Trust Annual Report 1978

 

Report on 36 Middle Brook Street, Winchester

 

by Charles Burford, RIBA, FFB — Chartered Architect

 

middle36 Middle Street, Winchester

 

During works of demolition in 1971/72 it was discovered that bedded in the apparently solid brick walls of No. 36 Middle Brook Street was a timber framed medieval structure. The City Authorities stopped demolition work at a point where it was reasonable to assume that some structural stability still remained. A detailed survey was instituted and this is recorded in a fine set of drawings in the possession of the City Council.

 

The building discovered was in a remarkably good condition except for the framed perimeter walls, and in particular the south wall, where later work of demolition preparatory to rehabilitation revealed that all timbers had been lost at an earlier date, with the exception of two posts. These posts had been heavily damaged by clumsy hacking back to provide a clear run for the brick wall built within the last century.

 

The plan of the house, which was constructed around 1450, was of the traditional three bay Hall-house type with the original gallery on the north side. The bays ran from the road-way and contrary to the normal tradition extended beyond the three bays now remaining. There is evidence that a private, or perhaps public passage-way, ran from the road-way through the first bay, under the gallery, and through the third bay to gain access to the fourth and any successive bays that may have existed. Blackened timbers over a positive area of the original gallery and part of the roof, indicate that there was in the early days an open hearth, subsequently replaced by a closed hearth and chimney built in soft limestone blocks, almost the consistency of chalk. There is a date carved at high level 1628' which whilst authentic in date of carving is not necessarily acceptable as evidence of the date of building the chimney, which could have happened any time in the preceding hundred years.

 

In the same period a gallery similar to the original was built over the south side of the hall leaving a narrow well between the galleries which may have accommodated a staircase.

 

Subsequently drastic alterations took place which included flooring over the well between the galleries; moving the ground floor east wall of the original hall; building an attic storey through all three bays in the roof, which previously had been open to the rooms and hall below; and constructing two flights of stairways for access to all floors, cutting right through the original north gallery.

 

Evidence is to hand that at the turn of this century the land between No. 36 and Cossack Lane was enclosed as a garden with a brick wall of such antiquity that it is fair to assume that it always was a garden. It is logical to assume then that any bay(s) extra over the normal three could at one stage have been stabling, hay loft, farriers workshop or the like, accessible from Cossack Lane. However, it also must be assumed, in view of the ground floor access corridor, that this extra area was at some time dwelling accommodation. I have laboured this point in order to accentuate the degree of hypothesis in the overall situa¬tion which applies particularly to the three-bay building in its middle history. From the evidence on site it was very clear how the building appeared in its earliest times, and whilst it is possible to trace the later alterations, they were so much used and abused that it was impossible to establish in detail the appearance say in the seventeenth/ eighteenth centuries. It is my personal philosophy in conservation work to keep conjecture to the minimum and this was the major influence in my decision to stop the clock at the time when the chimney was constructed.

 

I was first commissioned by the City of Winchester early in 1973 to undertake the conservation work on the premises. After my initial appraisal, I had to advise that in the prevailing economic climate and bearing in mind the costs involved and the immediate environment, there was no way that the building could be rehabilitated as a dwelling and be economically viable. The only possible alternative at that time was to accept that the building became part of a small commercial development which could support the costs involved. This led to the contract and building operations which reached completion in September 1978.

 

The rehabilitation building works commenced by filling the old structure with vertical props throughout the whole ground, first and attic floors, ensuring that all was doubly supported in anticipation of vibration from piling operations for the new structure. By providing the building with these hundreds of 'feet' it was also possible to temporarily remove say ten or more at a time, confident that the remainder provided ample support while a section of repair was undertaken, the ground floor was put down in panels and the external walls and foundations renewed in lengths.

 

At the start, brickwork existed on all sides up to first floor level, and on the south side up to eaves level. The whole east wall and most of the north wall being contained within the new structure was retained, but the remainder, being external, was demolished and rebuilt in cavity work to modern standards.

 

Within part of the walls demolished was found a complete window frame of great age and being in softwood probably was one of the earliest built-in windows. Due to its size and proportions it was obviously related to the timber framed structure and modelled on the 'chattel' window it replaced. The new windows were therefore based upon this 'discovery' and made in oak to be long lasting, with oak sashes and leaded lights to give the impression of how the earlier windows would have appeared.

 

The repairs to the timber structure were commenced on the gable to the roadside, systematically working through the fabric bay by bay. Members forming part of the structural frame were spliced where requiring repair and non-framing members in common rafters and bearing plates were half lapped. However, because of the need for continuity in the plates, the half lap in these cases incorporated an integral dovetail. Because of the overall good condition very little strengthening in wrought iron plates was necessary, and on the whole replacement of the original dowels was enough to renew the jointing.

 

It was deemed that history stopped on the backs of the rafters, then a twentieth century roof applied. Rough sawn elm boarding was fixed to symbolise the rustic underside of the original thatch, followed by polythene vapour barrier, glass wood insulation, counter battens, roofing felt battens and tiles. Sprockets were fixed at the eaves to project the tiling to equal the drip line of the original thatch. Considerable satisfaction was taken from the fact that in subsequent heavy rainfall and windy weather all drips cleared the first floor timber structure. About eighty-five percent of the earlier tiles were salvaged for re-use on this roof. As it was perfectly sound, no attempt was made to correct the sag in the roof structure in any way, and the elm boarding, while being loose fixed to permit shrinkage, was stressed into action by the counter battens being screwed down to the rafters, providing diagonal bracing to compensate for the lack of strength in the wind braces which had suffered badly from beetle attack. An elm board barge was fitted to the road gable, roughly sawn to shape signifying the ornamental barge that must originally have been there.

 

The external infil panels to the framework, had to comply with modern standards as described in the roof finish. This was achieved with woodwool slabs (giving a passing nod to wattle) plastered outside and backed with a polythene vapour barrier, glass wool insulation and aluminium foiled plasterboard plastered internally. Woodwool slabs plastered both sides were used for internal infil panels.

 

The commercial use and integration with the new work raised difficulties in regard to means of escape and smoke protection. The main issues having an influence on the old structure were the internal doors which had to be half hour fire resisting (resolving the question of period at a stroke) and the first floor, where to provide some measure of fire and smoke resistance, the backs of the joists were covered with decorative quality plasterboard with long runs of joints located over joists, over which the elm floor board¬ing was fixed.

 

There was enough evidence on the gallery edge beam and the side of the chimney stack to reconstruct the panelled balustrade but the steep companionway ladder giving access is pure supposition.

 

The chimney still incorporates a later brick flue parasitically built within it, and overall is mostly as originally constructed. Part had collapsed within the first ten feet of height and as all the limestone salvaged was broken into small pieces, it now appears as a random repair within the discipline of the original coursed stonework.

 

To pander to the overall impression the ground floor was finished with brick paviors. Modern heating and lighting was installed with no such reverence and the lighting in particular is blatantly used to provide the intensity of light required for modern office use and to highlight features of the old work.

 

Lastly I would refer to the wall painting in the first floor room facing over the street. The first evidence of this was a little patch of green lines where a flake of thin plaster not much larger than a postage stamp was missing from the wall surface. When fully exposed, an area of about two square metres of painting was revealed, consisting of an informal vine with an odd mixture of coloured fruits and flowers. The colouring tied in with old blotches on wall posts and purlins, which previously had no significance, but now indicate that the whole room was probably completely covered with this free flowing, arrogant and yet not unattractive decoration, originating in the century before wallpaper was introduced.