Island Musings

Our Architectural Heritage

October 10 2011

There is little that tells as much about a country as its architecture. It is a tale of origin, endurance and aspiration. In preserving our links with the past, if we cannot maintain the relics themselves, we must at least preserve their images. They tell the story of our evolution.






The houses in this poster no longer exist. Since 2002, three of them were torn down and one has fallen into disrepair. 


These structures and their extended versions, housed the majority of Barbados population in the years following emancipation. The name ‘chattel house’ evolved from the fact that they were regarded as movable possessions, elements of your goods and chattels, just as the slaves themselves were considered the owner’s chattels.












With the abolition of slavery in Barbados, in 1838, the former slaves were allowed to settle on estate ‘rab land’ that was unsuited for farming. Once your labour was no longer required, or if the estate owner needed the plot of land, you would knock the house apart in sections and cart them off to another location. Since there was no security of tenure, you did not construct a foundation but propped your house on a temporary base of loose stones.



Initially the chattel house consisted of a rectangular unit, usually 10’x 20’ with either two sloping roofs (gable) or four sloping roofs. (hip-roof) Attached to the rear was an enclosed shed with a sloping roof. This unit was commonly called a ‘shed-roof’. As the family grew, so too did the size of the house increase by adding units of the same dimensions.

The roof structure of the chattel was important. The high-pitched roof without overhanging eaves was designed to withstand much of the anger of tropical hurricane- force winds. The windows and doors were also louvered, to allow air to circulate freely. This often included two small windows in the apex.



As people’s circumstances improved, these wooden houses were often expanded to include an enclosed verandah, a porch, window hoods and ornate hand carved embellishment.



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