Researching the history of farm buildings

Farm building near Tavistock, Devon, by Samuel Prout 1805-1810 (Courtauld Institute of Art)

A farm is complex of dwelling and agricultural buildings. So sources for houses also apply here. Until the Georgian period most farmhouses were built in vernacular styles using local materials. For the grander houses of great estate owners see country houses.

In lowland England manors were converted in the late Saxon period into open-field communal farms. The chief farm buildings were attached to the manor house; the village for the estate workers lay close by. Since villagers could cultivate their own strips in the open fields (in return for working the lord's land) and keep livestock, their homes were farmhouses too, though on a humbler scale.

In highland Britain and in Ireland a pattern of scattered farmsteads and hamlets remained the norm. A hamlet could be formed by a cluster of farmsteads (clachlan) held by members of one family, with an infield and outfield system worked in common. In some areas cattle and sheep were moved in summer to high pastures, where temporary summerhouses were built (booley houses in Ireland, shielings in Scotland, and hafodydd in Wales), some of which were later converted into permanent farmsteads.

From the later Middle Ages to the 19th century open fields were gradually enclosed. When fairly carried out, enclosure exchanged a tenant's scattered strips in the open fields for a consolidated holding, encouraging the building of new farms away from the village. In Wales large areas of open moorland were divided amongst private owners and new farms created. The date of enclosure may therefore help to date a farm complex. To track down the date see:

Meanwhile the wealthier manorial lords built ever grander houses on their favourite manors, often distanced from the smells of the manor farm. In some cases the old manor house and farm in the village was leased, while the lord moved to a new mansion set in parkland. In other cases the farm or even the whole village was moved away from the grand house.

Yet some Georgian landowners were at the forefront of the agricultural revolution, turning their home farms and/or tenant farms into model farms, built on a courtyard plan. Some were designed by notable architects. Books of plans were published in the 18th and 19th centuries (see Eileen Harris for the 18th-century ones).

Also see barns and dovecotes.

Studies and gazetteers

Primary sources