Sunday, February 19, 2012
Pigeon post (1)
Pigeons were traditionally upper-class food and the dovecotes in which they were kept are often interesting buildings, a cut above the normal farmyard structure. This one is not in a farmyard at all, but in the middle of a field opposite the beautiful Chastleton House. It’s built of the local limestone of the north Oxfordshire Cotswolds and, like many Cotswold dovecotes is square, with four gables, and is roofed with limestone ‘slates’. What’s more unusual is the way the building is raised up on arches, with the loft reach via a trapdoor inside.
At first glance the segmental arches with their heavy piers have a 176th-century look about them – when I first saw them they reminded me of a scaled-down version of a Jacobean market hall. But this building is actually Georgian and is inscribed with the date 1762 and name of Thomas Fothergill. Fothergill lived not in the big house some 150 yards away but in another house, since demolished, next to which the dovecote stood.
The date of the building, 1762, is significant. Until 1761, building a dovecote was one of the privileges of lordship. You had to be a member of the aristocracy or a churchman to build one. Even so, by the 17th century, by which time the rules had been relaxed to a certain extent, it’s said there were some 26,000 dovecotes in England. According to some accounts, the restriction was removed completely in 1761, and farmers who had some spare money started to build dovecotes and keep pigeons to supply their own tables. If that's the case† Thomas Fothergill was quite quick off the mark and his building of 1762 is now the only trace above ground of what must have been a substantial property.
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† I have edited the text of this post slightly since it was written, in the light of some comments: it seems hard to find an actual piece of legislation than changed the law about dovecote-building in 1761–2. See the comments on this post for further information, and some references.