Island Heritage - The Bajan Chattel House

Chattel HouseA quick search for the word chattel shows a definition of "movable personal property", similarly the chattel house (dating back to the islands plantation era) is a moveable wooden house. After the abolition of slavery, not having any land of their own, the former slaves were allowed to construct homes on the plantation as a part of a tenantry system. But the working class would build small wooden houses, set on blocks and designed to move from location to location, because as former slaves, if any challenges occurred with the plantation owner, the home could be quickly dismantled packed onto a donkey or ox cart and rebuilt elsewhere in a single day.

Chattel houses still exist in our modern culture and though they still move at times they are designed to be a stronger more permanent fixture of the islands landscape. These homes are designed to take a wall or wooden extension to the back or side and as such are constructed in stages as money becomes available, starting as a single roof structure then expanding into several other rooms This can cause some homes to have a very fragmented appearance as it relates to styles, patterns or roof.

Chattel houses are also popular in Trinidad and other Caribbean Cultures though they occur less frequently as these houses may be more susceptible to hurricanes in other islands that are within the hurricane belt.

Distinguishing Features of Chattel Houses:
  • In the past these homes were built only from wood using no nails. – To facilitate quick & easy disassembly.
  • Roofs were made of corrugated iron (also called galvanize) set as a steep triangle or gable - the functional shape was used to deflect high winds, manage heavy rainfall and keep homes cooler during the day
  • Two or three jalousie windows were a common feature - two vertical and one horizontal. To protect from the wind, rain & sun, while adding extra protection for glass windows and homes during bad weather.
  • Later hoods were placed as an alternative to horizontal jalousies above windows to act as shade and protection rain and also acted as a beautifying feature.
  • The Chattel houses is set on blocks to keep the home away from running water or other such damage.
  • The homes typically have symmetrical fronts with two windows equally spaced on either side of a perfectly centered door.
  • Homes were typically built in stages, starting with a single unit a gabled roof - "one-roof house"; then adding a back shed - "one-roof house and shed"; the addition of another section with a gabled roof then made it a "two-roof house and shed" or even a "three-roof house" in some instances .

History of Barbados
Interesting Structures to Visit

Museums & Heritage Sites
Barbados UNESCO Buildings & Locations
Current Edition of Caribbean Dreams Magazine

Article © Caribbean Dreams Magazine
Photo originally from Barbados Tourism Authority - UK