Old stone towns have ancient houses. This is certainly true of Corfe village in Dorset. A picturesque place dominated by the craggy ruins of Corfe Castle.
Much of Corfe belonged to the Bankes family who gave it to the National Trust in 82.. including Uvedales House. As you enter East Street and cross the bridge by Boar Mill you would be forgiven for missing it. There are far more dramatic views to be enjoyed by looking up to the castle.. and Uvedales is beside a busy road and next to the disused public lavatories.
Cross the road and look on either side of the two big windows. On the first floor are the letters H on the left and V on the right and on the ground floor I and V.
Back in 1774, the historian John Hutchins described painted glass windows which once told what these letters stood for.. but the windows have long gone. They included the coat of arms of local landowners the Uvedale family and the arms of the ancient borough of Corfe. John Uvedale was mayor of Corfe in 1582 and Henry became a churchwarden.
Many people have lived in the house since then. Its walls contain diverse stories and have been altered infilled and repaired over the centuries. The building is having a 21st century conservation refurbishment at the moment and needs a buildings archaeologist to record what is revealed as it is opened up.
Buildings archaeology is a specialised skill. Clues within walls, within roof structures under floorboards and beneath the ground as new service pipes and drains are laid.
I met Bob there a few days ago.. to walk round the house with him and to find out what he has discovered as earlier phases of Uvedales have been revealed beneath layers of wallpaper and modern additions.
What do you trust? Is that 17th century doorway where it began or has it been shifted from somewhere else. Read the clues. It’s not like buried dirt archaeology, the evidence is not sealed but chunks of building can be moved and reused.
The oldest parts of the house lie in the central stack with large inglenook fireplaces on the east and west sides. The west side is the most interesting. Underneath the modern layers was found a fine stone fireplace, probably earlier 17th century, but this had been inserted through an earlier fireplace. The later fireplace may have been salvaged from Corfe Castle following its capture and demolition by the Parliamentarians in 1646. Dendro analysis of part of the roof dated it to the 1650s. This evidence demonstrates extensive repairs to the house following the Civil War. Much needed, the village had been badly beaten up during the two sieges of the Castle in 1643 and 1645-6.
In the 17th century, Uvedales House became the property of the Okeden family and by 1732 it was known as the ‘Kings Arms’. The Bankes family archive includes records of licence agreements. These list the alehouses allowed to trade in Corfe Castle. There is a detailed map of the town drawn by Archer Roberts and dated 1769. It shows the ‘Kings Arms’ and by this time it is owned by John Bankes.
The peeling of wallpaper uncovered a bread oven opening and left of this a blocked door and beyond a flight of stairs(very Enid Blyton) The steps had been covered in building rubble and as they were exposed, the wear marks of numerous feet on the timber treads could be seen. This change of stairway layout probably took place when, in 1796, Mr Bankes agreed to convert the building to a Poor House.
In that year, the overseers of Corfe’s poor agreed to take Mr Bankes’s house’and put as many poor in it as could comfortably be lodged’ the whole place was divided up into accommodation units and there are still little fireplaces inserted throughout the building and steep narrow flights of stairs.
Up on the 2nd floor, I met the builders repairing the joists and cleaning out the sand between them. Strange to find sand there but perhaps it was for insulation or sound proofing. Whatever.. the excavation became interesting work because coins kept turning up. It seems that over the years, various occupants had lost loose change between the cracks in the floorboards. The earliest was a florin of Charles II (1660s-80s) and the latest a penny of William IV (1838).
The 19th century census returns show Uvedales packed with labourers and men on low wages who were employed to cut clay on the heathland between Corfe and Wareham (great clay…it got shipped up to Staffordshire for Wedgewood’s potteries). By the 1850s, East Street was known as Poor Street. Quite a come down for the wealthy Tudor Uvedales’ family home.
Over the years the tenements were merged and became larger… and now the house is being rearranged again for its new 21st century occupants.