Thatching in Dorset


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For it’s size, this historic county has more thatch than any other area in Britain. Nearly a tenth of all thatched roofs lie here, around four for every square Dorsetshire mile. Thomas Hardy, the county’s famous son, was born under thatch and knew the trade well. His story follows in the next page.

 

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Literary thatch… Not Thomas Hardy, but the home of his mentor, the Reverend William Barnes; Dorset’s other literary genius. Dialect poet, schoolmaster, engraver and Rector of Winterborne Came. Where this former thatched rectory was his home, for nearly a quarter of a century, from 1862. His 1833 engraving, of a thatched Somerset barn is below…

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Modern work here now consists entirely of reed thatching, either of combed wheat or water. This was not always so. The boundary between the Southern thatching tradition and the South Western, once ran through this county, from top to bottom. Thatchers, in the eastern third of Dorset, used long straw; areas to the west were thatched in combed materials. Why towns and villages a few miles apart, should have quite different traditions is intriguing. Being examined in the introduction, to the various thatching styles found in Britain.

The Georgian Agricultural reporter for Dorset, William Stevenson, writing in 1812, noted ‘Reed thatching is very little in use to the east of Blandford. Hence we might say the practice of preserving wheat from the flail, for the purpose of thatch, prevails from the middle of Dorsetshire to the Landsend’. Also found, in the introduction to the various styles, is his suggestion for a reason, for this interesting split in materials. Working in the north east of the county, forty odd years ago, I was asked by an elderly passer by; if I was about to use ‘Somerset thatch’ (combed wheat) or ‘Dorset thatch’ (long straw).

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‘Dorset Thatch’… This Victorian long straw roof, at Tarrant Hinton, a few miles east of Blandford Forum was, according to the reverse of the image, the birthplace of one William Herring in 1842. He seems to have emigrated to the United States…


The scene below is older, perhaps dating to the 1860’s. Here, at Littlebredy in West Dorset the thatch is entirely of combed wheat reed, with some neat butt up ridging.

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Mr Stevenson also reported a great deal more, on the thatching trade; which is worth recounting. Some of the combed thatch produced hereabouts seems to have been produced using a reed press, in a process called Drawing. (This is described in full, in the page on combed wheat reed, in the Materials section..) Our reporter found it ‘is very prevalent in the western and northern parts of the county…The work is performed by women and children’. Thomas Hardy had his fated heroine Tess doing this work. (Also described in the combed wheat page.) In Mr Stevenson’s day the workers received sixpence, for drawing fifteen sheaves of eight or nine pounds in weight.

The more usual hand comb was employed in other areas. Wheat often being combed, after the heads had been dipped into a stationary mechanical thresher. The corn being thus removed, but the straw preserved. This was noted at Dalwood, Evershot, Cerne Abbas, Frampton, Wynford Eagle; and Bradford Abbas. However, nearby at ’Lord Digby’s at Sherborne reed is drawn and wheat thrashed at seven pence a bushel for the whole business’. All these places are to the west, but more eastern villages are also mentioned. ‘At Kimmeridge the women draw reed sheaves at five shillings a hundred.’ This village lies just on Mr Stevenson’s Blandford line.
 

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Over the line.. Combed wheat thatching, in the Sherborne area, around 1910. A material with a long history hereabouts. At nearby Holwell, ‘Reade and Spares’ appear in the church accounts, in the 1670’s. And the parish at Thornford paid two shillings, ‘for 8 read Sheefes to Thatch Joan Hennyes house’, in 1706… Opposite, a tiny combed wheat roof, tucked away in the town; which still retains half a dozen or so thatches.

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The cost of laying this combed thatch was also noted. Thatchers earned three shillings a square at Beaminster and a little more at Swyer, where they received an extra sixpence. As ever, at this period this price did not include the materials. Which according to Mr Stevenson cost between twenty and forty eight shillings, for a hundred sheaves. A large difference in cost, which the reporter does not explain.

Economics have influenced thatch production, almost as much as tradition. At Bere Regis our reporter ‘was informed that reed was seldom drawn, because the landlords would not repay the expense to the tenants.’ As the nineteenth century wore on, and mechanically thrashed long straw became ever more cheaper, Mr Stevenson’s long straw/combed wheat line moved ever westwards. (Also noted in the main Introduction page.) But the coming of the combined harvester, in the 1950’s, ended the production and use of long straw in this county.

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Picturesque Thatch at Milton Abbas; now and in around 1910… Here a street of new houses, of cob and thatch; replaced the old market town of Middleton, in the 1770’s. Care of the homeless townspeople, only went so far; as each building contained four families. What is now a single cottage, on the right in the upper picture, still has the remains of four ’front’ doors. Each eighteenth century family, occupying just two small rooms. The old image shows the village completly thatched in long straw.


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Cottage Orne… Some highly decorative work at Stanbridge, in the east of the county; keeping very much to the ‘Picturesque’ style, of the early nineteenth century building. The sparred edging is purely for show, as the roof is coated in combed wheat reed.


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Old eastern long straw… The tea shop shown in the above image, near Lytchett Minster, is still open. The old image, on the right at Shapwick, also has a thatched wall, a feature still seen hereabouts. This tiny village still has around two dozen thatches, now all of wheat or water reeds.

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New Build… Some clever work at Manswood, with a combed wheat reed roof finished as a long straw thatch…


Below are two Combed wheat reed thatches from the eastern Winterborne valley. A very old mill at Winterborne Stickland and a new thatch, at Winterborne Whitechurch. A cottage with some quiet neighbours…

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Arts & Crafts style… The former diary, at Briantspuddle. This village was acquired, by Sir Ernest Debenham, a member of the well known chain store family. His dream, to create a self sufficient community, began in 1914. The architects Halsey Ricardo and Mac Donald Gill, designed 40 new cottages, built over fifteen years, to fulfil Sir Ernest’s plans. The dream died, with it’s creator, in the 1950’s. But the thatch lives on…

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Cheselbourne… In around 1900. Only one house in this image is not thatched. Everything here is coated in combed wheat reed. As it still is today.

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Combed wheat reed…. At Sturminster Newton. The pub, is one of very many thatched ones, in this county. This one has a date stone of 1708; but the building is probably older. The thatched homes, in the Edwardian lower image, over the River Stour at Newton, certainly are. Some still retaining their original ‘smoke blacked thatch’, dating form the later middle ages…

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West Dorset… At Cattistock, a village knowing only combed wheat thatch. Typical wheat reed, butt ridges are also found here.

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On the coast… At Burton Bradstock, on the left. This seaside village lies well inside the historic combed thatch area. The roofs shown, in this 1950’s image, are essentially the same today. Above is well known ‘Cottage Orne’ toll house at Lyme Regis.

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Near the sea… At Chideock. This area has much thatch. In 1798, a Mr Farwell was paid ‘for Reed and Spars used in Thatching the Poor House’. The 412 ‘Sheaves’ etc. came to £5.14.6d…. The cottages above are but two of over fifty, in this small village. The layout of windows, doors and the boundary of the two thatched roofs, shows the upstairs of one cottage, lies over the lower storey of the other… This can create problems for the thatcher, trying to calculate which property is being covered!

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Right by the sea… At Weymouth. This pre First World War postcard shows some ornate buildings on the prom., being thatched in heather. Then a very fashionable material, for small buildings. The thatcher is completing the ridge, perhaps hailing from the New Forest; where heather thatching was once widespread.



Finally, Mr Fricker’s Bill… A thatcher‘s invoice, from 1771.

Old documents, concerning quotes for thatching and payment are rare. Parchment, paper and ink were quite alien to most Britons, for a very long time, so no doubt, most agreements were verbal, being as legally binding then, as they are today. Thus a Dorset thatcher’s invoice from the eighteenth century, is well worth examining.

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Mr Fricker’s bill… Enlarged and very pre decimal. Paper was expensive, hence this bill was presented on a tiny scrap; now in the care of Sherborne Museum.



This thatcher’s bill, seems to be in two parts. The clear writing is a straightforward invoice and receipt, by one ‘Edward Freke‘. The cramped lines underneath, seem to show that ‘Thos Fricker’ in turn, received payment from ‘Jas. Lush‘… It could be that Mr Fricker was a builder, employing the thatcher; and Mr Lush was the owner. Or perhaps, more likely, it was a case of a tenant recovering expenses from his landlord.

What is also of interest, is that the thatcher seemed capable of writing his bill and giving a receipt… A close examination, of the copperplate writing, shows it to have been written by the same hand but on two different occasions. As would be expected, the receipt was added after payment. The customer could only place his mark, when his payment fell due… But his mark is at least dated; 22nd June 1771.

Where this thatching work took place is not shown and the museum has no records, regarding this little exhibit. A local source would be expected, but this is probably not the case, as the terms ‘for straw’ and ‘for making of thatch’, are used on the invoice. This would suggest work done in long straw, where the thatcher prepares or ’makes’ the thatch, by yealming. This was not the material, generally used for domestic thatching, in the Sherborne area. Combed wheat reed, was in use here. A material that is prepared on the farm, not by the thatcher… Around this time, farmers at nearby Milborne Port, were supplying ‘reed’ for house thatching; not straw, so a location, further east, is indicated.

Examining the Dorset parish records perhaps provides the answer… An Edward Freke, Thomas Fricker and James Lush; were all living in the parish of Holy Trinity, Shaftesbury in 1771. The only place these names crop up, at this time; anywhere in the county.

The mention of ‘Tarline, shafts and nails’ (tarred twine, ledgers and crooks), mean that tying thatch onto timbers, was involved. The crooks, would have been blacksmith made, expensive and very sparingly used…

The work seems to have involved, ‘4 days work for Thatcher and Labouer’. So a smallish job, coating some new timbers is indicated. Some windows being inserted, in a new upper storey, would be very typical work…





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Possibly..? Thatch at Bell Street, in Shaftesbury. The window, set in this roof ,looks old enough. For the likes of Edward Freke to have worked on, when first inserted… On the left is a long straw thatch, in the St James’ area of the town. A place with a great deal of extant thatching. The old image dating to less than a century, after Edward Frekes time…

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The amounts of money, shown on the bill, are of interest … What is very apparent, is the difference in the ratio, between material and labour costs; compared with today. A modern job, similar to the bill, would typically be made up of around, one third material costs and two thirds labour charges. The ratio seems to have been reversed in the 1770’s…


6j‘The full contents of this bill’… Two pounds, five shillings and twopence, as Edward Freke would have known it. A couple of golden guineas and some change…


The Frekes had lived long in Shaftesbury. Always it seems concerned with roofs… In 1656, John Freke was paid a pound a year: ‘for looking to the chimneys about the town.’ A wise fire precaution, in streets full of thatch. Half a century later, the town worthies decided to buy one Richard Freke’s ladder; and two more besides. As until then, they had always borrowed it; when a conflagration took place.

The Lushs and the Frickers were also old Shaftsbury families. The latter being bakers, for generations; both before and after this time, so perhaps our man was working on their bake house… As Edward was supplying the long straw for this job, his customer was not a farmer or a landowner, as at this period both would have provided most of the thatching materials.

Three years, after receiving his money, Edward Freke married one Fanny Burridge; they then set about having six children. Records, tantalisingly, do not mention his trade; they should have, when he died in 1821, at the good age of 73. He lies in the parish where he was born; Holy Trinity, Shaftesbury; with him, are both James Lush and Thomas Fricker…