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A Commentary on the Bedford Estate Cottages

Willington is a village with three surviving blocks of Bedford Estate cottages - all in Church Road. One sees these in a number of parishes in the county, always built to a standard plan. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service is lucky in having the original master plans as well as the respective bills of quantities for constructing the seven different types of "Cottages for Agricultural Labourers" designed for the estate. These are in a document in the Russell (Dukes of Bedford) Archive called "Duke of Bedford's Cottages for Agricultural Labourers published in 1850.

In 1849 a clergyman of Cogenhoe [Northamptonshire] published a pamphlet entitled: The System of Building Labourers' Cottages Pursued on the Estates of His Grace the Duke of Bedford, Practically Examined by the Rev. C. H. Hartshorne. An edited version of this pamphlet appears below.

"The subject of building Labourers' Cottages having latterly excited much of public attention, and been ably introduced to notice by a Paper read at our Northamptonshire Architectural Society, I shall make a few remarks upon it, under the conviction that one of such general importance to the welfare of the working classes cannot be too much discussed".

"Society is always in its most healthy state, when we find individuals amicably striving together to ameliorate the condition of those below them, and labouring to promote work of social regeneration, and a collision of opinion, therefore, on such important topics, may elicit something for the common advantage. Much earnestness has been felt by landed proprietors in this and the neighbouring county of Bedford, and if any difference of opinion has existed as to the best methods of effecting their benevolent intentions of providing better dwellings for the poor, those who are the objects of the movement derive all the benefit, whilst the promoters of these laudable undertakings are, on their part, content to learn by experience what can be done for the best. Some points of detail still remain open for discussion, such, for instance, as to the mode by which convenience and economy may be best united. But the general principle of giving to the working man a comfortable dwelling, is now universally recognised as one of the first duties of a landlord".

"Northamptonshire is particularly fortunate in the abundant supply of oolitic limestone with which its cottages are chiefly built, and this material imparts a mellow tone to whole ranges of its villages in succession. Ear; Spencer, in his very beautiful cottages, has profited by his contiguity to the quarries of Duston and Harlestone, and in the same way most of the builders in the northern parts of the county have freely used the Colley Weston slate for covering. In passing into Bedfordshire, we at once perceive by the poverty of its ecclesiastical structures, that the geological features of this part of England are widely different, and whilst the use of bricks in Northamptonshire is unfrequent, and may be censured as a violation of architectural unity, here they are the only material that can be used with economy or propriety. The medieval architects felt this difficulty when they employed them in the church of Houghton Conquest, and in the venerable abbey of Saint Albans, in the next county [Hertfordshire], and the Duke of Bedford in the various cottages he has recently built on his Woburn estate, has been compelled to follow the precedent thus established in earlier ages. His Grace's cottages in Devonshire, however, are constructed with different materials, as well as on a different plan, and so are those erected in the Fens of Cambridgeshire".

"Impressed with a sense of his high responsibilities as a landlord, a feeling exhibited with as much active philosophy, as it has been felicitously expressed in his own words, in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, he has endeavoured to carry out for the last three years an improved system of replacing the decayed tenements on his property by such dwellings as would induce higher notions of decency and order, thus justly giving the labouring classes on his estate an opportunity of proving upon whom the blame of bad habits for the most part rests, and it is not stating too much to say, that already a visible preference has been shown for neatness, cleanliness, and decent habits among all those who have been thus placed in habitations where the existence of such an amendment in their moral and domestic economy can be displayed".

"I shall not dwell upon this agreeable commencement of a better order of things, but rather endeavour to lay before the reader my own impression from frequent opportunities of observation as to how far these buildings on the Bedfordshire estate themselves actually combine internal comfort with reasonableness of cost and architectural pretensions. The experiment of cottage building has here been fairly, nay most extensively tried, for in the years 1846, 1847 and 1848 no fewer than fifty-two cottages were erected which have been increased during the present year by fifty-three additional ones, most of which are completed and occupied. As regards future operations, a gradual rebuilding of the decayed tenements will continue to go on till three hundred more are erected, and no doubt the same prudence and good judgement that has hitherto prevailed will not fail to take advantage of fresh improvements as they become known, or are thought desirable for adoption".

"To describe these cottages generally, they are all built of various designs, in a most substantial manner; the walls of brick, the floors, roofs and joiner's work of foreign timber; the roofs covered with plain tiles and Staffordshire rolled ridges; the window lights of cast-iron, and painted to imitate lead lights, which is very effectively accomplished, as they are light and clean castings. These buildings are all provided with iron spouting and iron conducting pipes, which are again connected with underground drains made water-tight with cement, leading to large tanks, and these also in turn are cemented, and capable of holding an ample supply of rain water for washing throughout the driest season of the year; capacious enough, in fact, to contain upwards of 5,000 gallons. The foundations are built on concrete, the lower floors are paved with Staffordshire squares, and laid on the same material. They have washhouses sometimes under the same cartilage, but in no instance more than 20 feet distant, not too far off to be in the least inconvenient, fitted up with copper, sink, dresser, and hat and cloak rail &c. Either the living room or the back kitchen is provided with oven and boiler range. The pantry lighted, ventilated and fitted up with shelves, meat hooks &c. There is also a closet under the stairs for stores &c. the bed-rooms are provided with closets, one room having a fire-place in case of sickness, the other rooms thoroughly light and airy. The yards are all divided by low fences and posts for drying clothes, each house having the convenience of a separate wood and coal barn and privy. They have an ample supply of spring and rain water, and a receptacle for ashes. The drains from the sinks, constructed water-tight, convey all refuse matter to a manure tank in a garden lying contiguous, which tank is provided with a man-hole and stone to take off, so that each cottager may have the advantage of the sewerage collected for his own ground, the tank being cleaned out twice a year. By a clause in the letting, the cottages are all cleaned and lime-whited once a year. There are good roads formed between each group of cottages, as well as all round the back premises, for the purpose of conveying the fuel to the wood barns without going through the dwelling parts, which, as is well known, is done in most instances, to the detriment of the houses. The cottages are built of various sizes, to suit the requirements of the tenants. Some have one bedroom, some two, others have three, and in cases where the families are very numerous, extra large three bed-roomed houses are provided, so that two descriptions of three bed-roomed houses are provided to suit the size of families. The cottages themselves are erected in groups of fours, sixes, sevens, and all of different elevations. No doubt it may sometimes be desirable to see single cottages in preference to two together, or several in a row, but a proprietor will naturally be impelled to try where he can to lighten the general cost, and if the same pump will do for six as serves one, that is a proportionate diminution of outlay to take into his calculations".

"This will furnish a sufficiently general idea of the plan, and the mode of combination that has been pursued, in constructing these hundred and five cottages, that have replaced some of the dilapidated tenements at Woburn, Houghton Regis, Millbrook, Ampthill, Maulden, Cople, Willington, Oakley, Knotting &c. But as many an enquirer may reasonably wish for more particular information upon a subject of such importance, I will say a few words about some of these architectural groups specifically. Some of those erected first, as may naturally be expected, have not the entire perfection larger experience has contributed to such as have been more recently built, and the ground floor rooms in some of these might have been improved by having six inches of additional height and increasing their length or breadth an extra foot".

"As to architectural appearance, that must always be regulated by a strict and prudential economy. Expense will inevitably follow every deviation from what is not actually necessary, and it is too much to expect that the individual who erects houses at a pecuniary loss should incur a still greater, merely to please the taste of those who might lose sight of utility, airiness and convenience in their admiration of what is unmeaning, useless and merely picturesque. Yet it cannot be said that this attractive point has been disregarded in the cottages under review, for the proportions are, without exception, satisfactory and just; the outlines are undulating and broken; they show that much care has been bestowed to produce constant variety of elevation, a task requiring the most consummate skill, where everything must come in its proper place, every room receive its due share of light and ventilation, and where only three rooms can be admitted into the formula for regulating the laws of permutation. Still they are diversified, especially at Millbrook, by hooded porches with single and cross loops, gables projecting fifteen inches, eaves twelve, pendants, hip knobs, barges floated in cement, rafters with moulded feet, water tabling resting on herring bone bricks, rounded coigns, chimneys rising seven feet above the ridge, panels, and chequers of different coloured bricks; bricks formed both of the mild porous clay of amt, and the stiff gault from Marston Moretaine".

"An objection has been made against the use of cast-iron window lights, but a glazier well knows hat panes once broken in leaded lights can never be replaced with their original truth and precision. When joining is once disturbed or destroyed, the size of the quarries must necessarily become irregular, and they will grow more loose and shaky every time the same pane is mended, so that when once repaired they must be greatly inferior to what they were at first. This objection cannot possibly apply to cast-iron lights; besides being air and water tight, they are considerably stronger, preferable in point of cheapness, and not liable to be bulged out by internal thrusts. Lead light in a few years require renewal, and in most cases where more than one pane is torn away the cottager stuffs up the interstice with a wisp of straw or an old tattered garment, the most fitting emblem of the slatternly daudle who is too frequently his house-wife".

"In the cottages erected in the town of Woburn, where the value of frontage is an essential consideration, the gardens next the public street are limited in size, though they are sufficiently large however to allow of flowers, pot-herbs, or even beds of cabbages to grow. It would not be desirable to shut out a current of air behind or before a cottage, and therefore high, intervening walls – more suitable for the separation of refractory paupers, or the inmates of a prison, than as barriers between honest neighbours and men of self-sustaining industry – have been very judiciously dispensed with. A closer separation in the rear would equally defeat the intention of using the back premises as a drying ground, which ought invariably to be close upon the pump and the washhouse (as the wood barn should be upon the oven), and have plenty of air and sun".

"The walls of all the two bed-roomed cottages I visited in and out of Woburn are of brick, which is a great advantage over the thin wooden partition generally adopted where this salutary division is attempted to be carried out. In the three bed-roomed cottages it would be difficult, from the want of separation walls beneath the upper floors, to find sufficient support for the weight of brick walls throughout, and therefore the children's rooms are divided by a boarded partition "tongued". The principal room, however, which it is presumed man and wife would occupy, is in all cases surrounded by solid walls".

"An objection has been raised against the walls not being plastered, and where work is badly done, this certainly tends to give a rough aspect to the inside of a house, but such an objection – quite a matter of opinion – can hardly be said to be of much importance, when, as in the instance of the Duke of Bedford's cottages, the brickwork is made fair and even on both sides, and all the joints clean stuck – to say nothing of the recurring expense of injuries to the plaster, under rough usage, and its untidy appearance when it is broken".

"The question may be fairly asked, whether the inmates themselves are satisfied with the arrangements of the houses they live in, and I have accordingly enquired of them what they wished to see altered, and how far they found them suitable to their personal wants. Amongst the answers returned were such as these: - "I am very fond of my home". "It is warm, no cold comes through the walls". "I find it very comfortable, it is a great change for the better". "It is a comfortable home". "We like it very well, indeed we can't help but like it".

"The expense of erecting cottages exhibiting so many advantages over those hitherto built by wealthy proprietors, is a question that will be eagerly asked by those who are intending to follow the Duke of Bedford's example. It is one not very easy of solution since the price of labour and the value of materials will vary in different districts. Some may have timber and stone within their immediate reach, and therefore cost them next to nothing, beyond the sawing and dressing. Others may have every separate item to purchase. The specifications published on this point in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, have shown what quantity of the various materials are required for building a proper house for a labourer; the cost of them will greatly depend upon the contingencies of carriage, or upon the owner already having what is necessary on his property. Some approximation to the truth may, however, be gained by the rent paid by the tenants, which, for cottages of the description already given (exclusive of site), may be laid at a return of three per cent on the outlay. Where they are constructed of hollow brick, with the addition of tubes worked close to the chimney, so as to diffuse the air in a rarefied state through the whole of the house – and such a triple group is now being tried at Millbrook – it is presumed a saving of 25 per cent may be effected on the brick-work. This, however, does not affect the carpenter's work beyond a small sum in the roofing – where four or five are built together, an item scarcely worth mentioning".

"There is one feature about these cottages eminently worthy of notice, and not to be passed over, namely, that they look like what they profess to be, simply labourer's cottages, and nothing more.; whilst the work is so well executed, that when once finished, it involves no yearly recurring expense to keep it in good repair. Possessing far more than the usual conveniences appended to this class of buildings, such as separate offices for domestic and private use, distinct paths, in some instances furnished with water apparatus, and in all a plentiful supply of hard and soft water, thoroughly dry, with little plots in front, and large allotments either at the back or close by, they are, as one of the inmates at Ampthill declared to me, "every thing I require. I wish for nothing else. I have found the comfort of it".

"The terms under which the tenants are bound are dictated by good sense and a spirit of equity, which brings me to the rent, which is the last thing, and certainly it is one of the most difficult to adjust, since it should neither be too high to be oppressive, or too low to compromise the independence of a workman, who will thus be degraded to the state of an idle pensioner or a worthless mendicant. The rents vary from a shilling to sixteen pence a-week, according as the houses possess one, two, or three bed-rooms. Some of the latter are of an extra size to accommodate a large family, and reach eighteen pence a-week. Being let under reasonable agreements, the occupiers are content and happy, and the noble proprietor, aiming at no ideal perfection, nor exacting an exorbitant repayment, as is too commonly the case where houses are run up by contract, must certainly thus far, and the work is still proceeding, have the satisfaction of feeling that his anxious efforts to ameliorate the condition of the peasantry on his estates have been rewarded by success, and acknowledged by their gratitude".