History at Your Feet

An original historic floor contributes enormously to the character and the spirit of a place. Whether it’s humble cobbles or stately marble hall, the floor tells the story of the building. When people enter an old building, step onto a churchyard path or walk down a street in an ancient town or village their natural inclination is to look up – at the ceiling, at the windows, at the walls, at the buildings above and around.  That’s why the SPAB have launched the History at Your Feet Campaign. Tweet @SPAB1877 with your favourite historic floors. We hope this round up of the SPAB’s favourite floors will inspire you to #lookdown.
The Chapter House steps at Wells Cathedral, Somerset

Wells Cathedral  2 - from cathedral office Chapter House Steps from bottom
Also known as the ‘sea of steps’, (the self-explanatory name taken from an evocative 1903 photograph by Frederick H. Evans), the famous and beautifully worn stone  Chapter House steps of Wells Cathedral were built from 1286 and the upper flight in 1459-1460.
The staircase itself divides at the top with one branch leading through to Chain Gate (which in turn leads to Vicars Hall and Vicars’ Close) and the other branch leading to the Chapter House. Now, worn away by centuries of use, the wear and tear of tramping feet can be seen on the staircase. Image credit: Wells Cathedral.

The Cosmati Pavement at Westminster Abbey, London

Cosmati Pavement at Westminster Abbey

The great pavement in front of the High Altar of Westminster Abbey is remarkable. It was laid down in 1268 by order of Henry III who had started re-building Edward the Confessor’s Abbey in the new Gothic style in 1245. The workmen came from Rome. The pavement belongs to a type of inlaid stone decoration known as Cosmati work, after one of the families of craftsmen who specialized in it. The technique is called opus sectile, ‘cut work’. The great pavement is 24 feet 10 inches square and consists of geometrical patterns built up from pieces of stone of different colours and sizes cut into a variety of shapes: triangles, squares, circles, rectangles and many others. The central roundel is made of onyx and the pavement also includes purple porphyry, green serpentine and yellow limestone. Pieces of opaque coloured glass were also used. It lies on a bed of dark limestone known as Purbeck marble. Its uniqueness and completeness combine to make the pavement one of the pre-eminent works of art of medieval England. Its importance cannot be overstated.
Very few churches in medieval England are known to have possessed Cosmatesque floors.  Fragments from destroyed pavements have been found at St Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury and Old Sarum, Salisbury. There is a surviving floor fragment in the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral (restored and re-laid), and historical evidence for one at old St Paul’s Cathedral.

The black and white marble floor of the chapel at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London

Old Royal Naval Chapel floor

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul  at the Old Royal Naval College is a neo-classical masterpiece by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton. It is one of the finest eighteenth century interiors in the UK. Naval motifs are depicted throughout the Chapel, reflecting the building’s original purpose as a place of worship for the inhabitants of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. This is a great place to #lookdown. In the centre of the black and white marble floor there is a ship’s anchor, and a rope design runs along the edge of the pews which is said to match exactly the diameter of an anchor cable of a ‘first-rate’ ship of the line. Image credit: Old Royal Naval College.

The wooden floor of the long gallery at Chastleton House, near Moreton in Marsh, Oxfordshire

Room view of the Long Gallery at Chastleton House. National Trust images/Nadia Mackenzie

In grand Elizabethan and Jacobean houses the long gallery was primarily a place to exercise in bad weather. It was also where a family on the rise might display a collection of art and ancestral portraits. Chastleton House in the Cotswolds, owned by the National Trust, was built by a rich wool merchant (or possibly lawyer). Nikolaus Pevsner described the decoration of Chastleton as “blatantly nouveau riche, even barbaric, uninhibited by any consideration of insipid good taste”, but now the long gallery has mellowed to a charming space of uneven boards and gentle patination. Rowan Moore says of it:  “What is particularly pleasurable is the way the stuff of the ceiling – ornamental plaster – descends, while the stuff of the floor – wood – rises in the form of panelling and the two meet at mid-height. It gives a boat-like sense of enclosure and protection.”

Dan Cruickshank says: “If the floor is right an historic room doesn’t need much else to make it work. The gnarled, wide, oak boards in the Long Gallery at Chastleton House are pretty good I think.” Image credit: National Trust images/Nadia Mackenzie.

The sloping wooden floor of St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry

Upstairs in St Mary's Guildhall in Coventry

This ‘queasy’ floor was suggested by broadcaster and architectural historian, Jonathan Foyle, who says:Upstairs in St Mary’s Guildhall  in Coventry is a humble boarded floor that can’t be how its makers intended it six hundred years ago. The timber-framed building has warped so much that there’s no chance of playing marbles in there ever again. Toboggan, maybe. But that sloping room has gained the wonderful quality of having quietly witnessed the passage of time.”

Marcus Lynch General Manager of St Mary’s Guildhall adds:Some visitors emerge feeling rather disorientated, and even queasy as to some the room resembles the cabin of a (sinking) galleon.  The original function is not recorded, but it is most likely to have been an ancillary meeting chamber for the conduct of council or merchant guild business.” Image credit: St Mary’s Guildhall.

The brick paviour floor of St Agnes’ Church, Cawston, Norfolk

Tiles St Mary's Cawston Norfolk

SPAB’s head of Casework, Emma Lawrence says: “On a recent site visit to St Agnes’ Cawston (Norfolk) I was bowled over by this floor. The pew benches are medieval in date and the beautiful, simple unglazed bricks underneath may perhaps date from their installation. They are a great example of the way an apparently ordinary floor can contribute enormously to a sense of place.” Image credit: SPAB.

The tiled floors of the Victoria and Albert Museum created by female convicts at Woking Prison

‘Opus criminale’ of mosaic floors in the V&A Museum. Image belongs to the V&A Museum.

These were suggested by Olivia Horsfall Turner, Curator, Designs, Victoria and Albert Museum. She says:  “’My favourite V&A floors have to be the ‘opus criminale’ mosaic floors. The most spectacular example is located in the corridor between the cast courts, and we have the original design for it in the Designs collection as well. These mosaic floors were created by women convicts in Woking Prison, under the supervision of designers attached to the V&A. The Museum had a strong notion of its social role and the intention was that by making the mosaics, the prisoners would be morally improved. The designs were produced and sent to the prisoners, who made up tiles accordingly – the tiles were then sent back to the Museum and installed. Some of the mosaics were complex, others were simple geometric patterns in black and white. They are found in various places throughout the Museum, including just outside my office. Every time I walk over them I think about the women of Woking prison who made them – unnamed and unknown but who contributed to one of the most distinctive features of the V&A’s interior decoration.” Image credit: V&A Museum.

The tomb-lined floor of St Mary’s Church (the Ramblers’ Church), Lead, North Yorkshire

Tombs at St Mary Lead

This tiny rectangular building is very simple. It was probably built by the Tyas family, which numbered crusading knights whose massive 13th century grave slabs are set into the floor. Carved with heraldic symbols and inscriptions, they are an evocative and important collection, adding immeasurably to the church’s distinct atmosphere.
Since being rescued by a group of walkers in 1931, St Mary’s has been known as the Ramblers’ Church. Nearby is Towton, the site of the battle believed to be bloodiest in English history, which brought the Wars of the Roses to an end in 1461.Ten thousand men are said to have been killed and Cock Beck, the little stream which visitors have to cross to reach St Mary’s, is said to have run red with blood.

Despite its history, St Mary’s is a peaceful place. Today it is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. Image credit: Churches Conservation Trust.

 

The encaustic tiled floor of the retrochoir, Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Retrochoir & De Lucy tomb_credit Dr John Cook

SPAB supporter Kevin McCloud says: “I’m a big fan of looking down as well as up at buildings. My favourite international floor has to be the heroic mosaic floor of Otranto Cathedral (the departure place of worship for crusaders) that depicts Alexander, Noah, Adam and King Arthur, among a host of characters. In Britain, the retrochoir in Winchester Cathedral is a riot of encaustic tiles that is a destination in itself. I also photograph old manhole covers and street furniture; an odd hobby I know, that probably takes an interest in what lies beneath a little too far!” Image credit: Dr John Cook.

The painted wood floor of the Tyrconnel Room, Belton House, Lincolnshire

Tyrconnel Room at Belton House. National Trust Images/Graham Challifour

Old painted floors are relatively unusual. Their very nature makes them liable to wear and tear. They are said to have been more common in Scotland, and several instances are recorded in Edinburgh’s New Town. They would have been cheaper than marquetry, an alternative for such decoration.

One of the best surviving examples in England is located in the Tyroconnel Room at Belton House in Lincolnshire. Its heraldic design and use of only three colours is unusual. Incorporating the symbolic Belton greyhounds and the arms of the Brownlow family (former owners of the house) the floor is the subject of continuing controversy. Some believe it to date to the 17th century, others hold that the design places it in the 18th century. Present owners, The National Trust, does not believe it could have stayed intact for so long if it were the former. Since there is some evidence to support both claims, the longevity of Belton’s painted floor remains an enigma. Image credit: National Trust Images/Graham Challifour.

The 19th century encaustic floor tiles at the medieval church of St Jerome at Llangwm Uchaf in Monmouthshire, Wales

St Jerome's Church, Llangwm Uchaf, Monmouthshire

This strikingly colourful tiled floor of this Grade-1 medieval church is a Victorian work of art. The figure tiles were made by William Godwin of Lugwardine, one of the leading encaustic tile manufacturers of the 19th century, and the patterned tiles were made by the equally famous Maw and Co. John Newman in the Pevsner for the county refers to the “nave and chancel tiled throughout in a handsome and coherent pattern, also designed by Seddon” (J.P.Seddon, architect for the substantial rebuilding of the church in 1863-9) and deems them “deserving of close examination.” St Jerome is the newest vesting with charity The Friends of Friendless Churches. Image credit: Friends of Friendless Churches.

The medieval decorated tiles at Strata Florida Abbey, near Aberystwyth, Wales

Tiles floor at Strata Florida Abbey

Dating from the 12th century, the remains of the huge carved Romanesque west doorway give visitors a clue to how impressive this building must once have been. The plan of the church can still be clearly traced and, remarkably, some of its original richly decorated tiles are still intact. Two of the most well known tiles are ‘Man with the Mirror’ said to warn of vanity and a heraldic griffin.
Known as the Westminster Abbey of Wales, Strata Florida Abbey was once a site of huge religious significance.  Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the best known of Wales’s medieval poets, is buried there under a yew tree and it is said to be the burial place of several Welsh princes. There are also intriguing links to the legend of the Holy Grail. Image credit: Kate Griffin.

The flagstone floor of the kitchen at Canons Ashby House near Daventry, Northamptonshire

Kitchen at Canons Ashby. National Trust Image / Andreas von Einsiedel

The beautifully worn flagstones of the kitchen at Canons Ashby House in Northamptonshire tell a story. They are a testament to the work (and feet!) of generations of servants. Today these mellow stones have a wonderfully smooth patchwork patina
Built by the Drydens using the remains of a medieval priory, the house and gardens have survived largely unaltered since 1710 and are today cared for by the National Trust. Image credit: National Trust Image / Andreas von Einsiedel.

The painted floor (underside!) of Gladstone’s Land, 477b Lawnmarket, Edinburgh

Gladstone's Land, Edinburgh.
This picture shows the underside of a floor, so it is quite permissible to look up as well as down.  In the 17th century voids were not built between ceiling and floors, so that in effect the ceiling was simply the floorboards of the rooms above – therefore this original and spectacularly painted ceiling at Gladstone’s Land, Edinburgh is actually spectacularly painted floorboards. The house of wealthy merchant and landlord Thomas Gledstanes showcases high-rise living, 17th-century style, at the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. Gladstones Land is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Image credit: National Trust for Scotland.

The medieval tiles of All Saints’ Church, Icklingham, Suffolk

All Saints Icklingham

Loyd Grossman, outgoing chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust says:  “My favourite floor is to be found in All Saints’ church, Icklingham, Suffolk, which is looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust.  All Saints’ is a mediaeval church and areas of the chancel and sanctuary floors contain a large and very rare collection of early-14th century encaustic tiles.  Although now worn, you can see they form patterns with a variety of designs, including cinquefoils in circles, foliage, lions’ faces, pairs of little birds and a few human faces.” Image credit: Peter Emina.

The mosaic floors at Bignor Roman Villa, West Sussex

Mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa

The Roman mosaic of Venus and the Gladiators is one of several magnificent floors at Bignor Roman villa in West Sussex.

Roman buildings include floors of many types, but perhaps most strongly associated with the period are the mosaics formed from small tesserae.  These high status floors survive in reasonable numbers in this country and combine function with craftsmanship and great artistic skill. Many mosaics lay buried for centuries and the drama of rediscovery is illustrated by the case of Bignor Villa, West Sussex. Bignor was one of the earliest antiquarian finds when unearthed in the early 19th century and, in their book on the villa, David Rudling and Miles Russell, describe the amazing moment when the mosaic floor was first seen by farmer George Tupper after centuries in the soil.  This was not merely the exposure of a floor but the opening of a window onto another world:

“Grubbing around on his hands and knees, Tupper soon found himself staring down in amazement at the tessellated face of a young man.  Subsequent energetic spoil clearance revealed the larger mosaic depicting the figure of the man, naked except for a bright red cap and fur-trimmed boots, an immense eagle and, further afield, a series of scantily clad dancing girls’. Roman mosaics like that at Bignor represent the floor at its most artistic and extravagant. Image credit: Lisa Tupper.

The tiled floor of the Dabbling Duck, Great Massingham, Norfolk

The floor at the Dabblin Duck pub, Norfolk

This simple and beautifully worn floor represents the thousands of old pubs throughout the country where centuries of custom and farm workers’ boots have left an indelible impression. With so many ancient pubs in towns and rural communities facing an uncertain future it’s important to acknowledge their place in the historic built landscape. The beamy, atmospheric Dabbling Duck overlooking the pond in one of North Norfolk’s most picturesque villages was threatened with closure until it was reopened in 2006. This was the result of a tireless community action group and a far-sighted local authority’s 6 year campaign to prevent the beautiful old building (previously the Rose and Crown pub) from being converted into housing. Image credit: Kate Griffin.

The bridge at Barton Farm, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire

Bridge at Barton Farm Bradford on Avon MS

SPAB Director Matthew Slocombe nominates an unlikely exterior floor. He explains: “For some years my daily walk to school took me over the medieval bridge at Barton Farm in Bradford on Avon, Wilts.  The bridge is a wonderful ancient structure which formed part of a packhorse route over the river Avon and up the steep hillside nearby.  Part of the bridge was paved with beautiful, undulating stone setts, but other parts were nastily tarmaced.  This was remedied when SPAB Craft Fellow Andrew Ziminski and his firm replaced the tarmac with a lime concrete  – a bold and experimental move at the time.  The floor has performed extremely well, providing an attractive, durable and sympathetic surface,which is also safe and comfortable for pedestrians to use. Image credit: Matthew Slocombe.

The boarded wooden floor of explorer David Livingstone’s tenement birthplace at Shuttle Row, East Kilbride, Scotland

David Livingstones birthplace Historic Scotland

Shuttle Row is the birthplace of the most famous of Victorian explorers, David Livingstone. Livingstone’s early life was quite typical of the time. He was born in 1813 in a one-room flat in Shuttle Row, a tenement shared with 23 other families.His parents both worked at the nearby Blantyre Cotton Mill where, aged 10, David also started working 14 hours a day to bring in money. From these humble beginnings as a factory boy to becoming the first European to explore large areas of Africa was a long, hard journey. When he wasn’t working at the mill, he educated himself until he was accepted at Anderson’s College in Glasgow to study medicine and theology, where he studied for hours after a full day’s work. This allowed him to become a missionary doctor and he made his first trip to Africa in 1841. Image credit: Historic Scotland.

The black and white marble Central Hall at the National Trust’s Seaton Delaval, Hall Northumberland

The carrera marble and black limestone floor at Seaton Delaval Hall, credit National Trust Images-Dennis Gilbert

Chosen by Dame Helen Ghosh, Director General of the National Trust, who says: “This wonderful marble floor has taken all sorts of punishment – fire and flood, falling statues and falling 18th century party guests – and it survived!”

Built for the extraordinary Delaval family, Seaton Delaval was one of architect Sir John Vanbrugh’s smallest country houses. The house and surrounding landscape were in-keeping with restrained classical Georgian style, but behind the formality lies a story of theatrical excess.

Known as the ‘Gay Delavals’, in an age notorious for extremes of behaviour the family stood apart as the most notorious of all Georgian partygoers and pranksters. The Delavals loved a performance, staging events from rope dancers and sack races outdoors to masquerade balls and even their own theatrical productions. A devastating fire in 1822 left the Central Hall at Seaton Delaval Hall roofless and open to the elements for 40 years. Unfortunately the black and white tiled floor  – the scene of many wild parties – fell victim and became damaged. The slabs were unstable and loose, so much so that every time they were walked on there was risk of them moving against each other and chipping the edges.

The central hall is now something of a phoenix. Stone masons carefully numbered, plotted the position of and lifted every slab from the floor. Once lifted, all the numerous cracked and shattered slabs were painstakingly bonded together again using resin adhesives mixed with pigment, and stainless steel dowels have been added to give them strength. The original three layers of screed have been replaced where they had been weathered to nothing, and now, where possible, each slab has been returned to its original position.

Image credit: National Trust Images-Dennis Gilbert.

What are your favourite historic floors? Let us know here or on Twitter. Use #lookdown so we can retweet your favourite floors.

Message in a bottle

Dr Brian Hoggard is an expert in the archaeology of British folk magic. This feature on the witch bottles of England first appeared in the spring 2016 edition of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is benefit of SPAB membership, for details on becoming a member please see our website.

Witch-bottles first appear in the archaeological record in England in the first half of the 17th century. They were initially used as a specific counter-spell to undo harmful bewitching. For the first 100 years or so of their use a type of stoneware bottle colloquially known as a ‘bellarmine’ was used, glass bottles were used later on.

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Witch bottle found in Suffolk

Witch-bottles, like other apotropaic (evil-averting) objects, were deliberately concealed so it is only when buildings are demolished, repaired, or when archaeologists excavate building sites that they come to light.  This means that only very few get reported to a local heritage service.  The amount that can be found is also limited by how many buildings survive from any given period.

The earliest written description of witch-bottles is Joseph Blagrave’s 1671 Astrological Practice of Physick.  Describing a method of removing bewitchment:

‘Another way is stop the urine of the Patient, close up in a bottle, and put into it three nails, pins or needles, with a little white Salt, keeping the urine always warm: if you let it remain long in the bottle, it will endanger the witches life: for I have found by experience that they will be grievously tormented making their water with great difficulty, if any at all…’
‘The reason. . .is because there is part of the vital spirit of the Witch in it, for such is the subttlety of the Devil, that he will not suffer the Witch to infuse any poysonous matter into the body of man or beast, without some of the Witches blood mingled with it. . .’

Blagrave is prescribing a method of turning the witches power back upon them using the sympathetic link between the witch and victim. It seems that the idea was that the bottle represented the witch’s bladder and, by inserting pins and the victim’s urine into the bottle and then heating it, this would cause intense pain to the witch, forcing them to lift whatever spell they had cast.

When the contents of witch-bottles are examined they almost always contain evidence of iron in the form of pins or nails. The next most common ingredient is hair with some bottles yielding large locks of it. Almost all of the bottles which have been tested for urine have tested positive.  Sometimes a small piece of fabric in the shape of a heart is found and pretty much anything prickly or unpleasant could be included. The early texts do not mention hair at all and they also do not mention deliberately bending the pins or nails before inserting them into the bottle – another difference from the texts.

The accounts only refer to burying the bottles if the heating was unsuccessful. All of the examples in my records were buried or concealed which suggests that the process of heating the bottles did not work well and that burying bottles was widespread and well known. It is my contention that this actually became the normal way to treat a witch-bottle.

Matravers bottle8

A bottle found beneath a parish boundary wall in Dorset. After analyses it was found to contain beef tallow and spring water, presumably this was a witch bottle to protect livestock.

Mapping early witch-bottles shows a distinct bias towards the south east of England and parts of the south coast. These bottles were imported in vast quantities full of beer and wine but the stoneware was so durable that they were reused many times, including as witch-bottles. Thus far I have not seen any examples of bellarmine witch-bottles further north than Leeds, yet the trade in stoneware vessels did reach this far. As we move beyond the 17th century glass witch-bottles in the shape of small phials, bottles and occasionally jars begin to be found in all parts of Britain. There are several examples from the USA and a few from Australia too.

Within the home slightly more than half were found either beneath the hearth stone or within the construct of an inglenook fireplace. The next most common location was beneath the floor and then beneath the threshold. From the middle of the 18th century onwards the locations and contents begin to diverge away from the original recipe and locations and there is increasing use of glass bottles.

Case Studies
In the grave of a young adult at All Saints Church, Loughton, Buckinghamshire a late 17th or early 18th century glass steeple bottle was discovered lying between the left humerous and upper chest. The bottle contained several copper pins and a number of pins were also stuck into the cork. The bottle contains liquid which may be urine, although no analysis has yet taken place on this substance. Based on currently available records for witch-bottles it seems that this is the only case of one being discovered in a coffin although several other bottles have been found buried in churchyards. Presumably the bottle was placed in the coffin as a kind of counter-witchcraft to perhaps help protect the body and soul in death or to exact revenge on the perpetrator of the witchcraft which was thought to have led to his death.

In Pershore, Worcestershire two small glass phials were discovered along with three childrens shoes and a collection of toys. The group was discovered behind the hearth.  In this instance the group of objects were dated to the mid-19th century. The phials contained wheat husks and possibly some resin from a pine tree. This is possibly residue connected with the production of pine beer which was once commonplace. The idea with this collection of objects appears to have been to bring together the shoes, two small bottles and toys to serve as a decoy for any bad influences that might want to attack the home via the chimney.

Pershoregrouphires2

Glass phials discovered in Pershore, Worcestershire, with three children;s shies and a collection of toys

Theoretical metaphysics!
Initially it seems that witch-bottles were a specific counter-spell designed to cause physical pain to the witch thereby giving the opportunity to barter for your own unbewitching. I already noted that, if the heating was not successful then the bottle would be buried which would lead to a slow death of the witch. Over 50% of witch-bottles are found by the hearth which suggests that the heat and also the location by the only portal which was permanently open to the sky was important. The amount of effort involved in creating a witch-bottle and then digging a large hole for it is quite significant and it’s my contention that as time went by the way people thought of witch-bottles changed to more of a spirit trap.  The idea being that negative energies entering the home via the chimney would be sniffing out the victim and locate them conveniently near the hearth (the hair and urine) and plunge into the bottle become impaled on the ghostly pins and nails which had been ritually killed (by being deliberately bent).

The more I explore the beliefs, practices and customs of the past the more certain I am that life was viewed through a complex web of beliefs regarding magic, folklore, the supernatural and religious forces. Unseen forces surrounded and permeated everything. Witch-bottles serve as a small window into that world.

For more information on apotropaic objects visit Brian Hoggard’s website.

Women in Conservation: House of Garrett

Garrett sisters, second book

These two inspirational women were cousins who worked together to form the first all-female design and decorating company in Britain and were tireless campaigners for women’s suffrage.

Agnes (1835-1945) was born in Suffolk to a large and wealthy merchant family that encouraged the education of women. Two of her sisters were also pioneers and campaigners for women’s rights. Her sister Millicent went on to lead the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and Elizabeth was the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. Her cousin Rhoda (1841-1882) was the daughter of an impoverished Derbyshire vicar. Rhoda worked as a governess, the only occupation open to ‘genteel’ women, to help support her siblings. This was for a short time however, as Rhoda was desperate to become an architect but was unable to find an architectural practice willing to take on a ‘lady pupil’. Rhoda was determined and joined forces with Agnes, who was keen to escape domestic duties in Suffolk, and in 1971 together they were apprenticed first to Daniel Cottier and then into the practice of J. M. Brydon. They worked under Brydon for 18 months and then carried out a tour of the country to visit and sketch interiors and furniture.

In 1875 they set up their own business ‘A & R Garett House Decorators’ from their home at 2 Gower Street, Bloomsbury. In their book Suggestions for House Decoration (1876) they explained they were keen to live amongst houses “which were built in the solid and unpretentious style so much in accordance with best characteristics of the English people”. The house is now owned by the University of London, and their frieze and ceiling of the first-floor back room are still in place – a design of sensitively painted portraits of poets around a pattern of flowers.

Both Agnes and Rhoda had very successful careers, winning many high-profile commissions in public and private buildings. Sadly very few examples of their work survive today, though some of the furniture they made for James and Margaret Beale’s house in Holland Park is now in their home at Standen in Sussex, a house designed by Philip Webb. One of their earliest commissions was the Kensington home of the composer Hubert Parry and the most comprehensive descriptions of their work are found in Parry’s diaries. Rhoda was a founding member of the SPAB and encouragingly Parry notes the attention they paid to drains as well as decorations. He describes their house in Gower Street: “to live there is a very great deal of happiness in itself. The quiet and soothing colour of the walls and decoration and the admirable taste of all things acts upon the mind in the most comforting manner.”

In the 1870s Agnes and Rhoda did several women’s suffrage speaking tours together and were committed members of the cause. Rhoda argued to an audience at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1876 that “the woman’s sphere and woman’s mission is one of the most important problems of the present  day, but here, at least, in the decoration and beautifying of the house, no one will dispute their right to work. If a woman would rightly undertake this work and would study to understand the principles upon which… it is based, they would not only thereby increase their own happiness, but in thus extending the gracious influence of the home, they would help to raise the position of household art, and thus render a real service to the nation.”

Agnes specialised in the design of chimney pieces of panelling – perhaps the closest a ‘decorator’ could be to architect – and one of her designs survives in what was her sister Elizabeth’s New Hospital for Women installed in 1890. Only one example of their wallpapers was photographed and from this ‘Garrett Laburnum’ was recreated in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery, a museum which incorporates some of the women’s hospital on the Euston Road. Some of their carpets and wallpapers are known to have been made by women, presumably part of an informal network of patronage between early women-only firms.

EGA-EGA GALLERY-Photo3-Garrett Corner

Rhoda died of typhoid in 1882 and is buried in Rustington, Sussex where the cousins rented a cottage with the composer Ethel Smyth. Agnes once said “Rhoda has had more pain in her life than was good for her”. Rhoda’s obituarist in the Englishwoman’s Review wrote: “Many delicate harmonies and beautiful forms adapted to house-hold comfort are due to her taste and talents. If this useful and congenial pursuit is in future open to women, it is due in large measure to her courage and enterprise.”

Agnes was a director of the Ladies Resident Chambers Company when it was formed in 1888 which built safe and comfortable accommodation for working women in London on Chenies Street, near Tottenham Court Road. After Rhoda’s death Agnes continued their business and her widowed sister Millicent moved into their house – the reason for the blue plaque outside the building today.

Images: Agnes and Rhoda Garrett; Garrett Corner, showing their recreated wallpaper design at the Elizabeth Anderson Garrett Gallery. For more information about the Garretts, please visit womanandhersphere.com

Women in Conservation: Inspiring historic buildings

Old buildings can be infinitely inspiring, we asked several women working in the conservation and heritage sector what buildings they find exciting and thought-provoking. We spoke to Rachel Morely, estate officer for the Churches Conservation Trust, Jane Kennedy, a senior partner at Purcell, and Gillian Darley, a writer on architecture.

 

Rachel Morely

“The buildings that most inspire me are vernacular buildings. There’s one in particular I can think of which is Wolmer House in Much Wenlock. It was built originally in about 1435…what I love about it is that as you go around you can really see the lives of all the people who have lived in it over centuries and how this house has bowed to every whim and change of function. It’s just gorgeous how this house has evolved.”

Jane Kennedy

 

“I love medieval churches and cathedrals and I’m lucky to work on quite a lot of them. But I think what really excites me is the way they work in their settings… historic houses in parkland, cathedrals in cities, churches in villages and how the immediate setting affects the appreciation of the major building.”

 

Gillian Darley

“Quite recently I found myself in Great Coxwell Barn. It was beloved of William Morris, it was beloved of Betjeman. It is the guardianship of the National Trust. It is a truly inspiring building. It’s a building of every time and any time. It’s just thrilling, the way that it was built, its materials, its grandeur, its ambition. Everything about it.”

 

Sonia Rolt OBE, a heritage pioneer

Sonia Rolt

SPAB communications manager Kate Griffin recalls a memorable meeting with a very memorable woman.

I met Sonia Rolt on an icy day in February 2010 when cold grey light threw the ancient features of her wonderful 14th century home, Stanley Pontlarge near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire into sharp relief against sheep-spotted fields and hills.

Although into her 90s, she was still formidable, in the very best way, fizzing with purpose and excitement. During World War Two she was one of the women who took the place of working men on Britain’s canals and when we spoke she was one of the last survivors of this unique ‘crew’.
The Inland Waterway (IW) women (or Idle Women as they were unflatteringly dubbed by the remaining old hands on the network) took on the back-breaking work of ensuring that essential cargoes of grain, oil, coal and even jam continued to be transported by water between major cities when the men who usually did this were conscripted. Sonia explained: “I fell into really. I was sharing a flat in London with two friends. It was in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, which wasn’t at all smart in those days. If only people now could see what it was like they would be very surprised.
“At the time we were all employed under the Government’s directed labour programme and I was at the Hoover factory at Perivale working on the insides of Lancaster bombers. I was quite bright at it, actually. One day we spotted a small Ministry of Transport advertisement announcing: “women may volunteer for the carrying of goods by canal”. The advertisement indicated that volunteers would be free of management and very much in charge of their own work. Of course, this appealed to us frantically,” Sonia grinned, “even though I’d never seen a canal in my life!”
Despite facing enormous disapproval from ‘higher ups’ at Perivale who were loathe to lose a talented worker, Sonia was eventually allowed to join her friends on a working boat.
It was the beginning of a life-long affair.
“I fell in love with the waterways,” said Sonia, who continued to live and work on narrowboats after the war ended. She freely admitted that the warmth of the working canal people and the strong sense of belonging appealed strongly to a young woman whose own colonial roots had led to a somewhat nomadic childhood.
Travelling by secret, watery, back door routes into the hearts of great industrial cities also awoke Sonia’s keen instinct for architectural observation. She recalled: “I think it was then that I began to look at buildings in a very serious way. I looked at the modest ones, the working ones, and I saw beauty in them. Going into Birmingham, at the end of some dark, blackened channel you’d see flaming red and men working with shovels. What I saw was highly industrial and totally alive.”

When we met in 2010, Sonia was still the revered Vice President of the IWA, the Waterways Trust, and other waterways bodies. In 1997 she published A Canal People: The Photographs of Robert Longden, an evocative reminder of a lost ways of life, reissued in paperback in 2009.

The house Sonia shared with her husband Tom Rolt, an early campaigner for England’s heritage, was the catalyst for Sonia’s long and valued involvement with the SPAB. “We arrived to live here with paraffin lamps, no heating except for a coke stove and open fires. Many things were failing including the big roof, whole sections of which would slip with a clattering roar into the lane.”
Disappointingly, the house was initially refused a local authority grant, but almost miraculously, with SPAB’s intervention and guidance from SPAB Scholar David Nye, the Historic Buildings Council made a grant of £500, estimated to be half the cost of re-roofing the oldest section.

Sonia Rolt's home in Stanley Pontlarge near Cheltenham

Sonia Rolt’s home in Stanley Pontlarge near Cheltenham

“And from there a relationship began for us with some of those concerned with the real care of and attention to historic buildings,” Sonia told me. Sonia cemented the bonds with the SPAB, possibly through meeting something of a kindred spirit in Monica Dance, the legendary SPAB Secretary.
Sonia recalled: “I was in London one day and wanted to check on our SPAB membership. I also had some questions about the house. I knocked on the door at Great Ormond Street and Monica immediately invited me in to her office.” In their own spheres, the two women espoused a direct and very practical approach to all things and soon Sonia was attending courses and meetings, always asking questions and eager to learn more.
“I think I was practically a SPAB Scholar without actually being one,” said Sonia, who went on to host many parties of SPAB Scholars at her fascinating house.
As a longstanding member of the SPAB Main Committee and also Chairman of SPAB’s Education Committee from 1991 to 2005, she continued to bring her practicality, inspiration, enthusiasm and wisdom to the charity. Her passionate commitment to both Scholarship and Fellowship programmes gave them an enviable impetus over many years. And it was this contribution that led to her being given the Society’s Esher Award.
Her involvement with buildings was not restricted to her work for the SPAB.  From 1985 to 2003 she was a member of Gloucester Diocesan Advisory Committee, offering incisive comments on a flow of applications for works to churches. She remained a stalwart of the Institution of Structural Engineers History Study Group, and with her friend Clayre Percy spent over 30 enjoyable years choosing the carefully selected libraries and furnishings to be found in Landmark Trust properties. She also worked with the National Trust, advising on repairs to old ships.

Sonia Rolt OBE died in October 2014 at the age of 95.