Researching the history of barns

Samuel H. Grimm, The Barn at Bathford, 1790 (British Library)Often the dominating farm building is the barn, the storehouse for the grain crop. It can be recognised by its great doors - two opposite each other large enough for a fully-laden wagon to pass through. In between the doors lies the threshing floor, taking advantage of the through draft. The largest barns have two threshing floors with two sets of doors.

Since the lowlands provide much good arable land, while the highlands are generally better suited to pastoral farming, the biggest barns in Britain can be found in Southern and Eastern England. Medieval barns tend to be called tithe barns. Some barns were indeed built to house the tithes due to the local rector, but in other cases the label is misleading. Some of the most impressive medieval barns were built by monastic houses or bishops on manors that they owned; they would have housed the crop from the lord's demesne.

Grain storage could be combined with other farm uses, such as housing livestock. Cattle could be sheltered in end bays or aisles of single-storey barns, or on the ground floor of a split-level, dual-purpose building (a chall barn in Cornwall). These include the bank barns found in England mainly in the Lake District and parts of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. In the South-West they were introduced in the late 18th century, but mainly date from the mid-19th century. Bank barns are built into a slope, so that both floors can be entered at ground level. The lower floor provided a byre, perhaps combined with stable and cart shed. Above was the barn. See Historic Farmsteads: South West, figure 22.

After the invention of machine threshing in 1786 some barns (particularly in parts of north and south-west England where labour was expensive) had additions built on to house machinery. The semi-circular additions for horse-powered engines are instantly recognisable and were commonly known as gin gans in the north of England.

Some barns can be found in isolation, but mainly they are or were part of a farm complex. Much information on barns can be found in the sources listed for farm buildings in general.

Studies and gazetteers