Temple House on the High Street
With its distinctive half-timbered gable end and accompanying long black wooden barn, Temple House has stood on a gentle bend on Meldreth High Street since the 1600s.
Originally a two-bay thatched cottage it has been known by at least three different names … Blacks or Blackes … Elmcroft … and Temple House.
Once situated on a much larger land holding, and for many years closely associated with the Palmer family it, like almost all old cottages in Meldreth, has been considerably extended and adapted to suit the former occupiers’ requirements.
John Palmer, George Palmer and Blacks – the early history
First recorded as ‘Blacks or Blackes’ the original cottage was built prior to 1695 when it, and the land it stood on, was sold to John Palmer, aged twenty-five, by Margaret Pearson, a widow from Cambridge. The purchase price was £235.00.
The two earliest references to the property appear in the Sheen Manor Manorial records:
Surrender of messuage called ‘Blacks’ and 2.5 virgates of land; Nevellus Butler and Benjamin Payne to use of Marie Sterne for life with remainder to use of Thomas Sterne. 10 October 1633
Surrender of messuage called ‘Blackes’ and 21.5a. of land in Meldreth; Thomas Stearne, gent. to use of Margaret, wife of Anthony Nicholson of Cambridge. 16 September 1658
Anthony Nicholson who died in 1667 was an affluent stationer and bookseller and Margaret Pearson was his daughter.
Nevellus Butler was Neville Thomas Alexander Butler from Orwell. The Butlers were land owners and London Inner Temple lawyers. Neville‘s wife, Cicely Aglionby, had inherited the manor of Orwell and he later exchanged this for ownership of Barnwell Priory in Cambridge.
The two transactions highlight an interesting difference. Blacks in 1633 included “2.5 virgates of land“ which approximates to over seventy acres whilst Blacks in 1658 offers a little more than twenty one acres. Presumably some of the land holding was sold off in the intervening years.
The name Nicholson is not mentioned on the 1662 Hearth Tax return but the house may have been without a taxable hearth or, most likely, sublet.
By strange coincidence a transcription of Anthony Nicholson’s will was published in 1915 by the noted antiquarian William Mortlock Palmer. A direct descendent of John Palmer, William was, himself, born in Temple House in 1866.
John Palmer was a farmer and a butcher who married Lettice Clarke of Sandon. Marriage records show a John Palmer marrying in Meldreth in October 1699 and this is most likely him. Another record, the will of William Surplisse of Meldreth, was also witnessed by one John Palmer in 1690.
Baptism records from the same time show that John and Lettice had six children – Sarah, John, George, Tabitha, Thomas, and Aleph or Ayloffe – born in Meldreth between 1701 and 1712. Another daughter, also called Lettice, passed away in 1728 leaving land and property to two of her siblings, some of which she herself had previously inherited from their late grandmother. A note to this is also recorded in the Sheen Manor Manorial Records:
Probate of the will of Lettice Palmer of Meldreth, single woman, bequeathing 6a. of land in Tharfield, Herts. to her brother Aleph Palmer and a messuage with appurtenances in Sandon, Herts. to her sister Sarah Palmer; Executor: John Palmer (her father) Will dated 2 May 1728; Proved at the Archdeaconry Court of Ely. 5 August 1736
The Parish Records of 1701 record John being paid one shilling “for pales, about 24, and nails and a staple, for the church yard fence”. He also contributed to an annual ten shilling payment to the Vicar, Richard Willowes, for maintaining a written record of the parish rates and accounts.
A year later, in 1702, John was elected as a parish overseer. Under the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law each parish raised a rate for the relief of poverty within its jurisdiction. The overseer collected taxes from chargeable properties to assist the poor and the aged with rent, food, clothing, medical care, and funeral expenses. (See Paupers, Workhouses and Guardians elsewhere on this site for more information.)
In 1662 the Settlement Laws restricted the obligation of the parish to looking after persons who had, and could prove, permanent settlement there. John, in his role as overseer, would have been involved in issuing both settlement certificates and removal orders for those not deemed residents.
As a butcher John supplied meat locally, but tradition states he also supplied customers in London. Recurrences of the Great Plague and smallpox were still of concern and, again, according to local tradition, coin payments had to be placed in a stone trough containing vinegar before being accepted.
John passed away in 1736 and the house and land passed to his second and oldest surviving son George (I). Born in 1706, George continued to develop the farming and butchery business. Two years before his death in 1788 his accounts show sales to London alone were totalling around £1000 per annum. In terms of purchasing power today that equates to over £140,000. Earlier household accounts record him purchasing cattle, shipping apples and cherries to London and Royston, and supplying animal hides.
George’s son and heir, also called George (II), pre-deceased his father a year earlier and Blacks now passed to George (I)’s spinster daughter Mary, or Mollie as she was called. The butchery business is thought to have occupied the room in the house nearest the High Street but after her father’s death Mollie returned the room to domestic use and moved the business into one or more of the outbuildings.
According to family tradition the former shop’s serving door was blocked and Mollie installed a new window, allegedly the first in Meldreth, to better see her garden. First in this instance most likely refers to the use of glass but in truth, Mollie’s first glass window is a myth. As Bruce Huett’s article reveals a window tax was introduced in 1696 and the records show, in 1700, John Palmer was taxed the sum of three shillings on his sixteen windows.
Changes to the house, the farmyard, and the land holding
As the family business and associated fortunes expanded during the 1700s so John and his son George (I) enlarged and modified the house, and began to add outbuildings.
The 1820 Enclosure map, which confirms Mollie Palmer’s ownership, gives a clear view of the farm she had inherited and the land on which it stood.
On the later 1910 Land Values map, surrounded on all sides by orchards, the farm is quite rural.
Aerial photographs from 1949 appear to show the land in disuse whereas aerial photographs from 1970 show a large planned orchard. The Draft Village Plan map from 1973 shows no development of the land holding but by 1975 the orchards have gone and there is modern housing on all sides.
Deciphering old buildings is never straightforward but the sequence shown in the diagram in the gallery above is most likely.
The first significant change was made to the original two-bay cottage. Using a standard post-Medieval building template, we can assume the house internally was open from wall to wall and from floor to roof with a centrally located open fireplace. Essentially it was a smaller version of the three-bay hall house.
The house does stand quite tall so it is conceivable upstairs was all, or partially, floored when first constructed but it is more likely the floor is a later addition.
Since the house faces the High Street end on it is not immediately obvious what is, therefore, the front and what is the back, and centrally located doors on either side would both have served as entrances. When the open fireplace was replaced by the large central brick chimney stack, with a hearth on either side, the open hall was duly divided into two separate rooms. The chimney stack appears to have blocked the entrance door on the northern side and created a small lobby entrance on the southern side facing the farmyard. The chimney stack is still visible above the roofline but is a Victorian replacement with attractive dentil brickwork.
Throughout the 1700s the house was extended westwards, firstly by the addition of a third chamber, also with its own chimney stack and hearth. To the side of this hearth a new door was incorporated and this probably superseded the door into the farmyard as the main entrance to the house. With the completion of a 20th century porch, finally, this elevation has become the “front” of the house!
To further improve upstairs access an external staircase tower was constructed on the farmyard side. The listed building entry suggests it, too, dates from the 1700s though it may, in fact, be later.
Lastly, a larger cross wing was built perpendicular to the western end of the house, again with a chimney stack and hearth. It may have been built at the same time as the first extension but it is unlikely. The different floor plan and variance on the external elevation would suggest it is later in date. This room has been both partitioned and made open plan during its lifetime. The wing also raises another question. There is a distinct change in floor height between the two halves of the room which is mirrored at first floor level.
Excavating the ground floor to gain extra height was common practice and would explain the difference downstairs but it does not explain upstairs. Perhaps the wing was built in two phases, though why a carpenter would not have matched floor heights also cannot be explained.
Whilst not always easy to accurately date revisions made to older houses, it is possible to state when the thatched roof was removed and replaced. The household accounts of August 1847 describe the purchase of one thousand six hundred and fifty slate tiles priced at fifteen shillings per one hundred and ninety-nine, plus four shillings expenses, duly transported from the river wharf in Cambridge.
The neatly spaced vertical timbers visible at the roof apex on the gable end are thought to date from when the roof was tiled. The pitch of the roof may have been altered and/or the newer timbers were incorporated to provide additional support. All the attic rafters were similarly replaced and the rebuilding of the central chimney stack may have taken place at the same time.
The surviving barn facing the High Street also dates from the 1700s as does a smaller outbuilding to the west. Formerly separate structures, both are now linked to the main house. The smaller outbuilding’s link is Victorian whilst the barn’s link, where once was the High Street entrance gateway into the farmyard, is mid-20th century. The gated entrance is clearly visible on both the earlier maps and the 1933 photograph.
This link room once had impressively grand wooden entrance doors. Probably conceived as a new main entrance it seemed mostly unused and was later rebuilt with wood cladding to replicate the barn, re-roofed, and the doorway blocked off by now retired local builder Philip Sims of Royston.
The 1910 Land Values map shows additional outbuildings to the west enclosing the farmyard but by the 1970s all have disappeared though the site of the large barn across the farmyard facing the house is now occupied by house number 17 on the High Street.
The 1933 photograph shows the barn with a thatched roof, a smaller extension to the southerly end, and a now absent window on the gable end of the house. Sometime around 1950 the barn’s thatch was removed and substituted with corrugated asbestos and some of the older failing roof timbers were replaced. Other internal timbers show clear signs of having been previously used. Often these were taken from disused buildings and used to repair the fabric of another building.
Used also for the parking of cars, in the second half of the 20th century an antique shop part-occupied the barn and two elegant arched and glazed entrance doors were cut into the roadside elevation providing access. A painted sign hung outside merely stated “Antiques” and no trading name is remembered.
Having then stood unused for many years and facing the possibility of collapse, in 2018, the barn has been completely dismantled, renovated and rebuilt to a very high standard with a new roof, internal supports, walls and windows whilst retaining many original features, and converted to domestic use.
Incidentally, the white gate posts across the road in the 1933 photograph mark the entrance to (New) Elmcroft or ‘Whitegates’ as it was later known. This house, also once owned by the Palmer family, was home to yet more Palmer descendants.
The farmyard photograph is recorded as Elmcroft and dated 1910. The chimney stack of the house is visible to the left above the roof of the barn and the placement of the outbuildings match the Land Values map. The photographer would have been standing in the orchard to the west and pointing their camera towards the farmyard entrance on the High Street which is just visible at the end of the trackway and between the two barns. The building in the foreground is called a hovel and was used for storing harvested crops above ground level. An almost identical hovel can be seen standing near Cowslip Corner in old pictures of Sheen Farm.
There is no indication as to why or when Blacks was re-named Elmcroft but there is a tenuous link to elm trees when a Palmer descendant fell into dispute with his neighbour Hubert Ellis in 1904 after elm trees he had ordered cut down fell onto Hubert’s garden causing damage to his flowerbeds …
Miss Mollie Palmer 1755-1827
Mollie Palmer inherited Blacks from her father in 1788. Her household accounts show that she also owned and sublet a large now demolished property called Greenbanks to the Reverend William Carver on Melbourn High Street, employed household staff, and contributed financially to the Melbourn Congregational Church. Their records note that Mollie subscribed to what was then the ‘Meeting House Fund’ and to Mr Carver’s ordination expenses in 1792. She also met the sum of two pounds and fifteen shillings for his hire of a post-chaise to London and other incidental expenses.
Referring back to the 1820 Enclosure map, plots of land in her name are found on the High Street opposite Woolpack Way with a cottage, a smaller tract near the junction of Chiswick End and the Kneesworth Road also with a cottage, a large tract on Mettle Hill, and, of course, Blacks.
Clearly a very wealthy woman Mollie’s lengthy will proved in London in 1827 is even more revealing…
Her first named beneficiary was Mary, the daughter of her cousin Aleph Palmer of Orwell, who was bequeathed a cottage in Meldreth “now in the occupation of the widow Hornby and William Wilson with the orchard adjoining…and my cottage and estate in Sandon.”
Next to benefit was Mary’s brother – another George Palmer. This George (III) was born in Orwell in 1792 and he died in Meldreth in 1855. George inherited from Mollie “all my freehold and copyhold messuage farm land allotments and the rest of my real estates in Meldreth … also all my other real estate in Fulbourn.” The Meldreth property described was undoubtedly Blacks.
The will also required George to pay “my faithful servant Charles Charter weekly and every week…the sum of fifteen shillings of lawful money” whilst George and Mary’s older brother Aleph inherited “all my freehold and copyhold lands and real estates at Foxton.”
Silverware, pewter, books, clothing and “best wearing apparel”, furniture, her bound volumes of Henry’s Exposition of the Bible, and generous amounts of money were allocated variously to family members, her maid, friends, and the school in Melbourn. Other servants were to be paid a full year’s wages.
All remaining goods and chattels were left “unto my said cousin George Palmer (III) of Orwell for his own use and benefit hoping and expecting that he will come to live and reside in my house and on my Estate in Meldreth … and it is my particular request that he will not cause or permit any of my said furniture or effects above given to him be sold at auction”.
Lastly, estate in Barkway and Little Wilbraham was bequeathed to her friend William Hollick Nash, a solicitor and gentleman of Royston.
George (III) Palmer 1792-1855
George abided by Mollie’s conditions, relocated to Blacks, and by 1828 already appears in the Meldreth listing of the Cambridgeshire Juror Books alongside other familiar Meldreth surnames – Stockbridge, Maze, Wing, Course, Hitch, and Blott.
The 1851 census describes George as a “Farmer of 93 acres” employing four labourers whilst his household accounts reveal the purchase of cherry, damson and greengage fruit trees, hundreds at a time.
His wife Lydia Collis, also born in Orwell in 1817, lived to a grand old age dying in 1916. Some twenty-five years younger than her husband it is suggested Lydia was employed as George’s domestic servant before they married in Meldreth in September 1834.
George (IV) Palmer 1835-1913
The 1861 census return shows George and Lydia’s son George (IV), born 1835, as a “Farmer” and head of house living with his widowed mother.
Married later in 1861 in Melbourn to Sarah Mortlock, daughter of Simeon, both the 1871 and 1881 census returns show George still living on the High Street, and his mother Lydia living in an adjacent property called Rose Cottage. George is a “Farmer of 48 acres” and he is employing two men and one boy.
Ten years later Lydia is found in Clothall near Baldock with her married daughter Mary but by 1901 she is back in Meldreth and living on the High Street, somewhere between The Gables and the Bell Inn, again with her daughter Mary, and her son-in-law Edwin Meredith Hope, he of Hope Folly infamy.
“Farmer and Fruiterer” George continues to be listed as living on the High Street in both 1891 and 1901. The 1911 census describes him as George Palmer Senior, a “Fruitgrower” and his address only as of Meldreth but the 1910 Land Valuation map does confirm him living at Elmcroft with “house and buildings, land and orchard, High Street”.
Like his forebears George kept detailed household accounts and they record him growing fruit trees in at least nine different fields and orchards in Orwell, Melbourn, and Meldreth. He passed away in 1913 and his wife Sarah in 1917. The National Probate Calendar continues to gives her address as Elmcroft, Meldreth.
George (V) Palmer 1862-1934
George and Sarah’s son George Palmer was born in Meldreth in 1862 and in 1893 he leased and later, in 1922, purchased Sheen Manor. Both the 1901 and 1911 census returns give his address as Sheen Farm as does his probate record of 1934.
Whilst George (V) and his immediate family had relocated, the Electoral Registers between 1930 and 1939 show his unmarried sisters Maud Mary, Ethel Sarah and Grace Lydia, all “Fruit Growers”, living at Elmcroft. However, we can be certain that this was (New) Elmcroft on the opposite side of the High Street since the 1936 edition of Kelly’s Directory lists the Misses Palmer of Elmcroft and a Henry Iredale Nelson of Temple House.
A family tree is available showing the members of the Palmer family mentioned on this page.
At the time of writing this mention in Kelly’s Directory is the earliest known reference to Temple House but the precise date and reason for the change of name from Elmcroft is not known.
First appearing on the High Street in Meldreth in the 1932 Electoral Register, Henry Iredale Nelson was born in Yorkshire. The 1939 census describes him as an Assistant French Master Secondary School and ARP warden, whilst his American-born wife Muriel Louise was on the waiting list to join the Women’s Voluntary Service. Also resident was his aged aunt Catherine Ann Iredale and their domestic servant Daphne Wing.
Henry and Muriel wrote plays for local amateur dramatic productions and Ann Handscombe recalls Henry – “a heavy smoker and a School Inspector” – visiting the village post office after the war.
According to the Electoral Register of 1945 Temple House was fully occupied. Henry and Muriel are still resident but are now joined by Barbara Kent, Chrissie V Williams, and Jack and Eileen Worledge.
Jack, a draughtsman, and Eileen also had three young children – Michael, Peter, and Barbara – and Local History Group contributor Ken Winter recalls visiting Temple House in 1947 to meet his schoolfriend Michael.
Jack Worledge and his young family emigrated to Australia in 1949 and settled in Pasadena, a suburb of Adelaide. Barbara Kent fades from the records though it is possible that Chrissie V Williams and Chrissie Vera Williams who emigrated to New Zealand are one and the same.
Henry and Muriel Nelson are both still living in Temple House in 1955 but their next appearance in the 1960s electoral records show they have moved to Tan House in Bassingbourn, and Hampstead in London shortly after.
Of the three Palmer sisters, Grace Lydia passed away in a Hitchin nursing home in 1958, Maud Mary in Royston in 1959, and Ethel Sarah in 1965. All three sisters’ probate records record them still of (New) Elmcroft, Meldreth.