Sleeping through the ages

Martin Papworth, Archaeologist Martin Papworth Archaeologist
The Inner Ward of Corfe Castle looking across to Poole Harbour

How did you sleep last night? Did you have a nice quiet room to yourself? A comfy mattress? Such luxurious solitude we take for granted.

Hitting the hay

In medieval times you needed to be rich to have some sort of privacy. In places like Lodge Farm on the Kingston Lacy Estate, the Treasurer’s House at Martock or even the Gloriette within the great royal castle of Corfe, almost everyone slept in the great hall.

At the end of the meal, the trestle tables were cleared away and the household hit the hay…which covered the floor, concealing all sorts of debris. 

Beyond a timber screen at the end of the hall was a room called the solar. Nothing to do with the sun, this was a place for some solitude and was reserved for the lord and his family and probably a personal servant. 


Getting cosy

Everyone else was in the hall picking out the best spots close to the hearth, the cleaner hay or perhaps a stuffed straw sack with a log for a pillow. Wrap your cloak around you, it’s going to be a long night. My thoughts turn to crowded hostel dormitories. People turning up late, or going to the loo in the middle of the night, banging doors, the earthquake snorers and long whispered conversations.

" Now we take our central heating for granted, but for most of us, before the 1970s, either you had a pile of blankets and an eiderdown or you found some bodies to snuggle up to. "
- Martin Papworth

On Brownsea Island, there was once a large brickworks with a purpose-built labourers’ settlement called Maryland. The density of accommodation seems extraordinary now. Maryland was built in 1853 and consisted of 20 dwellings each with two bedrooms. The 1881 census records 117 people living there. At 4 Maryland, Mr Whittingham his wife and four children also provided accommodation for four pottery labourers (rather cramped!), all in a two up, two down tenement - apparently quite normal for Victorian times.

So, count your blessings and enjoy your sleep tonight.