In 1914, Britain went to war with Germany and thousands rushed to join up. Max Gill was an obvious candidate for the Army, having trained with the Sussex Yeomanry and the King’s Colonials. But he was already engaged on a project that was seen by the authorities as more important to the war effort.
His five-year task was to help create a model farm and village. It was the brainchild of Ernest Debenham, chairman of the well-known store, who had bought 10,000 acres at Briantspuddle in Dorset. There he planned to create a self-sufficient estate, with an experimental model farm and houses for his estate workers. These were to be better appointed than the traditional country cottage, with modern amenities, but still in keeping with the local architecture. Each cottage would have half an acre of land, so that its tenant could earn extra money as a smallholder.
The architect Halsey Ricardo was chosen to plan the scheme with Max as architect-in-residence. The design of the buildings was divided between them and Max supervised all construction work. This involved the use of modern materials like concrete, still a novelty in 1914, but also included traditional thatched roofs. The project relied heavily on self-help within the community. Local, semi-skilled labour was employed and the materials came from sources on the Estate wherever possible. Cavity walls were built using a newly-invented design of hollow concrete blocks, which were cast on site.
As with many ‘grand designs’, there were also problems. The original plans had to be modified as the hollow block walls provided insufficient insulation in winter. Eventually, falling farm prices and loss of Government subsidy made the operation uneconomic and the full scheme was never completed. Today the buildings survive as a fascinating link between a centuries-old way of life and the modern world.
Image: Original watercolour “Sketch Perspective of Proposed Building Works”, 1917. These buildings were part of Debenham’s model village at Briantspuddle, for which Max Gill was supervising architect. Private collection.