The Great Rebuilding


The meeting of Forncett History Group on Wednesday 19th July attracted an audience of over forty people to listen to a talk entitled "The changes in houses between the medieval and post-medieval periods, illustrated using examples from Forncett". Every chair in St. Edmund's was occupied!

In 2009 the Norfolk Historic Buildings Group (NHBG) undertook a detailed study of historic buildings in Tacolneston and some surrounding villages. This very detailed study was published by the NHBG under the title "The Tacolneston Project". Included in the project were studies of ten historic houses in Forncett and so we invited Ian Hinton, the present chairman of the NHBG, to talk to our Group about some of the major findings that emerged from the Tacolneston Project and similar studies.

Ian divided his talk into two major sections. In the first part of the talk he introduced the general layout of the medieval house in the 15th and early 16th century. This typically conformed to a tri-partite plan with service rooms at one end, a central "hall" and a "parlour" at the other end. The service rooms were separated from the "hall" by a cross-passage. The hall was originally open to the roof with no chimney, although later a primitive chimney made of timber (known as a smoke hood) was sometimes added.

This layout appears to have been replaced very rapidly between around 1570 and 1640 in a period termed "The Great Rebuilding". During this period houses were often modified by the addition of a brick-built chimney (usually between the hall and the parlour), by the introduction of a second floor (by putting a first floor in the previously open hall), and by the replacement of the "cross-passage" by a separate front door into a small lobby by the chimney. Windows, which had previously been simple openings, often only covered by cloth, were replaced with shuttered, and sometimes glazed, windows giving much more comfort, especially in winter.

Yew Tree Farm, Forncett St. Mary

Probably built between 1475 and 1550, the original hall house was modified in the late 16th century by addition of a floor to create two storeys. 

The reason for this radical rethink on the features desirable in a house is not known with certainty but it has been suggested to reflect an improving economic situation as well as a social desire for a more "private" and more comfortable way of life.

Ian explained how present-day, timber-framed houses could be dated by careful observation of many of the building's features, including construction styles e.g. types of timber jointing, and by timber dating using dendrochronology. Whilst it is expensive and by no means always successful, dendrochronology can sometimes give dates to an exact year.

Using examples of buildings in Forncett and the surrounding area, Ian then showed us how experts could often deduce both the age of a house's original construction and the changes that it had undergone during its existence. One major finding comparing the Tacolneston Project with other areas was that houses in parts of the Claylands were often modified much later than others, sometimes outside the proposed period of the Great Rebuilding. The reasons for this are not clear but may reflect the poor economic situation in many rural areas in the 17th century.

There was a wide range of questions at the end of the talk and many people who were eager to talk to Ian before he left. From feedback after the meeting it was clear that the audience really enjoyed Ian's presentation and that the history of historic buildings, of which Forncett has a great many (there are 64 listed buildings in the parish) is a topic of considerable interest.

The NHBG is always looking for new historic buildings to survey. The surveys are free to any owner who would like to invite the NHBG experts to visit their home. They will receive a written report on the results of the survey and details of their property will be added to the NHBG database which already includes over 350 buildings. These studies are invaluable in extending knowledge of the evolution of timber-framed houses in Norfolk from the 1400s onwards.

Copies of the NHBG publication "The Tacolneston Project" are still available from the Group – see .