Moving a Monk’s House

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Image courtesy of the Beamish Museum

Familiarity can breed contempt.

And sometimes, in Britain, we allow ourselves to treat some very beautiful places reprehensibly.

Like St Helen’s Church, in a Teeside village called Eston.

St Helens’s is a foursquare ancient church, built around 1100, out of stone blocks to withstand the elements. Dedicated in 1393, it was a place for pilgrims to call in as they travelled between Guisborough Priory, Whitby Abbey and Lindisfarne.

Around it grew up the village of Eston. In 1545, the people were given their own priest, and the church thrived. By the middle of the 19th century, St Helen’s was serving as the parish church of Eston; and in the early 20th century it had a thriving community and church choir.

But in 1985, the church was closed.

And when a building is not lived in – for no matter what reason – predators will move in and take it, piece by piece.

Thieves dismantled the vestry and took it away; and a fire completely destroyed the roof. After years of neglect it seemed there would be nothing for it but to demolish its ancient walls.

Except that Beamish Museum – which aims to preserve records of daily life and work in the North of England – stepped in. Stone by stone, with the help of the community the church served, it was taken down. And stone by stone, it was put up at the museum in County Durham.

And there it stands now. Moved in its entirety.

It has taken a great deal of time and the commitment of an entire community to get the stones and mortar of this little mediaeval church preserved in a safe place.

Imagine, then, the plight of one woman, who was told that her 14th century house must be demolished to make way for a new road.

May Alice Savidge had bought 1, Monkey Row, Ware, in Hertfordshire, about six years before the council said it must be demolished in 1953. She had spent her time revealing hand-cut floorboards which still bore the marks made by mediaeval joiners, and uncovering the original oak beams which gave the house its structure.

The house was built by a monk in about 1450: a hall with a minstrel’s gallery and adjoining living space.

May refused to let the demolition men have their way. She fought for 15 years: and by the time the bulldozers reached her house in 1959 – she was 58 – she was numbering and labelling every beam and every pane of glass, so that they could all be reassembled.

As the demolition firm took down the house she continued to sleep in it, even when the roof was gone. May found a site in Wells-Next-The-Sea for her house and a lorry made 11 trips to the site to deliver every last beam and roof tile.

As she grew older, living in a caravan, this woman painstakingly rebuilt the monk’s house.

Without electricity – using Victorian parafin lamps- she reassembled the frame during the first two years, and a local craftsman fixed it to the foundations for her. She had taken a rubbing of the mortar before the house was dismantled and used this as a yardstick to lay every brick and tile perfectly. All by herself.

It was not until she was in her seventies that she could live under her own roof once more.

She died aged 82, with the house a shell around her, and it fell to a friend to complete the project, selling some of the eclectic hoard of objects May had collected to fund the completion of what was named Ware Hall House.

And it’s still there today. In fact, you can go and stay overnight, for May’s friend runs the concern as a bed and breakfast.

So familiarity can breed contempt, but it can also breed love.

The passion for a place – earning a part in a building’s history; it can move mountains.

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53 thoughts on “Moving a Monk’s House

      1. Frankly, no. We live in a culture of people who don’t want to keep things. My grandfather kept wonderful journals of his travels, I saw them a few times–they were fascinating snapshots of history. But now he’s gone my mother tossed them out as worthless. Ten years later it still makes my heart hurt. When will people learn, when it is gone, it is gone forever?

    1. An incredible story, Lou. You can read the Mail’s take on her story here- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/property/article-1185210/Moving-house-How-little-old-lady-spent-23-years-single-handedly-dismantling-cottage-brick-brick-rebuilding-100-miles-away.html.

      It is beautifully written.

      And there is also a book about her life: A LIFETIME IN THE BUILDING: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF MAY SAVIDGE AND THE HOUSE SHE MOVED by Christine Adams with Michael McMahon, published by Aurum.

  1. How incredible! I cannot imagine having the wherewithal to accomplish either the church or the home. But then I am a product of a throw away society as many are. How Sad. But how wonderful that there are still people willing to do the impossible

  2. If only Grand Designs had been filming while May undertook her project – wouldn’t her story give Kevin McCloud something to marvel at. I think he should film a retrospective!

  3. What a wonderful story. I’m sad about living in a throwaway society. When I was doing research a few years ago, I discovered that the original copies of many small town newspapers were missing or destroyed, with no microfilm backup. All that history gone. I was researching a 1930 Texas oil boom town history, and found out there were no existing copies of the first 3 crucial months of the town newspaper’s publication. When all the exciting stuff was happening.

      1. Very much so! And it is probably the same sort of Council that delights in fining people for having the ‘wrong’ sorts of plants in the front garden, or things like that.

  4. May is my new hero. Between fighting the demolition crews and moving her house by hand, she was obviously an extraordinary woman. It hurts me when people want to arbitrarily knock down old buildings for new roads, shopping centers, whatever. They do it in the US all the time and it makes me ache for what we’re losing.

  5. May Savidge’s story is the kind that warms my heart, and my soul. I did click on the article you posted for Lou Mello and read it with appreciation. Can you imagine the determination and discipline it took for her to move this house? We see it here, sometimes, in country schoolhouses and such, but, our buildings are not as old as yours are and we have had a recent spate of tear downs in the past 15 or so years, calling them Mac Mansions, and watching them replace historic structures. This was an uplifting post for me, Kate. Thank you.

  6. It’s an amazing story about Miss Savidge and Christine Adams, both remarkable people. Without Christine’s diligent work, so much of Miss Savidge’s story would have been lost.

    Actually, following her difficult love-life Miss Savidge, Aunty May, never married and had no children. So Christine Adams isn’t May Savidge’s niece as the Daily Mail describes her. In the book “Miss Savidge Moves Her House” (yes, it seems the Daily Mail got the book title wrong as well!), Christine writes (top of page 2):

    “I first met Auntie May in 1966,when she was fifty-four. Strictly speaking, she wasn’t my aunt, she was my husband’s, but he introduced me to her as Auntie May, and I’ve thought of her as my own auntie ever since.”

    As regards the church at Eston, if it was built in about 1100 and dedicated in 1393, what happened during the gap of some 293 years! Perhaps there are no records to tell us. (From dedication in 1393 it was a chapel of ease till 1545.)

    1. John, thanks so much: you’ve added so much to the story for us. I have had a look at the St. Helen’s Eston records but they are the usual: banns, births, marriages and deaths,and so forth. And I can only find them as far back as the sixteenth century.

      There’s a ghost – a monk – who was said to have had his head shot off with a musket ball, but the Archives do not record such frivolity. Records are here http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/records.aspx?cat=020-prest&cid=-1#-1

      Thank you for clarifying Christine’s relationship with May – you will see I have adaped the post accordingly. It seems you have a copy of that elusive book- I couldn’t track it down, probably because of the title. Whatever the outcome, it seems Ware Hall House will have a stream of guests. We’re all quite keen. Though I am assuming it is already well patronised…one would hope so…

  7. I really like the diagram at the top. A great example of how a structure changes over time. This was really evident when I was visiting some of the church buildings in Israel and Palestine last year.

    1. I loved that too, Steven. I think it should be a feature of every listed building status report. It is so clear and concise.

      I would love to see the same done for some of those Israeli buildings!

  8. Amazing what we humans can accomplish with a bit of love, devotion, and muscle.

    In New York The Cloisters are assembled from five French medieval cloisters, brought here by boat if I remember correctly and assembled as part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1938. It’s a stunning place and peaceful. (My husband proposed to me there!) LOL!

  9. I’m just awed by this story, Kate. I can’t imagine the emotions this woman must have felt loving her home, understanding the historical implications of its potential demise, and then the dedication to preserving it. I am in awe of her strength. It is so hard for me to accept the idea of ‘moving forward’ at the expense of losing pieces of architectural history, but it happens all the time. Our historical societies and preservation groups are such tenacious heroes! Great story!

  10. I love reconstructed buildings. We have a living history museum nearby which boasts an entire town’s worth of buildings painstakingly shifted out of progress’s path to live again as a village out of New England’s 1820s, including a covered bridge which has lasted longer in its new home than it’s modern replacement lasted in the original location.

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