Life Upstairs Downstairs

The Society talks for 2018 commenced on the 11th January with an amusing and very informative talk about Ightham Mote given by our Chair Heather Woodward.   Ightham Mote dating from about 1340, with some of the timbers dating from 1250, was never a grand house, Heather told us, but always a proper home, secluded, solitary and enchanting.   Many alterations, expansions and improvement have been made over the years, very rarely using an architect but using builders who were happy to break through, insert, and build upwards or outwards.

We were shown slides of many interesting features of the property.  For example the central quadrangle built in the 16th century;  a massive dovecote containing 156 nesting boxes, from which up to 2000 squabs a year helped feed the household.   A large fishpond also provided supplementary provisions.  In 1891 an enormous dog kennel was built to house Dido the beloved St. Bernard of the Colyer-Ferguson family.  This dog kennel is thought to be the only Grade 1 listed dog kennel in the world.  Another feature is a most unusual hour clock from 1789 installed in the low tower. This type of clock has just one hand, the hour hand.

Heather showed us some fine slides and told us about the principal rooms.  We were told that in medieval times, all activity in the house happened in the Great Hall. This would have just had an earth

floor strewn with straw, which was probably only changed once a year. Meals would also have been taken in the Hall and served on flat loaves called trenchers used as plates.  In those times “Dinner” was taken about and supper about 4 to 5 pm and then the family would retire.

General Palmer, an American who rented the house between 1880 and 1889 said “so draughty was the dining hall that every chair at table had to be screened from draughts from everywhere and nowhere.  Our spines were chilled… I felt a woman’s best friend was her hot water bottle.”   The Hall would also have been the sleeping quarters for the many staff.  There were said to be 27 of these before the First World War.

In the late 19th century, we were told, the family and guests always dressed for dinner, with the ladies retiring to the fine drawing room on completion of the meal.  We were shown a picture of the new chapel built in about 1520 with its barrel vaulted roof and 500 year old very solid door.

Heather told us about some of the families who had lived at Ightham Mote over the centuries of whom the Selby family had lived there for nearly 300 years, the Colyer-Fergusons for many years and whose third son received a posthumous V.C. in 1917 at the third battle of Ypres.  In 1953 the house had finally been bought by Charles Henry Robinson an American, who did many urgent repairs and partly refurbished the house with17th century English pieces.  He died in 1985 giving Ightham Mote to the National Trust.  The National Trust then embarked on a massive conservation project tackling many structural problems, with death watch beetle and dry rot being of major concern.  This conservation work was not completed until 2004.

In her delightful talk Heather entertained us with many amusing stories, one such concerning the origins of the word “getting the wrong end of the stick.”  The lavatories of such houses and castles in the early period of those times, were just a hole in the floor of the chamber, with each hole provided with a long stick with which to dislodge any bits that had failed to complete their fall into the moat; the stick then being replaced leaning against the wall.  “Grabbing the wrong end….” was obviously something to be avoided.

I feel sure that following on from Heather’s most interesting talk, many of us will be wanting to go and see more of Ightham Mote for ourselves.

Martin Turner