Poplar Cottage at the Weald & Downland Living Museum

This building was probably the home of a landless labourer, possibly a craftsman. It was built in the mid-17th century on the edge of Washington Common. It has one heated room, and the fireplace is in a smoke bay, an early form of chimney.


Poplar Cottage

Poplar Cottage on its original site before dismantling in 1982.

Poplar Cottage cannot be precisely dated but from the style and details of its construction it was probably built in the mid 17th century, or possibly a little earlier. It occupied a small plot of land on the southern edge of the common at Washington, near Steyning.

Archaeology carried out after the building was dismantled showed that there had not been a previous building on the same site. Encroachments on ‘waste’ — usually the edges of roads or commons — became widespread during the period c1580–1650. Such encroachments were sometimes made with manorial approval, but in other cases were illegal and had to be removed. They were the consequence of the pressure on land due to demographic growth and the increasing proportion of the rural population dependant on wages. Cottages like Poplar were the homes of landless or near-landless husbandmen, labourers and craftsmen, for whom the commons were an important resource, if only to pasture a cow or gather fuel.

In plan the building has two rooms on the ground floor and two chambers above. Only one room is heated, and this would probably have been called the hall. The second ground floor room would have been used as a service room and was perhaps referred to as the ‘shop’, while the two upstairs rooms would have been used as bedrooms.

Instead of a chimney, the fire burns in a ‘smoke bay’ at the gable end of the cottage. In this arrangement, a small bay about four feet long contains the smoke from the fire. It was an intermediate stage of development between the open hall, in buildings such as Bayleaf and full chimneys in houses like Pendean. Smoke bays were first identified by researchers in Surrey and are common in 16th and 17th century houses in the Weald and Downland region.

In the 18th century a brick and stone chimney was built within the smoke bay and an outshot was added to the back of the building, but otherwise the pattern of life in the cottage must have remained much the same for more than three hundred years.