Monday, 29 August 2011

Blakesley Hall, Birmingham - Wattle and Daub, and gingerbread

 The road sign that says "Birmingham Attractions" is not an oxymoron.

Poor old Birmingham is much maligned. It's the second largest city in England, and has a strong industrial past. It was bombed heavily in WW2 and much of the centre is new and commercial. You might think it's a multi-cultural shopping hub without history, but of course it's still there if you look!

Blakesley Hall is in Yardley, and was first mentioned in 972AD when it was a Benedictine Abbey. 

 The population of Birmingham grew steadily until 1348 when the Black Death (bubonic plague) wiped out over 200 villages in the Midlands alone. One effect of the Black Death was that surviving families became wealthier, as the available land was shared between fewer people.

"The Smalbroke family are known to have been living in Yardley as early as 1275, and in 1440 John Smalbroke was Yardley's first recorded yeoman (yeomen were landowner-farmers who could be called on to serve as jurors) - so this family survived the plague years. The Smalbrokes and another ancient Birmingham family, the Colmores, rivalled each other for wealth and status. At times the rivalry led to fisticuffs, running battles and lawsuits, though there were also marriages between the two families."
 It's thought that this earlier house was demolished and rebuilt as the Blakesley Hall we see today in 1590. It would have been built to the height of fashion, having fireplaces with brick chimneys, glazed windows, and an upper floor with rooms opening off a gallery.

 The massive front door, made of two layers of thick oak boards still has it's original hinges and locking system.

There is a small garden mostly laid to herbs which you can walk around, but much of the outside space is lawned. This enables children free reign to run around. I imagine that much of the funding for the house has been secured by it's providing educational days out for school children.  Much of the inside space is roped off, and appears quite bare of furniture, fittings and information. During the school terms I can imagine hoards of children charging round finding out information for their projects etc. Whilst this is a good use of course, it does leave the space clinical and less interesting for the non-school visitor. The entrance price of £4 is reasonable and there is a tearoom selling small snacks, so is worth an hour or two if you're passing. Click here for more visitor information

The inside of Blakesley Hall

The Hall is laid out like a medieval hall, with service rooms at one end, separated from it by the timber-framed screen and cross-passage, and private rooms at the other end.

The walls, including the timbers, have been lime-washed. This was done to make the rooms fresh and clean, although there is evidence that the walls in the hall were painted a rich red.   

"The original floor was of beaten earth, about a foot lower than the present wooden floor. Taking this into account, the ceiling is unusually high for the period. Beaten earth floors coated with a mixture of dung and ox blood, that dried to form a durable surface, were usually strewn with rushes or straw mixed with herbs to freshen the air"

The Boulting House was a space used for storing flour, and preparation of dough for bread; a very important part of the Tudor and Stuart diet. The quality of the bread eaten depended on the status of the diner.

 In the Still Room (left) the mistress of the house would make medicines, perfumes and household preparations, using herbs, spices and other ingredients, disguising bitter tastes by grating in sugar from a tall conical sugar loaf.

On the floor at the back is a tiny still oven. A distilling vessel containing water and ingredients would be placed on the top. As it boiled, the steam condensed inside the top of the vessel. This condensate, containing the distilled essence of the ingredients, would drip out through the spout and be carefully bottled, ready for use.
 The Great Parlour was used for private dining, sitting and entertaining. It has a door to the garden so people could come and go without passing through the main hall.

It has a high ceiling with moulded beams. When Blakesley was built, plastered ceilings were uncommon, so the joists and floor boards of the bedrooms would have been visible.

The fireplace is original and the carved overmantel is late 17th C and came fromLittle Aston Hall in Staffordshire in the 1980's.

" The painted wall-hangings depict the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers. They are based on a set of seventeenth-century painted hangings at Owlpen Manor in Gloucestershire.

These are replicas.

Painted hangings were used in middle-class homes where tapestries might be used in grander house, both as decoration and to reduce draughts."

 This is a turned chair of about 1680. Chairs like this were constructed from turned parts pushed together and were fashionable and came in both three and four legged versions. Three legs are more stable on uneven floors.
 The Little Parlour was re-instated in the 2001 restoration. The timber framed walls are hidden behind linen hangings dyed in colours similar to the natural dyes in use in the 17th C.

It was very fashionable to have hangings made of seamed widths of fabric in alternate plain colours forming broad stripes. They were called "paned" hangings.

This room might have been used by the women of the household as a comfortable little room in which to sit and chat (the word parlour comes from the French "parler" or to talk)

An Inventory of the Hall's contents in 1684 listed

"two little table boards one Livery Cupboard six old Chaires on child's chaire one old Grate fire Shovelle and tongs one paire of Snuffers and one Clocke" They had a total value of £2 3shillings.

Wattle and Daub walls. The wattle is
interwoven mesh wood strips, and the daub is the plaster mix on top of them.

The slats or wattle are made from hazel twigs or riven oak, and the daub infilling is made from cow dung, chopped straw, and coarse hair pressed onto the wattle. The whole lot was then rendered with lime and cow dung mixed with chopped straw or hair.

 This photo is of the upstairs Gallery. I loved the angle it's on!  Having a gallery was quite a new idea as the bedrooms would normally have opened into each other.
 Painted Chamber.

The wall paintings in this room date from when the house was built. They were plastered over, probably in the 17thC when they were thought old fashioned, and they remained hidden until the 1950's when post war repairs to the bomb shattered plaster revealed them.

These paintings are of lilies, pomegranates, centaurs and a four line inscription which no one can decipher. It's thought the paintings originally covered the ceiling as well.

There are information sheets in most of the rooms. Informative up to a point, but I would have liked much more. I bought the Guide Book for £5 and that contains all you'd need to know including extra bits on clothing and lifestyle. However, it's for sale in the shop which is quite a walk away from the house, and I didn't know I'd need it!  Here's a couple of extra snippets from the book.............


Clothing in yeomen's families was fairly modest. Men wore knee-length breeches and tailored stockings, a long shirt and a padded and fitted long sleeved doublet. Women's everyday wear consisted of a shift (a simple undergarment), underskirts, a fitted jacket and an outer skirt, protected by a large apron. They might wear a large lace trimmed collar, and their hair would be covered with a coif or cap. It was not unusual for people to bequeath their best clothes in their wills, as Isabel Wheeler of Yarley did in 1598, leaving her gown of grogram (a coarse silk fabric) a kirtle, and doublet of taffeta to the wife of Richard Smalbroke.

A 1656 gingerbread recipe

Take a quart of Honey clarified, and seeth (boil) it to be brown, and if it be thick, put to it a dish of water; then take fine crumbs of white bread grated, and put to it and stirre it well, and when it is almost could (cold), put to it the powder of Ginger, Cloves, Cinnamon, and a little of locoras (liquorice) and Anniseeds, then knead it and put into a mould or print it: some use to put to it also a little Pepper, but that is according unto taste and pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. How exciting to find this entry on your blog as we are currently researching our family history from an old family tree we have in our possession. Our direct ancestors (Ambrose and Bridget Rotton) built and owned Stratford House in Birmingham and it was Bridget's brother Richard who built this property!
    Alas my daughter who was able to visit Stratford house has now run out of time in the UK to see this one so it has been rather magical to see it here...Thank you