Elizabethan Lyme Regis, Part II

An example of a Tudor merchant’s house

BEFORE continuing the perambulation of the town, it is necessary to consider that the population in 1588 (Armada year) was 1,121 living in some 170 households, in addition there were 247 mariners in 23 ships. Today the population is 3,671.

The Elizabethan town was compact, crowded and lacked adequate sanitation; the River Lym and the Buddle were vile-smelling open sewers. There were many prevalent diseases and life expectancy ranged between 28-40 years, although for many death came much earlier.

Anyone entering Lyme from the east would have found themselves in the very narrow Saint Michael’s Street, now Church Street. The Tudbold almshouses for poor families were built in 1548 and stood on the same site as the existing rebuild of 1887.

Just above the almshouses was the appropriately-named Hide Lane; it led out to what was an important commercial asset for the town, the tannery on East Cliff. Its cliff situation was meant to ensure that the prevailing winds kept the noxious stench of the tanning process away from the town. The winds did not always oblige!

The church which gave the street its name was situated as it is today and built circa 1500. For the most part the town’s merchants resided and conducted their business in the confined area close to the church and Saint Nicholas Street, now Monmouth Street. The houses were high and roomy and inhabited from the first floor upwards, the ground floor and the cellar being used for commercial purposes.

In the vicinity of the church was the grammar school; records show that its students were charged with ‘doing their filth in the churchyard and in the garden of the merchant Silvester Jourdain’.

The top end of both Coombe Street and Saint Nicholas Street were for centuries known as Horse Street, a name associated with the packhorse trade which was centred on the George Inn, unfortunately destroyed in the fire of 1844. It had extensive stabling and was situated close to the square that still bears its name – today it is the site of the town war memorial.

Close by a lane gives access to the restored Town Mill (its leat was known as The King’s Stream) which for much of the Elizabethan period was run by the borough.

Situated in Coombe Street was Our Lady House, probably a religious establishment; a footbridge named after the Virgin Mary provided access. Close by was the aptly and ominously designated Hells Stairs that led down to the polluted river.

The town had a second row of almshouses; a deed dated 1569 refers to them being by Merytt Bridge, this would place them adjacent to the river.

Gosling’s Bridge spanned the river (as it does today) at the bottom of end of Coombe Street. It was frequently in need of repair and often closed to carts.

The Town Hall occupied a site on the left just before the bridge. It is described as being ‘in the pit by the mill, close to Pawlmer’s Mill at Mill Green and Gosling Bridge’. This placed it on what was known historically as the King’s Highway, an appropriate place for the town’s most important judicial and administrative building.

On fair days, a glove on a pole was displayed from the building as a welcome symbol of goodwill, peace and fellowship.

To be continued…

Peter Lacey,
Local historian and author

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Woodmead Halls