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38a St Mary's Street

A Grade II Listed Building in Ely, Cambridgeshire

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Latitude: 52.3994 / 52°23'57"N

Longitude: 0.2595 / 0°15'34"E

OS Eastings: 553821

OS Northings: 280338

OS Grid: TL538803

Mapcode National: GBR M6H.DG2

Mapcode Global: VHHJ6.GY1G

Plus Code: 9F4297X5+QQ

Entry Name: 38a St Mary's Street

Listing Date: 12 December 1968

Last Amended: 18 November 2016

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1126511

English Heritage Legacy ID: 48717

Location: Ely, East Cambridgeshire, Cambridgeshire, CB6

County: Cambridgeshire

District: East Cambridgeshire

Civil Parish: Ely

Built-Up Area: Ely

Traditional County: Cambridgeshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cambridgeshire

Church of England Parish: Ely

Church of England Diocese: Ely

Tagged with: Building

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C16 timber-framed house with C17 northeast wing incorporating multiple C17-C20 phases of development.


C16 timber-framed front range with C17 northeast wing incorporating multiple C17-C20 phases of development.

MATERIALS: principally timber-framed with some sections of rubble stone walling and a rendered brick wing to the northeast, plain-tile roof throughout.

PLAN: open courtyard plan, with an original C16 range fronting onto St Mary’s Street, a later C17 wing with C19 additions to the northeast along Downham Road and a late C20 single-storey extension enclosing the northwest side of the corner-plot site.

EXTERIOR: The principal frontage and the earliest part of the building is a double-storied, two-bay structure which faces onto St Mary’s Street. This rendered portion appears to have been principally timber framed, although much of the early framing has been lost in later alterations. The fact that it is storied means that it is probably post-medieval, but is unlikely to be later than the C16. A pair of C18 sash windows are positioned above a pair of C19 shop windows. These shop windows each have individual lights headed by gothic style, four-centred arches and are set within a window surround composed of a flanking pair of pilasters with an architrave and a moulded cornice along the top. The left shop window has two-lights and an integrated door and that to the right consists of five-lights. A further apparently C19 addition is the chimney stack of the south-west gable end which was probably rebuilt contemporaneously with the adjacent building at No 40-42 which was constructed in 1840 (as recorded on a datestone). Towards the north of the St Mary’s Street elevation the lower section of the external wall is painted rather than rendered, and the form and texture suggests that it is of rubble stone rather than brick. It is possible that this stone gable wall relates to the earlier, medieval building known to have been constructed on the site. This might explain the irregular height of the stonework, which does not appear to correspond to the building’s C16 stories.

The northeast gable end of the St Mary’s Street range gives the clearest evidence of the C16 phase indicating that the C16 gable end was constructed in two materials, probably rubble stone at lower level and timber-framed above (as also implied on the north side of the St Mary’s Street frontage). Above the stone wall are the remains of a short post with an associated principal rafter above, probably forming part of the end truss of this C16 range. As with the St Mary’s Street frontage the northeast gable end also has an inserted C18 sash window and, beneath this, a further five-light C19 shop window. At the corner of the building is a fine, two-leaf curved door which was also introduced in the C19 as the entrance to the shop occupying this northeast side of the range.

Adjoining the St Mary’s Street range is a rear wing which was built in the C17 to provide additional domestic accommodation. Externally the elevations of this block are of rendered brick and on the street-facing elevation a distinctive C17 plat band is visible marking the division of ground- and first-floor levels. The brickwork of the north gable end is exposed, with the gable featuring tumbled brickwork characteristic of the C17 along with a chimneystack of the same date. As with the St Mary’s Street range, the rear wing has an inserted pair of C18 sash windows and, off-set to the right side, a C19 door with a door frame which matches the window surrounds of the St Mary’s Street range shop fronts. At first-floor level there are C19 casement windows on both the southwest and northeast elevations. In the C19 the building was further extended along Downham Road, with a single-bay, single-storied extension added at this time, this with a simple four-panelled door off-set to its right side and a plain brick gable end to the northwest. This extension has now had its attic space converted to a kitchen, with a projection built out from the pitched roof on the southwest side to accommodate this.

Not visible from the street is the southwest single-storied wing. This late C20 extension forms a simple flat-roofed brick range with French doors inset within the end wall giving access to the courtyard.

INTERIOR: Internally the C16 St Mary’s Street range has been extensively modified at both ground- and first-floor level leaving this area with little evidence of the original form and arrangement of the rooms. The open plan-form and most of the internal fittings at ground-floor level are the product of the most recent reconfiguration, carried out late in the C20. This included the removal of partitions and the insertion of timber posts to support what appears to be a re-set spine beam which runs along the centre of the range. The spine beam and its supporting posts are apparently made up of reused timbers, most likely brought in from elsewhere. A single-storey wing was added in the late C20 enclosing the southwest side of the courtyard. This extension is accessed via a set of three modern brick steps positioned in line with the rear wall of the C16 range.

At first-floor level, there are two larger rooms at the front of the range, and an access landing and smaller room (now a bathroom) to the rear. This arrangement was probably a product of a mid-C19 phase of development, contemporary with the rebuilding of the western gable end and the chimneystack centrally within it. A fireplace with an elaborate cast-iron fender, located in the western bedroom appears to date from this period. The doors to each of the separate three rooms all date stylistically to the C18, but were probably re-set when this floor was reconfigured. Although the three surviving doors of this phase all share a common two-panel pattern each one has a different moulding pattern. The three different types may indicate a hierarchy of spaces but given some of the doors have been relocated, this is difficult to determine.

Within the east gable wall of the St Mary’s Street range first-floor, a portion of the C16 tie beam remains visible, this corresponding with the post and rafter visible externally. The remainder of this truss is concealed internally, as are most of the intermediate trusses of the range. At the western extent of the building however, part of the western tie beam is visible within the northwest first-floor room. Aside from these two tie beam elements the roof of the building is largely concealed by later plasterwork. At attic level however a series of collars representing part of the original roof structure are visible, with one in each of the gable walls and four intermediate collars. Notches in the upper sides of the collars appear to have been for clasped purlins and may represent the original collar and purlin arrangement.

Within the C17 northeast wing the ground-floor room forms a single space accessed via a doorway which would formerly have been placed centrally in the south wall. The central doorway is now blocked by the later stair and a new doorway has been created to the left, but the timber framing of the original doorway’s jambs and head are visible within the plasterwork adjacent to the stair, and within the room itself. A central spine beam with ovolo moulded edges and scrolled stops remains in situ here. In the north end wall there is a projecting central chimney breast with a fireplace. This has a timber bressumer with a chamfered lower edge and simple square cut stops.

The first-floor room is similarly arranged with a central spine beam of the same moulding form. A projecting chimney breast sits slightly west of the central line. This again has a timber bressumer with a chamfered lower edge with straight stops. On the eastern side of the chimney breast a scar in the ceiling appears to mark the location of an original partition wall, which could have provided a large cupboard or closet within the recess created by the chimney breast. This may have been lit by a small window which survives as a recess in the internal east wall although without any associated framing. The room appears always to have been lit by a large central window opening in the east elevation, with the timber lintel of the window opening surviving in situ, although the framing of the window itself has been replaced. The roof structure of the wing is largely plastered over, although more of its form is visible than that of the front range. It is formed of two intermediate trusses, with the roof framing running into the brick gable wall at the north end. At the southern end the roof runs into the roof structure of the earlier range, although the junction of the two is largely concealed by later plaster. Of the two intermediate trusses the upper portions are exposed, with the tie beams hidden within the later floor of the attic storey. The principal rafters of both are visible, with cambered collars. Between the principal rafters run staggered butt purlins, a characteristic of the C17, implying the roof is contemporary with the rest of the range.

At the northwest end of the C17 range is the C19 extension or outbuilding. This is connected at ground- and first-floor level to the C17 wing. Both levels have been largely modernised, the ground-floor now serving as an entrance room and utility area, the upper-floor as a kitchen.


The present city of Ely rises 20m above the surrounding fen on an island of Kimmeridge clay. Although well connected by river and waterways, until the C17 only causeways connected the island to the mainland, and in the early years of Christianity its isolation made it an ideal refuge for those seeking a secluded monastic life. The first successful attempt to establish a religious settlement here was made by Etheldreda in c673, re-endowed by King Edgar 100 years after its destruction by the Danes in 870. Despite threats of further invasion in the C11, and later political turmoil, this monastery survived until its dissolution in 1539. The presence of a monastic community occupying substantial buildings required the support of a lay community, and as that grew, so did the needs of the lay-people for accommodation and services. A detailed survey of 1416 recorded 457 buildings and described an established street pattern; by 1563 the number of households had grown to 800. Despite this growth in population, John Speed’s map of Ely, published in 1611/12, is very similar in both layout and extent to that of the first edition Ordnance Survey (OS) Map of 1885, where the only significant expansion is towards the railway (1845): however, in Speed’s map, houses lining the streets enclose spaces of apparently horticultural and even agricultural production, and while these are still present on the 1885 map they have been pushed to the margins of the city. These maps graphically illustrate the continuing importance of agriculture and agriculturally related industries in the early C17 and beyond, and also show that the later growth in population took place mainly within the confines of the early city street plan. Before the later C19, the only significant rival to agriculture was the pottery industry, in production from the C12 to 1860.

Following the dissolution of the monastery, Ely remained the centre of the diocese, but the loss of the community, and of pilgrims to the shrine of St Etheldreda, would have had a considerable impact on the city’s economy. The consequent decline in management of the fen and its waterways led to an increase in flooding, and attempts at drainage in the C17 and C18 seem to have had limited effect, creating constraints on the ability of the city to thrive. Successive literary travellers commented on the poor drainage, including Celia Fiennes in the mid-C17, who described the city as a “perfect quagmire”, and Daniel Defoe in the early C18, who noted both the city’s market gardens and its overflowing wells. By the mid-C19 the city was in a state of recovery and regeneration: several possible contributory factors include successful drainage, enclosure (1848) and the arrival of the railway with the opening of the Cambridge to Ely line in 1845. This was followed slightly later by other lines, making the city a transport hub. Despite this, the physical expansion of Ely beyond its medieval core was slow through the mid-C20, accelerating through the late C20 and into the C21, as Ely developed as a dormitory town for Cambridge.

The building considered here, 38a St Mary’s Street, sits in a prominent position at the junction with Downham Road. It forms the end of a continuous terrace of buildings, of various dates, which run along the northern side of the road. St Mary’s Street is the main route to the city from Cambridge and the south and west, and in the medieval period formed one of the principal approaches by land to the city, negotiating the fens via the causeway at Aldreth. Just south of 38a the street broadens out into a small green, known as St Mary’s Green, which marks the western tip of the open area to the west of the Cathedral known as Palace Green. Originally this area was larger, extending to St Mary’s Street to the north, where properties have now been built fronting onto the street.

To the south of St Mary’s Green is St Mary’s Church, the parish church in Ely, and one of two in use in the medieval period. Despite some commercial activity on St Mary’s Street the area was removed from the main market square, and from the trading area by the river. Its focus appears instead to have been on the religious and institutional side of the city’s life. By the late medieval period the Bishop’s Palace sat immediately south of Palace Green and as well as St Mary’s Church and its associated vicarage (now Oliver Cromwell’s House) there was also a large tithe barn, and, further west, the Hospital of St Mary Magdalene and St John’s. In addition there appear to have been a number of early guilds in the area, with at least two known to have had halls within close proximity to the parish church.

By the late medieval period the land on St Mary’s Street was principally in the ownership of the Bishop or the Prior. In the 1417 survey of Ely the corner of St Mary’s Street and Downham Street was known as Mepsale’s and the adjoining tenement known as Mepsale’s tenement or ‘the tenement lately John Mepsale’s’, the latter suggesting that Mepsale may have recently given it up or have died (Holton Krayenbuhl, 2011, 133). John Mepsale or John of Meppershall was a notable figure in Ely in this period, as the architect at the abbey. He was allegedly responsible for the construction of the smaller, western octagon at the abbey in the late C14 and was certainly the mason for the Porta or south gate built c1400 (Maddison, 1998, 92). This suggests that the tenements along this street were relatively high status, and that there were strong links to the abbey amongst the tenants living there.

The present building occupying the site at the junction with Downham Road is comprised of multiple phases of development, the earliest of these apparently dating to the C16, this forming a double-storied range running along St Mary’s Street. The most coherent phase visible within the building is the C17 northeast wing along the Downham Road street frontage, which was built as an extension to the earlier range to provide additional domestic accommodation consisting of a room at both ground- and first-floor level.

Into the C18, the building saw a remodelling which included the addition of new sash window openings and, internally, a series of high-quality two-panel doors. Further extension appears to have been undertaken in the C19 with the single-storey, one room addition to the end of the C17 wing, probably providing some form of outbuilding or service area. Further service provision may have been offered by the detached C19 building to the rear of 38a St Mary’s Street that is now 1c Downham Road. This is in separate ownership and is not covered by this List Entry but does appear to have been built as an outbuilding to No 38a. By the C19 the portion of the building fronting onto St Mary’s Street was certainly in commercial use, it was at this time that the present shop window and two-leaf curved corner door were introduced. This part of the building appears to have accommodated two separate commercial premises as indicated by the separate doorways on the southwestern side of the St Mary’s Street elevation and the corner section of the building. The exact date of the C19 work is not known, though it appears that the gable end chimney would have been reconstructed at the same time as the adjacent building occupying No 40-42, which has a datestone of 1840 which may indicate the time of a wider phase of development at No 38a.

The most recent phase of notable development took place late in the C20, when the interior of the main range fronting onto St Mary’s Street appears to have been reconfigured. This has seen the removal of the majority of earlier partitions at ground-floor level and the construction of a single-storey extension which enclosed the southwest section of the courtyard set to the rear of the building.

In the original List entry for 38a St Mary’s Street (December 1968), it was described as: ‘Mainly a Cl7 plastered brick house with a cross wing at the south end. Altered in C18 and C19. 2 storeys. 2 window range on each front (north-east and south-east), double-hung sashes with single vertical glazing bars (a C20 casement). The ground storey has C19 shop windows and a corner entrance. Roof tiled, steeply pitched.’

Reasons for Listing

38a St Mary’s Street is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: as a building with C16 origins and a range of subsequent phases covering four centuries. Surviving fabric and structural detail from each phase reflects the changing needs of succeeding occupants, thus providing important evidence for historic building traditions;
* Historic interest: it lies within the area of settlement described on John Speed’s map of 1610/1611, a street pattern established by the early C15, and makes an important contribution to the historical development of the townscape;
* Group value: it lies within the Ely Conservation Area, and is one of 198 listed buildings in the city, thus forming part of a collection which illustrates building traditions spanning several centuries.

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