-topped plate-glass windows typical of the mid-Victorian period, so it was probably built around 1868 just after the archway was demolished, occupying the site of the right-hand span of the arch. Thus the Centre Stone, which most shoppers walk past every day without ever noticing, still marks the central point of Cheltenham.

It was this period in the late 1860s which saw the development of Bennington Street into what it is today … both sides being built up with a terrace of houses, shops and workshops. The development seems to have been initiated by a bloke called Charles James Chesshyre, and although the houses don’t all match exactly, they are pretty much of the same style and time period, suggesting a coordinated effort. It was most likely at this time that the street acquired a name for the first time – although where “Bennington” comes from is lost in the footnotes of history.

Most of the houses in the street were occupied by tradespeople, often with a shop or workshop at ground level and a living area on top. The picture above shows a house on the west side of the street which still retains a well kept (if somewhat patched) set of workshop doors. Much of Bennington Street is still occupied by business premises of much the same kind that would have occupied it 140 years ago. Other interesting features or relics of earlier times are fairly sparse now, but coalhole fans might appreciate this nice example of a Hayward Brothers No.3 coalplate, still with its glass lenses intact.

It was common in the 19th century for individual terraces of houses within a street to be given their own separate name. Although these names have mostly fallen out of usage in Cheltenham, Bennington Street has a lingering survivor: a row of six houses at its northern end called St. Margaret’s Parade, which still bear a nameplate. Unfortunately the end of terrace house is currently derelict.

Appropriately for Cheltenham’s most central street, Bennington Street is also the centre for its alternative spirituality. Notably because it contains the town’s Spiritualist Church. You certainly can’t miss it; the red brick frontage with arched doors and windows is wilfully nonconformist among the Victorian terraces.

Perhaps less well known is the street’s association with one of the 20th century’s most influential occultists, William G. Gray, whose books on ritual magic and the Qabalah have influenced a generation of pagans and Wiccans and who associated in his time with Dion Fortune, Aleister Crowley and Gareth Knight. Gray spent most of his life at 14 Bennington Street.

On the left of this picture can be seen what was the street’s only pub, the Central Inn at number 17, which seems to have closed around the time of WW2 but still has a bit of a pubby look to it even today. In 1881 it was being run by Charles England who was also offering his services as a house plumber. William G. Gray probably never advertised himself as a magician: his official occupation was chiropodist. Gray’s house, number 14, shown here with the orangey-red frontage, is now a cake shop. It was in this house that he wrote his books Magical Ritual Methods and The Ladder of Lights which are still in print today. Although it’s not obvious from the street, the house has a basement in which Gray set up his magical temple, while using the main shop floor for his chiropody practice. He lived here with his wife Bobbie from just after the war until his death in 1992.

It’s appropriate that this house should have been occupied by a writer, because it was formerly a printer’s premises. Bennington Street has a long association with printing and book production. Prior to Gray’s occupation, his house was a print shop occupied by Walter Hayman in the 1891 census. By 1901 Walter had moved his premises along the street and another lithographic print shop had set up in number 14. In fact there were three print shops in the street at that time, at numbers 14, 22 and 23, with a bookbinder’s premises a few doors further down. Numbers 13 and 15 have also been used as printers’ premises over the years. A century later, there is still a printer in Bennington Street carrying on this old tradition, while Hayman’s name can still be seen on an old workshop building in nearby Oxford Passage.

Kew Place and Clare Place

27 11 2009

Kew Place is a small but very pretty and unspoiled street off the Bath Road, between Thirlestaine House (part of Cheltenham College) and the Bath Road shops. It leads through to another little street called Clare Place, which is also full of historic character, and between them they form an L-shaped cul-de-sac, so it seems appropriate to look at their history together. Both have changed their names since they were built – Kew Place was originally the name of a courtyard round the back, and the street itself was known as Clare Parade, while Clare Place went by the charming name of Bean Street.

Kew Place is the earlier of the two streets and is shown (unnamed) on the 1820 map with a couple of houses already built. It was originally much longer and was probably laid down as part of the Thirlestaine House estate, part of a small grid of access roads running around the back of its gardens and eventually joining up with Thirlestaine Road. Only the south side of the street has housing in it – the north side is occupied entirely by the high brick wall around Thirlestaine House, which ends in a little castellated keep (pictured above). Originally the road carried on past this point and ran past another large fine house called Clare Villa.

1820 map, with a couple of additional labels. South is at the top on this map! The grand house marked with a letter ‘g’ is Thirlestaine House, now part of Cheltenham College, and the road along the bottom marked as ‘Charlton to Westall’ is Thirlestaine Road. Clare Place was not yet formed, but a pair of cottages had already been built there – and these still exist. Kew Place, which now only goes as far as the junction with Clare Place, ran all the way down past Clare Villa before bending round to the left to join up with the main road. A couple of pairs of cottages were already built at the top of Kew Place by then, along with a couple of courtyards, plus what looks like a cottage at the junction with Bath Road, which had gone by 1834. There was some development along the Bath Road by this time but much of it was still fields, including some still laid out in medieval strips.

1834 map. This map is orientated the other way up from the map above, and shows how much the area changed in 14 years. It shows Kew Place under its old name of Clare Parade and Clare Place under its original name of Bean Street. The housing in Kew Place had by now expanded into a terrace, built right up to the junction with Bath Road and replacing the cottage shown there on the earlier map. The open courtyards had become more enclosed and filled in with housing and outbuildings, reached through a passageway. It was this passageway and the houses behind it which were originally named Kew Place. The passageway still exists but the housing has probably since been cleared. Clare Place (Bean Street) is shown here fully built with a terrace of cottages on its west side, and that’s largely how it remains today as the east side is occupied by another high brick wall. It ended in a cul-de-sac at the edge of a field, and although the field has since been built on, Clare Place remains a no through road in its original form.

This cobbled passageway is the original Kew Place, once leading to a cluster of cottages at the back. The house to the left of this picture is one of the earliest in the street, built by 1820. The one to the right is a little later, built some time between 1820 and 1834.

Thirlestaine House and Clare Villa are also clearly marked on the 1834 map, but the street and garden layout had apparently changed a fair bit since 1820, with the road past Clare Villa now being a private drive and no longer linking up with Thirlestaine Road. Now, if you’re familiar with Cheltenham you might be wondering why Thirlestaine Road is marked as Sandford Road on this map. Well, that’s what it was originally called. And before you say “but Sandford Road is the next one along!” – yup, that’s right. There were two Sandford Roads, running parallel to each other. It was very very confusing, even after attempts to rename them as Upper and Lower, so the southerly one was eventually renamed Thirlestaine Road. Also marked (and actively under construction) on this map is Clare Terrace, now known as Clare Street. This area has seen a lot of name changes!

Bean Street was a short-lived name … it had already been renamed Clare Place by the time of the 1844 directory, although the old name lingered on some later maps. Clare Parade lasted many more decades, with Kew Place used only as the name of the courtyard until the end of the 19th century, when the name was applied to the whole street and the courtyard became Kew Place Court.

I think it’s fair to say that Kew Place is a very pleasant area today … the houses are well looked after and it’s in a desirable part of town. But that hasn’t always been the case. The houses were originally built for skilled but low-paid tradespeople, and life for them would have been tough and uncompromising. A glance through the 1841 census shows that the early residents included a tailor, stonemason, a brick maker, a coach trimmer, and a couple of laundry women. The rear courtyard was home to Samuel Stone, post boy (despite the ‘boy’ designation, he was actually 30) and an assortment of servants and labourers. By 1935 the condition of the street was poor enough that numbers 1 to 5 were listed in a slum clearance schedule, though I don’t know exactly where these were, or whether it referred to the courtyard or the main street.

These cottages down the bottom end of Kew Place are the most recent – built after 1834. The one on the left, set back from the others, is a little earlier.

One of the things I find most interesting in Kew Place (but maybe it’s just me) is that it retains most of its original flagstone pavement. Not only is it infinitely more beautiful than the usual concrete paving you find all over Cheltenham but it bears all the contours and wear marks of 190 years’ worth of feet and weather that have passed over it. And as is often the case with historic pavements, it bears its own pavement treasure. You could be forgiven for trampling over this circular grille (below) without even noticing it but it is a fantastic example of a very early coalhole. There are two of these still surviving, and they are outside the two oldest cottages in the street, which most likely dates them to before 1820. Coalholes of that age are very rare. They are both identical, so I think it very likely that they are the original coalhole covers installed when the houses were first built. What makes them very special is that they are not cast iron plates from a foundry – they are hand-wrought. You can see that each individual bar in the grille has been fashioned by hand, and riveted and beaten onto the outer ring. It’s most likely that they were made by a local blacksmith. They both have a concrete infill, but I’m pretty sure this has been added later and they were originally open grilles … which would of course have made conditions rather wet and grimy in the coal cellar below. In my article on The Joy of Coalholes I suggested that the hand-beaten coalplates of 1819 vintage which survive in Berkeley Place were probably the oldest in Cheltenham … but these could possibly be even older.

Pre-1820 coalhole in Kew Place. The flat central bar is probably a later repair, but all the other bars are original – hand-crafted by a blacksmith.

Moving round the corner into Clare Place, we find another pretty terraced street with a row of cottages on one side and a long imposing brick wall on the other. The street is presumably named after Clare Villa immediately to the east, which is now part of Cheltenham College Junior School and hidden behind the wall.

These cottages were also built in the 1820s or early 1830s for working-class craftsmen and tradespeople, but probably built all in one phase rather than the piecemeal development in Kew Place.

Clare Place (Bean Street)

All, that is, except for a cluster of cottages on the corner between the two streets, which predate 1820 and were probably originally known as Clare Cottages or Clare Villa Cottages. They do stand out from the rest of the terrace as they are kind of chunkier and are set right up against the pavement rather than set back behind front courtyards like the rest of the terrace. You can see them on the 1820 map above, standing on their own before the street itself was even formed. There may originally have been more cottages in this part of the street – three were listed in the 1930s slum clearance schedule.

The oldest cottages in the street, shown on the 1820 map before the rest of the street was built. It appears to be all one house now, but I’m pretty sure it was originally a pair of smaller ones.

One more little detail before we leave this interesting pair of streets … one of the cottages in or off Clare Place is said to have a Regency-period grotto in its garden (an underground summerhouse or tunnel) but I don’t know where this is.

The joy of coalholes

8 10 2009

I often get funny looks when I’m out taking photographs for this site but never so many as when I’m grabbing a snap of some pavement ironwork. Which is a shame really, because people miss so much by not looking at what’s under their feet.

Coalplates are a case in point. They are a relic of a time when coal was a crucial household commodity and its efficient supply was an important matter. In working class areas people often had to collect it themselves, and so there were establishments like the Elephant & Castle which once stood in Tewkesbury Road – a dual purpose tavern and coal merchant. For the middle classes and up, it was easier – the coalman would bring sacks of it straight to your door with a horse and cart. In urban streets, particularly terraces where there was no access to the back of the property except through the house, a coal cellar at the front of the house was the obvious solution. Instead of having the nasty dirty coalman traipse through your house leaving black dust everywhere, he could simply open a hatch in the path outside and empty the sacks straight into the cellar. These hatches are known as coalholes, typically a circular hole of 12 or 14 inches diameter and covered by an iron plate.

This arrangement was not without its hazards. For one thing, people used to fall down them. Victorian local newspapers all over the country abound with stories of deaths and broken limbs caused by open or poorly secured coalholes. You wouldn’t want to be standing in the cellar underneath on delivery day either and have a hundredweight of coal dropped on your head. Surprisingly, there is less mention of the hernias and back problems which the coalman must have suffered as he lumped these heavy iron plates on and off. They also created an issue with security – an unlocked coalplate was an easy way for a moderately slim burglar to get into the house. So all in all it wasn’t the ideal solution, and by the middle of the 20th century coalholes were pretty much a thing of the past.

And as they’ve fallen out of use they’ve become scarce. Many have been concreted or paved over and they are now uncommon enough that spotting them can be a fun hobby (for people like me, anyway).

Coalplates are not always easy to distinguish from manhole covers and other inspection hatches, but they are typically found close to houses either in garden paths or in the pavement outside, and they are somewhat smaller – generally either 12″ or 14″. The plate is usually set into an outer metal ring cemented into the path. They can be beautifully decorated with geometric patterns, although larger cities seem to be the best place to look for the really ornate ones … most of the ones I find in Cheltenham have quite simple designs.


Keynsham Street. A typical simple coalplate design

There are several reasons why coalplates are usually circular. The main reason is that – unlike a square or rectangular plate – it’s not possible for a round plate to accidentally fall down the hole. They also have no corners to get broken off or cause injury, and they are much easier to handle because they can be rolled on and off. The patterns on the surface are also functional, because a smooth iron plate would be dangerously slippery. Whether it’s an ornate pattern or just a series of raised studs, the surface of a coalplate is thoughtfully designed to prevent the hapless pedestrian going arse over tip in wet weather.

Coalplates would have been available from any local ironmonger, some of whom may have had the facilities to make their own. Alternatively they would be made in the large commercial foundries of London and the Midlands and cast to a standardised design, sometimes personalised with an individual ironmonger’s “badge”. Cheltenham had a couple of quite large foundries during the 19th century, so it’s very possible that some of these coalplates were cast locally.


St Luke’s Place. I couldn’t get a direct overhead shot of this one because it was up somebody’s garden path and – well, you know. Again it’s a very simple design with a mixture of raised studs and punched out holes in quite a thin plate, and may well have been made by a local ironmonger. It doesn’t look like there’s anything underneath this one, and it has no outer ring either, so it may have been moved from its original location or sealed up.


Suffolk Square. A beautifully preserved example of a commercial patented coalplate, the Hayward’s D 14″. It’s not as old as the house it serves … this section of street was built in the 1820s whereas this type of coalplate first hit the streets in the 1880s, and you can see how it has been artistically cemented into a hole in the original Regency period flagstone pavement. The Patent Self-Locking Plate was part of a movement towards more high-tech coalplates with increased safety and security. The underside of this type of plate was fitted with a pair of sliding bolts, specially weighted so that they would shoot outwards when the plate is dropped, locking it into the hole so that it could then only be unlocked from underneath. The idea was to prevent accidents with unfastened plates and also to thwart burglars and intruders.


Imperial Lane. Another Hayward’s D 14″. Hayward Brothers were a major London foundry whose works are pretty ubiquitous across the nation. They evolved from a family firm of glass-cutters who branched out into ironmongery in 1848 and became the market leader throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in street fittings such as coalholes and lightwells. They ceased trading in the 1970s, but their designs are still widely trod on Britain’s streets.


Cambray Place. Right in the middle of Cheltenham’s busy shopping area and never noticed by most of the people who stride over it on a daily basis (judging by the withering looks I got when I stopped to photograph it) is another patented self-locking design by Hayward’s, probably a later model. This one is right outside the NatWest bank, though I don’t suppose they use a lot of coal in there these days.


Keynsham Street. One of two surviving coalplates set into the pavement in Keynsham Street. The 1830s terraced houses here front directly onto the street and have no front gardens, but they do have basements and coal cellars underneath the pavement. This one is unusually decorative for a Cheltenham plate. It has no foundry mark or identification on it, though it has a space around the rim which looks like it is intended for a name. It was quite common for the large foundries to make coalplates for individual ironmongers in runs of 200 or so, cast to a standard design but personalised with the ironmonger’s own name. In this case there is no name, but it is probably one of these semi-massproduced designs. This particular design is very close to one produced by Hayward Brothers, which suggests either that it was made by Hayward’s or that somebody else nicked their design and cast their own anonymous version. Variations on the pattern of circles within circles is actually quite a common design on coalplates, but it’s much more usual to see them with groups of four circles or five circles rather than the six (seven including the central one) shown here. Small ventilation holes are also included. The presence of a surviving coal cellar underneath is evidenced through the ominous crack in the pavement.


Passage off St James’s Square. I’m not entirely sure if this is a coalplate or some other kind of inspection cover, but it earns its place here for its semi-local connection. It’s a simple but quite pleasant design incorporating ventilation slots and inset concrete panels. Barely visible in the worn down surface of its inner ring is the name of the foundry: Hardy & Padmore, Worcester (shown upside-down in this shot). This firm was founded in 1814 by Scottish brothers Robert and John Hardy, who went into partnership in 1829 with Richard Padmore and became specialists in tram rails, amongst other street furniture. The foundry was based in Worcester and survived up until 1967.


Rosehill Street. Coalplates are not always circular. This example of a square one is just one of a great many outside the c.1890s terraced houses of Rosehill Street. The uniformity of most of them suggests they are the original ones placed there when the houses were built, but this particular one is of a different design from the rest. It looks as though the pattern has been cast onto a sheet of iron which has been cut to size afterwards.


Berkeley Place. This is quite probably the oldest Cheltenham coalplate I’ve found so far, and also the largest. There’s nothing in this photo to give it a sense of scale but it was so large that I initially thought it was a manhole cover. It is also set quite some distance away from the house, right at the front of the pavement by the kerb. It was only when I noticed that all five houses in the easterly section of Berkeley Place have an identical plate in the same position that I realised what they were – and also that they must be the original ones dating back to the building of this terrace in 1819. They have done well to survive – they are now set into a modern tarmac pavement and the houses on the western side seem to have lost theirs. Berkeley Place is among the earliest and grandest of Cheltenham’s Regency terraces and I can only assume that the houses were built with large cellars extending some way in front of them, with the coal cellar underneath the pavement. What is interesting about this one (and its companions) is that it looks much more ‘crafted’ than other coalplates. The outer ring is much wider and the surface of the plate has a distinctly hand-beaten look to it. I was also intrigued by the studs on the surface, which are all slightly different in size and shape. If you look carefully you can see that one is missing and has left behind a tiny hole … indicating that these studs were not cast as part of the plate but hammered on afterwards by hand. I reckon these plates were not cast in a foundry at all, but crafted by a skilled smith.

Priory Terrace is arguably the coalhole capital of Cheltenham. Here are four examples …


This drain-like open grille design may not be very glamorous in front of an idyllic Regency terrace, but as exactly the same design survives on the forecourts of around half the houses in the terrace, I assume it’s the original cover installed when the houses were built in the 1830s. Instead of being set into an iron outer rim, the plate simply sits on top of a hole cut out of the flagstone. The rationale for having such an open grille over a coal cellar isn’t clear to me, because it must let in an awful lot of rain, along with enough light to enable plants to grow in the walls. It does look a bit verdant and lush down there.


A frosted glass coalhole cover! I assume this was installed after the coalhole ceased to be in use, and is serving as a skylight for the cellar below. This house is at the end of the terrace and designed differently, with the coalhole actually set into the front steps. You can still see the outline of the outer ring which has been removed and filled in with concrete.


A plain and simple studded design with ventilation holes. It lacks much in the way of excitement but it is a good example of the sticking-out metal lugs which are often found on the outer ring of coalholes. Presumably the purpose of these was to stop the outer ring from rotating and coming loose once it was installed.


This small and plain coalplate doesn’t look very much at all, but it’s special for two reasons. One is that it belongs to 3 Priory Terrace which was once the home of the celebrated artist and lithographer George Rowe. Author of the Illustrated Cheltenham Guide of 1845 (and another edition in 1850), which is one of my standard reference books for this site, Rowe lived in this house from 1832 to 1836, presumably when it was newly built. I very much doubt he would have known this coalplate however, as it appears to be a later replacement. And one with historic significance of its own. Just about visible in the picture is the name around the outer edge: J Fisher Cheltenham.

The most likely source of this plate is the ironmonger’s shop opened in 1912 by J.C. Fisher and his wife in Pittville Street. The business thrived and expanded, largely due to the energies of Mr Fisher, who rode around the Cotswolds on horseback promoting his wares. By the 1920s the shop had become a specialist in ‘Spa’ fireplaces, and after that it moved to a builder’s yard in Swindon Road and branched out into building materials, becoming the familiar firm of Sharpe & Fisher. It eventually grew into a large chain with 38 branches across southern England and Wales. Sadly this household name was expunged in 1999 when the company was sold to rival builder’s merchant Travis Perkins, who closed the Cheltenham headquarters and swallowed up all 38 branches within itself.

So far, this is the only coalplate I’ve found with ‘Cheltenham’ badged onto it. There must be more … if you know of any, let me know!

This article has been greatly assisted by the book “Artistry and History Underfoot: A Study of Coalhole Covers” by Gillian Cooksey. And also by the brilliant and entertaining Faded London blog, which has a similar remit to Cheltonia (except it’s about London) and by far the best collection of British coalplate photos on the net.