Joe Thompson, the Museum’s Carpenter-in-Residence describes his work on the structural timbers of one of our latest projects.
The Museum’s historic buildings tell many stories, some relating to materials, construction and conservation techniques, others to the people involved with them and the purposes for which they used the buildings, and some about the ideas and concepts that were fashionable or popular at the time.
The ornamental dairy is no exception and tells us about much more than how butter and cheese were made. Its form is two octagonal and limewashed, brick-walled buildings with a short connecting open walkway, all thatch roofed and dating from about 1800.
It originally stood close to Eastwick Park, a manor house in Great Bookham in Surrey (demolished in 1958). The larger building is the dairy where the cream and butter were produced, whilst the smaller one is the Scalding house, which provided the heat needed as part of the cheese making process.
The burgundy-painted windows and doorways have two-centred arched heads, giving a neo-Gothic style to these buildings. Internally the Dairy and Scalding house have slightly domed, limeplastered ceilings. The walls were also plastered and show evidence for shelving and some tiling, as well as a copper and flue in the Scalding or wash-house (Fig 1).
This fascinating addition to the Museum’s collection is an example of polite rather than vernacular architecture, bringing together a number of important national themes affecting the larger landowning classes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Firstly, the agricultural revolution, in the form of the ‘improved’ model farms of the time, made extensive use of the concept of buildings specifically designed for a single function, some of them built or adorned with deliberately ornate detailing.
Secondly, the English landscape garden as popularised by designers such as ‘Capability’ Brown had introduced the contrived natural landscape with its notion of an idyllic rural setting and often with decorative ‘picturesque’ buildings as features in the views.
Thirdly, the dairy and the milkmaid had become powerful cultural symbols of both industry and femininity which stood in contrast to idle, lascivious women lounging in boudoirs. Some women from the highest echelons of society such as Queen Mary II, Marie Antoinette and Queen Caroline had been adopting the dairy and dairy work to project an image that was pure and clean in morals and hygiene.
Fourthly, the act of conspicuous consumption could be indulged in for virtuous rather than ostentatious purposes. For example, the pottery factories such as those run by the Wedgwood family were producing a range of elegant glazed ware especially for the purpose of furnishing such ornamental dairies.
A brief analysis of the National Heritage List for England indicates that there are around 50 or so of these dairies surviving, nearly all of them in the south and south west of the country, often on large estates.
The example at the Museum appears to have been from the lower end of this spectrum as there was no separate tea-drinking room, nor ornate flooring or marble shelving in the rooms. But it was still an eye-catching building primarily intended for the use of the lady of the house and her milkmaids.
It had been placed close to the main house in a purpose-made shallow hollow or dell, as a means of passive climate control. The effect of this is included in the Leatherhead & District Local History Society records of the memories of the daughter of a Victorian owner, Miss Helen Kathleen Keswick (1903–1997):
“I remember the dairy. There was a house in the wood. It was quite extraordinary when you stepped down how cool it became. You went down two steps and I suppose the base of it was about two feet below ground level. The temperature on a hot summer’s day was degrees colder than outside.”
This is confirmed by another memoir from the same period, Turville, the life and times of Turville Kille and stories of Old Bookham from 1898, by Wendy Young, which describes how as a young boy he would visit the dairy, going down some steps, on a hot summer’s day and the difference in temperature was unbelievable.
The dairy, the larger octagon, was furnished with blue and white tiles and shelving on which stood bowls of cream, jugs of milk and joints of meat for the Manor House. The Museum’s buildings were listed Grade 2 in June 1990 and were described as “derelict” at the time.
Despite local efforts to save the buildings, no feasible solution could be found, partly due to the proximity of the bungalow of 1 Eastwick Drive (built in 1953) and in whose front garden it now stood. So it was offered to the Museum as a last resort and was dismantled soon afterwards in 2011.
It was stored prior to being bought into the Gridshell Conservation workshop in August 2017. Here the timbers could be individually examined and appraised.
My site notes taken during the dismantling had indicated three main phases of development; this was further confirmed in a conversation with Mr and Mrs Webb, who kindly donated the buildings to the Museum, when they visited the workshop in September 2017 (Fig 7). These were its construction in the early 1800s (Phase A), then the removal of the thatch and repair of the rafters in the early 1900s (Phase B).
Finally, replacing the roof tiles of the Dairy and temporarily weather-proofing the Scalding house with building felt in the early 1970s (Phase C). The evidence on the roof and ceiling timbers all corroborated this chronology.
Curiously, although there is documentary evidence from two sales particulars of Eastwick Park dating from 1829 and 1833 that both refer to the buildings being thatched, it became very difficult to confirm this with physical evidence.
Two concepts of forensic work are applicable here; firstly, everything leaves a trace, and you just have to look hard enough to find it. Secondly, “assume nothing, believe no-one and check everything”.
No evidence for thatch was found at the time of the dismantling: later sifting through the detritus found in splits in the tie beams yielded nothing conclusive; the nail patterns on the back of the rafters were similarly inconclusive, and it was only after about three months, whilst looking carefully at a rafter that the missing bit of the jigsaw fell into place.
The lowest courses of thatch used to be secured to rafters using a plant-based tie of some sort. From the mid-18th century tarred twine was increasingly used. This leaves a distinctive stain around the rafter as the tar oozes out leaving a black/brown mark on the underneath. Finally, a series of ‘tarred twine’ marks were visible on some of the rafters and confirmed the documentary evidence (Fig 2).
At the time of dismantling, the Dairy roof had mostly collapsed, as had part of the brick walls. The walkway had almost entirely gone but the Scalding house was still (just about) standing (Fig 3).
The roof timbers were oak throughout but had been converted out of crooked and low branched trees that had retained a large amount of non-durable sapwood. As such they were in very poor condition, being knotty and having had much fungal attack and beetle infestation (Fig 4).
The Museum wished to restore the building to its original arrangement with its thatched roof – Phase A. Following examination of the timbers it soon became apparent that their conservation would involve both restoration (as many as possible of the surviving Phase A timbers would be reused, and if required, repaired) and reconstruction (where Phase A timbers were missing or had so significantly decayed that they had little structural strength left they would be renewed with new timbers, the species, grade and sizes matching the surviving ones.) Fig 5.
By using the Museum’s and my own well-established timber repair techniques I was able to scarf new ends onto the rafters and tie beams, to reinforce with timber splints some of the joists and rafters, and to glue together splits. This approach retained as much as possible of the Phase A timbers and where possible allowed the reason for the intervention to be legible in the repaired/reinforced timber (Figs 8 & 11).
I was able to pass some of this knowledge on to two French carpentry students, Christophe and Antonin, who were in England as part of an Erasmus exchange programme, for a three-week placement.
We worked together on the larger octagon repairing the timbers and cutting replica ones (Figs 6 & 9). Their first task was to help cut the new ceiling joists that I had especially converted from curved oak trunks, so that the grain followed the shape, before we went on to pitch the roof (Fig 10).
The rearing up of the roof onto the brickwork walls, with my colleague Steve Turner, went very smoothly, the greatest challenge being the interaction between the walkway roof and the octagon roofs at each end (Fig 12).
The Dairy was fairly straight forward as the span of the walkway (2.28m) matched the width of the faces of the octagon. However the Scalding house is narrower (1.52m) and the junction with the walkway roof required a layboard in two parts to suit the three intersecting planes.
Whilst it would have been possible to draw this out, I solved it with the use of a straight stick, a string line and the roofing square, on the roof. This took into account the actual positions rather than the theoretical ones and went very well (Fig 13).
Visitors to the Museum will soon be able to compare and contrast the production of butter and cheese from the 16th century in Winkhurst kitchen, from the 17th century in Pendean farmhouse, from the 18th century in Tindalls cottage and now in the 19th century in the Eastwick Park Ornamental Dairy, the trend towards more specialist, hygienic and cleaner working spaces being easily seen.
The Dairy provides the Museum with another opportunity to tell a wide variety of stories to visitors, so that they can learn from the past and be inspired for the future.