Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

A house in a day?

This house in Much Wenlock is called Squatter’s Cottage. The implication is that it was built by a squatter, who put up a dwelling on common land, taking advantage of a right that a person had to erect a house on a common, provided that the building could be constructed in a day. There was a condition to this right that was no doubt designed to limit the take-up: your completed 24-hour house had to include a working chimney. So while it was possible, at a push, to put up a wooden house in a day, adding a safe masonry chimney in the same time-frame was difficult. But not, it seems, impossible. Typically, the body of the house would start timber-framed, but in time, once the builder had settled in, would be rebuilt or enlarged in brick or stone. Perhaps, too, the chimney regulation was interpreted loosely, so that a timber-framed house with a ‘smoke bay’ at one end was accepted, so long as there was a fire burning there within 24 hours.

However these feats of construction were achieved, there is plenty of evidence of squatter’s cottages being built in both England and Wales. They are often found in small clusters on commons – I’ve already posted about an example of this at Hollybush, near Malvern in Worcestershire. Shropshire, it seems, had its share. This one is on the edge of a town and the visible part at least retains in its stone structure the compact simplicity that must have prevailed from the beginning. There might have been two rooms on the ground floor; there clearly is a room in the roof space too. And a solid brick chimney does its vital work at one end.

Such cottages were a result of rural poverty in its many forms. The enclosure movement, which saw landlords dividing up big open fields and common land into smaller fields and taking them over, deprived many country dwellers of the land they needed to grow crops and pasture an animal or two so that they could feed themselves. Squatting and taking over a small patch of common land offered a solution for many. It could offer independence: a place to grow food, a route out of reliance on a landlord to charge an affordable rent, and a way of avoiding the wage labour under appalling conditions that faced many country people who migrated to the city in search of a job in a factory. Such houses might seldom be noticed today, but in the period of social upheaval that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries, they could be a lifeline.*

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* See Colin Ward, Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History (Five Leaves, 2002) for a good account of the history of the squatting movement.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

This is the kind of social history reflected well in the study of buildings. The element you don't mention is solidarity: to achieve this feat, every hand was needed, a lot of hands. Also, some secure place for all the chimney, etc. materials to be stored pending the great day. I bet a lot of people today desperate for a roof and contemplating self-build would rejoice in having so many willing friends and neighbours. You would need a huge fire to illuminate and give warm breaks as they toiled through the hours of darkness. Rural poverty (a completely artificial creation, according to the historians) was not nice, but it had its times of sociable togetherness.