The river played a vital role in creating medieval affluence in Shrewsbury. It acted as a means of transport for woollen cloth brought from Wales to Shrewsbury by pony. Traders in the town gave the cloth a finer finish and sent it down the River Severn by boat to towns and cities of the south. It was an international trade and drapers and wool traders became very wealthy and influential. During the 1400s-1600s that encouraged expansion of the town and most of the timber framed houses, many of which still survive in Shrewsbury today, were erected in the ‘golden years’ of the wool trade.
The town has over 600 listed buildings, some of them medieval, many Tudor or Jacobean. In London a timber framed house built earlier than 1650 is a rarity due to the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed most of them. Shrewsbury is awash with such houses. Some are picture-postcard black & whites, like Abbot’s House in Butcher Row (below) in the centre of town. It is one of the oldest timber framed houses in Shrewsbury and also one of the town’s showpiece buildings.
Butcher Row, as its name suggests, was home to the butcher trade. It is said the streets were awash with blood from animals slaughtered on the premises at the back of the shops. The area was reported to be filled with the stench of blood and the smell of fish from nearby Fish Street and was not a pleasant place to live in at that time, as can be imagined. The windows at the bottom of Abbot’s House were all separate butchers’ shops, used until the mid-1800s.
The top storey of Abbot’s House is a later addition, probably dating from Jacobean times in the 1600s. It can be seen that the upper two floors of the house are larger than the ground floor. Buildings were constructed in this way for the avoidance of tax, because tax was calculated according to the square yards taken up by the ground floor. To make the accommodation larger without paying extra tax people simply added more floor space on the upper levels, creating an overhang in a process known as jettying.
The lower end of Butcher Row features another house called Greyhound Chambers which has the date of 1392 on the walls, although the house was built during the 1500s. The long building is lower than Abbot’s House and the shops on the ground floor were those of shoemakers. Animal hides from the abattoirs in Butcher Row were sent to tanneries on Barker Street near the river and presumably the finished hides were bought by the shoemakers and returned uphill.
Prince Rupert Hotel
The Prince Rupert Hotel, in Butcher Row, incorporates structures of an old mansion and parts of the hotel date from the 1500s, which makes it an interesting experience staying there as it is reputed to be haunted. It is a three-star hotel and bookings can be made by visiting the website:
01743 499 955 (same number for all links below)
It also has some attached restaurants, eg the Royalist:
Or Chambers (the food is good here, I can vouch for that)
and Camellias Tea Rooms for afternoon teas
Like Butcher Row, Fish street is named because it was full of fishmongers’ shops, and the odour of fish. The flat stones in the middle of the road were laid to enable horse-drawn carriages to run smoothly on the cobbled surface. The back of the Bear Steps centre can be seen on the left-hand side.
St Julian’s church, like most of the other churches in the centre of Shrewsbury, is medieval in origin. The tower dates from the Saxon period of the 1100s, but the rest of the church fell into disrepair and was rebuilt in 1749.
On the right hand side of the street is the Three Fishes Inn, a half-timbered Tudor building which offers a smoke-free, traditional pub with home-cooked food and although I have not eaten there I have been told it is a place to be recommended. It also sells real ales!
Just off Fish Street is the intriguing Grope Lane, one of 21 ‘shuts’ or passages of medieval origin that still exist in Shrewsbury. The word ‘shut’ implies a closed alleyway and there is debate as to how the name originated – I have heard it said that the alleys were closed off at night. The remains of gate hinges and bolt holes can be found at one end of Gullet Shut (near the Square) which gives credibility to the theory.
Grope Lane was a dark and narrow passage through which people had to grope their way from the High Street to Fish Street and the Bear Steps. That’s the official explanation of the name. Centuries ago Grope Lane was the red light district of Shrewsbury so the name may have had another meaning altogether.
The lower part of Grope Lane shows how close the houses were to each other, something that caused problems if there was a fire. Parts of Shrewsbury and other towns, or villages like Church Stretton, were badly affected by fires over the centuries with the loss of many buildings.
Other houses were demolished to make way for modern replacements, even as late as the 1990s. Part of the trouble stemmed from neglect, which created slums during the early part of the 1900s. Many houses were considered dilapidated eyesores and fit only for removal. A great deal of work has been done to preserve what is left of Shrewsbury’s rich heritage.
Cross Keys, originally the 1500s home of a wealthy draper. It stands at the lower end of Grope Lane. In later centuries it was an inn and assumed the name of Cross Keys in the early 1800s. It is currently a coffee shop.
Thanks to a conservation project the building was renovated in 1990 and now incorporates a few modern-day jokes: brackets in the shape of Mick Jagger’s head, carvings depicting Poll Tax demonstrations and a medallion with the heads of Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister in 1990) facing one side and the politician Michael Heseltine facing the other way.
Restoration of these old buildings is very expensive and the town needs funds to continue with similar conservation projects.
Back up Grope Lane is a section of houses next to St Alkmund’s church. The age of some of these buildings is not in doubt. The one on the right-hand side, with its end to the camera, is the oldest building in Shrewsbury, dating from the late 1300s. It was a medieval meeting hall and is now used for exhibitions, including the work of artists and cartoonists, but unfortunately it was damaged by fire in the 1990s and again recently in 2010. Some of the roof timbers had to be replaced and repaired after each fire.
The adjacent houses also date from that time period or slightly later. Bear Steps was named after the Bear Inn which stood in place from 1780-1910.
Part of the town square with a statue of Robert Clive on the left. ‘Clive of India’, as he was known, was an outstanding Army general and citizen of Shrewsbury. After returning from campaigns in India he became Mayor of Shrewsbury and was also elected Shrewsbury’s Member of Parliament.
The black and white building above, Owen’s Mansion, was constructed in 1592 by the wealthy merchant Richard Owen. The finials on the top represent a knight and lady.
Many events take place in the Market Square all year round. Local farmers’ markets are held on every first Friday of the month, followed by a Made in Shropshire fair each second Saturday in the month (in August it’s the first Saturday). Music events are held with jazz bands and folk singers, also Morris dancing in the summer, fundraising one-off events, arts and crafts markets, and many more – for information about Square events see the website:
01743 256 517
The Market Hall was built in 1596 and is made of sandstone brought from Grinshill quarries outside the town. The drapers used the upper floor for trading in woollen cloth while on the ground floor farmers sold their corn. In the corner of the Market Hall is a ‘counting stone’ or abacus that was used to keep a tally of what was sold. Local merchants brought their varied goods for sale in the Square, in much the same way as the farmer’s markets and local produce markets that take place now.
On the north side of the Market Hall stands a statue supposedly of the Duke of York, the founder of the York dynasty, who laid claim to the throne and began the Wars of the Roses. The statue was placed on the Welsh bridge and rescued from there to stand at the Market Hall.
The Market Square originally contained a pool at some time from the 1200s to the end of the 1300s. This historical fact is known due to records concerning the ducking stool used to punish scolds, or nagging wives. It has also been said it was used for traders who cheated their customers, and as punishment of prostitutes. The person was tied to a wooden armchair and ducked under the water. It seems this was also a way to generate revenue because the husband paid one farthing each time his wife was ‘ducked’. The High Street was known as Gumblestolestrete in medieval times, which is a reference to the ducking stool, or gumble stool. After the 1300s the ducking stool was relocated to St John’s Hill, presumably to make use of the river at the bottom of the hill.
Situated at the corner of High Street and Pride Hill this large mansion was home to Robert Ireland, a wool merchant who came from Oswestry. The three-storey house plus garrets was built in about 1575 and two of the original archway entrances still survive at the front. The house occupies a position that is very busy during the day as most of the traffic through Shrewsbury flows along the High Street towards the junction near the Welsh Bridge. The fact it is still standing and is currently used as shops and offices is remarkable.
The meanings of some Shrewsbury medieval street names – Fish Street, Butcher Row, Milk Street – are obvious because of their links to certain trades. Some other names – Mardol, Dogpole, Murivance, Shoplatch – are the subject of speculation. The meaning of Wyle Cop seems clear. Wyle is medieval English for hill, and Cop means ‘top of’. Wyle Cop is one of the older sections of town and as can be seen from the photo it has fine rows of timber framed houses.
The three-storey house on the right-hand side is Henry Tudor House, built around 1460. The name refers to Henry Tudor, who supposedly stayed there in 1485 before marching on with his army to Bosworth Field. He fought King Richard III, won the battle and was later crowned Henry VII. Henry maintained his links to Shrewsbury and visited the town several times.
One of the little shops is a favourite of mine – the Chocolate Gourmet shop, which sells delicious, good quality Belgian chocolates. The chocolates are expensive compared to supermarket ‘Belgian’ chocolates, but the comparison ends there. What a treat they are, and for anyone who loves fine chocolates you can’t do better than visit there.
Wyle Cop is also home to the Lion Hotel, a building that is typical of many in Shrewsbury because it has an inner timber frame structure (dating from the 1500s) which was encased in brick during the 1700s. That was a way of preserving the frame of a building and strengthening the walls, and it was a popular trend in architecture at that time to cover up the old black-and-whites.
The Lion was a coaching inn and was central to many routes through the Midlands. A coach run from London to Shrewsbury was completed in 16 hours during the 1700s by the coach known as the Shrewsbury Wonder, which was based at the Lion Inn.
The Lion Hotel has had many famous guests including Charles Dickens (who wrote the Pickwick Papers while at the hotel) and is still a five-star hotel now. It also hosts some events during the year, and is reputed to be haunted. For hotel bookings and information, see:
01743 352 744
At first glance the Gatehouse, standing near Shrewsbury Castle, appears to be just one among hundreds of houses of architectural interest in Shrewsbury. In fact, it played an important role as the guardian of the courtyard within. Inside the courtyard is the Old Council House (built in 1502) where the Council of the Marches of Wales held meetings, sometimes with the King in attendance. The Council was responsible for keeping the peace in the lands between England and Wales. The gatehouse was built as a residential house in 1620 by Sir William Owen of Condover although the Council may have used it as a prison subsequently.
King Charles I stayed in the Old Council House in 1642 while his armies were preparing to fight those of the Parliamentarians led by Cromwell. His nephew, Prince Rupert, led one Royalist army that was billeted at Shrewsbury and the Prince made his headquarters in the town.
As well as listed buildings Shrewsbury has a share of listing ones. The example below is in Mardol and illustrates the problems facing timber framed houses of early date as the walls began bulging and slipping sideways. This house dates from the late 1500s. The shop is on two floors so it is possible to go upstairs and see what the interior of one of the black-and-whites is like.
This was possibly built in the late 1400s during the reign of Henry VII and in recent years when renovation work was being carried out a painting was found on one of the walls, depicting the Last Supper. The painting is thought to date from the 1400s and can be seen inside the pub on the ground floor.
The pub offers home-cooked food sourced from local produce and is popular with townspeople and visitors alike.
01743 362 843
I was fortunate enough to be shown round the inside of the pub by the landlady and looked out of the window on the upper level. The wooden floor slopes alarmingly towards the window and when I stood by the window and looked at the street outside the overwhelming impression was that I was about to fall out of the building. I was assured that it takes some getting used to, and makes sleeping in the crooked bedrooms a rather different experience to what one normally expects.
Mention must be made of the underground part of Shrewsbury that people hardly ever see. During the 1200s there was considerable terracing of the soft clay and sand that the town is built upon in order to control erosion. In the cellars of many of Shrewsbury’s buildings it is possible to see the remains of Saxon and Norman times. For example there is a Saxon frieze on a cellar wall in Mardol. The vast majority of the cellars of Shrewsbury are made of sandstone from Grinshill quarries, and of those 30 are medieval. It is thought they were undercrofts which were sometimes sub-let from the rest of the building and used for storage or dwellings. There is one place where the public can still see a medieval undercroft and that is in the MacDonald’s restaurant on Pride Hill, which has a discreet façade compared to many restaurants of that chain. The customer can go downstairs and see the cellar.
There are 38 surviving medieval buildings in Shrewsbury, 31 of which were built in the 1400s. Some old buildings are situated outside the Loop and the area of Frankwell is worth visiting, to the side of the new Theatre Severn.
It is impossible to do justice to all the buildings in Shrewsbury, there are so many of the more than 600 listed buildings with historical connections that are fascinating and worthy of mention. What this website has done is to show just a few of them. Every street you walk down has the stamp of medieval or Tudor history attached to it. When I walk in places like Grope Lane, Wyle Cop or Bear Steps I feel somehow closer to history, marvelling at buildings that have stood here for over 500 years and walking along streets within the Loop that have changed little since they were built centuries ago. It’s a precious heritage that I hope future residents will cherish and save.
Anyone wishing to help in conserving Shrewsbury can contact the Shrewsbury Civic Society at their website:
01743 356 511
More about the history of Shrewsbury