Although virtually all rural houses of ‘middling’ status in England and Wales were furnished with press cupboards, only in the counties of Westmorland and Cumberland were they routinely built-in. This probably derived from a particular form of medieval tenancy which developed because of the proximity of the Anglo-Scottish border. All male tenants of military age were required to perform military service in times of need, chiefly when the Scots threatened to invade England. In return for ‘Border Service’, tenants were granted more secure tenure of their land than was enjoyed by men of similar status elsewhere in England, and they enjoyed almost the same rights as a freeholder.
The rights of the Lake District ‘statesmen’, as these tenants were known, remained unchallenged until after 1600, but when the crowns of England and Scotland were united under James I in 1603, cross-border conflict came to an end and the requirement for military service ceased. Lake District landlords sought to assert their rights as landowners and revoke the privileges of Border Service, but their attempts were successfully resisted by the statesmen, whose status was confirmed in a series of court cases. The renewed confidence resulting from these judgements was one of the chief motivations behind the widespread rebuilding of farmhouses, barns and other buildings throughout the Lake District in the 17th century. The built-in press cupboard thus embodies the sense of security and permanence enjoyed by the statesman in his new home.
The cupboards are of conventional form, with panelled sides and boarded backs, and so can be free-standing if necessary. They are invariably of oak, locally sourced and frequently wild and knotty. The panels and doors are variously configured, but only rarely are drawers present. The upper section is sometimes supported on turned pillars at each end or sometimes has dropped finials instead, but there is no obvious relation between the choice of pillars or finials and the date of manufacture. The upper part is almost invariably carved except on later examples, and many cupboards also have some decoration on the rails and panels of the lower part.
The Lake District style of carving is highly distinctive and is found not only on cupboards, but on panelling, joined chests, chairs and other furniture. Characteristic designs include interweaves and lyre- or heart-shaped foliage with a wavy, fern-like quality. The Lake District lettering and numbering style is also distinctive, most obviously in the twisted form of the verticals of the letters I (or J) and L, and in the number 1. Similar twisted verticals occur in parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire.
The press cupboards were made for about a hundred years; the earliest known example is dated 1628 and the latest 1735. From the late 18th century economic and social change lead to the gradual disappearance of the statesman, as this 1797 report from the Board of Agriculture makes clear:
This class of men is daily decreasing. The turnpikes have brought the manners of the capital to this extremity of the kingdom. The simplicity of ancient times has gone. Finer clothes, better dwellings and more expensive viands, are now sought by all. This change of manners combined with other circumstances which have taken place within the last 40 years, has compelled many a statesman to sell his property, and reduced him to the necessity of working as a labourer in those fields, which perhaps he and his ancestors had for many generations cultivated as their own.
Victor Chinnery, Oak Furniture: The British Tradition (Woodbridge 1979)
Susan Denyer, Traditional Buildings & Life in the Lake District (London 1991)
Sarah Woodcock, ‘Lake District Press Cupboards and Salt Cupboards’, Regional Furniture, XXIV (2010), pp. 17-40.