Re: Re: ‘Dutch Billys’

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What connects Covent Garden with the Bull Ring in Wexford?

Strangely they appear to be the only two urban squares in Britain and Ireland which have an authentic association with the word ‘Piazza’.

The origins of the use of the term in Wexford are a little obscure, but a colloquial version of the word seems to have been applied at an early date to the arcaded ground floor of the old Tholsel located on the south side of the Bull Ring. Images of this late 17th century building don’t appear to survive, but some descriptions of it include that, in addition to the open arcade, it had a prominent clock mounted either on the façade or on a roof cupola. Unfortunately, the building was rebuilt in very frugal fashion in 1796 incorporating a fish market in the rebuilt arcaded ground floor.

Covent Garden we know was conceived as an Italianate Piazza, but again the term ‘Piazza’ seems to have attached itself to the arcaded ranges on the north and east sides of the square rather than the actual square itself.

As noted in the last post, the ‘Holborn’ gabled flanker buildings on either side of St. Paul’s Covent Garden, as depicted by Dunstall in 1665, are unlikely to have existed in the depicted form, but if they had there would be an interesting parallel with the houses on the north and possibly also the east side of the Wexford Bull Ring.

a postcard of the north side of the Bull Ring from circa 1910

The information we have on these houses, which were demolished in the 1930s or 40s is a bit sparse, but surviving images hint at houses consciously designed to form a rare urban set-piece.

more images of the same houses which would have presided over the events of 1798 which the 1905 Pikeman memorial commerates

Clearly the houses had been heavily altered by the time they were photographed early in the 20th century, but enough detail remained to hint at their original design. The little half round features preserved in the 19th century render probably indicate the location and width of the original attic storey windows and although the gable profiles could be Victorian, they don’t look particularly recent in the photographs and they way well be essentially original with just the loss of capping pediments resulting is a slight hipping of the roof ridges.

The corner house was the third of three matching curvilinear gabled houses on North Main Street and that elevation treatment then returned around the corner onto the Bull Ring where the house featured another matching one and a half gables on this elevation. To complete the composition the adjoining house to the east would originally have needed an answering half gable before it in turn returned around the next corner over a passageway to where originally three further houses existed on the east side of the square. These latter three houses were demolished to make way for the new Victorian market structure in the 1870s.

One or two of the early windows seen in photographs of the right-hand house may be original and in their original position, but the others must have been re-positioned when the roof configuration was altered and the suspected other half of the shared gable was removed. All the windows in the left-hand house [corner house with N. Main St.] appear to have been widened.

O.S. map from 1883 showing the Bull Ring and the new Victorian market house on the east. I’ve marked no. 54 North Main Street which is the third of the original three gabled houses and which survives today with an altered roof and behind an altered façade

A trawl through lease records have not so far proven especially illuminating in this case, but what is clear is that a number of the houses standing on the ‘Flesh Market’ [Bull Ring] by the second decade of the 18th century fit this lease description; ‘large brick and slate house’.

A Charles Smith, grocer, leased one of the Flesh Market houses [formerly in the occupation of a Mathew Kerselough] from a Benjamin Betts, gent., in Jan 1719, for five hundred years in addition to the term of stated lives. An adjoining house was let in 1725 by Joseph Chambers of Taylorstowne, gent., to an Inn Keeper, William Collister, and the house adjoining that was occupied at the time by a Robert Curran. Three further houses ‘lying and being near the Flesh Market’ were repossessed by the Borough of Wexford bailiffs in August 1725 on foot of debts owing to Benjamin Betts by John Carr, merchant, and their nine hundred year leases sold to a Hygats Boyd for thirty three pounds and fifteen shillings.

Although I’d be reasonably confident that these various details relate to the gabled houses that we see in the early 20th century photographs, and their former neighbours on the east side of the Bull Ring, none of these details give us the date of construction of any of the houses. However the absence of any of the common reference to ‘newly built’ or ‘improvements’ might suggest that the main phase of redevelopment of this medieval block was perhaps at least ten or fifteen years earlier than these cluster of Registry of Deeds records i.e. slightly before the enactment of the 1707 Act requiring the registration of memorial extracts of wills and property transactions.

One interesting detail in the lease description of Chamber’s house refers to ’two small yards on each side of the staircase and the long yard leading down to the river Slane’ implying that the house was built with a central projecting return containing the stairwell. This wouldn’t be a standard layout for a gabled house in Dublin, but there is growing evidence that projecting stairwell returns featured in some provincial variations, and I think I may have previously posted an example which survives [albeit with many alterations] in Clonmel. There were at least two examples of Billys with central returns on West Street in Drogheda, but in these cases the returns didn’t appear to house the stairwells.

In a remarkable piece of early 20th century street-architecture, a large new general store [now ‘Boots’]was inserted into North Main Street by adapting the original gabled design of no. 54 and joining it to a matching rebuilding of no. 55 next door, which had previously been a wide, two-bay, late Georgian. Unfortunately within a few years of this contemporary reinterpretation of the gabled tradition, the two adjoining gabled house up to the corner of the Bull Ring were demolished and the genius behind this piece of infill was effectively lost.

the very fine 1920s ‘Boots’ store on North Main Street incorporates [at the right-hand side] the substantially intact fabric of the third gabled house seen in the earlier photographs

a 1930s aerial view of the Bull Ring from the east showing a gap at the corner of the Bull Ring where the two gabled houses south of the present ‘Boots’ store have been demolished

a recent rear view of no. 54 showing that it retains the massive central chimney stack and rear return with the characteristic ‘Billy’ step-in still evident in the gable of the main back wall

the Bull Ring postcard again with the probable outline of the missing pieces of gable and original attic storey windows dotted in

In a welcome departure from the usual obscurity surrounding gabled houses, there is a little bronze plaque on the wall opposite the Bull Ring outlining that several of the adjacent houses were originally ‘Flemish’ and that the guts of a couple of these old houses survive, concealed by later alterations.

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