Town Centre Buildings of the 18th Century

A comprehensive Appraisal of the Morpeth Town Centre Conservation Area was produced at the behest of the Town Council in January 2020. Here is an extract from the Appraisal discussing buildings of the early-to-mid 18th century:

“The 18th century is a particularly well-documented period of Morpeth’s history. Following the fire in 1689, there was substantial rebuilding of the town and an opportunity to introduce the latest styles and fashions in both construction and architectural detailing. Numerous buildings survive from this period and they make a considerable contribution to the character and appearance of the town. There is commonality to buildings from this century, but there is also a subtle progression in character, an increasing sophistication and refinement, that means the contribution they make to the overall character and appearance of the conservation area is distinct and warrants independent discussion.

“The most apparent feature of buildings of the first half of this century is the almost ubiquitous use of brick. At this time bricks were still handmade, usually on site in temporary kilns and using local clay. The clays around Morpeth have resulted in bricks of soft oranges with highlights of red, and a deep almost plum coloured undertone. They give a beautifully warm and rich appearance to the buildings and are quite distinct from the mass-produced and imported bricks used from the mid-19th century onwards.

“Whilst they are made from the same clay, the process of hand-making bricks means that there is subtle variation in size and finish depending on the skill of the craftsman in charge of firing, where the brick was placed in the kiln and the builder’s personal preference. There was no standardised sizing and so this can alter from building to building, but they tend to be thinner and longer than they are today. The surface is more textured than later bricks, partly because of the wear and tear of intervening centuries, but also because the firing temperatures that could be achieved at this time were comparatively low, and so the fireskin of the brick – the surface of the brick that protects the softer inner – did not vitrify to the same extent, resulting in a rougher finish.
Once the bricks were made, further variation and character was achieved through how they were laid. A variety of bonds could be used, although buildings of this period in Morpeth favoured English garden wall bond. Equally though, examples of stretcher bond and Flemish bond can be found, as well as some interesting examples that appear to be a randomly applied mixture of all. Lintels, stringcourses and eaves detailing – such as sawtooth or cogged cornices – are all in brick and animate an otherwise flat façade.

“There is less variety to be found with roof materials, which on the whole would have been a regional slate – such as Cumbrian or Westmorland – although most have been replaced over the years with Welsh slate. Another tell-tale feature of this period of building is the window. By this date the use of sash windows is absolute, but advancing technologies, changing fashions and legislative directions on design mean that an early 18th century sash is quite distinct from an early 19th century one. A healthy proportion of buildings from this period in Morpeth retain their original windows, or replacements that accurately replicate them, and they do much to reinforce the character of the building. Those from the early 18th century are rectangular but modest in size. The frame is visible – giving the windows a thick border – and they are placed flush with the façade of the building. The lights are small and numerous – 8 over 8 or 6 over 6 – and the glazing bars that hold them in place are moulded but thickset. There is appreciation that the arrangement of windows should be more regular, but the symmetry that underpins classical design is not always successfully applied: the internal layout of these buildings dictates the need for four bays, which necessarily pushes the door off-centre.

“These buildings often display a slightly naïve application of classical detailing; that is, they apply classical elements but not always in the established proportions or arrangements. This results in some quirky effects, most notable in Morpeth in door surrounds, where you can find any combination of ogee arches, triangular pediments and engaged columns that sometimes, most curiously, have pilasters sat atop them.”

Key words for the character of 18th century buildings in Morpeth: charming, spirited, aspirational

The full Conservation Area Appraisal can be found on this Morpeth Heritage website or downloaded from the Town Council website. Also available is a Gazetteer listing all the buildings in the Conservation Area and highlighting their significant heritage traits individually.

The Town Council has now commissioned a formal review of the Conservation Area boundaries which is due to start later this year.