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.