Remembering Equiano - 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery
Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa 'The African' - In Soham, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom

Soham at the Time of the Abolition

'An Improving Town' by Mac Dowdy

'An Improving Town' By Mac Dowdy
Soham at the Time of the Abolition
'An Improving Town' by Mac Dowdy
(January 2008)
ISBN 978-0-9557990-0-6

Soham Village College along with Soham Action 4 Youth (SA4Y) and Soham Museum, have joined together to take part in a massive project to record 'Soham at the Time of the Abolition', one aspect of which was to map Soham as it was in the 18th century by documenting 18th century buildings which survive in Soham to this day and then to publish the findings in a book.

Mac Dowdy, a Fellow and Director of the Architectural Research Group at Wolfson College, Cambridge, was invited to produce the book that would describe 'Soham at the Time of the Abolition'. Mac follows the development of the town from its earliest settlement to the late eighteenth century, describing the surviving dwellings in detail, using contemporary photographs and visual interpretations of the original buildings, to reveal the hidden history of Soham.

Mac has made a career out of surveying the old buildings he is passionate about, and his enthusiasm is infectious. pioneer of the BBC 'House Detectives' series, he has made his home in nearby Ely, but his work takes him all over the country. Mac mainly works from first and second edition ordnance survey maps which show the distribution of buildings, but for Soham he was able to access the now famous Gardiner Map of Soham which dates from 1650, and shows buildings and plot owners in detail.

In looking at the buildings of the town he remarked that the English tradition is called 'additive', in other words, we have a habit of adding extensions to our houses. Well before the need for planning applications, people were adding rooms to their houses in order to create more living space for their growing families. This means that Mac has to be creative when looking for old buildings hidden within the fabric of later additions. He starts by looking for 17th century or earlier buildings - there are 21 obvious examples of these in Soham (the nearby Cathedral City of Ely has only 6). His findings have proved extremely surprising. In Soham there are more high status buildings dating from the 18th century than either Peterborough or Ely.

In plotting these on the map, he removes the roadways, because historically, settlements developed independently of modern road networks. Predictably, in Soham, the settlement pattern indicates a 'linear settlement', a line of medieval buildings which straggle the High Street, Churchgate Street, Pratt Street, and Hall Street. There is however a hint of a 'nuclear settlement' around St. Andrew's Church, indicating that the Church was a focal point of high society.

Mac points out that without high status houses we would have very little evidence about where our ancestors lived. He elaborates that before the 20th century, the houses of the lower classes - agricultural labourers and industrials workers etc., were general poor quality dwellings of which little evidence survives. In other words you had to be rich to afford a good timber framed or brick built house.

At the time of the 1883 ordnance survey map of Soham there was little development past Hall Street and that Townsend joined onto a causeway which would have been the main route to Ely. He noted the dog-legs of Pratt Street and Hall Street, suggesting that these are typical of Saxon development, and considered the use of the High Street and Pratt Street as thoroughfares for drovers owing to the widening of the streets at certain points. He also notes that nearly every garden has an orchard.

'The Hoops' - Townsend, Soham 'The Fox In The Wood' - Townsend, Soham
'The Hoops' - Townsend, Soham 'The Fox In The Wood' - Townsend, Soham

He was specifically interesting in picking out 'long-houses'. The older ones he states, such as 'The Hoops' and 'The Fox in the Wood' have steep pitch roofs, in the case of the latter now pan-tiled, but indicating earlier thatching. The windows are random rather than symmetrical, and once inside, you would find that the door opens onto a 'baffle', i.e. a wall behind which would be the chimney breast. 'The Hoops' is based on important Elizabethan Houses, a status symbol, using early brick - in England there were no mass production of bricks from the Roman period to the mid 16th century, so early bricks were incredibly expensive.

The way the bricks are laid is a clue to the age of the building; 'English Bond' and 'Garden Wall Bond' are both present in our old houses, as is the technique of 'nodding and plating' to add stability to high gable walls. We can see the iron. plates either plain or as decorative letters on the exterior of many old buildings in the town.

In later 18th century houses we start to see certain features repeated. The proportions of the house and the symmetry of the windows are key to identifying buildings of this period. Windows are flush to the brickwork, they have often been modified and appear proportionally too big or too low to the ground. Some house are jetted or have upper floors which jut out. In early houses which have been encased in brick, this is identified by a 'plat band' or strip of bricks which cover the original supporting beam. Sash windows with wide casings, dormer windows which rest directly on the wall plate, decorated door surrounds with fluting, and pediments decorated with 'dentils' (like little teeth) and 'outshots' and 'catslide' roofs are all clues which we can use to identify our old buildings.

The voluntary weekend project called 'Mapping 18th Century Soham', based at The Churchgate Inn by kind invitation of proprietor David Dawkins, was extremely well attended. With Mac's expert guidance, several groups of would be house detectives were sent out and about in Soham to map some of the town's oldest buildings. With this help, Mac has been able to add more buildings to his list and create an accurate map of Soham as it was in the 18th century. By doing this as a survey of surviving buildings as opposed to just reproducing the layout from contemporary maps, he managed to get a much better idea of what it was like to live in Soham in the 18th century. His findings have been published in a book called 'An Improving Town' and is due to be officially launched on 15th January 2007. Under the terms of the Heritage Lottery Initative funded project all Soham residents will all be given a free copy.


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