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
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)
anchors in the shape of numbers
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).
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
H. (1993) ‘Anker, smeedijzer’ in Restauratievademecum DOCblad 01 – 09 (Zeist, Rijksdienst voor de Monumentenzorg)
H. (2001) Building Amsterdam (Amsterdam, De Brink)
H.C. (1984) ‘Gietijzer in de bouw: functioneel en decoratief’ in Monumenten ’4/9: 18–9
B.H.StJ.(1953) ‘Some seventeenth century houses in Great Yarmouth’ in Antiquaries Journal 95: 141–80
Albert H. (1928, reprinted 1979) Early American Wrought Iron (New York, Bonanza)
M. (1984) Geitizer in Nederland (Amsterdam, Gemeentlijk Bureau Monimentenzorg, Amsterdam