Rural Workers Cottages

The late 19th century in England was known as the period of “the Great Agricultural Depression2. Yet paradoxically it was also the time when there was a great expansion of and immense improvement in housing for working people. Not everywhere or for everyone of course. But in two key areas of society I have found this to be the case:

(i) Housing provided by the great Quaker industrialists/manufacturers (such as Huntley & Palmer in Reading) exclusively for their workers. In this instance the size and location of the house was graded according to the job: e.g. terraced cottages for workers and larger semis for managers etc. and

(ii) Agricultural workers cottages on some of the great farming estates.

Of the latter some would have been in the form of ‘terraces’ of a small number (say 4 or so) of cottages. Whilst others would have been semi-detached. “Yet although most people consider semis to be a twentieth century invention, and therefore not worthy of attention by architectural historians or heritage professionals, semis played a key role as rural cottages for the working classes and suburban villas for the middle classes during the nineteenth century and this cultural value deserves to be recognised.” (Pamela Lofthouse)   

Hereabouts there are several buildings that possibly fit into the category of agricultural workers cottages. For example the two pairs of semi-detached cottages at Studley Crossroads in Studley Lane (both being on the Bowood Estate). They are of course divided by the ‘New Road’ section of the London-Bristol route made between 1787 and 1810, and which cut Studley Lane in two. The two pairs of cottage are dated 1885 and 1895 respectively.

All four of these cottages are built to a design that reflect the earlier style or vernacular of rural dwellings in this part of Wiltshire: that is thatched roofs with the upper windows partly or wholly in the roof (clearly seen in the thatched cottage in Studley Lane and in Norley Lane). In turn this style would have been a gradual evolution from the Anglo-Saxon long-house.

In the case of two of cottages mentioned above they are clearly dated with stone inscriptions 1885 and bear an interlocked “LL”. (In design they are almost identical to several buildings up at Bremhill village and have similar dates and inscription- the village there used to be part of the Bowood Estate). Many cottages throughout the area were constructed by and belonged to the Bowood Estate.

These four cottages have stone outbuildings of the same period. Possibly for the keeping of personal livestock by the tenant families in those times. The doorways are very low.

The construction of the cottages are of external dressed limestone reminiscent of “cotswold” but with red brick edging to all windows and chimney stacks also of brick. The walls are 20 inches thick.

Over the course of more than three centuries the rural estates of England (as at Bowood) provided the major resource of both employment and housing for their communities. In some instances that tradition and neighbourhood ambience continue to this day. It is something to be cherished.

©Stephen Ben Cox