Radwinter History

Radwinter's 'ideal' Village Centre


Radwinter History homepage

Many a visitor or newcomer to the village of Radwinter might take a cursory glance around the central crossroads and equate it as a typical old village centre with a fortuitous grouping of the essential community facilities right there. Yes, the visual appearance has the right ingredients of traditional materials and ancient proportions. However, the careful central grouping of buildings serving the various village activities should nudge the mind. Medieval villages, with their gradual development, rarely have all their main buildings in the centre. They normally spiral out from the oldest buildings as subsequent development took place.

So, what happened here and what was the village like at the start of the last century? Well, the buildings in the centre of Radwinter a hundred years ago were then a rare and pristine example of both the social and visual aims of the Arts and Crafts Movement. A number of large estates exhibited groups of estate houses for their workers, carefully built in the handcrafted style of the Movement but these did not reflect the whole living ideal behind it. This remarkable experimental exercise in Radwinter was born out of a tragedy 26 years earlier on 1st May 1874 and through the foresight and fortuitous partnership between a generous Rector, Rev. Fred Bullock (1840 – 1916) and a visionary architect, William Eden Nesfield (1835 – 1888).

Around about noon on that May Day in 1874, the six-year-old daughter of Leonard Butterfield, whilst playing with matches, set fire to some straw in the barn at the rear of their house. The weather was hot and dry and the timber framed barn, with its thatched roof, to the north of the crossroads was soon ablaze, the fire spread rapidly to the neighbouring thatched cottages and encompassed the farmhouse of Mrs. Saward. It bypassed the slate roofed Red Lion Inn but its stables and the horses therein were devoured by the flames. By the time that the Fire Brigade arrived from Saffron Walden the wind blown burning thatch straw had started many random fires and it was feared that, even with the later arrival of Lord Braybrooke’s Fire Engine, the whole of the village and even the flint built church, that had recently been an extensively restored, might be devastated.

Twenty-four dwellings were burnt to the ground that day, ninety-five people were made homeless and two horses, a sow and some pigs were killed but, fortunately, no human life was lost. These houses were owned by four different people, three of them owned twenty cottages between them and were insured but the fourth, Mr. John Bunton of Wimbish, who owned the other four, was not as he had failed to pay his previous year’s premium! It was their tenants who lost their homes, all their possessions and their livelihoods with the burning of their stock and tools.

Contemporary accounts, some of which are reprinted in “A deuce of an uproar” (available from our own Post Office), talk of the devastation with just the Red Lion Inn and the church of St. Mary the Virgin standing up in isolation. It is difficult to imagine now the cottages crowded around the crossroads and on the south side of the churchyard with its large copper beech trees but take a look at the dates on the gravestones in that area of the graveyard.

Whereas the fire is well documented, not so the remarkable rebuilding programme. The Rev. Fred Bullock, who organised and co-ordinated the outstanding extension and refurbishment of the church, put those works on hold and undertook with the same fervour and even more urgency this latest task. He was fortunate in that he had already engaged the services of the architect, W. Eden Nesfield, for the church works and they had become good friends. He now pressed him into the design and rebuilding of the village centre.

Eden Nesfield was an ardent exponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, as was his better known partner Norman Shaw, and he used this chance not only to rebuild the houses but to re-plan the centre along the lines of the social aspirations of the movement, which are not so well known to our generation as the much publicised hand-crafted and aesthetic principles. The rebuilding plan had to promote the ideal village life for its occupants. All crucial facilities were grouped around the hub of the village, in this case the crossroads. The church, village inn and windmill (upwind) had all survived and to these were added the reading room (our present village hall) with dispensary and the village shop both carefully integrated with attached dwellings; two dwellings with the reading room and dispensary plus five dwellings with the shop.

Other elements that were gathered into the fold, some existing and some built later, were the village pond, the almshouses, the school with its attached schoolhouse that were built earlier in 1853 and generously paid for by John Frederick Bullock on land given by his father‑in‑law Jonathan Bullock of Faulkbourne, the recreation ground that was given to “The children of Radwinter” by the Bullock family, the adjacent storage barn and more houses down Church Hill leading to Prince’s Well including one with an adjacent tailor’s hut.

Priority was given to the group of five houses and shop just to the south east of the crossroads. Nesfield’s original builder’s working drawings for these are in the Victoria and Albert museum and are dated 23rd September 1874, just under five months after the disaster. This is a remarkably quick response when you consider that Fred Bullock had first to purchase the burnt out cottages that stood on the site, have the site cleared and, presumably, agree with his architect the general overall re‑planning of the village and the extent of the facilities to be provided to each house whilst bearing in mind the cost.

The service elements of these houses were very advanced for rural houses of the day (please see the plans reproduced in “A deuce of an uproar”) in spite of the summons that was served on Fred Bullock, as owner, for not constructing a closet to one of the cottages before allowing the tenant, Mr. Newell, to move in (the summons was later withdrawn after a hearing). I have no doubt that Mr. Newell, who had lost his house in the fire, was more than grateful just to have a roof over his head again and had no wish to wait for the closet to be finished! The interesting fact deduced from this summons is that it tells us that the cottages were all tenanted by 3rd July 1875, just fourteen months after the fire. This would be a quick rebuild even by today’s standards. It is also surprising to learn from the reprinted letters of Nesfield to Bullock that it was not until 13th September 1878 that the account of £31.00 for the drawings and time was presented and that the cottages had cost £453 2s 4d.

These cottages have solid red brick walls on the ground floor with jettied timber framed first floors. The eclectic design of the dormer windows to mimic the pleasing varying styles of windows found in old cottages is very typical of Nesfield along with his love of parged (indented patterning) lime-plaster on timber lath. The cottages, needless to say, all had “fireproof” peg tiles instead of thatch. The tiles on these cottages are handmade and were no doubt expensive even then when cheaper machine produced tiles were becoming more common. The essential shop premises at the north end have an adjacent timber framed storage barn – all part of the traditional integrated setting designed by Nesfield.

About this time Nesfield became ill (he withdrew from work in 1881 and described himself as an invalid by 1883) and Temple Moore, a pupil of G. G. Scott, took over (we assume on Nesfield’s recommendation) and supervised the building programme. Temple Moore later became a well-known architect in his own right. The Reading Room and the Dispensary seem, to my eye, to have had two hands at work. The main Reading Room is constructed with thick red brick walls, traditionally executed. The roof structure and cupola are, I believe, Nesfield inspired designs along with the “minstrels gallery” at the north end, the large projecting bay window on the east side and the internal courtyard on the west side. For those not familiar with the west side of the building, that which is now the toilet wing and the west end of the kitchen beyond the ceiling beam were pitched roof outbuildings around an internal courtyard that is now covered by the eastern half of the kitchen.

The fabric of the buildings begins to change here, however, and the outbuildings have internal walls built of cheaper Cambridgeshire yellow bricks. The tiles on all the roofs are machine made peg tiles, single hole variety, and probably specially made for the Arts and Crafts Movement that was gathering strength.

Around the reading room was wrapped a cottage and a dispensary at the south side and a second cottage (generally referred to as the Caretaker’s Cottage) on the north. The render here is not on timber but on a brick base. The style of the rendering is very different, incorporating moulded, cast, raised panels and swags (to imitate historic raised rope and moulded plasterwork). The impressed parged work on the plaster panels is also more stylised. Even the style of the gables, though delightful, has not the eclectic delicate touch and natural flow associated with Nesfield’s hand. I feel, personally, that this part of the works had probably been passed over to be completed by his apt protégé, Temple Moore, who, though very young (having been born as recently as 1856) was beginning to develop his own style. In fact to back this up, we recently received a visit from Dr. G. H. Brandwood who was researching the work of Temple Moore for his recently published biography and who had found receipts pertaining to the Reading Room and Dispensary. A small observational aside here is that the downpipes from the valleys between the south gables originally obscured the raised work “show” panels on this façade – a mistake of inexperience and indicative, to me, of a young architect, which again points, to me at least, of Temple Moore’s involvement.

You might ask why we had previously assumed that it was Temple Moore and not a pupil of Nesfield’s that did this work. Well, the church works that had been put on hold were restarted in 1877 – the room over the porch, the three west windows, the bell carriages and the pulpit. From his letters to Bullock, we know that Nesfield was involved up to 1878 but then we speculate that Temple Moore took over, working to Nesfield's designs. It is documented that Temple Moore instigated the investigation into the structurally unsound tower in 1886. We have here in Radwinter Temple Moore’s actual drawings for the rebuild of the tower and for the north vestry undertaken in 1887 – 1888, the year of Nesfield’s death. It would be very unlikely that Fred Bullock would have engaged a different person to carry on the rebuilding of the village from his friend, Eden Nesfield, other than Temple Moore. Furthermore, the detailing style of the work speaks of the same hand.

The last part of the housing rebuild was the six Almshouses to the west of our village hall and to the north of the church. These were built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. These were again generous for their day. Many almshouses were all façade to acclaim the generosity of the benefactor but not to benefit the occupants. Not so these with their generous main room with a high ceiling and the rear service facilities including the delightful brick built laundry outhouse complete with chimney. Again the wall pargetting is over a solid base but in this case they are random flint walls, 18 inches (450 mm) thick and plastered both inside and out. The present residents have great difficulty in hanging or fixing anything to the main walls! Indeed, the foundation layer here appears to be flint, not brick as in the earlier buildings, with a narrow band of red facing brick above on the outside face only to form a visual plinth below the rendering. This was obviously a cheaper way of building a solid wall than using bricks, either red or yellow. However, it is interesting that the same machine made peg tiles were used on the roof and that the detail carving of the archway of the front three porches is identical to that used on the joint entrance to the Reading Room and Caretaker’s Cottage. The covered way along the rear is also very user friendly and visually pleasing.

The only pair of houses that I haven’t mentioned is the pair beyond the former Brewery Tavern and its Bakehouse, now both converted into individual houses. This pair of semi-detached houses re‑iterate the style of the earlier houses further up the hill with their red brick built ground floors and their timber jettied first floors. There is a delightful tailor’s hut at the south end, very recently infilled to join it to the main house. The jetty brackets also match the earlier houses. I have seen inside one of these houses only briefly so it is difficult to place the exact time of their building but I would guess that it would have been just after those on Church Hill and sometime before the Almshouses. They have Nesfield’s overall design feel but not, to my eye, quite his eclectic finishing touches. Does anyone out there know better please? Whilst writing this article, I have been told that they had had the date 1875 on them, now painted over, which does tie with Church Hill.

One has to set all these new dwellings, fifteen in total, against the context of the existing buildings that escaped the fire. Most villagers know that the Red Lion, now a private house, escaped relatively unharmed. It is worth pointing out that the fine house to the south of the church now known as 1 – 3 Church View (opposite) and the house set in the south west corner of the churchyard and now known as The Old Vicarage also escaped. The building now known as 1 – 3 Church View with its beautiful fireplaces and carved beams has the same cast, moulded designs in its wall plaster as are found on the village hall. Presumably it was renovated at the same time but did the then owners, the Severn branch of the Bullock family, divide it into three to re-house homeless families or was it done later?

Other possible fire-replacement buildings are the brick built terrace houses to the east of the Brewery Tavern. The “standard design” is certainly neither by Nesfield nor by Moore but likely from a builder’s pattern book. Were they perhaps built for one of the insured owners?

One purpose of this article is to try and gather the threads of information still within the village about the historic rebuild and commit it to record before it is lost. The other purpose is to put the hundred-year-old village centre in context to this millennium. I would hope that both the Rev. Fred Bullock and Eden Nesfield would approve of the latest developments. Over the past fifteen years, a considerable restoration has again been undertaken to our church with the help of grants from English Heritage The decoration of the chancel and the cleaning of the painted chancel ceiling, that was executed to Temple Moore’s original signed cartoon, are the last parts of the current project and have yet to be completed. The village hall (the former Reading Room) has been thoroughly renovated and the kitchen and toilets have been modernised with the assistance of a £100,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Radwinter Post Office, which was moved into the former Dispensary several years ago when the Brewery Tavern closed, has just been extended into the adjacent room by the Parish Council to prepare it for joining the computer age!

I think that Eden Nesfield would even have approved of the idea of local authority housing being built fifty years ago on the north east corner of the cross roads although he would have shuddered deeply at the modern urban style. He, no doubt, would also have been deeply mystified as to why Essex County Council recently put in modern street lamps and bollards instead of traditional sympathetic ones that would have cost the same.

All of the recent good work will, I hope, help to keep Radwinter community alive and well. The church and school are still here. All age groups starting at Radwinter Pre-School through the Women’s Institute and the Worker’s Educational Association to the Over 60s Club use the former Reading Room. The Post Office still dispenses pensions and children’s allowances. The cricketers, bowlers, footballers and toddlers still use the recreation ground and play area. These are the local community’s meeting points and they form the building blocks of a cohesive society. Remove any one of these elements and the “ideal” dear to the hearts of the Arts and Crafts Movement will be dimmed. Yes, we have lost the windmill (flour production has moved on), the storage barn for the Reading Room that was previously in the entrance to the recreation ground and the village pond (the crossroads may be safer but definitely less interesting – water is an attraction to young and old alike). Both of the village centre public houses, the Red Lion and the Village Tavern, are now private residences although, thankfully, the Plough is within walking distance. Fortunately the essentials all remain which is why, as residents, my family and I are so pleased to live in this particular village.

Kay Pilsbury

church almhouses before the fire