National Treasure: The Old Bluecoat School, Thatcham

SPAB member Mark Thomas writes about a local Berkshire landmark. This article first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is only available to members of the SPAB.

Alongside the A4 in Thatcham, Berkshire, is a small building now known as the Old Bluecoat School. Although it was a school in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the building’s history is much longer than that. The style of the east window shows that it was once a chapel and it is believed to have been built in 1304 as the Chapel of the medieval Borough of Thatcham.

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Living in Thatcham for over 30 years, I could not avoid noticing the rather tired old building by the side of the main road. Having a background in construction I volunteered to help the trustees during the refurbishment in 2014 and quickly got co-opted onto the committee. Like others before me, I started to investigate the history of the building and became fascinated by how the ancient building had survived through cycles of decay and repair.

A Victorian historian, Samuel Barfield, discovered the original licence from the Bishop of Salisbury dated 3rd May 1304 granting a local landowner and later Lord of the Manor, Sir Richard de Fockenham, and the parishioners of Thatcham the right to hold chantry services in the chapel which they had already built at their own expense.
Later authors speculated about why the chapel was built, although, from its location adjacent to the historic London to Bath road, one likely use could have been as a wayside chapel situated at the boundary of the newly created Borough. The promotion of Thatcham town to Borough status appears contemporary with building of the chapel and it is tempting to see the new chapel as a prominent civic status symbol for the new Borough. The national rarity of a surviving free-standing wayside chapel accounts for the building’s Grade 1 listing in 1983.

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Interior of the Old Bluecoat School, date unknown

Between 1304 and 1707 little is known about the chapel other than that, somehow, it survived. There is a single reference from 1446 saying that it is dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr. Another mystery is that there is supposedly no record of it at the 1547 Abolition of the Chantries during the Reformation. It appears in the records again in 1661 as “the Chapel of this Borough” almost as if it was still in use.
From 1707 we are on firmer historical ground. Lady Frances Winchcombe bought the “old decayed chapel” to convert into a charity school for 30 local poor boys, although it didn’t properly open until 1794. The charity’s surviving account books from that year record the clothing bought for the boys, but do not specifically describe the coats as blue until 1900. (A “Blue Coat” school was a popular unofficial name for one of many similar charity schools.)

The school closed in 1914 when the master was called up for military service. From the end of the First World War until 1964, Berkshire County Council rented the building for school cookery lessons. After 1964 the trustees of Lady Winchcombe’s charity could not find a new use for the building and its upkeep was unsustainable. It was sold to Newbury District Council in 1969 for £2500. The building was used as an antiques shop during the 1990s but fell empty again. In 2003, local Councillor Barbara Collins-Wootton, saw that the Council was proposing to sell the building by public auction as surplus to requirements. Mrs Collins-Wootton set up a committee with other Thatcham residents and succeeded in transferring the building to a new charity with a long lease from the Council to manage it for community use.

After ten years of fundraising, and thanks to the generosity of local businesses, a start was made on refurbishing the exterior of the building in 2014. Modern cement render was removed from the flint walls and replaced with lime render and limewash. Temporary acrylic window panes, which had been there for over 30 years, were replaced with leaded lights in the original wooden frames and were based on an old photograph from 1897. The roof was re-laid, while saving 75% of the old tiles.
Currently the interior is suffering from the 1973 refurbishment of cement rendered walls, a concrete floor slab and varnished plywood dado panels that cover up damp. The most striking feature is the attractive scissor-beamed roof. Described by some as Victorian or Tudor or, more credibly, as 15th century with an older tie-beam, the roof structure is an obvious candidate for more scientific dating.

The building is now in daily use by local clubs and societies. Classical music concerts have been very successful, with many performers commenting on the excellent acoustics. Longer term plans, money and permissions permitting, are to refurbish the interior by removing the concrete floor and cement render and replace them with more appropriate materials. The challenge for a historic building in daily use will be to include sympathetic modern facilities, such as a catering area, so that the building is attractive to hirers and will continue in community use for the foreseeable future.

For more information about the Old Bluecoat School pleases visit the website.

 

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Mystery Bottles

After attending SPAB’s 2015 autumn lectures on curious things found in old buildings, Kelly Appleton-Swaine, building conservation officer, Heritage Lincolnshire, was inspired to find out more about the Old Kings Head, Kirton, a former coaching inn  with a story to tell. This story first appeared in the SPAB Magazine, a benefit of SPAB membership.

The darkness of a cold, wintery night can set the mind imagining all sorts of horrors. Our senses are heightened and small sounds seem large and frightening. The noises of nocturnal animals -scratching, sniffing, scurrying –  mutate, conjuring monsters, witches and evil spirits. In the absence of light, the creaks, cracks and groans of the building around us moving and settling after the heat of the day sound more like someone (or something) knocking, tapping or scraping at the doors and windows trying to get in.
Terrifying! Then we flick the light switch and after blinking in the sudden brightness, everything returns to normal again. It’s only the cat prowling outside, sizzling sap from the cooling fire, a twig tapping against the window.

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It is no wonder that our 17th century counterparts were so superstitious when the fear of witches, evil spirits, spells and curses was very real. Warding off the supernatural was a powerful motive for actions which seem to us, in our light-filled, busy modern day world, decidedly odd and strange.

After attending the 2015 SPAB Autumn Lectures I understood this a little more, although some aspects did still seem baffling. I could understand why ritual and sacred marks were carved into windows, doors and fireplaces, but the reasons for hiding dead cats, shoes and skulls in walls or under floorboards still took an extra leap of the imagination. It was, however, fascinating and was made more so by Brian Hoggard whose lecture, ‘Shoes in the chimney, cats in the floor’ left me intrigued and wanting to know more. Afterwards as I stepped out into the busy October semi-darkness, I wanted nothing more than to race back to Lincolnshire, find a torch and start scouring Heritage Lincolnshire’s new building conservation project, The Old King’s Head, for signs of marks or buried felines.
Luckily I didn’t have too long to wait until something curious turned up.

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The Old King’s Head. Credit: Beverley Gormley

Heritage Lincolnshire is a Building Preservation Trust that works across the county to help protect, preserve and celebrate Lincolnshire’s rich heritage.  Purchased in early 2016, the Old King’s Head is a brick built former coaching inn, located in Kirton, on what was the main London road into Boston. After decades of neglect, the Grade II – Listed building has become at risk and in danger of being lost.

The Old Kings Head was built in two main phases. The first was completed  in 1599 and the second phase, in 1661, consisted of major remodelling. This second phase, as noted by Pevsner, is in the Fen Artisan Mannerist style, an architectural term coined by Sir John Summerson in the 1950s to describe a style of building which was designed and built by craftsmen rather than architects. There are several examples in the Fenland area such as Church House in Boston and Aslackby Hall near Bourne.

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The Old King’s Head stairs. Credit: Ian Moore

The building has a long and fascinating history as a coaching inn and was mentioned in the autobiography ‘The Life of John Rastrick’ (1650-1727). As a Lincolnshire non-conformist clergyman. Rastrick used his money to release fellow non-conformists and refused to baptise the local children if he felt their parents were ‘loose and scandalous’ people. This made him extremely unpopular with the Kirton locals who, by his own admission, all hated him and felt he was ‘too rigorous and cruell [sic] to make the Children suffer for the Parents faults’. This led to a near fatal incident in 1678 when Rastrick was locked in the dining room of the King’s Head with a Mr William Hunt (Rastrick would not give him communion due to Mr Hunt refusing to repent his ‘former ill life’) who flew into a rage shouting ‘We’ll die together in this room!’  Rastrick only survived due to a neighbour intervening. There were several other lively characters associated with the King’s Head, which remained as a pub until the late 1960’s when it was converted to residential use.

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The entrance room at The Old King’s Head. Credit: Ian Moore

Since purchasing the building, the Trust has been spending time investigating its construction and development and we are benefitting from expert advice on the historic timbers, thatch, paint and mortar. Due to the age of the building we suspected we might find marks or items of apotropaic interest and I attended the SPAB lectures to ensure that we would know what to look out for. We have also been talking to the local community, including previous occupants, and it was at a meeting with a former resident that I first heard of the bottles in the roof.

Up to this point we had not fully investigated the roof space apart from shining a torch into its gloomy depths. We knew that the pub had once been thatched and that a pantile roof had been built over the top of it. From what the torch illuminated, some if not all of the original thatch base survives.

On hearing about the bottles we investigated further and found three broken glass bottles covered in dust and cobwebs hanging from a roof beam. Our source told us that his grandmother ordered him and his siblings never to touch them but they were never told the reason why.  We decided to ask Brian Hoggard to visit to see if there was an explanation. Brian’s visit was enlightening and extremely interesting, and although we still don’t really know why the bottles were put there a few theories have been put forward. When we first saw the bottles the idea of them being ‘witch bottles’ was mooted. Witch bottles are normally buried; they contain items such as pins, nails and urine and are complete (upon burial).

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Our bottles are hanging, broken and it is believed that they date from between 1800 and 1850. One theory is that they were used as part of a game when coach men and stable boys would sleep in the roof space and throw stones at hanging bottles, scoring points whenever one was smashed. However the rope that the bottles are hung with appears to be the same age as the bottles and the way it is knotted shows they could only have been hung after they were broken.

If they are not witch bottles or the remnants of a game, what are they? The last and slightly speculative (or romantic) theory is that the bottles represent people who lived in the inn. Looking into historic records we found that a John and Elizabeth Pulford lived at the King’s Head in the mid 1800’s. They married in 1835 and had their first child, William, the following year. Sadly there is record of William’s burial aged 2 in July 1837 and later in the year Elizabeth was buried too, along with another child – Richard Pulford – who was only 25 weeks and three days old.

Could it be that in his grief John Pulford had hung the bottles in the roof as representations of Elizabeth, William and Richard? Choosing broken bottles because they had been tragically taken away from him? It is quite likely that we will never know, but the mystery is intriguing and it brings the building and former inhabitants to life.
Heritage Lincolnshire is only at the beginning of our journey exploring and renovating the Old King’s Head. Our hope is to return it back into a thriving centre of the community.  There is still a lot to discover so who knows what other mysteries we will find on the way?

If you would like to make a donation to the conservation of this historic building and/or to the work of Heritage Lincolnshire, you can do so online.