'An Improving Town' by Mac Dowdy
Soham at the
Time of the Abolition
'An Improving Town' by Mac Dowdy
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
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
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
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
15th January 2007. Under the terms of the
Heritage Lottery Initative
funded project all Soham residents will all be given a free copy.