Plans showing the development of the house

From English Houses 1200-1800 The Hertfordshire evidence

The unit system in operation

Walnut Tree Farm Pirton [provides a model of how the unit system developed and worked, although it must be stressed that this is not the only possible way. The present house was built in the late Middle Ages as a building of which only a two-storey cross wing survives (phase 1) . Coeval with it was a hall, as low proportions to have been open to the roof, although very little evidence remains, and it is also assumed that there was, as usual, a service bay. In the late 17 th C a handsome new house of brick was added at the west end (phase
2), much like the front part of Rooks Nest Walkern. With its two storeys and attics, up to date plan and two-storey porch, it must have overshadowed the old house, and at this stage the unit system can definitely be said to have come into being. Perhaps within a year or two, the contrast was diminished by a partial rebuilding of the older part (phase 3), which may have been intended from
the first. The way the new brickwork is bonded into the old suggests two building campaigns to carry out a single intention, with toothing left for the continuation. In the newer part, a second porch, identical in detail with the first but very slightly narrower, was built in front of the old cross- passage. The passage itself was blocked by a wide fireplace to create a lobby-entrance. After another comparatively short interval, both parts were enlarged to double depth and provided with more rooms and good staircases.

Clearly, the evidence raises problems of interpretation. So little remains of the first phase that it has to be interpreted conventionally. With the second phase begins the problem of the relation between the two parts. In terms of a normal
lobby entrance plan, the ground-floor rooms are a new hall and a well-lit parlour at the freestanding end of the new build, so that the original service room continued to serve that purpose in relation to the new hall, and possibly the hall was used for cooking. Yet it is hard to see why the cross-
wing at the lower end of the old house should have remained had an independent household not been using it, for otherwise the kind of piecemeal replacement envisaged at Great Barwick Farm, Standon, and many other houses would surely have occurred rather than enlargement. In this
third phase, the building of a second porch’ almost equal to the first, establishes the existence of two households to some degree independent of each other. What is clear is the careful distinction between the two in status and function. The new east house had a smaller parlour, its principal fireplace differs from any in the west house in being intended for cooking, and even the porch is fractionally  smaller than its counterpart in a way which recalls the
marginal differences between the two staircases at Aston Bury Manor.

What do the differences imply? Having only one kitchen- type fireplace is crucial, by implying that food was cooked in the inferior house for the occupants of both, so that in this respect Walnut Tree Farm operated as a single unit. Nevertheless, the separation into two parts was sufficiently
complete to warrant two porches and two good staircases, so that some sharp distinction must have been drawn between the two households comprising the houseful. The greater degree of separation on the first floor is apparent
from the inconveniences that attended the unification of the house. What had first been built as the superior unit retained its superiority in the form of a better staircase and improved bedchambers. The little room over the porch provided a closet for one of the two principal rooms, and one of the two
rooms flanking the staircase was perhaps a dressing room for the other important bedchamber. In the east house the arrangements were simpler, the principal bedchamber over the kitchen had a closet o’er the porch; there was a smaller but quite good bedchamber at the rear; and a third and defi-
nitely inferior chamber over the old hall. Evidently, both
households were of very similar size. Walnut Tree Farm strengthens the interpretation, of New Hall and Cross Farm. All look like houses in which two
households living under the same roof were sufficiently independent to require separate entrances, while living a communal life to the extent that the division of the ground plan into a purely domestic and a domestic working end
could be maintained. That conclusion must follow, from the existence of only one kitchen and, if accepted, it assists the interpretation of other unit-system plans, none of which conforms to normal types. Wakeley, Westmill, was built as two houses. The north house has a large kitchen with a fireplace designed for
cooking, the other has nothing remotely like it. Tenuous plan evidence suggests that a link existed between the two houses from the first and permitted one kitchen to serve both. How this hypothetical communal cooking arrangement worked is even more conjectural, but bearing in mind the existence of detached kitchens not so many years earlier, We may suppose that food carried from the kitchen through a passage to the principal room of the north house.
An arrangement something like this may explain Wickham Hall, Bishop’s Stortford , which now has an extraordinarily elongated L-shaped plan with the north arm over 60 ft (18 m) and the east arm about 70 ft (21.5 m) long; the north arm alone is as big as an elongated lobby-entrance house like Gaytons, Much Hadham. The complicated development of both ranges may imply dual occupation antedating the predominantly late 17th-centurv character of the house by a hundred years or more, yet it is in the latter period that some separation of functions is discernible; for while at that period there was no possible cooking hearth in the east range, there was one in the north range, plus what looks like an original corridor connecting the supposed kitchen to the superior house: all this is reminiscent of the interdependence found at
Walnut Tree Farm. At both places food was prepared in the one room that was obviously a kitchen and perhaps eaten by the two households separately.

Gentry houses and the unit system
Although a unit system can be argued for a few more houses, the more important have been analysed. one striking conclusion is the general similarity of plan in functional terms, between Walnut Tree Farm and the gentry house,
Astonburv Manor. Naturally, the latter, being of one build, has a tidier plan, yet the element of duality represented by its two staircases is paralleled at Walnut Tree where it is proclaimed to the outside world by two entrances. Mackerye End, Wheathampstead, is not very different from Aston Bury Manor, and little about Rothampsted Manor except its size would have been unfamiliar to those who lived at Walnut Tree Farm, or Wickham Hall, Bishops Stortford, another divided manor house. It looks as though, the houseful was divided for some purposes but not others, and that the division, whatever the architectural form it took, did not usually preclude the maintenance of a common kitchen, even where two separate houses existed in the light of this finding it is regrettable that Leggatts Farm Kings Walden, could not be examined fully because there, if anywhere in Hertfordshire, two households may have lived side by side, each largely independent of the other. As for the other unit-system houses, it is difficult to believe that the two households were unrelated: but despite this it has been stated that ‘there slept together under each roof in 1600 only the nuclear family, with the addition of servants when necessary’.” This cannot be wholly true of Hertfordshire, as Walnut Tree Farm and New Hall prove. The situation can best be explained by postulating the existence of kin groups within which varying degrees of separation existed, such as parents and children plus grandparents, or cousins, each with a family. Whatever the composition of the group, its expression in bricks and mortar implies an expectation of long continuance.

It appears that actual separation of households was stronger among farmers, most of whom were no doubt copyholders, than among gentry. If as many as one third of the jointly occupied farms at Yetminster, Dorset, were held unrelated sets of people, structural divisions would be needed. Walnut Tree Farm would not meet that case unless simply locking a door was regarded as sufficient, but Leggatts Farm or Bridge End and The Whare, both in Little Hadham, would. The externally less marked physical separation, among the gentry may be connected with the sense of a house as the seat of a landed dynasty, providing for more than the nuclear family.

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