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Colchester Archaeological Trust

CAT Report 1076: summary

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Commercial activity in 15th- to 19th-century Brentwood: archaeological excavation at 73-73a High Street, Brentwood, Essex - May 2016
by Howard Brooks, Adam Wightman
(with contributions from Stephen Benfield, Lisa Gray, Pip Parmenter, Laura Pooley)

Date report completed: May 2017
Location: 73-73a High Street, Brentwood, Essex
Map reference(s): TQ 5942 9378
File size: 21,948 kb
Project type: Archaeological excavation
Significance of the results: ***
Keywords: medieval, multi-period, inn, ovens, smithy, workshops, carriageway

Summary. The site is on Brentwood High Street, within the core of the medieval and later town, and opposite St Thomas Becket’s Chapel. Archaeological evaluation followed by archaeological excavation in 2106 revealed six main periods of activity. A Roman sherd and quernstone fragment are the only pre-medieval remains. The earliest structure is an undated but probably 13th- to 14th-century timber fence (or part of a ?building: Period 1). In the 15th/16th century (Period 2), a thick layer of gravel was deposited, and a new timber-framed house was built over it. The house had a gravelled carriageway giving access off the High Street to a large gravelled yard to the rear. The layout of the Period 2 structure resembles what would be termed, 200 years later, a ‘coaching inn’, with a rear gravel yard, and was probably travellers' accommodation or an ‘inn’. Furthermore, the absence of internal hearths, and finds of thimbles, needles and leather offcuts may indicate that this was a workshop providing services for local inhabitants and travellers. In an intensification of commercial activity, the 16th/17th century saw the insertion of four ovens or hearths inside the building, and six outside (Period 3). Small quantities of hammerscale and cereal grains may indicate smithing inside the building and grain-drying outside it. The hard-packed gravel carriageway and the wheel-ruts in its surface show that wheeled traffic was moving into the rear yard from he High Street – good evidence of commercial enterprise and probably of an early ‘coaching inn’. The external hearths did not last long, because they were covered by the floors of a Period 3b (17th-century) rear extension over the western side of the site (ie no 73a). Another major change came in the 18th century (Period 4), when an entirely new building was erected across the full width of the site. It was set further back from the frontage than the Period 2/3 structure, indicating strongly that it was jettied. To the rear was a brick cellar set about 600mm below floor-level. This was presumably a commercial cold store. The new house covered over the gravel carriageway to the rear yard, showing that, at the height of the Brentwood coaching trade, this property was no longer a classic travellers' inn with access from the High Street. Period 5 (18th-19th centuries) saw another change in site layout. The Period 4 cellar was cut in half, and an unusual chimney-breast was buit in its eastern half. This lacked a normal hearth but, instead, had a raised brick stack – probably the support for a raised working platform. The soot-covered brick floor, and what may have been a coal store in the same room, shows that fire was involved and that a smith may have been at work here. Rear of the possible smith’s station, a new three-roomed brick structure was erected on what had been the Period 3 gravel yard. This building is of unknown use but, in a rapidly expanding town, its use as domestic accommodation or as a commercial property is likely. At the end of this period, a group of glass vessels was inserted behind the brick chimney-stack. These were originally pharmaceutical phials, used for oils and medicines. However, the insertion of the vessels behind the chimney-stack may have been for apotropaic (magical) purposes. Period 6 represents the modern concrete footings and associated infrastructure of the concrete building on this site which was demolished in 2016. An interesting find, a small metal bottle, may have been a holy oil container. This may be linked with St Thomas’ Chapel, just over the road. This hints at Pilgrim traffic passing through Brentwood and using the current site as accommodation. Throughout its history, the site continually adapted to a succession of market-driven commercial activities. Also, the two tenements here (ie, 73 and 73a High Street), may have old origins, as this division can be seen in earlier buildings on the site.