Until some four hundred years ago, timber was the principal building material in England, with the possible exception of Cornwall, a county not well supplied with trees suitable for timber construction (even here, however, we can find some timber-framed houses, for instance at Launceston). Even in those areas, such as the Cotswolds and Derbyshire, where other materials, such as stone, were readily avail­able, timber was preferred, for it was then plentiful, cheap and easy to handle, with the added advantage that every tree felled or woodland cleared provided additional land for cultivation.

Large parts of medieval England were covered with forests; over sixty genuine forests were recorded in the thirteenth century. Based on Gregory King’s estimate that the acreage of woods and coppices in England in 1688 amounted to some three million acres, it seems likely, with the widespread depletion of the forests in the previous century for shipbuilding, fuel for iron-smelting, building and other uses, that at the commencement of the sixteenth century there were over four million acres of woodland. In some areas – for instance, in parts of the Midlands – so dense were the oak forests that early settlers avoided them.

The timber-framed buildings that survive today do not reflect the almost universal use of timber until about 1500, for only a small proportion of pre-1500 buildings have survived. Although timber was the principal building material used, it was not until the latter part of the sixteenth century that oak was used almost universally, for until that time ‘men were content to dwell in houses built of sallow, willow, plum-tree, hardbeam and elm’, with oak being restricted to the construction of ‘churches, religious houses, princes’ palaces, noble­men’s lodgings and navigation’. These buildings of inferior timbers were rebuilt between the period 1550 and 1660 often in oak, but also in stone in those areas where it was available.

It is known that most buildings, except those of great importance, were in Saxon times of timber. Although many were of flimsy construc­tion from light, unsquared timbers gathered from the waste, some of the hall-type houses revealed by excavation were of a more substantial nature. In all these cases the strength to resist wind-pressure was achieved by setting the posts upright in prepared pits in the ground,

known as earthfoot construction. Because of this the damp to which the timber was subjected already reduced the life of these buildings to the length of time it took the principal posts to rot. From archaeological excavation, it is evident that these buildings were often repaired or rebuilt at least once a generation and that the irregular alignment and spacing of the upright in many buildings made it impracticable to form prefabricated framed buildings. It is this ability to form prefabricated buildings from halved or cleft timber with framed joints that dis­tinguishes timber-framing from other systems of timber construction such as earthfoot construction or the use of whole logs.

These timber-framed buildings can be classified into two types: box-frame and cruck construction. Box-frame construction was by far the most common and comprised* horizontal and vertical timber members jointed together to form a wall with the open panels infilled or with the entire wall covered with an appropriate cladding material. In cruck construction, pairs of inclined cruck blades are spaced at intervals along the building to collect the roof loads by means of ridge-beams, purlins and wall-plates to transmit the loads to the ground. The walls, which were non-structural, were often timber­framed but could be of any material. Within both groups are many variants: in box-frame there are the close studding, post-and-truss and interrupted sill, while in cruck construction there are, apart from true crucks, many forms within the family, the most important being the base-cruck and jointed cruck.

The distribution of cruck and box-frame construction differs (1). Full crucks, for instance, are to be found only in the Midlands, North and West. This form of construction is entirely absent from the south-eastern counties of Cambridgeshire, Essex, Kent, south Humberside, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Sussex, with only isolated examples recorded in Surrey, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. It is also found only occasionally in the south-western counties of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset. Clearly its scarcity in the south-western counties and absence from certain parts of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire can be attributed to the lack of suitable trees, but the reason for its absence from the other south­eastern counties – Essex, Kent and Sussex, where there were consider­able forests – is not easily explained and several theories have been put forward. One is that the South and East were always influenced by the Continent, where this form of construction was never prevalent. This, coupled with the fact that the South-East was always more advanced socially and economically, being agriculturally richer than other parts of the country, suggests that this system was probably abandoned while still in use elsewhere. Even in areas where crucks survive, the distribution varies greatly, in both number and date of construction.


1. Main areas of cruck and box-frame construction

The social development of the country was not evenly spread, so that in one area, which was more prosperous, crucks were being replaced with other forms of construction, but in other areas they were still being built. Hence, while cruck construction was abandoned in most areas by 1700, in parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire cruck construction continued after this date. In Cumbria, around the Solway Firth, crucks, although of small scantling and not matching pairs, were still being used at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Today more cruck-frames survive than is generally thought, for many have been incorporated within enlarged buildings, hidden be­neath a cladding of brick, stone or mud or simply plastered over. This • is particularly true in Cumbria, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and North Yorkshire, all with a relatively large number of cruck-framed buildings of which few are exposed. In Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire, although all with fewer examples, the same applies. The county where most cruck buildings are to be found is Hereford & Worcester being particularly numerous in and around Weobley, Dilwyn, Eardisland, Pembridge and Eardisley. Other counties where cruck-framed buildings can best be observed are Shropshire (where they have even been incorporated in three churches, at Acton Round, Munslow and Stoke St Milborough), Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Cheshire. Many of these buildings can also be found in the northern part of Gloucestershire, in the area adjacent to Hereford & Worcester, in such villages as Ashleworth, Dymock and Sandhurst, while the Severn Valley is another area where a number survive. Cruck-framed buildings can also be observed in Berkshire and the adjacent areas of Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire. Ten cruck-framed buildings survive at Harwell, Oxfordshire, with Dell Cottage (2) and Le Carillon having been dated by the radiocarbon process as 1445 and 1425 respectively; cruck-frames can also be seen in the northern part of Wiltshire at Urchfont, Pewsey and Wilsford, and further west, at Lacock, there is another excellent example. Today crucks are to be found mainly on cottages and barns, so giving the popular belief that cruck construction was a humble form of construction. This is not so, for those examples surviving from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are of considerable standing with large scantlings with well-finished timbers, very different from those built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Jointed crucks, the other form of cruck construction used in build­ing, are restricted to a smaller area than the true cruck for they are found (except for a few isolated cases elsewhere, and then only in more important buildings) only in Devon, Dorset and Somerset. In the east and north of these counties they far outnumber true crucks but they are almost entirely absent from south Devon, with only one example being found in Cornwall. In Dorset and Somerset they are predomi­nantly late medieval, while in Devon their use extended to the sixteenth century.

The distribution of base-crucks, though much fewer in number than true crucks, is much wider. They are widely dispersed from the north Midlands to the South, not only in those areas generally associated with true crucks but beyond its extreme eastern margin in the counties of Kent, Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. They are com-


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2. Dell Cottage, Harwell, Oxfordshire

pletely absent from northern England, an area where true crucks are well represented. Like true crucks, they are not to be found in Essex and East Anglia.

Box-frame construction of the various types is much more widely dispersed than that of cruck construction. Today it can be found mainly in the eastern counties, east of the limestone belt extending northwards to central Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and the counties to the west of the limestone belt and north of the Severn estuary, extending northwards to the east of the Pennines through Nottingham­shire to York and west of the Pennines into central Lancashire. Within these broad areas the intensity of box-frame construction differs

greatly, but even where little timber-framing now survives it does not mean that it was not at one time the normal form of construction. Lancashire, for instance, is now generally regarded as a brick county but this is something new for even as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century brick buildings were rare, gaining popularity only because of the growing scarcity of wood. For many centuries timber was plentiful, and up to the end of the seventeenth century timber­framed buildings prevailed everywhere away from the Pennines, as far north as the River Ribble.

Outside these areas there are few counties which do not have at least some examples of timber-framing. These are to be found mainly in towns; in the South-West, in Devon and Cornwall (neither of which has a tradition of timber-framing), houses, sometimes of considerable size, are to be found within the towns. The timber houses at Launce­ston have already been mentioned; in Devon a few examples can still be found in Exeter and Dartmouth, while at Totnes there are many examples frequently clad with slate or plaster. Again in such places as the Cotswolds timber-framing can be found in towns and large villages, even occasionally in the countryside in those marginal areas which lie between the predominantly stone region and the timber ones. In the northern counties too, although box-framing is rare, it is not completely absent. In Cumbria, for instance, one can cite the guildhall at Carlisle, and the odd example at Kendal and Hawkhead. In Newcastle-upon – Tyne there still survive two or three examples, the most notable being Surtees House and 37 Sandhill.

The earliest surviving timber-framed buildings in England date from the thirteenth century, but these are rare, being of aisled construc­tion, and occur only in the South-East, Essex and parts of Suffolk, although in Hereford & Worcester there is the occasional building of cruck construction, usually base-crucks which are of thirteenth – century date. The number of surviving examples increase from the fifteenth century until they reach their peak in the great period of rebuilding in the second half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth. After the reign of Elizabeth, timber-framing began to be restricted to buildings of lesser importance and increasingly so until finally it was confined to cottages, farm buildings and non­domestic buildings.

The supply of home-grown timber had begun to decline in the sixteenth century, and by the beginning of the seventeenth century the continuing depletion of the country’s oak forests forced the builders to exercise economies in the use of the remaining oaks. This growing shortage of timber was due only in part to the extravagant use of timber in house-building in the preceding centuries, partly to the widespread use of wood as a fuel not only for heating but also for use in the iron-working furnaces and forges, particularly in the Mayfield and Ashburnham areas of Sussex. In addition there was the ever – increasing demand for ships, for both the navy and the merchant fleet, started by Henry VIII and continued by Elizabeth. These factors, coupled with the failure to replant the felled trees, led to the depletion of the forests of the South and Midlands. Even by the end of Elizabeth’s reign timber was becoming scarce, and it is reported that the price had risen by as much as twenty-five per cent in a few years. In 1608 John Norden deplored the lack of oak, elm and ash, which he called the ‘three building trees’. The scarcity of oak was more acute in some areas than in others, particularly in the eastern coastal areas – for instance, in the Lincolnshire Fens where from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries various species of timber, including poplar, lime and hornbeam, were often used. In the Breckland of Norfolk, the area around Thetford now covered with acres upon acres of fir plantations, a royal proclamation of 1604 ordained that all new houses must have their walls and window-frames constructed of brick or stone and that the cutting of trees for fuel must also cease. Therefore, in this area, as in other areas where timber was scarce, as timber-framed buildings decayed they were replaced by buildings constructed of other materials, until in some districts no timber buildings remained. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods oak was often taken from old buildings, which were for some reason being demolished, cut up into smaller sections and re-used, in the construction either of a larger building or of two or more smaller ones.

By the eighteenth century building in half-timber began to decline. The country’s forests were so depleted that it became of increasing necessity to import softwood from the Baltic and Scandinavia, sup­plemented later, in the nineteenth century, with supplies from Canada and the United States. These softwoods, although easier to work than the traditional British hardwoods, were inferior in their structural capacity. Cottages and farm buildings using softwood framing con­tinued to be built well into the nineteenth century, its use being fostered by the tax on bricks first imposed in 1784 and not abolished until 1850.

The structural use of timber was therefore in use for centuries, with surviving examples spanning some six centuries. During this long period of time, timber-framed buildings were affected not only by the various technical developments which occurred but by the many local traditions which influenced the appearance of these buildings from region to region.

Updated: 17th September 2014 — 10:18 pm