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Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Kentish Yeoman's House.
by Derek Simmons.

Architecture, for me, is not a series of terms; plates, purlins, trusses and the like, but man and his environment. I appreciate that to describe a building, terminology inevitably plays a part, but it must never overshadow the purpose of the building.

Fire is elemental and primitive. Ever since early man, fire, the fireplace and its impedimenta have figured prominently in the home during every period of social evolution. The hearth has formed the nucleus of rudimentary comfort. It spells warmth, a means of cooking, lighting and general social well-being. This factor, aligned with self-preservation, has dictated trends in domestic architecture through the centuries.

The twelfth century fire was made well above ground level -- on the first storey -- and occupied the central space on the floor of the building as a primitive defence. Later, in more peaceful times, the main rooms of the building were brought down to ground level. The hall, with its fire, still dominated the building; the hall extended the full width of the structure and rose to its entire height. At either end of this huge area were attached smaller rooms: the "high" end being used exclusively by the owner. At the other end were the working quarters and store rooms. Naturally the number of rooms varied with the size of the household and the wealth of the owner. Thus, throughout the country we get a mixture of types, and it is impossible to say that in a certain year features were dropped or others universally adopted, but always and everywhere the houses had the same root plan.

By the 14th century, the appalling devastation and loss of human life from plagues caused a shortage of labour. Consequently the feudal system largely broke down as there were not sufficient villeins to work the lords' lands, and it was not long before they realised their powerful position. Villeins were allowed to purchase their freedom. Some rented their land from the lord, thus emerged a new class of men called yeoman farmers. In Kent a unique situation arose as the farmers succeeded in preserving the old Saxon system of ground tenure known as "gavel kind." The security of tenure enabled them to hold their lands in perpetuity, paying a fixed rent, either in kind or in money. The rents eventually became nominal and a high level of prosperity resulted. On a tenant's death the estate was divided equally instead of going to the eldest, as was the custom elsewhere. This meant constant building of somewhat similar but usually smaller properties with the same characteristics. These yeoman houses, or hall houses as they eventually became known, sprang up throughout Kent and East Sussex.

PHOTO: A model of Eyhorne Manor.

A model of Eyhorne Manor.

The photograph is of a model of Eyhorne Manor which conforms to this basic design. The building is oblong in plan, and of two storeys at either end, with the lofty hall in the centre, rising from floor to roof. The whole is covered by single roof of steep pitch, hipped at the ends. The hall was entered from both side at the lower, or working, end. A screen was sometimes inserted between these doors to reduce draught at the high table, which was placed at the furthest end from the entrances. The high table was reserved for the lord of the manor, his wife and family. Behind this table, on the ground floor, was a small retiring room, or bower; above this, their bedroom or solar (shown left in photograph). This was approached by wooden stairs or a ladder, or even an external staircase. The mail hall was used for all activities: eating, cooking, playing and sleeping. The floor was strewn with straw and rushes heavily encrusted with the garbage of everyday living. Despite all this apparent lack of comfort, its defects doubtless did not outweigh the merits of having some sort of shelter and warmth against the elements outside. The opposite end of the house was divided at ground level into two rooms: the buttery and pantry. Sometimes a third door is apparent in larger homes. This led through a passage to an external kitchen. Without this door, and the lack of evidence of external kitchens, one can only assume all the cooking was undertaken around the central fire. Above these small rooms storage or further sleeping accommodation was made available and accessible by means of a ladder from the hall.

It is not my intention to delve into the construction of the building in any detail -- the photograph will suffice to show the complexities caused by the provision of this enormous hall. Originally these houses had no glass, shutters and bars being used against weather and animals. The hall windows were usually large, one on either side and divided at first floor level. These admitted light and let out smoke from the fire. The blackened roof-timbers in the hall prove the presence of the central fire; the remaining rooms are not subjected to discolouration.

Most of these hall houses underwent considerable modification during the 17th century. In all probability it was the lack of comfort and the demand for greater sub-division of space which prompted the owners to dispense with the unnecessarily large hall, by flooring in at first, and even second floor levels. Its old character changed and it became an entrance hall, a great vestibule instead of a great living-room. At the same time it became common practice to insert an enormous chimney stack to replace the central hearth. This stack contained two, three, or even four flues devouring nearly half the hall. It was aesthetically a pity, as it completely destroyed the grandeur of the building. However, it did have compensations -- smaller, warmer rooms, each with a fireplace. Smoke was greatly reduced, escaping up the flues instead of swirling about in the upper regions of the hall. This enormous pile of bricks must surely constitute the first stage of night store heating!

These rough-hewn, well-worn structures which had given good service were soon to be mutilated again, for the owners abandoned them for the new, elegant, comfortable houses of the Georgian style. Many fell into disrepair, some were even lost, but a large number survived, having been converted into labourers' cottages. It was a simple and inexpensive task: the high end forming one cottage; the hall, with horizontal flooring at the first floor level, a second cottage; and the storage end a third.

Yet again, in the 20th century, they are being attacked by mortals like myself trying to restore them to their original splendour. What superb structures they are to stand up to such harsh treatment. Does the central chimney stack come out and the central fire return?

Eyhorne Manor, Eyhorne Green, Hollingbourne, Nr. Maidstone, will be op( to visitors during May, June and July on Saturdays and Sundays, 2.30 pm to 6.00 pm

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