Teak in 17th century

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Was Teak used in England in the 17th century?

A discussion was started on Facebook in May 2012 by Eric Hodgkins who explained that a speaker at a history lecture had said that Fords Hospital in Coventry had been built in 1509 with a large amount of teak used in its construction. Eric questioned the statement but was assured by the speaker that it was true. However, Eric decided to ask for comment on the assertion.

Paul Cramer replied saying, ‘Teak is a wood originally indigenous to Asia. The East India Company archives first mention the wood in 1698. It's first formally described by Carl Linnaeus in 1782.’ He went on to comment that, since the cost of importing timber from Asia would have been exorbitant, it seemed unlikely that a small Alms house in Coventry would have been built using large quantities of Teak.

Louise Pass added that, if Teak figured in the buildings now, it may have been used as part of a restoration project and not in the original construction. She also commented that it was possible that if Teak was mentioned in documents, it may have had a different meaning in the 16th and 17th centuries. ‘England used "corn" to describe many grains,’ she wrote ‘And still does to a certain extent. “Scarlet” was a kind of wool, as was “cotton”, both words mean something different now. It can be very murky waters wading in word usage and meanings.’

Peter McCrone pointed out that F. W. B. Charles, in his book Conservation of Timber Buildings discusses a number of timber species used in construction and repairs but does not mention teak although he worked in the Coventry area. He goes on to say that Charles does describe the use of Gyanan greenheart in a repair job (used as a cill beam) and suggests that if the Alms Houses had been built using teak it might have come to Charles’ attention and have been used as an example. Peter concluded by saying, ‘The Listed Building Online description doesn't mention timber type but I would have my doubts (from many years experience of working with historic buildings) that teak would have been used in the original construction and unlikely even for later repairs.’

Ed Fox added, ‘Indian and Arab ship builders recognised the virtues of teak long before the 17th century, so it is conceivable (though admittedly not probable) that some teak made its way via the Arabs into the Mediterranean and thence to Europe. There was also, of course, a flourishing overland trade with Asia from the medieval period – though transporting teak which is heavy, even for wood, by land would be absurd.’

The discussion passed back to Paul Cramer who wrote, ‘As Peter states it's not mentioned in the building register and I am fairly certain it’s not mentioned in Pevsner's books. Something as unique as that would hopefully be mentioned. It just does not fit with some basic historical facts. The Dutch Teak industry did not begin until 1680 in Sri Lanka for production of ship timbers for their ships moving between their trading factories in SE Asia. Ship construction being the primary interest for teak wood.

‘The English did not start cultivation till about twenty years later. The endowments to create Greyfriars were not particularly large, less than £500. No indication of the immense funds required to bring these timbers to Coventry. Elizabeth I did not give permission for English traders to venture into the India Ocean until 1591.’

Paul continued, writing, ‘SE Asia cultures had been using teak in shipbuilding from 7th or 8th century so its properties were recognised by them at an early point. So the question remains how, eighty years earlier, did timbers from SE Asia a) make their way to Britain. (A journey of some 11000 nautical miles from Indonesia) b) then make their way to Coventry, roughly seventy miles from the nearest sea. I'm sure you are aware that Teak is a very heavy wood.

‘No matter how you look at it it would have been a tremendous undertaking.’ After further contributions from others, Paul Cramer commented, ‘The trouble is, buildings have a degree of "grandfathers axe" about them. Greyfriars was started in 1509, had two rebuilds, plus no doubt a number of running repairs over the years. How do they know that it is teak and what is the age of the timber? A chance remark can be misunderstood, then with repetition become accepted fact over time. We have all seen it too many times over the years.

‘The vast majority of the Asian trade would be in low volume high value items spices, silks precious stones etc. Timber does not seem to fit that model. Certainly the importation costs of the amount of timber to create a building appears exorbitant.’

Mandy Holloway added, ‘As a listed building, information about its construction is readily available but I haven't uncovered anything as exotic as teak in the description. Who originally made the claim?’ Mandy also consulted with Jean Manco who told her, ‘Teak? How would it get here at that date? I see no reference to it in the index to Salzman, Building in England down to 1540 (1966 edn). It's all the homegrown stuff, plus timber from the Baltic. If anyone has turned up an exotic hardwood in an early Tudor building since he wrote that excellent work, I'm afraid the news has not trickled down to me.’

After further contributions, the conclusion was that it was extremely unlikely that any building dating from the early 16th century would have incorporated Teak in its structure.