Thatching in Somerset


110aThe historic county of Somerset, covered by this page, includes the two northern sections of the county; south of Bristol and surrounding Bath, which were hived off in 1974…

All parts of Somerset have followed the South Western thatching tradition, of using combed thatching materials. As has been mentioned, in this tour’s introduction, the county border with Wiltshire is the traditional eastern limit; for the use of combed wheat reed. As explained, this boundary once formed part of a longer cultural one; for many, Dark Age decades. In the century after 1850, long straw thatching did make some minor inroads, along this eastern border area. When cheap, plentiful supplies of thrashed straw were available. But nowadays combed wheat reed, along with water reed, completely dominate the thatching in this large county.

Somerset, can lay claim to the earliest written reference, for combed wheat thatching. Fizherbert’s, popular Book of Husbandry first appeared in 1534; his section on harvesting, mentions the material. ‘…in Sommersetshire, about Zelcester and Martok, …they do not thresshe it, but cutte of the eares, … and call it rede; and therwith they thacke theyr houses…the whiche is the beste and the surest thacking that can be had of strawe…’ ‘Zelchester’, or Ilchester, along with nearby Martock, still lie in an area annually producing many tons of combed wheat reed…


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Romantic Estate…. Selworthy, in the west of the county, containing some of Somerset’s most photographed thatch. Both in around 1905 and today. The old village was rebuilt, in the ‘Cottage Orne’ style, in the early nineteenth century for retired estate workers. They were originally expected to sit around, in the suitably romantic costumes, supplied by their patron Sir Thomas Dyke Acland. This was the gent who travelled to St Kilda, in the Hebrides and left prize money, to encourage the locals to improve their thatched homes… The Edwardian thatchers, in the upper photo, have popped up in other pages; coating and ridging, in combed wheat reed.

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As noted in the History section, Mr Billingsley the Georgian Agricultural Reporter, was favourably impressed in 1794, with the thatching hereabouts. The large, bound bundles of combed thatch, he described as reed sheaves, were named thus in 1676, when John Keach of Stoke St Gregory, accused three other villagers of theft.

It was a term also familiar to a later writer, John Cannon from West Lydford. In his extensive diary he mentions work on his thatched house. On the 9th September 1739, he agreed for his cousin to supply a score of reed. And ‘with Richard Vincent for 1000 spars & 100 stretchers & a thatcher to do the work on the west side of my house‘. Twenty bundles of modern combed wheat reed would hardly need a thousand spars to fix them. But the writer is referring to the fifty six pound bundles mentioned by Mr Billingsley, at the other end of the century. Two years later more ‘reed & spars’ were ordered, to allow Thomas Linthorn to thatch more of John’s house.

The marshy Somerset Levels, in the centre of this county, were once a source of water reed. The town records at Axbridge, mention reed beds at ‘Stobyngham’, in 1368 and more a little later ‘between the reeds of John Hurre and Robert Trypp’. These reed beds occur in the town records until the eighteenth century. Other beds are mentioned in local records, at Carhampton and Woolavington. John Cannon did some legal work, regarding a reed bed at Meare. But in his and later days combed straw was the material of choice. No doubt due to the extensive drainage of the Somerset Levels…

This area also provides much willow, a valuable resource in John Cannon’s time, proving too much of a temptation for one Somerset spar maker. For as the diarist noted, in Glastonbury on 18th November 1741… ‘This day one John Tanner was whipped from the cross to the middle conduit…for cutting and feloniously stealing the shrouds of…willows to make sparrs which he sold.’ Evidently the crowd of onlookers jostled the official, carrying out the sentence, so much that the accused was hardly touched!

There is a little variation in style, within the county. Thatching in west Somerset, has much in common with neighbouring north Devon. Having a flatter pitch on many roofs and less overhang, to the gables and walls. The attractive points, on the mainly flush, butt up ridges, are more pronounced in the west, than in the south and the south east, of the county. These are also the three main areas, where thatch is to be found today. Not quite in the numbers of nearby counties, but sufficient to keep a goodly number of thatchers employed…

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South of Bristol… Combed wheat reed thatch, at Portbury. Which lies in an idyllic spot, yet close to the city and it’s docks…

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‘Hannah Moore’s Cottage’… in Cheddar. The site of the good lady’s school, in this village. Poet, playwright, author and educator, she was encouraged by William Wilberforce to set up schools for the poor, in the area around the Mendips Hills. The Cheddar school was up and running by 1790… Today the building is tiled; the old Edwardian image shows a directional repair, over the entire roof…


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This cottage once stood at Yatton, a century ago. Coated in combed wheat reed, it has a line of liggers along the eaves. This was a common feature in north and east Somerset, but has nothing to do with a long straw finish. Just a means of strengthening the eaves.
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Leeves Cottage, Weston super Mare… This tiny building, attached to a restaurant, is the remaining section of a seaside retreat. Built around 1790 (not as some say in 1774), on the dunes, overlooking the Bristol Channel. It’s builder, one Reverend Leeves, placed his cottage on large tree trunks, straight on the sand… And it’s now one of this resort’s oldest buildings. An accomplished musician and composer, he was Rector of Wrington from 1779 until 1828. The upper engraving dates from 1805, two thirds of the original thatch has already disappeared . The bottom image from around 1930, depicts a scene that is similar to the cottage today (opposite); except the summerhouse has gone, and there is considerably more traffic… New Photo; copyright & thanks, Jo Turner (Creative Commons Licence).



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Near Bath… At Hinton Charterhouse. A combed thatch roof, with a rather formidable Edwardian lady keeping an eye on the photographer. Today thatch is found even closer to the city, at Newton St Loe, as depicted in a very neat thatch below.

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Down Somerset’s eastern side…The upper image shows a quiet corner of Mells, a village with much thatching. With combed wheat reed being used throughout. But the large pub at Castle Cary, is the only thatch in this attractive small town.


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Pantile country…The 1930’s photo of Glastonbury, on the left, shows ‘the last bit of thatch in the High Street‘. This was the street that John Cannon saw the spar maker being whipped down, two centuries before. This roof is partially covered with a famous Somerset product, the Bridgwater pantile. These were exported all over the world and surely spelt the end for many a local thatch. But more than a few are still to be found around Bridgwater, including the right hand house at North Newton. Which is four centuries old.



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Down south… Immaculate combed wheat reed at Hinton St George and a toll house near Chard, in the lower image. Both show well the plain roofs and butt up ridges of the South Western thatching tradition. The Hinton property was remodelled in Georgian times, with walls of local honey coloured Ham Hill stone. The toll house was handily placed to collect money on the old London to Exeter road. Two other thatched ones remain in the county, at Stanton Drew and Chilton Polden.

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On the coast… At East Quantoxhead. A 1940’s roof showing combed wheat reed old and new. This cottage remains, along with many others in west Somerset. including the cottage on the right, at Burton…



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thatch englandExmoor thatch… Above, at Luccombe; the cottage by the church acted as the village school for a while. In the foreground stands a feature found here and in neighbouring north Devon; a round chimney on an outside wall. It also occurs in parts of Wales. One of several building techniques, including combed thatch, that span the Bristol Channel. The right hand cottage lies in Exford. Thatching hereabouts has much in common with work in Devon, being farther west than Exeter…. Below is the Royal Oak at Winsford, still welcoming visitors today. I’m not sure if the dog, in this old image, is giving a welcome or a warning!

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Finally, politics, power and thatching…

If a thatched cottage has a function above all others, that surely is to keep the occupants warm and dry. But not everyone was built, with that as the main intention… In Somerset’s Milborne Port, quite a few thatched properties owe their creation to a more unusual motive. Political power.

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Altruistic thatch… Hardly; the century old cottages shown here, were created with an ulterior motive…


In the early nineteenth century, this settlement was already an ancient town, with the right to elect two members of parliament. A typical Rotten Borough; but this one was more democratic than most, as the vote was held by every male householder… These individuals were feted and feasted, before every election, by all sides, to secure their votes.

Until in 1819, the Whig party, known as the Blues ; controlled by one Lord Darlington, hit upon what seemed a good idea. Of building extra cottages and filling them with supporters. An estate of around seventy five houses, was thus constructed. Unlimited amounts of money and cider, being poured into this Newtown project… Every cottage was thatched, in the hope of obtaining the votes, of the local thatching families; the Newmans, the Helliers and the Frosts.

But this was a forlorn hope. As during the first six months, of building the new estate, these families also fixed £97.oo worth of combed wheat reed, for the other political interest… This was the Tory party of Red and Green, headed by the Marquess of Anglesey. To combat their rival, they to had started building projects of their own, all over the borough. The Marquess, incidentally, was the gent who had his leg blown off; sitting next to Wellington, at the Battle of Waterloo… His first building project was Waterloo Crescent.

For fixing nearly a hundred pounds worth of combed wheat reed, the thatchers were paid £47.oo. A similar ratio, of labour to materials, that was found, in Edward Freke’s bill of 1771; examined in the page on neighbouring Dorset. Which is the reverse, of what would be found, in a modern thatcher’s bill.

As they kept to an established rate of charges, it seems the thatchers, in Milborne Port, were a fairly honest bunch. As well as politically neutral…

These building and thatching activities continued, until Darlington gave up and sold out to his rival. The town lost it’s M.P.s and it’s influence, in the electoral reforms of the 1830’s, sinking into the obscurity of a village. But the legacy, of some attractive cottages remains; to mark the struggle between two Regency power brokers.

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Newtown, then and now… Lord Darlington’s project, quickly became known as ‘Bluetown’… The builders being allowed to create some quite quirky cottages. The upper image, shows the three story ‘Castle’, in around 1905. With the thatched water tank, or ’Pump House’ in the background. The lower photo, shows a wintry scene. Around a century later.

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