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Wood floors of Brunswick House

In researching floors and floor coverings of Georgian houses, I came across these interesting tidbits of information.

During the middle ages, the floors of simple peasant households consisted of dirt. Hay and straw were strewn on top of the surface, and often cow dung and household wastes were tossed on top of the rushes. This mixture was trampled upon by the inhabitants. (During the middle ages, animals often shared the house with their human owners.) The result was a surface that became as hard as cement over time. Around the 1100s, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was used for gunpowder, and the floors of former peasant homes provided a good source for this mineral. Mint was used as a deodorizer to cover the smell of the floors, for walking around the room and tramping onthe herb helped to spread its scent.  (A Not So Boring History of Flooring)

The interior of this Irish cottage shows the rough dirt floor. This image was taken in the late 19th century

Concrete floors were also widespread. They were made by plastering a concrete preparation over reeds that were fastened to joists. When this substance dried the concrete assumed the character of a slab of unbroken stone which was strong enough to bear a heavy load without the aid of supporting joists. This hardy substance was both fireproof and long lasting.

Pigs shown entering the Irish cottage. Late 19th century

Concrete floors eventually began to be replaced with wood floors during the Middle Ages.

We are not able to find any distinct records of wood having been employed for the boarding of the floors of dwelling-houses until towards the latter part of the middle ages, when an upper story began to be attached to middle-class houses in consequence of the increased value of land. The most abundant specimens of these early wooden floors are to be met with in London, probably for the reason that land being of higher values there than elsewhere, upperstoried houses wore more common. The name of 1′ lofts” was given to these upper storied rooms on their first introduction, from whence we have the compound word sentence of “up-a-loft,” and the word “cock-loft” has, probably, the same derivation, for wo find it now to be occasionally employed in some of the villages in the Midland counties to signify an up-stairs bedroom.- Building News and Engineering Journal, Vol 41, 1881

Wood floor planks were rough at first, and hand planed and hand finished with stone or metal. Old growth trees allowed for the maximum wood plank width (about 1-2 feet), which minimized the work required to cover a floor surface. In the 18th century, floorborads were irregular in shape and ranged in size and length. The goal was to use the smallest number of boards to cover a surface. More formal rooms used narower floorboards, indicating the wealth of the family who could afford to pay for the extra hours that craftsman took for the smaller sized boards.

Antique hemlock flooring with nail holes and saw marks.

Narrower floor boards general adoption gained rapid foothold during the Industrial Revolution after the repeal of duties place on foreign timber and the introductionof steam-powered planing machinery. In the early 1800s, production for such boards increased. The irony is that today wider floorboards have become a status symbol, for they have become more valuable as old growth trees have become scarce.

Wood floors had a variety of finishes. They were left unpainted and scrubbed with a mixture of sand and herbs. They were lymewashed, or oil painted in solid colors and stenciled. The floors were not sanded or washed or varnished during this early period. At a  later time varnishes and stains were applied to help make the wood last longer.

This charming watercolour by Diana Sperling shows the bare wood floor. It was the custom during this period to roll up the carpet and shove furniture aside for impromptu casual dancing.

In the mid 1800s decorated floor tile floors became popular in Europe. They had been used in Turkey, the Middle East, and in Dutch houses during the 1600s, and can be readily seen in Dutch interior paintings.

Floors were covered with a variety of rugs: rag rugs made of old bits of cloth; oil cloths; marble cloths; floor cloths, which were often painted to resemble carpets; and Persian rugs for the wealthy, which were prized for their color, design, and durability. Floor cloths were used in fine homes in France in the 14th century and made their appearance in England in the 17th century. Designs were often painted on them, as this U.S. example from Lakeport Plantation shows:

Floor cloth sample from Lakeport Plantation

One can see from this example how sturdy the cloth was after treatment.

Another fascinating fact is that rubber floors were used as far back as the 13th century and remained popular until the 1600s. In 1863, Frederick Walton, an English rubber manufacturer, patented linoleum, which is still made in the same way today.

Interesting fact: From ‘besom’ to broom

To sweep floors during the Middle Ages, the British used a ‘besom’ – a handful of twigs with the leaves attached. Besoms were often made of twigs from the ‘broom scrub,’ and so the sweeping implements came to be called ‘brooms’ around AD 1000.

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In his post about Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress a few weeks ago, Tony Grant mentioned Brunswick House as a possible stand-in for Tom’s inherited home. Brunswick House was built in 1758 on #30 Wandsworth Road and was the former home to the Dukes of Brunswick.

Brunswick House. Image @Tony Grant

It sat on 3 acres of land along the South Bank of the Thames River near what was once Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. This once popular entertainment destination, with its vast gardens, pavilions, and nightly illuminations, looms large in Georgian biographies and novels and modern books set in the Regency era.

Brunswick House. Image @British History Online

The 3-story house, almost square in shape, was once described as a mansion house with offices, coach-house, and a stables. Its surroundings, once filled with vistas of green fields, woods, and river, is now crammed with tall buildings and flats made of concrete, steel and glass.

Brunswick House today. Image @Stephen Richards

This relic of the Georgian era sits in Nine Elms on the South Bank opposite Vauxhall Tube Station and next to the green glass edifice of MI5…

M15 building, also known as Babylon on Thames. Image @Tony Grant

…its centrally placed semi-elliptical porch of painted Coade’ stone facing busy Wandsworth Road, where cars, lorries, and buses rush by at a fast pace.

Close up includes details of Georgian dress in second story windows. Image @Tony Grant

The porch

“has two free-standing and two engaged columns with enriched moulded bases, fluted and cabled shafts, and water-leaf capitals. The entablature has a frieze decoration of rams’ skulls linked by floral festoons, and the cornice bedmouldings are enriched. The surmounting blocking-course continues the lines of the first-floor platband.” – British History Online 

LASSCO launch party, Brunswick House, 2005

While Brunswick house’s exterior remains largely as it once was, the interior has changed so much that the original plans are no longer discernable. Today the structure is the home of LASSCO (The London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company) antique dealers.

“After the squatters were removed, the building was restored and it’s now used by LASSCO as a premises from which to sell architectural salvage. Members of the public are welcome to visit the restored building for a glimpse of Vauxhall’s elegant past.” – Time Out London http://www.timeout.com/london/museums-attractions/event/2156/brunswick-house

Restored interior, Brunswick House, 2005

Images from LASSCO’s launch party in 2005 show glimpses of the restored interior, especially the wood floors.

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Gentle Readers, this is Christine Stewart’s second post about her trip to England this past summer. The author of Embarking on a Course of Study, you will enjoy her reminiscences.The day after visiting Jane’s writing desk and portrait in London, I went to Paris. Yes, for the day. It was there so I popped over to squeeze in what I could – a long, exquisite day of mostly walking and a trip up the Eiffel Tower (okay, more like hobbling because I walked everywhere in Reykjavik and had two days of London walking behind me as well. My ankles looked like I was 85 years old. But it was worth it for the view).

Paris turned out to be a 20 hour day, so I slept in and caught a later train to Winchester and had just enough time to see the Cathedral and the house on College Street where Jane died before catching my bus to Alton (near Chawton) to reach my hotel.Winchester is delightful. Twisty turny streets, archways, alleys tucked between the backs of houses with gates and wooden doors. It felt like one big secret garden to me. I could have wandered for hours.  The sky was grayish when I arrived at the Cathedral – perfect for photographs. I took many pictures of the outside as there were so many interesting vantage points but here’s the main one (to keep reading:  http://www.embarkingonacourseofstudy.com

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Gentle Readers, With this article we once again benefit from Tony Grant’s expertise as a tour guide in England. He has written a lovely post about Steventon Rectory and its influence on Jane Austen’s description of Barton Cottage in Sense and Sensibility.

Does Barton Cottage, the cottage that Mrs Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, retreat to and which is located in Devon, just north of Exeter, owe much to Steventon in Hampshire, Jane’s first home?

Elinor ( Emma Thompson) and Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) in front of Barton Cottage. Sense and Sensibility, 1995

I recently went to Steventon again, the birthplace of Jane Austen and where she spent her formative years until the age of twenty six. Steventon was where she thought she would spend the rest of her life. As soon as she was born she was sent to live with a family in the village. The mother of the household she was sent to became Jane’s wet nurse. Mrs Austen had nothing to do with her children as babies. This might provide an explanation for Jane’s aversion towards her mother as she grew older but it also explains that her attachment to Steventon was not just through her own family and the rectory but it was linked to the wider community and she had very close ties to some of the villagers.

Row of cottages in Steventon. Image @Tony Grant

Steventon is set in a small Hampshire valley about five miles south west of Basingstoke, the nearest large town. When you visit Steventon today there are a few cottages and houses, not dissimilar in number to Jane’s days and a cross roads that has a cluster of old cottages, some of them terraced, set in a beautiful verdant landscape of fields and trees and gently rising downland.

The Dashwood women see Barton Cottage for the first time. Sense and Sensibility, 2008.

“a view of Barton Valley as they entered it gave them cheerfulness. It was a pleasant fertile spot, well wooded and rich in pasture.”

The site of the Rectory at Steventon. You can see the fence that surrounds the pump in back of the tree. Image @Tony Grant

Take the fork at the cross roads along the valley and within a few hundred yards you come to a lane that branches off to the right, almost hidden by bushes and trees. If you can stop at this corner and look into the field on the right, there are two or three tall mature trees , sycamore and ash, and next to one tree is a rustic wooden fenced area with an old water pump in the centre. This is the site of Steventon Rectory, Jane’s old home. The pump is presumed to be the pump the Austens had in their back yard. This rectory had become derelict, and was demolished by Edward Austen Knight when his son, William Knight, took over as vicar of Steventon.  When George Austen retired, he moved Jane, Cassandra and their mother to Bath. James Austen became the new vicar until his death in 1819, when Henry Austen stepped into the position.

The pump. Relic at Steventon Rectory. Illustration by Ellen G. Hill, 1923.

Edward had the new rectory built in the valley in fields on the opposite side of the road.  It still stands today, a fine white house on the sunny side of the valley facing south east.

Steventon House, built by Jane's brother Edward c. 1820-22. Image @Jane Austen Today

Behind the site of the original rectory where Jane lived there is a grassy meadow sloping steeply upwards for a quarter of mile to where her father’s church, St Nicholas, is situated next to a large house where the Digweeds lived. Jane, Cassandra and her brothers often scrambled up the hill behind their rectory to play with the Digweed children.They were some of their childhood friends. There are cultivated fields, meadows and woody areas all around, especially on the top of the hill near the Digweeds home behind the rectory site.

Site of the Steventon Rectory today. The fenced in pump is at left.

“The situation of the house was good. High hills rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the other cultivated and woody.”

The rectory Jane lived in would have been quite spacious because at least seven children lived there, five of her six brothers, herself and her sister Cassandra as well as her mother and father, a couple of servants and for much of the year, sons of some of the local gentry who sent their boys to the Reverend Austen for education and entry to Oxford or Cambridge. Oxford had been the Reverend Austen’s university. Her brother George did not live with the family however because of his disabilities. He was virtually adopted by another family who cared for him. Whether it was for financial gain I am not sure. So the rectory must have been spacious.

“Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles. A narrow passage led directly through the house into the garden behind. On each side of the entrance was a sitting room about sixteen feet square; and beyond them were the offices and the stairs. Four bedrooms and two garrets formed the rest of the house.”

Cottage of local stone. Image @Tony Grant

Barton cottage doesn’t resemble the rectory from this description but Jane must have used her knowledge of cottages in the area of Steventon. Jane is very precise about the size of the two sitting rooms, sixteen feet square. The cottage is used in a special way within the novel. She describes it as being , “defective.” This is symbolic of the situation Elinor, Marianne and their mother are in. They are experiencing fractured times and are out of place financially, socially and the cottage they have come to, places them in a different strata of society than they are accustomed to. From the exact dimensions of the sitting rooms Jane Austen gives us, aren’t those rooms too small to socialise in the manner they are used to? It is a,”defective,” place on many levels and it’s not like other cottages.

Cottage without honeysuckle. Image @Tony Grant

Jane would have been very familiar with the traditional country cottage but she makes Barton Cottage different, almost an eye sore, bare of climbing honeysuckle and green painted windows. Mrs Dashwood has plans for it, to change it and develop it. But can these come to fruition? Can the cottage be developed and grow? Can the Dashwood sisters adapt, develop and grow ? Does Barton owe much to Steventon? I would say so. Steventon formed Jane’s knowledge and experience of cottages and she used that knowledge of how cottages are and the meaning in social class and wealth different cottages might portray to incorporate the cottage at Barton into the fabric and meaning of Sense and Sensibility.

Cottage. Image @Tony Grant

Hampshire cottages:
If you ever visit Hampshire and pass through the countryside you will see a variety of types and styles of cottage. Cottages have always been built with local materials readily at hand.

Clay tile roofs. Image @Tony Grant

In the Cotswolds you will find most villages made from Cotswold stone and roofed with tiles sliced from the same stone. This is a creamy yellow colour. Climbing roses, wisteria, lichen and mosses have had plenty of time to insinuate themselves into and on these mellow warm coloured buildings.

Roses round the door. Image @Tony Grant

Hampshire, with its oak, elm and ash forests has many timber frame cottages. Great beams of wood cut from massive oaks have been merely incorporated into the frame and the spaces between the oak beamed framework filled with wattle and daub.

Cottage with wattle and daub. Image @Tony Grant

Wattle and daub being made from woven ash fencing and plastered with a mixture of cow dung, lime and straw. (Click here for a video.)

The oldest building in Winchester is made with wattle and daub. Image @Tony Grant

The roofs are thatched with reeds or wheat stalks. Some have clay tiles where local clay deposits provide the raw material and Hampshire brick works do the work of firing the tiles.

Thatched cottages. Image @Tony Grant

Many buildings are made of flint. Hampshire has large areas of chalk downland. Within the chalk are found nodules of flint.

Winchester College Shield erected on a wall made with flint building material. Click on photo for a larger image. Image @Tony Grant

Nobody is quite sure how flint is formed in the chalk but it is a very hard crystalline rock, glassy in substance. It has been one of the most versatile materials ever.

More thatched cottages. Image @Tony Grant

Stone age man used it for axes, arrow heads, scrapers and knives. It has been used and is still used to build strong walls. Flint lock muskets used tiny bits of flint fixed into their firing mechanism to create a spark which ignited the gunpowder to propel the musket ball down the barrel. Flint can be struck against flint or metal to create a spark to light a fire.

Chawton Cottage. Image @Tony Grant

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Soane Monument, 1816. Image @Sir John Soane's Museum online collection

Sir John Soanes’s architectural drawings, including his designs for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, have been made available online by the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Included is the design for his family tomb in St Pancras Gardens, which inspired Gilbert Scott’s prototype for the red telephone box.

Tim Knox, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, explains:

Sir John Soane was responsible for some of the greatest buildings of his age and this project offers us all a glimpse of the evolution of these masterpieces.

Soane wanted his unique house and its incredible collection to be preserved.” – Soane’s Regency London Revealed

Front entrance of Pitzhanger Manor, 1800. Image @Sir John Soane's Museum online collection

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