Bayleaf Wealden Hall House

Bayleaf – perhaps the most iconic building to be re-erected at the Museum – is a timber-framed Wealden hall house from Chiddingstone in Kent. It has six rooms, four on the ground floor and two upstairs.

The house was built in two phases. The earliest part, which has been dendro-dated to 1405-1430, consisted of an open hall and service end. This was probably attached to an earlier structure, which stood where the solar or upper end bay now stands. It is believed that the upper end bay that gave the building its present form was added in the early 16th century, replacing the earlier structure.

Bayleaf, reconstructed at the Museum

Bayleaf, reconstructed at the Museum

The parish of Chiddingstone, comprising about 6,000 acres and with an estimated population in the 1560s of 475, is on the western side of the Kent Weald, close to the Surrey border. The village of Chiddingstone consists of a high street and the church of St Mary. Most of the inhabitants were (and still are) scattered widely throughout the parish. Chiddingstone straddles both low and high Weald, the original site of Bayleaf lying in the low Weald. The high and low Wealds were separated both demographically and industrially, with the high Weald more heavily populated and industrialised than the low Weald. Overall the Kent Weald was the poorest of Kent’s agricultural regions and within the Kent Weald the western Weald was poorer, less industrialised and more sparsely populated than the other Wealden districts, particularly the central Weald where the woollen textile industry was based.

Bayleaf on its original site at Chiddingstone.

Bayleaf on its original site at Chiddingstone.

The ‘gentry manor’ of Bore Place

All land in the Kent Weald, like elsewhere in England, was held of some lordship or directly of the Crown. However, seigneurial control was weak and tenants’ involvement with their manor was limited to paying a small annual quitrent or ground rent, doing (occasional) suit of court and paying a heriot (usually the best beast) for the right to take up land on the death of the previous tenant. A feature of the late 15th and 16th centuries was the appearance of what are described as ‘gentry manors’ or estates in all parts of the Weald, the result of either successful estate building by local residents or of purchase by newcomers to the Weald. These estates frequently included land held of more than one manor. An example of this was the Bore Place ‘manor’, or estate, with lands in at least three different manors. The owners of Bore Place, like most other landowners in the Weald during this period, managed their property by leasing out large blocks of it and rents would have formed an important part of their income. Unlike some landowners, however, they retained demesne lands, which in 1518 included approximately 50 acres of arable and 150 acres of pasture, together with meadows, woods and parkland.

Bore Place

Bore Place

From the late 15th century and throughout the 16th century Bore Place was held by a succession of eminent London lawyers, all of whom continued to maintain London residences. John Alphegh held the estate until his death in 1489. He left it to his daughter, Margaret, and her husband, Robert, later Sir Robert, Rede. On Rede’s death in 1518 the estate passed to his daughter, Bridget, and her husband, Thomas, later Sir Thomas, Willoughby. Bridget continued to hold the estate after her husband’s death in 1545 and on her own death in 1558 it passed to her grandson, Thomas Willoughby.

Bayleaf farm

The origins and development of Bayleaf are unclear. The name ‘Bayleaf’ is a corruption of the word ‘Bailey’ and it is probable that it was named after its original occupant, Henry Bailey. We know that at the end of the 14th century Henry Bailey was holding about 100 acres of land in the area that later became Bayleaf farm and that he died in around 1430. He may therefore have been responsible for building the original house. The earliest reference to Bayleaf (‘Bayles’) is in the will of John Alphegh dated 1489, and it thereafter appears regularly in rentals and other documents throughout the 16th century as ‘Baylys’, ‘Bailes’, ‘Bayleaze’ and ‘Baylies’.

From the early 16th century Bayleaf is described as a ‘fee farm’ and the tenants paid an annual rent of 110s. The exact acreage at this date is unknown although it is reasonable to assume on the basis of earlier and later evidence that it was somewhere in the region of 100-130 acres. The description of the tenants as ‘farmers’ (firmarius) and the fact that they were paying a fixed rent indicates that Bayleaf was being held on a long-term lease, for a term of years or for a succession of lives (usually three – e.g. father, son, grandson). This means that the tenants were unaffected by the custom of ‘gavelkind’ which was distinctive to Kent and was characterised by partible inheritance amongst male heirs (that is, land was split equally amongst them).

The evidence for tenure of Bayleaf during the 16th century is relatively clear, although the exact dates for each tenant are not. It is likely that Thomas Wells (the first) held Bayleaf from at least 1500 to 1510, Edward Wells held Bayleaf from about 1510 to 1520, Richard Scoriar held Bayleaf from about 1520 to 1540 and Thomas Wells (the second) held Bayleaf from about 1550 to about 1590. The exact relationship between these men is unknown: an obvious explanation would be Thomas Wells (the first) was the father of Edward Wells who was the father of Thomas Wells (the second), but other relationships are possible. Why Richard Scoriar was holding the lease is unclear: possibly it was during the minority of Thomas Wells (the second). The only one of these men about whom anything is known is the second Thomas Wells. No wills survive for any of them, one of the most useful sources of information for men and women at this date.

Bore Place and Bayleaf Map

Bore Place and Bayleaf Map

What do we know about Thomas Wells?

There is a document dated 1556 which records an agreement between Thomas Wells and Lady Bridget Willoughby, then the owner of Bore Place, in which he agrees to supply her with wheat and oats for a period of five years and to ‘bring and carry or cause to be brought and carried yearly during the space of 20 years’ from London to ‘the house of the said Lady Willoughby called Bore one sufficient wain load of such victuals and stuff as she or any other to her use shall buy and provide for the provision of her house’. In this document Thomas Wells is described as a ‘carpenter and farmer’. Ten years later when Thomas Willoughby (the second) mortgaged Bayleaf ‘with all its lands, appurtenances, pastures and woods now in the tenure and occupation of Thomas Wells’ to Richard Water, a wealthy miller, Thomas Wells is described as a yeoman. So he was a farmer, a carpenter and, at least by 1566, a yeoman. A yeoman is a recognised economic class in the early modern period and usually describes someone who was farming at least 100 acres. He was above ‘husbandman’ but below ‘gentleman’. In other words, yeomen constituted a rural middle class. He would expect to produce a large marketable surplus each year and be a regular employer of non-family labour.

Evidence from London, where carpenters were organized in a craft guild (the carpenters’ company) suggests that the profession was not a very profitable one. However, outside London and the larger provincial towns the activities of carpenters were unregulated which means that there are few details of how the craft was organised or of the wealth it generated. As a carpenter Thomas Wells might have been responsible for building entire houses as well as commercial and industrial buildings. The more successful carpenters acted as architect contractors, arranging for materials and sub-contracting with other craftsmen.

Analysis of tax and poor rate assessments suggests that Thomas Wells was a wealthy man within his community – in the top 10% of the Chiddingstone population – which would have made him a substantial, and respected, member of the community. This is reflected in his local office holding. In 1562 he was elected to the office of constable of the hundred of Somerden, an unpaid position he would have held for two years. A hundred was a unit of administration covering a number of parishes. As a constable for the hundred he (together with another constable) would have overseen the collection of poor rates, the supervision of parochial officers and the maintenance of roads and bridges. Together with petty constables they were also responsible for controlling any disturbances within their communities. Between 1565 and 1566 Thomas Wells also served as one of two collectors of the poor, an office (later called overseers of the poor) that emerged from the developing poor law legislation of the 16th century.

Bayleaf farm comprised between 100-130 acres of land, a mixture of arable, pasture, woods and meadow. How it is farmed is unclear. In this region of Kent livestock farming – cattle rather than sheep – was predominant. Only one quarter of the demesne lands were being used for arable in the early 16th century, the remainder being pasture, even though this meant that the owners of Bore Place were obliged to buy in additional grain to supply their household. Like Thomas Wells, they grew wheat and oats. Barley, which did not grow well on the heavy clay soils of the Weald, had to be bought in. The commercial value of cattle was in their meat and hides, with some of the cattle destined for the London market. Bailiff’s accounts for Bore Place which survive for the years 1513-1514, 1516-1517 and 1517-1518 show that the bailiff (William Walker) was selling livestock to individual traders spread out over an approximately 40-mile radius from Chiddingstone, including to a trader from Southwark where the London tanning industry was based.

The baptism register for Chiddingstone, which begins in 1566, records the birth of five of Thomas Wells’ children within a 10-year period – three boys and two girls. By this date he already had at least one son, Thomas, which we know because there is a record of his burial in 1572. Another son, Percival, died aged two in 1571. A ‘snapshot’ of the Wells family in December 1578 at home in Bayleaf would find Thomas and Mrs Wells, Anne aged seven, Henry aged five, Ralph aged two and Martha aged one month. There may have been one or two older children whose births pre-date the start of the baptism register and who survived to adulthood. It is likely that the Wells’ household included at least one, and probably two, female domestic servants, so called ‘life cycle’ servants who entered service in their mid-teens and stayed until they married in their early to mid twenties. This means that the Wells’ household is likely to have been large at between nine and 10 people, considerably larger than the average early modern household of five but consistent with what is known of other Chiddingstone yeomen families at this date. Thomas Wells must have relied on paid labour to manage his farm, probably day labourers who would have been employed on a seasonal basis. Such men are likely to have maintained their own households and so would not have been resident in Bayleaf.

It is probable that Thomas Wells was illiterate. Although unequivocal corroboration for this is missing, in 1581 only seven out of 17 jurors of the Somerden hundred court – men of the same status as Thomas Wells – were able to sign their names: the rest indicated their assent with their ‘mark’. Had he been able to write one would expect him to have signed the 1556 agreement he entered into with Lady Bridget Willoughby, discussed above. Instead, he ‘signs’ it with his seal. Although nationally literacy levels were rising throughout the early modern period, outside of London and larger urban centres illiteracy remained the norm below the ranks of gentry.

Bayleaf during dismantling

Bayleaf during dismantling. The solar end has been removed, leaving the original hall and service end.

Bailiffs for Bore Place?

The question of whether or not the occupants of Bayleaf were literate takes on more significance when we consider the evidence for whether or not they were bailiffs. The link between the occupants of Bayleaf and the office of the bailiff derives in the first instance from the belief that ‘Bayleaf’ is a corruption of the word ‘bailiff’. However, as we have seen, it is more likely that Bayleaf took its name from the original occupant, who was probably Henry Bailey. Whilst the surname ‘Bailey’ derives from the office of bailiff, by the 15th century the link between the occupation and the surname had become historic. Weight has been added to the Bayleaf/bailiff association by the reference in Lady Bridget Willoughby’s will of 1556 to ‘William Wells my bailiff’. Who William Wells was and his relation to the tenants of Bayleaf is unclear. His name does not appear in contemporary tax records for Chiddingstone or the adjacent communities, which may indicate that he fell below the tax threshold or that his status as a dependent servant exempted him. Whilst it is reasonable to assume he was related to Edward or Thomas Wells, he may have been part of their wider kin network, resident either in Chiddingstone or its environs. We do know that between 1513 and 1518 the Bore Place bailiff was a man called William Walker, who had no connection with Bayleaf. In his will of 1519 Sir Robert Rede left Walker a tenement called ‘Mayes’ in the neighbouring village of Sundridge, and it is likely that this is where Walker lived during Rede’s lifetime.

Select Bibliography

  • G Jones, ‘The Bough Beech Buildings’ (report commissioned by the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, 2000).
  • J Munby, ‘Wood’ in J Blair & Nigel Ramsey (eds), English Medieval Industries (London, 1991), 379-405.
  • M Zell, Industry in the Countryside: Wealden Society in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, 1994).