How to read a house

Speaker: Janet Spavold

18 October 2022

In October we welcomed professional historian Janet Spavold to introduce us to the intriguing subject of “How to Read a House”.  You can discover lots of clues to the history of a building just by looking at it – if you know what to look for!

The medieval domestic buildings that we now see were almost all built by the wealthier classes.  Poorer people would have used cheaper construction methods such as mud walls, which have not survived.  Even the more substantial houses were created from whatever stone, brick or wood was available locally because it was so expensive to transport stone over long distances.  These local materials and the styles of building associated with them are what give many historic villages and towns their individual character.  It was only after the rail network developed in the 1850s that we see more widespread use of uniform materials, such as red brick from the Peterborough clay pits and slate from Welsh quarries.

In areas without good stone, half-timbered buildings were common.  Early on, the main roof beam was supported by crucks – curved tree trunks halved and used in pairs.  A later development was box frames, which could be constructed using shorter lengths of timber.  It was a demonstration of wealth to decorate your façade with more timber than structurally necessary – though this is rarely seen in Leicestershire, which has long suffered from a shortage of woodland.

The oldest houses consisted of simple halls, open to the roof, with a central hearth and small holes or “wind-eyes” above for the smoke to escape.  The front door might lead into a cross-passage, which separated the main hall from a buttery and pantry.  After 1480 it became fashionable to add a cross-wing and to insert an upper floor.  Then from about the 1570s there was a “great rebuilding”, when wattle-and-daub was replaced by brick infill, chimneys were added and the “wind-eyes” made way for glazed windows.  It was risky to cut through the main roof beam so a tell-tale sign is that inserted chimneys are offset from the ridge of roof.  It was also common for the new fireplace to back onto the cross-passage so look out for chimneys that are aligned with one edge of the door.

Janet took us through further innovations up to the Georgian period, including sash windows and the first terraced housing, in what was a fascinating and accomplished presentation.  As a final note, she warned us not always to trust dates on buildings, which might mark a renovation, not the original construction, and have sometimes been moved from somewhere entirely different!