Mathematical Tiles

Woodbridge is a spectacularly beautiful town, but when you live/work/shop there it is easy to miss much of the richness of the townscape around you. This article aims to help us to look again and hopefully, in a small way, to see some of the things that make the town so special in a new light.

Central Woodbridge buildings turn their best, scrubbed up faces towards the streets, and their owners have used the fashionable architectural make-up of the time to make older faces look younger and more up to date. In fact a lot of the buildings in central Woodbridge are medieval or later traditional timber framed buildings, many constructed in a distinctive East Anglian style with profits from the lucrative wool trade. The wool trade declined in economic importance in East Anglia during the 1600s but whereas towns like Lavenham sank into obscurity, Woodbridge remained wealthy as a port, centre for milling and later as an army barracks (in Old Barrack Road) so there was money available for architectural makeovers.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries architectural fashions had changed and brickwork became fashionable and many owners wanted to ‘face up’ their buildings in the new style. Usually this was done by simply building a new brick wall onto the front of the original timber framed building and tying it into the original timber frame members.

Lots of buildings were altered like this. They can be seen all over central Woodbridge, for instance some of the terrace of houses on Station Road of which the Anchor pub forms the right hand end are brick faced timber framed buildings.

A rarer approach in Woodbridge was the use of mathematical tiles. These are very cunningly shaped clay tiles nailed to horizontal timbers giving a waterproof low maintenance facing and an external appearance indistinguishable from brickwork (Figure 1). They were lighter than conventional brickwork and thus could be more easily fitted over large openings or onto the projecting features of buildings. Corners were problematic and although special corner tiles were available often timber battens were used to form corners and this now helps to identify the use of mathematical tiles.

Mathematical tiles were most common in Sussex and Kent but there are several Suffolk examples. There are at least two locations where they have been used in Woodbridge, first over the right hand shop windows of Webb Brothers hardware shop at 30 Church Street (photo 1) and second at 3 Doric Place (photo 2) where the timber battens forming the corners can clearly be seen.

There are also lots of mathematical tiles in buildings round the Market Hill in Framlingham.

Interestingly a variant on mathematical tiles was used on timber framed walls of system built schools in Essex in the 1960’s, until pupils realised that by kicking the walls they could make the tiles fall off!