The Athelney Mud Huts
The Tone, between Turkey and Stanmoor Bridge, is not a river to fall in love with at first sight. It is not like other Somerset rivers. Not the rushing waters of the East Lyn, or the gentle bubbling of the Barle. Here, the Tone is a drain, and unless a spring tide is up it has steep muddy banks. But if you live there it is ‘The River’. It is part of your everyday life. You cannot escape it. Also, for the early settlers of the river bank it was about the only possible means of owning your own home.
Between the river and the road was the ‘Ward-wall’, a bank built under a government award, in order to hold back the waters of the Tone from the lower land in Stanmoor. The landowners of the parish had responsibility for different sections of the wall and had to make any necessary repairs at their own expense. It was not surprising, therefore, that they turned a blind eye to individuals and families who built cottages on top of the bank, and then took on the maintenace of their section. These would sometimes have started life as simple mud huts, thatched with sedge from the rhynes (drainage ditches). The men were often boatmen, so a few steps would be cut in the bank to access the water. In time, brick walls were built around the house, a hedge was put to the road. A piece of ground the other side of the road was acquired for a garden, and fruit trees were planted. The holding was then passed to the next generation.
Figure 2 shows the area around Athelney Bridge in 1840. The occupiers of the properties were:
1295 James Mitchell
1296 Mathias Palmer
1297 Robert Wollon
1298 John Sharman
1299a, 1300 & 1301
John House (Tailor)
1303 James Kearle
1304 Philip Russell
1305 Mary Smith
1306a A Brewer
1307 Thomas Smith
1308 William Palmer
Walter Raymond, the Somerset Victorian traveller, wrote about his visit to the Athelney river bank in his book, ‘Idler out of Doors’, 1901. He recalled meeting a woman who lived in one of the cottages and she related the story of the building: “ ’twere gramfer what first builded a house here, sure ‘nough. You zee ‘twere like this. They had a-begun to stop it by gramfer’s time like. If you did but put up a rabbit hutch on fresh groun’, they did come an’ pull it down avore ‘t were up like. But gramfer he were too many vor ‘em. The wold man, he builded a little house o’ the river-mud, there on the bit his brother had a-tookt in avore. There ‘pon a spring-tide one night, he heaved un up ‘pon apple poles, an’ brought un over river ‘pon the barge, an’ clapped un down right there-right, an’ lighted up his vire avore light, an’ lived in un vor years, zo he did.” The woman then explained to Walter Raymond that the family built a brick wall a foot or two outside the mud hut and cleared out the inside, so that when she married into the family she and her husband were owners of a brick cottage. Also, because it was on the Ward-wall, they paid no taxes. The only problem was the damp. As the woman said: “But lauk! ‘tis zo wet.”
Another Victorian, Henry Laver F.S.A, visited Athelney from 1846 to 1850. He gave a paper to the Somerset Archaeological & Natural History Society in 1909 describing what he remembered of the Athelney mud huts. He noted that the people who lived in the huts were mostly employed making clay pipes. “They had a healthy appearance, and dressed as comfortably and as tidily as any other working-people in the district.” He likened the huts to those that might have been found in Bronze Age Britain, and went on to describe their structure:
“Their mode of erection was this. First a hole was dug in the ground of the size of the proposed hut, and the soil thrown out in this operation was piled up around the excavation, but a portion of the space set aside for the proposed hut had only the top spit or so removed, thus leaving around the space of the excavation a raised border to form a sitting or sleeping bank in the finished hut, the rest of the space being removed a foot or two deeper. There was a space, at one end usually, left on the same level as as the sleeping or sitting banks, and this formed the hearth.
“The sides of the hut were raised by a very strong and rough wattle or basket-work and daubed with clay on the outside. A space was left for a door, but none for a window. The chimney, being broad and low, let in a sufficiency of light, when for any reason, it was necessary to close the door in the day-time.”