The consequences of the devastating 1856 fire previously described, and the decision to build a different style of house, can now be seen across the extent of the former Devon Estates’ lands. Kenton itself would be changed dramatically.
Teignbridge District Council’s Conservation Area Character Statement for Kenton now describes the village’s most characteristic feature as its nineteenth-century architecture which ‘sets it apart from other villages.’[i] Many of these buildings are listed as being of special architectural or historical interest.
After the fire Lord Courtenay evidently considered some re-building to be a matter of urgency but as he had already said, he did not intend that the new cottages should be of a vernacular style of cob and thatch. Instead he commissioned JW Rowell to design new cottages for the village. Joseph William Rowell (1828-1902), a young architect in Newton Abbot, had recently been appointed surveyor to the Devon Estates and by the time of the fire was already engaged in preparing the development plan for the Wolborough Hill area of Newton Abbot and the completion of Devon Square and Courtenay Park for Lord Courtenay. Even so by early June plans for Kenton were well under way. On 12 June Rowell sent drawings for two groups of cottages to John Drew, the estate steward. By 23 June detailed plans and specifications were ready with a ground map showing the proposed positions of the cottages. And just three days later, Rowell was writing that tender documents would be completed and ready within days. On the same day an advertisement appeared in Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post inviting tenders for the contracts to build the first two groups of cottages[ii].
In the meantime, Rowell was writing yet again to Drew that he would prepare the plans and elevations for the row of cottages opposite the church. Detailed specifications for all three groups of cottages still exist and are held by the Devon Heritage Centre[iii]. The first two groups show many elements of gothic style. The cottages are constructed of red brick and have steeply pitched and gabled slate roofs, cranked-arched windows and doors and tall chimney stacks with one front stack corbelled out over the central door. Both groups are built to a symmetrical plan.
By the time Rowell came to design the row of cottages opposite the church, a terrace of nine houses, he was much surer and confident in the gothic style which he adopted. A terrace of nine houses might perhaps have provided the scope to adopt the principles of polychromy for a domestic street scene. These cottages, which were constructed between 1857 and 1858, utilise the elements of the high Victorian style at a time when their use was mostly confined to church and country house architecture.
The predominant building material is red brick, but structural adornments are achieved by the additional use of yellow and black brick banding and detailing. The plinth is constructed of limestone and Bath stone has been used for the sills of the windows, abutments, key stones of the arches and the weathering of the plinth. The caps, corbels and weathering of the chimneys are also of Bath stone. Purbeck or York stone was specified for the entrance steps. Although not as clearly visible now, the use of ground blue lias lime and coal ashes for the pointing material would have also added to the polychromatic effect. The terrace is mainly constructed to a symmetrical plan, with some asymmetric detailing, another typical high Victorian gothic feature. The cranked-arched windows and doors are accentuated by the use of Bath stone for the key and corner stones. The terrace is gabled at the ends and has two large gables to the front and rear at each end of the terrace. There is also a half hipped centre bay, gabled dormers and deep eaves and verges and brick porches to the cottages at either end of the terrace. The roofs are constructed of Delabole slate and have crested ridge tiles.
Further gothic style building continued for a number of years, notably The Almshouses and another pair of adjacent cottages.. The almshouses with their wooden gabled veranda with gothic timber tracery are again constructed of red brick with yellow brick and Bath stone dressings. As with all the other Kenton cottages designed by Rowell, the chimney stacks are prominent features. Both the almshouses and the two cottages have attractively carved bargeboards with gothic quatrefoil detailing.
All these groups of cottages and almshouses have combined to give the village the distinctive character referred to in the conservation area character appraisal. The character appraisal does, however, incorrectly give a date for the buildings as ‘late Victorian’ and speculates that economic difficulties had led to a delay in re-building after the fire. Adding credence to this speculative date is an often expressed assumption that architectural creativity took longer to reach the provinces. It is clear, though, that there was no delay and that the architecture is not just distinctive but was also innovative, pre-dating earlier assumptions by around forty years.
It is interesting to speculate whether such a ‘modern’ and radically different building style would have been permitted by planners today or whether the rebuilding would have had to be undertaken as a replication of what had existed previously.
[i] Teignbridge District Council Teignbridge District Conservation Area Character Appraisals: Kenton (2009) p.7
[ii] Devon Heritage Centre, Courtenay of Powderham, L1508M/London/Estate/Building Contracts/Kenton/3-6
[iii] Teignbridge District Council (2009) p.7