Actor and comedian Hugh Dennis caused a stir in Stoke last month when he turned up at Biggin Hall Crescent and asked residents if he could dig a hole in their gardens.
The television performer was joined by a team of archaeologists who were filming an episode of The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden. It appears that the team were looking for remains of the medieval Biggin Hall, which is thought to date back to the 13th century.
It is often assumed that all traces of the original buildings were long-lost and that any remaining fragments would not have survived after the area was cleared for housing.
The photograph shows the dig in progress, after which some of the findings went on display at the Coventry and North Warwickshire Sports Club.
We are told that archaeologists in the team, led by an expert from York University, will now be compiling a report about the dig. An episode of the programme is expected, but no date is known for the broadcast.
The series, produced by Strawberry Blond TV and commissioned by Channel 4, began earlier this year and aims to unearth the hidden history buried beneath our lawns and flower beds.
Hugh Dennis has said: “The Great British Dig is a fantastic format which combines finding out about the history of where you live and the surprising things that lie under your own back garden. It’s kind of a community archaeology project.”
Previous programmes have featured garden digs in Newcastle looking for the remains of a Roman fort, and a dig in the gardens of Masham, North Yorkshire, where the team were searching for a hidden Viking burial ground.
These days the only visible reminders of the old Biggin Hall are the street name, Biggin Hall Crescent, and the nearby pub, the Biggin Hall Hotel.
Biggin Hall – not just the name of a pub
To the Stoke folk who enjoy a pint of Marston’s Pedigree at the Biggin Hall, it’s a fine local pub. But few of the drinkers at the pub with the funny name – why Biggin? – will know that it is associated with history stretching all the way back to the Domesday Book.
Biggin, also written as Bigging, is thought to come from a Scandinavian word for habitation or building. And the ancient parish of Stoke was originally made up of two hamlets, Stoke itself, and Bigging. The Domesday Book records that land there was held by someone called Thorkil who in turn sub-divided it between Wulfric and the more modern-sounding Ralph.
Some time in the Middle Ages a large moated house, the original Biggin Hall, was built near what is now the junction of Biggin Hall Crescent and Lindley Road.
It may have been the house of the Deyville family in the 13th century, but nothing is known of its occupants until the 17th century when William Partridge, a doctor, lived there. By 1766 it was owned by the drapers’ company of Coventry and let to a farmer.
Farming stopped there in the early 19th century and in 1817 some excavations were carried out at the site, and traces of an ancient building and a chapel were found.
By that time what was left of the hall was used for meetings and by the Sunday school.
It was demolished after 1840 and by about 1885 only part of the moat and a cow-shed marked the site. The Biggin Hall pub was built in 1923, some 430 yards from the original building. And as the area was developed for housing, all traces of hundreds of years of history gradually disappeared. All that’s left is the funny name thanks to the pub which, fortunately, is now recognised as special, and not just by its regulars.
Six years ago Historic England awarded it a grade II listing because of its features including its large inglenook fireplace. Listing gives it the protection that the original hall never had. But will it last for as long? Only time will tell.
Information from The Illustrated History of Coventry’s Suburbs by David McGrory (Breedon Books, 2003 – re-issued in a second edition by DB Publishing, 2018) and The History of Stoke by The Rev TA Blyth (1897). This is a slightly updated version of an article first published in Avenews, the Stoke Park residents’ newsletter, in May 2018.
A fine example of Brewers’ Tudor style
The Biggin Hall Hotel, named after the medieval Biggin Hall, is a fine example of a new style of urban pub architecture that surfaced in Britain during the inter-war years.
It seems that licensing authorities in the 1920s had grown tired of traditional boozers, with their Victorian and Edwardian reputation for drunkenness and disorder.
Something new, more respectable, was required, and brewers were quick to adopt an “improved” style of public house, more fitting for the growth of middle class suburbia.
According to English Heritage, these better class public houses were generally more spacious than their predecessors, often with restaurant facilities, function rooms and gardens, and were consciously designed to appeal to families and a mix of social classes.
Their key target, clearly, was the respectable middle class family, rather than the heavy-drinking working man.
The Biggin Hall Hotel, opened in 1923, was typical of the new style. It was designed in 1921 by the architect Thomas Francis Tickner for the brewery Marston, Thompson & Evershed.
Tickner was based in Coventry and designed a number of buildings in the area, including the main Portland stone Memorial in the city’s War Memorial Park.
His design for the Biggin was in keeping with the fashionable style of the period, which became known as “Brewers’ Tudor”, incorporating as it did an extravagant mock-Tudor grandeur.
“This style reached its height of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s,” says English Heritage, and “was intended to evoke romantic notions of a Merrie England and employed half-timbering and internal wooden panelling.
“Although the Biggin Hall Hotel did not provide overnight accommodation, by calling it a hotel, it was considered to have status and respectability, broadening the class of its clientele.”
This part of Stoke was growing rapidly during the period, with new housing and nearby industry, particularly the GEC which became a major employer. The Biggin Hall Hotel sat neatly within this newly established suburbia, with its mix of social classes. It had a touch of elegance and a feeling of urban affluence.
Opposite the pub at that time was the Triumph Recreation Ground, which included a cricket pitch, tennis courts and a club house. This area, too, was later developed for housing.
These three stories appeared in the September 2021 edition of the newsletter of the Stoke Local History Group.