The Barbados chattel house is an icon of Barbadian life and landscape. It’s ubiquitous - from Bridgetown to North Point – adapted to satisfy changing needs, family size and income. But with Independence it’s been disappearing, replaced by simple, modern wooden structures of less aesthetic appeal, or concrete bungalows. And today in Barbados a concrete structure or “wall house” is often seen as proof of progress and a normal social aspiration.
The chattel house has been a favourite subject for artists such as Fielding Babb, Virgil Broodhagen, Neville Legall, Jill Walker and Clairmont Mapp, and photographer Bob Kiss, and there is a growing pride and interest, both here in Barbados and far beyond, in this unique design. The term chattel house refers to a movable wooden house, as the old English word chattel meant movable possessions. It was built in sections, to be quickly taken apart and re-built on a new site, on a foundation of loosely packed coral stones.
The house grew with increasing wealth or family size, from a single two-room unit, by adding units at the back. Although a few wooden houses were being built in the last days of slavery, the chattel house became the established house form after emancipation (freedom) because the freed slaves were in fact a “landless peasantry”. They had to pay rent for a small plot of tenantry land on which they could erect a modest wooden house. And the house had to be movable, in case they were dismissed or wanted to move on.
Houses began as a single unit, perhaps 10 by 18 feet in size, with outside cooking or a simple lean-to kitchen and outside pit toilet. More units were added with time as a family grew or income improved, and many houses were enlarged and improved with Panama money, from workers who went to build the Panama canal. A key feature was absolute symmetry, with a central front door, a window on each side, small upper gable windows for ventilation, “bell pelmet” window hoods and elegant fretwork – decoration that was common to both the chattel house and larger houses. With more money came “gentrification”, but always according to traditional styles and practices.
Bajan chattel houses are unique examples of a most creative form of folk architecture, designed to satisfy the need for low cost housing and mobility, and able to adapt, with improvements, to greater social needs. Many are proudly maintained, especially by older individuals or couples, for whom the size is just right. Many beautiful examples - individual “icons” - dot the landscape. Others are converted into shops or restaurants, earning a living! And some new houses are being built in exactly the same style, with multiple gables.
There are shopping complexes in “chattel house villages” at St. Lawrence Gap and Sunset Crest, Holetown, with the aura of the chattel house-wooden structures with some of their features and ambiance. True replicas of the finest examples have been built in the Tyrol Cot Heritage Village, to showcase this unique, creative icon for visitors and future generations. The best of them and their modern versions have brought new life to an old classic.