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Selling the Soul

Updated: May 13, 2021

The impact of retail on Gloucester's heritage

Gloucester has seen a variety of economic drivers come and go, from the medieval trades in iron, textiles, leather and pins, to the canal-based industries of grain, timber and heavy engineering. The one economic constant has been as a regional market centre, at least until recently.

While the pursuit of market-based prosperity has left footprints in the listed heritage of Gloucester today, it has also left a trail of destruction that has wiped out parts of the city's history. The advent of the internet age represents a game-changing threat to the traditionally retail-dominated High Street, but also introduces opportunities to refocus on the celebration of Gloucester's rich heritage.

Medieval Beginnings

Gloucester Cathedral

The early impetus behind Gloucester's position as a place to trade was provided by the abbey (now cathedral). The delivery of produce from its extensive manorial estates around Gloucester also resulted in the sale of that produce in Gloucester and, in return, the purchase of manufactured goods destined for the manorial tenants. The town's trade also benefitted from its position on the River Severn, although Bristol's more advantageous position as a port constrained Gloucester's maritime trade to the region.

Regional Market Centre

17th, 18th, 15th & 18th-century buildings on Westgate St.

After the disruption of the English Civil War in the mid-17th century Gloucester consolidated its place as a regional market centre. By the early 18th century it had eclipsed other county market towns such as Painswick and Newent, and was second only to Bristol.

Although trading was conducted in covered markets on all four gate streets, it was mainly concentrated along Westgate Street. The Boothall, which until it was demolished in 1957 stood on the corner of lower Westgate Street and Upper Quay Street, had since 1192 been the official market for wool, leather, cloth and other commodities brought by visiting merchants, and corn and fish markets had been held on the street since the 13th century. Upper Westgate Street was the location of the city's oldest known market building, the 14th-century King's Board, and in the early-18th century the street was the location of a market house for the sale of bacon and stalls for fishmongers and market gardeners.

18th-century shops on Southgate Street

Since 1509 at least a wheat market was held in a building on upper Southgate Street, and stalls for country butchers were set up on lower Southgate Street in the early-18th century. In 1655 a barley market house near the gate on Eastgate Street was replaced by a substantial new building farther up the street towards The Cross. Northgate Street was until the mid-17th century the location of a market house for the sale of meal, and fruit and poultry were sold along the street in the 18th century.

Pitt Street, looking towards the Beast Market end

A pig market was held on Northgate Street until at least 1741, but in general livestock was sold outside the central area. By the early-18th century sheep were sold in the area of St. Mary's Square, the cattle market was officially in Pitt Street (marked on a 1780 map as Beast Market, though the market tended to spread to neighbouring areas, much to the annoyance of residents who complained of the smell), and horse sales were conducted in the early-19th century on Brunswick Road.

Civic Vandalism – Round One

King's Board in Hillfield Gardens

In the mid-18th century what has been described as the greatest act of civic vandalism until the 1960s was begun. Faced with increasing use of wheeled transport, the city centre streets were cleared of obstacles to traffic. The King's Board and medieval Holy Trinity Church Tower, for example, were removed from the middle of Westgate Street (and after a few centuries spent at various locations, the remains of the King's Board were installed in heavily modified gazebo form in Hillfield Gardens). The outlines of buildings that once stood in the middle of upper Westgate Street are traced in the street today by black brick.

Wood facade of nos 9 & 9a, Southgate Street

Markets were removed from the streets and accommodated in two new market halls opened in 1786 on Eastgate and Southgate Streets. By the end of the century all of the city's medieval gates had been pulled down. A new cattle market was established on the site of today's bus station in 1823, and in 1856 both Eastgate and Southgate market halls were rebuilt. The latter served as a corn exchange until 1893, when it was remodelled and converted in part to a post office.

The 18th-century changes were applauded in a history of the city published in the early-19th century. But another commentator, foreshadowing complaints that would be aired in local history social media groups on the same subject two centuries later, thought Gloucester had become "merely a mutilated figure of its antique picturesque glory."

The Folk on Westgate Street

An indication of the dominance of Gloucester's market economy on the 18th-century cityscape can be found in the Historic England listings for Westgate and Southgate Streets. While the few older properties that still survive – such as the late-15th century no. 26 and nos. 99–101 (now the Folk Museum/Venue) on Westgate Street and the 17th-century nos. 9 & 9a on Southgate Street – were originally built as townhouses and merchants' homes, the majority of listed buildings date to the 18th and 19th centuries and began life as shops and dwellings.

City Centre Depopulation

Kingsholm suburban street built mid-19th century

From the 19th century the city underwent explosive growth. In 1835 its boundaries were extended for the first time in centuries, the first of three 19th-century expansions. The city's growing population was increasingly accommodated in new suburbs outside the old city centre, along the Bristol Road and at Tredworth, Barton, Wotton and Kingsholm. The traditional residential areas in the centre of Gloucester underwent a significant decline in population as people moved to the new suburbs, and by 1914 the city centre had become almost entirely commercial.

Civic Vandalism – Round Two

The Oxbode

Slum clearances begun in the first decade of the 20th century accelerated in the inter-war years. Redevelopment of the historic centre was led by commercial interests and resulted in the appearance of large stores, particularly in Northgate and Eastgate Streets. In the most notable example, shops and slum dwellings in the north-east quadrant of the old city were demolished in the late 1920s to make way for The Oxbode, King's Square and the large Bon Marché department store. Other losses to the city's heritage included the corn exchange on Southgate Street, demolished 1938, and the densely packed terraced housing lining the east side of Queen Street, amongst which was the birth-place of Gloucester composer and war-poet Ivor Gurney, demolished around the same time to make way for the expansion of a Co-op store.

Queen's Way and Bell Lane

The primacy of shopping over heritage became emphatic in the post-war period. The Bon Marché store was extended and rebranded as Debenhams, and King's square, originally a car park and bus station, was transformed into a pedestrianised shopping precinct. Between 1966 and 1974 large swathes of the historic city centre, including Eastgate market, were demolished to make way for the Eastgate Shopping Centre (which also transformed Queen Street into the covered passage of today's Queen's Walk and historic Bell Lane into a car park ramp). The construction of Boots the Chemist on the site of the Co-op in 1980 destroyed the archaeological remains of the Roman wall that lay buried on that site.

Recent Planning Policy

Planning policy in the 1980s continued to emphasise the importance to the city's economy of 'comparison' shopping – the ability of shoppers to conveniently compare goods and prices across different shops in a compact, easily accessed central area. With certain exceptions, the Council's policy was to resist the establishment of comparison shopping facilities outside the already established four gates and King's Square areas.

Retail twilight at King's Square

By the end of the 20th century the city's retail centre had stagnated and Gloucester had fallen 17 places in the national ranking of shopping centres. The central 'Primary Shopping Area' had been weakened by new retail development on Eastern Avenue and a Sainsbury's superstore at Barnwood, and it was under-performing in the face of competition from Cheltenham and Cribbs Causeway north of Bristol. At the start of the new millennium, the aspirations of Gloucester's planners were for a "top class sub-regional city centre of quality shops."

To bolster the city's flagging central retail offering, planners proposed the redevelopment of the Blackfriars area to include an 80,000 square foot department store. To protect this proposed development from suburban competition, no other 'high order' comparison shopping developments were to be permitted in Gloucester. Stores offering 'low order' comparison shopping, e.g. clothing, were to be permitted in suburban district centres, provided they did not threaten the central Primary Shopping Area.

Five of the twenty-seven listed sites on upper Westgate

Such was the desire to protect the primacy of the Primary Shopping Area that a policy was proposed to make planning permission for a new Sainsbury's at Monk Meadow conditional on limiting the floor-space allocated by the store for comparison shopping. Planners also proposed to protect the Primary Shopping Area by placing severe restrictions on changing use of ground floor shop units, which would have barred shops from converting to such uses as banks, estate agents and, most notably in the light of future developments, restaurants, cafes, pubs and takeaways.

Internet Age and the Decline of the High Street

The advent of internet shopping in the 21st century and the consequent decline of the traditional High Street has major implications for Gloucester's retail landscape. The challenges are addressed in the latest planning policy, the Joint Core Strategy published in 2017. That the planning is now being undertaken collaboratively with the city's erstwhile retail competitor Cheltenham is perhaps an indication of the severity of the threat to Gloucester's retail-based economic wellbeing posed by 21st-century shopping habits.

The soon-to-be-restored Fleece Hotel

The main evolution in planning approach is the relaxation of efforts to protect the central Primary Shopping Area as a predominantly retail environment. Policy now aims to promote a more diversified city centre, mixing traditional retail with leisure, entertainment and recreation, arts, culture, tourism, community facilities and residential development.

This new direction in city centre planning is reflected in the Cathedral Quarter High Street Heritage Action Zone which, with funding of £1.9m announced in 2020, plans to invest in the area's many historic buildings, boost its residential population and make it "vibrant with cultural activities, from community archaeology to performing arts...known for its attractive evening and night-time offer." Central to this project is the restoration of the 15th-century Fleece Hotel with its 12th-century undercroft.

New transport hub, part of the King's Quarter project

The £107m Forum development, part of the King's Quarter revitalisation and greenlit in January 2021, will, according to the plans, create on the site of the former 19th-century cattle market a modern, fully diversified campus development comprising retail, residential, hotel, leisure (to include gym, restaurants and bars) and high-tech office spaces.

Confirmation of the shift away from a purely retail centre came in a City Council Cabinet meeting in December 2020. The meeting revealed cross-party agreement that there was an excess of retail space in the city centre, and the desire was expressed that the then imminently vacant Debenhams building in the heart of the city's Primary Shopping Area on The Oxbode should be repurposed as a mixed use rather than exclusively retail property.

Lessons Learned?

Eastgate Street, all but historically barren

Although the 20th-century shopping developments enhanced Gloucester's position as a retail centre, it was not without cost to the city's heritage. Within the area once bounded by Roman/medieval walls, Northgate and Eastgate Streets were particularly afflicted, and now boast just four and six listed sites respectively, compared to the twenty-five and twenty-seven listed sites on Southgate and Westgate Streets. The brutalist architecture that obliterated parts of city-centre history has not itself stood the test of time well, and Conservation Area planning documents published in 2007 refer to the city centre as being "adversely affected" and "marred" by 20th-century redevelopment.

Debenhams: End of an Era

The increased sensitivity to the city's heritage, evident in the focus of the Cathedral Quarter project on the restoration of historic buildings along Westgate Street, is echoed in discussions about the future of the now vacant Debenhams building. The suggestion that this relatively new property, not yet a century old, might be demolished has, perhaps not surprisingly in the run up to local elections in May, become something of a political football. A Liberal Democrat petition to "save the building from demolition", even though there is no evidence of any plan to bulldoze the site, his been met with vehement denials from Conservative councillors that the building is at any risk.

Work underway on The Forum development

The proposed 21st-century glass frontages of The Forum development promise a bright, prosperous future for the city (much, a cynic might argue, as the trendy brutalist architecture of the 1960s must have done when those plans were drawn up). Whilst there was little history to be surrendered above ground for the new development, one would hope the archaeological remains of the 13th-century Whitefriars – a monastic house that did not long survive the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, above which the development will tower – do not follow the Roman wall beneath Boots the Chemist into oblivion as a result of it.

See also

What were they thinking? Jellicoe. Town planner Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe produced his Comprehensive Plan for the Central Area of the City of Gloucester in 1961. The plan was the blueprint for the large-scale redevelopment of the city centre in the late 1960s/early 1970s, though what Jellicoe proposed and what actually happened differed in several significant ways.


A Street Through Time: Gloucester’s Westgate Street, Gloucester History Festival, 2020, Andrew Armstrong

City Centre Conservation Area, Gloucester City Council, 2007

Eastgate & St Michael’s Conservation Area, Gloucester City Council, 2007

City of Gloucester Local Plan, Gloucester City Council, 1983

Joint Core Strategy, Gloucester City Council, 2017

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