The ‘Wooden Houses’

Wooden Houses

Newark’s ‘Wooden Houses’ were located at the junction of Baldertongate and Sherwood Avenue.

This picture above was published in The Newark Advertiser newspaper on 4th July 1906 (page 8) and was taken looking east from Baldertongate with the former GeneralHospital (now closed) just off camera to the right. Baldertongate continues across the junction, heading out of town on the far left of the picture. The road on the right of the picture is Sherwood Avenue (then known as Cherry Holt Lane, formerly Bedlam Lane) heading down to its junction with London Road.

Accompanying the picture in the newspaper was the statement that the houses on the left (as far as where the children are standing) were being demolished in order to allow the widening of Baldertongate. (This work having been completed, the area of land adjacent to the improved road, was taken for the building of St Leonard’s Cottage Homes).

The houses to be demolished, the paper noted, were built of brick, and had three steps down into their living rooms. It is, however the other main terraces shown in the picture – far left and far right- that are of more interest.

These were known locally as the Wooden Houses owing to their upper storey being constructed of wood.

The Wooden Houses shown on John Wood's 1829 map of Newark

The Wooden Houses shown on John Wood’s 1829 map of Newark

Floors Made of Gypsum

The 1906 newspaper report notes that, downstairs one living room had a small cupboard under the stairs which served as a coal place and pantry. Upstairs there was only one room, 15ft 9′ square and 7ft high from floor to ceiling. The floors here were made of plaster (ie gypsum) which (in the days before cheap wooden planking could be turned out by steam powered saw mills and wood-planing machines), was a favoured local material for domestic flooring.

Pevsner* notes that from Tudor to mid-Victorian times gypsum was used as a major flooring substance in Nottinghamshire.  It can be seen, he says, at Car Colston church, but was normally used only for upstairs rooms of houses; by Victorian times it was relegated to attics.

Today we are familiar with plaster being used to produce a smooth finish on walls and ceilings, but probably imagine that it would be too brittle and friable to be used on load-bearing floors. The special way in which the gypsum was prepared, however, could ensure that it set virtually as hard as concrete.

In the official history of the British Plaster Board company a description is given of how such plaster floors were originally formed: They were produced by placing layers of wood or mixtures of wood and coal, on the ground and then covering this with rough gypsum. The wood was burned, heated through, almost baking the gypsum to form a rough kind of plaster. This was then beaten to a powder.

Pevsner points out that the process often used inferior deposits and waste from Nottinghamshire alabaster workings.  He continues that the process involved burning the gypsum with clay and pounded brick, and that it was “laid warm, on a layer of reeds spread across the joists.  After it had set, it became very hard indeed: a smooth and shiny limestone which made an excellent floor”.

There are records of this kind of plaster flooring dating back to at least the 17th century, with some examples in large country houses being even earlier.

Locally, in the early 19th century, there are records relating the Sheppard family’s gypsum works at Ratcliffe-on-Soar near Nottingham where gypsum was burned (ie turned into plaster) on the banks of the River Trent, loaded into barges, and pulled down the river to Wilford where it was sold from the barge bag by bag to local residents who were constructing their own plaster floors.

The thickness of the plaster used (it could be up to 4 inches) acted a an excellent heat insulator and it is possible that amongst the many older houses in Newark today, plaster floors still remain (albeit covered by more modern materials).  “Such floors”, says Pevsner, “can almost be taken for granted in any old Nottinghamshire house, and being very durable, a great many survive”.

* PEVSNER, Nikolaus “The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire” (Second edn, 1979, p.48)