Go to any town, whether it’s in Wiltshire or elsewhere, and look at its historic houses. We all notice the main features – the type of door, its windows, what material the main elevation is faced with etc, but how many of you have noticed the strange semi-circular little recess beside the front door? In the past these were as part of everyday life as an umbrella.
Throughout history up until as recently as 1900 England’s roads could be an impassable river of mud in the winter and in any period of wet weather (Hindle, Medieval Roads, Shire Anthology). Travel between towns could be arduous in bad weather, and even in towns paving could be non-existent or minimal. 15th century walkers from Kellaways, near Chippenham could take advantage of Maud Heath’s causeway and walk dry-shod to market with their basket of eggs, but these philanthropic endeavours must have been few and far between. Of course, there was sporadic paving and cobbles in towns such as Bath in the 18th century, but not in every town.
In the past long, dragging garments could be kept out of the mud using pattens outdoors. Effluent, both animal and human, was dumped freely in the street or open sewers. Salisbury once had a network of these open sewers that flowed down the main streets until the watercourses were covered over. Pattens were metal or wooden overshoes or clogs that would not have looked out of place besides 70s platform shoes. They could be slip-ons or could be tied in place with cloth bands and raised indoor shoes, which were thin-soled and expensive, above the sludge level.
By the 18th century we start to see boot-scrapers at the entrances to any building to keep down the level of mess, which must have been a constant headache for any housekeeper. These came in three main forms: the free-standing type embedded in the ground next to a door; portable scrapers, some with brushes, which are still available today and used on muddy wellies; and built-in boot-scrapers which were part of the design of a building. Teddington House in Warminster is dated c1700 and has not one but two arched recesses on either side of the door, once with iron bands across. These are the type that remain, sometimes without their iron bands. Some decay away and lose their decorative features, such as a chamfered surround. Sometimes they are filled in entirely.
The need for boot scrapers in towns pretty much disappeared with the introduction of tarmac for roads and pavements by Edgar Hooley in 1902. He was walking in Denby, Derbyshire when he noticed a patch of smooth road. He later found out that a barrel of tar had overturned and had been covered up with slag from a nearby furnace and modern road surfacing was born.
Today these once-vital structures have fallen into disrepair and are probably hardly noticed. One near me has been turned into a fairy house complete with tiny bits of furniture and figures so that children on their way to the nearby school can appreciate it. It would be interesting to see the cut-off date for these scrapers in dated buildings, as I am guessing they likely stopped abruptly in 1902. If anyone has any thoughts on this under-researched subject, then let me know.
Buildings Recorder, WBR
Whilst on a recording visit to an early-mid 18th century house in Stratford I came across a feature that I had not seen before, or to be clearer – I may have seen it before but presumed it was a faint daisy-wheel - an apotropaic mark seen inside and on the outside of houses throughout Wiltshire.
Daisy wheels are usually regularly divided with four or more pairs of petal-like scribed lines. They are thought to have been placed there to protect a building from bad luck and as a solar symbol, they ritualistically dispelled ‘darkness’.
High up on a corner stone of the building we thought we’d identified one of these daisy wheels when Peter Filtness, who had been recording the building with me, recognised it as a mass dial. I must admit I was completely mystified, not having studied churches much.
This was a scribed circle with what looked like a few randomly-scratched lines, not the chrysanthemum-shaped petals I was used to seeing. It was more like a sun-dial than anything, and in fact, worked in much the same way.
Apparently, without the aid of a clock, a priest was able to determine at what time to say mass from casting a shadow across the appropriate line with a straight rod acting as a gnomon in the central hole. Sounds simple!
The mass dial became known as a service dial after the Reformation, masses being Catholic. The principle of literally marking time was exploited generally and indicating mass times was only one of several uses of this clever device that was simply made up of a few scratched lines radiating from a central point. Obviously, they relied on daylight to cast the requisite shadow so had to be set on the south side of the church. They were also conveniently set at eye-level. Mass dials went out of use in the 16th century with the advent of the mechanical clock.
Some 3,000 of these dials have been recorded in the UK and no doubt there are others, like this one, which turn up in unexpected places on reused stone. The house we were looking at started life as a humble two- or three-cell farmhouse. There was an assumption that the very large and well-cut corner stones might have come from Old Sarum up the hill, but still, the haulage costs of such heavy stones would have been considerable. Why not use even more local material?
It was after a bit of research that it was discovered that St Lawrence church, just nearby, had its tower rebuilt in 1711. Was this after a collapse? It is not likely that we will ever be able to answer the question of where the stone might have come from except perhaps by divine intervention!
Stratford Tony is a small village 4 ½ miles from Salisbury. The river Ebble flows through it, and the line of the ancient Roman road known as ‘Icknield Street’ passes close on the west side of the village. The most notable occupant of Stratford Tony was the impressionist painter Wilfrid de Glehn, who lived at the Manor House from 1942 until his death in 1951. The population now only amounts to around 50 people.
Last year Wiltshire Buildings Record was asked to investigate the old rectory, now a private house. The house presented a decorous early Georgian front with views across the lawns to the river below. As ever, we looked beyond the polite elevation to the hidden corners and roof spaces to reveal a very different story. Remains of a c1500 timber-frame were found embedded in replacement stone walls and in the roof which suggested that this was a much more humble farmhouse. Grabbed by the intrigue glands, our researcher Louise did what she does best, which is to squirrel out those hidden facts embedded in layers of old parchment. It turns out that it was quite possibly a grange farm for the Abbey of Lyra in Normandy (nothing to do with His Dark Materials or the constellation of stars!) and then the Priory of Sheen in Richmond, London.
Its transformation to posh rectory happened in the later 16th century when Lawrence Hyde acquired the advowson (the right to recommend a clergyman to a ‘living’ in the parish) from the Crown in 1560. Lawrence Hyde was part of the influential Hyde family of Wiltshire, he had benefitted greatly from the acquisition of land and property following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He held a lease from William Earl of Pembroke, of Wardour Castle and Park around the time he was granted the advowson at Stratford Tony. Members of the Hyde family held it for over 126 years up to 1686, when it then transferred to Edward Fawconer of Sarum.
By 1671 the glebe terrier noted a substantial rectory house comprising …A mansion house, a brew house, a wood house, a barn, a stable, a fodder house besides some skillings (cowsheds), an orchard, 2 gardens…. Lawrence and his son Robert Hyde installed three members of their own family as clerks at Stratford Tony. It is very likely, the patronage of the Hyde family resulted in substantial investment in the parsonage house, including the addition of a smart Georgian wing. This was extended further in 1791 by Reverend Stockwell, the rector at that time, who commemorated it with a datestone.
Warminster is a market town lying in close proximity to Salisbury Plain. Its history starts with the discovery of two Roman villas at Pit Mead, Bishopstrow. In Anglo-Saxon times it was a royal estate and residence, but it was not until the 13th century that it began to develop into the town we know now.
The earliest settlement was likely around the parish church of St Denys and nearby Manor House (now embedded within Manor Gardens), but nothing else survives. The town grew east from the site of the old Emwell Cross, an open space which tradition says was an old market site originally and now contains a grade II* stone obelisk commemorating the enclosure of the parish in 1783. At that time the eastern limit of the town was at the junction of George Street and High Street. In the early 13th century the ‘market of Warminster’ with a shop ‘covered in stone’ appears to have been a separate area based around the chapel of St Lawrence, a chapel-of-ease for St Denys (the Minster) which had become isolated on the north-west fringes of the town.
Very little is known about the medieval development of the town apart from the mention of houses in Church Street, High Street, West Street and Portway, and until fairly recently, only hints of older buildings behind later fronts have been coming to light. During inspection and recording when town centre buildings are redeveloped, more evidence has been uncovered of the survival of early fabric that could be medieval or early modern.
Historic England have long understood that there is more to many ordinary or modern-looking towns than meets the eye and are actively fostering groups to uncover their history through the physical fabric of bricks, mortar and timber. It has recently been discovered that the row of buildings between the Athenaeum in the High Street and North Row contain the substantial remains of jettied timber-framed houses, probably shop-houses of the late medieval/early modern period. No. 16 (Bon Bon Chic) was dated to 1513 in 2014. No. 6 High Street (Café Journal) was found to date between 1499 and 1531. Cordens (no. 4 High Street) is likely to be the oldest in the row from architectural details evident. Fragments of earlier buildings have been uncovered at the Bath Arms (now Wetherspoons) and 32 Market Place (Coates and Parker) which hint at the type of buildings that preceded the present shops.
Warminster has been underappreciated as a town in architectural terms. Wiltshire Buildings Record is hoping to bring out knowledge of exactly how Warminster is unique and special, and this should foster greater interest in our town. Thanks should be given to the Warminster Preservation Trust who have kindly donated £2,000 so we can kick this project off with dating some key buildings using dendrochronology. Watch this space!
Dorothy Treasure Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record
Wiltshire Buildings Record held its 40th AGM in Bratton on the 22nd June. The weather was beautiful and a miraculous interlude in a succession of grey, stuffy days that had come before. After the business meeting Mike Manson of the Bratton History Association gave us a Powerpoint presentation on the origins and development of Bratton, which was apparently once three separate settlements. The wealth of fine houses hidden down picturesque lanes were derived from the woollen industry in the 17th and 18th centuries. West Wiltshire was dominated by a small group of entrepreneurs who controlled the woollen industry as landholders, buyers and employers. The most prominent family in Bratton and Westbury was the Whitakers; wool merchants whose impressive home was the Courthouse in Court Lane, dating from the medieval period and onwards. Iron replaced wool in the 19th century, as Dennis Gardner, another BHA member explained in a separate presentation. Reeves ironworks produced agricultural machinery and was the largest employer in Bratton until the early 20th century. We went out, fuelled by much cake and tea, down a positive rabbit-warren of unexpected leafy lanes, guided by Mike. Owners of houses were moved to come out and investigate at the sight of a large bunch of strangers all staring steadily in their direction. All were friendly though, and a mine of information. Much of the timber-framing we saw appeared to be 17th century, or 17th century improvements of earlier buildings which in at least two cases included a chute at the front, possibly to load fleeces directly into a wool loft at the top of a house (as found in a WBR recording of Court Lane farmhouse a few years back). There was much speculation over this, with the conclusion that many villages had their own peculiarity in building which was influenced by the prevailing economic activity, in Bratton’s case, its woollen industry in the 17th century and possibly later. As usual though, more research is needed to prove this link.
Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record
During a visit to Cricklade I was asked to pop in to see a cottage in Swindon. This cottage and another similar one nearby were all that were left of an ancient hamlet and were now surrounded by modern houses, giving a very suburban flavour to the area. The cottage had once been a prosperous farm but was subsequently divided into two cottages, a not unusual development for a farmhouse in the 19th century.
On the ground floor were two original rooms, the core of the cottage before it was extended. A heavy 17th century beam ran from the gable end fireplace to the cross wall and this immediately aroused my interest; when an open medieval hall with a central hearth is floored over, the beam supporting it often has one end lodged in the chimney breast, which is added at the same time.
By the time I got to the first floor I was excited to see the start of a heavily-plastered cruck blade with arched brace of what must have been a hall truss emerging from the stone wall, and disappearing through the ceiling. Crucks are a very distinctive form of timber-framing not seen in Wiltshire after about 1530: our dendrochronology project is collecting data on this very subject. Barely containing myself, I arrived at the attic floor via a steep, winding stair to be confronted with the massive and heavily smoke-blackened top parts of a 14th century roof. There were two main frames complete with characteristically skinny wind-braces, some original chunky rafters, and smoke-blackened battens, though the thatch had been replaced.
Image: Apex of one of the cruck trusses
The timbers had been cut about to allow circulation within the attic space, but originally the impressive cruck frames would have been only viewed from the ground. To get some idea of what a medieval dwelling house would have been like when built, go into an old tithe barn such as that at Lacock or Bradford-on-Avon and be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the timbers and height to the roof. A farmhouse would have been smaller, but still impressive. The hall truss over the open fire would have been the most decorative, with chamfered bracing, parts of which remain. In the 17th century the old hall was clad in stone, hiding or replacing the original timber-framing and its wattle-and-daub panels. Houses like this had to change with the times to stay useful, or be replaced. I suspect there are many more hidden medieval halls out there just waiting to be discovered, even in the most unlikely places!