Building Wooden Houses

Houses were built in forest workshops, assembled and all the joints marked with axe cuts. Then they were taken apart and carried to the building site. Here they were reassembled, using the axe cuts as guides, and then the roof would be added and thatched. This was much better than taking the tree trunks to the site and doing the work there.


Woodmen lopping off the side
branches before felling


Quartering a log using wedges

Woodmen sawing with a
two handed saw on a trestle

The carpenter appears to be holding a timber against the workshop wall
and shaping it with a two-handled draw knife.


Picture of a drawknife

Medieval craftsmen cutting and preparing timber in a forest workshop

Trees were grown to about 200 mm (8 inches) diameter which was the span of a man's hand (a convenient measurement when most people could not read and write and had no rulers anyway). Then they were felled and squared with an adze. This gave posts about 150 mm (6 inches) square and usually about 2-2¼ metres long (6½ -8 feet). Bigger trees could have been grown, but this took a long time so most trees were cut as soon as they were useable. This length of trunk controlled the height of the storeys of ordinary houses storeys and also decided the shape of the buildings. Timbers for the roofs of cathedrals, were much larger and and were so rare that they were often difficult to find.

 

A round tree trunk being chopped away with an adze to form a square baulk. The corner bark was left on to prove that the maximum size of log had been cut and no timber had not been wasted.

An adze in the cutting position An adze head

An adze is a very sharp axe with the blade set at right angles to the shaft. It was used by spreading the legs wide on either side of the log and cutting off small flakes of wood. It can be a very dangerous tool in unskilled hands. One can chop off the odd toe very easily.


A mortise and tenon joint with two tapered dowels

 

The frame of the house was jointed with mortise an tenon joints and the joints were later pulled tight with tapered dowels. The whole house was built in a forest workshop and and the joints were numbered with axe cuts. Then the houses was taken to pieces again for transporting to the house site and re erected. This time the joints were bored to take the tapered, oak dowels. The drawing shows that the holes were not exactly in line. The tapered dowel would force the shaded portion into the joint and draw it tight.

Figure 1 ++

The Correct Way to Build a Wooden House

 

If a house was built by placing two or more timbers one on the of the other, end to end, the joints where they met became permanently damp from the rain, Rain collected at the joint and could not escape, Then rot set in.

The wrong way to build a wooden house.

To build one floor above the next you would expect to put one post on top of the other, but this does not work. Rain trapped between the timbers cannot run away and the joint remains wet, the wood rots and eventually decays. The house would small of damp, like an old, disused building where the damp proof course has failed and the walls have become permanently wet. There is no mistaking the smell of damp. In the end the timbers would rot and the house decay, but in the meantime the damp would give everyone rheumatism.

Therefore upper storeys were built to jetty out beyond the lower ones so that rain could drip off, safely away from the walls.


The correct way to build a wooden house.

In a properly built wooden house the upper floors jetty out beyond the lower ones, so that the rain can drip off instead of running into the joint between the posts and causing rot.

 


Wooden Houses in Holborn, London
From Old London Town, by Will Owen, 1921

These fine old buildings still exist in Holborn, at the end of Gray's Inn Road. The lower floors are shops and up above, the different floors each jetty out beyond the one below. Rain drips away safely from each floor and the building stays dry.

You can tell how old the buildings are by the pavement level. When the original pavement was laid it would have been slightly below the floors of the shops, yet today we step down into them. Each time the pavement has been repaired, it has risen slightly. The new pavings have been placed on top of the old with fresh layers of gravel and sand. Pavements in old towns can rise as much as a foot (15 centimetres) a century.

This, and the thatched roof, made a series of steps which trapped any fire. Houses started burning fiercely and then it was easy for the fire to spread from house to house. Wooden cities all over the world have had devastating fires.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, new Building Regulations were imposed and they, repeatedly updated, have governed London building ever since. All houses were to be in brick or stone; no wooden eaves were allowed - roofs were pushed back behind brick parapets; wooden window frames were reduced and later recessed behind brick; thatch was forbidden; party walls between houses had to be thick enough to withstand two hours of fire, to give the neighbours a chance of extinguishing the blaze. The face of London was changed for ever.

A few years ago a short row of houses in Essex Road, at the corner of Dagmar Terrace, in Essex Road, was restored. The original houses had been built in the early 18th century in the new Fire Regulations style. The brick walls rose to above the bottom edges of the roof to form pediments. Roof timbers were short and safely protected behind the brick pediments. During the restoration the roof timbers were examined. They had old joints in them, now not used. New joints had been cut, but it was clear that the beams came from a much older house. The new house was in brick, with a parapet wall to conform to the new building regulations, but its main floor and roof joists had been salvaged from an earlier wooden building. This beam may have come from some old demolished house in the City of London when wooden houses were banned. It is a very old piece of wood that could have watched Dick Whittington ride by.

But what have wooden houses to do with these houses in Milton Grove? The Fire of London changed everything.

 


Milton Grove

The Milton Grove house designs are a direct result of the Fire of London.

 


The Great Fire of London in 1666.

Why the Fire of London spread so rapidly.

The City of London was always very small. Even today it is still called The Square Mile. It was enclosed in thick walls from Roman times, with gates which were closed at night. Moorgate, Aldersgate and other 'gates are still familiar districts, but are now well inside our modern London. City streets had always been narrow, with the houses built close to the street edge and just room for a cart to get through. If you met a man on horseback you had to 'take the wall' - stand back against the wall to let the gentleman go by. If a rider and a cart met, there was a traffic jam.

With these narrow streets, and the way the houses on each side jettied towards each other, there was only a narrow line of sky above to light the street. The two top floors were so close together that one could hear conversations in the next house. This is the origin of the verb 'to eavesdrop' - to hear secrets in the eaves of the house. If you heard something about a neighbour in general conversation, you could repeat it, but repeating something you heard by eavesdropping was against the law. This was regarded a private conversation and therefore confidential.

When a fire started it could be trapped between the houses. The narrow streets, the jettied houses, and the thatched roofs, made a series of steps on both sides which enclosed any fire. Houses started burning fiercely and then it was easy for the fire to spread up one house, across to the next and so from street to street. Strong winds carried the flames rapidly from one district to the next. Wooden cities all over the world have had devastating fires. Rome, Chicago, - fires have always been dreaded and the Fire of London was no exception. Often, once started, they had to burn themselves out

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Detail of painting from 1666 of the Great Fire of London by an unknown artist, depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. The Tower of London is on the right and London Bridge on the left, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames.

 

The Fire of London Building Regulations

After the Great Fire of London, in 1666, new Building Regulations were imposed and they, repeatedly updated, have governed London building ever since. All houses were to be in brick or stone; no wooden eaves were allowed. Roofs were pushed back behind brick parapets; wooden window frames were reduced and later recessed behind a layer of brick. Thatch was forbidden; party walls between houses had to be thick enough to withstand two hours of fire, to give people in neighbouring houses a chance to escape and perhaps extinguish the blaze. The face of London was changed for ever. From a wooden City it became a brick one. This was the period of Wren and, if you look at a Wren house and compare it with the wooden houses in Holborn, you see how the new Fire of London Building Regulations transformed London. A new style was born.

Link to The Project Gutenberg eBook, Vanishing England, by P. H. Ditchfield, Illustrated by Fred Roe
This is a complete article on wooden houses which is available from to The Project Gutenberg eBook Project.

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Revised: October 16, 2011 1:18 PM