Snuffers, scrapers and murder-holes: walking through the history of the front door
From medieval portcullises to the Regency craze for “Wellington” knockers, the evolution of the front door offers a unique entry point to British history. Rachel Hurdley looks at six ways in which doors reflect our desire to avert danger and impress our neighbours...
No-go areas: locking the threats out – or in
To most of us today, front doors are mere portals between the outside world and the privacy of our own homes, worthy of little more than a clean and perhaps a new lick of paint every now and then. But if you were charged with the defence of a castle in the Middle Ages, they could be the difference between life and death.
Doors were the weak spot in even the best medieval fortifications, and by the 12th century, great efforts were being made to ensure entry was difficult for attackers. Before they even reached the door, assailants might have to negotiate the drawbridge across the moat and quickly get through before the “quick release” portcullis was lowered, a security system that allowed castle defenders vital time to prepare.
Even more effective was the tactic of trapping attackers between two portcullises, and then hurling down rocks from “murder holes” in the roof. Herefordshire’s Goodrich Castle, among others, had arrow slits opening into the gatehouse, allowing defenders to shoot those unfortunate enough to be trapped inside. If you were brave enough to attempt to breach King’s Gate at Caernarfon Castle, you’d have to negotiate two drawbridges, five doors and six portcullises.
The earliest surviving castle door in Europe also happens to be one of its most impressive – and that’s found at Chepstow Castle, commissioned by Sir William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. Made no later than 1190, the door was ahead of its time in a number of ways: the outer vertical oak planks were originally clad with wrought iron, which meant that it was impervious to fire; it was an early example of oak being sawn, rather than cleaved with axes and wedges; and it was strengthened by inner horizontal latticework. Measuring in at 2.5m wide by 3.5m tall, this mighty entrance put off invaders so comprehensively that they chose to attack the walls instead.
Britain’s most famous front door is surely the black one at 10 Downing Street. That door was made of wood – until it came under attack from Provisional IRA mortar shells in 1991. Following the incident, the old door was replaced by two blast-proof steel ones. Only one is hanging in situ at any particular time, of course – the other kept in reserve for when repair or decoration is required.
The door to 10 Downing Street was the focus of protests long before the 1990s. In 1907, suffragettes Irene Fenwick Miller, Annie Kenney and Flora Drummond were accused of “Disorderly conduct at Downing Street… further, wilfully knocking at the door of No 10 without lawful excuse.” However, as records at the National Archives show, “at the request of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Prime Minister… the charge was not proceeded with and they were allowed to go.”
Front doors could also be employed to protect those outside a building – especially when pestilence was raging through a city. When the Great Plague of 1665 hit, for example, the Mayor of London stipulated in one of his regulations that “every house visited [by the plague] to be marked with a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual printed words, that is to say: ‘Lord, have mercy upon us’.”
Keeping demons at bay: the front line of an eternal battle
Front doors may have offered protection against enemy soldiers from the physical world, but could they do the same for malign forces from beyond the grave? That was a question that weighed heavily on people’s minds across the medieval and early modern periods.
Evil spirits were, it was believed, constantly seeking to breach a house’s defences, often gaining access via weak points such as draughty thresholds. As James VI of Scotland wrote in his 1597 treatise, Daemonologie: “And if they enter as a spirit onelie, anie place where the aire may come in at, is large inough an entrie for them…”
So how could you protect your premises from such malevolent incursions? One option was to fight hellfire with holy fire. Candles – especially those blessed by priests following celebrations such as candlemass – could act as powerful deterrents to evil spirits planning to wreak havoc in the home. (According to the research of building archaeologist James Wright, the candles were used to make tear-drop-shaped burn marks around doors and other entrance points.)
One artefact that’s long been kept besides Jewish householders’ front doors is the Mezuzah, a scroll containing an Old Testament verse thought to ensure God’s protection.
Yet perhaps the best known of all protective devices is the horseshoe. This harks back to an old belief that the devil asked a blacksmith to shoe his hooves. Recognising his customer, the canny blacksmith shod him with red-hot shoes. The devil, so the story goes, cast them off in pain – and still recoils at the sight of a horseshoe hanging from a front door.
Perils of the cold-call: calling card etiquette
Few commentators satirised the code of behaviour that governed polite society in Regency England more acutely than Jane Austen. And Austen brought that razor-sharp eye for detail to bear in her novel Northanger Abbey. The author describes how Catherine Morland knocks on Miss Tilney’s front door and hands the servant her calling card. The servant returns and “with a look that did not quite confirm his words”, informs Catherine that Miss Tilney is out. “With a blush of mortification,” Austen tells us, “Catherine left the house.”
As Austen’s words reveal, by the 19th century, the private home was increasingly viewed as just that: private. Visitors could only gain entry via the etiquette of the calling card – and if their card was rebuffed, humiliation awaited.
In fact, in the highest stratum of society, the entire process of knocking on a front door was governed by a strict set of rules. “Morning visits” were between 11am and 3pm. And to avoid the indignity of a snub, visitors might send their footman ahead with their card. The card itself was a vital conveyor of information – for, as John Young writes in 1879’s Our Deportment, “its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it” offered critical clues as to the visitor’s social position.
It wasn’t just callers who had to adhere to a strictly defined etiquette. In the 1825 Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Rememberancer, Thomas Cosnett advises footmen not to shut the door until the visitor had walked away, for to do so “whilst they are still in the front of it, is disrespectful and a breach of good manners.”
Front-door furniture: how to accessorise an entrance
Take a stroll up to No. 1 Royal Crescent in Bath – one of Georgian Britain’s architectural gems – and you may catch sight of a wrought-iron cone above the railings near the front door. This strange object looks like an over-sized candle snuffer, and that’s pretty much what it was. But, instead of snuffing out candles, it extinguished the torches that illuminated the pedestrians’ way before street lights became widespread in the early to mid-19th century.
The Royal Crescent torch-snuffer is a high-end example of what can only be described as front door “furniture” – accessories that enabled Georgians and Victorians to express their wealth and taste around the entrances to their residences, while also giving us an insight into the changing habits of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Take walking, for example. Before the late 18th century, when cities were criss-crossed by filthy streets, this was viewed as the preserve of the poor. But, once pavements were improved, walking became a fashionable activity. Cue the rise of the boot-scraper, designed to clean footwear muddied during a perambulation. By the mid-Victorian era, increasingly elaborate cast-iron boot-scrapers adorned front and back doors across Britain.
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Another form of front door furniture – the door-knocker – became similarly ornate. These could be installed to ward off evil or bring good luck. However, they were also used to communicate a message: a bow of crêpe on the knocker represented a death; felt swathing told of a killing; a white glove meant a birth; while a bunch of flowers signalled a marriage.
By the end of Victoria’s reign, door-knockers became so extravagant that they’d inspired an illicit new craze: “knocker wrenching”. In 1896, the Daily Mail described Lord Charles Beresford’s efforts to steal the Marquis of Bath’s dolphin door-knockers. According to the report, “Lord Charles hopped out, carrying a stout rope. One end of this was attached to the knockers and the other to the body of the cab, the titled driver then being ordered to ‘whip up’. This he did. The horse sprang forward and out came not only the knockers, but also the panels of the door.”
Probably the most celebrated door-knocker of the 19th century was the “Wellington”, created by ironmonger David Bray in honour of the Duke of Wellington’s victories in Spain and Portugal in 1814. Following the battle of Waterloo a year later, the door-knocker became even more popular, with the Morning Post declaring that “every knock brings home to the bosom… the final downfall of the enemy of the rights and liberties of mankind”.
Pathways to the past: a Victorian vogue for nostalgia
In the mid-19th century, another front door accoutrement came into fashion: the tiled porch. After inheriting his father’s tile factory in 1836, Herbert Minton revolutionised tile production, making them more affordable. Soon, chequered and geometric patterns were flowing from tiled paths through front doors and into halls across Britain.
Step into a porch in an upper or middle-class Victorian home, and the chances are you’d be greeted by a riot of flowers, birds, literary characters and idealised rural scenes. These designs reflected a broader trend in Gothic Revival architecture, since they resembled the floors of medieval churches.
In a rapidly urbanising society, these designs – especially those inspired by flora and fauna – resonated with a yearning for bucolic idylls in simpler times
In fact, a hankering for the past loomed large in the Victorian vogue for decorated tiles. In a rapidly urbanising society, these designs – especially those inspired by flora and fauna – resonated with a yearning for bucolic idylls in simpler times. Such nostalgia can also been seen in the rise of the house name, as the research of the historical linguist Laura Wright shows. Monikers such as “Orchard House” and “The Willows” betray a longing for what had been lost in the race to industrialisation.
The period from 1850 to the Second World War was a golden age for house-naming, as more and more Britons owned their own homes. Railways connected sprawling suburbs with town centres, where builders named houses to attract buyers, or new homeowners sought to personalise their particular mass-developed house. Builders might name new homes to give an impression of solid respectability, such as “Merton Villa” or “Grosvenor House”. And world events were reflected in patriotic monikers such as “Trafalgar House”.
Scrub up nicely: Doing the step with the "donkey stone"
You’d be hard-pressed to find a cast-iron torch-snuffer outside the terraced houses of northern England at the turn of the 20th century. Here, tiled porches depicting rural idylls were rarer than hen’s teeth. But that didn’t stop their owners giving their front doors a little extra polish – and for that they used something called the “donkey stone”. The donkey stone was a type of scouring block employed to scrub, clean and give extra grip to stairs and doorsteps, primarily in mill towns.
The name originated from the Manchester-based “Donkey” brand, which imprinted a donkey stamp on the stones. Cleaning a doorstep may sound simple, but there was an art to using a donkey stone. After scrubbing the steps, women would deploy the stones along the front edge and vertical sides to give their work a neat, decorative finish. Thanks to an abundance of litter and the soot from coal fires, women had to “do the step” on a regular basis.
It gave them an opportunity to socialise with their neighbours, all the while attempting to craft the most aesthetically pleasing doorstep on the street.
Another activity that would bring people together on their front door step was lace-pulling. In cities such as Nottingham – which remained a hub of Britain’s lace industry into the second half of the 20th century – women would sit out on their door steps, pulling out the thread that connected pieces of lace that had just rolled off the factory loom. A child would then collect these up in a pram, cover them with a clean sheet and run them back to the factory.
Like “doing the step”, this practice has long since passed into history, a victim of Britain’s manufacturing decline over the past five decades. What hasn’t changed, however, is the front door’s status as a symbol of wealth and taste.
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In fact, you could argue that its position as a marker of social superiority has reached its zenith in some recent high-rise developments in Britain and the US. The rich enter the hotel-like lobby to access all the luxury and leisure activities contained within. Social housing tenants, on the other hand, access their flats near the bins and service entrance, through what has been termed the “poor door”. Have we come so very far from the days of the medieval portcullis or the Regency footman? Perhaps not.
Rachel Hurdley is a research fellow in cultural sociology at Cardiff University and the presenter of The Hidden History of the Front Door, which is available on BBC Sounds
This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine