Gypsum flooring in Nottinghamshire

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The picture right was published in The Newark Advertiser newspaper on 4th July 1906 (page 8) shows what were known as Newark's 'Wooden Houses' which were located on what is now Sherwood Avenue.

Accompanying the picture in the newspaper was the statement that the houses on the left (as far as where the children are standing) were being demolished in order to allow street widening.

 The 1906 newspaper report notes that the floors here were made of plaster (ie gypsum) which (in the days before cheap wooden planking could be turned out by steam powered saw mills and wood-planing machines), was a favoured local material for domestic flooring.

Gysum flooring

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner* notes that from Tudor to mid-Victorian times gypsum was used as a major flooring substance in Nottinghamshire.  It can be seen, he says, at Car Colston church, but was normally used only for upstairs rooms of houses; by Victorian times it was relegated to attics.

Today we are familiar with plaster being used to produce a smooth finish on walls and ceilings, but probably imagine that it would be too brittle and friable to be used on load-bearing floors. The special way in which the gypsum was prepared, however, could ensure that it set virtually as hard as concrete.

In the official history of the British Plaster Board company a description is given of how such plaster floors were originally formed: They were produced by placing layers of wood or mixtures of wood and coal, on the ground and then covering this with rough gypsum. The wood was burned, heated through, almost baking the gypsum to form a rough kind of plaster. This was then beaten to a powder.

Pevsner points out that the process often used inferior deposits and waste from Nottinghamshire alabaster workings.  He continues that the process involved burning the gypsum with clay and pounded brick, and that it was "laid warm, on a layer of reeds spread across the joists.  After it had set, it became very hard indeed: a smaooth and shiny limestone which made an excellent floor".

There are records of this kind of plaster flooring dating back to at least the 17th century, with some examples in large country houses being even earlier.

Locally, in the early 19th century, there are records relating the Sheppard family's gypsum works at Ratcliffe-on-Soar near Nottingham where gypsum was burned (ie turned into plaster) on the banks of the River Trent, loaded into barges, and pulled down the river to Wilford where it was sold from the barge bag by bag to local residents who were constructing their own plaster floors.

The thickness of the plaster used (it could be up to 4 inches) acted a an excellent heat insulator and it is possible that amongst the many older houses in Newark today, plaster floors still remain (albeit covered by more modern materials).  "Such floors", says Pevsner, "can almost be taken for granted in any old Nottinghamshire house, and being very durable, a great many survive".

* PEVSNER, Nikolaus "The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire" (Second edn, 1979, p.48)


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