Nigel`s Notes on Pitchford Hall and the Shrewsbury School of Carpentry

Pitchford Hall, the Shrewsbury school of carpentry and Drapers` Hall.

This brief paper examines the motifs and decoration on the timbers of Pitchford Hall, rebuilt it in the mid sixteenth century for the Offley family by John Sandford. The designs started a fashion followed by owners of buildings in Shrewsbury and has become known to architectural historians as the `Shrewsbury school of carpentry`.

Wealthy merchants built many mansions in Shrewsbury in the late sixteenth century and followed some or all of the Shrewsbury school on their homes, places of business and investment properties. The members of the Shrewsbury Drapers Company copied the style on their own Drapers` Hall as their wealth increased and they aspired to emulate the style of a substantial country estate house just a few miles south of Shrewsbury.

Pitchford Hall

Pitchford Manor was acquired by Thomas Ottley (d. 1486) years after his return to Shrewsbury from Calais where he had been a wool merchant and was a former mayor of the Calais staple. [i] The family prospered and according to Moran, Pitchford Hall was rebuilt around 1549/51, for the Ottley family by the Welsh carpenter John Sandford. He was from a family of carpenters and at least three of his sons followed him into the trade. The timbers of the Hall were decorated with an array of eye catching tasteful and expensive features.  These hark back to medieval times and set a trend of building decoration that was followed in buildings in Shrewsbury a few years later.[ii]

Moran adds that Pitchford Hall appears to have been a prototype that displays most of the hallmarks of the design features that became known as the Shrewsbury school of carpentry. These included sunken quatrefoils, cable-moulded pilasters some with carved heads, and fruit or vine-trails on tie beams or barge boards and S-braces. The writer notes S-braces are not a feature found on Pitchford Hall today.

Pevsner in 1958 commented that Pitchford Hall is the most splendid piece of black-and-white building in Shropshire. It is a large and well-planned house, built by Adam Ottley, a woollen merchant of Shrewsbury, c 1560 – 70 (and anyway before 1578, when he died).

Of the timber framing he says it makes plentiful use of diagonal struts, forming the familiar lozenges within lozenges. No higher flights of fancy, no concave cusped lozenges, and quatrefoils only in the porch. In fact what is by far the most attractive quality is the combination of considerable size with an undeniable homeliness. The only further decoration is a shaped gable with volutes below at the top of the porch. He also adds that the chimney stacks are one of its most enchanting features as they are all star-shaped.[iii]

The Worshipful Company of Drapers of Shrewsbury – (The Shrewsbury Drapers Company known today as The Shrewsbury Drapers Holy Cross Limited)

Following changes in the legislation relating to the Welsh Wool trade, in 1566, which gave a virtual monopoly to the Shrewsbury Drapers by stating “no person inhabiting in Shrewsbury shall occupy the Trade of buying of Welsh Cottons & Co unless he be a freeman of the Company”. By the time this Act was repealed six years later the Drapers had gained such a strangle-hold on the Welsh cloth market that members of other guilds thought it better to join the Drapers guild rather than try to beat them. Thus the members of the Shrewsbury Drapers increased and displayed their wealth on their town mansions and those built in the last thirty years of the sixteenth century display many of the features of the Shrewsbury school of carpentry.

Drapers` Hall and Its Furniture

Ever since 1485 a guildhall of the Shrewsbury Drapers Company, had stood in St Mary’s Place. It had been built at a cost of £9/15s/6d.[iv] But in 1576 it was decided to improve on the old hall and build a new hall on the same site, which was at the heart of the old commercial centre. From this new ‘headquarters’ the Drapers Company would be able to continue its domination of the town and the Guild would become yet more attractive to prominent men. Ever socially aspirant, the Drapers aimed to recruit their members from town and country, from burgesses, yeomen and from the ranks of the gentry. The new Drapers` Hall would make a statement and it would be in the most fashionable style available at the time, constructed of timber with features in the ‘Shrewsbury school’ of carpentry.[v]

The following paragraphs are taken from Drapers Hall Shrewsbury. The work of Lawson, Sturt, Raven and Moran, published by the Shrewsbury Drapers Company (Shrewsbury, 2002)

‘Although brick was fashionable elsewhere and good quality local stone was available from Grinshill, the Drapers chose to build their new hall in the traditional manner by using timber. Timber was still the most used building technique in Shropshire, stone being reserved for important public buildings and brick normally being used only for chimneys. The use of timber also allowed the decorative detailing which epitomised the Guild`s importance. Timber carving as an expression of importance, was much desired by ‘men of means’ in the town, whether Drapers or not, and this gave rise to a comparatively short-lived but dramatic ‘Shrewsbury school of carpentry’ whose hallmarks have passed into architectural history. They include the use of vine trails on barge-boards, cable-moulded pilasters usually terminating on carved heads, finials, sunken quatrefoils and S braces. Jettying and mouldings as found in other areas were also incorporated.

The motifs, or carvings, depicted in the timber-work of Drapers` Hall are of medieval origin and were used in a ‘pure’ form by the skilled craftsmen who made up this distinctive later school of carpentry. Their work is concentrated in Shrewsbury and in a few country houses and many of the craftsmen were Welsh or of Welsh extraction.

 The prototype for the style was, probably, Pitchford Hall which was completed in 1551 by John Sandford whose family were carpenters. John Sandford`s son Randyll worked on Drapers` Hall, which was master minded by Roger Smith, a Welshman from Llandisilio. Shortly after completion of the timber frame of the Hall in April 1577 `the Company leased the building to Andrew Lewes, a leading Draper.

The lease was conditional on Lewes carrying out a schedule of works for which he would receive £35 paid in three instalments, the last scheduled payment on Lady Day, 1578. The lease required Lewes ‘halfe waynscott the hall—with benches— myter and ciper joint and paynte the rest upon cloth with Antick work’.  The latter is a reference to Renaissance decoration on painted cloths which were used as a substitute for tapestry. These substitutes were less robust and few have survived in the country and none at Drapers` Hall. The cloths were removed about 1660 when Richard Ellis was contracted to extend the panelling up to the ceiling. Lewes was also required to …’syle the hall and great chamber and to colour the posts and wier trees with greene’. In addition he was to pave the hall and make a boarded dais and build a ‘…fair stair up to the gallery’, provide windows throughout the house and glaze them and board all the floors. More fundamentally he had to ‘…make up the walls and plaster them with lyme…` and cover the whole house with Harnage tyles’. (Harnage tiles were the heavily fossilised sub-quadrata limestone roofing slabs quarried in the area of Acton Burnell; much of Shrewsbury was roofed in this way, but very little survives in the town).   

Excluded from Lewes’s lease were unspecified works that ‘Roger Smyth the carpenter should doe’. No accounts survive for the wainscot which was provided at Lewes!s expense. However Guillaume Wysbecke was paid fifteen shillings for a wainscot screen that was formerly at the ‘buttery-end’ of the meeting room and bore the date 1579. Wysbecke,[vi] a joiner and furniture maker, was probably a Walloon religious refugee who came to Shrewsbury with his brother in the 1550s, and it was he, Guillaume, who also provided the wainscot at the Grammar School, now Shrewsbury Library, and at the original Booth(Town) Hall.[vii]

Although some changes were made in the 18th and 19th centuries the building remains essentially an Elizabethan guildhall. It is also unique in its documentation, held in the Shropshire Archives, which records details of the building, the materials used, the manufacture and the cost of its furnishings. All in all, even after almost four and a half centuries, it has essentially the same appearance and serves a similar purpose as in the sixteenth century when it was first built.

Shrewsbury Drapers` Hall is one of very few timber-framed guildhalls in continuous ownership and in use by the original Company or Guild in any town in England. Others include The Company of the Merchant Taylors, in the City of York, The Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York and The Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers & Shearmen, in the City of Exeter.

The following illustrate the elements of the Shrewsbury school of carpentry

Pitchford Hall; Drapers Hall in St Mary`s Place; The Old Plough, now with a Victorian second story displays copied the usual features with s braces; Owen`s Mansion

Jones` Mansion from 1570, Now occupied by Costa Coffee with 1990s additions of gable windows and contemporary decoration on barge boards including cars etc. The carpenters carved heads of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine and the inscription reminding us of the Peasants Revolt “Poll Tax 1990”

On the other side of Grope Lane is Jones Shoe shop occupied in the 1960s by Murrells, who ran a garden nursery shop, has the remains of Shrewsbury school of carpentry damaged by subsequent work although cable moulding survives on the Grope lane elevation.

Many timber framed buildings are encased in later additions of stone and brickwork although some frontages, sides or ends have been left exposed or subsequently these later additions have been removed.

On Belmont on the exposed timber frame side of shows a single quatrefoil.

On Claremont Hill there is little decoration on the exposed side but who knows what lies under the brickwork on the street facing wall?

Still encased in St Alkmond’s Square a wooden framed building.

Nigel J Hinton, Shrewsbury 30th December 2019


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