Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chastleton, Oxfordshire

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.


the designers muse said...

Just lovely, almost looks like a folly. Very interesting post. Jennifer

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jennifer: Thank you for your comment. It does look rather like a folly, and this folly-like effect is accentuated by the fact that the building stands alone in its field. I guess when it was first built, next to the now-demolished house, its context would have made it seem rather different – perhaps those arches echoed some detail on the house, for example – and maybe less eccentric.

Selena Massivitus said...

Your blog makes English architecture more accesible. Thank you for sharing. Greetings from Spain.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Selena: Thank you so much! I'm so pleased that this blog finds readers around the world, not just in Britain.

bazza said...

Is the building slightly listing to the left (or was the photograph taken after a splendid port-fuelled lunch?)
Maybe if all the population had been able to build dovecotes we may have less of their cousins, the flying vermin known as pigeons today!
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: That's a very good question, actually. I looked at the picture before posting it, and wondered, and decided not to try to correct it in Photoshop.
Funnily enough, I pass near this building when visiting some dear friends, who have over the years given me many memorable and highly enjoyable meals. So maybe I was listing, not the building.

Anonymous said...

And the reason for limiting the spread of dovecotes?

The bird eat a lot of grain (and the lord of the manor may be content to feed "his" grain to the birds, but not so content for his tenants' birds to do the same); and guano from dovecotes is a source of saltpetre for gunpowder manufacture (and also a fertilizer).

Which Act of Parliament was this, by the way?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thanks for your comment. Yes, lords didn't like other people's birds eating their corn - and dovecote building seems to have increased when corn was cheap and plentiful. I don't know the name of the Act of Parliament. My source was something published by English Heritage, and the act is also mentioned in an interesting article in British Archaeology, here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I found those sources, but I wonder if it is factually correct.

The only two Acts in 1761-2 that seem to be relevant are the Game Act 1762 (2 Geo. 3 c. 19) and the Preservation of House Doves, etc. Act 1762 (2 Geo 3 c.29).

These Acts build on Acts of James I by increasing the criminal punishments for killing certain birds - the former applies to certain game birds but not pigeons, and the latter to house-doves and pigeons.


As I understand it, there is very old caselaw that allows the local court-leet to punish a person who builds or operates a dovecote without permission from the lord of the manor, and separate caselaw under which pigeons can be a nuisance, and it was generally permitted to kill pigeons that came onto your land. A case in 1619 (possibly slightly earlier - I have found reports from 1615 and 1616 called Prat (or Pratt) v Sterne (or Stearn which seem to be the right one) held that that freeholders did not need the lord's permission, but I can't find anything that specifically grants the ability to build dovecotes to tenants without seeking prior permission (and that is the sort of thing that you might expect to be dealt with under the terms of the tenancy anyway).

See and and and

Apparently dovecotes became less popular after turnips were introduced as winter forage for other livestock!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thank you for sharing those interesting links. I'll amend my post later.

Peter Ashley said...

One of my favourite dovecotes. Its now isolated position gives it great charm, as most of them are still surrounded by or closely adjacent to other ancillary buildings, which of course is how it should be. The whole environment at Chastleton sets my heart racing.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Yes, it's a wonderful tucked-away corner of Oxfordshire. These days the great house is signposted, so you don't come across it by accident. But when you get there, there are still pleasurable surprises, like this dovecote.