Researching the history of dovecotes

The pigeon house at Richards Castle, Herefordshire in 1906For centuries doves and pigeons were a valuable source of meat, manure and feathers for mattresses. In the Middle Ages only manorial lords could keep these birds, so the few remaining medieval dovecotes are connected with manor houses, castles, parsonages or former monastic sites. The laws relaxed after about 1600, so many later farms had dovecotes, until their use declined after the 18th century.

A note on terminology: a dovecote or pigeon house may appear in English-language documents as a culverhouse, in Scots as a doocot and in Latin as a columbarium.

Nesting-boxes could be built into Norman castles. The later castle at Westenhanger has a dovecote tower, restored in recent years. Nesting-boxes can also be found above granaries or other farm buildings or even in parish churches, such as Compton Martin, Somerset.

Free-standing dovecotes are more common though. Medieval ones were usually round and massively built in stone. The circular plan enabled squabs (young doves or pigeons) to be collected from the nesting-boxes by a ladder attached to a revolving pole with arms, known as a potence. Examples survive at Dunster, Somerset (St. George's Church) and Kinwarton, Warwickshire (National Trust). Usually the roof was the conical type shown above, with a louvered turret at the apex and perhaps louvered dormers. However in Wales and the far west of England, dovecotes could have a domed stone roof, such as the Knights Templar dovecote in Garway, Herefordshire, built in 1326.

If dovecotes were timber-framed, they had to be square, rectangular or polygonal. With a little ingenuity, potences could still be used within some of these, for example the polygonal dovecote at Erddig, Wrexham, Clwyd (National Trust). Brick began to be used in the 16th century and lent itself to a variety of shapes, though a round plan remained popular.

Though they may appear picturesque to modern eyes, dovecotes were functional buildings, almost always built in vernacular styles using local materials. However some of the later ones, particularly those belonging to large country houses, were consciously designed to be a feature in the landscape. Like other late Georgian garden features, they could be in any style that took the owner's fancy, such as the mock-Gothic tower of Mounthooly Doocot, Aberdeenshire.

Studies and gazetteers

Primary sources

In general see under the type of building the dovecote belonged to.

The British Dovecote Society has deposited research material, photographs and printed material dating from c.1920-99 in Reading University's Museum of English Rural Life.