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The burgage plot as a workplace

The burgage plot has always been a practical space in which to live and work for its owner or tenant. Given the age of a great many of the plots the larger part of their story has been as a service space for the household, the merchant, craftsman or shopkeeper's trade. Some plots were small and probably worked as a small garden or yard. Others were large, perhaps an acre in size, so as an efficient smallholding could provide produce either for sale at market, barter or consumption by the household. Vegetables, herbs and fruit from bushes or from trees grown against the high walls, eggs and meat from poultry, honey from hives, meat from rabbits and larger animals such as pigs and goats which would also provide milk and cheese for the household or for sale. In Wells, Somerset, pigs were kept, fattened and slaughtered in the long plots just a few decades ago. Many burgesses were local incomers and maintained family and business interests in the area. It is easy to see how the produce of the wider rural economy, sheep and wool by example, could be brought to town and marketed via the burgess and his urban workshop or shop in town or as merchant, selling on his product for export to the greater cities or abroad.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family home, shop, counting house, smallholding, orchard, workshop, factory, market garden, dairy, store or Inn, the burgage plot would be tailored to suit the needs of both the household and the trade of the owners.

The plots also provided ancillary rooms and buildings for a variety of uses. well-houses, cess pits, middens for rubbish, bird coops, dovecotes, pigsties, workshops, parlours for preparation of produce and in later times a built privy and perhaps glass houses. The usual form for buildings would be that of a of a principal house with relatively narrow frontage to the main street, possibly incorporating a shop and subsequently, the building of a sequence of narrow extension/outshot buildings at the rear to suit the owners needs. One or two storey in height and of differing quality, these would be normally built against one of the substantial boundary/party walls and house the paraphernalia and work spaces used to support the needs of the house or of the owner's trade. This long narrow range of buildings could fill or nearly fill the width of the plot for up to a hundred feet, while still allowing access from the house to the garden plot behind, perhaps via a secure passageway to the street, here is an illustration of a typical burgage plot. There might have have been stables in larger/wider plots but often, if owned, horses were kept in neighbouring stable blocks.

Many of the shops were also a workplace where goods would be manufactured or safely stored. Costly plots with frontage to key thoroughfares or directly facing the market would often trade in high end goods manufactured on site, sometimes associating with adjacent shops to form a small 'quarter' of related trades.

 

Industrial scale industries were often found on the outer edges of the town. The tanning of leather is one example. The space and material requirements of this vital but malodorous industry meant that tanneries needed to be where there was a plentiful water supply, ideally a small river, for rinsing animal hides throughout the process and this was usually found at the edge of town. The odour of warm urine, used for unhairing the hides and the pollution produced in manufacture ensured banishment of the industry to the town edge. Bark offcuts sourced from carpenter's yards, needed for tanning the hides into leather in large pits could be stored on site in large quantities more cost effectively where rent was cheaper. The supply of raw hides was typically sourced locally, the relationship between the town and its market and the surrounding countryside often familiarly close. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Animals reared in the surrounding farmland providing the butchers who in turn sell meat to a hungry town. Butchers shops were often shops at the heart of the market in prime plots. Once tanned, the fine leather could then be supplied as a raw material to the industries within the town to be made into products for sale in the shops to townspeople, those visiting the market or further afield: cordwainers made shoes, glovers made gloves, harness maker, harnesses or saddlers, saddles.  Leather products were everyday items and vital in medieval life. Shoes, jerkins, belts, hats, gloves, laces, bags and pouches, buckets and bellows, scabbards, saddlery and book covers. Tanners had the right to all cow hides butchered in the town, while the lighter, smaller skins of sheep, goat, pig, and deer were handled by fellmongers and preserved by tawers. The hide of smaller animals produced fine leather goods and the parchment used within town for legal documents and by monks for creating illuminated books. Glue from hooves and cord from sinew were byproducts of the process while other specialists made further use of the carcass. The Horners used the horns to produce cups, spoons, hunting horns, candle shades and, when flattened, boxes, caskets, combs, ornament, even window panes. Skinners would work and deal in furred animals, lamb, rabbit, otter, deer, ermine. Fur, other than rabbit cat and sheep, was the preserve of the ruling classes. From antlers and bone bone workers made knife handles, tools used in many of the crafts in town, toggles, fixings, counters, gaming pieces, combs, rosaries, awls for making holes, sewing needles and needle cases, bobbins and ornament.

This manufacturing cascade in processes and products is extensive with dozens of associated and specialized crafts and trades within town deriving income from this one process - from the drover to the butcher to the maker of fine leather goods. From the factory sites surrounding the town to the smallest shop fronting the market on its small burgage plot, selling everyday and luxury items made in town of local materials, the town and its burgage plots could provide both goods and services to a burgeoning economy

Other than for the very wealthy, there was little space for a leisure garden in these working spaces until more genteel times when some of the the shops and houses became homes for the wealthy in the centre of town, close to churches, cathedrals and other gathering places for the more prosperous. In more recent times, some plots were amalgamated to create large town gardens. 

The medieval frontages which might incorporate a large shutter used as a platform for goods were refaced in the fashion of the times. Rooms reconfigured and made larger for the solicitors, doctors, land agents and gentlemen who now occupied the now residential streets. The buildings on the main shopping streets were updated on an as needs basis, making for the fascinating array of architectural styles and ages on our older high streets of the UK's older towns and cities which we see today. While ostensibly Georgian or Victorian from the front, many buildings with burgage plots betray their earlier origin at the rear and in their loft spaces with timber framing and roof profiles that predate the fashionable frontage by many hundreds of years. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that many burgage plots were combined to provide large leisure gardens.

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