The Historic Houses of Hereford 1200 to 1700
The work of Ron Shoesmith and the City of Hereford Archaeological Unit (CHAU) in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s is best known from the series of CBA Research Reports in which their excavations on and within the pre-Conquest defences of the city were published.
The unit, however, also undertook a large body of historic building surveys and analyses. The publication of this work too was well advanced until it was halted by local government reorganisation. A few years ago the publication process was revived and now, twenty years after the first draft and thirty years after many of the buildings were first surveyed, a new book is about to appear that examines a selection of the city’s most important historic houses – some of them exceptionally early survivals.
In archaeological and architectural history circles, the city of Hereford is famous for just one historic building, in addition (of course) to the cathedral. This is the great hall of the bishop’s palace, built in the 1190s for Bishop William de Vere. A vast, timber-built aisled hall, part of its roof survives at attic level and some of its aisle posts were encased, but left accessible to visitors, by 18th and 19th century restorers. It has been described as one of the most important survivals of this period north of the Alps and has received its fair share of scholarly attention over many years.
What is less well known is that the quiet streets around the cathedral close contain further surviving buildings of a very early date. Like, for example, the unassuming-looking Cathedral Barn in one corner of the close: outwardly a 16th- or 17th century barn, investigation showed it to be a 13th century aisled building (very plain in its detailing – it may always have been a barn), that was moved to its present position in the early modern era, when much of its external framing was rebuilt.
Just yards away, set back from the street frontages in a large garden, stands 20 Church Street: a timber-framed first-floor hall that documentary research and dendrochronology agree was built in 1328. It was constructed as a residence for one of the cathedral canons, and the Cathedral Barn also probably once belonged to one of the canonical residences in this distinctive, leafy and precious enclave of central Hereford.
A long-awaited project
Magnificently restored in the 1980s, 20 Church Street was thoroughly investigated at that time by the then CHAU under Ron Shoesmith.
In fact CHAU were well ‘ahead of the curve’ for the 1980s and early 1990s in terms of the quantity of historic building repairs-related casework that they undertook, and which they wrote up in their series of grey-literature reports.
But as the corpus grew, it became increasingly obvious that it needed drawing together so that comparison, synthesis and proper publication could take place. So the CHAU’s principal buildings investigator, Richard K Morriss, and Pat Hughes, a freelance historian and herself no mean expert on historic townhouses, were engaged as authors.
Their book, given the working title ‘The Secular Buildings of Hereford’, got to first-draft stage in 1995–6, but before it could be completed and published, local government reorganisation took a hand: Herefordshire became a unitary authority, CHAU ceased to exist, and the project stalled. And so, for a decade, this very substantial typescript remained confined to the shelves of building conservation officers, English Heritage inspectors and the staff of the local historic environment record – amongst whom, it has to be said, it was in almost daily use – while remaining unknown and inaccessible to a wider world.
Around 2009, conversations began between the new county archaeological organisation (Herefordshire Archaeology), and the local inspectors of ancient monuments (successively, Tony Fleming, Colum Giles and Rebecca Lane), to update, edit and complete the volume with a new introduction, conclusions and digital photography. A funding package was put in place, and the finished book is now available.
In addition to the canonical residences, a couple of mercantile halls of about 1400 are covered, both displaying the ornate carpentry characteristic of wealthy townhouses of the period, with ogee-headed doorways, curving cusped braces and bratticed (crenellated) wall-plates. A farmhouse overtaken by suburban development was also included in the CHAU remit and appears in the book.
The social exclusivity represented by the medieval buildings is diluted somewhat in the corpus of early modern structures the book discusses.
Most, certainly, were built for the urban mercantile elite or county gentry families. The former Farmers’ Club building on Widemarsh Street, for example was built just inside the city wall by members of the Church family, wealthy dyers and urban office-holders.
One of the fanciest interiors is to be found...in a back lane that featured in court accounts of pub brawls
But buildings from far less grand levels of the social strata are present as well. One of the fanciest of all the interiors is to be found in the rear range of the former Conservative Club on East Street. Built by a brewer father and son, its ornate, early 17th century plaster ceilings were perhaps some compensation for the building’s insalubrious location in a back lane, which regularly featured in court accounts of pub brawls. By the time construction activity picks up in Hereford in the later 16th century, after decades in the doldrums, the open hall had been consigned to the past and new buildings had halls provided with ceilings, with great chambers over them, and attics above lit by dormer gable windows, as the above two buildings indicate.
The Old House in the market space of High Town is probably known to every Hereford visitor.
Now isolated, it is the sole survivor of rows of ‘marketplace encroachment’ structures, which were cleared in the 18th century. Built for John Jones the butcher in 1621, it is a standing tribute to the skill of its carpenters and woodcarvers, executed on a compressed scale – two-up, two-down, with multi-gabled attics.
But the buildings covered by the book descend still further below the level of the office-holding classes with a mid-17th century pewterer’s house and workshop (now the Grapes, East Street) and, at the most basic level, the former Essex Arms in the Widemarsh suburb, surveyed by CHAU before it was removed and re-assembled in a local country park. This was another two-up two-down, built very plainly – there are no decorative flourishes at all – in about 1600 in a flood-prone tanning district. It was built for (another) John Jones – a carrier known from his regular brushes with the law: a 17th century Herefordian ‘white-van man’.
The case-studies, which open with a necessarily summary account of the Bishop’s Hall, conclude with a description of the so-called Mansion House on the part of Widemarsh Street within the walls: this is Hereford’s earliest known surviving symmetrically-planned brick house, and dates to the 1690s.
But if anyone should think that Hereford has now been ‘done’ – in the manner of a city such as Salisbury, pored over in great detail by the old Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and published by them as an inventory volume – they would be wildly wrong.
The volume reports on just 24 historic houses, all but the first and the last arising from building-repair casework: not quite a random sample, but almost. Others are discussed, but there has been no comprehensive city-wide search for early fabric and, particularly amongst the old canonical residences around the close, it is almost certain that more early buildings await discovery. Perhaps, even, that most elusive of prizes, further survivals from the years before the Black Death.
Nigel has been a professional urban archaeologist since the late 1970s. Excavations and historic buildings work led to PhD research at Nottingham University. Excavation projects at Shrewsbury Abbey were followed by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship on Birmingham University's English Medieval Towns & the Church project. Between 1994 and 2005 work as an archaeological consultant included principal responsibility for English Heritage's Urban Archaeological Databases for Shrewsbury, Worcester and Hereford.
Baker, N, Hughes, P and Morriss, R K 2018 The Houses of Hereford, 1200–1700. Oxford and Swindon: Oxbow Books and Historic England
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This page outlines Historic England’s programme of projects looking at early urban buildings and provides details of projects currently being funded.