Crypt Excavation

Crypt Excavation

Extracted from article in Express and Echo – 22nd August 2007

Thanks to modern technology some of the mysteries surrounding a crypt under the floor of St Stephen’s Church in Exeter could soon by solved.

Although the crypt has been there since the church was built in the 11th century it has no door, so architects and archaeologists are planning to use fibre optic cameras to see what is there.  The church in Exeter High Street is undergoing a £1m restoration. The roof and tower are being repaired and the medieval sanctuary, which was above St Stephen’s Bow, will be restored.Depending on what the cameras reveal in the crypt, lighting and a glass floor could be installed so visitors could see into it.

Project leader for the restoration is congregation member Bob Snowden.

“We have a drawing of the crypt which was done in 1826 which show either late Saxon or early Norman columns.   There would have been a door at one time, but you must remember that in Roman times the ground around the church would have been 6ft lower than it is now.   There is the top of a door just visible in the flower beds in Catherine Street.

“From churchwardens’ reports we have found, we know that the crypt was full of coffins in 1932, but now it seems there is just one coffin down there dating from the 1600s and that is of a six-year-old boy.

“We know this from a local workman, Eric Bedwell, who entered the crypt through a hole they had made in the floor when pews were being taken out in 1972.  Once the pews were removed, the floor felt ‘spongy’ and the builders wanted to examine the structure of the church so they made a hole large enough for Mr Bedwell to go through.  He said that there appeared to be walled compartments in the crypt, each measuring about 8ft by 8ft with a head height of about 6ft. But he couldn’t remember how many compartments there were.

“We have no idea what happened to the other coffins between 1932 and 1972 when Mr Bedwell went down.  And we have no idea why one would be left.  John Allan from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum is to research into the history of the church and provided we get permission from the diocese we will put cameras down and hopefully manage to get someone down there again.

“The crypt is sitting on top of a Roman defence ditch so it would also be fascinating to find out what is under the crypt.”

Drawing of the Crypt

A newspaper report dated 1826 was found copied on an old-fashioned typewriter in 1930’s and pasted into the 1825 book published by T. Besley, Exeter titled:  The Report of the commissioners concerning charities containing that part which relates to the City of Exeter.

‘A curious discovery has been made in the church of St Stephen, now under repair in Exeter. In digging at the east end, for the foundation of a new pillar, the labourers came upon some solid work, and on clearing away the rubbish, part of a crypt or sub-terraneous chapel appeared to view.  Two circular columns of freestone and of the latest Saxon period, about 5½ feet in height and distant about 3½ feet from each other, were found in excellent preservation.  The capitals differed considerably: one was enriched with scroll work, the other, which was near 4 inches higher, was comparatively plainer; but had a cornice ornamented with species of dentiles or rather billets. At the time of the Conquest, as Domesday proves, there was church of St Stephen in that city.  The present fabric was erected on its site, and probably was enlarged soon after the restoration of King Charles II.  No documents exist in the parish chest to throw any light on the ancient fabric; but it is known that the churchwardens, on August 11 1657 were ordered to bring forthwith to the then Mayor of Exeter, a true inventory of all the bells, goods, utensils and implements, belonging to the church, and to give up possession of the whole to the said Mayor. Shortly after, the church was sold to a Mr Toby Allen, with a cellar, which probably may be the crypt now discovered.’

No signature or date given.

Talk with Eric Bedwell of 7 Clifton Road, Exeter (278964) 10th January 2004

Eric Bedwell worked for Shepherds the builders who entered part of the crypt of St. Stephen’s Church in 1972 when the pews were being removed from the church. He is the only living person to have been into the crypt. When the pews were removed, the floor felt ‘spongy’ so the builders decided to examine the structure of the floor more closely by cutting a hole in the floor large enough for Eric to pass through.

Entry to the crypt was undertaken through the floor of the church about where the font currently stands. The roof to the crypt now comprises concrete slabs topped by parquet flooring in the church.

He says there appears to be walled compartments in the crypt, each measuring about 8 feet by 8 feet with a head height of about 6 feet. He could not recall the number of compartments.

Mr. Bedwell is unsure if the crypt area is coterminous with the outside walls of the church. The space under the kitchen (added in 1973) contains a quantity of rubble into which the waste water from the kitchen was directed.

There is a ‘lead’ coffin in the crypt which is believed to contain the remains of a six-year old boy who died several centuries ago ‘in the sixteen hundreds I think’. The Rector at the time told Mr. Bedwell that he, the Rector, had been led to believe that the crypt was empty. He advised the workers to take no action about the coffin and to seal up the crypt after they had finished their work there.

The crypt also contains an empty ‘old fashioned’ (it had a glass marble as a stopper) lemonade bottle. The Rector asked the workmen to leave it there.

Mr. Bedwell could not provide any information about the blocked door into the Bow situated behind the organ nor could he give a view as where it might lead.

Mr. Bedwell was asked to make contact if he remembered anything further about the refurbishing of St. Stephen’s Church in 1973.

Mr Bedwell is now (2007) 82 years old and continues to live in the Newtown area of Exeter. I read to him the above comments and he says ‘you have it about right’. He says he is willing to talk about his experience in 1972. The Rector died several years ago.

Up-dated 6th August 2007
Bob Snowden