Painswick, Gloucestershire and its Post Office

Great Britain - Scott #1768 (1997)
Great Britain – Scott #1768 (1997)

As a stamp collector, some of my favorite topicals include on-stamp depictions of my hobby as well as the conveyance of the mail itself. The latter includes postal workers and vehicles, post boxes in all their incarnations (especially pillar boxes), and post offices — the older or more unusual, the better. At first glance, the stamp featured on this “random stamp day” looked to be a typical half-timbered building — a topic I’d planned to cover at some point — but closer inspection revealed that it’s also a post office. In fact, this particular post office in the small hill-top town of Painswick in the Stroud district of Gloucestershire, England, is housed in what is believed to be the oldest building in the United Kingdom to contain such a facility. The town is quite interesting, and one of those places I would have never heard of if I hadn’t found the stamp.

There is evidence of settlement in the area as long ago as the Iron Age. This can be seen in the defensive earthworks atop nearby Painswick Beacon, which has wide views across the Severn Vale. The local monastery, Prinknash Abbey, was established in the 11th century. Painswick itself first appears in historical records in the Domesday Book of 1086, as Wiche, ‘dairy-farm’. It continues to appear by this name into the thirteenth century. The form Painswik first appears in 1237, but must originate in the name of an earlier lord of the manor, Pain Fitzjohn (d. 1137). Pain was a common Anglo-Norman name (itself originating in paiën, Latin paganus, ‘heathen’).

Painswick, Gloucestershire as seen from Longridge, Photo taken in March 2009.
Painswick, Gloucestershire as seen from Longridge, Photo taken in March 2009.

During the first English Civil War (1642–1645) Gloucester was a Parliamentarian stronghold of some strategic importance. Consequently, it was surrounded by forces loyal to the King. After the siege of Gloucester was broken on September 5, 1643, the Royalist army, which had been surrounding the city, encamped overnight at Painswick, with the King staying at Court House. Some damage was caused by the troops and a scar from two small cannonballs can still be seen on the tower of St. Mary’s parish church.

Originally the town grew on the wool trade, but it is now best known for its parish church’s yew trees and the local Rococo Garden. The village is mainly constructed of locally quarried Cotswold stone. Many of the buildings feature south-facing attic rooms once used as weavers’ workshops.

For the purposes of local government, the civil parish of Painswick includes the neighboring villages of Edge, Sheepscombe and Slad. The civil parish forms part of the district of Stroud and the county of Gloucestershire.[5] An elected ward in the dame name exists. This stretches beyond the confines of the civil parish. The total ward population taken at the 2011 Census was 4,158.

For parliamentary purposes, Painswick is within the UK constituency of Stroud and the European constituency of South West England.

A view from the Painswick Beacon in Gloucestershire, England. The view is in the direction of Gloucester, approximately due North of this position. The Earthen banking in the foreground is the remnants of the iron age defenses from when the site was a hill fort. Photo taken on November 4, 2002.
A view from the Painswick Beacon in Gloucestershire, England. The view is in the direction of Gloucester, approximately due North of this position. The Earthen banking in the foreground is the remnants of the iron age defenses from when the site was a hill fort. Photo taken on November 4, 2002.

The Church of England parish church of Saint Mary is a Grade I listed building. A priest in Painswick is noted in the Domesday Book and so it is assumed that there was also a church here at that time. Evidence suggests that it was built between 1042 and 1066 by Ernesi, a rich Anglo Saxon thegn who was then Lord of the Manor.

After the Norman conquest the Lordship passed to the family of de Laci, the patron saint of which was Saint Peter. In 1377, the chapel at the north side of the church was rebuilt and dedicated to St. Peter. This is the oldest part of the church. Shortly afterwards, the north aisle was added. By this time the de Laci family had given the living to the Prior and Canons of Llanthony Priory who had spiritual oversight of the parish until the Reformation.

The nave and tower were built about 1480 and by 1550 the sanctuary had taken its present form. The spire was not added until 1632. The church remained in this form until the English Civil War when it was occupied by Parliamentarians in 1644. The Royalists recaptured the village, however, after severe fighting. Bullet and cannon shot marks remain on the church tower to this day. The church was greatly damaged by fire.

St. Mary's Parish Church in Painswick, Gloucestershire, England. Perpendicular architecture is uniquely English and a much simpler form than the Flamboyant architecture which followed the Decorated period in Europe. Thus, whilst Decorated period churches in England and the Continent are somewhat similar (or, at least, not dissimilar) in style, English Perpendicular churches and European Flamboyant ones are poles apart. Photo taken on July 1, 2012.
St. Mary’s Parish Church in Painswick, Gloucestershire, England. Perpendicular architecture is uniquely English and a much simpler form than the Flamboyant architecture which followed the Decorated period in Europe. Thus, whilst Decorated period churches in England and the Continent are somewhat similar (or, at least, not dissimilar) in style, English Perpendicular churches and European Flamboyant ones are poles apart. Photo taken on July 1, 2012.

In 1657, a gallery was added to the north aisle. In 1740, the south aisle was built with a gallery above. A west gallery was added in 1840. In 1877, the church was restored by public subscription. The font dates from 1661 and replaced one destroyed during the civil war. The Royal arms over the entrance door are those of William IV.

The imposing tomb was occupied by three different families and suffered in the fire of 1644. The First World War screen was carved by a Belgian refugee and lists all those from Painswick who served and the names of those who died in gold.

The organ was originally built in the 18th century by Sneltzer but only the casing remains. The present instrument was installed by Nicholson of Worcester.

A bell ringers’ society was formed in 1686 and the ringers are still known as the “Ancient Society of Painswick Youths”. Before 1731, there were eight bells, but the ring was augmented in 1732 and in 1819 by four further bells. In 1986, to celebrate the tercentenary of the society a thirteenth bell was added and the clock face restored. In 1993, the addition of an extra treble bell, made possible by a generous donation, completed the present ring of fourteen bells.

The St Mary's Parish churchyard in Painswick, Gloucestershire, is notable for its ancient and numerous yew trees. Photo taken on May 8, 2005.
The St Mary’s Parish churchyard in Painswick, Gloucestershire, is notable for its ancient and numerous yew trees. Photo taken on May 8, 2005.
Pyramidal tomb of the stonemason John Bryan in Painswick, Gloucestershire. Photo taken on June 25, 2015.
Pyramidal tomb of the stonemason John Bryan in Painswick, Gloucestershire. Photo taken on June 25, 2015.

The churchyard has a fine collection of chest tombs and monuments from the early 17th century onwards, carved in local stone by local craftsmen. The oldest tomb, with fossils on the top, is of William Loveday, Yeoman, dated 1623. Clifton-Taylor describes the churchyard, with its tombs and yews, as “the grandest churchyard in England”.

Folklore holds that the churchyard will never have more than 99 yew trees and that should a 100th grow the Devil would pull it out. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, a count of the trees showed there to be 103. The plan of the churchyard included in the church’s own public leaflet shows 100.

While Royalists were encamped in Painswick, tradition has it that King Charles went up to the Beacon and, seeing the beautiful valley to the east said “This must be Paradise”. Since then that valley, and the hamlet on its western side to the north of Painswick have been called Paradise.

During the 18th century a group of gentry, led by Benjamin Hyett, organized an annual procession dedicated to Pan, during which a statue of the deity was held aloft, and people shouted “Highgates! Highgates!”. The tradition died out in the 1830s, but was revived in 1885 by the new vicar, W. H. Seddon, who mistakenly believed that the festival had been ancient in origin. Seddon’s successor, however, was less appreciative of the pagan festival and put an end to it in 1950, when he had Pan’s statue buried, although it was later dug up and placed within the grounds of Painswick House.

According to William Black’s ‘The Land that Thyme Forgot’, Bow Wow Sauce, a sauce to be served with roast meats, was developed in Painswick.

Post office in Painswick, Gloucestershire. The building which housed the post office dates from 1428, making it the oldest known building which also contains a post office within the United Kingdom. Photo taken on March 21, 2013.
Post office in Painswick, Gloucestershire. The building which housed the post office dates from 1428, making it the oldest known building which also contains a post office within the United Kingdom. Photo taken on March 21, 2013.
Royal Mall poster for the Sub-Post Offices stamp issue of August 12, 1997.
Royal Mall poster for the Sub-Post Offices stamp issue of August 12, 1997.

On August 12, 1997, the British Post Office released a set of four stamps depicting various noteworthy sub-post offices in the British isles to celebrate the centenary of what became the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters (Scott #1767-1770). Designed by Terence Millington, the 35mm x 37mm stamps were printed in sheets of 100 by Joh. Enschede Security Print in Haarlem, the Netherlands, using the photogravure process (the Scott catalogue states lithography) and perforated 14½ x 14. The 26-pence denomination portrays the post office at Painswick. According to the presentation pack that accompanied this issue, “the Cotswold-stone-and-timber Painswick PO occupies the oldest building in any post office in the country.”

The Grade II* listed building that houses the Painswick post office dates from 1428. The October 21, 1955, English Heritage listing titles the property as “The Post Office and the Beehive” and gives the coordinates as Latitude: 51.7864 / 51°47’11″N, Longitude: -2.1947 / 2°11’40″W. It is described as follows:

Photo of the Painswick, Gloucestershire post office as seen on a postcard mailed in 1941.
Photo of the Painswick, Gloucestershire post office as seen on a postcard mailed in 1941.

PAINSWICK NEW STREET
SO 8609-8709 (Part)
(north west side)
8/160 21.10.55
The Post Office and the Beehive
GV II*
Two houses and Post Office, in row; possibly at some time three dwellings. C16 base with later modifications. A complex layout in which The Beehive appears to be an L-plan interlocked with the Post Office. Beehive is built independently from and at a slight angle to the adjoining property to the left; squared lime-stone rubble with stone slate roof, one storey and attic, cut down front gable has 2-light chamfered mullion casement over a 3-light casement and a paneled and glazed door, then, set back, a small single light with leading in a gablet over C20 door.

The Post Office has a heavily timbered gable to right with a returned gable cutting into the left, stone slate roof two storeys, 2-windowed: at ground floor, under a continuous stone-slated pentice roof a part-glazed door flanked by 10-pane and 19-pane shop windows, and at first floor a 2-light casement with leading and a 3-light steel casement. The timber framing returns to the right flank of the building. Interior of Beehive not inspected, but Post Office contains a 4-compartment ceiling to very heavy chamfered beams at ground floor, a large single stone 4-centred flat arched fireplace with rosettes; at first floor plastered ceiling including fleur-de-lys, two pairs of crucks, and reported smoke blackening of some roof timbers, suggesting an open hall construction as part of the main timbered wing to the right. At back, behind the Post Office, room includes a 2-light chamfered mullion casement, and stain flanking fireplace. An unusually rich interest in a part of the town where much seems to have been rebuilt in the C18 and C19. 

Timber framing and “post-and-beam” construction are traditional methods of building with heavy timbers, creating structures using squared-off and carefully fitted and joined timbers with joints secured by large wooden pegs. It is commonplace in wooden buildings from the 19th century and earlier. If the structural frame of load-bearing timber is left exposed on the exterior of the building it may be referred to as half-timbered, and in many cases the infill between timbers will be used for decorative effect.

A
A “true” or “full” cruck half-timbered building in Weobley, Herefordshire, England: The cruck blades are the tall, curved timbers which extend from near the ground to the ridge. Photo taken by Doug Elliot on September 23, 2004.

The method comes from working directly from logs and tree rather than pre-cut dimensional lumber. Hewing this with broadaxes, adzes, and draw knives and using hand-powered braces and augers (brace and bit) and other woodworking tools, artisans or framers could gradually assemble a building.

Since this building method has been used for thousands of years in many parts of the world, many styles of historic framing have developed. These styles are often categorized by the type of foundation, walls, how and where the beams intersect, the use of curved timbers, and the roof framing details.

Half-timbering refers to a structure with a frame of load-bearing timber, creating spaces between the timbers called panels (in German Gefach or Fächer), which are then filled-in with some kind of nonstructural material known as infill. The frame is often left exposed on the exterior of the building.

The earliest known type of infill, called opus craticum by the Romans, was a wattle and daub type construction. Opus craticum is now confusingly applied to a Roman stone/mortar infill as well. Similar methods to wattle and daub were also used and known by various names, such as clam staff and daub, cat-and-clay, or torchis (French), to name only three.

Half-timbered house with exposed timber construction with infill of both wattle and daub and mud brick in Bad Langensalza, Germany. Photo taken by Sebastian Wallroth on September 30, 2004.
Half-timbered house with exposed timber construction with infill of both wattle and daub and mud brick in Bad Langensalza, Germany. Photo taken by Sebastian Wallroth on September 30, 2004.

Wattle and daub was the most common infill in ancient times. The sticks were not always technically wattlework (woven), but also individual sticks installed vertically, horizontally, or at an angle into holes or grooves in the framing. The coating of daub has many recipes, but generally was a mixture of clay and chalk with a binder such as grass or straw and water or urine. When the manufacturing of bricks increased, brick infill replaced the less durable infills and became more common. Stone laid in mortar as an infill was used in areas where stone rubble and mortar were available.

Other infills include bousillage, fired brick, unfired brick such as adobe or mudbrick, stones sometimes called pierrotage, planks as in the German standerbohlenbau, timbers as in standerblockbau, or rarely cob without any wooden support. The wall surfaces on the interior were often “ceiled” with wainscoting and plastered for warmth and appearance.

Brick infill sometimes called nogging became the standard infill after the manufacturing of bricks made them more available and less expensive. Half-timbered walls may be covered by siding materials including plaster, weatherboarding, tiles, or slate shingles.

The infill may be covered by other materials, including weatherboarding or tiles. or left exposed. When left exposed, both the framing and infill were sometimes done in a decorative manner. Germany is famous for its decorative half-timbering and the figures sometimes have names and meanings. The decorative manner of half-timbering is promoted in Germany by the German Timber-Frame Road, several planned routes people can drive to see notable examples of Fachwerk buildings.

Projecting (
Projecting (“jettied”) upper storeys of an English half-timbered village terraced house, the jetties plainly visible. Each floor is larger than the lower one and is supported on cantilevered wooded beams. Photo taken by Andrew Dun on October 10, 2004.

The term half-timbering is not as old as the German name Fachwerk or the French name colombage, but it is the standard English name for this style. One of the first people to publish the term “half-timbered” was Mary Martha Sherwood (1775–1851), who employed it in her book, The Lady of the Manor, published in several volumes from 1823 to 1829. She uses the term picturesquely: “…passing through a gate in a quickset hedge, we arrived at the porch of an old half-timbered cottage, where an aged man and woman received us.” By 1842, half-timbered had found its way into The Encyclopedia of Architecture by Joseph Gwilt (1784–1863). This juxtaposition of exposed timbered beams and infilled spaces created the distinctive “half-timbered”, or occasionally termed, “Tudor” style, or “black-and-white”.

The most ancient known half-timbered building is called the House of opus craticum. It was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD in Herculaneum, Italy. Opus craticum was mentioned by Vitruvius in his books on architecture as a timber frame with wattlework infill. However, the same term is used to describe timber frames with an infill of stone rubble laid in mortar the Romans called opus incertum.

The half-timbered Staple Inn in Holborn, London. Photo taken on May 12, 2007.
The half-timbered Staple Inn in Holborn, London. Photo taken on May 12, 2007.

Some of the earliest known timber houses in Europe have been found in Great Britain, dating to Neolithic times; Balbridie and Fengate are some of the rare examples of these constructions. Half-timbering is characteristic of English vernacular architecture in East Anglia, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Cheshire, where one of the most elaborate surviving English examples of half-timbered construction is Little Moreton Hall.

Half-timbered construction traveled with British colonists to North America in the early 17th century but was soon abandoned in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies for clapboard facings (an East Anglia tradition). The original English colonial settlements, such as Plymouth, Massachusetts and Jamestown, Virginia had timber-framed buildings, rather than the log cabins often associated with the American frontier. Living history programs demonstrating the building technique are available at both these locations.

Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The Severn Cross - the county flag of Glocesterhire
The Severn Cross – the county flag of Glocesterhire
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