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The House that Moved

A history with photos taken by Mr Chris Brewer

Page updated 20th August 2017

The House that Moved 1961
BBC film of the event

Exeter had long been famous for its ancient and historic buildings. However, the slum clearance of the 1920's and 30's around Exe Island and the West Quarter, followed by the bombing of May 1942 saw many historic buildings disappear. When the new road system from the Exe Bridge, bypassing the town centre was planned, a new inner bypass was to be constructed, with the loss of more historic buildings.

A House for Saving

Map of the moveNumber 16 Edmund Street, or Merchant House, was a Grade II listed building, in the way of the new road and was scheduled for demolition. The house was thought to date from about 1430. It was certainly one of the oldest surviving houses in Exeter. In a poor state of repair, it didn't seem that important a loss. However, with pressure from archaeologists, it was listed just in time, as an important building of architectural and historic significance, and the demolition was halted. Exeter City Council, with help from the government decided to spend £10,000 to have the house moved out of the way of the new road.

A London company headed by Mr Fordham Pryke, aided by local company, T D Keate, was contracted to move the house about 70m up from its site on the corner of Edmund Street and Frog Street to a new position by the old West Gate, at the bottom of West Street. It took several weeks to prepare the house for the move; the timber framework of the house was criss-crossed with 10 tons of strengthening timbers and iron wheels placed at each corner attached to hydraulic jacks, the whole, weighing 21 tons. No iron bolts, screws or supports were used against the original timbers, to prevent damage. The structure was top heavy, so during the move, the jacks would be used to ensure that it was always kept upright, with frequent checks made using spirit levels.

The Move Starts

On Saturday 9th December, 1961, the move started - the house was raised a few centimeters and on the Sunday and Monday, it was moved to the edge of Edmund Street, prior to its journey up the hill. On Tuesday the 13th, the police closed Edmund Street to traffic and the house was gingerly moved to the centre of the street on iron rails. The rails and wheels were turned through 90 degrees, to face up Edmund Street and the long haul began. Air compressors drove the winches and the house was slowly dragged on the rails, up the street, which in parts had a gradient of 1 in 10. All the time, the corner jacks were being adjusted to keep the structure upright.

Where's the cat?

The move was watched by newspaper reporters and cameramen from all over the world. Pathe News had their cameras there, in one of the more rare visits to Exeter for the news organisation. Their camera managed to film a mouse hiding in the timbers, and the tongue in cheek narrator commented 'hope they've not brought the cat!'. Some joker chalked a sign on the back with the words 'On Tow'.

The move up West Street was completed by the Wednesday and the house was carefully placed in its new position. In total, the actual move time was 4½ hours out of the four days from start to finish. Allowing for corners, the house was actually moved 90 metres. Restoration was carried out, along with a thorough treatment for woodworm. A leaded-light window that had been removed to the museum before the move for safe keeping was reinstalled in the building.

The House That Moved, looks like it has always been in its present position and is a favourite on the tourist itinerary. It was at first occupied by an antique dealer, followed by a gem dealer but now it is a wedding dress shop. Its layout consists of a rear kitchen, and a first floor hall, or principal living room. On the top floor was the solar, or principal bedroom. Close by can be found the historic St Mary Steps, Stepcote Hill and No 10 and 11 West Street, two similar houses, making a very interesting, and historic corner of Exeter. Who could ask for more?

The first fourteen photographs were kindly made available by Lita Saunders. They were taken by Mr Cecil Brewer, a boot repairer, of 58 West Street, who documented the move and supplied the captions. Mr Brewer also bred homing pigeons from his premises, and during the Second World War supplied pigeons to the RAF for use in their aircraft. One of his pigeons, named Mary, was awarded the Dicken Medal for carrying messages across the Channel, despite being wounded three times, she always got through.

Also see Dick Passmore's memories of a police constable, of the House that Moved.

Source - Express and Echo, Pathe News and the notes of Mr C Brewer. All historic photos © 2007 Lita Saunders - all other photos © David Cornforth

The Merchants House, Frog StreetThe Merchants House, Frog Street

The old Tudor House as it was at the corner of Frog Street. It will be noticed that the building has somewhat changed in its structure, especially the bedrooms going in different direction and shape. I took this photograph in 1922.

The Merchants House, Frog StreetFront view

This shows how it looked in 1958, the back top room removed, showing the side of the house in Frog Street. The house stood derelict for well over 10 Years, and remained like this until 1961 when it was removed.

The Merchants House, Frog Street - sideSide view

This photograph I took in 1958, and shows a close-up of the side of the house in Frog Street. Compare this photograph with the now finished house in West Street. It will be noticed that this side has been greatly changed.

The Merchants House, Frog Street ready for moveReady for the move

This photograph was taken 2 days before it was moved. The house at this time was moved 2 feet away from the other building, and now stands alone, and further clamping was done to it in readiness for its removal to its new site in West Street.

The Merchants House, waiting in Edmund StreetFrom Stepcote Hill

The house has now been moved well clear of its old site, and it stands in the middle of the road ready to be pulled up the hill. The two wire hawsers can be seen in the foreground.

The Merchants House, Frog Street ready for moveIn the middle of Edmund Street

A close-up of the house showing how it was clamped together, also the wheels it ran on with the four pairs of hydraulic legs.

The Merchants House, side viewSide view

Here is the house about halfway up the hill and gives a good side view of the inside of the house, showing the circular staircase going up to the bedrooms.

The Merchants House, hauled up Edmund StreetA tight squeeze

At this point the extra hawsers were put in to help take the strain.

(The house jammed on the kerb by the Teignmouth Inn, and had to be released with the help of a man and a saw)

The Merchants House, hauled up Edmund StreetHauled up the hill

This shows the house on the top of the hill, where it remained for the night. Also can be seen the cranks that wound the hawsers that pulled it up, one near the house the other ready to pull it on the site at West Street.

The Merchants House, in its new positionMoved into place

Here we see it fixed in position on the site in West Street. On the left of the picture is part of the Old City Wall which surrounds the house on one side near the old West Gate.

Beams in the House that MovedCantilever brackets

This shows the cantilever bracket for supporting the upper stories of the house to the ground floor. Only two of this kind were used, and are bracketed together in three's all facing outwards. All the others, six in all, are single bracket cantilevers, three on the right side, while the other three help to support the front facing outwards, while small brackets run parallel for extra support with the building. On the left side of the building there is only one cantilever bracket and that faces inwards showing its decorative beauty inside as well as the ones on the outside. On the top of this bracket rests a wooden beam that goes across the middle of the ceiling on the ground floor.

Beams in the House that MovedCeiling beams

The binding and bridging of joist is shown here in the first floor, for supporting the ceiling and the top storey, while there are only three single cantilever brackets supporting the second storey and roof all facing outwards.

The House that MovedView from Edmund Street

Now in its present position it falls in line with the other old Tudor houses in the area, with the famous Stepcote Hill, Exeter's first street. On the left once again you can see the old City Wall and the site of the West Gate.

Now it's the House That MovedAfter restoration

The old house as it looks today (1961), looking up West Street.

House that Moved 2005The House that Moved

The old house as it looks today (2005).

Front of the house 2005The front window

The front of the House that Moved with the sign for the present occupant, Pirouette Wedding Designs.

Supporting beamsThe corner and hanging sign

The sign proclaims the House that Moved. Compare this view with the photo of the cantilever brackets by Mr Brewer.

Side of houseSide of the house

Compare this photo with the third photo by Mr Brewer. 

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