What are Meldreth buildings made of?

Wall and framework materials: wattle and daub, lath and plaster, timber

By Bruce Huett

Wattle and Daub

Wattle and daub was one of the earliest forms of building walls, dating from prehistoric times and it was still being used up until the twentieth century.

Photo:Daub found in test pit at Topcliffe Mill

Daub found in test pit at Topcliffe Mill

Bruce Huett

There was evidence of daub in the archaeological test pits dug in the village in 2013 and this was interesting as the findings (daub fragments) were closely associated with the locations of some of the manors in the village. Daub was found in all the Flambards pits except one. We think these may have been associated with Flambards Manor, but may be from a later building on the site. Daub was mentioned on the Flambards site in an earlier dig and identified as Medieval/Saxo-Norman. 

There were also findings in the Meldreth Manor, Topcliffe Mill and Bury Farm (site of Veseys Manor) pits. It is difficult to date the findings as the soil is likely to have been disturbed over time and the context levels varied from Context 2, i.e. close to the surface (Meldreth Manor, Topcliffe Mill and Bury Farm) to Context 6 (pit six at Flambards Close and a second find in the Topcliffe Mill pit).  The other pits where daub was identified were at the Primary School and 43 High Street

There are oral accounts of children collecting wattle and daub on the Flambards site during school holidays and burning it.

It should not be assumed that properties using wattle and daub were not present at other test pit locations or elsewhere in the village in the past. Wattle and daub fragments may have been missed, deteriorated or may have been present in contexts not dug. Also the test pits only covered a very small part of the village.

A big advantage of wattle and daub is that it is strong, but also flexible so it can accommodate movement in the building. It also provides good insulation and dries well as the daub disperses the damp.

Photo:Wattle and Daub construction

Wattle and Daub construction

Bruce Huett

Photo:Wattle and Daub wall

Wattle and Daub wall

Regency Ceilings

Wattle consisted of a lattice constructed from thin wooden branches (often hazel) or slats either wound or nailed horizontally between upright poles.  It can be made of loose panels to form infill panels or made in situ to form the whole of a wall.

Photo:1938 Cottages in Melbourn with exposed wattle and daub (right)

1938 Cottages in Melbourn with exposed wattle and daub (right)

Peter Simmonett p82 "A Glimpse into Melbourn's Past"

The daub was then worked in a number of stages:

  • Initially the clay material would be applied from both sides in balls;
  • When this layer was hardened (it could take 3-4 weeks to dry) it would then be scratched (keyed) and a limey plaster with the other ingredients would be applied;
  • Finally the wall was often whitewashed with a lime solution to prevent water damage. Sometimes it would have a decorated lime plaster, a process called pargetting. There is a small example at 113 North End: Jubilee Cottages (built 1882, although the pargetting may be later) and at Chiswick End.

Limewash would be used because it acts as a mild disinfectant and biocide. It also aided maintenance as it fills small cracks.

Daub consisted of:

  • Binders: these hold the mix together for instance: clay, lime, chalk dust and limestone dust;
  • Aggregates: these bulk up the material and give it stability, for instance: earth, sand, crushed chalk and crushed stone. Salt may have been added to help the wall retain moisture;
  • Reinforcement: these hold the mix together, for example straw, hair, hay, dung or other fibrous materials. They also control shrinkage and provide flexibility. It is unclear why dung was an important constituent. One theory is that the lignin content (from plant cell walls) improves the stability and workability of a daub.

The daub would be mixed by hand, or by treading – either by humans or animals.

There is a lot of additional information at:

Lath(e) and Plaster

Photo:Keys Cottage, High Street, under repair

Keys Cottage, High Street, under repair

Tim Gane

Photo:Keys Cottage lathe and plaster repair detail

Keys Cottage lathe and plaster repair detail

Tim Gane

Lathe and plaster is a more recent building technique using a similar approach to construction as wattle and daub. It essentially uses plaster rather than daub as the material between a wooden framework. A good example in Meldreth is Keys Cottage at 70 High Street. This is situated on the east side of the High Street next to the Primary School.

The old vicarage was described in 1836 as an old, small lath and plaster building.

More generally plaster is a finishing material for walls and ceilings rather than a load-bearing material and is likely to be present in the majority (if not all) buildings in the village. 


Photo:Render on 17th Century House in Melbourn

Render on 17th Century House in Melbourn

Bruce Huett

Photo:Pargetting on house in Chiswick End

Pargetting on house in Chiswick End

Bruce Huett 2014

This is an external covering, traditionally of lime, sand and varying proportions of cow dung mixed with chopped straw or hair. The surfaces are sometimes finished flush or recessed to the framework. The surface is then sometimes combed into patterns (pargetting) before receiving coats of limewash. There is an example of pargetting in Chiswick End (see photograph).

Sheene Manor has stucco (a form of render) rustication to the corners of the building.


Photo:Chiswick Farmhouse Chiswick End

Chiswick Farmhouse Chiswick End

Bruce Huett 2015

Thirty-one of the 33 listed dwellings are described as “timber framed”.

A typical fifteenth century farmhouse would have used approximately 330 oak trees. Even though woods were managed by coppicing (where the trees are not completely cut down but are only cut back in rotation and new timbers allowed to grow from the stump) timber was running out by the end of the fifteenth century. This was because wood was also the main method of heating until charcoal and then coal started to be used. Houses became half timbered due to the shortage of woodland; the timber exposed to indicate the owner could afford an expensive resource.

Post-and-beam construction was the main method for building these structures. Large tree trunks were used prior to the availability of modern tools and powerful saws. The wood was squared-off and the timbers joined with joints secured by large wooden pegs. Using basic tools such as axes and adzes artisans or farmers could build a building capable of bearing a reasonably heavy weight.  

There are many styles of timber framed buildings but the basic types of in England are the box, cruck or aisled frame.

  • box: basic framing using straight timbers;
  • cruck:pair of crooked or curved timbers forming a cross frame
  • Aisled: one or more rows of interior posts.

Photo:The Gables, High Street

The Gables, High Street

Teddy Handscombe 1926

Four of the listed dwellings mention purlin style roof beams which indicates a longitudinal, horizontal, structural roof beam.

Barge boards are often fastened to the projecting gables to strengthen them and disguise and protect the roof purlins to which they were attached. An example is the Gables on the High Street.

The listed buildings descriptions include the following references to particular forms of timber construction:

94 High Street: The British Queen Public House

C17 stop chamfered joists (i.e. with a bevelled edge).

27 High Street: Temple House

The parlour has raised and fielded panelling of mid-late C18 below the dado (lower part of the wall) and a corner cupboard of same period.

51 High Street: Dormers

Jowled (i.e.flared) heads to main posts to two bays at the south east end.  

85 High Street: Applecote

Frame and rafters of purlin roof of uniform and substantial scantling (beam of small cross section).  

Main posts have jowled (i.e. flared) heads. There is straight downward wall bracing. Similar framing to No. 61 Station Road.

118-120 High street: The Court

One room of the C17 part is said to retain original panelling and a staircase of the period.                                                 

33 North End (formerly the Green Man Public House)     

Jettied (projecting out - a typical medieval style) first floor to south east end and to front wall.

Dragon beam (a horizontal, diagonal beam in the corner) to support the jetty.                 

5 Chiswisk End: Chiswick House

The centre room is partly lined with early C17 square sunk panelling.      

See also: Timber-framed Buildings (Discovering); Richard Harris, Shire Publications 1993.

Other pages on this web site covering Meldreth building materials are:

This page was added by Bruce Huett on 17/07/2016.

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