Witton Shields Tower

Has been described as a Certain Bastle

There are major building remains

NameWitton Shields Tower
Alternative NamesWitton Shield
Historic CountryNorthumberland
Modern AuthorityNorthumberland
1974 AuthorityNorthumberland
Civil ParishNetherwitton

Strong House, dated 1608 with initials N.T. (Nigel Thornton) over door, rear outshuts 1680; reduced in height by a storey c.1914. Rubble with large irregular quoins and dressings; slate roof. Rectangular block with central square stair turret and continuous rear outshut. 2 storeys, 3 bays. Stair turret, carried up above eaves level, has re-set armorial panel, with chamfered surround, in gable; left return has door with flattened triangular head in square frame and date panel over, small chamfered window above; right return has similar window above small 4-pane casement. Renewed paired 12-pane sashes in early C18 opening with keyed lintel on ground floor left. Other renewed sashes with glazing bars in old chamfered surrounds; one blocked chamfered window. Renewed stone end stacks. Left return has blocked doorway with chamfered surround; small 2-light mullioned window to left. Stone stack carried on 4 corbels at present attic level and small chamfered window on right.

Interior; stone newel stair in turret; doorways with flattened triangular heads and initials N.T. to ground and 1st floors; chamfered beams. 1st floor fireplace with chamfered surround, cut-back keystone. Old roof timbers re-set c.1914: 4 principal-rafter trusses with collars. 2 levels of purlins. (Listed Building Report)

Witton Shields, an old house of three stories, stands in a secluded spot, at the head of a woody dene. It was probably built in the beginning of the 17th century, having on one tablet over the south west door 'N T 1608'. There is a Roman Catholic chapel here in a low upper room, which has in stucco work on its ceiling, 'N T 1619' and the arms of Thornton impaling Radcliffe, and in which service is done once a month. There is also over the door of an out-house here, this inscription '1680 H + M T' (Hodgson 1827).

An old pele tower of the 17th century

The letters NT over the south west doorway are supposed to be those of Sir Nicholas Thornton, and 1608, the date of erection of the tower (Tomlinson 1902).

'The stucco ceiling, with the date and arms, was taken out by the Roman Catholics, and sold some years ago. The room is no longer used for services'. (F1 ASP 14-JAN-1957 ref. Pers Comm, Mrs Thornton Trevelyan, Longwitton, 11-Jan-1957).

'Some 20-30 years ago, my father had the roofs lowered one storey. The house had become practically a ruin, and the top floor was beyond repair when he took over the place. The tablet with the shield, on the front of the stair tower, was originally above its present position in the gable end at the old third floor level. The stone with 1680 and initials must have been on that part of the annexe that was taken down. I have never seen or heard of it. But it does not exist now. Some 30-40 years ago, the Catholic priest took out the oak panelling from the two rooms on the second floor and sold it to someone in Morpeth. I have not heard of the stucco work on the ceiling with the date 1619, but it presumably went with the panelling. The services were held in one of the two rooms up till, I think, around the 1830s'. (F1 ASP 14-JAN-1957 ref. Pers Comm, Mr Potts, Witton Shields Farmhouse, 11-Jan-1957).

Witton Shields stands in pastureland, overlooking the dene of Cowclose Burn on the north side, and the valley of the River Font to the south. It is a strongly constructed building of two storeys with an attic, with walls 1m thick, and measures 7m north-south, by 13m east-west. Midway on the south face is a small gabled stair tower, with the main entrance in the west side, with the 1608 datestone above, and with a coat of arms high up on the south face. Several small square headed windows remain. The annexe along the north side of the building is now of one storey and though of a later date of construction than the main structure, is in appearance of considerable age, and 1680 would seem quite reasonable as the year it was added. The building is now occupied as a private dwelling (F1 ASP 14-JAN-1957).

This building is not considered to be a peel, as supposed by Tomlinson, it appears to be too late in construction and apparently has contained none of the crenellated and defensive architecture usually associated with the strong Border towers. The whole construction is domestic and it was probably a defensive house, many of which were constructed in this county in the late 16th/early 17th century (F2 FC 24-JAN-1957).

The older part of the house consists of a rectangular block 12.6m by 7.2m externally, with a projecting turret 2.8m square in the centre of the south front. The walls are c.1m thick and are built of sandstone rubble with large cut angle quoins. On the north is an added outshut. The western part may date to c.1680 whilst the eastern part is more recent.

The principal entrance to the house is by a doorway on the west face of the turret, with a flattened triangular head within a square frame. Above is a relief-carved panel in a chamfered surround, with geometrical panels around the date and Nicholas Thornton's initials. Above is an old chamfered loop, somewhat enlarged; there are two further loops in the east wall of the turret. The south wall of the turret has a worn armorial panel in the gable, re-set in 1914, from the west wall. The south wall of the main block has: an old chamfered loop (blocked) immediately east of the turret; the first floor window west of the turret is an old opening, with chamfered jambs; that to the east seems to re-use old jamb stones.

The west wall has a blocked doorway at its south end, with a chamfered surround and a two-light mullioned window further north. At first floor level is a sash window replacing a chamfered loop, the lintel of which survives, with above it the apparent sill of another window which would appear to pre-date the projecting chimney stack carried on corbels. North of the stack is a small chamfered loop to the present attic; just below this are possible traces of an earlier gable-line.

Internally, the turret houses a stone newel stair. A doorway with a segmental-pointed arch and the initials 'N T' on its lintel, gives access to the ground floor from the turret. The ground floor retains some old ceiling beams and a damaged 18th century fireplace. At first floor level is another old doorway from the turret, again with the Thornton's initials and an old fireplace (apparently with a flat-pointed head of 17th century character, although the keystone above suggests a later date - iow may denote a repair). There are more old ceiling beams here. The present attic, at approximately the level of the original second floor, re-uses the original roof trusses. These are of collar-beam type, with two purlins on each roof slope, but apparently no original ridge. They bear the carpenter's numbering I-III, from east to west.

There are remains of an outbuilding, or possibly a second house, to the south west of the present building, now incorporated in the garden wall. This has evidence of a large projecting stack at its north end and a doorway facing the blocked doorway in the west wall of the main house.

INTERPRETATION: Whilst the house in its pre-1914 form is very much a typical strong house, there are several pieces of evidence: changes in quoin type, the apparent roof line on the western gable, the apparent window sill pre-dating the corbelled projection on the west gable, etc - suggesting that it incorporates parts of an earlier house.

It is possible that the outbuilding may also pre-date 1608. It may have functioned as a detached kitchen to the main house. According to some 19th century illustrations they appear to show that the projecting chimney stack carried by the corbels on the west gable did not quite fit the corbels. It is possible that they originally supported a projecting watch turret, as on other examples (eg. Melkridge Bastle, Healey Old Hall). The addition of the first part of the outshut, in the later 17th century, may have been made to accommodate a new staircase. Recent alterations showed the outline of a blocked doorway at first floor level and traces of a blocked window in the north wall, which would correlate with a stair in this position (Ryder 1994-5). (Northumberland HER)

Not scheduled

This is a Grade 2 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceNZ123904
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  • Christopherson, R., 2011, 'Northumberland bastles: origin and distribution' Medieval Settlement Research Vol. 26 p. 21-33 (listed in appendix)
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  • Ryder, P.F., 1994-5, Towers and Bastles in Northumberland Part 3 Castle Morpeth District p. 41-2