Living in a Chocolate Box!

Thatched cottage Nicola here, looking out of my study window on a sunny summer day. I am lucky enough to live in a cottage in a village in the English countryside. There is a cherry tree on the village green outside, roses around the door (or there will be when my rose bush grows big enough) and a duckpond down the road. At the moment the fields around us are full of combine harvesters. It feels oddly like being surrounded by a beseiging army!

Mean Habitations

Two hundred years ago, of course, we would all have been out working in those fields rather than Ruined cottage watching someone else bring in the harvest. This village and a half dozen others around here were "tied" villages, belonging to the local Craven estate and populated entirely by their estate workers and servants. The cottages were pretty basic, one room up, one down, and a shared privy out at the back. They were not built to last and they certainly weren't built to be gentrified as all the chocolate box thatched cottages in this village have been. Originally they were, not to put too fine a point on it, hovels or "sad little hutts" as the traveller Celia Fiennes commented on her travels in the 1690s. In his dictionary Dr Johnson defined a cottage as a "mean habitation."

An inventory of the possessions of the cottage-owners at the time of their death is revealing of their poverty. Furniture was sparse; in the "hall" – the kitchen/living and dining room - there would be some coppers for cooking, a table, a couple of benches, a stool, one armchair and a chest or two. Upstairs in the "chamber" would be a bed with a flock mattress to fall into after you had exhausted yourself working in the fields. Those who were not simply labourers but had a trade might own a feather bed, some linen, pewter plates to eat off and a leather bottle or two.

Model Villages

Blaise Hamlet Not all villages grew up with cottages of different ages higgledy-piggledy like mine. By the eighteenth century landowners who wanted to extend their landscape parks might uproot entire communities and demolish the cottages that spoiled their view. The most famous case was at Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire where Lord Harcourt wanted a new Palladian villa built. The site was chosen to make full use of views across to the dreaming spires of Oxford. Unfortunately the village of Nuneham was in the way so Lord Harcourt had it demolished and rebuilt out of sight of the house, along the London Road.  It took the form of two parallel rows of cottages of brick and timber with two rooms on the ground floor and dormer windows lighting two rooms on an upper floor. In 1788 the Rev. Stebbing Shaw describes Lord Harcourt's gesture thus: "forty families may here, by the liberal assistance of his lordship, enjoy the comforts of industry under a wholesome roof who otherwise might have been doomed to linger out their days in the filthy hut of poverty." The writer Oliver Goldsmith, in contrast, referred to Lord Harcourt as "the man of wealth and pride" taking the villagers homes for his own selfish purposes.

The most beautiful "model village" that I have seen is Blaise Hamlet near Bristol. It is so ridiculously pretty that it looks like a cottage theme park. This was created in 1810 by John Scandrett Harford for the benefit of his family retainers. Nine thatched stone cottages were built around a green in a woodland setting, with a village pump and a sundial. The privy had a sloping roof so that it was both convenient and pretty, and all the cottages had differently patterned moulded brick chimneys to add to the picturesque effect. The houses were all given picturesque names too: Vine, Diamond, Dial, Sweet Briar, Oak, Circular, Jessamine, Rose and Double. Each porch was designed so that the door was not overlooked by another cottage although in her book on Regency gardens Mavis Batey comments that privacy was shortlived since this model of the picturesque village appeared in every guidebook from 1810 onwards.

Internally the cottages were quite simple, two chambers above and a sitting room, kitchen and pantry Blaise hamlet 2 downstairs. A note in the estate papers shows thar Harford was conscious of the expense of building his servants such elegant quarters for it stipulates that the gardener must: "find out the smallest sized coppers and ovens that would be sufficient for the sort of people who are to live in the cottages." In building Blaise Hamlet Harford was fulfilling his sense of social responsibility. He saw it as his duty to improve the living conditions of his tenants – as long as it didn't cost too much and the properties were not too grand for their social status!

The Gentleman's Cottage

At the end of the eighteenth century cottages were no longer only for labourers and estate workers. In Persuasion Jane Austen writes of a farmhouse in the village of Uppercross that has been elevated to the status of cottage by the addition of a veranda and pretty windows. Robert Ferrers in Sense and Sensibility declares: "I am exceedingly fond of a cottage. There is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them." He was not talking about the sort of cottage that a farm worker would live in. The idea of the cottage that grew out of the picturesque and the Romantic Movement was a little country retreat fit for a gentleman.

Regency Cottage Endsleigh In 1802 in Designs for Villas the architect James Malton suggested that a gentleman should have several such villas in several distinct neighbourhoods – a hunting box at one place, a shooting box in another, a cottage for the amusement of angling and a dwelling on the sea shore to give "marine advantages." Such houses would have stabling and outbuildings and be reasonably substantial. Inside there would certainly be sufficient room for card tables and supper parties, and the garden, unlike the cottage gardens of those lower down the social scale, would not be full of barrels, ladders and other equipment that a labourer needed. There would be roses around the door, a rustic arbour, an orchard, a pond, maybe even fish, ducks and geese but these would all be kept for display and design, not to eat!

The Craven family themselves illustrated this idea very well. They had their hunting lodge (Ashdown House) and whilst their farm and estate workers were living in "real" cottages they also had Craven Cottage on the River Thames, surrounded by woodland and incorporating part of Anne Boleyn's hunting ground. Craven Cottage was about as far removed from the mean habitations of their workers as it was possible to be. It contained only three rooms, but those were extremely elaborate. The 'principal saloon' was Egyptian 'supported by large palm-trees of considerable size, exceedingly well executed, with their drooping foliage at the top supporting the cornice and architraves of the room…The furniture comprised a lion's skin for a hearth-rug, for a sofa the back of a tiger, the supports of the tables in most instances were four twisted serpents or hydras' . The room gave into a large Gothic dining room, while the third room was a semicircular library.

Meanwhile this is a description of a "real" country cottage from the Morning Chronicle 1849: "The room which you enter is so dark that for a time you can with difficulty discern the objects which it contains… At one corner stands a small ricketty table, whilst scattered about are three old chairs – one without a back – and a stool or two… The bedroom is gained by means of a few greasy steps… The whole room is begrimed with smoke and dust and replete with vermin… The beds are large sacks filled with the chaff of oats." The name of "cottage" might have been the same but the experience of living in one decidedly was not.

Would you have enjoyed living in a Regency "gentleman's cottage"? Would you have had your cottage built in a wood or on the seashore, and what sort of decoration would you have liked? I think I might have given the lion rug and tiger sofa a miss…