Tag Archives: Windows

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


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.


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


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



[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..

The Taxman Cometh: Exploring a 17th Century South Derbyshire Home


This is the first ‘archaeological story’ in a series of posts that explore everyday life in the 17th century through an early modern manor house in South Derbyshire:[i] ‘Upper Hall’ – a private home, recently visited by the author.[ii] We take an imaginary tour around the dwelling in 1662, by following (unseen) a visitor to this building: Samuel Beighton, the petty constable.[iii] Written sources indicate the responsibility of this person for assessing the Hearth Tax in this year.[iv] Though fictitious, archaeological and other historical evidence informs the tale.[v]

Brief discussion of this approach, background information and on Hearth Tax, is outlined within the previous post ‘Expedition into the Past: Tales of a 17th Century Derbyshire Manor House’. The preceding post ‘From Yeoman to Gentleman: Peopling a 17th Century South Derbyshire Manor House’ investigates the early residents of the house, using written evidence to produce ‘family histories’, and to consider social relationships between and within the families that occupied the Hall, and the wider community. An earlier post, ‘Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home’, provides a backdrop for this series, outlining the domestic environment and material culture at this time for the typical yeoman household.

In this post, we follow Samuel as he approaches Upper Hall, and considers the impressive façade.

Location, Location, Location…

It is Michaelmas, in the 13th year of the reign of Charles II (were it not for the Puritan Purge of the Commonwealth) – September 1662. Those whose property he had hitherto protected from ne’r-do-wells had soon come to scorn Samuel Beighton: he now aroused enmity from poachers and landowners alike. The Hearth Tax[vi] (or Chimney Tax, as some call it) has not proved a popular innovation, devised (it is said) to sustain the recently restored monarch in his indolence and debauchery.[vii]

Parish Constable in Elizabethan Jacobean

The Elizabethan – Jacobean Petty Constable (Source)

Undoubtedly, it is only proper that the constable should search the humble hovels in which he suspects are concealed stolen goods (for the theft of game and sheep rightly deserves stiff punishment – the branding that many receive is far too lenient).[viii] But the very notion that Beighton is now empowered to intrude within the homes of reputable families – who by their good grace elected the man to his office – is contemptible. Surely, any fool can determine the charge by counting the number of chimneys that rise above the rooftops. (Those with sham pots deserve to pay for their pretensions.) Yet he can compromise the liberty of honest men, and encroach upon private life in search of hearths – despicable. Moreover, this petty constable puts the honour of gentlemen to the test, whose word regarding the number of hearths within their own home is no longer considered adequate – an intolerable state of affairs.

Having collected his documents from the parish chest,[ix] Samuel Beighton starts out on his route around the village, to check Hearth Tax assessments submitted by local residents.

St Peter's Parish Chest

Parish chest, St Peter’s Church, Hartshorne, Derbyshire (©Grassroots Heritage 2014)[x]

He is heading for the manor house, which he can see a short distance away. Two chimney-stacks rise from the roof (which is fashionably – and expensively – tiled, and not thatched, as a common dwelling); the seven pots in all surely indicate the provision of bedroom fireplaces: such extravagance for a yeoman farmer (Samuel cannot help but wonder at the decadence he might encounter within the dwelling). He suspects that all the information he really needs to know is now before him, but the opportunity – nay, duty – to inspect this dwelling, in order to ascertain the accuracy of Master Benskin’s assessment, compels him to continue.

Nonetheless, he must tread carefully. He only retains this responsible and respectable position thanks to their acknowledgement of his merits, and meeting the requirements (he scorned the assertion that this noble office was generally given to the “poorest and weaker sort“, and was reluctant to admit that he only came to office because it was his turn, considering where he lived). Sometimes he considered paying a deputy his £3 to fulfil his tasks as a constable – this unpaid position was often more trouble than the authority it conveyed. However, at other times (perhaps such as this) he might consider serving beyond the obligatory year – after all, few could command the authority conferred by the post as he did (and he would receive 2d. in every £1 collected).

Will the family at the manor house take kindly to such an intrusion? He knows of the Benskin’s prosperity – and of their litigious reputation, in trying to hold on to their wealth. The constable finds this new ‘middling sort’ often less amenable than the landed gentry – though they too often express indignation at such government interference; the tugging of private tax collectors at their already stretched purse strings is even more distasteful to these purveyors of taste.

The constable walks down the hill, soon meeting the main thoroughfare. He must quickly step back to avoid a laden cart, the sneer upon its driver’s face suggesting to Mr Beighton a deliberate act of malice. Be-splattered by mud from the wheels on the waterlogged track, he gains some comfort from the obstacle that the cart would meet further down the road: a shepherd, and the straggling remains of his flock (likely returning from the beast sale), visible a moment ago from his vantage point on higher ground.

Abandoning his attempt to brush away the dirt from his woollen knee breeches, the constable resumes his journey. As he walks, Samuel considers the name of Upper Hall. It is no ordinary farmhouse (and positively no cottage), to be sure, but the principal residence of one of the two manors that make up the village. He contemplates the grandeur of the house and, with wry amusement, notes that, though built on a far smaller scale, it yet imitates the houses of the gentry. He looks forward to taking a closer look.

Other carts pass by before he reaches his destination – despite the short distance of his walk. The route is busy, used to carry bricks between nearby Measham and burgeoning townships beyond, and from Swadlincote and Ticknall potteries to various markets (the clattering carts suggesting that not all of their contents will be delivered intact).

Samuel soon arrives at the gate to the Hall; before him are several stone steps leading to the main entrance, elevate above the road. With not a little trepidation, he ascends the path to the front door.

Outside Upper Hall

Upper Hall: rear elevation (©Grassroots Heritage 2014)[xi]

Constable Beighton knocks with the tip of his staff upon the door (both in announcing the official nature of his call, and in anticipating that his knuckles would make little sound upon the thick oak). As he awaits an answer, he steps back slightly to take in this impressive dwelling, and casually glances around to take it in.

The timber box frame – the skeleton of the house – is made of good straight oaken beams (of the sort coveted, and he expects paid for dearly, by the Navy for its ships). The frame rests upon several courses of large stone blocks (this ‘half-timbered‘ form of construction still fashionable for the homes of the well-to-do yeoman: see the previous post on 17th century housing, which also discusses social terms). The lime-washed plastered panels of ‘wattle and daub‘ that fill the spaces between the beams reflect the bright sunlight.[xii]

The gabled wing to the right brings a gentrified air to the building, which together with the extravagantly glazed windows (and the numerous chimneys that remain within his thoughts), proclaim the modernity of this comfortable house. He again reflects upon how tall this house is when compared to nearby low cottages: not one but two storeys, with the slope of the roof suggesting further accommodation in the loft (for he sees no small holes or narrow windows to suggest that the top floor is used to store cheese or doves). Built above the level of the road, the provision of generous cellars is also to be expected.

Beighton hears sounds from within, as (he suspects) someone is coming to answer his knock. Before they reach the door, he considers who might greet him. He recalls the family pious, prim, and proud in all their finery in their prominent pews in the church, and considers what grand garb he might encounter today. But he expects that one of the servants shall first be sent to attend to him, and that he shall only meet Master Johannes or Mistress Maria if and when necessary.

Porchporch graffiti

Graffiti, front porch (©Grassroots Heritage 2014)

As the servant opens the front door, Beighton peers around the girl into the porch. (What he cannot know is that, seven years hence, some resident – or perhaps a visitor idly waiting for attendance – would leave their mark on the wall to the left: ‘W. A. 1669’, the culprit   exhibiting some degree of literacy, as well as a sense of their own importance, despite – or perhaps because – these grand surroundings.)

The porch is generously sized, and provides an impression of what might be seen beyond. The servant reluctantly bids Samuel to follow her into the building, indignant on behalf of the Master and Mistress…

Constable Beighton begins his search of the house in the following post ‘In at the Ground Floor: Exploring a 17th Century Home in South Derbyshire: ’.


[i] Within British archaeology, the Early Modern period is typically seen as beginning in the mid 16th century, and ending in the mid – late 18th century. For a fuller discussion see the previous post the preceding post ‘Expedition into the Past: Tales of a 17th Century Derbyshire Manor House’.

[ii] For information on the circumstances of access to the property, see ‘Expedition into the Past’ (op. cit.). The full address of this property is withheld in order to retain the occupant’s privacy.

[iii] For background information on the petty constable, see E. Trotter (ed.) 1980 Seventeenth Century Life in the Country Parish, p. 83 ff.; also see William Edward Tate (1969: 3rd Ed.) The Parish Chest: A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England, pp. 176-87.

[iv] For information on the Hearth Tax, see Hearth Tax Online.

[v] For more information on the ‘story-telling’ approach, see ‘Expedition into the Past’ (op. cit.). Italicised text is used to denote discussion of later and features, and to present background information, outside the main narrative.

[vi] For Hearth Tax records see the National Archives online catalogue.

[vii] See Tim Harris (2005) ‘Charles II: The Reality Behind the Merry Monarchy’, History Today Vol. 55. Iss. 6.

[viii] See note iii..

[ix] For information on the contents and historical value of the parish chest, a classic text Tate (op cit.).

[x] For more information on the photographs of Upper Hall, see ‘Expedition into the Past’. All images of the building and associated artefacts may not be reproduced without the express permission of the LIP project and property owners.

[xi] The front of the property is not illustrated in order to retain the privacy of the occupants.

[xii] Wattle and daub was frequently composed of woven rods of the flexible hazel, covered with clay containing binding material, such as horsehair, straw, and dung. Though most commonly off-white in colour, organic pigments such as ochre (to give a buff hue), or iron oxide (to give an earthy red hue), were sometimes added to lime-wash to tint the finish.

Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home


A recent open day enabled exploration of an early 17th century private home, built in South Derbyshire during the 1620s to house a wealthy yeoman and his family.[i] This provided a useful opportunity to revise knowledge of early modern domestic contexts,[ii] which when considered alongside other bodies of evidence – such as burials and mortuary memorials of this period – so as to potentially allow for a more rounded consideration of life in the early modern past.[iii]

Posts specifically on this building will be published soon, but before doing so, it seemed appropriate to produce a post that might provide a basic background on the Early Modern home. As a counterpoint to the forthcoming post on the yeoman house, this post will concentrate upon mid – late 17th century cottages occupied by less wealthy families of the nascent ‘middling sort’:[iv] artisans, trades-people, and small holders, with means beyond those of the poor husbandmen, but not as substantial as those of the notable yeoman landowner.[v] This expanding group benefited from financially, and enhanced their own comfort (and increasingly social position), from recent and continuing growth in trade and commerce, and concomitant consumerism, providing a broader range of household material culture, with more opportunities to emulate wealthier and higher status homes. Material culture from high status households will be illustrated below in briefly noting the changes in domestic space and in the functions of rooms, and occasional comparisons made with the housing of poorer families.[vi]

The early modern house: new ways of everyday life[vii]

The geography of what is commonly seen today as the ‘traditional’ family home (comprising entrance hall, two or three ground floor rooms, and two or three bedrooms above), is in essence a product of the early modern period. This time was one of widespread change that bought opportunities to some (through manufacturing and trade – marking the advance of consumerism, and social and political change), but also declining fortunes to many (through the many epidemics, famine and social dislocation – to some extent provoked by civil war).[viii]

The medieval hall influenced the development of the Tudor and Stuart yeoman hall house; internal space had become increasingly divided (both horizontally and vertically) so as to provide separate rooms beside the communal hall (and corridors to allow movement around and through the house), for storing, preparing, and eating food and drink, and domestic chores. The ceiling of the hall, previously open to the roof, had been lowered by the addition of a first storey floor, providing rooms above for sleeping, and for more private socialising.

Late medieval hall, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, showing later fireplace and chimney

Late medieval hall, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, showing later fireplace and chimney (©Grand Tours)[ix]

By the end of 16th century, chimneys had been fitted in place of the central hearth of the hall, often within (and sometimes blocking) a cross passage between doorways that opened onto the front and rear of the property dividing the building; stairs to the first storey were typically fitted beside the chimney.

In turn, these houses influenced those of less well-off yeoman (which for convenience will below be referred to as ‘yeoman cottages’), which were inevitably smaller with access to fewer funds (with less ‘curtilage’)[x] than the occupants of the post-medieval hall.

Outside the modest 17th century yeoman’s dwelling

117 West Street, Alford, Lincs

Mid-late 17th century cottage (with 18th century modifications), 117 West Street, Alford, Lincolnshire (from Google Maps)[xi]

Yeoman’s cottages in this era were typically half-timber framed, the timber walls resting upon low stone walls, the spaces between the timbers in-filled with wattle panels or lathes, covered with daub (clay and / or dung, containing binding material such as horse-hair). However, since the late 16th century, bricks were increasingly used in place of wattle and daub, and by the end of the 17th century in many areas, houses were more commonly brick built. Thatched roofs were typical, although ceramic tiles, and later slates, soon replaced this highly flammable material in built-up areas.

Diane Earl NEN Casement window

Above: 17th century style casement window with leaded lights in iron frame (Photo NEN); below: excavated remains of 17th century iron casement window frame, Jamestown, Virginia, US[xii]

Jamestown window

Dwellings were frequently double-fronted (and typically one room deep, commonly built of two, three or four ‘bays’), with a centrally placed front door between one or two ground floor timber casement windows, and dormer windows above. Over the century, small leaded lights, sometimes fitted within iron frames, were increasingly fitted, which in turn were often replaced with sash-windows during and after the 18th century. This layout immediately demonstrated to neighbours and passers-by the relative affluence of the householders, whose home had not the single ground floor room that was typically occupied by labourer’s families (examples of which can be seen here), but two rooms, facilitating the cultivation of social relationships with a degree of privacy. However, in built-up urban areas, cottages were often one room wide, and two – four deep, extending into land at the rear of the road.

The façade was generally simple, with minimal decoration, although where houses were constructed of bricks, this material was sometimes used to provide some form of ornamentation, e.g. bricks arranged in patterns such as chevrons, and herringbone. Timber framing could also to some extent be used decoratively, with the plaster infill painted using lime-wash tinted with natural pigments, such as ochre or iron oxide (for information on historic lime-wash, see here). The chimney was commonly situated approximately in the centre of the building, although another layout was the placement of a chimney at each end of the house.

Such houses were often built in pairs or in short rows, and often had only a small yard or area of ground (which was frequently shared with neighbours) abutting the house at the front or rear.[xiii] Sanitation remained basic: where not beside a watercourse that might flush waste down-stream or -river, sewage was commonly thrown onto the street, or onto the household midden (a pit or surface dump of domestic waste), which was sometimes deposited as garden or agricultural fertiliser.

Inside the small 17th century home: domestic environment and material culture

Floor plan

Layout (not to scale) of a typical mid-late 17th century yeoman cottage (e.g. comparable to the example in Lincolnshire, pictured above) (©Grassroots Heritage)[xiv]

The 17th century yeoman’s cottage was accessed through a timber plank front door, either directly from the street, or from a small front garden. There was sometimes a small lobby between the door and the wall formed by the central chimneystack, with doors to left and right leading to the rooms that came to be known as the kitchen and parlour.[xv] However, corridors were rare (thus limiting privacy). In houses without a lobby, the front door opened directly into the kitchen, although the parlour was still commonly separated from this room by a door.


Diane Earl  NEN hall-kitchen table

Fireplace and table in reproduction 17th century kitchen-living room (Photo NEN)[xvii]

For the multitude of neighbours who continued to inhabit single room dwellings, the kitchen as a separate room would remain a novel and unattainable reality for many generations. The labourer’s dwelling differed from the yeoman cottage in commonly having only a single, multi-purpose, ground floor room, whereas that of yeoman might have a kitchen in addition to a living room. Though comparable in having low ceilings, the thick oak beams supporting the floor above were absent from smaller houses (which at best had a simple loft above the living space for sleeping and storage, reached by a ladder). The provision of a kitchen, in which food was cooked and eaten, and many household chores were carried out, allowed the division of domestic time and space according to position within the family and in wider community. For the household servants, it remained a living and working (and for some, perhaps also sleeping) room. Though the family may have also often used this room for various purposes (including access to the rear yard and stairs to the bedrooms above), they now had an additional, more private, space, to which they might retire, in the parlour (see below).

Fixtures and fittings

C17 fire-dog,  Jamestown, US

17th century firedog, from excavations of early settlement phases at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xviii]

The fireplace was typically located within the centre wall of this room, although was sometimes built along the outer wall of the building. A stone or oak lintel generally supported this wide and deep feature, with a brick or stone hearth. It often contained wrought iron firedogs (bars to hold logs), commonly with hooks to hold spits (the combination known as ‘andirons’), possibly ‘cup dogs’ (upright stands to hold vessels in order to war liquids). Brand tongues (large, long-handled wrought iron pincers) hung within the fireplace, being used to place and move wood upon the fire.

Late medieval bread ovens, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Late medieval bread ovens, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Where space (and wealth) allowed, the kitchen fireplace incorporated a brick-built bread oven (sometimes with a stone base), recognisable as a deep, arched, opening into the side of the inglenook. The oven was brought up to temperature by burning brushwood, the ashes from which were raked out (using a long-handled wrought iron or wood spade-like instrument known as a ‘peel’), before placing dough, and sometimes small cakes and biscuits, within the recess to bake. The oven was sealed by a removable wooden door, and later by a hinged cast iron door.

Peels, Haddon

Peels (above) and bread oven doors (below), Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Bread oven doors, Haddon

Other fitted equipment was commonly used in cooking, such as a wrought iron ‘trammel hook’ (or ‘chimney crane’: an adjustable apparatus used to suspend pots) may have been used for cooking over the open fire.

C17 trammel jamestown

Early wrought iron trammel hook, found during excavations at the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, US;[xix] and in use within a reconstructed fireplace (centre of image), with cast iron fireback, and ceramic curfew, bottom right (Photo NEN)[xx]

C17 fireplace Diane Earl NEN

Horizontal wrought iron spits were placed across the andirons, and used to turn large joints of meat to ensure even cooking over the fire, whilst smaller pieces of meat were cooked within an iron gridiron or basket spit (cages suspended horizontally over the fire); drip pans were placed beneath spits. Various devises (spit jacks), using ropes, chains, and pulleys, regularly turned the spits, either powered by hand, by the hot air from the fire, or, in some larger houses, small dogs within treadmills![xxi]


Engraving showing the dog-powered turnspit c. 1800 (Image Wikipedia)[xxii]

Although the kitchens of the royal, aristocratic, and otherwise wealthy had long benefited from the most advanced technologies of the day, there was a delay – in many cases, of several centuries – before small houses had access to even basic amenities. Consequently, most early post-medieval kitchens significantly differed to those of today in that they were rarely built with sinks before the development of the ‘standardised’ terrace house in the mid-late 19th century (which incorporated a scullery extension off the ground floor back room).[xxiii] Water would instead be brought inside from the outdoor source (at this stage usually a well) within earthenware or wooden bowls, and laundry would usually be done outside in the yard, using wooden troughs. However, a shallow stone sink was often fitted in the buttery (see below), or a scullery frequently built as a lean-to extension, or where space allowed, a wash-house built in the back yard, in later years.


This room would have been sparsely furnished in comparison to modern kitchens, containing simple stools or benches, possibly an oak fireside chair, and a table, commonly of ash, to withstand regular scrubbing (with a concoction of salt, rosemary, and vinegar – for abrasion, antiseptic treatment, and to degrease, respectively). The floor of bricks or stone flags, which provided a surface that was less expensive and could be cleaned with water without damage to the material. The windows may have been shuttered at night, although these features seem less common during the 17th century with the wider adoption of glazed windows.

C17 recon farmhouse fireside chair Diane Earl NEN

17th century fireside chair (Photo NEN)[xxiv]

Objects and Ornaments

Bell-metal mortar, Haddon

Bell-metal mortar, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Although occupants spent much time in this room, ornaments generally had little place in the 17th century kitchen; however, this room was often filled with numerous objects associated with food preparation, cooking, eating, and drinking, which could to some degree be decorative. The range of artefacts kept and used within the kitchen inevitably depended upon income, need, location, and availability, and changed over time, though often with a long delay between the development of innovations, and their acquisition and use beyond the elite household. Some items were seen as essential by most, in all periods (that is, up until the late 20th century), and where unaffordable to the poorer household, improvisation or community cooperation and exchange became necessary.

17th century cast iron cauldron from Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxv]

Round-bottomed copper alloy (‘bell-metal’ – lead and zinc rich bronze) and brass pans, cauldrons, and skillets (that could be placed directly onto the open fire – requiring the use of long-handled wooden spoons to prevent injury to the cook), had been used for centuries. These continued to be used in many households into (and in some cases beyond) the 19th century; cast iron, though still at this time of poor quality, was also used for these vessels during the 17th century, improving in quality as casting technology developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. But with the provision of the chimney within lower status houses during and after the late 16th century, a wider range of kitchen equipment developed, particularly vessels that could be suspended from the fireplace chimney interior, over the fire. By the 17th century, these included brass, and later better quality cast iron, hanging griddle pans, frying pans, and kettles (which at this time generally consisted of large open pans).

17th century bell-metal cauldron, wrought iron firedog andiron spit jack DE NEN

17th century bell-metal cauldron, wrought iron firedog, andiron, and mechanical spit jack (above); and brass roasting pan, skillet, and wrought iron pot hanger and toasting fork (below) (Photos NEN)[xxvi]

Brass roasting pan skillet toasting fork Diane Earl NEN

Although the kitchen fire was often kept alight for long periods of time (not least due to the difficulty of relighting), a tinderbox was usually kept close by. Kitchenware was often stored on nails in, on and around the fireplace, and on an oak mantel, over which oak spit racks were sometimes kept. Wooden wall racks and shelves were also often used to store equipment. Where there was no pantry, consumables were often stored within a ‘food-safe’: a perforated cupboards (so that air might flow), mounted on the wall (away from vermin).

Table artefacts Diane Earl NEN

17th century table and artefacts, showing taper holder (within pewter bowl, foreground) (Photo NEN)[xxvii]

Vessels both familiar and unfamiliar to us today were used in the kitchen for eating and drinking, with food served in a ‘saucer’ (shallow bowl), on a trencher (by this time a flat round or square plate), platter, a pottinger (or porringer, i.e. deeper bowl), and drink served in beakers, mugs and tankards. They were made from materials that are now rarely used sycamore or beech, or pewter, for plates and bowls; and horn, wood, sometimes leather, and pewter for beakers, mugs (handled drinking vessels), and tankards (lidded mugs).

Shelf pewter plates mugs Diane Earl NEN

17th – 18th century oak shelf with pewter plates and mugs (above), and wall-mounted food safe (below) (Photo NEN)[xxviii]

C17 style wall food safe Diane Earl NEN

The range of cooking utensils was expanding. Elaborate toasting apparatus, made from cast iron, were also sometimes used. With the acquisition of sugar colonies, sugar was increasingly consumed in Britain, giving rise to the need for sugar cutters (large wrought iron pincers), to cut sugar from the ‘loaf’. A mortar and pestle of stone, marble, iron, bronze, brass, or wood, was also usually used in the kitchen, as were brass ladles and nut roasters, and dairy equipment, such as milk skimmers. Cutlery was limited, with personal multi-purpose knives used to stab and cut food, and horn, wooden or pewter spoons (with deeper bowls later in the century) used to eat broths and cereals; simple (two-pronged) forks were only slow adopted, and did not appear in many houses until the 18th century.

C17 cutlery Jamestown

17th century kitchen utensils, with pothooks, bottom right (above), and cutlery (below), found during excavations of Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxix]


Other vessels and containers were made of wood and leather, such as leather water buckets, and wooden storage containers, for example for flour. The kitchen salt box was often a wooden lidded box stored next to the fireplace, to keep dry larger amounts of salt than that used when dining socially (see below: The Parlour). Wooden bowls were used for mixing ingredients, and wooden troughs used when kneading and proving dough; and wooden moulds used in making gingerbread.

17th C17 ceramic kitchen storage cooking vessels Jamestown

17th century ceramic kitchen storage and cooking vessels, from excavations of Jamestown, Virginia, US (made both in England and locally)[xxx]

These utilitarian objects were capable of withstanding long use, and the numerous accidents that occur when carrying out domestic chores; some cooking and storage vessels were made of less durable pottery. Being easier to clean, and not affecting the taste of contents, ceramics were the most suitable material for dairying (see below: The Pantry and Buttery). Other ceramic objects include the ‘curfew’: a large ceramic (in later years, metal) dish called a ‘curfew’ was placed over the fire at night, letting the embers smoulder thus both conserving fuel, and as a safety measure.[xxxi] Some cooking vessels were occasionally ceramic, such as the skillet and pipkin.

C17 ceramics Jamestown

Above: 17th century ceramics (including pipkin, bottom centre), from excavations of early settlement phases at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxii]

Below: wooden mixing (or blood / keeper) bowl and salting trough, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Wooden bowl salting trough, Haddon


(An)other small room(s), to store food and drink (where space allowed subdivided into pantry and buttery), sometimes led off the kitchen (the pantry reached through the buttery, or vice versa). The pantry would be fitted with wall-mounted wooden storage shelves, and a brick or stone ‘thrall’ (plinth) on which items were placed to cool. The Buttery was used to store ale – which was made in many households. Pantries and butteries were often fitted with sinks in later years.

C17 dairy vessels,  Jamestown

17th century dairy vessels, from excavations of Jamestown, Virginia, US, with a pancheon, top centre[xxxiii]

Dairy products, many of which were made in the home, were usually stored within the pantry, within ceramic vessels (which remained cool, and were easy to clean). The ‘pancheon’ (a large deep bowl, with an interior glaze to overcome the porosity of the earthenware body, which continued in use until after WWI) was commonly used in 17th century dairies and kitchens. Locally made undecorated (with the exception of coloured glaze) earthenware jugs and bowls were also useful in making and storing dairy products. The wooden (or in larger houses, stone) salting trough – within which meat was preserved – was commonly stored in the pantry.


On the other side of the entrance was a room that over the course of the 17th century becoming known as the ‘parlour’. The primary function of this room was as a space for private conversation, entertainment (particularly dining), and recreation (away from domestic servants), and in some situations as a bedchamber, though it was also put to other uses (such as storage) when necessary.

Fixtures and fittings

Modern firedogs and cup-irons, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Modern firedogs and cup-irons, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

In the early 17th century, this room was fitted with a wide open stone and / or brick fireplace, containing wrought iron fire-dogs, ‘cup dogs’ (see above: The Kitchen), and cast iron back. However, this arrangement was frequently modified in later years to suit fashionable tastes (particularly the aspiration towards more ‘genteel’ surroundings), and for efficiency. The grate became increasingly enclosed over time, often culminating in the insertion of a cast iron hob-grate in the 18th century (the recess sometimes decorated with blue and white tin-glazed Delft tiles from Holland, or with English imitations, portraying Biblical stories, or decorated with other simple images), and in the 19th century a register grate. But changes began early in some houses – especially those within coal-rich areas – as coal was increasingly burnt as an alternative to wood. This required a dog grate (a fire-basket: essentially fire dogs with horizontal bars between) to hold the coals; the fender was later introduced to prevent the coals from falling from the hearth.

Modern fire-basket, Haddon

Modern fire-basket, and fragment of mid 17th century rush matting (below), Haddon Hall museum, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

C17 rush matting, Haddon

The room would have been lit by the fire, and (only when necessary) by rush tapers in wrought iron holders (see image of kitchen table, above, and as shown here), tallow (and on occasion if sufficiently well off, beeswax) candles in pewter, brass, or ceramic candlesticks, and later in the century, sconces. Oak wainscoting (wall panelling) was fitted in the early 17th century (as reproduced here), and pine panels, which would have been painted, in later decades (as reproduced here).

Candlesticks wick-trimmers Jamestown

17th century candlesticks and wrought iron wick-trimmers, from excavations of early settlement phases at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxiv]


17th century oak stool, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

17th century oak stool, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

In comparison to humbler dwellings (but more sparsely and less comfortably furnished than the living rooms of most houses today), this room would have been well furnished. Furniture was generally of oak, although mahogany became fashionable in the second half of the century in wealthy households (the expansion of trade to the New World providing access to this timber). The parlours of larger dwellings might house a substantial rectangular table in the early 17th century. However, the oval gate-leg tables of the later 17th century were more suitable for the smaller rooms of less affluent households, as the leafs could be folded when not in use.

Oak gate-leg table and bench, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Oak gate-leg table and bench, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

The room may have contained chairs for adult family members (upholstered if sufficiently well off), and perhaps benches or stools. For those with the means, a court cupboard (display sideboard) and corner cupboard were used for display and storage.

C16-7 Upholstered chair Haddon

17th century (possible reproduction) chair and late 16th – 17th century gate-leg table (above), and court cupboard (below), Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

LC16-7 court cupboard Haddon

Wooden shutters may have enclosed the windows at night (although see above: kitchen), and a single panel of plain woollen fabric, hung from an iron rail, would have kept out drafts from the windows, although pairs of curtains, often decorated, became more popular in later years. Tapestries and painted cloths (perhaps in imitation of tapestries) were often displayed on the walls, and the wide oak floorboards were typically covered by rush matting (see above).

Tapestry, oak table, and chair, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours) – much grander than the furnishings of a yeoman cottage!

Tapestry, oak table, and chair, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours) – much grander than the furnishings of a yeoman cottage!

Objects and Ornaments

In the earlier 17th century, ornaments were few in comparison to later centuries; many were decorated functional items, predominantly used in social dining, which provided opportunities to exhibit expensive tableware. But with increased trade and manufacturing both provoking and responding to a rise in consumerism, a greater range of objects became available not only to the wealthier ‘middling’ sort, but also those of lesser means, such as the husbandman.

17th century English wine glasses Jamestown

17th century English wine glasses (above), and bottles (below), Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxv]

17th century English wine bottles, Jamestown

Within affluent households, objects of silver, and imported ‘china’ (porcelain), could be displayed to demonstrate status and position – particularly if embellished with the heraldic device of the family. Glass vessels were not yet commonly used, but were increasingly found within such houses, as were glass bottles.

C17 farmhouse shelf Diane Earl NEN

Reproduction 17th century slip-decorated earthenware, pewter plat, and glasses, on oak display shelf (Photo NEN)[xxxvi]

Yeoman households used pewter (in imitation of silver), and when affordable, tin-glazed earthenware (cobalt blue decoration on a white – pale blue ground) imported from Holland (and subsequently made in England), Italy and France, some of which imitated finer, eastern, ceramics. Stoneware from Germany was also used (up until the middle of the century, brown salt-glazed Bellarmine ‘Bartmann’ or ‘beardman’ ware, shown here, and from the later 17th century, grey and cobalt blue Westerwald ware, shown here, both illustrated in the image beneath the photo below).

17th century English tin-glazed earthenware  Jamestown

17th century English tin-glazed earthenware (above), and German stoneware (below), found at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxvii]

17th century German stoneware  Jamestown

Decorated regional ceramics, such as slipped- or scraffito- decorated earthenware, were also often displayed, and used in serving food, and for ‘salts’, used at the table when dining socially. Cutlery developed and became more widely adopted during and after the 17th century (see above: The Kitchen), with simple dining forks, rounded knives, and deep-bowl spoons, slowly adopted outside the elite household, though in houses occupied by lower status families, of pewter rather than silver. Depending on income, paintings and prints may have adorned the walls.

17th century English scraffito-ware Jamestown

Above: 17th century English scraffito-ware, Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxviii]

Below: 17th farmhouse century table laid with slip-decorated ceramics (Photo NEN)[xxxix]

C17 farmhouse table Diane Earl NEN


17th century bedroom Diane Earl NEN

17th century bedroom, within relatively prosperous household (Photo NEN)[xl]

The relatively high roof and wide dimensions of the ground floor rooms of the 17th century yeoman cottage provided sufficient space for an upper floor that could contain bedrooms – an improvement on earlier, and contemporaneous poorer, dwellings (which had only a single ground floor room, with limited loft space above, entered by a ladder when used for sleeping; see above). Wooden stairs to the upper floor were typically placed beside the central chimneystack, and entered by a door beside the fireplace, by the interior rear wall of the kitchen; or in houses built with and entrance lobby, sometimes facing the front door.

The top of centrally placed stairs often led directly into the bedrooms, although a small landing lobby, with doors either side to each bedroom, which were entered by a plank door, were frequently later constructed. In houses with chimneys in each end wall, the stairs would lead into one bedroom, through which the second bedroom was reached. Where there were three rooms of the floor below, there might be a small third bedroom upstairs, again reached through other rooms.

Fixtures and fittings

The bedrooms, being within the eaves, had sloping, often un-plastered, ceilings, and were lit by dormer windows; thick, low, roof timbers might have to be carefully negotiated in the dark! It was not unusual for one bedroom to be more carefully finished in comparison to the other, and used by servants, lodgers, or children. Grates were not usually fitted at this time on the first floor, although upper rooms were lightly warmed by the heat of the chimney.


During the 17th century, beds with wooden frames (as opposed to a mattress placed on a pallet on the floor) were becoming more common for those who could afford this expensive piece of furniture. A typical form was the oak or walnut ‘four-poster’ or ‘tester’, which had several components. Below a mattress of feather and down (contained within ticking) was one of straw, which lay upon the bed-strings: a rope lattice (which had to be often tightened to limit sagging) strung between the rectangular horizontal frame closest to the floor, which was joined at each corner to the upright bedposts. A woollen canopy covered the horizontal rectangular frame closest to the ceiling, and curtains hung from rods attached to this frame to provide warmth, and some degree of privacy. Servants may also have slept within the room, on a truckle, foldout or pallet bed – families commonly slept within the same bed as a matter of course, the children laying either side of their parents). The bedroom would commonly contain an oak chest, used to store clothing, bedding, and private possessions; the room might also contain a stool and / or simple chair.

Late 17th century oak chest Diane Earl NEN

Late 17th century oak chest (Photo NEN)[xli]

Rush matting (see example above) may have been used to limit the drafts that came through the wide oak floorboards; wall hangings may have also kept out drafts (although any expensive tapestries are more likely to have adorned the parlour than the bedroom). During the early 17th century, curtains were likely to have been of plain wool, though more decorative fabrics may have subsequently been used. Bedclothes would have been simple in less wealthy households, with linen being increasingly used for sheets and counterpanes, alongside woollen covers.

Objects and Ornaments

Paintings of sentimental significance may have been hung in the bedrooms of those with sufficient means (although, as with tapestries, such expensive decorations may have been restricted to the parlour) and occasional prints might have decorated the walls. By the 17th century, the bedroom may have had a chamber pot, for use during the night, and during illness. In the less wealthy yeoman’s house might be made of earthenware (a regional sherd of which can be seen here; and complete pot here), although pewter examples are known (e.g. see here).

The second chamber on this floor may have had a variety of functions, depending upon the composition and needs of the household. Where a family member of similar status to that of the ‘bread-winner’ (e.g. a parent or sibling) occupied this room, it may have been furnished well, if not as well as the main bedroom. However, if occupied by domestic servants, apprentices, or farm workers, it would not have been furnished as well or as extensively as the other bedroom (i.e. may have contained only pallet or folding beds, and had no ornamentation), and may also have been used as a store- and / or work-room.

Keys Haddon

17th century iron door keys, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

The following posts will explore Upper Hall – a manor house built during the early 17th century in South Derbyshire – against which above the information might be compared, bringing the higher social status of the Hall into sharp relief.


[i] In comparison to terms previously used to denote social status (e.g. see here for the 16th century) those used in the 17th century (such as within wills and inventories) are less easily defined. The changing nature of commerce, economy, and social organisation at this time may resulted in greater ambiguity surrounding the terms ‘yeoman’ and ‘husbandman’, as opportunities to accumulate capital beyond landownership expanded. For example, potters of the late 17th century might be defined as yeomen, it might be presumed due to their independent social position and accumulation of wealth through trade (e.g. see Lorna Weatherill 1971 The Pottery Trade and North Staffordshire, 1660-1760, p 148). However, in representing landownership (the ‘yeoman’ being of the higher status, as a freeholder), they appear to remain significant well into the 19th century.

[ii] A major element of coursework as an undergraduate student (many years ago now!) at the University of Nottingham was the production of a portfolio. With the benefit of specialists in vernacular architecture on the teaching staff, including Philip Dixon, the requirement of archaeological standing building surveys were informed by a superb series of lectures. I was fortunate enough at the time (1994) to have access to a mid-late 17th century cottage in Lincolnshire. Staying in the property for several days (with my 2-year-old son as surveyor’s assistant!), this proved a fabulous opportunity to study the building in detail over several days, unhindered by furniture or furnishings.

[iii] Photos (which are more quick snaps than technical images) taken during visits made over the past couple of years, to a number of churchyards in and around Derby, are available here; annotations will follow when time allows.

[iv] A large body of work is available on the growth of the ‘middling sort’; freely accessible resources include  ‘The Search For The ‘Middle Sort’ of People’ In England, 1600–1800‘, by H R French (2000); and in Google Books, sections of Margaret R. Hunt’s 1996 The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680-1780.

[v] See note i.

[vi] Images of material culture dating to or around the period covered by this post have been obtained from photos taken of artefacts recovered during excavations of a 17th century site in Virginia, North America, where many English objects were discovered in association with domestic contexts (from the 1957 excavation report, available via Project Gutenburg here. Further, more up-to-date, information on this site can be found hereherehere, and here (several articles and books are also available, some of which can be easily found through internet search engines).

Other images of in situ objects of a similar date were taken by the author at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (a location full of fabulous late medieval – early post-medieval artefacts), which is certainly worth a visit if in the area: further information can be found on the Haddon Hall website.

The remaining images (except where otherwise noted) have been obtained from the National Education Network Gallery of educational photographic resources, and are the work of Diane Earl, who retains copyright ownership. Please contact this website if their use here is considered as inappropriate.

Unfortunately, there was a dearth of appropriate copyright free images available for bedroom interiors and material culture, though illustrations will be added as and when they may be encountered. Any pointers to more suitable images (i.e. copyright free, non-commercial, and contextually correct) would be welcomed.

[vii] The chronological brackets of this era vary according to geographical location, and often differ within as well as between the various fields of study concerned with historic buildings, remaining a matter for debate.

Archaeological studies in Britain tend to conflate the start of the Early Modern period with that of the post-medieval era (which again has varied definitions, beginning at various points in the late 15th – mid 16th centuries). The termination of the Early Modern era is usually seen as coinciding with the widespread effects of the ‘industrial revolution’, i.e., broadly the late 18th century. Here, the beginning of the post-medieval period, as defined by English Heritage and Historic Environment curators, i.e. AD 1540, will be adopted as a very general starting point for the Early Modern era.

However, it should be remembered that such dates are used merely for the purposes of organising research and source material, and do not reflect the disparity of cultural and social change in the past, which inevitably depend upon access to resources and knowledge, and are affected by economic and political circumstances.

[viii] For example, see Peter Jupp and Claire Gittings (eds.) 1999 Death in England: An Illustrated History.

[ix] For information on this building, see the Haddon Hall website.

[x] Private land around and associated with the house: usually comprising a yard, and often a garden, which became increasingly defined by walls and fences from that of neighbouring properties.

[xi] See note ii. The plans, drawings and photographs from the archaeological survey and interpretation of this building carried out in 1994-95, were unfortunately mislaid by the institution that used them in a display / as a teaching aid, and have yet to be found and recovered. More information on this property can be found on the HER here.

[xii] Top image obtained from the National Education Network: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60101_218-.html (accessed 3-10-14), ©Diane Earl. Bottom image from John L. Cotter & J. Paul Hudson 1957 (2005), New Discoveries at Jamestown. Site of the First Successful English Settlement in America (accessed 17.30, 2-10-14).

[xiii] Families headed by labourers would occupy less substantial dwellings than those of artisans, generally comprising a single room, sometimes with loft above, and might share such buildings with other families. The poorest families that had some form of roof over their head might reside within a roughly constructed, essentially temporary, building. Archaeological site reports often continue to place such dwellings – alongside the single room cottage with loft – within the somewhat broad and barely defined category of ‘hovel’. Unmarried servants and labourers of this period commonly lived within their employer’s house, or in temporary shelters at their place of work (e.g. shepherd’s bothies).

[xiv] This possibility requires verification; the information was obtained from personal communication with the owner at the time of the building survey (see notes i & v), and derives from associated property documentation.

[xv] Where the chimney had been fitted within a cross-passage, a small entrance lobby would be formed (however, lobbies were also often added later by constructing a diving wall between the front wall and fireplace).

[xvi] The kitchens of medieval halls were located within an associated outbuilding, due to risk of fire and to avoid cooking smells; but due to limited space (and perhaps fewer servants) was situated within less high status dwellings.

[xvii] From NEN (see note vii): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60057_218-.html

[xviii] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90309_2922-e2bn.html

[xxi] For information on turnspit dogs see, e.g. herehere, and here; the remains of reputedly the last turn-spit dog (the 19th century ‘Whiskey’) was preserved by taxidermy, and is on display at Abegavenny Museum

[xxii] Image accessed 13.30, 6-10-14: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Turnspit_Dog_Working.jpg

[xxiii] There are various reasons for this change (the confines of time and space precluding discussion here – though this topic will likely be considered in future posts). One significant factor was change in credit regulations that enabled those on lower incomes to take advantage of ‘HP’ for more expensive domestic goods such as a gas or electric cooker, which could replace the dirty and inefficient kitchen range. The small ‘portable’ cooker would fit into the scullery, transforming this room into a kitchen-scullery, and the kitchen into a dining room. Sculleries were often used in conjunction with the washhouse, but where no additional washhouse was provided, many terrace houses had a second sink within the cellar (basement); where neither cellar sink nor washhouse was possible, sculleries were often referred to as scullery-washhouses.

[xxiv] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90312_2922-e2bn.html

[xxv] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxvi] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/imagelarge60060-.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/imagelarge60063-.html

[xxvii] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60069_218-.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60065_218-.html

[xxviii] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60068_218-.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60079_218-.html

[xxix] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] I must thank the owner of the South Derbyshire house for reminding me of this object, which I had forgotten since being taught about such artefacts in the early 1990s (although my experience of ceramics ‘curfews’ was of those dating to the medieval period).

[xxxii] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90323_2922-e2bn.html

[xxxvii] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/imagelarge60066.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90314_2922-e2bn.html

[xl] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset57988_73-.html

[xli] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60120_218-.html

No. 8: behind the façade

Front room: panorama from front door


What follows over the next three posts are the (often mundane but frequently telling) traces of human action that may be used, in conjunction with other forms of evidence, and alongside comparisons of similar contexts, to consider the changing use and significance of the front room of No. 8. Amongst the minutiae are more general discussions on living conditions in this house at different times – since its construction during the late Victorian period, and in comparison with those of today – exploring the impact of technological transformations upon daily life.

Many of the descriptions of household features and practices below may seem unnecessary to older readers, who might in varying degrees be familiar with the early 20th home. But it is just these ‘small things forgotten’ that get lost in history – seen as everyday and unimportant, they are rarely recorded and pass from memory; these details often hold the key to unlocking the human stories of the past.[i]

If readers have personal or family memories that might expand upon this information, and would like to share their thoughts, please comment at the bottom of the post, or contact the Project Director. Many details have surely been missed, and some may have been misunderstood. Many of the features described below potentially survive in other local terraced houses: if readers living in comparable homes may be able to add to these discoveries, so please send in information if encountering similar evidence of earlier activity. If readers based outside Derby would like to contribute information, a geographically wider project (with similar aims to Dec20) can be found here.

This first post on the front room will begin by describing the room, looking at architectural and decorative features. The second will consider ‘home comforts’: warmth and lighting; and the third will consider decoration; the fourth will explore the social and cultural significance of the front room.


On entering through the front door, the visitor steps straight into the front room, which is a comfortable size for a small terraced house (though slightly smaller than some of the other houses in the terrace), measuring approx. 10 1/2’ x 11 1/3’ (c. 3.21 m x 3.46 m).


From the front of the house, it was evident from the chimneys that a solid fuel open grate originally heated the house. This is evident on entering the room, in the projecting chimney-breast, which measures 31.5 cm deep by 1.37m wide. (The next post will consider heating, and the ways in which occupants used the alcoves over time, by considering the introduction of electricity). In common with many terraced properties, the original grate of No. 8 was removed some time ago (certainly before 1999 – probably several years previously. The exact form of the original grate is uncertain, although considering the construction date, it is likely to have been a slow combustion register grate, (in contrast to the earlier arch plate) consisting of an iron rectangular plate, canopy, and frame (which commonly contained a surround of glazed ceramic tiles), lined with ceramic fire-bricks.[ii] Without removing the flooring (which wasn’t possible during the survey) the size and form of the hearthstone is unknown; but stone hearths were increasingly tiled during and after the late 19th century.

Chimney-breast: enhanced image, to show position of earlier fireplace

The position of early fireplaces within terraced (and other) houses can often be seen in rough outline, in cases where the fill (often plaster-board, the join with the wall feathered with plaster) isn’t flush with the wall surface (see the subsequent post on the front bedroom – such an outline is clear). In this case, a professional – who was clearly a very good plastered – filled in the hole left by the previous fire, so it’s quite difficult to see the traces of earlier features (which are further covered by wallpaper). This is even harder to see in photos, so filters have been used to enhance the outline (see above). It is not possible to be certain whether previous residents acted in the same way as many other occupants of terraced houses in the 1930s – 50s: by removing the ‘old fashioned’ cast iron grate, and replacing this with a ‘modern’ fireplace.

Whether or not this was the case, previous owners later fitted a gas fire in the place of an ‘open fire’: this was of a style found in the 1980s (which may still be purchased today). At some point in the past 5 years, the gas fire was removed for safety reasons, and the fireplace finally sealed. These seemingly practical and individual changes relate to broader social and cultural transformations; as there’s quite a bit of information to fit into this post, some of the factors behind changes made to heating, cooking, and lighting facilities will be discussed in the next post on ‘home comforts’. following post will examine decoration.


An area of plaster has been removed from an interior wall (between the front room and the stairs) – hidden from sight within the cupboard of the right-hand alcove. As expected for work not destined for display, the finish is much rougher than that of the brickwork at the front of the house (see the previous post). This interior wall is again built using a Flemish Bond, and would have been covered with two or three coats of lime-based plaster.

Interior wall


The floor feels different beneath the visitor’s feet today, compared to how it would have done originally: modern cushioned laminate flooring overlays the original timber floorboards. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been possible to get to see beneath the modern surface to be certain of the finish of the boards throughout the room. However, the alcoves either side of the chimney-breast now contain shelves and modern (1990s or earlier) cupboards. The floorboards are visible within both cupboards, and as would be expected from comparisons with neighbouring and similar housing elsewhere, they are likely to be ‘deal’ (pine), or fir.

Floor boards, within left alcove cupboard (also showing early blue distemper)

These boards are not stained, which is unusual for a house of this age and type (as can be seen in a photo of floor boards in the back bedroom; this form of decoration will be considered in a subsequent post); they are also relatively ‘fresh’ (compare with those in the back bedroom, when this information is posted). This may indicate that boards have been replaced, perhaps due to rot, or to insect infestation, such as woodworm; alternatively, the floorboards may have been sanded – an act that became particularly popular in the 1980s-90s – which removes decades of patina that demonstrated past taste; though they are not varnished, which often followed sanding). The discovery of fragments of wallpaper, tightly sandwiched between the wall and the ends of the boards, perhaps supports the possibility that the boards have been replaced, although subsequent modifications may have pushed the paper into this position, or boards may have been lifted in fitting or modifying gas piping. The style of the wallpaper (which will be considered in the post on decoration), suggests that if replaced, this was undertaken some time ago (perhaps 1960s-70s). Another indication that, if replaced, this was not done recently, is the beading that seals the gap between wall and skirting board (a technique to reduce draughts); this seems to have previously run around the room, but since been removed (perhaps when the previous – since removed – floor covering was fitted, between the late 1980s and mid 1990s). This beading overlies the ‘fresh’ boards, and underlies paint that pre-dates the 1990s decorative scheme, which also overlies the adjacent skirting board.

Floorboards and beading in right alcove cupboard


Skirting board on back wall of front room

Around the base of the walls, what is likely to be the original skirting board can be seen. When painted, it is often difficult to determine the age of skirting board, as modern replacements commonly replicate early profiles, although early skirting boards often have less crisp lines than modern examples (original board are sometimes damaged, decay through rising damp, or may be removed during modern damp proofing). Within the left alcove cupboard, there are only partial remains of skirting board; the paint on the wall – perhaps like the later wallpaper (see the subsequent post on decoration) – continues down to the floor. This may indicate that the builders did not fit skirting board within this corner, suggesting the presence of a fixture (such as a fitted cupboard) within this corner during early occupation. A further clue supports this interpretation: paint remains suggest that the skirting board turned at right angles from this stub to meet the face of the chimney-breast. In addition, the vibrant blue wall colour appears only in this alcove: from the skirting board stub in this alcove, and in the right alcove, the wall finish is different.

Paint on skirting board stub suggesting a return across the left alcove to join the front of the chimney-breast

The pattern differs in the right alcove cupboard. Here a power socket was fitted or modified during the late 20th century on the wall of the chimney-breast. This has led to the removal of the short stretch of skirting board on this wall, revealing the original surface and subsequent early decorative traces at the point where it joined the skirting on the back wall of the alcove (a subsequent post will discuss decoration).

Skirting board in right alcove cupboard: removal of the chimney-breast piece of board has revealed the original wood finish of the board, and the wood stain and paint above

As many (especially builders and DIY enthusiasts) will know, though decorative, skirting board has a practical purpose: by leaving a gap between wall plaster and floor – the skirting covering this gap – rising damp could to some extent be limited. It is also a useful buffer to protect the wall from wet mops!

Plaster mouldings

The plaster moulding in the centre of the ceiling (the ‘ceiling rose’) suggests the location of one original light fitting (see the following post): again it had a practical purpose: the painted or varnished moulding made it easier to clean accumulated soot residue from suspended gas lamps.[iii]

Ceiling rose, No. 8

As well as the moulded plaster ceiling rose that is a common feature of terraced houses of this date, moulded plaster  cornice lies between the ceiling and walls. This feature went out of fashion during and after the 1920s, when increasing concerns over hygiene saw the cornice as a dust trap.[iv]

Cornice, front room of No. 8

Many houses of this date are fitted with usually wooden picture rails – these features continued to be fitted in houses during the interwar period (although the profiles were usually simplified during the 1930s), but were often removed during and after the 1950s, during modernisation. Removal of wallpaper from the chimney-breast during renovation revealed no indications that a picture rail had previously been fitted; it’s not been possible to remove wallpaper elsewhere in the room to see if this is representative. However, the walls in this room (and in other rooms) that are painted (and not papered) have no indications that a picture rail was previously fitted; there were also no signs of picture rails in a neighbouring property; further investigation of other neighbouring properties may answer this question.


Interior window frame

The front room of No. 8 is bright – not only due to the magnolia emulsion that is ubiquitous within modern houses, especially rental properties such as this. The window, which fills much of the wall behind the front door, lets in quite a lot of light; this may relate to legislative changes made not long before the house was built. The Public Health Act of 1875 provided guidelines for byelaws on room and window size for newly constructed houses; although the adoption of such guidelines by local authorities was a gradual process, c. 1600 councils had adopted the national models by 1882.[v] Concerns over the need for sufficient air and light to limit disease instigated the development of byelaws during and after the 1860s to regulate the construction of smaller houses; the height of the rooms (in comparison to earlier ‘cottages’) also aided airflow – a concern that was to continue into the 20th century.[vi] Maps suggest that when No. 8 was built, the aspect was as open as today (being situated across the road from a graveyard, beyond which were the railways lines of the goods yard), and that light filled the room as it does today.

The previous post discussed the original form of, and subsequent changes to, the window as seen from outside the front of the house. These changes are also visible from the inside: much of the original frame is intact, although the glazing bars have been removed, in order to insert two large panes (the significance of fitting ‘picture windows’ was also discussed in the previous post).


Door between the front room and lobby to the original kitchen

The door that faces the visitor as they enter from the street is probably one of the original fittings of the house. It is in a style typically found within terraced houses built during the late 19th – early 20th century: there are four panels, each of which are framed by thin architrave. However, this door may not have originally come from this door frame. As can be seen, previous residents have stripped the paint from this door; occupants often undertake this task themselves (using either a heat gun or chemical paint stripper), with the door in situ – there is some evidence of this (burn marks and ineffective paint stripping) on this and other doors in the house. But doors are otherwise often removed and taken to professional paint strippers (where the doors are dipped in vats of caustic chemicals); and when returned – as all the doors of the house are often removed, stripped, and refitted, at the same time – they are not always put back into their original frame. There are a few clues that may point towards a door being replaced within a different frame to that from whence it came: the original position of locks can often be seen, as can the latch housing in the frame – sometimes these features do not align. But if doors have been subjected to professional paint stripping, shrinkage (which can frequently be seen by cracks and gaps in the panels) must be taken into account. The removal of paint, to expose the ‘original’ timber fabric of door became popular in the 1980s (and continues today), in part relating to a taste for original features. However, this practice in no way reflects Victorian, Edwardian, and interwar tastes: doors were almost always painted (with the occasional exception of the oak and mahogany doors set within panelled rooms) – this will be considered in a following post on decoration.

Burns to the door, suggestive of DIY paint stripping, and remnants of early varnish or paint

Doors of this type were often boarded over during the 1950s-70s, in order to attain a flat surface, which was seen as modern (flat door surfaces began to appear within wealthier houses from the 1920s onwards). This can often be detected (as it can with this door) by the presence of small holes around the edge of the door, where panel pins held a sheet of hardboard in place; many of these coverings were removed during and after the 1980s, when tastes for ‘antique’ fittings became popular, although some still remain in place today. The presence of a large hole in the door, indicating removal of the original handle, and the fitting of a (probably more ‘modern’) higher in the door, may date to this phase of modernisation.

Location of early lock, and adjacent housing, and position of previous handle, and position of panel pins (circled in red) from previous door covering

Having described the main features of the room, the following posts will go on to consider utilities (such as gas and electricity), decoration, and social significance of the front room in No. 8, by making comparisons with similar houses, by exploring written, visual, and oral history, and exploring the changing use of the room.


[i] See Deetz 1999, for a wider discussion of the importance of examining the ‘common place’ traces of daily life in historical archaeology.
[ii] New designs in register grates (which incorporated iron doors that could be used control the flow of air into the chimney) were developed locally (by Derwent Foundry Company, Derby); the slow combustion grate, developed in 1870, more economical than previous grates, as the solid base reduced the air flow from beneath;  this type was replaced c. 1900 by re-introducing the bottom grate, but with an ash-pan reducing the updraught (Everleigh 1983: 9, 11-3)
[iii] See Yorke 2006: 85
[iv] See Bowden 2009: 367
[v] Upton 2010: 40-1.
[vi] See Upton 2010: 47; Meller 2009: 401

Works cited

Bowden, Sue 2009 ‘Consumption and consumer behaviour’, Chris Wrigley (ed.) Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, pp. 353-72

Deetz, James 1999 In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life

Everleigh, David J. 1983 Firegrates and Kitchen Ranges

Meller, Helen 2009 ‘Housing and Town Planning, 1900-1939’, Chris Wrigley (ed.) Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, pp. 388-404

Upton, Chris 2010 Living Back-to-Back Yorke, Trevor 2006 The 1930s House Explained

No. 8 façade: modernisation, individuality, and structural change


Past owners and inhabitants inscribe their presence and existence upon building façades. No. 8 (Dec20 case study) provides a typical example of this: though originally constructed in the same style as neighbouring buildings (probably at around the same time and by the same builders), there are differences between this and other houses, which themselves often in some way differ to one another. This variety reflects the stories of the street, each modification marking a point in time when someone connected with the resident (whether tenant or landowner, builder or painter) interacted with the house. And, although we often think of such transformations as purely personal choices, unrelated to wider social, political, and economic change, this is rarely the case. Some of the more noticeable changes will be considered briefly below.


A glance along the street would suggest that it has changed little since its construction during the late 19th century – bar the move evident signs of modernity: the few cars belonging to residents, the church hall now built over the old graveyard, the tarmac covered road and pavement, and the numerous television aerials. But standing outside the front of No. 8, some of the changes made to this and adjacent buildings become obvious. The latest change – not to the house itself, but the installation of a feature directly outside the house – is the replacement of the street light last year by the City Council.

Façade, No. 8

This is the product and development of changes made to planning legislation in 1990, which included regulations surrounding ‘listed’ buildings – those recognised for their historic significance – and the designation of conservation areas: places of “special architectural or historic interest the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. In this case, the Victorian origins of the street has been emphasised by the style of the light – or ‘lantern’ as the work specification refers to this feature.

Cable box

Another relatively recent change seen along the street is the installation of equipment for cable TV and phone line, manifest in the faded brown plastic boxes appended to the fronts of houses – somewhat incongruous with the ‘re-Victorianisation’ of the smart new old-fashioned ‘lantern’. This was undertaken during the late 1990s – early 2000s, and both reflects broad technological developments, and transformations in the use and meaning of domestic space – at a time when the home was increasingly seen a place of entertainment and leisure. Such changes, in conjunction with, for example, economic developments (such as supermarkets offering inexpensive alcohol), and other technological developments (such as ‘home theatre’ equipment), have affected local economies. Social venues (such as public houses) that were hitherto significant community locales increasingly found (and continue to find) it difficult or impossible to survive, further affecting social relationships outside the home, and influencing the transformation of community identities.


Hanging bracket, No. 8

A seemingly insignificant recent feature is the painted wrought iron bracket beside the door, which has in the past been used to suspend ‘hanging-baskets’ of flowers. Whilst the hanging-basket might simply be seen as an aesthetically pleasing injection of colour and individuality to an otherwise repetitive (and perhaps to some, bland) scene, it might also be seen in the context of notions of respectability, that were powerful in the late 19th – early 20th century, but which remain important today.[i] An earlier ornamentation on the façade of No. 8 might be represented by a wooden block in the wall above the bracket (before modern plastics were widely used, wooden pegs or blocks were inserted into the hole, and the screw inserted into the wood):

But the most noticeable changes are those made to the door and associated features, and to the windows.


Doorstep, No. 8

To the right is the front door; and beneath the door is a step – another important feature bound by notions of respectability; and one that relates No. 8 to broad social and cultural changes in the 20th century. The original doorstep (which it can be seen from some of the houses in the street was of stone, with a rolled edge) has been replaced by a rectangular ‘terrazzo’ step – a common addition to mid 20th century houses. The primary motivation behind such a change might have been practical: the stone was perhaps significantly worn through pedestrian traffic, and the terrazzo step is hard wearing; however, the other steps in the street seem to have worn well. Another motivation may again relate to changing social and economic conditions and attitudes. Associations between cleanliness and respectability were often manifest through treatment of the front doorstep in late Victorian and early 20th century Britain.[ii] At many terraced houses, it was scrubbed clean each day and reddened, or whitened  with pipe-clay or lime donkey stone – an arduous and time-consuming task (and particularly unpleasant on cold days), but often seen as an essential chore. However, conditions (which included over-crowing and poor sanitation facilities) sometimes meant such a task wasn’t practicable – and in some cases the door ‘step’ merely consisted of a stone threshold.[iii] It is possible that, as more women experienced changing work patterns, the terrazzo step enabled this task to be abandoned.[iv] The fortunate households with sufficient disposable income often paid ‘char’ women to do the ‘dirtier’ and more strenuous household chores, including step cleaning and whitening. Though a sign of respectability for the resident or home owner, step cleaning some who undertook the task found it humiliating.[v] One piece of family history may provide some insight into this. The memories of Mrs. H. relates how her grandmother, Ethel Wood (nee Morton), lived with her (i.e. Ethel’s) two small daughters (after one had died in a road accident) during the early 20th century in an almshouse in Derby; she struggled to support them and herself, after her husband had abandoned her. In need of any extra money, she was paid a penny each day to clean the steps of her more affluent sister, who lived in a larger house, a few streets a way; this situation carries a sense of shame and degradation in family history.[vi] The employment of children to do this task perhaps enhanced these feelings.[vii]


Remains of scraper, neighbouring property

Boot scrapers were commonly found in many Victorian terraces; considering the time taken in cleaning the step, this was perhaps a well-used feature. There were often made of stone, and fitted with a usually flat iron bar, which is nowadays commonly missing – as can be seen in the case of another house in the street.[viii]

Boot scraper No. 8

Sometimes they are removed completely; the invention and widespread ownership of vacuum cleaners from the 1960s onwards may have made them less necessary. Although it is possible that No. 8 was not in fact fitted with a scraper, the disorderly bricks (attempts have been made to sustain the Flemish Bond of the other brick courses, although this has necessitated substantial trimming of some of the bricks used) suggest that a scraper was at sometime removed (although if this is the case, it appears that old bricks were used to fill the remaining recess.


Front Door

The door is a 1930s replacement, made of timber with a leaded stained glass light. Immediately above the door is a cast iron number plate (perhaps fitted at the same time as the door). And the original light above the door – which is can be seen from neighbouring properties once consisted of 10 small panes – has been replaced by reeded obscure glass, again perhaps at the same time as the door (it is interesting to see early – perhaps original – crown glass in the light above the door of the adjacent house). The door has been painted several times since it was first fitted, although the original colour is yet unknown.

Many local terraced houses have been fitted with similar doors; the date of this change is perhaps significant. House ownership was becoming possible for members of the lower middle class – in some cases, for well-paid working class families – during the 1930s. But house purchase was still beyond the majority; nevertheless, improvement are common during this time, which will be discussed as each room in No. 8 is explored.

With regard to notions of home, the front door is one of the most important features of a house: it is the interface between the inside and outside world – between the familiar and predictable, and the strange and potentially dangerous. The door may be used a tool of power and autonomy, as others are prevented or allowed to enter our domain. But ‘behind closed doors’ not only stands for privacy – it may also stand for concealment and confinement: the home is not always safe.

The door furniture is mostly of lacquered brass, fitted sometime before 2001, perhaps incorporating an attempt at ‘period’ style; but the usual wear to the finish – which, in theory, provided a traditional look, but without the effort of regular cleaning – detracts from the appearance, which is now somewhat shabby.


Ground Floor Window

To the left of the facade is a 2 light sash window; although the two sliding frames are intact, the retention of original windows (some containing early, possible crown, glass) within many of the neighbouring properties indicate that an astragal (wooden glazing bar) previously divided the upper light into 18 panes, and the lower in two.  Above this window, more drastic changes have been made by the complete removal of the original sash window, and by its replacement by a two light, top hung, casement window. Fortunately, both windows retain their original stone sills.

First Floor Front Window

It may be presumed that these changes took place before Conservation restrictions were put in place: if new windows are to be fitted nowadays, they must replicate original style and (to some extent) materials. The insertion of ‘picture’ windows was common practice during the 1970s and 80s); although often seen as a step forwards aesthetically, one of the main reasons behind such a change was the ease of cleaning such windows, in comparison to those with many small panes of glass.[ix] Relationships between such acts of modernisation, and between changing gender roles and the increasing number of women that worked outside the home, might be conjectured.

The Chimney

From the top photo it can be seen that the original chimney stack remains, accompanied by possibly early chimney pots (as many houses in the street have the same type of pot, as can be seen from the second photo). This differs from many terraced houses, where pots are often removed, or replaced with cowls, as they are no longer needed, thanks to gas fires and central heating. The remaining chimneys and their pots place these terraced houses – like many thousands of Victorian (and earlier, and later) houses in Britain – in the contexts of British industry and technology. As a nation then with plentiful supplies of coal, this was the fuel of choice for industrial areas. But as notions of comfort, technology, and economies changed (which incorporated the effects of changing gender roles – as more women worked outside the home), other forms of heating became preferable, which, as noted, sometimes led to the transformation of chimneys.

The chimneys also give a clue as to the use of interior domestic space: their placement within fixed points in the home to a large extent determined use of each room. But other factors – economic circumstances, notions of ‘respectability‘, illness, and changing concept of ‘comfort’ – influenced how these facilities. This will be discussed further as we move through each room of the house in future posts. For now, external remains make it apparent that sources of heat were provided for the front and back rooms; the double chimney pots suggest that the rooms above were also served with fireplaces – although other evidence indicates that they were rarely used: this topic will be covered at a later date.

The Guttering

Finally, the original cast iron guttering has been replaced during the later 20th century with plastic guttering – a cheaper, perhaps more easily maintainable, alternative, but not in keeping with the style of the house.

Guttering of No. 8 on the right


The narrow facade of No. 8, whilst seemingly demonstrating attempts at individuality, in exhibiting aesthetic choice, and in undertaking ‘modernisation’ in relationship to personal needs, these changes embody broad social relationships, political power, economic change, and technological developments. The process of change continues, as the house undergoes another decorative renovation. The interaction of individual, family, community and nation is writ upon the house, as are the different ways of life that each generation experienced.

Next, we enter through the front door, to look behind the façade…

If you have any information, memories, or photos to share that relate to the topic of this post, or have evidence for life in the past in your house, please contact the Project Director.


[i] For mention of hanging baskets on working class houses in the early 20th century, see Foley 1977: 7; see also Upton 2001, fig. 62. Window boxes and plant pots on window sills may embody similar notions of pride, although occupants perhaps gained greater benefits from the blooms, which were often seen as ‘cheerful’ in the absence of a garden: see Layton (1977 [1931]: 2), though were also found on sills of houses with gardens (Upton 2001, see figs. 12, 25, 48, 62). Upton (2001, fig. 67) notes the establishment of a Window Gardening Society in Birmingham in 1904; boxes and pots were of course often the only option for tenement housing.

[ii] See Muthesius (1982: 55, 238), for a brief discussion of the development of associations between cleanliness and respectability, and of the role of whitening in social differentiation. Lime-wash had been used (being painted on exterior walls) during the 19th century in the belief that this would prevent contamination from infectious disease (see Upton 2001: 35, 85); this may have further associated notions of cleanliness with step whitening.

[iii] An example of a whitened step fronting a terraced (or back-to-back) house in Birmingham during 1904 can be seen in Upton 2010, fig. 65; however, a sign indicates that the house was occupied by a building contractor, and perhaps suggests middle-class pretensions, despite the ‘poor’ location. A photo that possibly shows a local example is in Palmer 1997: 91, though this may simply be due to very light stone, or the use of paint – it is in any case a local business (The Nottingham Castle Public House): ‘respectability’, and especially signs of cleanliness, were perhaps particularly necessary. Probable examples are in Palmer 1998: 77, top left (Bridge St.), and 118, top photograph, left (again Bridge St., 1930s). From most photos of local terraced houses, it appears that whitening, at least, was not as widespread or regular as memories might suggest; however, the possibility that step reddening is less easy to detect in early and poor quality black and white photographs and their reproductions remains. For an account of local practices, see Goodhead (1983: 26, 27); she mentions that, in the nearby West End, some cleaned and whitened their steps, but this was not universal. Mike Green (Green n.d.) mentions the step reddening; he goes on to describe the morning ritual of scrubbing and whitening (using pipe-clay) the front door step (and scrubbing an arc of pavement beyond the step) of two-bedroom terraces houses within inner-city Derby during the interwar period. Memories from outside Derby also record this task: in Kettering (Hankins 1999: 23); and in Liverpool.

[iv] There are records of men or more frequently, boys employed in domestic service undertaking this task (Thompson 2005: 77); but it remained predominantly ‘women’s work’, amongst those of the least tolerable kind.

[v] Step cleaning and whitening in the Edwardian Period is noted, e.g., in Arthur 2006: 198; Horn 2001: 12; Thompson 2005: 24. For the interwar and wartime periods (particularly in the context of domestic service) see: Dawes 1973: 84-5; Horn 2001: 181; see also Goodhead 1983, for local history. See also Muthesius 1982: fig. 27.

[vi] Pers. com. Mrs. H., Derby, 2011

[vii] For an Edwardian example, see Thompson (2005: 24); for testimony relating to ‘step girls’ in earlier decades, see Layton (1977 [1931]: 9).

[viii] See Muthesius 1982: fig. 28, for a more complete example. Due to erosion and heavy use, the bars sometimes needed replacing; this is mentioned in the late Victorian fictional Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith, for example.

[ix] The somewhat risky techniques of window cleaning are outlined in Green (n.d.; see also Hankins 1999: 23)


Arthur, Max 2006 Lost Voices of the Edwardians

Dawes, Frank 1973 Not in Front of the Servants. Domestic Service in England 1850-1939

Foley, Winifred 1977 No Pipe Dreams for Father. Scenes from a Forest of Dean Childhood

Goodhead, Elsie Elizabeth 1983 The West End Story. Derby During the Depression. A Social and Personal History

Green, Mike n.d. Pre-War and Derby Memories

Hankins, Ken 1999 A Child of the Thirties

Horn, Pamela 2001 Life Below Stairs in the 20th Century

Layton, Mrs. 1977 [1931] ‘Memories of Seventy Years’, in Margaret Llewelyn Davies (ed.) 1931 Life As We Have Known It, by Co-operative Working Women, pp. 1-55

Muthesius, Stephan 1982 The English Terraced House

Palmer, Derek 1997 The Demolition of Derby

Palmer, Derek 1998 Westenders

Thompson, Paul 2005 The Edwardians. The remaking of British society

Upton, Chris 2010 Living Back-to-Back

Woolf, Virginia 1977 [1930] ‘Introductory Letter’, in Margaret Llewelyn Davies (ed.) 1931 Life As We Have Known It, by Co-operative Working Women, pp. Xvii-xxxxi