In ancient times, the thoroughfare from the seafront to Biggin Gate, near St Mary’s Church, was known as King Street. At that time, this area was the centre of commercial trade and at the sea end, in the town wall, was Butchery Gate that straddled the River Dour. It was here that the King’s Custom was set up, known as the ‘Bench’ that eventually gave its name to that part of the Street.
Over time, the ‘Bench’ was used for other monetary transactions such as the settlement of debts and early forms of banking. The market was originally nearby but by 1479, it had moved to what is now the Market Square. The ‘Bench‘ remained and became the place where religious dissenters preached and poor refugees congregated along with destitute seamen – for this reason, the area became known as ‘Penniless Bench’!
At the beginning of the 19th century, Bench Street was described as a lane so narrow that when the coaches turned at the top end from Snargate Street the horse had to put their heads into the window of the house at the corner of Townwall Street! The main obstacle was the large St Nicholas Tower, probably a defensive structure that was 40-foot (12 metres) high with walls on each side that were 4-feet (1.2 metres) thick and about 22-feet (6.7 metres) long.
On the west side of the Tower was a portcullis once guarded the main entrance in which there were two rooms, one above the other. By the 19th century, there was a well-worn spiral stone staircase that went to the top of the Tower connecting the rooms. The building had, at various times, been used for purposes ranging from a prison to residential use and its name was changed accordingly. 1608, the Tower was listed as the residence of Mayor Robert Garret and for a long time after was called Garret’s Tower. Later it was inhabited by Huguenots, religious refugees from France and afterwards as a gaol for French prisoners of war.
After much deliberation it was decided to widen Bench Street and on 1 August 1836 the Tower was blown-up using gunpowder. This, however, only made the situation worse for where the Tower had stood, a large crypt was revealed. This extended 102-feet (31 metres) north from the Tower and about 50-feet (15 metres) south. William Batcheller reported that, ‘the arches were supported by a central pillar and 5-feet in height, the groins of the arches being a foot and a half higher in the centre than at the spring, and about 13-feet over from spring to spring. This tower and crypt were situated 86-feet from the corner of Townwall Street, in advance of the present line of houses.’
At the time, it was believed that the crypt was the undercroft of St Nicholas church but since then the notion that the Tower was part of a church has been discounted. It is now accepted that the Tower and the undercroft were originally the seaward entrance of the monastery of St Martin-le-Grand that had once stood on the west side of Market Square. St Martin-le-Grand had three apsidal chapels, one in the centre, and the others respectively facing the north-east and south-east. These chapels were dedicated to St Martin, St Nicholas and St John, which is where the notion of St Nicholas Church had come from.
In 1836, at the time the undercroft was discovered, Mr Page of 5 Bench Street purchased the corner of Bench Street and Snargate Street and four years later, he built the block that we see today. Next door was the Shakespeare Hotel, so called, as it was believed that the Bard and his players once stayed at a hostelry in the vicinity. Over the years that followed the Shakespeare Hotel acquired some of the upper rooms of Mr Page’s building.
Later that century, Lukey’s the wine merchants owned the Shakespeare Hotel and in 1922 it again was in the hands of the Lukey family. By this time the Hotel had been extended to incorporate adjacent buildings along the west side of Bench Street and John Lukey divided the complex into a bar, restaurant, shop and flats. The following the year planning permission was given to, ‘preserve portions of the Old St Nicholas Church, discovered during building operations,’ as a restaurant /bar. Restored by R J Barwick to designs by architect Vernon Shone it subsequently became the Crypt Restaurant.
During World War II (1939-1945) the Shakespeare Hotel and Crypt were popular with service personnel and the press corps. Indeed, it was even said that if anyone forgot the password to re-enter Dover Castle, it could always be got from the barmaid at the Crypt! In 1947, the first floor was converted into a restaurant and bar by which time the premises passed out of the hands of the Lukey’s. In 1951 John Lukey repurchased the building with adjoining premises that included an amusement arcade, eight self-contained flats and a dance studio. Shortly afterwards the amusement arcade was converted into a lounge and restaurant with cocktail bar. The wooden floor of the dining room was the pre-war skating rink from Granville Gardens!
After changing hands several times, in December 1971 the complex was purchased by Rabb Inns. By this time, due to extensions and alterations, the building facing Bench Street was four storeys plus the Crypt basement. At the back, facing York Street it was three storeys plus a semi basement plus a range of single and two storeys annexes. Inside was a rabbit warren of corridors and staircases. The lower levels were occupied by bars and restaurants and the upper, residential accommodation.
Tragedy struck in the early morning of 27 March 1977. At 02.49hrs Peter Waters, who was walking his dog, called the fire brigade as he had seen smoke coming from the Crypt restaurant. The first fire appliance arrived at 02.55 and back up was requested – the building was alight. People leaning out of windows on the upper floors were rescued and nine people were carried out of the burning building, two of them dead.
Passers by, including Barry and Ann Collins and Alec Gledhill, helped to comfort children rescued from the flames. However, there were reports that people were still in the building so as some of the fire-fighters dealing with the blaze others went into the burning building to confirm that all residents were accounted for. While checking, part of the central section collapsed burying three of the firemen. Two of the trapped firemen were released within twenty minutes but it took another twenty minutes to rescue Leading Fireman John Sharp. All three were taken to hospital along with six other firemen some of who had received serious injuries. Leading Fireman Sharp was certified dead on arrival.
Six others who died because of the fire were 32-year-old Marion, wife of licensee Colin Clay, and two of their five children, Shane (6) and Charlotte (18 months). Anita Lee (19), who worked behind the Shakespeare bars, Janusia Ashton (5) from Acton and Phyllis Conlon (43), grandmother of Janusia, who died in Buckland Hospital three days after the blaze.
The inquest, conducted by Wilfred Mowll, and the cause given was ‘a mains switch to a friar being left on leading to overheating of fractured wiring.’ The fire officer had died from asphyxia and the others from carbon monoxide poisoning. Mr Mowll, in recording a verdict of Accidental death on Leading Fireman Sharp, paid tribute to the gallantry and devotion to duty shown by the members of the Fire Brigade who took part. Over 600 fire service personnel from all parts of the UK and France lined the route to St Stephen’s Church Canterbury, where Leading Fireman Sharp’s funeral took place.
Following the fire it was found that the Grade II listed medieval undercroft was still relatively intact so it was decided to temporary seal it. In April 1981, Rabb Inns were refused permission to reinstate the damaged building but although permission had been given to demolish the remains they sold it instead. Neglect, lead thieves and the elements created an eyesore that was eventually demolished in 1985. A couple of years later the site became the venue of an occasional market and two years after that weekdays market.
By 1991, Folkestone businessman, Jimmy Godden, owned the site and he wished to erect two advertising hoardings. At the same time, there was a need for a sewer to be laid in connection with the new A20 and it was proposed to demolish part of the undercroft. Mr Godden was given temporary planning permission for the advertisement hoardings but the line of the sewer had to be resited to avoid the undercroft. Shortly after, while clearing the ground for the A20 underpass archaeologists re-opened the undercroft and made a detailed description. It was then resealed.
Mr Godden applied, in 1997, to place an advertising hoarding on part of the site such that the hoarding would face York Street and Townwall Street roundabout so permission was refused. Two years later, in 1999, Dover District Council claimed that the long promised Dover Town Centre Investment Zone would finally begin. This included the use compulsory purchase powers to speed up the development of the Bench Street site, at the time of writing nothing has happened.
- Dover Mercury: 22 March 2012