Thatching in Middlesex

The Craft in England’s Lost County


98aModern London is a relatively new creation. By the mid twentieth century, the urban areas, around the historic city had grown six fold, since 1885 and it was felt these new suburbs, needed their own identity. Thus in 1965 Greater London came into being. In this process the historic county of Middlesex, was swallowed up entirely; the only English county to have suffered this fate. However a legacy remains, including some postal addresses, a first class cricket team and a few thatched buildings….

The survival of old thatched buildings, through decades of development, is less unlikely than might first appear. Most surrounding counties still have many hundreds of thatches and Middlesex seemingly shared similar numbers in the past. As the laws banning the craft, in the City of London, never applied here. So there were large numbers of thatched buildings, for the developers to remove; a feat they never fully achieved. The protection of being listed, finally helped to preserve the surviving few. But as will be seen, even this protection can occasionally fail…

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On Shepherds Bush Green… This thatched cottage, long an inn, was once used by one Miles Sydercombe, to house an early version of a machine gun. Which failed to kill Oliver Cromwell; passing by, from Hampton Court to the City in 1657. None of which saved this old thatch from demolition, in April 1890. A few years after this sketch was completed.


From surviving old images, Middlesex appears to lie on the boundary, between the Eastern and Southern thatching traditions. With the Eastern style seemingly more dominant. Along with all it’s surrounding counties, Middlesex was mainly a long straw thatching area. But with the rivers Thames, Colne and Lea, forming three county borders, rushes and reeds must have been in use, in earlier times…

Getting some bearings…

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A lost landscape… To help visualise how this small county once appeared, I have included this map, of 1807. It shows London tucked away in a south eastern corner. And a very rural landscape, dotted with green country estates. This view dates from the same period as most of the surviving thatch. Locations of the images, both old and new, found on this page, are highlighted in black.


The March of Suburbia…‘An Old Fashioned House in a New Fashioned Town’

The loss of Middlesex thatch, from the time of the 1807 map, to the recent past, is well illustrated, by the fate of the cottage shown below…

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Green Lanes, Palmer’s Green in the parish of Southgate… This cottage was built in around 1780, by a one time Governor of the Bank of England. As a lodge to his big house, which stood on the eastern side of ‘Green Lanes’, then an unpaved track, in Palmer’s Green. This image shows the cottage just after 1906, when the track became a widened road and swallowed up the cottage’s front garden… The thatch is a neat long straw roof, completed in the Eastern style.

 

In around 1911 the cottage and it’s two acre rear garden, was being used as a florist’s shop and nursery. But things changed very rapidly in the couple of decades after that…

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Almost swallowed up… These  two grainy images were used as publicity, for the firm of florists, in the late 1920’s.


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Ornate thatch… On what is now ‘Ye Old Thatched Cottage’. A sign above the door informs customers that this is, ‘An Old Fashioned House in a New Fashioned Town’. The florists had probably saved this cottage from destruction, in around 1911. But the end came in 1938, the two acre garden, no doubt proving ripe for development. The cottage itself was replaced by a branch of  Burton’s, the gent’s outfitters…

 

For much of it’s history, the county seems to have had plenty of long straw, thatching material but being close to London, this could be expensive. According to the Elizabethan writer, John Norden; the village of Heston was: ‘a most fertile place for wheat… accounted the purest in many shires’. The grain, good enough for the Queen’s white bread. With much of the resulting straw, no doubt used as thatch. John Middleton, carried out the Agricultural Report for Middlesex; in 1798. He wrote that the older farmhouses were thatched, but owing to the high price of straw and it’s greater value for manure, many new roofs were tiled…

However, the high price of straw, in this period, didn’t deter all use of thatch. At this time, the rich and fashionable loved the Picturesque style of architecture. In rural Middlesex as elsewhere, they created more than a few thatched ‘Cottage Orne’ buildings, in this fashion. In fact much of what remains here, dates from this period. Often the only reminder of long extinct, country estates.

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Surviving Cottages Orne… The upper image shows an attractive thatch, at Hanwell. One of several fashionable houses, near the church. The tiny lodge, below, pictured in around 1905 and shown today with a coat of water reed; is perhaps the only original building, from the old village of Wembley. Now in a sea of suburban houses, it once formed the entrance to Wembley Park. Which was created two centuries ago, along with this little building, in the ‘Picturesque’ style.

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A lost Cottage Orne…At Spring Hil, near Lower Clapton. This summer scene, dates from around 1905. When a new public park opened, on the west bank of the River Lea. The long straw thatch shown here, probably started life as an entrance lodge, for Spring Hill House; once owned by the oldest son of Charles Dickens. The park remains but both buildings have disappeared…



North Middlesex thatch….

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Colney Hatch Lane…  A quiet scene, in around 1905; showing some neat long straw thatch, in an Eastern style. The cottages are long gone, the ‘lane’ is now the busy B550…

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Leafy Enfield… Where this former farmhouse still stands, coated in water reed. Probably dating to around 1804; when the open fields here were enclosed.


West Middlesex thatch….


Out west… The left ‘Weir Cottage’ at West Drayton, once lay on an island, in the River Colne; the boundary between Middlesex and Surrey. The grainy right hand image, is of the ‘Old Magpies’ pub, at Harmonsworth. This old inn stood near the main London to Bath road, near the western county border. Dating from Tudor times, it was demolished in 1951. As this area became too close for comfort, to the expanding Heathrow Airport. In 1937, seven years before the airfield was constructed, Harmonsworth had three blocks of thatched homes, but ‘Heathrow Farm’ was tiled…


Newer thatched buildings, also exist in the old county. Constructed along with the multitude of others, as the Middlesex suburbs grew. Some 1920’s, Arts and Crafts cottages at Kingsbury, are good enough to grace most villages; let alone a busy road junction…

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Kingsbury… A parish of 140 scattered dwellings, in 1901. These thatched houses, designed by Ernest Trobridge, recall this rural heritage. Earlier images show them thatched in long straw.

 

thatch middlesex englandNortholt thatch…In former days, this place was well known for it’s wheat fields. But this photo shows water reed, covering the Plough Inn, rebuilt in 1948. There had been a pub of this name hereabouts, since at least 1746; its modern replacement is still going strong.


Long forgotten thatch…

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Sorry state… At Church lane, Edmonton in around 1890. Needless to say this scene is no longer with us…


These two drawings show long disappeared thatch. On the left at, ‘The Water Carrier’s Cottage, Townsend’s Yard, Highgate’. Dated to around 1845. Cottages hereabouts were said to be ‘insanitary’ a few years later and were ‘improved’ twenty years hence. When dwellings, such as this one were very likely demolished. The cottage on the right, at Paddington Green, sailed on until 1896. When, like the cottage at Shepherds Bush, it to was destroyed.


Almost forgotten and neglected thatch…

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‘Rather quaint’… Is how this house was described, in around 1905, by an occupier. At first glance it seems like another early nineteenth century, ‘picturesque’ house, often found in these parts. Part of this building is just that, shown here with a coat of long straw thatching. But at it’s core lies a medieval hall house, dating from the late fifteenth century. And is a grade two listed building… I’m writing in the present tense, as this property is still standing; just.

zzzx1149This is ‘The Hermitage’ in Heston. As mentioned, this parish’s wheat fields were praised by the Elizabethan writer, John Norden. This building being perhaps a century old, when he passed by…

After lying empty and being purchased for development, a fire destroyed the thatch, in 2003. After more than a dozen years, no action on restoring this important site has been taken. The protective covering, shown opposite, has now disappeared, leaving the building in a sorry state. One may well ask, what on earth is going on…



Finally, on a happier note; some rural thatch…

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A rare rural haven… Near Harefield. Not even this old county is fully paved over. Located in the leafy valley of the River Colne; this former lock keeper’s cottage, was already a century old, when the Grand Junction Canal was constructed, in the late eighteenth century.

 

 

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Not far away, from the canalside thatch, lies yet another ‘Picturesque’ lodge, from the early nineteenth century. The view south from here, is still across a few open fields… To the stadium at Wembley and on over the countless homes of ‘Metroland’; to the centre of London…


A look at thatching, in the City of London, the old county town of Middlesex, follows in the next page…