Old English Cottages

Old English cottages begin their life in the Tudor and Stuart times when England was enjoying a increase in prosperity. The old way of life was changing, feudalism was becoming a thing of the past. Until this point old English cottages were really primitive dwellings that just did not last.

They would normally be made of timber posts the walls filled in with wattle and daub and a roof made of weaved branches and turf or thatch. They could be blown down with a storm or knocked down by thieves, and unless you were a noble or somebody important; this is where you would live.

Old English cottages in the countryside were also torn down when sheep farming came into vogue. English wool was of excellent quality and in demand abroad and with the event of the Black death in 1348 England lost half her population, labour was scarce and in demand and hundreds of acres of land were going to seed.

The Lord could solve all his problems by putting his land under pasture. Wool was rising in price so he made a nice profit and his overhead was low as only a couple of shepherds were needed as opposed to many labours to cultivate the land. Entire villages would be torn down with only the church left which would be used to house sheep.

The effect on the labourer was devastating. As the land changed to pasture his work disappeared. Often his cottage would be torn down, leaving the family without a home. The Landlord, if unscrupulous, would try to obtain the neighbouring lands by any means that he could and with the rise of enclosure the inevitable happened; the larger estates grew bigger and the weaker smallholdings disappeared.

In the fifteenth century general comfort increased. The manor-house grew in size as new rooms were added, including bedrooms and dining rooms.

Many yeomen were taking advantage of the ‘stock and land lease’ and becoming quite wealthy and the general standard of living increased. The cottages of these yeoman began to grow on the landscape and its this type of cottage that we know today.

Most would have been added to but some still survive. They would be half timbered with the first floor projecting slightly and very primitive.

In the town wealth was increasing too, the rise of the craftsman was the result. They built houses superior to the country cottage which they adorned with bargeboards which you do not see on cottages that were built later.

The materials needed to build were available and there were plenty of skilled carpenters and craftsmen, the demand was high. There was a change coming to England. With the growth of commerce and the flow of wealth from trade England was becoming more than just an agricultural country.

With prosperity rising and a new monarch in Queen Elizabeth I, England would begin to enter her “Golden Age” and the countryside would soon be adorned with beautiful country houses and cottages for the people.

It is here that the story of old English cottages, as we know them, begins…

…England was about to have her Renaissance.

When Elizabeth I began her reign in 1559 one of the first things she did was appoint a commission to look into the roots of the social discontent that spread across England. The result was a series of laws called the ‘Poor Laws’ which made the lives a little better for the poor.

In 1560 the debasement of coinage had stopped and trade gained confidence. This caused a wave of activity among the people, with good reason, there was motivation everywhere. Exotic goods were sailing into the ports, building was at an all time high, and a new level of comfort was being enjoyed by almost all the country. There were new opportunities everywhere for those ambitious enough.

Photo of Selworthy, Dame's Cottage c1871, ref. 5994
Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

It was around this time that the majority of old English cottages were built, and never before had England seen such craftsmanship, especially in carpentry.

The humble dwelling had finally evolved into the old English cottage that we recognize today.

This was a very romantic time in English history and it created some of her greatest men such as Shakespeare, Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Fashion changed, largely influenced by the lavish wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth I, and opulence seeped into many aspects of life. The drab days of the middle ages were over, and the country was enjoying its moment of glory.

Nearly all the half-timbered old English cottages we see today were built around this time 1550 to 1650. The busiest time between 1575 and 1650 after this building seemed to slow down, not many cottages were built after this time. The ones that remain may well have been added onto and made a little bigger.

Turning the lands over to pasture had caused the destruction of cottages on many estates. This too created the wealth of building over this period. It was as if everyman was a builder. They built out of necessity and out of the love for it. It was England’s great building time.

Even the countryside had her day arable farming increased and had become more profitable and the overproduction of wool had lowered prices. Using manure and other new skills the farmer doubled the production of his land. As work became available, the labourers came back to work the land.

All this combined to create an explosion in building. The nation was rich and wanted homes to reflect the new level of comfort that was being enjoyed. So the gentleman built new manor homes, the farmers built new farmhouses and the labourers built new cottages.

Old English cottages are made out of their surroundings. The cottage builder used what was available and learnt the traditional vernacular style of building of the district he was from.

In the limestone belt of England cottages were built out of stone. If there was granite available that would be used. In the heavily forested areas of England oak was the used for the cruck-frame and timber-frame. If there was nothing else on hand cob cottages would be built from mud and straw. Roof’s were made of thatch especially in the West Country, later tiles and shingles were used.

It is this reason that old English cottages blend in so harmoniously with the landscape.

As England’s wealth increased their homes became bigger or were added onto. Many Manor houses were demoted to farmhouses and farmhouses to cottages. It is because of this that some old English cottages are larger than others.

The beautiful Tudor and Elizabethan manor houses constructed during England’s great building time are reflected in the style of farmhouse and cottage. The added gables, the projecting upper level and the lattice work. This will always link the manor, farmhouse and cottage together.

In the first half of the seventeenth century cottage building came to an end. The old English cottages were replaced by grander and more elegant Queen Ann and Georgian styles. The English cottage belongs to a time of craftsmanship when things were made by hand, a time sadly gone by, replaced by the Industrial Revolution and the mass manufacturing age.

The English cottage has evolved from the most primitive hut to a charming old home.

The old English cottage shared its golden age with England, then it was left to grow old and just like a good wine the old English cottage ages with a grace and beauty unrivalled by any modern building.

It is here that the story of the cottage would properly end…luckily it does not. It is thanks to all the people who lovingly restore old cottages to their former beauty that they are still here for us to enjoy today…

…Thank you.


"Picturesque English cottages And Their Doorway Gardens"

By P.H Ditchfield. 1905

"The Cottage Homes of England"

By Stuart Dick and painting's by Helen Allingham. 1909

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