In at the Ground Floor: Exploring a 17th Century Home in South Derbyshire

Introduction

In this post (the second post in a series that considers everyday life in Early Modern England[i] through ‘archaeological stories’ that places historical evidence within a fictional narrative: see ‘Expedition into the Past: Tales of a 17th Century Derbyshire Manor House’ for a brief explanation of this approach),[ii] we continue to follow Samuel Beighton. This Constable[iii] is investigating ‘Upper Hall’ (a privately occupied dwelling in the Swadlincote area of South Derbyshire),[iv] in order to verify the number of chargeable fireplaces for the first Hearth Tax assessment, in September 1662.[v]

This post continues from ‘The Taxman Cometh: Exploring a 17th Century South Derbyshire Home’, in which Samuels examines the setting and front façade of the manor House. The real-life characters encountered within these posts are discussed (alongside other occupants and events connected with the house) in ‘From Yeoman to Gentleman: Peopling a 17th Century South Derbyshire Manor House’, which includes tentative ‘family histories’ to consider social relationships within and between the Hall and the wider community. ‘Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home’ outlines the domestic environment and material culture of the typical yeoman household at this time, providing a backdrop and comparisons for the society and culture of Upper Hall. ‘Expedition into the Past’ provides background information, and discusses how this series uses written and materials sources to create a historically descriptive, but imaginary, tale. (Please see the endnotes for information on the sources used, and on the introduction of fictional characters and circumstances. Italicised text is used to denote discussion of later and features, and to present background information, outside the main narrative.)

Constable Beighton resumes his investigations as one of the servants reluctantly admits him into the property through the porch: he now stands within the entrance hall.

Entrance Hall

The constable looks about him as the servant hesitates over where she should first conduct the officious intruder. Muffled voices permeate a closed oak door to the right, which intrigue Beighton, though this room appears not to be their destination. Samuel can just see stairs to another floor through the opening in the wattle panels in front of him. Through another oaken door to the left, he glimpses what must be the kitchen.

Parlour-Dining Room

Though not visible to Samuel at this time, visitors in later years would have encountered a door to the left of that which led to the kitchen, which opened into an extension built in the late 18th or early 19th century, to the north of the porch. Its construction therefore postdates Beighton’s assessment of 1662, and the repeal of the hearth tax in the 1680s.

It will be seen below (in the section on the Hall) that the house has at several times been subdivided; this extension was most likely built as a parlour-dining room, after the south wing – and its dining room and parlour – was separated from the rest of the house. This modification appears to have been carried out in or after the late Georgian period (by which time the Benskin family had vacated the property), perhaps by the grandson of the third owner (William Cant), William Bailey (or ‘Bayley’) Cant (see ‘From Yeoman to Gentleman).  

The room is fitted with a fine (original?) late 18th – early 19th century style fire surround (perhaps made of what in the past was commonly called ‘deal’). Within the fireplace is a late 19th – 20th century cast iron combination grate, with transfer-printed ceramic tiles. The ceramic hearth tiles appear to be relatively recent additions, perhaps set on top of an earlier hearth-stone (possibly raising the level of the fireplace floor, in order to comply with modern building regulations for fitting a gas fire within the grate). To the right of the chimneybreast is an arched alcove (which may have once contained a carved wooden or plaster back), within which expensive possessions may have been displayed.

Fireplace in late 18th - early 19th century parlour-dining room

Fireplace in late 18th – early 19th century parlour-dining room

The room would most likely have contained a central mahogany dining table (perhaps of gate-leg design, so that it might be folded and placed against the wall when not in use), with upholstered and carved mahogany dining chairs, and perhaps a small mahogany sideboard.

For more information on, and descriptions of late 17th – 19th century parlour-dining rooms, see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’; and the Geffrye Museum virtual display.

Here the servant-girl suddenly leaves Samuel, as a male servant approaches through the kitchen door to take her place, and grudgingly bids the constable to follow.

Kitchen and Cellars

Kitchen, viewed through hallway door

Kitchen, viewed through hallway door

Samuel is impressed by the modern and well-equipped kitchen, which has not one, but two, bread ovens (see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’) within the brick inglenook fireplace – no sending victuals out to the village baker, as the less fortunate must do. One of the arched openings bears sooty traces from the flames and smoke of a previous fire.

The following is a description of the possible arrangements for the kitchen hearth at the time of the first Hearth Tax assessment. Inglenook fireplaces were built to contain open grate wood fires, whereas the central brick feature (enclosing a narrow flue) now visible was likely to have been inserted at a later date to burn coal (late 17th – late 18th century: closer examination might enable a more accurate estimate of the most likely date when this modification took place). Bricked in flues could more efficiently (and with less smoke, and fewer noxious fumes) burn fossil fuels; prior to this change, chimney flues were chamfered.[vi]  

The ashes from the fire (saved for cleaning purposes) part fill a deep brick-lined grate-covered pit (perhaps 2’ square) set in brick floor in front of the fireplace.[vii] A young boy brings in faggots from outdoors, in readiness for baking, and wood to keep the main fire alive, and eyes the constable warily, as the other servant departs – perhaps to consult with the master of the house.

Bread ovens within brick and stone inglenook fireplace

Bread ovens within brick and stone inglenook fireplace

Samuel takes this opportunity to look around the room. Like the treads of the stairs that he saw in the hallway, the massive oak lintel of the inglenook is a reminder of the substantial rooms above. The fireplace is conveniently equipped with side niches, which provide a dry place for the saltbox and sugar loaf between use, away from vermin that might have escaped the attention of the house cat.

Inglenook niche (right). Note pale blue distemper on the stone base of the bread oven (within which faggots have been laid)

Logs burn upon iron firedogs (see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’) in the hearth; Mistress Benskin prefers to keep the blaze perpetually alight, for what seems to be a continuous round of cooking. (As the wife of a prosperous farmer, she has as much fuel as she might need – which is a good thing, considering the frustration that both she and the kitchen maid find in using the tinderbox to re-light an extinguished flame.)

Through his assessments of the tax, Beighton has noticed that some (albeit mainly the landowning gentry) have begun to burn locally mined coal within their homes, in place of wood. He suspects that this well-off household will soon make this change: he has seen grates adapted for this purpose by the placement of iron bars between the dogs (see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’). With coalmines only a few miles away, transportation costs should not prohibit the use of this new fuel (which is often the case for even ‘middling’ families in other areas).

As Samuel hears the servant returning, his gaze quickly casts around the room, excepting the occasional trace, no lime-wash covers the walls, as is customary (though servants usually perform this task in spring, perhaps they have scrubbed them in readiness to receive a fresh coat).

A patch of pale blue tinted lime-wash is evident on the stone base of the right bread oven (see photo above). Blue was often added to whitewash on kitchen, pantry, cupboard interiors, external yard and passageway walls, and privy walls, and any other place where hygiene was particularly required (including the walls of children’s bedrooms) in the Victorian or Edwardian periods. This finish was thought to repel flies (though this belief had no basis in fact); for further examples of this finish, see posts on ‘No. 8’ – a later 19th century terrace house in Derby that was also examined by LIPCAP.

The room is simply furnished, with table, chair, benches and stool, a meat safe on the wall, and equipment suspended from the walls and hearth (see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’ for a description of 17th century kitchen furnishings).

Cellar stairs

Cellar stairs

A kitchen maid accompanies the returning man; he motions to the constable to follow her as she moves towards a door leading from the kitchen. As she opens the door, Beighton sees a flight of stairs, down which he follows his young guide.

Stone mullion window in cellar

Stone mullion window in cellar

As Samuel descends, a breeze stirs the cool air, streaming in through an open window. On reaching the bottom of the steps, an unglazed stone mullion becomes visible (expensive glass would be wasted in these out-of-sight cellars). Though windows are barred to intruders, this precaution has clearly proved no obstacle to this unwelcome visitor.

Cellar room with brick thralls, showing brick-vaulted ceiling, and ceramic floor tiles of probable 18th century date

Cellar room with brick thralls, showing brick-vaulted ceiling, and ceramic floor tiles of probable 18th century date

Brick walls divide the cellar into barrel-vaulted rooms, the size of the bricks suggesting later insertions and extensions (built during or after the 19th century). In places, these walls top earlier brick courses. The size of the bricks used for the extant thralls suggests a later date (late 18th – 19th century) for these features.

Brick and stone cellar floor, indicating different phases of construction (17th century, with 19th - early 20th century modifications)

Brick and stone cellar floor, indicating different phases of construction (17th century, with 19th – early 20th century modifications)

The floors are paved with stone flags, and patches of early (17th – mid 18th century) and later (19th century onwards) bricks and ceramic tiles. The walls have at some point been lime-washed, the colour reflecting the limited light, and lime content of the wash acting as a disinfectant.

Cellar room, showing stone walling, and different phases of brick construction

Cellar room, showing stone walling, and different phases of brick construction

The serving girl continues to fulfil her charge from Mistress Benskin, and goes to fetch milk. She picks up a glazed yellow earthenware jug, made locally at Ticknall, which sits on the thrall (platform on which food, particularly dairy produce, was kept chilled) besides a large, wide, shallow, red earthenware bowl. The shiny black glaze that lines this pan can just be seen above the cream it contains.[viii]

(See ‘Living in the Early Modern Past for more information on 17th century material culture and practices associated with the home dairy.)

Black-glazed coarse red earthenware sherds - from (a) possible milk pan(s) and / or bowls - found in the topsoil of Upper Hall garden

Black-glazed coarse red earthenware sherds – from (a) possible milk pan(s) and / or bowls – found in the topsoil of Upper Hall garden

Though finding no hearths, Samuel can see that food is processed as well as stored in these rooms. Through an open door, a large stone salting trough is visible, in which a flitch of bacon is partway through the curing processes, in preparation for the rapidly approaching cold winter months.

(See ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’ for information on 17th century material culture and practices relating to meat preservation.)

Salting trough, in cellar room, above brick thralls

Salting trough, in cellar room, above brick thralls

This use of cellar space for household chores continues over the centuries, as land for housing becomes more precious: dwellings not only rise in height, but sink in depth, condemning many domestic servants – particularly young girls and boys, and women – to a largely subterranean life well into the 20th century, in the basements of middle-class households.

After responding affirmatively to the enquiry of the maid as to whether she could show him back to the house, Samuel follows her up the steps, which are (as with the other stairs) made of thick oak blocks. Rising from the dim underbelly of Upper Hall, he returns to the heat and light of the kitchen.

Cellar stairs to kitchen 

Cellar stairs to kitchen

By this time, the women have begun to prepare the next meal. Samuel’s mouth waters at the smell of roasting mutton (was it reared on Benskin lands?) and fresh thyme (likely picked from the garden). The serving girl takes over turning the spit from the weary pink-faced boy – an increasingly automated task in wealthier households by use of a mechanical spit jack. As the spit scrapes upon a wrought iron andiron, Mistress Maria pours claret from a squat bottle into a large bowl, into which she then grates nutmeg (using a recipe of the day for those sufficiently wealthy to afford meat. A bell-metal cauldron of bubbling pottage gently swings on the wrought iron trammel hook that suspends the vessel over the flames.

(For illustrations and more information on the above-mentioned kitchen objects, see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’.)

Beneath this array of aromas, the tang of vinegar and rosemary is just perceptible. Eliza had earlier scrubbed the ash kitchen table – with some success; the Master and Mistress have spoken together of her progress – though not yet 9 years old, she is coming on as a maid.

Master John has distant childhood memories of his grandfather John – whose son John (the current Master’s father) built the house (see ‘From Yeoman to Gentleman’) – talking of a maid bearing the same name, who served his family in the previous century. Long gone, she has lain buried in the nearby church since 1602 (though not being of the gentry, her grave has no marker) (see ‘From Yeoman to Gentleman’). The couple hope that this young girl will prove as faithful as her namesake, for she is almost one of the family, having been part of the household for over a year now.[ix]

Handle of a coarse earthenware jug, of 14th – 17th century date, found in the topsoil of Upper Hall garden. There are possibly slight traces of yellow glaze (which might be clarified by closer examination); if certainly evident, this would suggest local manufacture in the 17th century.

Sherds from possible contemporary ceramics found within the garden of Upper Hall will be examined in more detail in a subsequent post.

PANTRY AND SCULLERY?

Samuel makes a note of the kitchen hearth, before the man who previously accompanied led him out of the room. The men pass a small room – or large cupboard, to the right of the kitchen; he can see through the door that no hearth lies within. This is perhaps a pantry, providing storage for precious ingredients that were more susceptible to damp (and more expensive), such as spices imported from foreign lands thanks to expanding trade networks.

Beyond is another small room, possibly a scullery for preparing food, and for other dirty household chores. Samuel can see no soft water cistern (often a T-shaped feature in stone), and supposes that water is fetched from a well in the yard outside.

(See ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’ for a description of 17th century pantry and scullery material culture.)

Early occupants would have to wait nearly three centuries for an indoor running water supply (though a washhouse is later built in the yard: see the forthcoming post ‘Out Back: Exploring a 17th Century Home in South Derbyshire’).

As the men move towards another closed door ahead of them, the suppressed clamour of children emanates from beyond; this is a familiar sound – perhaps the same he encountered earlier through another door, when first entering into the hall. The room hence is perhaps large, spanning the width of the house; Samuel consequently suspects that he is about to enter the hub of the house: the Hall.

The Hall

The Benskin family are gathered in the Hall, and eye Beighton as he enters the room. Sitting by the fire in an upholstered high-backed chair is the Master, Johannis (John)  a man of 62 years, referred to as ‘old’ John, to differentiate from his younger son who is in his early 30s; beside him sits his wife Maria, on a similar chair.

This is before the time of sofas and settees, which did not become fashionable within middle class homes until the end of the following century. In the mid 17th century, few common folk would have an upholstered chair, and often had to make use of a plain wooden stool or bench.

The Mater and Mistress have several children: two sadly died in infancy (as is commonplace – even within affluent households such as this), though seven have survived into adulthood, and have homes and families of their own. They also have many grandchildren, some of whom join them today, seated on stools about the room.

(See ‘Living in the Early Modern Past for information on derivation of, and material culture associated with, the 17th century hall; and ‘From Yeoman to Gentleman’ for further information on the family.)

Hall Fireplace

Hall Fireplace

A fireplace of large stone blocks, and lined with the small bricks of the period, almost fills one wall of the room. It inevitably captures the constable’s attention, and he makes a note of it for his assessment. Burning logs that rest upon a cupped andiron warm the room; the cast iron back-plate (designed to reflect the heat forwards) is decorated, though soot and ash obscure the image. Beside the fire is an inverted earthenware bowl – of a type known as a curfew – which a servant will place over the flames when the family later retire to bed. In this way, the wood will continue smouldering overnight in relative safety (and thus avoid the need to re-light the fire in the morning).

Cup-iron dog-grate, with ceramic curfew (to the left of the grate)

Cup-iron dog-grate, with ceramic curfew (to the left of the grate)

Larger bricks, most likely manufactured in nearby Measham, line the back of the hearth; these are later insertions (known by some as Gob, or Jumb, bricks), made in the late 18th – early 19th centuries.[x] Between 1784 and 1803, Joseph Wilkes made these bricks twice the usual size (up to 11” × 5 “ × 3 1⁄2 “ / 280 mm × 125 mm × 80 mm, reduced in 1801 to 10” x 5” x 3” , prior to firing, which usually led to substantial shrinkage), in order to limit liability for the new brick taxation.[xi] This charge was imposed by George III in an attempt to reduce the debt incurred by the failed American war of 1776-83.[xii] Although builders required fewer of these new style bricks than they had for the previously smaller bricks, the manufacturer aimed to maintain a profit by charging higher for the larger bricks; however, loses were made through the charge being set prior to firing – a process liable to include failures.[xiii] The tax was initially levied at 2s 6d per thousand bricks, but was increased in 1794, 1797, and 1805, ultimately reaching 5s 10d; it was not repealed until the middle of the 19th century.[xiv]

South wall of the Hall: location of blocked doors either side of the fireplace

South wall of the Hall: location of blocked doors either side of the fireplace

On either side of the fireplace would have been two doors (now blocked), leading to the parlours, in the southern wing of the house, which can be seen in the photo of the back of the building, below. This part of the house now forms the neighbouring property, to which the author has not had access. The following therefore provides only a description of features commonly encountered within the rooms that would have lay beyond these doors in the later 17th century.

North wall of the Hall, showing location of blocked doors either side of the central panel

North wall of the Hall, showing location of blocked doors either side of the central panel

Dining Parlour

The door to the left of the fireplace led to the Dining Parlour, within which Beighton would have found a further hearth. It would have been lined with oak panels, which were often painted during and after the late 17th century. The room would have contained an oak table, which may have had folding leafs to allow storage against the wall when not in use, and chairs (perhaps caned or upholstered), and an oak sideboard (see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’) and perhaps a corner cupboard (which were often wall-mounted). In subsequent decades, mahogany often replaced oak in wealthy homes.

Although Chinese porcelain may have been used (or displayed) in particularly prosperous times, blue-tinted and polychromatic tin-glazed earthenware (imitative ‘Delftware’, imported from Holland, or English-made imitations, imported from Bristol, Liverpool or London) was more probably used, alongside locally produced wares. Glazed and slip-decorated wares were made at potteries located only a few miles away (nearby Ticknall was a significant production centre, and wares manufactured in and around Swadlincote (such as by TG Green and Sharpe’s) gained in prominence over the following centuries).[xv] Decorative wares may have been increasingly imported from Staffordshire potteries, made easier during the late 18th century with the development of the canal system. (With fewer breakages in transit reducing costs, the market expanded for regionally produced wares.) 

Artefacts found within the garden topsoil of Upper Hall, showing some of the material culture used by the occupants, will be considered in a later post. For more information on the fixtures and fittings and other material culture (such as dining sets) that might have been used within these rooms, see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’.

Sherds of locally made slip-decorated ‘yellow’ earthenware, found in the topsoil of Upper Hall

Sherds of locally made slip-decorated ‘yellow’ earthenware, found in the topsoil of Upper Hall

Parlour

The parlour, in the early 17th century, often referred to as the ‘Hall’, would have been the best appointed in the house, and only used by the family and special guests. It would have had a timber floor, perhaps covered with a woven wool carpet, or rush mat, and may have in later years been dry lined with lathe and plaster, and perhaps wallpapered, and fitted with a plaster or painted wood cornice.

Samuel Beighton would have found another fireplace to add to his list. Mistress Benskin may have displayed her most treasured possessions within cupboards in the alcoves at either side of the chimney, or within a corner cupboard. The windows, facing on to the road, may have been fitted with shutters, for warmth and privacy.

The room perhaps contained a small table, and several chairs, where of an evening the Master and Mistress, and perhaps the occasional close friend, passed their leisure time in polite conversation, or playing a fashionable card game, away from less refined company. Master Benskin and his sons may have smoked tobacco in their clay pipes (sherds of which have been found within Upper Hall gardens: see above) within this room – or perhaps, deemed offensive to ladies, this pursuit was restricted to the dining room after meals. 

Clay tobacco pipe bowls of 17th – 18th century date, found within the garden of Upper Hall

Clay tobacco pipe bowls of 17th – 18th century date, found within the garden of Upper Hall

For more information on, and descriptions of, late 17th – 19th century parlour-dining rooms, see ‘Living in the Early Modern Past’; and the Geffrye Museum virtual display.

The light is fading fast, and soon the household must retire to bed. The constable is ushered out of the door (not permitted by law to continue his search after dark), but will return tomorrow to explore the floors above…

Next: ‘Onwards and Upwards: Exploring a 17th Century Home in South Derbyshire

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Notes

[i] This series of posts use the common definition of the Early Modern period in Britain as covering the mid 16th to mid 18th centuries; see the endnotes of ‘Expedition into the Past: Tales of a 17th Century Derbyshire Manor House’ for a brief discussion of the term, and of categorising historical periods.

[ii] For a brief discussion of the archaeological story-telling approach, see ‘Expedition into the Past‘.

[iii] For more information on the 17th century Petty Constable, see ‘The Taxman Cometh: Exploring a 17th Century South Derbyshire Home‘.

[iv] In order to retain the privacy of the occupants of this house, the full address of Upper Hall is withheld.

[v] Samuel Beighton is named as the constable responsible for assessing the in the Hearth Tax returns (see an online transcription of the 1662 Hearth Tax return for the village). For more information on the Hearth Tax, see Hearth Tax Online.

[vi] Philip Heath, ‘Farmhouses and Cottages, Derbyshire’, Derbyshire Archaeological Society Talk, 20 March 2014.

[vii]  The hearth pit was a common feature during this period, although fitted carpet now covers the floor within this building; it is at this stage therefore uncertain whether this fireplace has this feature (ibid.).

[viii] For example, see Janet Spavold and Sue Brown (2005) Ticknall Pots & Potters from the Late Fifteenth Century to 1888.

[ix] This character is fictional, introduced in order to consider the role of servants at this time.

[x] With thanks to the owner of the property for highlighting the presence of Measham bricks.

[xi] See e.g. Robin Lucas (1997) ‘The Tax on Bricks and Tiles, 1784-1850: its Application to the Country at large and, in particular, to the County of Norfolk’, Construction History Vol. 13, pp. 29-55.

[xii] Richard Holmes (2013) ‘The American War of Independence: The Rebels and the Redcoats’, BBC History Website, Accessed 9 November 2014.

[xiii] Lucas, op. cit..

[xiv] Ibid..

[xv] See Spavold & Brown, op. cit..

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