Medieval bee skeps

Bee boles and bee keeping at Old St. Alban’s Court in Nonington by Peter Hobbs, the present owner.

  Bee boles, the recesses in stone or brick walls used to house the skeps of coiled straw or wicker in which most bee keepers kept their bees before the arrival of moveable frame hives in 1862, are not particularly numerous in Kent.  The Kent Archaeological Society has over time assiduously published all the major information relating to those in Kent and this note adds a little only to a comprehensive record.

   Old St Albans Court is fortunate in its documentation so we know that in 1556, Sir Thomas Hammond rebuilt a substantial part of his ancient manor house in brick. This included providing a Walled Garden to the West, the South East facing wall of which, closest to the North Western end of the house, contains three triangular topped bee boles, each of which is identical in construction to the ones recorded (IBRA Register 288) at the South end of the boundary wall in the Cathedral Close at Canterbury.    This boundary wall dates probably from 1547 when a house was built on the South side of the plot.

St Alban's Court bee bole
One of the Old St Alban’s Court bee boles

  Our construction is of red brick, three bricks deep for each side for the main body, with two bricks slanting to the triangular top above. The slanting bricks have been rubbed at each end to edge together both at the top and above the side bricks, a small point but elsewhere, except in the ones above  in Canterbury, photos seem to show the equivalent bricks being laid head to head at an angle of 90* which requires no shaping of the brick. The dimensions of the bee boles are an height to apex of 12 inches x a width of 9 inches x a depth of 12 inches. They are formed by three bricks on either side each with a fill in ¼ brick at the ends abutting an end course which is part of the fabric of the other side of the wall and from the slight difference in the brick, we assess as part of the 1666 works on the house extension behind. The base of the bee boles is approximately 4 feet above the present ground level which we judge to be about where it always was. The bricks themselves were almost certainly made on site: burning fields are recorded, and the Dover Archaeological Group have revealed the remains of 17th C brick clamps nearby. The incorrect mortaring belongs to sometime in the last century.

  We received planning permission to insert a door in the South Eastern facing wall to facilitate entrance to the Walled Garden and, to our surprise, this revealed a further bee bole.

   In 1790, William Hammond lavished a large sum on refurbishing and updating his mansion and this included building greenhouses in his Tudor Walled Garden , all the base kitchen garden aspects of which were removed to an entirely newly built and even larger Walled Garden at the side of his Malt House about ¼ mile away.  The South Eastern facing wall of this new Garden has been demolished but there is no village memory of it having bee boles in it. At St Albans Court, the Tudor Garden wall was extended upwards, rendered in cement with moveable wooden ventilation shutters built in at the top, a dedicated heating boiler system provided and a large greenhouse built against it. Other heated greenhouses, free standing, were also built at that time. The 1790 render had covered over this bee bole, certainly two others nearer the house, and possibly more to the South. We suggest this because our existing bee boles were at 7 ft intervals and the demolished one exactly conformed to being one of a line as well as in height in the wall.

   We then looked further: we knew that a section of the wall had been extended upwards in 1666 as part of other major works on the house and was then supported by a buttress – 7ft from the nearest bee bole – which probably therefore also masks another bee bole.

  With certainty we can say that we have a line of six bee boles made in 1556 with the possibility when looking at the wall of another three or possibly four. The render will in time reveal how many as it decays – the 1790 greenhouses were mostly demolished in the 1960s with one free standing one remaining.

  In present times, the walled garden has big variations in temperature, not infrequently touching 40*C in summer and going below -10*C in winter. The prevailing winds are from the West and rainfall is markedly lower than within a few miles in every direction. However, birds nest in the bee boles and honey bees are in the ventilation slots in the wall above so the Tudor siting remains valid. 

    It would seem highly likely that the detailed execution of the desired form of bee boles was left to the individual craftsman. The Cathedral Close bee boles were inserted in the 1547 wall by outside contractors and in this stretch of wall, there are two clusters of bee boles which look similar but actually on inspection are of markedly different construction. (There are more – IBRA 288 – in the Memorial Garden beyond, again of a distinctly different and more complex structure.)  Scrutinising the published photos of other recorded bee boles, some are similar but none are identical to ours. Perhaps it was the same itinerant brickie, or his apprentice, that was engaged by Hammond for his Nonington project nearly a decade later?

   The IBRA Register records a total of 1591 bee boles in the UK (2017) of which 57 are in Kent. Penelope Walker noted that there seemed to be none South of a line from Sandwich to Ashford and beyond. We sit on that line and the observation still broadly holds true in terms of the current Register. However, the Dover Archaeological Group recorded a fine set of bee boles at Winkland Oakes Farm in Sutton, well South, and it seems likely that alert and observant eyes would yield more.

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