Archaeology in a Pandemic: Researching the Wheatsheaf Pub in Altrincham

The Wheat Sheaf looking south around 1900. Image courtesy of Trafford Local Studies library.

Like many community and voluntary groups, my local archaeology society, the South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG), was able to continue to do some limited fieldwork and post-excavation work despite the COVID-19 pandemic hitting in March 2020, and the subsequent series of lockdowns. Though restricted to landscape and post-excavation studies, and the occasional building survey, during the last two years the Group has completed five archaeological projects. One of these was an analysis of the Wheatsheaf Public House ahead of redevelopment and as part of the Group’s long-term study of the late medieval and post-medieval market town of Altrincham.

The South Trafford Archaeological Group has been exploring the historic Old Market Place in Altrincham since the group was founded in 1979. STAG has excavated in several locations and recorded several dozen historic buildings within the area of the late medieval market town, founded in 1290. For the current study a team of three STAG members visited the site on several occasions during 2021 (suitably masked and socially distanced) and undertook further historic research with the help of the Altrincham History Society in between and after the visits.

The Wheatsheaf pub lies to the north of the Old Market Place, standing in a small hamlet at the junction of Church Street and Oldfield Road. This small settlement was swallowed by the expanding Victorian town by the 1870s, and traffic now rumbles past the black-and-white clad exterior of the pub at the morning and evening rush hours. The property was originally part of the Dunham Massey estate of the Earls of Stamford & Warrington, and it has been possible to trace a building on the site of the Wheatsheaf public house back to at least 1696. In that year the tenant was an Mr Aldcroft, who farmed several acres of land around what must have been the farmhouse. The earliest map to show a building on the present site of The Wheatsheaf is Burdett’s 1777 map of Cheshire. However, the first reference to its use as public house comes four decades later, in a document of 1811, but this the public house may well have originated in 1794, when the publican mentioned in 1811, a Mr Samuel Lucas, first rented the farm. Known as the ‘Wheat Sheaf’ by 1822, when it was rented by George Allcock, it remained a Public House down to the early 21st century.

The Wheatsheaf is a two-storey building six bays across the front (eastern) elevations, constructed in brick, painted white, and surfaced with decorative applied timber framing from the early 20th century which extends across the whole of the front, Church Street, elevation. The building has an L-shaped plan, with a slate-covered roof. Internally, the structure comprised three floors at the time of the survey in 2021. The basement had two rooms, the ground floor 14 room spaces and the first floor 10 room spaces.

The Wheafsheaf Church Street elevation in 2021.

The current research has revealed that The Wheatsheaf had at least five major phases of rebuilding and expansion, although there were also many smaller interventions within the building. The earliest form of The Wheatsheaf was probably a two-bay, two storey, brick farmhouse, built in the late 17th or early 18th century. By 1799 a separate, detached, northern brick range had been built. The biggest period of expansion was the mid-19th century. Between 1835 and 1852 a two-storey brick building one bay wide and two bays long, the western wing, was added to the rear. In the period 1876 to 1897, the rear, western, elevation of the main Church Street range was further expanded to give its current, 2022, appearance. Early in the 20th century, by the 1920s, the Church Street elevations of the main range and the northern range, were refaced with timber to give a timber-framed, black and white ‘Tudor’, appearance. Between 1935-6 and 1966 the northern courtyard range was demolished, and the northern bay of the northern range was also demolished.

Paper and digital copies of the report are available to consult at the STAG Archaeology Centre in Altrincham, located behind the Old Hall pub on Altrincham golf course.

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