3. Ground Floor & Cellars

A close look inside the house – a walk around the ground floor

From a study of the external features of the south-facing façade of Grey Friars we can now establish that the style of the original building suggests English Palladianism; the style was then copied for the 1904 extension so that all were in harmony with the original concept. The building shows clarity, compactness and restraint. It is very strongly symmetrical and has quite severe and sharp rectangular outlines with undecorated corners. Columns or pilasters only appear on doors and some windows and are never attached to walls. None of the pediments have a broken apex, and the fairly dominant front door is simple, classically-proportioned and correctly detailed. Bearing these features in mind we enter the front door into the outer entrance hall and begin our exploration of the interior.

The outer hall is a fairly small space with painted walls and half-panelling to the dado rail. The glass fanlight with tracery above the front door can now be clearly seen. Immediately behind the front door as we face northwards, an archway of dark oak leads to the inner hall. Arches are reminders of the Roman influence in neo-classical architecture. This archway even has a ‘false’ decorative keystone which imitates that feature used when stone or brickwork arches are constructed. The key stone in these arches was put in place and while the additional bricks or stones are added and set at an angle to each other, the whole structure is supported by a temporary wooden framework. When this is finally removed the arch has very great weight-bearing properties. This arch and dome building technique using a herring bone pattern has been known since the Renaissance in Italy when Brunelleschi (1377-1446) designed the massive dome of the cathedral in Florence using no scaffolding. It will have been noticed that the decorative brickwork of the lintels above each of the exterior rectangular windows have no keystone because there is no arch to support.

There are identical doors to left and right from this outer hall, both of heavy oak panelling and each one recessed into the wall with the surrounding frame heavily moulded and each recess bearing its own panelling. During the occupancy of the building by the Adult Community College the interspaces on the door frames were painted blue which was consistent with the period in which the house was built. The historic buildings division of the company contracted to redecorate used the pale sky-blue paint which was Robert Adam’s choice for the interior of Kenwood House in the 1760s (see appendix) and of course the Grey Friars 1780s extension was built in the Adam style. Above each door frame a row of dentil mouldings are evident and each row is supported at either end by miniature corbels. This form of moulding appears again and again throughout the building.

As we progress through the ground floor of the original house built by the Rev John Halls in 1755, the position and function of the various rooms can be clearly seen from the plan in the figure below (for full set of photographs and plans, see the printed book).

The door on the left (west) of the inner hall, for example, led into the Morning Room which would have had the furnishings of the day – Chippendale furniture, painted wallpaper and patterned carpet.

The bow window looking out onto the High Street still has its own shutters and the coving, just below the level of the ceiling is moulded with dentils which are interspersed with moulded flowers. In the days when the building was occupied by Colchester County High School, this was a cloakroom for the Preparatory Department and a classroom when Colchester Adult Community College took over.

The fireplace surround is a rather dull grey marble streaked with fawn. This is original 1755, apart from the arched cast-iron inset which is circa 1860. The mantel shelf above is supported at each end by an elaborate corbel. On either side of the fireplace there is a deep recessed archway, the most westerly one has a door to a corridor behind. It is almost certain that this doorway was added when the east and west wings were built in 1904, and that became a corridor, originally part of the Butler’s Room.

Returning to the small outer entrance hall, the door on the right (east) leads to an identical room to the one on the left (west). It has a similar shuttered bow window and intricate decorated coving consisting of a mixture of dentils, corbels and moulded flowers.

There is also a splendid fireplace surrounded by black marble with an additional edging of green. The mantelpiece is in white marble supported at each end by very substantial corbels. The front of the mantelpiece is moulded with medallions and vertical grooves.

In the days of the Rev John Halls, this was the Breakfast Room and beside the fireplace a two-doored hatch leads into the kitchen area behind as a useful service facility.

It is relevant that during Colchester County High School’s occupation this room was a small dining area for the Preparatory Department and for those who had brought packed lunches. It was furnished with low tables and chairs for the smaller children and very different from the furnishing of 1755 where Chippendale chairs might have been in existence.

Moving through the archway from the outer hall to the inner hall we can look back and notice that on either side of the door there is a cupboard with doors which match the door panelling to the Morning and Breakfast Rooms.

On the right, as the stairs are ascended, the original dark oak panelling which matches the treads still exists. On the left, twisting its way upwards, the original banister starts with an ornamental coil, its centre ‘eye’ probably made of ebony surrounded by ivory. The numerous turned oak struts supporting the banister rail present a mesmerising climb to the landing.

As we pause in the inner hall we notice matching panelled doors to the left and to the right which also again match those to the morning room and breakfast room which we have already explored. The door to the west leads into a corridor which adjoins the back wall of the Morning Room. This corridor only appeared when the 1904 extension was built by the French Nuns. In the Rev John Halls’ house it would have been part of a small room to the north which was the Butler’s Pantry. This plan showing the butler’s pantry also suggests that the very deep chimney breast would have allowed a fireplace here which was demolished when the west wing was added. The junction of the original 1755 house and the 1904 west wing is clearly visible today. There is a sharp demarcation between the old oak floor boards and a newer marble mosaic floor in black, white and red. Here the neo-classical influence is faithfully continued in the black fret border of the mosaic which reflects an ancient Greek influence. At intervals in the mosaic a variation of a Greek cross appears. This religious symbol is very appropriate because the corridor leads to the grand hall, formerly the Nuns’ chapel where they would have practised their Catholic religion. The double doors which form the entrance to the former chapel can be seen at the end of the corridor.

Returning to the inner hall, we can now explore what lies behind the door opposite and which appears to lead to the east wing. Again there is a corridor which adjoins the back wall of the breakfast room, and so, in effect, this is a mirror image of the first section of the west wing which has just been described. On this dividing wall there is a delivery hatch which backs onto the one already seen in the breakfast room. Its position indicated that this corridor only came into being when the east wing was added and was formerly part of the kitchen. On either side of the delivery hatch and backing onto the rear wall of the former breakfast room there appears to be a void. Part of this is taken up by the large chimney breast of the breakfast room, which may also have provided a fireplace here prior to the east wing’s construction. Hidden behind some of the flimsy panelling on the western portion is a narrow, dark, servants’ staircase. This original staircase had an exit on the first floor and another on the top floor where the servants’ quarters were situated. The rest of the void houses a small cupboard and marks the point where the original 1755 building joins the 1904 east wing. The east wing was built over the former yard which had double gates adjoining the High Street to allow horse-drawn carriages into the coach house.

At this junction we take a sharp turn to the right and enter a large room with four sash windows looking onto the High Street. This room is in line with the Breakfast Room and has a connecting door. It was used by the Adult Community College as the administrative office. Before that, the French nuns in 1904 used it as a workshop, and when they opened their school in 1910 it played a part in the pupils’ education. But most certainly when Colchester County High School occupied the building it became the pupils’ dining room – and very spartan and disciplined it was too. Staff sat at a high table, and enforced silent eating took place. A small hand bell was rung for silence and eating and then again for talking.

   Hand bell

Retracing our steps from the dining room back to the position of the original delivery hatch, we see that there is a door opposite this and beyond, an array of back kitchens, larders, storage rooms and sculleries, all of which have been added to and altered over the years to make a network of maintenance areas. When the building came up for sale by Garraways of London on Thursday August 26th 1813, these ‘offices’ were described as composing “excellent kitchen, store closets, servants’ hall, bakehouse and scullery, pantries, larders, dairy and roomy cellars in the basement”. All these areas were linked together in the 1980s to form the Refectory of the Adult Community College.

Behind a door in one corner of this complex, gloomy twisting steps lead to the cellars. These are of great interest because they do not appear to be aligned with the 1755 building and may be a remnant of an earlier house on this site.

There are numerous adjoining and semi-divided spaces in the cellars, some with arched roofs and doorways, some with racks and one which was obviously cool enough to hang hams and other joints. It has an elaborate door reminiscent of the type used in Iceland and the Faroes today where fish is hung in outside airy spaces and becomes preserved by impregnation with salt from the fierce cold winds blowing off the sea and through the slatted panels. Other remnants of gas lamps, massive pulleys and wine bins also remain (see appendix). A small derelict fireplace which is almost immediately under the main staircase may have become obsolete when the 1780 north-facing extension was added or may more likely be from a previous building because there now appears to be no chimney stack associated with it.

One section of the cellars through an arched doorway extends under the original yard and has a coal chute for delivery of fuel. The area leading up to this section has a very intricate floor and an archaeological examination of this seems to suggest that it contains material which is much earlier than the C18th when the present house was built. This gives credence to the theory that the cellars belong to an earlier house of circa 1714 which either collapsed or was demolished. Materials from previous buildings and occupations appear again and again as our tour of the site will reveal.

The buildings beyond the kitchen, cellars and service areas and surrounding the yard were again described in the Garraway’s catalogue of 1813 as a “paved yard with gates to the street, double coach house with a very extensive store-chamber over it and two three-stall stables, brew house and various outbuildings, all of the most substantial brick and of perfect repair”. All of these structures extended to within a few feet of All Saints’ House next door. Most of the yard was later covered over by the large east wing built in 1904, but amongst the hotchpotch of the present interconnecting spaces, a very clear large brick archway with keystone can be seen set into more modern brickwork. The best view of this is obtained from the first floor north-facing windows of the east wing. This is undoubtedly the remnant of the wide entrance to the former coach house, but at the time of writing is half-hidden beneath a mid-C20th metal fire escape. This entrance is not aligned with the present frontage of the east wing and suggests that the entrance to the coach house was set back from the road. Within this internal labyrinth of passages, cupboards and small rooms there are arched recesses which speculatively may have been part of harness and tack rooms.

Retracing our steps once more to the inner hall a sharp turn to the right (north) past the foot of the staircase takes us to the area immediately outside the Rev John Halls’ dining room. Here the original 1755 house would have ended with, possibly, a large window looking onto the garden, but the Rev Halls added the dining room and adjacent rooms to west and east together with matching rooms above on the first floor. The extension reduced the light in the inner hall, and to compensate for this a very fine hemispherical glass dome was added in the roof immediately overhead to light the area below. This very splendid dome was restored in 1980 but cannot be seen from the outside because it is hidden by the parapet and does not have a drum to raise it sufficiently in order to indicate its importance. As we look up at the dome from the inner hall we can see that the decoration and mouldings surrounding the circumference of the dome are very intricate. The circle of the dome fits into the centre of an exact square. The perimeter of the square is decorated with carved mouldings, and each corner has a ribbed fanshaped decoration springing from a cluster of acanthus leaves.

The dome and the large extensions to the house were designed and built in the Adam style. Robert Adam himself (1728-92) gradually emerged as an architectural genius after he made a grand tour from 1754-8, spending some time in Rome. It is therefore fortuitous that the building of the new extension to Grey Friars in 1780 should benefit from these newly-acquired talents. As we visit these later extensions we can contrast the style, decoration and mouldings with those of the earlier part of the house, some of which have already been described in the Morning and Breakfast Rooms.

As we proceed into the dining room, one of the most attractive in the house, it is immediately apparent that its neo-classical style and decorations are lighter in relief than the heavier more robust Palladian style so easily recognisable in the first part of our tour. This lighter touch is often described as “gaily elegant”. And so we step over the threshold of the inner hall to the dining room. It is immediately striking. Airy and lofty it looks out onto the garden. Its high ceiling is possible because of the mezzanine storey above. It is little wonder in the days of CCHS it was the favourite classroom of all time, even in the 1920s.

Tables and small chairs together with old-fashioned desks (appendix 1) filled the room. A taller, sturdier desk with a higher chair was set aside for teacher at the front of the class. Chalk, talk and heavy discipline were the order of the day which could be relieved by a few surreptitious glances out of the magnificent bow window to the tranquillity of the garden beyond.

Although the 1780 extension is always described as being built ‘in the Adam style’, the influence of Robert Adam could, speculatively, have been very first hand. He was certainly in the area in the late 1770s when he was redesigning the old brick-built church at Mistley – some seven miles from Colchester. He finished his work in 1777 and the remaining twin towers can still be seen there. Other projects kept him in the area – the Swan Basin and Grapevine Cottages also at Mistley. But by far the most ambitions scheme by a local resident was to turn Mistley into a spar. The Adam style Grecian Salt Water Baths was perhaps one of the best small buildings that Robert Adam ever designed. But it never materialised. The Grey Friars extension, however, came about in 1780.

Devoid of the pupils, staff and furniture the room has a feeling of opulence. In imagination it is set up for dining in the late 1700s with servants silent and attentive beneath the decorative mouldings and motifs inspired and expanded by Robert Adam who mixed his styles to give his version of neo-classicism a touch of neo-gothic. The mouldings at the cornice in this room are lighter, wider and essentially of low relief. They do not always conform to any strict pattern or design laid down in standard works on mouldings. One of these mouldings which is a variation on the Vetruvian Scroll moulding shows a scroll growing out of a scroll which is lighter and more feathery that its origin, and is surmounted by a variation on a billet moulding. Others appear to have floral or palmette origin. The shallowness and low relief of all the cove mouldings in the room is achieved by using stucco work rather than carved wood. The latter will be seen later when the more robust mouldings of the ornate landing are viewed.