Pigeon House Farm - first thoughts

(by RW Standing)

It is probably true to say that many an ancient building has survived because of poverty and neglect. There were Norman and Saxon church in Sussex still creakily existing in the 19th century only to be restored out of sight by wealthy patrons caught up in the Gothic frenzy. So also with the purely domestic and vernacular. Those with any wealth would improve their quaint Tudor houses by overlaying them with fine new classical facades, or entirely rebuilding according to current good taste. But where a house had been reduced to cottage status, or simply possessed no substantial farm or business to support it, then the owners would do as little as possible in maintenance. Until at last an appreciation of vernacular architecture with its light on social history, brought some modest formal protection in recent years.

Such certainly appears to have been the case with the Pigeon House, on the north side of the Street in Angmering. There is a graphic account written by Mrs H Dudney [SCM 1937] of the situation in 1911 when she saw the building for the first time, thereafter becoming its owner-occupier. The local doctor expressed his trenchant view that it was the “meanest house in the village.” While the general opinion expressed was of it being “a disgrace to the street and ought to be done away with”.

Mrs Dudney then went on to recount its architectural history, and how little was known about ownership before the 19th century. She related how local tradition had it that the man once living there, had been in charge of the pigeons belonging to Ecclesden Manor, a story which if true would have been carried down through two hundred years or more. But she ended with a precautionary note about oral tradition, recalling how in 1911 she had hung a large brass bell outside her door, and already by 1937 a villager had told the new owner not to take it down, because it had been put there by Olliver Cromwell, “so he heard tell” !

From personal knowledge of this old farmhouse, it may be said that the architectural history related by Mrs Dudney rings true, in the absence of any more professional survey. Its construction is such as could well be placed in the 14th century, although only modern techniques of timber dating will resolve that. Possibly the nearest accessible timber framed house like it, is Bayleaf at the Singleton Open Air Museum. Without the Wealden House jetties, its general layout and construction is much as Pigeon House would have been. A large central hall open to a roof supported by vast and ornamental crown posts - not king posts it has to be said - with two storey end bays in which were built the service rooms and parlour with bed chambers above. Not until the 16th century is it likely that the hall was floored over to provide central chambers, made possible by that great innovation of a brick fireplace and chimney stack in place of an open hearth.

Such a substantial “messuage” could only have been supported by a good sized farm, or mercantile wealth. Although the idea that a merchant by name Thomas Pygeun built the house, is more fantasy than substance. More mundane but plausible is the alternative theory, that the pigeon loft relates back to a time when the occupier was in charge of the pigeons belonging to the manor. A notable fact is that this was one of few dwellings in Angmering to be graced with a particular name in manorial records, at least back to the early 17th century. If the story is true one might expect that a wholly grander pigeon house would once have existed in the grounds.

When consulting the Tithe Map of the 1840s it is disconcerting to find the owner Deborah Boyce had a mere fifteen acre freehold, with both house and farm occupied by Thomas Standing. A precarious living for Thomas, but for his other tenancies. In fact Pigeon House was split in two, with a farm worker occupying part. As an aside it may be of interest that Mrs Deborah Boyce, had recently inherited the property from her brother, as he had from his father George Markwich in 1809, and she herself died in 1844.

Putting fragments together, it is evident that the 19th century farm was a remnant of something once larger, and for all we know a substantial farm in its medieval origin. As with many such holdings the land was largely detached from the house, within common fields south of the village. This freehold paying a combined annual quit rent of 15 shillings to the lord of East Angmering manor, Cecil Bishopp of Parham, in the 17th century. Only the surrounding garden with its barn was directly attached to the dwelling, the croft to the east being the site of a separate and long lost cottage.

In 1661 Richard Adams sold some eleven or twelve acres of the farm to Thomas Baker of East Preston, and that itself was divided at a later date, part going to John Bennett, but whether Adams had previously owned the entire farm is yet to be determined. It was the other portion of some sixteen acres to which the house itself was now attached, belonging to Walter Elphick, a “gentleman“ no less, not a mere villager. It can be taken as virtually certain that he was one and the same gentleman of Petworth, who owned a much larger freehold in Kingston south of Angmering, a property in that family for many years. John Elphick was the owner prior to 1676, but present information does not confirm him as being father of Walter. According to Mrs Dudney the Pigeon House was later owned by William Mitford, also of Petworth, and sold by him in 1753. Albeit, by the later 18th century it had come into the hands of George Markwich yeoman, and from then onwards the descent was as already related.

What little is known of Walter Elphick is that he acquired some Petworth lands from his wife Elizabeth King, passing this estate on to his son, also named Walter, before he died in 1680. The young Walter was certainly prosperous, reckoned one of the two wealthiest gentlemen in the town in that period, although his house is not known, and his probate inventory of 1701 shows that he had at least a 120 acre farm there, besides those others he let out. It adds a little colour to the plot that in 1692 he supplied ash timber used in construction of the great staircase at Petworth House.

Knowing the owners is one thing, the tenant farmers are an altogether greater problem, seldom appearing in early records. No probate inventory of household and farm goods can be identified with the farmstead as yet. It can only be said that Markwich [there are various spellings] appears to have farmed on his own account, but after him there were several tenants until Messrs Standing arrived, and when Mrs Boyce died in Worthing that family became the owner occupiers. The last Standing occupier died in 1902, after which the house was abandoned as described by Mrs Dudney. There are brief but interesting anecdotes about the house in Angmering Reminiscences, and Mrs Dudney is said to have woven Pigeon House into one or two of her novels.

Elphick Ref: Petworth Town and Traders 1610-1760, GH Kenyon, 1962: Sutton and Duncton Manors, Lord Leconfield, 1956

RW Standing

June 2003