Of all the craftsmen who have worked at Combermere Abbey over the past nine centuries, one of the very first to have gone on to the site in the early Twelfth century would have been the woodmen. We know from the Domesday Book that the land on the Cheshire/Shropshire border was a mix of oak woodland and either low scrub or heathland. Those ancient oaks would have offered perfect building materials – along with stone brought from further away – for not just the Abbey buildings but all the other ancillary and temporary structure which would have been needed.
Construction began only fifty years after the Norman’s vicious ‘harrying of the north’, when the land was ravaged in revenge for uprisings against Norman rule. The conquerors systematically destroyed everything of use or value; homes, farms, barns, crops, cattle, sheep – even poultry and dogs. Many Saxons were murdered by the Normans, and more yet starved to death. It is no wonder that in Cheshire and Shropshire – and on across northern England – Domesday describes the land as “waste” and of very small value. Even the valuable and strategically important city of Chester saw half its houses destroyed and lost a third of its value.
There was no human settlement at Combermere at this time; it was an isolated spot a few miles from both the small towns of Whitchurch and Audlem, and several tiny villages, so the harrying would have been less apparent. We can probably assume that the woodland was largely untouched; it would have been difficult to put to the torch unless the weather was very dry indeed. It is also safe to assume that, along with the good water supply, the timber was another reason why Combermere was chosen as the site for a monastery (felling and stripping trees for good timber usable in construction was labour-intensive, but was still far less expensive than moving timber – transporting it, usually on ox-drawn carts, was slow and difficult, and thus very expensive).
After the Dissolution and the grant of the Abbey to Sir George Cotton in 1539 it is likely that demolition work of the monastic church and the other ecclesiastical building was begun fairly quickly. Sir George did not have family wealth; he and his brother Richard had risen rapidly at the court of King Henry VIII despite coming from obscure origins in North Shropshire, so it is likely that he was not in a position to build a substantial country house immediately. He might well have been amassing the rents from the estate, and would have sold off the huge stock of building materials generated by the demolition. For the most part this was very valuable stone, a lot of which would have been expertly dressed, and the fact that it was four hundred years old was not at all detrimental (we can never know where it went, but it is fascinating to speculate; how many houses, farms, barns – or townhouses in Nantwich and Whitchurch – still have monastic stone from Combermere in their fabric?).
So what of the timbers? There are a lot of timbers in stone buildings, particularly in the roofs, let alone all the other buildings of lesser status which would have been predominantly built of wood. Worthwhile timbers would have been sold off too as there was surely more wood than would ever be needed, but was some stored for re-use? Or did Sir George know that it was going to be a while before he could build his new house, and think that storage of a material which would degrade in the moist conditions of Combermere was a bad idea? Was he perhaps budgeting for all-new timber on his new country house?
Whatever Sir George’s plans were they weren’t to be fulfilled in his lifetime; he died in 1545 at the age of forty. Combermere was inherited by his only son, (another) Richard Cotton (doubtless named after his uncle), who was about six years old. We don’t know when work began on the new house, but a date stone is inscribed 1563 (“Master Richard Cotton and his sons three, both for their pleasure and commoditie, this building did edifie, in fifteen hundred and sixty three”) – though was that laid at the beginning or the end of the work?
By way of an aside, there was something curious in that date of 1563. His first son, George, who was to inherit the house, was born in 1560, and his second – Arthur – was born in 1562. The next birth (by his first wife, Mary Mainwaring of Ightfield), in 1563, was a daughter – Mary Cotton. The third son, Andrew, wasn’t born until 1564, so the date stone was probably put in after the event, and therefore perhaps when building work was completed. (Richard fathered fourteen children in all, by three wives).
We can be sure though that during the 1560s there were joiners and carpenters back at Combermere Abbey, and in numbers not seen for four centuries. The construction must have been spread over a number of years, and it would have been a great source of work for craftsmen and labourers alike, plus a whole range of secondary suppliers such as blacksmiths, and those who supplied the workers with food, clothing, and other necessities. It is interesting to speculate how far the craftsmen travelled. There were probably not enough joiners, masons, lead workers and so on in the immediate vicinity, and some must have come from Whitchurch and Nantwich, which was the largest settlement within a ten mile radius by then. Presumably they were accommodated at the Abbey, returning home only on occasion (perhaps with much-needed cash). It seems logical that some of the more skilled craftsmen came from Chester and Shropshire, and perhaps even further afield.
For the past year or so there have been two Twenty-first carpenters on site at the Abbey, and they will be there until at least the end of this year (2015) and even on into the next.. They are father and son Nick and Ben Owens from Chirk, just across the River Dee in Wales. Nick’s father was a woodworker, and like the joiners of years gone, by he has followed in his father’s trade, just as Ben is now following in his. There have been several father-and-son teams working at the Abbey during the restoration of the North Wing, which is, in its way, rather satisfying: “I don’t think that I ever had a say in it”, Nick said, “I just followed my dad. It’s nice though that my son has followed me into the trade as well.”
Nick (right) and Ben Owens on site at the Abbey
In large part the problems with the Tudor timbers were all too evident in the north-facing side of the Abbey, where substantial amounts of material had fallen away, but even that did not tell the full story of the rot in the wood. When the ashlar outer surface was removed it could be seen that in many cases the vertical timbers no longer reached down to the base or other beams – and there was not a lot more than air and dust where once there was solid Cheshire oak.
New steelwork had been introduced to avoid further collapse, and Nick and Ben’s first job was to cut away the rotten wood in the main frame of the building and replace it with good wood. The new pieces were cut to the same width and depth as the original beams, and were, in many places, joined with wooden pegs as they would have been five hundred years ago.
The next step for the joiners was to construct a new interior wall to carry the roof, and once the roof was in place they could move on to repairing the framework on the outside face, which will be plastered in replication of the gothic ‘stonework’. Nick and Ben are some of the few craftsmen who will be on site from just about the start of the work right through to the finishing touches being applied inside ahead of the plasterers, and then will be adding the architraves, skirting boards and doors before the decorators go in.
“When we first turned up and looked at the job I thought “My god!”. I’ve worked on some buildings which were really far gone but this was the worst because of the amount of decay and rot”, Nick said. “My next thought was “Where do we start?”, but you start somewhere, of course, and you’re away. It has been a challenge but at least the worst is over now and from here on it’s straight forward. Not easy, but at least straight forward.
“Actually, the place we did start was on getting the building safe. The first job was to replace the timbers which had been replaced by the temporary steelwork so that we could get the house standing on its own legs again, and then the steel could be taken out. We started from the bottom and worked upwards and it was soon holding its own.
“Then all the big oak timbers which had rotted away had to come out and new wood had to go in, in their place. Where we could we spliced new wood to the old, but where the timber was of structural importance the only thing to do was to put all-new wood in; you do lose strength on the join where you splice.
“All the wood is ‘like for like’; oak is replaced by oak and softwood by softwood. The oak came from a timber merchant near Market Drayton, not far away, but it’s French in origin – from Normandy. You can’t get English or Welsh oak of the size we needed. To get a straight length of oak six metres long you need to start with a very tall oak tree.
“Those long pieces are 300mm by 400mm [twelve inches by sixteen inches] and at six metres length the oak is very heavy. Plus, you have to feed it in through the building, often through window gaps, feeding it gently into the building, so it’s not easy. We have got modern lifting equipment, but most of the time we are using chains and blocks, much as the original carpenters would have done. You can always do it, but you really have to think about it before you start.
“We have used wooden pegs for joining because it’s the traditional way, and I like doing that, but for speed and strength we’ve used bolts. Bolts pull the beams together in the way that pegs don’t and that helps the glue go off. To a large degree though I’ve done it the way it was, and future generations will be able to see our work and see that we’ve respected the building.
“I do look at the original work and wonder about the men who worked on it. I can tell you though, they were good joiners – their work really stands up. It is good to see the stuff that they have done, especially their high-end work, like in the roof above the library. It’s nice joinery, especially where they have spent some time on something.
“I do think though that to some degree they had time on their hands. I think we have deadlines that they didn’t have, and we’ve got to achieve everything by a certain date, come what may. Time would not have been an issue for them, but not so much as for us, I’d think.
“The Tudor joiners were accurate with their measurements. Their rulers or tapes wouldn’t have been as accurate as ours, but wherever I’ve measured up their work it has always been there or thereabouts. And they always worked in multiples; two foot, four foot, eight foot, sixteen foot.”
For a thousand years or more carpentry has been a well-regarded and relatively well-paid craft. In the Fourteenth century a carpenter earned around twenty pence a week, which was more than twice as much as a common labourer, and similar to the wages of a mason. In the same century – in 1333 – the Carpenters’ Company (in effect a guild) created a ‘Boke of Ordinances’, which set out the rules of the craft. Most related to the provision of help to members in need, and included a payment of twelve pennies a year to help those who became ill or were injured at work, which was paid for by a subscription to the Company. Members of the fraternity were also required to employ other members who were without work, in preference to non-Company carpenters. Company members, as with all other guilds, were expressly forbidden from revealing the secrets of their craft to outsiders.
Members were expected to attend mass twice a year (which I don’t believe Nick and Ben are) and go to the funerals of brothers (and sisters – widows) of the Company. Medieval carpenters were very proud of the religious association of the craft; Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, having been a carpenter.
The Company was incorporated by Royal Charter as a City of London Livery Company in 1477 by King Edward IV. The charter defined the Carpenters’ Company as ‘a body Corporate and Politic by the name of the Master Wardens and Commonalty of the Mistery of Freemen of the Carpentry of the City of London’. The charter gave the company the power to receive bequests and gifts of property, to plead in any court, and to have a common seal.
Carpenters were often self-employed, but great houses, castles and cathedrals would often have carpenters among their full-time staff, responsible for repairs as well as new building – and for repairing all items made of wood, be it a wheelbarrow, a cart, or a stool.
The route to becoming a carpenter was via an apprentice; a system which emerged in the Twelfth century and was rapidly adopted. A boy would be bound to a craftsman as an apprentice from the age of fourteen for a term of between six and nine years. The master had to give an assurance that he would teach the youngster all the skills he would need, and was legally bound then to do so; there are examples of apprentices taking legal action if they were under-taught or abused.
From the Sixteenth century onwards the master was paid a fee by the parents of the apprentice. The apprentice lived with the master and was fed and housed by him and his family. In theory no salary was paid to the apprentice – the benefit being the learning of the trade – but in reality they were often given modest allowances for clothing and other essentials.
Guild members were expected to take on the sons of other guild members, especially where their fathers had died. As well as the use of wood and their tools, the apprentice was taught mathematics, which was a relatively rare skill. At the end of their term they became journeymen and could set up on their own, but many stayed and worked alongside their master. If the master had no sons of his own an ex-apprentice would often inherit their business. There were many instances of apprentices marrying into the master’s family. Many apprentice carpenters worked without a formal agreement for their own fathers or other family members in the trade. After 1601 the children of the poor could be placed in apprenticeships at the expense of the parish, which was an enlightened step. Apprenticeships weren’t a male-only role; girls were apprenticed to women as seamstresses or weavers, under exactly the same conditions.
These terms and conditions of being a carpenter might be obsolete now, but the levels of skill are as high or higher, and the pride in their work – as evidenced by Nick and Ben – are certainly no lower. Doubtless it will be exactly the same in a couple of hundred years or so when carpenters next need to work on the Abbey. Many other professions will have moved on massively, but maybe carpentry will be very much the same as it was in the Twelfth century, the Sixteenth century, and the Twenty-first.