Corpus Street

15 10 2009

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Photos taken September 2009

Corpus Street is a quiet cul-de-sac off the busy A40 London Road and although only one side survives in its original form it’s a lovely example of a Regency-era artisan street.

The origins of Corpus Street – and its name – go back to a time when large areas of land in Cheltenham were held and administered by Corpus Christi College, Oxford. The area of land to the south of London Road was known as Kinsham Close, which later morphed into Keynsham, a name which is still prevalent in that part of Cheltenham today. It was part of the charity estate bequeathed by Richard Pate, whose beneficence is still apparent in the town some 400 years after his death. Pate left substantial land holdings in the care of Corpus Christi College, from which he had graduated, and they were responsible for its administration for several centuries.

Some time around 1818, the Corpus Christi College records note that “3 houses are begun at the front of Keynsham Close and the lessee proposes to have a street down the centre with small houses on each side and 3 on the east side to correspond with the 3 on the west side”.

These ‘3 houses’ are Oxford Villas, a beautiful Regency mini-terrace which fronts onto London Road and remains one of the special attractions in this part of Cheltenham. Their frontages have been distinctive in recent years for having been painted a dark grey-green and their ironwork a contrasting white – you can see a bit of them in the photo above. Each house has an exquisitely lacy and delicate wrought iron veranda with a tented hood. The houses are set back from the road with long front gardens bounded by wrought iron railings. The railing finials bear the name of Marshall, made by the local foundry R.E.& C. Marshall … perhaps Marshall’s made the verandas too.

The proposed second group of three on the east side were never built, their intended plot being taken up by a large villa instead. But the “street down the centre” is what became Corpus Street. The 1820 map shows the newly built Oxford Villas … Corpus Street didn’t yet exist but its line is visible as a strip along the left hand side of the terrace.

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1820 map. Two confusing things about this map – one, it’s upside down and has south at the top. Secondly, the main road shown here was originally part of the High Street, but is now part of London Road instead (the point at which the High Street ends and London Road begins was changed in 1954). I’ve added a label to show where Oxford Villas are, newly built in the field known as Keynsham Close. The whole area was still very lightly developed at this time, but familar names already present include Oxford Parade (then only part built), Oxford Street (also part built and not yet meeting up with the main road) and Keynsham Bank (a group of houses now demolished but the name survives). Just opposite Oxford Villas and to the right is the large detached house known as The Priory, as yet unencumbered by any adjoining houses or streets.

The top section of Corpus Street is entirely taken up with the sides and backs of the houses fronting onto London Road. Because Oxford Villas have such long front gardens, and also fairly generous rear gardens, they dominate a large chunk and the houses of Corpus Street itself don’t begin until some way down the street.

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The rear of Oxford Villas viewed from Corpus Street; walled gardens and a very attractive lunette window with a fanlight (rems of).

The layout and building of Corpus Street is thought to have begun in 1820 or thereabouts, continuing through until at least 1826, and comprised two terraces of ‘small houses’. In the early stages of development it was called Corpus Christi Street, but was soon settled in its shorter form. It’s possible that the bricks used to build the houses were dug and fired on site, as there is a reference in the Corpus Christi records to Keynsham Close being used as a brickfield in 1818. They are typical of Georgian artisan houses; compact and solid and sturdy with the six-paned sash windows typical of the period (some of which have been replaced with bigger panes over the years) and a cellar underneath. They would have been home to skilled tradespeople, whose lives would have been very different from those who lived in the villas along London Road. In the 1841 census, for example, Corpus Street was inhabited by a range of dressmakers, tanners, smiths, builders, laundresses, hairdressers and cooks, while the end house of Oxford Villas was the home of a surgeon who kept two servants.

Decades later, the second house from the left in the picture below was the home of Arthur Phillips, an employee of the Cheltenham Original Brewery who joined up to fight in the First World War and was killed in the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917. His neighbour across the street, George Organ, met the same fate a year later in 1918; he had been a pony-carriage owner in the years before the war, running a ‘taxi’ type service in the town with his two carriages.

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I’m curious about the dips in the pavement in front of each door … you normally only see this where there is a vehicle access, so I’m not sure why it was done here, but it seems to follow the line of the original pavement which still shows through the tarmac in places. There are also some slight differences in detail between the houses, which suggests that they may not have all been built by the same builder, but parcelled up into lots which were sold off separately (a common practice at the time). An overall design was adhered to but small details varied. For example most, but not all, have a lunette panel above the front door, some of which are glazed and others left blank. This one has a beautifully ornate fanlight.

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At one time there was a beerhouse at 5 Corpus Street called the Oxford Arms, belonging to the Cheltenham Original Brewery. It is known to have been there in the 1870s and was still there in 1926, but was demolished along with the rest of the western side of the street shortly afterwards.

In its original form, Corpus Street had terraces on both sides. The western one was slightly longer and also, if the 1834 map is any indication, had some houses which were bigger. There was a detached house in its own grounds at the far end, leading through into market gardens and fields. The 1841 census seems to show this house (assuming the ordering of the properties is consecutive, which is a bit of an assumption with the 1841 census) as Sandford Lodge, where a governess presided over four pupils. Most of the houses on both sides originally backed onto fields behind their rear gardens, but this changed as the surrounding area got more built up.

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1834 map. If you look at this one in conjunction with the 1820 map (which is the opposite way up) you can see that the development of this area was still proceeding quite slowly. Apart from Corpus Street, and the completion of Oxford Parade across the road, there wasn’t a lot of difference. The line running down the left hand side is the River Chelt, and the large field beyond it is what is now Sandford Park.

By the early 1920s the field behind the west side of the street was occupied by a large Drug Manufactory extending right down to the River Chelt, and some time after this the entire western side of Corpus Street was demolished to make way for light industrial buildings, which is a very great shame. These buildings have since been swept away and replaced with modern housing, including a new cul-de-sac, which is reasonably sympathetic with the style of the street even if it’s no substitute for what is lost. The east side remains intact and beautifully kept … but then these former working class houses are now expensive and desirable!

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The far end of the terrace on the east side. The cream coloured house was originally the end of the terrace and the land next to it remained a field well into the 20th century. It’s now built up with more recent housing set back from the rest of the terrace, just visible here on the right.





Vernon Place

12 10 2009

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An easily overlooked footpath between Sandford Park and the town centre, Vernon Place is among Cheltenham’s oldest lanes – one of the few predating the Regency development of the town. It served as a path to the town’s principle mill which has occupied the same site on the River Chelt since Domesday and probably earlier, and although the mill is disused and the lane half-forgotten, it still serves the same function today. It doesn’t have a lot of features in it these days; there were residential dwellings there at one time but very few are left, and much of it is too narrow for cars. So it just serves as a pedestrian walkway from Sandford Park to the top end of Bath Road, following closely along the outline of the ancient millpond which can be heard tumbling over the weir below.

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1921 map. The area shown here as ‘Recreation Ground’ is what we now know as Sandford Park, which was laid out in 1927. The River Chelt runs parallel with the High Street (top right) and then does a bit of wild meandering before disappearing into a culvert under Bath Road, which is the wide road with the tramway on the left. Notice how the tramway doesn’t connect up with the High Street, but veers off to the left into Bath Street. This is a clue to a historic change in the road layout, because originally the top section of Bath Road didn’t exist. Imagine a T-junction formed by Bath Street and Vernon Place, with no direct connection to the High Street! Difficult to get your head round that idea today, but that’s how it was from the time the Bath Road was created in 1813 up until 1854 when a link was finally bashed through into the High Street, enabling the delightful 90° bend in the inner ring road that we know and love today.

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This is the pretty end of Vernon Place, viewed from the footpath in Sandford Park – though actually Vernon Place proper starts on the other side of the white house on the right. Straight ahead is the historic building known as Barrett’s Mill – undergoing renovation work when this picture was taken. To the right of the green railings, just out of view, is the River Chelt sliding along beside the path and under a bridge (where the brick balustrade is) to come out into the millpond and weir on the other side. For years I wondered why Cheltenham Borough Council always paint municipal railings in a lurid shade of green; however I’ve since learned that, whatever the reason, there’s a historic authenticity to it. Much of the town’s fancy ironwork was painted green during the Regency period, as well as the classic black that everybody these days assumes is authentic. Notice also the fine old cast iron bollard, currently sporting a new black and white paint job.

Barrett’s Mill is a topic worthy of its own article (coming soon). There have been several mills in Cheltenham but this one has always been the most important, as indicated by its naming on early maps (1806, 1820) as Cheltenham Mill. In earlier times it was known as Cambray Mill. No doubt it has been rebuilt many times, and the current building appears to date from the early 19th century. The current name refers to one of its owners, William Humphris Barrett, who was the miller there in the early decades of the 19th century and whose family had held the mill since at least 1763. Barrett was an influential figure in the town during the early Regency years and so his name has stuck, not only to the mill itself but in the tiny lane leading to it from the High Street, preserved in misspelled form as Barratt’s Mill Lane.

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1806 map, with a few extra annotations, showing Cheltenham Mill (Barrett’s Mill) and Vernon Place, the curvy lane running past Vernon House. The orientation is roughly the opposite way up from the 1921 map above, so it’s a bit confusing. But it does show how the Bath Road once didn’t connect up to the High Street at all – and how Vernon Place and Bath Street (where ‘Mr King MC’ is written) were once part of the same street. The only development in Vernon Place was Vernon House and its adjoining Vernon Cottage, plus a house called Cambray Lodge on the corner facing onto Bath Road.

In days of yore the mill served a function not only for grinding corn but also for municipal street cleaning. It was ‘the custom which hath ever been used beyond the memory of man’ for the River Chelt to flow straight down the High Street, which could only be crossed by means of stepping stones in a few strategic places. The river was channelled from the millpond in controlled amounts down the street where it served as the town’s main communal laundry facility. Then on certain days of the week the miller would open a sluice to give the whole High Street a good flushing. If this wasn’t done, the street soon became stinky and clogged up with mud and worse. The reluctance of successive generations of millers to fulfil this obligation is evidenced in repeated court orders from the Middle Ages onward, presumably because the loss of water left them short of milling whoomph. For example, in 1560 the miller Richard Pate (now there’s a name familiar in the town even today) was ordered to “allow the water to flow at his mill through a board with three holes continually and once in the week the whole stream, so that the common stream may be used according to the ancient custom’ (Hart, p.64).  Shortly afterwards, in 1567, the tenant miller Edward Barthiam was threatened with a fine of 100 shillings and subjected to weekly inspections by the bailiff in an attempt to force him to keep the millpond sufficiently topped up to serve the town’s water needs. These legal conflicts continued with successive millers right up until the time the Chelt was diverted away from the High Street in about 1787, and then flared up all over again in the early years of the 19th century when the Town Commissioners attempted, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to force the recalcitrant Mr Barrett to resume the practice of street flushing.

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The millpond viewed through a gap in the trees in Vernon Place

Although the river no longer runs into the streets the millpond itself has remained pretty much unchanged over successive centuries. Vernon Place echoes with the sound of rushing water between the trees, as it must have done for centuries, as it curves its way along the River Chelt and around the edge of the millpond. Its sound in the narrow walled lane is very atmospheric.

The name Vernon Place is most likely borrowed from Vernon House and its neighbour Vernon Cottage, which are both shown on the 1806 map above. They were built at right angles to one another forming an L-shape, with Vernon House sideways on to the lane. Vernon House still survives today, and this is it.

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This fine old house must have been built before 1806, possibly even in the late 18th century. It still has a very pretty fanlight above the front door, which is round the side away from the lane. Initially, as you can see on the 1806 map above, Vernon House and its adjoining companion were the only buildings in the street, and the sideways orientation would have provided an idyllic view across the fields back then. Vernon Cottage has apparently not survived, as its site is occupied by late Victorian housing. If you stand in front of the Victorian houses you can see where their roofline cuts across a window on the back of Vernon House. Where the name Vernon came from is not clear, but they may have been named after an early resident or visitor. The 1841 census shows Vernon House in use as some kind of lodging house for servants. It lists ten female servants living there, as young as 15 years old, presided over by a matron.

By 1820 a few more houses had been built in Vernon Place and by 1834 there was a row of five tiny cottages – or perhaps they were workshops – right up against the river bank. The 1921 map above shows these still in situ, though they are now gone and the site occupied by a newer (but sensitively designed) building. A group of three Victorian cottages fronted onto the lane on the north side with a tiny alleyway leading onto a courtyard at the back with more small dwellings and workshops. Some of these still survive, but only one of the cottages fronting onto the lane is still there, now a rather bizarrely proportioned specimen in the absence of its neighbours.

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The one surviving Victorian cottage on the north side. The garage is most likely built into the ground floor remnant of the adjoining cottage. This is the very narrow part of the lane at its top end. Here also are two more bollards … but of the somewhat less attractive plain-metal-tube-filled-with-concrete-and-painted-yellow type. The wall on the left is where the frontages of the five cottages or workshops used to be – so it would have been very cosy along here.

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And here we have the less salubrious end of Vernon Place, where it comes out onto the Bath Road (where the red car is). On the opposite side (where the blue car is waiting) is Bath Street.  This view shows the original streetscape quite nicely, because Bath Street and Vernon Place once flowed from one to the other, and their houses were all numbered as part of the same street. Up until 1854 the Bath Road ended here and there was no link with the High Street, so Bath Street was then the main road, enabling genteel persons to access the fashionable area of Cambray without being bothered by the riff-raff in the High Street. Most of the buildings visible in Bath Street are quite old, surviving from the early 1800s.

There are a few historic bits and bobs to see at this end of Vernon Place … on one side there is a set of original railings while on the other side the antique kerbstones remain. Unfortunately the building on the left has for many years been a lively nightclub, and so chucking out time often becomes chucking up time in Vernon Place. But as hedonism and excess is part of what Regency Cheltenham was built for, maybe ’twas ever thus.