On Tuesday I suddenly realised that it was Easter this weekend, before then quickly realising that I had completely forgotten about writing a special festive blogpost. I could have chickened out but I eggspect you’ll have guessed by now what I decided to dooodle do.
It’s difficult to be original hens these fowl jokes and this poultry piece inspired by the feathered ladies who lived in my garden last summer. I decided to research where they might have laid their eggs had they lived in the gardens or grounds of one of our great stately homes in the 18th or 19thc.
Of course this started out as a bit of good humour but I hope you’ll be surprised by some of the things I discovered about housing poultry in the garden. As Lucinda Lambton commented: “when building for animals, the builders imaginations could flourish unbridled – often with scant regard for architectural convention.” Even Humphry Repton turned his hand to it!
Of course in most instances poultry keeping was a small scale activity either domestically or on a farm, and usually the preserve of the servants or the women of the household, and so the hen house was usually close to the farmhouse or kitchen. At this level the housing for fowl was usually very modest, and rarely survives. Having said that a cursory search on Historic England’s Heritage List yields several dozen listed poultry houses on farms some dating back to the 17thc although mostly from the 19th. Often the henhouse is combined with another animal building, such as a piggery where it was thought the chickens would help keep the pigs warm whilst the pigs would frighten foxes away. A beautiful three-storey example survives at Chartham in Kent – pigs on the ground floor, poultry on the second and with doves on the third.
Of course, estates had to be self-sufficient so poultry houses would have existed on all of them, but although I realised there were some model farms and nice outbuildings, I didn’t think anyone was going to take housing their chickens too seriously. How wrong I was. Many of the great architects of the 18th and 19th centuries were quite happy to turn their hand to designing palaces for poultry, including Sir John Soane, Robert Adam, Henry Holland, John Nash as well as Repton.
It’s hard to believe that someone of Soane’s standing would have been interested but he designed several farm outbuildings as part of overall estate design schemes, including one at Wimpole for Lord Hardwicke in 1794. This has nesting boxes built into a classical facade with nine entrance arches for the birds.
At Wanstead in Essex the poultry lived in an equally grand manner. What is now often referred to as “the Temple” because of its porticoed frontage, was actually first documented on an estate map of 1775 as the Poultry House, and later as the Keepers Lodge and Pheasantry, with the classical facade designed to conceal its more utilitarian purpose, and to blend in better with the rest of the classical tone of the designed landscape.
A similar porticoed temple ‘eyecatcher’ exists in the grounds of Heaton Park in Manchester. Usually known as the Dower House it was a plain brick building until the facade and its Tuscan columns were added in 1803. However that may have been to conceal its real use because on a map of the park dated 1844 it was called “Poultry House”.
Poultry were mixed in with more ornamental fowl at Woburn in an aviary built in 1805 and designed by none other than Humphry Repton. The buildings formed part of a complex with a menagerie, and were depicted in Hortus Woburniensis, which although it was primarily a catalogue of the Duke of Bedford’s vast plant collection, also included notes and images of garden buildings too.
A German visitor, Prince Puckler-Muskau, went to see it in 1826 and said that “in an instant the air was literally darkened around us by flights of pigeons, chickens and heaven knows what’s birds.” Unfortunately the whole complex was swept away during the war to allow for easier maintenance of the gardens. The core of the aviary was reconstructed from the illustrations – as there was no archaeological evidence – in 2011 and restocked with the usual run of pheasants, quails and budgies but sadly none of the wider landscaping.
Poultry keeping received a big boost in the 1840s when Prince Albert and Queen Victoria took more than a passing interest in keeping birds, domestic as well as exotic breeds such as Cochin and Java bantams that were arriving from all round the world. They commissioned a large and striking poultry house on the royal estate at Windsor to replace the one built when the Home Farm was first laid out for George III in 1793.
The new building featured at length in a number of poultry-related books published in the mid-19thc, and the royal example, led to poultry keeping becoming a popular hobby among all classes of society .
It’s rather surprising to think that the young Victoria was apparently rather like Marie Antoinette and enjoyed playing at rural life.
The new poultry house included a private sitting room for the Queen where “her Majesty, retiring from the fatigues of state, finds a grateful relief in the simple pursuits of a country life. And here, too, it may be, like Louis XVI. in the Jardin Anglaise, of the Petite Trianon, she seeks the renovation of those higher powers, which find their best, if not their only home, in nature, or its God.”
It was ” a semi-gothic building, of simple and appropriate beauty” and consisted “of a central pavilion, used for inspecting the fowls— crowned, on the top, by an elegant dove-cot, and on the sides, of wings capable of symmetric extension, in which are placed the model roosting-houses, and laying and breeding nests of the fowls. The ground, in front, slopes towards the park, and is enclosed and divided by light, wire fences, into separate wards, for the “run” or daily exercise of the birds.”
The description goes on rather like an estate agents details: “Inside these wards, gravel walks, bordered by grass plots, lead to the entrances of the fowl-house. In the proportions, distribution, and fittings of the apartments of this house, considerable knowledge of the habits, with a corresponding and most commendable regard to the conveniences of their granivorous tenants, has been displayed. The chambers are spacious, airy, and of an equal and rather warm temperature, which accords with their original habits, and their nests are made, as far as possible, to resemble the dark, bramble-covered recesses of their original jungles.” [All quotations from Illustrated London News 23.12.1843]
A much more eccentric poultry house was constructed at Tong Castle, in Shropshire, in 1842. The castle itself was constructed in the 1760s and was already architecturally unusual [to put it mildly] when George Durant inherited. He began adding an extraordinary range of outbuildings and follies whilst living a life of domestic chaos and debauchery. He could well have figured in the recent post about the goings on in the shrubbery because he had apparently upwards of 40 children, 14 by his wife, three more by the nursemaid, and the rest on any woman he could lay his hands-on, particularly the wives of his estate labourers. He was of course sued for divorce by his own wife whose lawyer said he was “making a brothel out of his own house… While connecting with the dairymaid in the fowl yard or shrubbery.”
But however loose his morals he had an eye for striking architecture, and amongst his many triumphs were a pair of pyramids – not as sepulchral monuments – but palaces for his pigs and his poultry. You get a sense of the immensity of the structure from the photo on the left. The chickens lived in a 20 feet high yellow brick construction, with the inscription “Egyptian aviary 1842 on one side and on the other “AB OVO” meaning “from the beginning” or “from the egg” which Lucinda Lambton thinks is a Latin reference to Helen of Troy being born in an egg from the union between Leda and Zeus. Other inscriptions, now all gone apparently included “scratch before you peck”, “better come out of the way love” and “teach your granny.”
Sadly Tong Castle caught fire in 1911 and subsequently fell into disrepair. Famously on 18th July 1954, a large crowd gathered to watch the building being blown up by the owner Lord Newport and the Royal Engineers. But that was not the final insult because in 1982 the M54 motorway was then unceremoniously blasted through the site destroying, much though not all, of what remained. Only 3 outbuildings survived all this – luckily including the chickens home.
Equally eccentric but in a completely different way was the 5th Duke of Portland. He was a virtual recluse and lived in just a few rooms of his vast mansion, all painted pink, with bare parquet floors and stripped of most furniture. This did not stop him spending a fortune between 1857 and 1878, creating an enormous model farm, huge underground reception rooms and a complex of tunnels miles long and even an underground railway. His heir, a cousin he had never met, wrote that “the late Duke was so absorbed with his vast work of building and digging out the underground rooms and tunnels that he was oblivious to everything else.” When he arrived to take possession of Welbeck in 1879 he found “the front drive was a grass-grown morass…and the hall inside was without a floor.”
Welbeck’s home farm contained a splendid poultry house reminiscent of the one at Windsor, but said to have been “the largest poultry house in the kingdom.” With its ogee-domed tower it must also count as one of the grandest. It was originally topped by four stone birds, two of which a grebe and a heron, still survive, overlooking the enclosed grass yard with its ornamental fountain. The chickens nested on either side of the dovecot tower.
According to the memoirs of the 6th Duke, his heir, when birds were despatched to the kitchens, they were prepared and cooked, before being “lowered by a lift into a heated truck which ran on rails through one of the underground passages into the house, a distance of about 150 yards” to the Duke’s quarters. In the kitchen itself one was always kept ready on the spit – “the perpetual chicken” – just in case his Grace got peckish [sorry couldn’t resist it] , and was delivered to a hatchway with double doors a device to ensure that the Duke did not have to speak to, or even see, any of his staff.
No hens have been kept since 1982 and the Welbeck estate has embarked on a project to convert many of its extensive, indeed more than extensive, outhouses into other uses. The poultry house had its roof restored in an award winning scheme in 2017 and since it has enclosed paddocks to the front and the rear it has been used for a different sort of rearing: as a children’s nursery!
Its thought that the fowl house at Windsor also inspired the one built as part of the pioneering model farm at Leighton Hall. Besides magnificent housing for all kinds of livestock, mostly laid out in the 1850s for John Naylor, a Liverpudlian banker, the estate had its own aqueduct and cable railway to take water, manure and feed to outlying farms. Unfortunately its fame these days, such as it remains, is because of its history as the birthplace of the Leylandii hedge rather than agricultural improvements or chicken welfare. [see my earlier post]
The Poultry Yard was added in 1861, perhaps as a birthday present for Georgina, one of Naylor’s daughters and was probably designed by the Liverpool architect W.H. Gee, who also designed the Hall itself and the local church. The Yard included the magnificent fowl house, storm shed, pond and scratching yard. Each species, whether large or small, ornamental, water or humble hen, had its own meticulously designed quarters a thorough attention to detail, which is typical of the whole estate. It probably fell out of use around the time of the First World War.
The everyday care of the birds was under the supervision of a Poultry-keeper, and his cottage which is now owned by the Landmark Trust. You can find out what it was like tobe a chicken there because it was taken over, together with the Fowl House, and restored by the Landmark trust in 1988. As one visitor apparently wrote in the visitors book: ‘The grand Fowl House could almost make one envious of being a chicken.’