Historian Arthur Percival looks at the Dutch influence on buildings in East Kent
and suggests that there's scope for much more research into their histories.
Sandwich, guidebook writers often say, is like a Dutch town. Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that from across the levels from the distance there’s a distinct resemblance. With its two prominent church towers, and its core still encompassed by medieval defences, it could be mistaken for one of those gorgeous ancient towns you see in Holland. Come closer along the road from Ramsgate, half-close your eyes, and you could almost dignify the tower of St Peter’s with the onion-shaped Dutch-type cupola that some imaginative illustrators have given it.
But, although it may seem sacrilegious to say so, walk about the town and the ‘Dutch’ vision crumbles. Where are all those crow-step, tumbled and curly gables which are two-a-penny in towns in the Netherlands? There are hardly any. Admittedly, Manwood Court’s crow-steps (Fig 1) make a striking impression as you arrive by road from Canterbury, but where are all the others? There are tumbled gables on Fishergate, there’s a curly gable on the south side of St Peter’s (Fig 2), and there’s the ‘Old Dutch House’ in King Street (Fig 3), although it doesn’t look terribly Dutch. Mind you, it does have a curly gable at the back.
FIG 3: The Old Dutch House, King Street. See The Sandwich Society Journal, Vol 2, No 6, for a full account of the 1457 attack.
FIG 2: South vestry at St Peter’s church.
Dutch bricks? Well, they figure in a handful of properties, but no more. Yes, a house at the Bay sports curly gables but this is a Cape Dutch job done in the Twentieth century when Kent-born Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946) brought the style to Britain - and Cape Dutch, although related to East Kent ‘Dutch’, is another story.
What a disappointment for visitors looking for the flavour of Holland! There are many more curly gables in Deal than in Sandwich, as there once were in Ramsgate. But wait. Perhaps in Sandwich there used to be more? Yes, indeed there were, although still not enough to give the impression of a Low Countries town. There were three fine ones on the south side of the Cattle Market (Fig 4), but they have gone. There was also one by the Guildhall itself, which was used to house smaller animals on market days. It was a late Victorian building and reflected the then wave of interest among architects and builders in reviving the East Kent Dutch style (Fig 5).
Still, there never were that many buildings in what we would recognise as a ‘Dutch style’. All perhaps a bit odd, given that after its harbour had started silting up the town was given a new lease of life by Protestant refugees (‘strangers’) from the Low Countries, and that these constituted a substantial ethnic minority. Is there an explanation? Let’s look at the historical, architectural and topographical background first. To begin with, the term ‘Dutch’ can be misleading. The refugees came from the whole of the Netherlands which, in the Sixteenth century, consisted of most of present-day Holland and Belgium and a chunk of north-eastern France. This had been a possession of the Dukes of Burgundy from 1385 but became one of Spain when Charles, Duke of Burgundy, became King of Spain in 1516.
Serious Catholic persecution of Netherlandish Protestants began in 1550 when the Inquisition was imposed. Although refugees may have begun to arrive in Sandwich earlier, they were officially authorised to settle in the town in 1561. They formed their own church in the following year, and by 1564 Norwich was trying to lure some of them away. Their skills were much in demand.
What about their building skills, though?
Many came from towns almost as tightpacked as Sandwich. Their forebears, like Sandwich people, had built timber-framed houses but timber was in shorter supply in much of the Netherlands than it was in Kent, and brick (and to a lesser extent dressed stone) took its place earlier than it did here (Fig 6).
FIG 6: Models showing the evolution of the Netherlandish gable.
FIG 5: Cattle market showing Dutch gabled animal shed to the right. (Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Ray Dean, from his Collection.)
FIG 4: Shaped gables on the south side of the Cattlemarket, later demolished. (Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Sandwich Guildhall Archives.)
The practice was to build almost all town houses with their gables facing the street. Netherlanders liked individuality so, rather than build plain gables, they put up ornamental ones. At first these were crow-steps, in a style common to much of northwest Europe, including Scotland and parts of the English east coast. Or, if crow-steps were too expensive, you could settle for a tumbled gable with muizetanden (mouseteeth formed by courses of bricks laid at right-angles to the gable-pitch). But then the Spanish influence kicked in, and Renaissance scrolls and other motifs were added to create a more exotic outline. In Dutch these were known as halsgevels. These were often busy with pilasters, string courses, swags and ornamental ovals.
You couldn’t afford these? Then you settled for a simple curvilinear, or ‘shaped’, gable with the distinctive curly outline we associate with ‘Dutch’ gables in East Kent. Later on, and finally, the halsgevel was made bolder by eliminating all but one or two of the steps and string-courses and building the pilasters uninterruptedly from the base to the top of the gable. This was the baroque gable.
Because so much of the Netherlands is low-lying, and soils are often alluvial, the builders of these houses took no chances. Instead of waiting for subsidence and then repairing the resulting damage at great expense, they installed tie-bars (ankers) to clamp walls to beams from the very start. In keeping with the refined quality of facades, these were of elegant profile, unlike their crude English counterparts. Soon it dawned on builders that tie-bars need not be plain. They could also be decorative (sierankers) or informative, or both. Decorative ones could have scrolls at top and foot. Informative ones could carry the date of the building (jaartalankers), or the initials of the owner, or both, again beautifully executed. Prime local examples of jaartalankers are those that date Manwood Court (the former Sir Roger Manwood Grammar School) to 1564. The building itself is like a hybrid Netherlandish-English manor house, with crow-step gables from the Low Countries and hood moulds from England over the first-floor windows.
Because the soils around Sandwich were similar to those in the low-lying parts of the Netherlands, and ideal for market gardening, some of the refugees who arrived in the town took up this line of business. Others doubtless then branched out into larger-scale farming. Perhaps now it begins to become clear why the town lacks a more prominent architectural legacy of the Netherlandish settlement that took place here. The settlers had their work cut out to establish themselves in their new surroundings. This took time. Once they had set down firm roots, towards the end of the Sixteenth century, they had little need and hardly any opportunity to build new properties. Most of the town’s houses were then of recent, or fairly recent, vintage and did not need redeveloping. And in a place so densely built up, there were few empty building plots. Presumably it was only where there were really ancient, tumble-down properties that new Netherlandish-style houses, such as those in the Cattle Market, got built.
In scale and finish these did not match the models they emulated. About one of the reasons for this we can be sure. Although Dutch bricks were being imported, the builders - probably Kentish - chose to work with the bricks with which they were familiar. These were larger than their Netherlandish counterparts so detailing could not be as refined. As a result East Kent’s ‘Dutch’ houses and gables have a kind of hearty English flavour - they are bolder, and simpler. And if the builders put up two storeys rather than three or four, this was probably simply because this was all that need dictated.
Thus it is that Sandwich’s real Netherlandish heritage is not in the town itself but in villages close by - Ash-next-Sandwich, Minster, Wingham, Woodnesborough and Worth, for example. Indeed it also radiates from it - up the Stour valley as far as Chilham, in the Little Stour valley, in the Wantsum valley at Sarre and St Nicholas-at-Wade, at Reading Street in St Peter’s (Broadstairs) and in villages behind Deal like Great Mongeham and Ripple (Fig 7). Beyond, there was a fine example in Faversham and another two in nearby Oare, of which one survives.
These ‘Dutch’ houses are one of the main features that distinguish the extreme east of Kent from the rest of the county. They have an exotic flavour that reminds us that it is the part of England closest to the Continent. There must be around two hundred of them in all, yet though many are prominent in their setting they have never attracted the attention they deserve, and have never been seen as a ‘family’ by guidebook writers. Fortunately most have been well cared for by successive owners, but if you are observant you will notice a few curly gables which have been ignominiously shaved down. You can usually recognise them because what remains bears other traces of Netherlandish influence, like decorative or informative tie-bars, string-courses which once linked steps in the gable, or blind oval recesses which do humble duty for the more elaborate Netherlandish prototypes.
If only to complete the Sandwich settlers’ story, it is worth illustrating some of these houses. A word of warning, first. Some vernacular architectural historians argue that they have little to do with refugees from the Netherlands but are simply examples of ‘artisan mannerism’, typified by elaborate brickwork based on Netherlandish prototypes, which they say became popular in the early Seventeenth century. This is an argument that can be persuasive but the jury is still out on it.
The fact is that many or most ‘artisan mannerist’ buildings are on, or close to, England’s east coast, or easily reached from it by river. You will find them in Suffolk, Norfolk, and as far up as Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There were a few fine examples close to the Thames in the London area. In the delightful North Yorkshire village of Cawood, on the Ouse between Selby and York, you will see several, looking almost as though they had strayed from the Sandwich area. In some cases the houses may have been put up by Netherlandish immigrants, or their children or grandchildren; in others, by merchants and skippers trading with the Netherlands. The well-known, and very striking, ‘Dutch’ houses on The Strand at Topsham in Devon certainly owe their origin to trade links.
A clinching argument in the case of the ‘Dutch’ houses around Sandwich is that most have (or had) not only curly gables but such other features as sierankers or jaartalankers. Only the Netherlanders had the helpful habit of dating many of their buildings. Would that the Brits had too, but perhaps they felt that after fifty years or so a dated house would seem exactly that - dated - to prospective buyers.
FIG 7: Map showing the influence of Netherlandish vernacular architecture in East Kent and blind oval recesses which were simply not features of contemporary native design.
(Map reproduced with kind permission of Arthur Percival)
Let’s begin our short tour with the one house in Sandwich that calls itself ‘Dutch’ - the Old Dutch House in King Street. As already noted, the street facade doesn’t look terribly Dutch, although it’s undoubtedly exotic, with lots of busy brick detail. It becomes intelligible only when it is analysed. Four brick pilasters feature prominently. Just below the eaves they tail off anti-climactically in wedge-shaped caps. No-one can be certain, but it looks very much as though they once ‘supported’ a curly gable, as similar pilasters still do at Tudor Manor, Wingham Well.
The facade is symmetrical, and at either end on the ground floor are keystoned arches whose inspiration is probably Netherlandish. There are similar, but shallower, relieving arches over the two ground-floor windows. In spaces that would otherwise be blank at either end of the first floor front, and in its middle, are curious decorations contrived out of small bricks, perhaps from Holland. These look very much like a Kentish bricklayer’s ingenious but rather clumsy attempt to reproduce details from a Netherlandish facade. You can picture him having been shown a rough sketch and trying to copy what he saw. Some similar details appeared on a house (now a shop) near the station in Preston Street, Faversham but though the building still stands, its front has been progressively butchered over the last hundred years.
A house in Delf Street (Fig 8), which was nearly opposite the present cinema and seems to have been demolished in the 1930s to make way for a Co-op store (now car showrooms), looks as though it had gabled Netherlandish detailing: certainly it sported sierankers. The complex facade of The Pellicane in the High Street still has some detailing which may be Netherlandish in inspiration.
Perhaps the most convincingly Netherlands inspired building close to Sandwich is School Farm at Guilton (Figs 9-10), at the western end of the original A256 through Ash-next- Sandwich. From the distance its gables look really exotic. This is because although the designer could not run to the frills of Low Countries prototypes and was working in bigger Kentish bricks, he tried to reproduce the characteristic gable outlines by giving them bulbous contours. He added two tiers of pilasters, supported by string courses, and incorporated jaartalankers to date his little masterpiece to 1691.
FIG 8: Dutch influence on house in Delf Street. Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Sandwich Guildhall Archive
FIG 10: Two tiers of pilasters on gable end of Guilton School Farm.
FIG 9: Guilton School Farm, Ash.
Not to leave a job half-done, he gave the neat little porch a curly gable, complete with blind oval recess and sieranker (decorative tie-bar). At this late date the client could not possibly have been a first-generation immigrant. Perhaps it was a great-grandson or great-grand-daughter who cherished their Netherlandish roots. After all, most folk of Continental Protestant descent are still conscious of their antecedents; there wouldn’t be a thriving Huguenot Society otherwise.
It’s worth noting that in this case the gables don’t face the street, as they would have done in the Netherlands and did in the case of the Sandwich examples that have been lost, but are at right-angles to it, on the flanks walls. This way, in their particular setting they are more conspicuous - no point in taking so much trouble if they were not far-seen. Nearby, but secluded, is Poulton Manor, Woodnesborough (Figs 11-12). Here a timber-framed house was transformed by the addition of two large brick wings, with bold curvilinear gables at both ends of each, not to mention another pilastered gable over the new entrance. Despite the clash of materials and styles the design outcome is hugely appealing.
FIG 11: Rear view, Poulton Farm, Woodnesborough.
FIG 13: Tudor Manor, Wingham Well.
FIG 12: Front view, Poulton Farm, Woodnesborough.
Tudor Manor at Wingham Well (Figs 13 and 14) has already been mentioned. With its giant pilasters supporting a curly gable, it comes closest in East Kent to baroque gabled prototypes in the Netherlands. Winklandoaks Farm at Ripple was probably of similar type but, if so, has lost its gable. Still in Wingham, along the Staple road are Letterbox Cottages (Fig 15). No curly gables now but just look at the eastern one. It has a pediment, betraying that it once had one which has since been shaved down to save on upkeep costs.
FIG 14: Gable end at Tudor Manor, Wingham Well.
FIG 15: Gable end at Letterbox Cottages, Staple Road, Wingham.
FIG 16: Row of cottages on The Green at Littlebourne.
Further along the Canterbury road, at Littlebourne, are several curvilinear-gabled buildings. Most prominent, at the junction with The Green, is the Anchor Inn, with its gable perhaps designed to attract travellers’ attention. On The Green itself is a picturesque row of cottages (Figs 16 and 17) with a curly gable at either end, though the one on the north is now obscured by a Victorian house. (It’s quite common for gables to suffer this fate: just wander around Middle Street and its many tributaries in Deal, and you will see several which are now barely visible.)
FIG 17: South gable meets garage roof at the end of the row of cottages on The Green.
FIG 18: Gable end of The Old Vicarage, Nargate Street, Littlebourne.
FIG 20: Crow-stepped gable at Hode Farm.
The Old Vicarage in Nargate Street (Fig 18) has a curly gable which is double-pedimented, like those on The Green, but this time there’s also room for a blind oval recess in its apex. There is a similar recess at the top of one of the chimneys, and a curly-gabled two-storey porch. The list could go on and on but there is not space for it here. Suffice it finally to mention Hode Farm at Patrixbourne (Figs 19 and 20), which sports not just a curly gable (dated 1674) but also a splendid crowstep one, perhaps a little older.
FIG 20: Crow-stepped gable at Hode Farm.
One disappointment perhaps is that the East Kent ‘Dutch’ style is not still a feature of the local vernacular. Here in England in the aftermath of the Modern Movement architects are wary of designing what their colleagues might denounce as nostalgic ‘fakes’. Not so in Holland, where traditional-style buildings are still put up. In East Kent the Netherlandish influence first began to be noticed in the late Nineteenth century and the outcome was that in places like Ickham, Faversham, Sandwich and Wingham, a few ‘repro’ curly gables appeared. In Margate the trustees of Draper’s Almshouses gamely insisted that they appear on new ranges to match those on the original (1709) one. But after this - nothing, except recently for a new shop in The Parade at Canterbury and the addition of curly gables to a pair of Victorian cottages at Graveney. It was the late Sir Patrick Abercrombie who inspired this writer’s interest, stretching back over forty years, in East Kent’s ‘Dutch’ heritage. In his [Sir Patrick’s] great 1920s pioneering structure plan for the coalfield he pinpointed it as a topic worth further study. Having secured his blessing, I dutifully ‘collected’ as many examples as I could, and looked at the Netherlandish influence further afield.
However, what I have never had time to do is correlate the physical evidence with the documentary. In at least some cases, hopefully, the original title deeds of the properties concerned will have survived. These could make rewarding reading. Since they prove title to land, rather than the structures on it, they seldom record when properties were built, rebuilt or remodelled. They do, however, certainly contain information about owners and often about tenants and, by implication, may reveal when important changes took place, referring for example to a ‘new-built messuage’. Is any reader game for some intensive, but important and rewarding, research?