Monday, December 9, 2013

Tudor Houses – Timber Frame Construction

As you would imagine, based upon the amount of timber and straw used in construction, together with the fact that the Tudors had a preference for very narrow streets and houses being built in very close proximity, that hygiene and particularly fire were a constant hazard

A few months ago I wrote two articles which considered the influence of the Romans (circa 43AD to 410AD) on the UK built environment and explained how their ingenuity, forward planning and ability to introduce change allowed them to leave a lasting legacy, which is still evident today.  I also stated that ‘it is only by looking at our historic built environment that we can fully appreciate the skills and ingenuity of the people of their time. Our predecessors would not have had access to modern building equipment and modern techniques that are available today’.  With this in mind, and a little more up to date in historical terms is the construction of timber framed houses, particularly during the Tudor Period (circa 1485 to 1603).  It is worth pointing out that although this method of construction was used before and after the Tudor period it is during this period that construction of timber frame houses really evolved.

A wattle and daub panel - Source:
A timber framed Tudor house is very distinctive and recognisable with most people being able to identify with the ‘black’ timber frame and ‘white’ infill panels.  In fact Tudor houses are often referred to as black and white houses.  The large and often bulky timber frames, usually made from oak, were connected together with a combination of timber joints and timber pegs.  Once the timber frame had been constructed the walls would be in-filled around the frame with a technique know as 'wattle and daub'.  This was a method of weaving small branches between parts of the timber frame and then 'plastering' onto the weaved branches a mixture of clay, horsehair and sometimes horse dung! with water,  This could be smoothed when wet and when it dried out it provided an effective wall finish that would be reasonably weather tight.  The wattle and daub would later be painted with a lime wash giving a white colour finish, and the timber frame would be covered in tar to provide additional protection and to give it its distinctive black colour finish.

The vast majority of timber framed houses would incorporate a thatched roof, although for the wealthy this may have included a more expensive tile finish, together with a chimney to allow smoke from an open fire to discharge into the atmosphere.  Chimneys were usually constructed of brick, although poorer houses would simply incorporate a hole in the roof, located just above the fireplace.  Windows would also be made from timber, however as glass was very expensive, most houses would have timber shutters, which would be opened during the day to provide some natural light.  Inside floors primarily remained as dirt, which were covered in reeds or straw.  This would be changed periodically to freshen up the internal environment.

As you would imagine, based upon the amount of timber and straw used in construction, together with the fact that the Tudors had a preference for very narrow streets and houses being built in very close proximity, that hygiene and particularly fire were a constant hazard.  It was these factors that contributed to the great plague and the eventually to the great fire of London in 1666.  Although these events occurred in the Stuart period, which followed the Tudors, the vast majority of buildings in London at the time were Tudor constructed timber framed buildings.  London had been devastated by the plague or black death for two years prior to 1666.  The disease was spread by fleas, which were carried by the rodent population and was killing as many as 1,000 people a week in London in 1666. London was extremely crowded, with buildings tightly spaced.  Sanitation was unheard of, with raw sewage flowing through open drains and people throwing their trash from balcony windows directly into the streets.

The great fire of 1666 is believed to have started in a rundown neighbourhood, in a bakery in Pudding Lane near the Tower of London.  At the time fires were commonplace in London and the fire received little attention until it entered a group of warehouses where animal fat, oil, and alcohol were being stored which intensified the fire. In the end over 15,000 buildings were destroyed by the fire, representing over two thirds of the city. A few years later, after the devastation caused by the fire the UK Government introduced the first London Building Act, which for the very first time tried to regulate construction. This however related to London only and nationwide regulation was not introduced until many years later.

Take a look at the excellent video below, produced by six university students from De Montfort University in cooperation with the British Library, which allows you to step back in time to appreciate what life would have been like just before the great fire.  The video provides an insight into the narrow streets and general construction and proximity of buildings.  It is easy to see how a fire could be some widespread and devastating in such an environment.

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  1. Gary. A couple of points.
    The finish to the timbers varied depending on where you were in the country. For the most part however the timbers would have been covered with limewash (not tar) as well as the wall infill panels. In some regions there is a history of black and white (e.g. Hereford and Worcester), but in others (e.g. East) the timbers were hardly, if ever, coloured with anything other than the limewash itself. In fact the limewash was often coloured with various pigments (including blood - to give the deep reds you sometimes see).
    Chimneys were hardly ever built originally until about the C16th. Prior to this there was a hole in the roof, as you say, or in wealthier homes there might have been a timber framed (with wattle and daub) smoke hood (an early form of chimney). Brick chimneys as we now see them were often later insertions from the C16th and C17th (or later). It is usually the insertion of a chimney that resulted in the change from a Hall House to one with an upper floor over the main part - because the area above the fire no longer had to be an open void to allow the smoke to escape through the hole in the roof. Even in the most luxurious homes here in the East you would struggle to find a brick chimney on a timber framed house prior to the C16th.
    Fire was a concern from a very early period and in some cities there are records of local laws banning thatch in towns from the early to mid C13th. It could be argued that in fact London was behind the times with regard to fire and 'regulations'.
    As for windows these would have sometimes had oiled skins stretched over them (plus the shutters), but hardly ever glass until the C16th.
    Many changes in building technology or design can be traced back to social history. At the end of the Tudor period there was an economic boom and this is what lead to middle and upper class homes being upgraded to have chimneys, glass, etc. Timber frames evolved throughout the Mediaeval period and had become well established before the Tudor period, but there were refinements during this time mainly brought about by some technological advances (e.g. in glass and brick making) but also due to economic improvement (e.g. ability to pay for chimneys and have upper floors installed).
    I hope these additional comments help.

    1. Thank you Stephen. Yes, as I limit my posts to a maximum of 1000 words it is great when people like yourself take the time to respond to articles and enhance the material. I am sure my readers will appreciate your comments. Thanks again

  2. I was in the Basque area of southern France this year and in Bayonne it is noticeable this style of house construction is very common. The old city centre has many buildings built in the 'tudor' style.
    I was left wondering, given the earlier English rule of this area by the Plantagenates, as to where this style of construction originated. Perhaps the Romans used it in both countries and it was later adapted to suit local conditions. Is there an expert view on this?