Articles and Observations in Architecture, History, Conservation and Heritage from Buildings Historian Ellen Leslie. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Monday, 16 September 2013

Building Storeys Has Moved!

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Friday, 13 September 2013

The Beautiful and Enduring Houses of The Weald

Wealden Hall House - Bayleaf House © Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
I’ve just had an enquiry to research the history of a 15th century Wealden hall house in Kent. This is a type of building that I have quite a bit of experience of and one that gives me enormous pleasure to research. Their innate timbered beauty, the quality of construction from so many centuries ago as well as their sheer survival makes these buildings a favourite of mine. As the name suggests they are usually found in The Weald, in south east England. This is an area between the North and South Downs that runs from Kent to Hampshire, through Surrey and Sussex. Of course nothing is that cut and dry and you can find Wealden houses in Essex too.

Wealden hall houses were usually constructed in 4 bays with the 2 central ones enclosing a double-height hall with a central hearth. The smoke from this would escape through holes or specially made louvers in the roof. At one end of the hall there would be a screen, hiding a cross passage behind and beyond that two rooms known as the Buttery and the Pantry; the service rooms. At the other end the ground floor rooms tended to be the Parlor, where guests would be received, possibly with business or with matters to discuss; hence “Parlor” from the French “Parler” – To Speak. Upstairs, the two end bays would provide the private family area such as sleeping quarters. These were known as the Solar and would be jettied, hanging over the length of the ground floor. Eventually a floor was inserted to create a full-length first floor and the central hearth was moved towards the cross passage or outer wall to create a fireplace and chimney stack. Initially, these timber-framed buildings were thatched and would have had wattle and daub walls. As time went on these would have been replaced with tiles on the roof and brick infill in the walls. The 18th century was also popular to add an entire brick skin around the house. This is why often, timber framed buildings can remain hidden and are still being discovered today.

To illustrate, here are 2 examples of Wealden houses that I have researched. Both have changed significantly since the time of their construction, but beneath them are surviving Wealden Halls. The first is in Wadhurst (on the Kent and East Sussex border) and another on the far end of the Weald, in Kirdford West Sussex. Despite the extensive change and alteration in their long lives they still hold the fundamental dimensions and structure of their original construction. The house in Wadhurst is 14th century and still retains soot-blacked beams in the roof, from the days of the double-height hall and the central hearth.
©Ellen Leslie
The Kirdford house is a little more recent, around 1585 and had been in such a bad state of repair it was nearly demolished in the 1990s. Thankfully it was saved.

©Ellen Leslie
So the Wealden Hall House endures. It was a popular style of construction then, and was a form that took centuries to evolve and eventually be replaced by new styles of architecture.

If you want to get up close with such buildings you should visit The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex. This museum has rescued and reconstructed an amazing collection of traditional buildings from the south east of England, including Bayleaf House (see top picture).

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Bricks and Mortals

Discovering the history of the previous owners, and or guests to your property can be fascinating, but also sometimes grisly. Can you handle the truth? It is a wonderful thing, unlocking the history of your house. Whether you commission an historian like me, or decide to make the journey yourself; there is a sense of anticipation and excitement about what will be discovered. Is the house a real medieval hall house? Does the cellar belong to a much older building that had existed on the site before? Who built the house in the first place? What was it used for? Will the rumours about a famous resident or visitor prove to be true?

But when you are investigating the history of a building, you can't pick and choose the information. The complete story of a house would include the highs and the lows, the good times and the bad. Are you prepared to find out that your home has a darker past?

In 2012 I had three assignments in a row, where there was either a suicide, a suspicious death or financial ruin (which often preceded the former). Even though these properties were not mine, when researching you can easily become emotionally attached. And although finding the untimely and sad end to people's lives can be considered "run of the mill" in my work, I always take a sharp intake of breath when the evidence is revealed! It can be upsetting, particularly if you have followed the fortunes of a particular person from their birth to their final days.

One of the properties I researched was a mill in Buckinghamshire. I followed local press stories about the owner of the house from 1830 to the 1870s. He seems to have been a real character, either ending up in local tavern brawls, taking fellow local businessmen to court for various perceived transgressions, or one of his businesses catching fire (more than once) or even his own bankruptcy. The trail of his financial demise led to the day after he officially lost his fortune. The coroner's report which I found on Ancestry.co.uk confirmed that as a result of "intoxication", he had fallen into the river next to the mill. If that wasn't enough, 10 years later, his brother-in-law who had taken over the running of the mill had taken his own life in a first class railway carriage from London to Carlisle. 

Another house I researched was an 18th century long house on the South Downs in Sussex. A family had been the tenant farmers of land covering hundreds of acres for hundreds of years. I had traced their tenure from the tender early days in the 1630s up until 1913. The family was wealthy and well-established in the area. But this began to unravel when the head of the family, in 1844 was drowned off the south coast aged just 42. Things didn't really improve after that. Finally, in 1913 after over 10 years of rent arrears the patient landlord had to call in the debt. After over 250 years of farming that land, the family were forced to leave, the head of the family was declared bankrupt and even though his son took over the lease, within the year the house it was up for sale again.

The final example was an 18th century country house in Gloucestershire. From its construction in the 1780s it was occupied by a string of tenants and in 1903 the new tenants were a newlywed couple.  Local press in 1905 reported in lurid detail the tragic story of the wife, who following the birth of her first child had killed herself with a knife in the house. With the benefit of modern medicine and psychiatry for us in 2013 it is easy to see she had been suffering from post natal depression.

I always ask my clients, before beginning the research, whether they would like to have the "warts and all" story of their house; having said that, very few say no. Even where I am researching just the structural evolution of the house, more than the social side, most home owners decide to know all the gruesome details. Would you?

This first appeared  in countrylife.co.uk in January 2013 
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