Hanging the linen out to dry: living in Rack Street Exeter
In the sixteenth century, Exeter was the fourth wealthiest town in England, its wool imported to France, Spain and above all as we know Holland (through the port of Topsham).
The heart of the medieval city was the West Quarter, a jumble of inns, workshops and dwellings: Goldsmith Street, Guinea Street, Milk Street, Rack Street and Smythen Street (blacksmiths and later butchers) tell their own tale. Rack Street was where serge linen was hung to dry on racks stretched across from one side of the alley to the other – later, when the trade was more extensive, there were ‘rack fields’ or ‘rack sheds’ to dry the cloth. But after the 1800s, the wealthier families moved from the West Quarter to Bedford Circus, Southernhay (where Charles James and Alice Edith Vlieland lived) and then to the new suburbs in St Leonard’s and Pennsylvania, and by the 1840s the area had become a slum of decaying timber-framed tenements carved out of the former merchants’ houses. The huge top-floor attics, where the linen had been stretched, dried and baled, then dropped through a ‘coffin door’ into the street below, became used for primitive accommodation. A medical officer who visited Preston Street in 1865 found a six-room house crammed with 11 adults and 20 children, and in a cholera epidemic the following year the residents of the street died ‘like sheep’. As late as 1850, there were still several respectable traders in Rack Street – four grocers and a house slater, for example, and Thomas Gordon, a cabinet maker and timber dealer, although he was declared bankrupt in 1844.
The index to the police Charge Book for Rack Street for January 1898 to December 1899 showed how little prosperity was left. It lists eleven residents taken in charge (arrested and put in a police cell for the night) for offences such as affray, burglary, child neglect and prostitution. The men are in bottom-of-the heap occupations, the women occasionally with a trade such as dressmakers, but mainly prostitutes or with no trade (possibly arrested for drunkenness); many have no numbered address in the street, so must have lived on the upper floors of a tenement. Apart from a boy of 14 and a labourer of 23, the men are for the time in middle age or older (Charles Gervis, labourer 35; Francis Holman, rag gatherer, 36; William Bees, fish hawker, 37; William Tucker, labourer, 45; William Vosper, painter, 57) so may have slipped down from more respected trades earlier in life. Two of the women are young (Winnifred Blatchely, 20, and Alice Grice, 26) but two are married and in late middle age (Eliza Ellis, 44, and Mary Ann Coombes, 45); unlike Alice Grice, they are not listed as prostitutes so may be escaping abusive relationships or unbearable living conditions in drink and causing a public nuisance on the street.
Alfred Joseph Guscott seems to be an exception, and it is not clear how he came to be in Rack Street. He could afford to get the doctor (unless Dr Vlieland waived his fee for the poorest of his patients) when his wife Ellen died in April 1898 (Dr Vlieland diagnosed syncope, a sudden collapse often related to long-term malnutrition) and (presumably) rented his own house, no. 27. He was a skilled craftsman, an iron moulder, almost certainly working at the Willey Foundry, with at least three children: he married Ellen in 1870, but the eldest child in the 1891 census, another Ellen, is not born until 1874, and then there are three years until Lucy (1877) and five until Sydney (1882), and the length of these gaps implies the infant decease of a child or children. Before they came to Rack Street, somewhere between 1981 and 1901, the family lived in Swan Yard, Okehampton Street in St Thomas’s, an area of poor dwellings crammed between the railway and the River Exe and frequently prone to winter flooding. From there, Alfred could have walked to the Willey Foundry in Water Lane about a mile away; Rack Street, however squalid, was presumably a step up to larger living quarters. Alfred married again in 1901, taking on several stepchildren of his new wife, and moved to Hawke Street, which cannot now be found and was probably swept away, as was Rack Street, in the slum clearance of 1925.