It looked like a house, felt like a house and was Grade II listed but, as far as the planners were concerned when we first approached them, it was a farm building, and had much the same same legal status as a barn. This was the challenge we took on in 2007, when we decided to repair an ancient oak-framed wattle and daub cottage in Suffolk.

It was exceptional because, apart from essential repairs and some work on the upper floor, it had not been modernised in the 20th century, unlike the great majority of similar cottages. There was no water, apart from a well served by a primitive hand pump, no drainage or plumbing, and no electricity supply. It was far from certain that we would win permission to convert it to a dwelling, because there was no record of it having been lived in, and it had been used, probably for centuries, as no more than a utility building for the farmhouse next door.

The house as we found it, above and top

It  is listed as a late 16th century service building – a former kitchen and dairy range – to Holm Oak House (fuller information is in the Grade II listing under the documents link). But it  was the layout  that made it look so remarkably like a house; some of the details, such as the eight mullion windows, seven of them largely complete, and the skirting board all round one of the upstairs rooms, add to the impression, and the experience of living there confirms this feeling about the building’s purpose. The timber frame, especially at the north end, also seems higher quality than would be used in a service building.

Looks like a house, feels like a house – but legally the same status as a barn

A doctoral thesis by Nigel D Wright of the University of East Anglia, written in 1986 with the cooperation of the then owners, Paul and Ginny Broomhead (extracts under the documents link), supports the view that it was originally a dwelling. Mr Wright notes that the interior evidence makes the building look more than a service block. He says that as well as the service functions “the building may be an example of a dower house or lodgings”.

RJ Brown in The English Country Cottage, published by Hale, suggests that what is now regarded in England as a little cottage would once have been seen as a substantial yeoman farmer’s home, because our appreciation of the scale of  domestic buildings appropriate to different social levels has changed so much. The true cottages of the labourers and rural poor were so tiny and flimsy that virtually none have survived, and what we think of nowadays as cottages probably belonged to their employers.

In fact, our building was half as big again until the late 20th century, when one end fell down. Paul and Ginny Broomhead  passed on a story about why there’s a missing section: the end near the pond was thatched and leaking and the conservation officer (for it had been a listed building since 1955) insisted that it be rethatched. The farmer resented the cost and wanted to put a cheap corrugated iron roof on the building. In the stand-off that ensued, nothing was done, and it decayed to the point at which it collapsed, or was demolished. The missing section, of which a 1932 photograph exists (below), was thatched, with an upper floor.

Photo from a book of Gislingham reminiscences by Cecil Carter

It was slightly wider than the remaining building, so it is possible it may not have been constructed at the same time. Whether it was older or more recent is impossible to say without archaeological evidence. The missing section appears not only on an 1860s Ordnance Survey but also on an edition of the large scale Ordnance Survey bought in February 2012 (see the plan under the documents link). The evidence that the structure was much larger a few decades ago was part of our case when we applied successfully in 2012 for planning permission to extend the floorspace by 50 per cent, returning the building to the size it was before one end fell down. (Posts in 2014 describe this work).

So this was a large building, quite close in floor area to the farmhouse, with much more diverse uses than those cited in the Grade II listing, and with a surprise to come. During building work archaeologists discovered yet another function; they unearthed the remains of the large brick  hearth of a brewhouse, at the centre of the main room in the building.  Sadly, it was not possible to repair the building well enough to become a home again while preserving the remains of the hearth, which had to be dismantled. But we did decide to change the name to The Old Brewhouse from The Old Dairy.

The brewing hearth unearthed by the Suffolk County Council archaeology team. Nearby was a much smaller circular brick foundation (about 60 cm across) to an unidentified structure.

In her study Country House Brewing (1996), Pamela Sambrook writes that small domestic brewhouses were extremely numerous. One set of examples is recorded on Cambridgeshire County Council’s historic buildings database. A humble farrier’s home at Yarwell in Northamptonshire also had a brewhouse attached.  In the 1660s, a third of the inventories for probate in one district of Sussex  included a brewhouse. English Heritage’s listed buildings register contains 29 brewhouses, including one Grade II*.

Pamela Sambrook’s book is mainly about brewhouses on large country estates, because they were the ones that survived. Our cottage seems to have been an example of the earlier, more modest type, and so may be a rare survivor. Beer was the main drink for centuries, for adults and children, and was consumed in large quantities. Even babies were weaned on it, which may not have been as dangerous as it sounds, relative to contemporary standards, because of the health risks of untreated water.

There is tentative evidence that at some stage in its life the brewhouse may have served a wider clientele than the farm. Pieces of  the celebrated and very collectable stoneware jugs called Bellarmines, used in ale houses  in the 16th and 17th centuries, were found outside.  A bill for 7 barrrels of beer costing £23  5 shillings, from Cobbolds, the Ipswich brewer, was found in the farmhouse next door, dated 1819.   A barrel of ale contained 36 gallons,  and sold for 66 shillings for mild and 87 shillings for strong, according to Prices and Wages in England, by Lord Beveridge (found on Google rather than on our bookshelves). An order for more than 2,000 pints seems a little excessive for a domestic supply for the farm.

Perhaps the brewhouse evolved into something closer to one of those modern pubs with micro breweries attached. Then by 1819 this home brewing might have given way to competition from Ipswich. Pure speculation, but it is tempting to believe that part of the house was doubling as one of the several inns which are reputed to have been in the area. [Second thoughts, November 2013: BBC’s series Tudor Monastery Farm says 10 farm workers used to drink up to 300 gallons of ale – 2400 pints – a month. Maybe not so far fetched after all for a domestic order. But then those fragments of typical alehouse pottery?]

According to the Grade II listing, our house was also used as a cookhouse for the  farm. It has a substantial brick fireplace and chimney – rebuilt in the 1980s when they were on the verge of collapse – which were inserted in the side of the building at some stage during its life. (Large brick chimneys came into widespread use in small houses at the beginning of  the 17th century, according to The English Country Cottage.)

The fireplace with new stove installed

But none of these uses is mutually exclusive; there would have been room to cook, brew beer and process milk in a space set aside for dairy work, and also to sleep in the upstairs side rooms, which are substantial for the period. John Watson, a neighbour who has lived nearby all his life, remembers the building as a dairy, because he collected milk from it as a boy.

There is a possibility that a second habitable floor  was squeezed in at the North end of the house; there is a small mullioned window high on the North gable, and the present room, as currently arranged, has a high ceiling, and it is just about possible to imagine it being divided in two horizontally. This would have produced a first and second floor of very low rooms, often found in buildings of this age. The farmhouse next door has an arrangement like that, with a second floor (now disused) under the ridge.

We do not have good evidence for when the building was last inhabited, though a long delayed archaeologist’s report (commissioned by us as a condition of the permissions we eventually won to turn the building into a dwelling) may shed some light on this when eventually it arrives, and also on the age of the brewing hearth, because sample bricks were taken away for dating.  But there is a clue of a negative kind in the complete absence of any domestic facilities, which confirms that the house was not inhabited in the 20th century, when it would have seen some modernisation if it had been used as a home. Indeed, the same point applies to the 19th century. Its last use as a dwelling could have been a very long time ago indeed.

So how did we get permission to live in The Old Brewhouse? It took 18 months, some detailed research and the help of an excellent planning and architectural firm, Hollins of Framlingham, to solve the problem.

There was paperwork to show that planning permission was granted in 1983 to convert the building back into a dwelling, but the council planning department had not kept any record showing that work had been done on the house a quarter century before, and thus the assumption was that the permission had lapsed. That was the state of play when we bought the house without planning permission; we were faced initially with applying as if for an agricultural building conversion.

However, receipts from builders were turned out of old files by the previous owners, and the physical signs of major structural repairs, particularly to the massive chimney, could also be seen on site.  We gradually accumulated evidence that subtantial amounts of work were done  in about 1983, which meant that the council was able to accept that the original permission to convert the building had not lapsed and that what we had bought could be turned into a dwelling after all. (The three year time limit after which a permission expires becomes indefinite if the work is properly started.) We were therefore able to  continue with repairs, install water and electricity supplies and a waste treatment plant, and move in as soon as the new work was finished. There is no doubt now that it is a house.


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