From the Thorley Archives
A Historical Perspective of the
St Barnabas Centre Barn

Link to St Barnabas Barn Website

With the 1995 restoration and 1996 opening of the St Barnabas Centre I became intrigued by the social history of our medieval structure, so I began to research the historical development of timber framed barns in general and our barn in particular. I am indebted to two colleagues for their encouragement and expertise in this on-going quest. To Bob Stroud with whom I have surveyed and drawn over twenty local barns and whose eye for detail has kept me focussed, and to Adrian Gibson who, as a local English Heritage consultant, has provided the critical expertise of where and what to look for next.

Our 16th century barn is not the oldest barn in the area (Hassobury Barn is 14th century), is not the biggest barn (Cressing Temple barns are twice the capacity), is not the finest built barn (Priors Hall barn, Widdington has fine architectural details) and has not the construction interest that the Monks barn at Netteswellbury has. It is, however, fascinating from the point of view of being a typical vernacular farm building, serving the manor farm of Thorley Hall and being in continuous use for over 400 years. Through studying its building development, its construction features and its use on the farm, it has been possible to compile a perspective of its role in the parish of Thorley.

In barn architecture terms our building is described as a nine bay, twin midstreyed, double aisled barn. It was in effect a huge warehouse for storing and then processing wheat and/or barley. The twin midstreys, or double door entrances, suggest one end was originally used for wheat and the other for barley. The midstrey loading bays, which opened on to an enclosed farmyard, facilitated the entry of loaded horse drawn wagons. The sheaves of corn were stacked up to the rafters at harvest time and then the grain was flailed out of the ears on the threshing floors during the winter.

Originally, the large oak frame timbers were cut in their green state, shaped to size and assembled with wooden pegs in a timber yard. They would then have been marked up by matching pairs of carpenter’s marks, dismantled and transported to Thorley farm where they would have been reassembled according to a prescribed layout. Here a simple geometric layout system, using only cord and markers, produced post locations and perimeter dimensions for our barn of 33’ x150’ i.e. 2 x 9 rods (1 rod = 16’6”).

A reliable method for dating a medieval timber framed building is by studying its scarf joints used to join the long lengths of timbers in the roof. We have three different configurations throughout the barn. The southern or office end has an opposite pair of late 15th century joints whilst others further down are of late 16th /early 17th century usage. Obviously, over the centuries our barn underwent modifications due to repairs and adaptation. Precious oak was recycled from other buildings and the barn shows many examples of reused timbers and wattle & daub struts from other barns – as well as the precious new oak timber inserted in the most recent modification!

As well as over 100 carpenter’s assembly marks, we have identified many other instances of how the farm workers used their barn. On the black door posts behind the altar table are the grooves that held horizontal boards at threshing time – the threshold, on the horizontal beams to the left and right of the table are redundant mortises that held vertical timbers to create a wind tunnel for the winnowing process, and on the large posts in front of the table there are the scorch marks from the ‘picket’ candleholders. Elsewhere in the barn are rarer star-shaped datum, scratches thought to have been location marks needed during construction. Throughout the barn are reinforcement bolts, known as forelock bolts, of pre 1700 design, where the end fastening is not a threaded nut but a split wedge.

The late Tom Camp had worked on the farm since he was 14 and on a conducted tour of the barn in 1995 he related tales of steam threshing machines of the 1940s. The barn was used for horses and cattle in the 1930s and we have tracked down photos of machinery for grinding up barley, maize and beans to feed to the pigs and bullocks. A previous farm manager was also able to point out the location of a saw pit near the northern end of the barn and the positioning of straw stacks where the dutch barn is now located – for a little while longer. Other documents show indications of a granary, possibly a dovecot and many more ponds around the Thorley Hall Manor House and St James’ Church settlement. All the evidence points to industrious farming activity by the many inhabitants of our small village of Thorley. 

Bill Hardy

15th Century Carpenter's Marks

15th Century Carpenter's Marks on the post and brace at the top of the office staircase
Roman numeral XII with a 'fleck' on the I to denote the west side of the barn

16th/17th Century face halved and bladed scarf joint between posts 4 and 5 on the east side of the barn

16th/17th Century halved and bladed scarf joint

17th Century Forlock Bolt

17th Century Forlock Bolt showing the split wedge tail and washer

From the Archives