Boot-scrapers - a foot in the murky past

on Monday, 02 November 2020. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire Places

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. 

Teddington House
Built-in boot-scrapers at Teddington House

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.

Dorothy Treasure

Buildings Recorder, WBR

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