Land Settlement Association house safely stored at Museum

About The Land Settlement Association

The Land Settlement Association (LSA) was a Government supported initiative of 1934, the height of the depression, established to provide rural smallholdings in England and Wales for the unemployed from industrialised cities. The programmes were for 5- to 10-acre smallholdings throughout England and Wales for horticulture and livestock, particularly pigs. By 1938 it had 25 estates, including the largest of them all, at Sidlesham, which had 120 plots. The families which moved to Sidlesham were predominantly those of unemployed shipbuilders and miners from Durham and other areas in north east England. The smallholdings were run as cooperatives with produce sold through the LSA; the initiative finally closed in 1983. Today some of the smallholdings still operate as independent growers businesses but most of the buildings have been converted into private dwellings.

The dismantling project

The Museum has completed its careful dismantling of the Land Settlement Association Manager’s House from Sidlesham, West Sussex and all the materials have been carefully photographed, labelled and removed to safe keeping at the Museum ready for its re-erection in the future. In my last report I described the removal of all the internal fixtures and fitting and the roof and internal timbers made ready for numbering and dismantling.

Each historic building is different in respect of the techniques used in numbering and preparing for dismantling, and we use the most logical system we can in each case. Roof, stud walls and floor timbers were all physically marked with an embossed Dymo label and their locations recorded on simple drawings, which will be used to re-assemble the timbers. External contractors removed and stored in wire stillages all the roof tiles, no small job as a Mansard roof like the one in this house uses significantly more tiles than a normal single pitch. In this case there were some 5,800 tiles and we estimate that some 80% were retained (there is always some unavoidable damage resulting from their removal). This aspect of the job was generously carried out for the Museum free of charge by W Stirland Ltd, the building company who constructed the LSA dwellings in the first place, back in the 1930s.

As soon as the tiles were removed the interior of the building is vulnerable to the elements so it was important to dismantle the timbers as quickly as possible. The battens onto which the roof tiles were hung could not be retained but were removed in sections as they provided valuable rigidity to the rafters, which were dismantled a pair at a time. This section of the project proceeded smoothly although quite slowly as we removed all nails from the timbers prior to storage.

Once the majority of the roof structure was removed, the level of support it played in the building became obvious. Having only end gable walls on the upper floor (the Mansard roof acting as walls at the front and back) they were unsupported from the ground/first floor level right up to the apex of the building, some 18ft in height. Once the roof timbers had begun to be removed, they displayed an alarming level of movement, so they were dismantled, out of sequence, before all ridge boards and rafters were taken away. The method employed in the removal of the bricks was very manual, using lump hammers and bolsters to split the brick away and then clean as much mortar from the brick as feasibly possible prior to storage in the stillages. The majority of timbers from the Mansard roof which formed the walls of the bedrooms were removed before additional, temporary scaffolding was erected at roof level, either side of the chimney to provide access for its dismantling.

Taking the chimney down to first floor ceiling height was a very time-consuming business due to the huge quantity of bricks involved with the structure; a chimney is not simply four sides of brick, but a solid mass punctuated by a number of flues. In this case we discovered that five of the six flues were, or had been, operational; one to each of the bedrooms, one each to the dining and living rooms and one to the water boiler in the kitchen. The last was blank but included in the final construction to give symmetry to the stack. The chimney stack was supported centrally above the stairwell by a graceful brick arch which amply demonstrated the strength of such structures.

The removal of the temporary chimney scaffold then enabled us to take down the remaining Mansard timbers and begin the job of dismantling all first floor bricks – both gable ends, internal walls and the continuation of the chimney stack, which by this point had divided into two sections either side of the central stairwell. First floor joists were left in place to provide a working platform for this. The building was constructed of two very different types of brick. All internal walls, chimney stack and inner skin of the cavity walls were constructed of soft, heavy Midhurst white bricks, held together with quite a soft mortar which was easy to remove without causing damage to the brick. This was fortunate as these Midhurst whites counted for the majority of bricks in the dwelling; some 13,500. In contrast, the external facing bricks which are those most visible, are lighter and extremely brittle, manufactured by Marstons, but in places virtually impossible to remove due to the strength of the mortar used to bind them. The hammer and bolster method tended to break the brick, no matter how much care was taken, although as we later discovered, the hardness of the mortar varied wildly from one area to another. To this end a powered brick cutter was hired and although very difficult, tiring and messy to use, larger sections of wall could be removed at a time without any of the bricks being damaged. This cutter was mainly employed on the southern elevation where there were significant patches of the very tough mortar. There was no obvious reason for the mortar being so hard here but the prevailing weather causing changes to the consistency over the years could have played a part, or it could simply have been down to different mixes when the bricks were being laid. Fortunately there were only a mere 7,000 facing bricks to be removed.

We have been very lucky that the majority of original features were retained in the building, including all but three of the metal-framed Crittall windows. These original windows would have been quite ineffective at retaining heat and keeping out draughts and would condense very badly. So it was fortunate but quite surprising that only three had been replaced since the building was constructed.

During the course of the project a number of Sidlesham neighbours and LSA dwellers from other parts of the country made contact with the Museum, having heard about the project through a number of channels, and the grapevine. Through these contacts came very useful information relating to the original layout of these buildings, since there were a limited number of designs employed throughout the various settlements. The suggestion of an additional room towards the rear of the living room which we discovered through distinctive marks outlining where a dividing wall had once stood proved accurate, according to information received from former LSA dwellers. Originally it was a spare room/additional bedroom with a window, with an access door to the kitchen and no heat. Very generous offers of spare parts including bricks and windows have also been received where alterations or demolitions have been planned to existing LSA dwellings. This will be vital to the future success of the project and will provide an important local link to non-original elements of the house, rather than purchasing or commissioning replacements from elsewhere.

I had estimated that the project to dismantle the LSA house would take about 10 weeks. Beginning on Monday 4 September 2017, I was hopeful of wrapping up the project sometime in the middle of November 2017, preferably before the weather conditions became too unpleasant, and we were extremely fortunate that we lost virtually no time to adverse weather at all. Having shifted some 6,000 roof tiles, 20,000 bricks, over half a mile of constructional timber and a similar length of flooring, the final brick was lifted on Wednesday 29 November 2017. This task was given to Norman Dixon, one of the team of volunteers without whom the project would not have been completed, having provided nearly 500 hours of unpaid labour. Norman moved with his family into another, newly built LSA property in Sidlesham in 1939 and has lived there ever since. At 88-years-old he spent over 81 hours helping to dismantle the building, frequently putting his coworkers in the shade with his enthusiasm and stamina – not to mention the supply of home baking which regularly appeared!

Clearing up the site and transferring all the stillages of bricks and tiles and lengths of timber back to the Museum took a further week and we are again indebted to W Stirland Ltd who provided free help with loading and transporting the materials. The house is now safe in the Museum’s off-site storage facility where it will stay until we have the means and opportunity to re-erect it on site and be able to tell the Land Settlement Association story in full – a unique local story from the 20th century, enabling us to increase our focus on the rural heritage of the last 100 years.

Article by Julian Bell, Museum Curator.