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Historic Farmsteads : Why are they Important?

Why do we Study Farmsteads?

Many historians and archaeologists have pointed out the lack of study of historic farmsteads which holds serious implications for their preservation for future generations. This is largely attributed to false assumptions that farmsteads contained simple buildings which had predictable features and functions. This is not always the case. And indeed, following later periods of conversion and renovation involving the removal of original features and fixtures, some agricultural buildings are extremely difficult to interpret. Others demonstrate survivals of rare types of engine structures or even graffiti inscribed by agricultural workers living on the upper floors of barns. In addition to these false assumptions, periods of increased agricultural productivity in response to the Second World War prompted the construction of new 'modernised' steel farmstead structures which were no longer sympathetic to the historic local vernacular. The lack of architectural interest afforded to these structures greatly affected the attention granted to historic farmsteads as a whole by building archaeologists during the 20th century. Ever since this gap in the study of historic farm buildings was exposed, Historic England has been actively campaigning for further studies of historic farmsteads to ensure that these structures are documented and understood. This is especially considering that agricultural buildings are some of England's most at-risk heritage assets due to being unsuitable for modern farming practices, and are consequently converted or left to decay.

Historic England's work first included a study by Gaskell and Owen (2005) to create a database of listed farm buildings in England. Since then, they have worked to produce regional studies of local farmstead character areas which can be found on their website. These documents enable the heritage significance of historic agricultural buildings to be fully understood and thus, enables them to be converted for new uses in a manner which is both suitable for the developer and the sensitivity of the heritage asset itself. As always, the goal is to maintain the legibility of its former agricultural use as far as possible.

Features of historic barns

Examples of specific features in historic barns (Source: Yorkshire Dales 2023)

Therefore, the study of historic farm buildings can provide us with vital basic knowledge of the specific architectural details and functions of individual agricultural buildings and thereby help us to understand their historic uses. These structures contained many specific elements which allowed them to efficiently carry out their primary functions - as has been explored in depth by Brunskill (1982). For threshing barns, this included ventilation slits for preventing damp, and two tall doors which provided daylight and a through-draught for winnowing. The outward-opening nature of these doors - alongside provisions of sufficient height and space within both the threshing floor and porch extensions – also aided the process of threshing with a flail. The threshing floor itself required a hard and springy surface to withstand both flail threshing and heavy storage loads, alongside being smooth enough to allow grain to be swept up. The doors were also raised above the ground to prevent contact with damp ground and manure. Owl holes fostered the prevention of mice, whilst large bays also allowed for plentiful crop storage. As such, even basic features of an agricultural building can capture the historic agricultural processing activities which once occurred in that space.

What was the Agricultural Revolution?

Studies of historic farm buildings largely evolved from early scholarly attempts to date and pinpoint the major transitions associated with the ‘agricultural revolution’ (eg. Chambers and Mingay 1966; Kerridge 1969; Overton 1996; Beckett 1990; Allen 1999). This term refers to a period of agricultural improvement and the intensification of farming operations largely concentrated between the 18th and 19th centuries. Vast increases in agricultural produce and the number of animals farmed led to mass construction at farmsteads throughout the country. These additional structures sought to increase storage and housing for increased produce and livestock due to this period of intensification - something which itself was stimulated by rapid advancements in farming machinery. Indeed, the revolution is largely attributed to the invention of mechanised equipment - especially threshing machines. This was a vital transition away from hand threshing which required considerable time and manpower and, as such, limited the productivity of historic farmsteads. Andrew Meikle – a Scottish engineer - gains particular praise for his work as a pioneer in the development of threshing machines utilizing beater arms, shakers, winnowing technology and mechanical elevators.

historic threshing machine

Example of a threshing machine

Such machines were initially powered by horse engines or, less commonly, by water or wind, which eradicated the space and staff requirements of hand-threshing. High-pressure steam engines were later invented which were more reliable and economical. The three main types of steam engines were traction engines, portable engines and fixed engines; fixed engines were combined with chimney stacks which allowed the smoke to dissipate whilst channelling off steam for the single-cylinder engine containing a flywheel and drive to a shaft which, by means of a belt, powered the farm machinery. Portable engines were instead mounted on wheels yet still consisted of a boiler and firebox with a cylinder and flywheel; traction engines contained rear wheels driven by the engine and as such, could move threshing machines to different locations within the farm. Portable steam engines were commonly positioned on the lower floor of barns, with the latest threshing machine situated above.

As such, increases in internal subdivisions generally represent evidence of mechanisation whereby machines were positioned inside the building to carry out tasks like grain processing and the mixing of animal feed. The evolution of these portable steam engines and threshing machines ultimately rendered purpose-built threshing barns and engine houses redundant. However, the date of this 'revolution' and the adoption of this machinery is still up for debate. Particular difficulties include deciphering the date of adoption of farming technology as opposed to invention. Still, it is generally conceived that horse engine houses were adopted from the 1790s and steam power from the 1820s.

When did the Value of Historic Farmsteads Become Recognised?

Farmstead literature has undergone numerous important developments. Initial publications during the 16th century only consisted of architects and landowners showcasing their prestige and sophistication by adopting new innovations birthed out of mechanisation. This topic is covered in depth by Suzanna Wade Martins (2002), particularly concerning model farms which were at the heart of this 'propaganda'. She also highlights the influence of the Historic Farm Buildings Group (HFBG) and the development of the Communications to the Board of Agriculture in 1797 - this kick-started some of the first discussions regarding the importance of historic farmsteads which was to pick up the pace during the Victorian period.

However, the majority of early academic works that focused on farm buildings were typological in nature. On the one hand, these works were still an essential step in understanding the basic elements which make up historic farmsteads including assessment frameworks for the analysis of plan form. The most famous work published around this time was Brunskill’s manual (1982) of farm building types. Nevertheless, much of the remaining typological literature entails a universal, non-specific history of agricultural development which aimed to ‘document’ rather than to ‘study’ - thereby failing to consider the local importance of specific agricultural buildings and their individual heritage values. Many early works also focused on the most impressive barns instead of more humble local structures. Only recently have scholars produced more detailed studies including exciting projects involving the analysis of graffiti, oral histories and spatial / access analysis to provide valuable insights into the social lives of those inhabiting the farm.


At Blue Willow Heritage, we eat, live, and breathe historic barns, owing principally to our well-placed office situated between the Yorkshire Dales, the Pennines, and the Yorkshire Wolds, which are a flurry with non-designated and listed farm buildings. Whether you're in Northumberland or West Sussex, if you need help with your historic barn or farmhouse, then please don't hesitate to get in touch. Our friendly team would be more than happy to discuss your project with you.

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