In 1969, fire raged through this exceptional Elizabethan house. Paul Drury explains what archaeologists were able to rescue from the burnt-out husk.

Since 1952, Hill Hall, at Theydon Mount, in Essex,   had been a women’s open prison whose unwilling guests included Christine Keeler. To architectural historians, this was indeed a fall from grace for an exceptional building that Nikolaus Pevsner, writing in the Architectural Review in 1955, hailed as one of the first classical Renaissance houses to be built in England.

Recognition of its architectural interest undoubtedly persuaded the Prison Commissioners not to demolish what survived of the property after a devastating fire in 1969 swept through the building, spreading rapidly round the roofs of the courtyard ranges, and leaving the interior a mass of collapsed debris. But, in the era before archaeologists had learned how to respond to such disasters (as they did later at Uppark and Windsor), the debris was cleared without any attempt to salvage or record either the fallen structure or the fragile remains of ceiling and wall finishes.
Consolidation of the fabric was subsequently started by the Ancient Monuments Branch within the Department of the Environment. In those days such work proceeded very slowly, so not too much damage had been done by 1981, when I was invited to set in hand both excavation and study of the surviving fabric, to elucidate both the evolution of the house and its significance.

The earliest evidence we found for structures at Hill Hall was the undercroft of a very small masonry chamber block, added early in the 13th century to what was probably a hunting lodge established late in the previous century. The chamber was built of flint rubble masonry with ‘great brick’ and Reigate stone dressings, including an elaborate chimney shaft, and was to stand until the 1550s. During the 14th century, Hill Hall grew incrementally into a small courtyard house, the centre of a modest estate.
Apart from the chamber block, all the buildings were timber framed, which posed the common archaeological problem of identifying structures that leave minimal trace. Shallow tile foundations indicated the use of earth for enclosure walls, a technique still visible today in parts of Hampshire and Wiltshire, though no longer in Essex.

This relatively humble ensemble was transformed by Thomas Smith (1512—1577), the son of a sheep farmer from Saffron Walden, whose extraordinary career saw him rise from scholar to statesman and renaissance polymath. Joining Queen’s College, Cambridge, in 1526, he became Regius Professor of Civil Law and then, in 1543 at the age of 31, Vice-Chancellor of the University.
With the accession of King Edward VI as a minor, he joined Lord Protector Somerset’s household in 1547, entering the tenuous world of politics, ultimately serving as Secretary of State. In addition to his Cambridge chair, he gained posts as Provost of Eton and Dean of Carlisle. He was briefly imprisoned on the fall of Somerset, and lost the Secretaryship, but continued to play relatively minor political roles until Edward’s untimely death in 1553.
At the Catholic Queen Mary’s accession, Smith lost his posts at Eton and Carlisle, but, despite his protestant humanist views, he not only avoided the stake, he gained an annual pension of £100 from the Queen. His first wife having also died in 1553, he then married Phillippa, widow of Sir John Hampden, who had a life interest in Hill Hall. He acquired the reversion two years later and, now free of the cares of politics and the court, set to building what was to become his principal house, on a hilltop that appealed for its healthy situation as well as its fine prospects.

Smith’s first Hill Hall
Excavation revealed that his first moves were somewhat tentative: he rebuilt the open galleries around the garden, and added a new range–probably intended as the start of a large outer courtyard. Then he embarked upon a complete rebuild of the Medieval house. We know, from a journal Smith kept, that this work took place in 1557-1558 but he did not give any information about what the work involved. Excavation told us far more: it revealed a courtyard house with an entrance through the north range, with the hall opposite in the south range, and flanked by a loggia. The service rooms to the east   terminated in a kitchen that survived particularly well. The west range, unusually, incorporated a gallery, with the best rooms at first-floor level, while the low east range probably also had an attic gallery.

The construction of this house was unusual:   some walls were timber-framed while others were made of brick–but laid in brickearth rather than mortar. This method would have been comparatively cheap, but not robust. So, why did Smith use it? Constrained resources? Speed? An experiment in construction? Or perhaps, in an uncertain political climate, to avoid ostentation?

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One Comment

  1. Denis Crapnell
    September 25, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    Just visited today. Unfortunately Christine Keeler was not in prison here. Nice story but apparently ex staff who have visited have confirmed that whilst it was planned to hold her at Hill Hall the open nature of the prison precluded this, not because of her escaping but due to press interest.

    Reopens in April 2014, highly recommended visit.


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