Inside the Great Barn

The Great Barn is one of a group of buildings that were once the nucleus of Cippenham Court farm. Positioned on the south side of Cippenham Lane opposite Westgate school playing field, the Great Barn is a fine looking Grade II listed building of large proportion at 130′ by 36′ and standing at a height of 39′. Although the original building was extended since being built nearly half a millennium ago, the barn’s size attests to the substantial grain yields that could be harvested from the farm’s 600 acres of flat field. The climate in the Thames Valley region is ideal for cereal production, but it was the quality of the soil and irrigation that rendered the plain on the north of Cippenham Lane as possibly the finest land in the county for corn cultivation. Queen Victoria’s consort, Albert, presented the farm with a gold cup and 36 guineas for the quality of its corn harvest in 1858. Prince Albert was a gentleman of intelligence and learning who pursued a keen interest in agriculture. Sadly he only lived to age 42.

There is some controversy as to the age of the Great Barn, but it is probably the second oldest building in Cippenham after Cippenham Place house. The aisle which runs the length of the north side of the building, along with the two porches and hatch, are 18th Century additions. The original roof was probably also replaced in the 18th Century and it is likely that before then, the building was thatched. The timber-framed main part of the building probably dates from the early 17th Century, although some sources have put it as early as 1500. The farm is certainly known to have been in existence prior to 1480. The lands of Cippenham Court Farm were once part of Cippenham Manor which was gifted by Richard, Earl of Cornwall to Burnham Abbey at the time of its founding in 1266. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536), the lands of Cippenham Manor eventually came into the ownership of Eton College, which remained the freeholder of Cippenham Court Farm into the late 20th century. In 1905, a Roman coin was found close to the Great Barn, possibly indicating occupation of the site during this era. It is also noteworthy that 450 metres to the south there is an earthworking purported to have been the site of an Anglo-Saxon royal palace.

The Great Barn’s main agricultural use was to accommodate the threshing of corn and storage of the grain produced. Sacked wheat grain would have been loaded via the central hatch onto carts and from there, depending on the era, taken to the nearby Hay Mill, the windmill or water mill at Salt Hill or the steam powered mill in Slough.

In the Edwardian era the farm pursued technical advancement. For instance, a stationary engine was installed in a shed on the the east side of the Great Barn to enable powered threshing. There are anecdotes suggesting that the farm was progressive in the care and conditions provided for its workers. Despite its agricultural success, Cippenham Court underwent a sudden downturn in 1918 when all of its finest land was confiscated by the government for a vast storage and repair depot which would hold all of the surviving lorries, ambulances and motorcycles from WW1. The last crop of corn, although fully ripened and worth a great many thousands was burned, even though the population of England was undernourished and most children were suffering from malnutrition at that time.

Two years later (1920) the government sold off the land along with all the vehicles on it to a newly-formed private company. The company reconditioned the vehicles and sold them for private use, profiting by many millions. Much of the profit was reinvested to turn the land into a business park with an infrastructure that included 4.9 miles of railway, independent water supply and an electric power station. From the twenties on, people flocked in from depressed parts of the country for the prospects of employment on the estate. Generations of people went to work in the manufactories on Slough Estates and were comparatively well paid. It was an environment that provided  opportunity for the talented and hard working. It surely had to be preferable to the type of work that Cippenham Court farm once provided, such as pulling a carthorse round a field for 11 hours a day with only a lump of cheese, some celery and a pickled onion to eat for lunch.

When Cippenham Court’s farm buildings became derelict in the seventies, the Great Barn stayed in better condition than the others, its solid locked doors keeping thieves and vandals at bay. In the 1980s, the barn was renovated and used as business premises, accommodating a film studio. Nowadays, the Great Barn houses a bathroom showroom. Unfortunately, this means that most of the interior walling is covered up by bathroom displays. It can be seen from the photographs below, there are some interesting views to be seen of the queen post roof construction.

A few interesting features can be discerned in the brickwork. Sometimes pagan symbols can be detected in walls of this age – perhaps this is what we see here.

For the story of how Cippenham Court Farm’s land became The Slough Trading Estate, see here.

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5 Responses to Inside the Great Barn

  1. Ms G. Jones says:

    I was always told that the Cippenham Lane end of Heddington Lane (now Telford Drive) was an abattoir.
    I can’t find anything relating to this. Inly corn is ever mentioned.
    I do remember cows in the sheds – 1950s?

    Can anyone help with such information please

    Very interesting however.

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  2. Dave Hill says:

    After all that it won’t let me upload what I wrote a few years ago about big barns! It was with this barn in mind, I was familiar with it from the outside but can’t say I ever went in. I can’t be bothered to rewrite what I wrote, can I email it to you and you do it?

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    • Dreadnaught says:

      Hi Dave, I’ve put your highly interesting and informative piece up under your name in a comment below. Many thanks for sending this in.

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  3. Dave Hill says:

    PS The abattoir was behind Cippenham Manor Farm, down the road towards Chalvey

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  4. Dave Hill says:

    THE BIG BARN by Dave Hill

    Or the Long barn or Tithe barn, as they are variously called although it is doubted now that they were used to store the church’s tithe or tenth part of farm produce. I have written about London’s famous halls, now it is the turn of another large space that might be more familiar to you, the Big Barn. I was reading about them and was surprised that people are unsure about their original purpose.

    The Big Barn is unprepossessing from the outside, usually of black tarred wooden clapboard or brick below and now, tiled roof above. Not until you get inside do you see the soaring roof of handcut timbers, like some large church or cathedral. A feature of these barns are the high double doors, usually on both sides making a clear route thru, claimed to be for the large hay wagons or wains to pass, but this I think was not their original purpose.

    Until the early 1800’s the grain was separated from the stem of the corn by hand threshing, by flailing. A flail was two 4 foot lengths of wood joined by a hinge of rope or leather, the thresher gripped one piece and bought the other smartly down on the corn. 4 threshers could process a hundredweight of grain a day, at 13 tons to the acre it took about 30 days to thresh the produce of an acre. So threshing was labour intensive and could last all winter. The corn was cut by hand, gathered into sheaves and stood in groups, “stooks”, until it could be bought into the farm’s rickyard and stored in ricks. It was gradually threshed from the ricks, small amounts may have been stored in the big barn to dry it further before threshing and some threshed grain was stored in sacks as well.

    The hand threshing was done on a stout wooden floor on sleepers which stretched from one pair of large doors, across the barn to the other pair. A man stood in each corner with his flail, a boy or woman fed the sheaves of corn onto the floor. It was a strenuous job, even in winter the men would have sweated, one reason for the large doors on each side to stand wide open. Another reason was that that threshers had to stop to separate the grain and straw, the grain needed “winnowing” to separate the grain from the “chaff”, the dust, by tossing it in the air, the draught of air thru the double doors blew the chaff away whilst the grain was caught and sacked. In effect the grain was stored in the ricks, gradually threshed, the grain sent to the miller and the resulting flour baked into bread etc as demanded. A valuable by-product was the straw, all buildings apart from the most expensive houses and churches were thatched with the longer straw that was grown in those days. Some of these big barns had 2 or even 3 pairs of double doors for more gangs of threshers to double or treble the output.

    In the late 1700’s a Scot, Andrew Meikle invented a small horse or water driven threshing machine, small but the output was 4 times greater then by hand flailing, and it fitted in one corner of the big barn. These were the machines that were attacked in the “Swing Riots” of 1830-40. Farm labourers rioted because the machines were putting them out of work, they were already suffering high taxes and low wages. The riots were put down severely, 9 rioters were hanged, 450 transported to Australia.

    They were too late anyway, the steam engine was adapted to a larger threshing machine, eventually it developed into the traction engine which drew the threshing machine from farm to farm. The machine was too big for the barn and anyway the steam engine was a fire risk if inside. The wooden threshing floor rotted and was removed, the big hay wains could go inside the barn but the big barn became a dusty cobwebbed store for unwanted machinery much as we might see it today. Of course the combine harvester, developed after WWII made the threshing machine redundant, a few survive but all memories of hand flailing have faded along with the original purpose of the big barn.

    The farm labourer found work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, or emigrated,anyway the new machinery was more suited to the huge prairies of North America or Eastern Europe and we started to import our grain. The big barn may have been cleared once a year for the “Harvest Home” or supper, a big meal for the farm labourers that remained whilst the motive power of the farm was the horse, but after WWI the tractor took over and the farm could be managed with just a few men. The straw from threshing machines could be used for thatch but it didn’t last as long and labour became dearer. The big barn was lucky if its owner could afford to tile it, it had originally been built from materials available within a radius of a few miles. Less lucky were the barns where the thatch was replaced by corrugated iron sheets, the corrugated extended the life of the barn 20 or 30 years but unless replaced the big barn rotted as did the thatched ones when it wasn’t renewed. Anyway the big barn no longer served much purpose, many farmers were relieved of the responsibility of maintaining them by a convenient fire. Some have survived but many more were destroyed.

    The grain was cut and threshed quickly by the combined harvester, grain silos became a feature of docks etc, storing grain before milling.

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