Friday, May 14, 2021

Trowbridge, Wiltshire

House of holes

A while back I wrote a blog post about Herefordshire barns with walls of pierced brickwork to provide ventilation. Imagine my pleasure, then, when on a recent visit to Trowbridge in Wiltshire I came across this, a structure that looks like a patriarch among pierced brick buildings, a house of holes. It is a legacy of Trowbridge’s cloth manufacturing industry, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the town was known as ‘the Manchester of the West’. The pierced brick structure, squeezed into a space near a former woollen mill – it’s actually built on a bridge over the River Biss – is called the Handle House and its use requires a little explanation.

One of the finishing processes in the manufacture of woollen cloth is known as ‘raising a nap’. The nap is the furry finish that makes many cloths soft and pleasant to the touch. A traditional way to raise a nap was to stroke the fabric with the seed heads of the teasel plant, which bear dozens of naturally barbed or hooked spikes. The spikes catch in the fibre and pull it up, producing the nap. A number of teasel heads were mounted on a wooden handle and dragged across the cloth – at first by hand, later using a machine. The process was generally done when the cloth was wet, because its fibres are less prone to damage then. But the teasels would get soggy and soft when they became damp, and so were less effective. So they have to be dried. One way to do this was to suspend them in a building like this, when the cross-draught would dry them, restoring their strength.†

That’s where the Handle House came in. It was probably built in the 1840s and is very impressive indeed. There must have been quite a few buildings like this, but this is only one of a very few left (some sources say there is only one other in the country). The pierced walls must have made them very difficult to use for anything else once they were no longer required for their original purpose; additionally, the way they’re built hardly makes them the most robust structures in the world, so some examples probably fell quickly into dilapidation. This one is hanging on, and being very unusual is listed at grade II*, a testimony to the ingenuity of the woollen business that has long since left the town.

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† I once blogged a heated building for teasel-drying here.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Being "listed" probably means you can't fill in the holes with more bricks and use it for something else - hence probably the perpetual FOR SALE sign - Trowbridge emulating the South Wales Valleys. Did you note the structure in the cemetery - and the thing with the tower that somebody built without planning permission - but creative anyway? Also the big L-shaped Catholic church? Or are these to come?

Philip Wilkinson said...

For various reasons I didn't see as much of Trowbridge as I'd hoped, so will return at some point and look out for these. I might have seen the tower-thing....not sure it was the one you mean.

Flyus Travels said...

Very interesting, good job and thanks for sharing such a good blog.