Sunday, May 5, 2013

Wantage, Berkshire*

Look down

I'm always telling people to look up, but this time the opposite advice is the order of the day...

While photographing some sash windows in Wantage, I catch the eye of an elderly gentleman. 'Interested in photography, are you? There's a camera club here.' I politely explain that I'm not local and anyway, my interest is more architectural than photographic. 'Ah. In that case, you should take a look at the almshouses over there.'

And I'm directed to the Stiles Almshouses: solid, brick, unpretentious, and with a weathered stone plaque telling me that they were built by an Amsterdam merchant,† of all people, in 1680, which makes them the earliest datable brick building in this admirably brickish town. I thank my companion, but he encourages me to look further, to push open the door, and cast my eyes down. And what I see takes my breath away: a floor made partly of sheep's knucklebones, a serviceable if knobbly substitute for stone cobbles no doubt contemporary with the rest of the building.

A similar floor was found last year by archaeologists excavating the site of the Curtain, the London theatre that hosted Shakespeare's company before they decamped to the more famous Globe. In those days they knew how to knuckle down and cobble together a hard-wearing floor.

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*Wantage is now in Oxfordshire, but I use the traditional English counties because they reflect the usage in Pevsner's invaluable Buildings of England books – and because I like them.

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†There's more about the founder of the Almshouses and the plaque above the door in the Comments section – click on the word COMMENTS below.


STAG said...

Knucklebones hmmm!

Oh my!

Joy said...

Ultimate recycling. That is fascinating. Joy

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you both. Surprising recycling indeed. said...

Your photos are lovely.

A little more information for you. The plaque in your photograph reads:

The gift of Robert Stiles of Amsterdam, merchant, who died ye October 3rd 1680. Deo et pauperibus

The latin is “for God and the poor” and was quite a common inscription on almshouses.

Stiles was born in Wantage, was apprenticed to a Draper in London, and then emigrated and settled in Amsterdam where he died.

Donors often built almshouses in the place of their birth.


Philip Wilkinson said...

SueL: Thank you very much. I was mystified by the Amsterdam connection and didn't realise that Stiles was born in Wantage, so thank you in particular for clearing that up.

Evelyn said...

Just as I was about to correct you about the proper county designation for Wantage I realized that I had read during my research that it was, indeed, Berkshire territory first. I know I should comment more often but it takes time away from reading all your material which has helped me tremendously for the past three years.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Evelyn: Thank you – I'm pleased my posts have been helpful.

I'm very attached to the "old" English counties. I think my affection for them is something to do with their long history.

Patsy Smiles said...

My husband's third great grandma Mary Ann Clark lived at the Almshouses after her husband died in the 1890s. There appears to be 10 ladies and 3 men resident in 1891 mostly widowed and elderly.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Patsy. It's always great to hear about people who lived in the buildings I write about.