St Michaels's Tower Gloucester
St Michael’s Tower stands on the highest part of the city of Gloucester where the four main streets cross. Some 25 metres in height it was built in the footprint of the nave of a previous church dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. It was built c.1465 and has been a familiar sight to Gloucestrians for nearly 550 years, throughout the reigns of 23 kings and queens.
A church had been built on the site by the 12th century, the nave extending down Eastgate Street. Roman remains were found under the tower, and the Roman street was slightly further south than the present Eastgate Street.
By 1100 Gloucester had 10 early churches. St Michael the Archangel parish included an area of Barton Street known as Barton St Michael. In the 13th century, St Michaels was one of three small churches that were close together, the others being All Saints at the Cross in Southgate Street, and the Chapel of St Martin’s to the north-east in Eastgate Street. St Michael’s and its dependent St Martin’s chapel were almost certainly Saxon in origin.
A churchyard was acquired on the south side in 1366 but, prior to that date, burials were in the Lay Cemetery of St Peter’s Abbey – this now Gloucester Cathedral. This area is now a car park in College Green. The churchyard was full by 1857.
In 1648 the parish was united with two churches in the city but they were separated again at the time of the Restoration. Those churches were St Aldate’s in St Aldate Street, and St Mary de Grace, which stood in the centre of Westgate Street. Both suffered damage during the Civil War and Siege of Gloucester 1643. The fabric from them was recycled, some of it being used at St Michael’s. Glass from St Mary de Grace was reused in St Michael’s church.
This part of the city was cluttered and busy, and small shops, booths or tenements were clustered around the walls of the tower and church. A rental of 1455 shows various tradespeople using the booths – one was an apothecary, another dealt in hardware goods, and the west porch itself was rented to a card maker. Later the porch was built over, and several tenements were linked and used by a bookseller and stationer by 1662. The shops began as wooden structures but developed over time to over three storeys in height. An ironmonger who rented the porch in 1734 was permitted to build a cellar eight feet deep under it!
In the centre of the crossroads stood an elaborate stone cross – the High Cross – which was 10.3 metres high. It was taken down in 1751 because of the congestion around it, “for the better convenience of carriages”. The tenements hid St Michael’s, blood ran in the gutters from the butchery trade, the streets were filthy and smelly, people and horses and carts had trouble getting through it all. Finally the tenements themselves were pulled down to widen the streets.
St Michael’s was a wealthy parish, but the church was often in need of renovation. In 1846 it was decided to completely demolish the church, together with the west porch, and build a new one. The ancient tower remained, and a new Victorian church was built onto it by 1851 when, once again, Eastgate Street was widened to accommodate the increasing traffic.
St Michael’s Church closed in 1940, and by 1952 the parish was united with St Mary de Crypt. The Victorian church was demolished between 1955 and 1956. Parts of this building have also been recycled and some are in use elsewhere, including most of the 10 bells from the belfry. At the end of the 19th century, St Michael’s church had a very famous band of ringers, known as St Michael’s Juniors.
The tower has been a city-centre landmark ever since, and has had various uses. It became a place where shoppers could walk from Eastgate Street into Westgate Street when both sides were open. It offered shelter from the wind and rain, and had seats for people to rest on.
From 1976 until 1981, the two upper floors were opened up and used as a bell museum. Four years after that St Michael’s Tower reopened on the ground floor as a tourist information centre. The Gloucester MP, the Right Honourable Sally Oppenheim, performed the opening ceremony in the presence of the Mayor of Gloucester, Councillor Terry B Wathen, and the Chairman of the city’s leisure services, Councillor Mike Pullon.
In 2004 the Gloucester Civic Trust’s Street Survey Group became concerned about the building and approached the owners, Gloucester City Council. The tower was being used as a storage place. Civic Trust volunteers formed a group with the aim of saving the tower from further decay, and the city council granted the Trust a lease on the building. In 2009, the building will become the home of Gloucester Civic Trust and ‘A tower of learning’ – a place where the community and visitors can learn about Gloucester’s rich past, while recording today’s history for future generations to enjoy.
Information from Gloucester Civic Trust website