Built in 1436, Bridge Cottage is a Wealden Hall House. This kind of building was common across the Weald – the area of the South East between the North and South Downs, which includes parts of Hampshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Bridge Cottage has some unique features which set it apart from some other Wealden Hall Houses, but it shares the same basic three-sectioned layout. Recent archaeological work revealed that an older building once stood on the site of Bridge Cottage, although it is not known when this building dated from.
The main living room of a Wealden Hall House was the central hall, which would have been completely open from floor to ceiling with a central open hearth. Light and smoke were controlled by shutters on a large, unglazed bay window, extending the full height of the wall up to the eaves. Today Bridge Cottage no longer has an open hall, and the central section has had an upper floor inserted.
The Southern section contained service rooms. On the ground floor were the pantry and the buttery. The pantry would have been used as a store for food, the buttery for alcoholic drinks such as beer, ale and wine. A cross passage linking the front and back doors of the house ran between the service rooms and the main hall. The upper floor would have contained another storeroom or servants’ bedroom.
The Northern section of the house was known as the solar. This was divided into two floors, and would probably have been the private chambers of the owner. As the Northern section had no external door, access would have been gained via the main hall.
A key feature of the Wealden Hall House is the “jettied” upper floor. The floors of the upper rooms in the Northern and Southern sections extended out beyond the lower wall at the front of the house. The eaves of the roof extended out in line with the jettied floors, making the central hall and the lower floors of the outer sections appear recessed.
The date of construction for Bridge Cottage has been determined through a process known as dendrochronology. This involves using the pattern of annual growth rings in wood to find the date of timbers. The growth rings vary in width depending on the climate each year creating a pattern of rings that can be matched to timber of a known age.
As the timber was used green, or unseasoned, this has allowed testing for the date of the construction of the building to be carried out. Samples of wood taken from the original timbers in Bridge Cottage give a date of 1436.
The house was probably built on an island in the middle of the river floodplain with a level platform being formed on the site of the previous building to provide a solid base. A low wall of sandstone blocks was built on this platform and the timber framework was erected on this wall. The main framework of the house formed an arch across the width of the main hall, which supported the cross plan crownpost of the roof.
Bridge Cottage was built using a framework of oak timbers held together by complex joints and wooden pegs. The walls between the oak posts were filled with rectangular panels of wattle and daub, thin hazel branches woven around small oak posts and covered on both sides with a clay and straw plaster. This way of building used materials which were available locally and were also relatively lightweight. Wattle and daub gives good heat insulation and is extremely durable if looked after well. There are still many original panels of wattle and daub in Bridge Cottage today.
Change over time
By the middle of the 16th century, open halls were considered less fashionable, and consequently Bridge Cottage underwent some changes. The Northern section was demolished either through design or, more likely through flood damage and a first floor was inserted in the central section.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, two brick “lean-to” rooms were added to the Cottage. One was placed where the Northern section once stood, and another was added to the rear of the house at the Southern end. These could have been partly constructed using materials from other parts of the building. Another floor was added around the time to create more rooms in the roof. The roof at the Southern end was also enlarged to accommodate additional room space and a window.
Later still, many of the rooms were subdivided and the house was split into two cottages. The floor had also been raised several times by this point, probably to prevent damp and flooding, and the front door was moved northwards into the original hall, having originally led into the cross passage linking the hall and Southern section.
In 1983, Bridge Cottage was saved from demolition by the Uckfield & District Preservation Society and Uckfield Town Council. Thanks to a grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund, it has now been extensively restored and today looks much as it would have done in the early 1600s. Renovation work began in September 2014 and was completed in April 2016. While the Cottage now has a more “authentic” appearance than it did prior to the restoration work (mainly because the solar end bay has been restored), it has not been rebuilt to its exact original 1436 specifications. For example, the cross passage has not been reinstated, nor has the open hall or the jettied appearance of the upper floors. This mixture of original features, restoration, and alterations from across the centuries means that the Cottage itself can give an account of its long and fascinating history.
Owners and occupiers
The names of the earliest 15th and early 16th century residents of Bridge Cottage are lost to history. Since the house is larger than a standard Wealden hall house and the timberwork is of a high quality, it is likely that the original owners were relatively wealthy and locally important. The first known occupier was recorded c.1570 as Thomas Maunser, the grandson or great grandson of Sir Robert Maunser, ironmaster of High Town, Wadhurst (c. 1483).
At some point before 1584, Arthur Langworth, an influential local landowner with links to the Archbishops of Canterbury, came to own the Cottage. In 1584 he granted Bridge Cottage and its farmlands to Edward Orwell as part of the “Fullyngsmill” Meade. Orwell was a lawyer and was Registrar to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Court of Arches.
The Orwell family owned Bridge Cottage until 1631, when Edward Orwell left the Cottage to his sister Joan Hill and her son William Hill. In 1661, Edward Hill (probably William’s brother) transferred the Cottage to William Peake, a Lewes merchant and landowner.
After Peake’s death in 1685, the Cottage passed to his brother-in-law Simon Snell, a merchant and tobacconist from London who moved to Lewes in 1687. Snell left the Cottage to his son William in 1709, who transferred it fairly swiftly to a fellow Londoner, Thomas Mitchell, in 1710.
From at least 1584 the majority of Bridge Cottage’s owners were not the occupiers of the House. From 1660 until the early 18th century the Cottage and its farmlands were rented by the Colgate family, and in 1713 Thomas Mitchell sold the Cottage to Henry Colgate, the current tenant. The Colgates were active and influential members of the local community in Uckfield. As a yeoman farmer, Henry was a regular member of the parish vestry and was frequently appointed to the post of churchwarden. On his death in 1755 the Cottage passed to his grandson John. After John died, his two sisters Mary and Elizabeth inherited the property, and in 1775 mortgaged it to Mary Streatfield, who eventually became the outright owner.
In the 19th century Bridge Cottage became separated from Bridge Farm, and was inhabited by many people throughout the decades – sometimes many people at one time. In 1841 John Sawyer and John Dray (with their families), lived at Bridge Cottage. By 1851 there were 20 occupants, including members of the Miles and Wren families. These residents were mostly paupers, labourers and charwomen.
In 1887 Charles Morris was recorded as a resident of the house on the electoral register. The Morris family continued to live in half of Bridge Cottage (No. 51, later No.1) until 1957. The Johnstone family occupied the other half (No. 53, later No. 3) from 1896 until 1966. The last residents of the Cottage left it in 1966, and in in early 1970s the Uckfield District Preservation Society took responsibility for the building.