At one time the site on which Peake’s House stands held three houses: 30, 31 and 32 East Stockwell Street. Of the three, 31 and 32 were a single dwelling, an early hall house. Number 32, built in the late 14th century, was the oldest part: this house contained the service area and the screens passage to the hall, which stood on the site of 31 (where the drawing room and main bedroom are now). The service area comprised a buttery and pantry, where wet and dry foods were stored. The cooking was done either in the hall or in a detached kitchen in the back yard. In the 15th century a west wing, containing a parlour, was added behind 32, and to the north of it a small wing was built in the 17th century, for use either as a new hall or perhaps as an attached kitchen. Later on, this wing was extended to form an extra room. With the extensions, 31 and 32 formed a three-sided building surrounding what is now our garden. (Now, however, the whole of 32 has disappeared, demolished in 1935 and replaced by our car parking space.)
The hall on the site of 31 was rebuilt, or remodelled, in about 1550, and was converted into the present three-storied house, with the hall replaced by the present sitting room and bedroom. This may have been a new parlour block, but it seems more likely that the building became a separate entity used as a shop or commercial premises with living and sleeping quarters above. It may have been at this time that 31 and 32 became separate houses, and if they were separately owned the businessman’s (or shopkeeper’s) family would have needed extra accommodation upstairs. If our main bedroom was their living room, this may explain the generously sized fireplace, with its stylised plaster flower.
Next door, another separate house – our number 30 – had already been put up, possibly by the same craftsmen that built the hall house, in about 1500 or soon afterwards; it seems to have been linked to 31 by new brickwork in the early 17th century, when the chimney stack was built. This is the house that now contains our front door, together with the kitchen, bathroom and twin bedroom. It also has a large cellar with a generous ceiling height, making it a useful working space below ground. This would not have been necessary for structural purposes (many such houses were built straight on to the ground with a brick plinth only a few courses high). Perhaps it was used for manufacturing whatever was sold on the floor above: to use a cellar in this way not only saved ground space but also provided security for stocks and tools.
The three houses seem to have changed very little until the early 20th century. In 1903 Mr J Burnby opened a general store in what is now our kitchen; the family later bought the freehold. In 1928, 31 and 32 were sold, possibly to Mr W. Peake, who carried on a successful business at 36 East Stockwell Street which eventually expanded into a fair-sized factory. By now all three houses were in poor condition, however, and in 1935 number 32 was pulled down, probably in the belief that it was past saving. But the tide was turning: the Colchester Civic Society was now starting to restore some of the timber-framed houses, including Peake’s House (then called The Old House). In1946 Mr Peake made a generous gift of it to the Borough Council, specifying that it was to be used for social and cultural purposes only.