Lowlands-L: Water under The Bridge: Things past but not forgotten — History of the Lowlands worldwide
Lowlands-L: Water under The Bridge: Things past but not forgotten — History of the Lowlands worldwide


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Wall Anchors
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— Wall Anchors

By Pat Reynolds (England, UK)
This article appeared previously in the Lowlands-L Gallery

When asked to think of the defining characteristics of buildings in the low countries, what springs to mind? Gables with ornate curves, or simple steps? Red bricks and red pantiles? Large windows, not screened by curtains but by greenery or posters? The timber framing of great barns?

In 1744 Alexander Hamilton, in New York observed many of these features:

the houses are more compact and regular and, in general, higher built, most of them after the Dutch model with their gravell (sic) ends fronting the street. There are a few built of stone, more of wood, but the greatest number of brick, and a great many covered with pan tile and glazed tile with the year of God when built figured out with plates of iron upon the fronts of several of them. The streets, in general, are but narrow and not regularly disposed. The best of them run parallel (sic) to the river, for the city is built all along the water. In general this city has more of an urban appearance than Philadelphia (Alexander Hamilton, 1744, reprinted 1992)

Wall anchors in the shape of numbers
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

What Dr. Hamilton saw, but many did not, was the iron wall anchors—in Dutch muurankers. Like the framing technique celebrated in barns, the wall anchors are part of a distinctive framing technique which is originated in the low countries, and spread with Dutch colonies around the world. It also diffused around the North Sea and Baltic, and into French Canada.

A short wall anchor is a wrought-iron fitting in a building. ‘Dutch’ short wall anchors have two parts: one, on the exterior face of the wall, is an iron bar or motif which is slotted through a loop in the second part, another iron bar (the tongue). The tongue is encased in the wall and is fixed to a timber in the wooden house ‘skeleton’. These anchors are inserted during construction—they are not remedial. They associate each transverse beam with the wall, or, in the case of a gable, associate the roof structure with the gable. In construction, the side walls are erected first, and after the roof structure is inserted, the gable walls are erected.
Portait of Mark Brooks
Great Yarmouth (Norfolk, England, UK),
from the River Yare at Berney Arms
(This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial 3.0 License

I first became aware of this intriguing piece of building hardware when in 1992 I began to work for English Heritage (the English equivalent of the US’ National Park Service), cataloguing a collection of architectural fragments at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk—just across the North Sea from the Low Countries. The collection had been acquired during the late 1940s, when a quarter of the town was being levelled prior to redevelopment. The area had been earmarked for redevelopment by the local council since early in the century, as the housing stock was thought to be of poor quality. The houses had, in addition, been greatly damaged in their use as a training area for hand-to-hand combat during the war, and the local council had long wanted to clear the neighbourhood.

However, the area was known to contain a great number of medieval and early modern buildings, two of which were taken into the care of the state. The foreman of works engaged on the repair of these houses in the late 1940s and 1950s, Mr Rosie, salvaged many items from the surrounding buildings. Initially, the idea seems to have been that they could be used in the restoration of the two houses, but the collection of windows, doors, mouldings, panelling, tiles, and other fragments grew beyond this, to a collection to act as a memorial to the craftsmen who had built Yarmouth.

I had been brought in to catalogue this collection because I had expertise in door furniture. I found some other areas of the collection quite unfamiliar. I was particularly intrigued by the iron wall anchors, a building component I had never met before. Unlike the rest of the collection, where there were reference books, comparable collections and comparable material in situ, to help me catalogue the collection, the wall anchors seemed to be as isolated, solitary and strange as the two historic houses, now marooned in a sea of maisonettes. The contract completed, I continued to notice wall anchors, and to wonder about the people who had built with them. This wondering has lead me to undertake a PhD on the use and meaning of wall anchors in the Department of Archaeology, University of York.*

The earliest, medieval anchors, were all plain bars of wrought iron. Around 1550, however, the potential of wrought iron to form diverse shapes was exploited. These decorative anchors. As Alexander Hamilton noted, they could form an alternative to the dating stone. They could also be formed into the initials of the builder/owners, and merchants’ marks.

When Classical façades became fashionable in the 1800s, the technique was still used, but the anchors were now hidden, behind pilasters, or hacked back into the walls and rendered over.

When cast iron was discovered in the 1800s, the Dutch foundries began to produce wall anchors which echoed the forms of the wrought iron versions. Rosettes were also popular. The use of wall anchors lent itself to the new iron framing, too: whereas in England, home of the new technique, the iron beams were commonly anchored within the walls, in areas where wall anchors were used, the beams were also anchored on the outside, again with rosettes or other forms harking back to the 1600s and 1700s.

About the author:

Pat Reynolds is writing a PhD on the use and meaning of wall anchors in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. She would be delighted to hear of the use of anchors outside the areas described above.

* Update: In the meantime, Pat Reynolds finished and successfully defended her PhD dissertation under the title Transmission and Recall: The use of short wall anchors in the wide world. (Please click on the title to access an electronic copy.)—R. F. Hahn, Lowlands-L

Further reading:

Janse, H. (1993) ‘Anker, smeedijzer’ in Restauratievademecum DOCblad 01 – 09 (Zeist, Rijksdienst voor de Monumentenzorg)

Janse, H. (2001) Building Amsterdam (Amsterdam, De Brink)

Meijer, H.C. (1984) ‘Gietijzer in de bouw: functioneel en decoratief’ in Monumenten ’4/9: 18–9

O’Neil, B.H.StJ.(1953) ‘Some seventeenth century houses in Great Yarmouth’ in Antiquaries Journal 95: 141–80

Sonn, Albert H. (1928, reprinted 1979) Early American Wrought Iron (New York, Bonanza)

Stokroos, M. (1984) Geitizer in Nederland (Amsterdam, Gemeentlijk Bureau Monimentenzorg, Amsterdam

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