A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

December 2008

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Overmantel, c.1625, oak, 62” w x 40” h x 9” d.

In 1577 William Harrison noted three things that the old men of his village considered

... marvellouslie altred in England within their found remembrance. …  One is, the multitude of chimneys latelie erected, whereas in their young dayes there were not above two or three, if so manie, in most uplandish townes of the realme (the religious houses, & manour places of their lordes always excepted, and peradventure some great personages) but each one made his fire against the reredosse in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat.

The hall was a two-storey affair, heated by a fire in a central hearth from which the smoke billowed up into the rafters, eventually escaping through a “louver” in the ridge. (The “reredosse,” incidentally, was an iron fireback set in the hearth to reflect the heat and make roasting more efficient.) But, we notice, no chimney!

The central-hearth hall and its smoky interior had a long and uncomfortable history. In Piers Plowman (1362), William Langland told of three reasons why a man might leave his house -- a wife with a wicked tongue, a leaky roof, and “whan smoke and smolder smyt in his eyen Til he be blere-eyed or blinde and hors in the throte, Cougheth and curseth…” A century later, Chaucer described the nun’s priest’s house, “Ful sooty was her bour, and eek her halle” (1478).

Improvements were sorely needed. And in the Tudor period, they came. The fire was moved into a fireplace in the wall from where the smoke could escape through a chimney. The hall could now be divided horizontally with an upstairs floor providing a new room, often called the “great chamber.” The house was changing from medieval to modern.

A chimney, then, was a sign of prosperity and modernization, and was well worthy of discussion by the old men of Harrison’s village. So it’s not surprising that the fireplace below it should be crowned with the best the local carver could produce. Judging by its size, our overmantel was made for a chamber or parlour, not the hall.

But up to date though this chamber was in the early 1600s, it obviously needed further modernization by the end of the century: the cornice dates from that period, and was actually a feature of the room, not of the overmantel. The Jacobean chamber had clearly been updated into a William and Mary room in the fashionable Dutch taste. In Restoration England, being fashionable was extremely important.

In America, incidentally, fireplaces did not replace central hearths, for there were none, so they lack the significance that they had in England. Early American fireplaces were functional, not symbolic, and thus did not merit such eye-popping overmantels.

Details of this item.



For those of you who have never enjoyed a traditional English mince pie, here’s a chance to put that right. But first you have to understand that the whole family must take turns at stirring the mixture, and everyone must stir it in clockwise direction – going counter-clockwise will bring bad luck in the coming year, and heaven knows, 2009 is not the year to take any risks!

Ingredients for mincemeat:

  • 1¾ lb brown sugar
  • 1½ lb raisins
  • ½ lb candied peel
  • 2 lb apples
  • 1½ lb sultanas
  • 1 lb currants
  • 1 lb suet
  • 1 large orange
  • 1oz mixed spice
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ pint rum

Chop everything finely, mix it all in a big bowl, and stir it 30 times a day for a week. Then pack it into jars and keep for at least two more weeks. Then make the pie in the usual way. (We think the quantities are so huge because mince pies are traditionally offered to carol singers – this recipe would feed the choir and the congregation.)

There’s another huge benefit to eating mince pie: you eat it with brandy butter (you can use double cream if you’re wimpy.) Mix 3 oz of butter with 6 oz of frosting sugar, and slosh brandy on till it becomes a thick paste. You don’t have to stop there, you can keep on sloshing till it becomes a thin paste, and for some people, the thinnish poshible paste ish the beshofall … Merry Chrishmush.