The cowl atop the kiln is the most distinctive feature of oasts and hop kilns, yet little is known about its history. It is a skillfull invention for preventing rain entering the vent at the top of the kiln and for drawing the draught up through the drying floor. In the days of kilns built within rectangular barn- style buildings the fumes, humidity and reek must have vented through holes in the roof, but there are no records of how this worked and how dryers prevented rain coming down onto the drying floor.
The general view is that cowls arrived in the late 18thC – early 19th C. A book by John Thorpe Customale Ruffense dating from 1782 has a drawing of an cowl on a converted church.By the 1839s when Lance was writing the cowl as we know it was evidently widely employed. His is keen to promote a recently patented alternative cap (Mr Perkins of Herts, 1827, Society of Arts Silver medal) The aim of this was to deal with weather conditions when it was wet but there was no wind to turn the cowl on its spindle away from the rain. A pulley system raises and lowers a cap on the cowl.
Sussex variant of cowl with side panels has been compared to a nuns headdress. Examples are at Leafwood Oast and Bells Yew Green near Frant. Generally cowls were painted white but at Chart Court Farm near Little Chart built in the 1850s the cowls were painted red and green to display the colours of the horse racing owner, Chester Beatty.
The classic revolving cowl of Kent and Sussex held sway in the 19thC and into the 20th C . According to the Waltons the last oast to be constructed with the traditional cowl was at Clock House Farm, Hunton, near Maidstone in 1928 (p74). But the need for repairs and replacements of damaged cowls meant that the craft of making them lived on. The character that they add to a dwelling causes some present day owners to add cowls to buildings that never would have had a cowl or ever been used for drying hops, deceiving the current viewer about the history of their home.
In Herefordshire and Hampshiure square louvred hats on kilns were more widespread, as shown in the illustrations above. And the elegant octagonal cowl at Outreach Farm, Brasted, West Kent appears to be unique. It is part of a striking 3 kiln , ragstone oast, built on a steep slope with open arches supporting the lower side. It is an outlying building of the National Trust’s Chartwell estate. It recently suffered a partial collapse of one wall which the NT are fortunately going to repair.
Categories: 19th Century