The Case of the Puzzling Panels 3

In the two earlier posts I looked at some puzzling features of a particular chimney piece in our home. In this one we step back a bit from that to see the problem in the wider context of the rebuilding of the house as a whole.

The house was burnt down in the 18th Century during a much larger fire that destroyed a significant proportion of the town. The only part of the house that definitely survived was a single two story stone wall at the back of the house. That was incorporated into the new brick built house and still stands today.

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So did the chimney stack we are investigating survive too? It was in the front of the house and nothing else survived above ground in that area. The wooden beam shown in the previous post looks old but it shows no fire damage. Nor is there any discontinuity in the brickwork above that support; had the original beam burnt through presumably some part of the brickwork would have collapsed. This suggests to me that the current beam and the rest of the chimney above it are very probably the post-fire replacement for the original chimney, which either collapsed or was demolished at the time of the fire.

At first I had thought the support beam marked the top of the post-fire fireplace and that this was later lowered a foot or so and covered with the present mantelpiece. If so the metal support running from the beam to the back of the fireplace might have been part of some arrangement to support cooking equipment. On reflection this seems very unlikely. The front door, the sash windows and the tiled roof are good quality and it seems implausible that the owner would have laid out money for that and then just used a very visible rough cut log to support the top of the fireplace.

So the hidden beam was put in simply to take the main weight of the new chimney. The new and lower mantelpiece was placed in front of that. In that way the then-trendy Georgian-style front concealed a distinctly old-fashioned arrangement behind. At a later (possibly, from the screws used, much later) date someone added the panels from some other source.

One final clue to what was going on after the fire is in a horizontal beam supporting the roof, which must date from the rebuilding. This beam is simply a small tapering tree trunk sawn down and with the branches lopped off. The other roof beams are similar. They are certainly effective; they are still doing their job perfectly well 250 years later. But why, for a key structural feature like this, wasn’t more time and money spent to make the job good looking as well as effective?

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I think the answer lies in the fact that the town lost overnight more than a hundred houses in the fire. As a result the demand for timber and for the time of good carpenters must have been both immense and immediate. In a period when transporting building materials and locating outside skilled workers would have been much slower than now that would have forced prices up considerably. But quick rebuilding would have been very important for the various taverns and inns in the town (of which this may well have been one), as those householders had lost both their homes and their source of income. In those circumstances it would surely have been sensible to spend the most time and money on building an impressive frontage on the house (‘We are back in business and better than before’). Good windows and a sound tiled roof would also have been essential to maintain the property. But in the circumstances that meant quietly economising on the time and money spent on the less visible/important woodwork if everything was to be got up and running again quickly. If that is indeed what happened it is arguably rather comforting; it shows a certain kind of pragmatic good sense in the unknown rebuilder that appeals; at least to me  🙂

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4 Responses to The Case of the Puzzling Panels 3

  1. I agree it was probably done that way because of the availability of the timber at the time and the immediacy of the time frame in which it had to be done to rebuild the town. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, unless of course you get leaks or the insulation is faulty.

    • Trifocal says:

      No problems with leaks or insulation, except that as the chimney goes straight up we sometimes get a few raindrops dropping all the way down it!

  2. I love your house stories. And the beam may not be esthetically pleasing in an conventional way but it certainly adds character.:)

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