So What’s New About Norfolk Barn Conversions?: The Will of Thomas Norffolke, husbandman of Hempstead cum Eccles, Norfolk

The Modern Barn Conversion

The changing face of Norfolk agriculture in the late 20th century saw the merger of smaller farms to much larger holdings, prompted by mechanisation and the need for bigger fields able to accommodate modern large-scale machinery. By this time traditional threshing barns had largely become redundant with the widespread use of initially steam-powered threshing machines, and by the 1950s combine harvesters. As a result many farm buildings became redundant, and across Norfolk barns were sold off and converted into often large and imposing domestic premises. But as the will of Thomas Norffolke, [1] husbandman [2] of Hempstead cum Eccles Norfolk shows, the idea was by no means new, albeit somewhat unusual for the last decade of the 16th century.    

A Tudor Barn Conversion

Thomas made his will on 15 October 1591 which was proved at North Walsham on 2 April 1593, leaving the major part of his estate to his wife Anne, whom he also appoints as his executrix.

ANF will register Liber 31 (Hardey) fo. 396

‘Item I will that Anne my wife shall have the occupacion of all my howses and landes both fre and bonde situate lyeinge and beyinge in Hempsteade aforesaide or else wheare duringe the tearme of hir naturall lyfe…’

However, things get rather complicated when he goes on to say that when Anne dies the house and lands etc. will go to Margaret, the wife of Richard Humphrey. In the meantime, somewhat inexplicably, Thomas says that Richard and Margaret are entitled to live with Anne, although he does make the following stipulation:

ANF will register Liber 31 (Hardey) fo. 396

Item I will that if Richard Umfrie and Anne my wyfe cannot agreae to dwell and occupie my saide houses and landes togeather and to beare and take the charges and the profittes parte and parte alike then I will the saide Umfrie shall have a chemnoy made upp in the barne and to have his dwellinge in the same duringe the tearme of my wyffes lyfe with free egress and regress to and from the same.’

In 1591 the reference to building a ‘chemnoy’, a chimney, in the barn to convert it to a dwelling is not only a curiosity, but also provides evidence that the late Tudor fashion for installing flues in houses to burn coal rather than wood was well advanced in rural Hempstead.

Bricks and Brickmaking

Architectural historians recognise that one of the most startling transformations in the history of English architecture took place in the later Tudor period. Buildings were still largely Gothic in form in the first half century of the Tudor period, but later this transformation was a social one, with building effort now turning towards secular rather than ecclesiastical buildings.[3] This change was facilitated by the increased use of bricks in domestic buildings, particularly prevalent in East Anglia where they had been introduced from the Low Countries in the late medieval period. In the early 1500s bricks were expensive and the preserve of the wealthy, with King Henry’s Hampton Court and its magnificent chimneys usually cited as the type example of the brick mason’s art.  But by the mid-1500s brick became one of the most common building materials, often imported into Norfolk by ships exporting wool to the Continent, whilst others were made locally in brickyards frequently established by Flemish immigrants. Hempstead’s probate record includes the inventory of John Estmore, [4] where on 12 April 1602 he is described as a ‘brickburner of Hempstead nighe Lessingham’.

Tudor chimneys on Hampton Court Palace

The Importance of Chimneys in Architectural Development

Brick chimneys and enclosed fireplaces became common in later Tudor times prompted by the availability of coal. Previously, wood smoke from an open hearth was allowed to escape from the interior through a simple hole in the roof, or would merely seep through a thatched roof. But with increased heat, and more noxious amounts of smoke from coal, a fireplace essentially needed a chimney to get the smoke away from the living space. Chimneys also meant that ceilings could be installed in buildings creating an upper chamber, although not necessarily a bedroom.

The 1592/3 inventory of Henry Hide, [5] yeoman of Eccles and a close neighbour of Thomas lists the contents of his parlour and parlour chamber. The ground floor parlour has a fireplace, evidenced by a range of fireside implements including two dogirons, one pair of tongs, various pothooks and a ‘Colyuer with the furnitur’, i.e. a coal scuttle with its shovel. As well as being the family’s private living space this room is also a bedroom containing two feather beds, two bed nets, [6] two bolsters, two bed covers and three blankets.

The upper chamber over the parlour was used as a storeroom where Henry was keeping, amongst many other things, twenty six cheeses, a net for catching rooks, another bird net, four lanterns, eleven bowls and a vat for making cheese. With the chimney breast running through the room here was a moderately warm, dry space ideal for keeping and maturing the family’s store of home-made cheese.  

Seacoal and Colliers

Given the remoteness of rural Norfolk to any coal mines it may be surprising that coal was easily obtainable by Hempstead’s farming community, but the answer lies in the village’s proximity to the sea. By the 1590s supplies of sea coal were readily available, brought by coasting colliers from north-east ports such as South Shields. Whilst the main coastal coal trade was serving London, flat-bottomed vessels would regularly beach on a falling tide at locations all along the east coast, discharge their cargo into waiting carts and re-float at the next high tide. Given Hempstead’s close proximity to the beach presumably the coal was obtainable at a comparatively modest price. The 1611 inventory of John Skynner, [7] rector of Hempstead cum Eccles, reveals that he was keeping £1 worth of ‘seacoales and wood’ in his orchard, when at the time around £1 would buy two coomb [8] sacks of wheat.

A beached collier unloading into carts
Ibbetson, Julius Caesar. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Thomas Norffolke’s will is his relationship with Richard and Margaret Humphrey. It was quite common in rural Norfolk Tudor wills for the patriarch to state that his wife would inherit for her lifetime, after which the farm would pass on to one or more sons. They would then be required to ensure that any female siblings would receive due recompense until these sisters subsequently married. But in this case it seems that Thomas and Anne had no children, with Anne being the sole beneficiary for her lifetime. Perhaps Margaret Humphrey was Thomas’s sister, and hence the only family member eligible to inherit, but there may be other explanations?

David Stannard, NRO Research Blogger                                                                              

[1] NRO ANF Liber 31 Hardy fo.396

[2] A Tudor husbandman was a small farmer, a smallholder, a step lower than a yeoman.

[3] Tudor Architecture in England 1500-1575 by David Ross Britain Express

[4] NRO DN/INV 18/246B

[5] NRO DN/INV 9/314

[6] A Tudor bed usually comprised an open wooden frame laced with cords covered by a net over which was placed the mattress and bedclothes. Over this the bed may have had draught excluding curtains and a canopy. The cords would need frequent tightening. See: A  Researcher’s Glossary by David Yaxley  Larks Press

[7] NRO DN/INV 24/249

[8] A coomb sack holds about 18 stone [114kgs] of wheat

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