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There can be little doubt that the geographical direction of this road made South Street the natural choice of name long before it was designated as such in the 13th century. Originally a continuation of the Old Stortford Road (now Southmill Road) it was, for centuries, the only direct entrance into the town from the south, and a principal route to East Anglia via Bishop’s Stortford’s thriving market.
When a long distance coach service began running from London to Bishop’s Stortford in the 17th century, the town’s popularity increased ten-fold and inevitably led to the development of many new service facilities – mainly inns and ale houses. As a consequence, the narrow and predominantly residential South Street became a busy and congested highway.
But the town’s new found wealth was short lived. After the Hockerill bypass was built in 1670 (See Guide 12), most stagecoach owners avoided the busy town centre all together. Their decision brought wealth and fame to the inns of Hockerill, but economic gloom to the town and the eventual demise of many hostelries.
A further blow to its economy came in 1749, when the Essex and Herts Highways Trust ruled that the entire length of North Street and South Street should be widened to 20ft (6m). The reality of this was that virtually all buildings on the eastern side of both roads were demolished. Rebuilding obviously took place, but because the town’s commercial centre was based around the Market Square and Potter Street, most new properties built were for residential use. Not until the opening of the Stort Navigation in 1769 did the town’s commerce and malting industry fully recover.
All important to the maltsers was easy access to river transport, and many maltings were built close to its banks as well as in South Street itself, linked to the river by a series of lanes and alleyways. Most of these still survive, two of the larger lanes now named Riverside Walk and The Dells.
As the town’s popularity and population grew in the 19th and early 20th century, many of the houses in South Street were converted to shops selling a wide range of commodities. In the 1930s, property developers and business men also began to take a keen interest in the street and by the 1950s its full potential had been realised, becoming the town’s main shopping centre. But the most dramatic change in Bishop’s Stortford’s long history came in the late 1960s and early 70s when the Town Redevelopment Scheme was implimented.
Nationally it was a time of regeneration and rebuilding, where modernism and functionality prevailed and anything deemed to be ‘old’ was liable to be swept away on a tide of new development and planning. Locally, some redevelopment was certainly necessary, and justified, but on reflection much of the destruction that took place now seems like wilful vandalism, aided and abetted by small, ‘get-rich-quick’ developers whose ugly ‘functional’ structures were totally out of place alongside their elderly and more traditional neighbours. Unfortunately, Bishop’s Stortford still bears the scars of this period, the results of which can be clearly seen in South Street’s diverse building styles.
The town centre was the subject of yet more change in 1997 when the section of South Street between Station Road and Bridge Street was torn up and a new thoroughfare created. This time, however, it was to everyone’s benefit. Market traders, long restricted to just North Street and Market Square were allotted extra space, traffic was restricted to single file, and pavements were widened for the public’s safety and comfort.
The biggest change of all in recent years has been the demise of small home-grown local businesses, the few that are left now standing in the shadow of mostly multi-national competitors. It would be impossible to record the countless changes that have taken place in South Street over the years – especially in shop ownership – and for this reason only the more prominent history associated with buildings and businesses, past and present, is noted here.
The Maltsters Arms
Once standing on the north-east corner of Station Road and South Street was the Maltsters Arms, always a firm favourite of bargees in the 19th century because unrestricted licensing laws meant it could open for business early in the day. The landlord no doubt became a rich man, but by 1920 the river no longer supported barge transport and the pub closed. It was replaced in 1926 by the unusual terrace of shops that now stand here, named Stort Corner (See Guide 11).
In the 19th century No 70 was the Saracen’s Head public house, more popularly known as Perry’s lodging house or ‘the old pan and can’. It was named as such because permanent inmates were expected to provide their own pan and can for frying food and brewing tea.
Despite its guise as a lodging house it was actually little more than a brothel, the entrance alongside the building leading to its stable yard and a small row of cottages with a communal room. The Saracen’s Head closed in 1970, though there’s no evidence to suggest it remained a brothel until that time.
The first Methodist service held in Bishop’s Stortford took place in 1823 beneath a large tree in the Causeway, the congregation led by a Mr Anthony, who later became Master of Hockerill Union Workhouse. The following year a seed warehouse in Church Street was purchased and converted into a chapel, and the first minister appointed in 1828.
As the number of Wesleyans in Stortford increased, a plot of land was purchased in South Street (opposite Apton Road) and a much larger chapel erected on the site in 1866. Meetings continued here until 1903, at which time the congregation moved to this new Methodist church erected on the site of a former malting. Costing the princely sum of £5,000 and taking less than a year to build, it was described at the time as a ‘handsome and commodious chapel’. But by the 1980s the ‘commodious’ chapel was becoming a little cramped, so a new entrance extension was added and the interior and frontage renovated.
The founder of Methodism was the English evangelical preacher John Wesley (1703–1791), a rector’s son who was educated at Oxford and ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1728. He later taught Greek at Oxford and became a member of a small group of students who were derisively called Methodists for their methodical devotion to study and religious duties.
In 1735 Wesley joined English settlers as a missionary in Georgia, America, then returned three years later to settle in Bristol. But his passionate sermons there soon upset local clergy, and when pulpits were closed to him he built his own Methodist Chapel in the city in 1739. He also regularly travelled the country visiting poor neighbourhoods in industrial and agricultural areas, preaching on personal morality and warning against the dangers of gambling and drinking.
Wesley eventually visited Bishop’s Stortford in March 1775, and though he didn’t come here to preach he described the town as a spiritual desert. His impression of the town was further sullied when a snowstorm forced him to stay in the Red Lion Inn at Hockerill. It was, he said, the dearest house he had ever been. Wesley probably passed through Bishop’s Stortford on other occasions when journeying to Norwich, though he normally travelled there via Colchester and Ipswich visiting Methodist groups along the way.
In 1784 Wesley established the legal status of Methodist societies, and though he didn’t form a separate church he made plans for the societies to continue after his death. When that event finally occurred in 1791, it was calculated he had delivered some 40,000 sermons and given away £30,000. He remains one of the few Britons, apart from Henry VIII and George Fox of the Quakers, who can claim to have founded a religious denomination. At the time of his death the British Methodist movement had around 76,000 members. Today the number is in excess of 300,000, while worldwide membership is 38 million and growing.