Thatching Ricks & Stacks

Almost History… Covering the Crops and Saving the Craft…


From early times part of the thatcher’s remit, was to cover and protect much more than the dwelling house or barn. As has been shown, in the page on the later middle ages, thatchers were familiar figures, on some very grand, medieval building sites. Here they covered half completed buildings, every autumn, against a winter‘s frost and rain. But before and for a long time after this period; the craft’s most important role, was the annual protection of next year’s food and fodder…

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Not corn, not hay; but hurdles… In the past this would have been a common sight; thatch keeping everyday objects dry. This rare survival is at Priddy, high on the Mendip Hills in Somerset. The venue for an annual sheep fair; that moved away from the Black Death, at nearby Wells in the 1340’s. This stack, of old style sheep hurdles, has stood here for a great many years. Coming to symbolise the right of the village, to hold the fair…



Until the middle of the last century, perhaps more than half of all the thatching carried out in Britain, was this type of work… Stacks and ricks dotted the countryside and filled the farmyard. Cereals of every type were stored, awaiting the thresher; hay was kept dry for a winter’s feeding; all safe under a thatched covering. This employment kept the craft alive, when domestic thatching was in serious decline…

But then rick and stack thatching became a redundant art, in just a few years; when the combined harvester and the hay baler, became the common means of harvesting crops… With all this farm work removed, only the recent protection given by listing the majority of thatched buildings; stopped the craft of thatching disappearing altogether. This change taking place, in the couple of decades, after 1950. So the art of rickthatching still lies within living memory, but is becoming history…

(The terms ‘stack’ or ‘rick‘, are quite interchangeable, the first being a more northerly term.)

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Covering the crops… In 1880’s Sussex above and in the 1930’s opposite. The working methods used throughout Britain, were very similar.

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Many shapes and sizes… Round ricks mostly contained cereals, of one type or another; but not always. Square or rectangular ricks, tended to be of hay. Like the huge stack above; at Glenurquhart, on Cromarty’s Black Isle. Building such stacks, out of loose hay, took great skill. This structure being as big, as a good sized pair of cottages… Which needed quickly thatching, before the weather changed…


Opposite is a much smaller corn rick, under construction. In the background lies a partly thatched rick, with a very long ladder… This rick is finished with a rope top ridge; pointing to Wales as a likely spot, for this work, in the late 1930’s.

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The craft of rick thatching was undoubtedly vital, but it was not the most difficult part of the thatcher’s trade. Many farm workers could do the task, leading quite a few into full time thatching…There was little variation, in the directional thatching method used. This was fast, well paid work. Several older thatchers have told me, there was more money to be made in the rickyard, than on any house roof… At the end of the Victorian age, the villagers of Lustleigh, on Dartmoor; complained their roofs were left; as the thatchers were always: ‘away at the ricks‘…

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Well paid work, in 1817… This thatcher’s bill concerns the covering of cereal stacks. And the thatcher seems to have done fairly well from the job; even if he had to wait six weeks for his money… The total area to cover, with these four stacks, would have been between 10 and 12 squares (93 and 110 sq. metres); of rick thatching. The same amount of coverage, as needed for a good sized house. But this work was much thinner and faster. Our man could well have completed a stack in two days, giving him well over three shillings (36d) a day. Much better than the daily rate of 20d; noted for the county of Norfolk, by the Georgian Agricultural Reporters. The rate for this county is relevant, as this seems to be where the work was done. Although no location is mentioned in the bill; the thatcher supplied ‘Broaches’ and not thatching ‘spars‘; which points to a location in the eastern counties of England. Also, records with such an unusual first name are few. A Saddleton Baley was baptised in 1756, in Great Melton; to the south west of Norwich. So this thatcher may well have been aged around sixty, and able to leave only his mark, when he was finally paid; for thatching Mr Mitchell’s stacks; in the autumn of 1817…


Below is another Norfolk account, from the same year… Only one haystack, this time and this thatcher was only charging a shilling (12d), for each square of work. With no allowance for beer… The reason for the price difference, between these bills, is lost in time…

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A typical method of working, was to thatch in strips; starting at the eaves. A layer of material, (almost always cereal straw) between four and six inches (100 and 150mm) thick was then applied; overhanging the eaves by around half it’s length. Succeeding layers overlapped each other by two thirds, until the top was reached… The material was then generally fixed from the outside; usually with one line of fixings to each layer. There was a great deal of variation in fixing. Liggers and spars, were commonly used. But a vast amount of thatching was done, by sparring straw rope or twine into place… Longer spars were often used, for extra firmness. Many preferring these Yard Spars, of three feet (900mm) or more.



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A common sight… Covering a hayrick, in the late 1830’s This slightly stylised image, shows a rather thick thatch. But portrays a scene, familiar to almost everyone in Britain, at this time. And for more than a century after…

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The art of thatching roofs… These four images appeared in an article in ‘The Sketch’ magazine, published in October 1898. They show some straightforward work, fixing the thatch with tarred twine, held by spars. Long straw is being used, as ever this is prepared by yealming. The thatcher shown here sports a snazzy hat, and is too young to be the acquaintance of the article’s author. This gent was ‘nearly seventy years of age… rather stiff in the joints perhaps, and with a body bent and twisted for he has met with many accidents- a broken leg never properly set, a broken arm, a fractured collar-bone, his shoulders out of joint several times… all caused by falls. From this it will be seen that the work is dangerous…’ It certainly was, for this poor chap! The finished ricks look very neat, and seem to have been completed in the Berkhampstead area of Hertfordshire.


A couple of inventions, designed to speed up rick thatching, came along in due course. A giant sewing machine, and later a curved needle…But neither really changed the basic working methods.

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More than a few examples of the opposite, Victorian invention have survived… Repairs, making use of the sewn ‘mats’ of straw these machines created, are still occasionally seen. The ‘Thatching Needle’ was a development of the 1930’s. A lot of these seem to have survived; but none seem very worn… So the more traditional methods of fixing were probably faster. This invention was also expensive. Priced at just over a pound; which was more than a couple of day’s pay…

Rick thatching was always important work. A leaky roof was inconvenient, but the loss of the following year’s bread supply was quite another matter… The importance of protecting ricks, in both the First and Second World Wars meant that thatchers were not conscripted into the armed forces. They were given certain farms to work on; and forbidden to do any other type of work, when the ricks needed attention. And as seen in the previous page, many Land Girls also took up the craft, in both World Wars.

Newspapers, in Septmber 1915 reported… ‘’Skilled Farm Workers” Starred.”… Lord Selborne, President of the Board of Agriculture, speaking at a meeting at Norwich…. said they had approached Lord Kitchener with a view to preventing recruits being taken from the skilled labour of a farm, such as foremen, stockmen, black- smiths, engine drivers, and skilled thatchers, and in consequence…. Lord Kitchener had decided to ‘’ star” all these classes of men…. and not only would they not be approached by the recruiting sergeant, but if the men offered themselves they would be refused.’’ But many thatchers did join the ranks, in both world wars. The shortage, thus created, led to some retired workers climbing the ladder once more and ricks appeared in some unusual places… As seen in images from The Imperial War Museum.

DARBY AND JOAN WAR WORKERS: OAPS CONTRIBUTE TO THE WAR EFFORT, M

‘OAPs contribute to the war effort, in Essex 1942… 71 year old John Benteman (left) and 69 year old Harry Stalley hard at work thatching a hay rick in the village of Manuden…. they are both experts at this job’…© IWM (D 9250)

THE GARDENS OF KEW: THE WORK OF KEW GARDENS IN WARTIME, SURREY,

Thatching at Kew, 1943… This large hayrick was built by J A Simon, ‘a refugee from Alderney in the Channel Islands’. It is now having a slice cut from it, by the gent on top of the ladder. The rick was built along Channel Islands lines. The rick behind is in the process of contruction, under a temporary sheet. ‘Kew cuts its own hay for the five Suffolk Punch horses which are used in the garden’. © IWM (D 16508)

 

Coating stacks and ricks really was a nationwide craft. Even in areas with little or no domestic thatching, plenty of thatched examples were to be seen, in both rural and urban situations, as in the days of horse power, thousands of city hacks needed fodder and bedding. Which if stored in bulk, had to be kept dry. So common were these structures, that they lie in the background in many old images. But even if in the background; they allow a modern observer to see, just how widespread the art of rickthatching once was…

So, starting at the very top of Britain; and heading south… A look at a lost landscape.

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A croft on Shetland… Near Lerwick.; around 1900. With thatched barns and byres; and surrounded with small stacks. Locally known as ‘skrus’. The thatch is fixed with weighted ropes. Like all thatching ,on these islands… The cereal crop they contain, would be thrashed out over the winter, as and when needed.

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Another croft, around 1900… This time at Glenorchy in Argyll. These rather tall stacks, need a little propping up… They are thatched and fixed, in a very similar manner to the croft roof. No doubt, all done by the crofter himself.

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Into the Lowlands… At Braid Farm. The city of Edinburgh, in the 1920’s, can be seen a little way in the distance… Farms on a city’s edge, always had a ready sale for fodder and bedding; when horse power ruled the roads.

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‘East Brunton Stackyard, Autumn 1938’… These splendid examples, are certainly not in the background, in this image. Being used as an advertisement, for the fertilizer used on the farm; at Gosforth, north of Newcastle. The season’s cereal crop is stored in the conical stacks. The hay, in the huge rectangular ones… One of these has a vent, built into the stack apex. Stopping the grass from overheating, in it’s centre, and catching fire… A Mr George Oliver is mentioned, as having much to do with the construction of all these stacks. He certainly had his work cut out…

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‘On the Rothay, Westfell in the distance’… This rare image, of thatch in the old county of Westmorland, shows a large hayrick, in around 1880.

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Urban thatching, around 1900… In the centre of Derby; on the banks of the Derwent. The contents of the large rick, on the extreme left; were probably brought by barge. After stacking, the local thatcher made all watertight, with thatch held by spared twine. This would have been a familiar scene, in towns and cities of all sizes.

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Lincolnshire… immaculate work at Martin. But note the prop on the left hand rick… Perhaps a case of stacking a little too high? The thatcher here has also finished the hip ends with a neat decoration.

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Mr Sturgess, thatcher, of Blatherwick & his rick ornaments’…From a display board of around 1930. Our Northants. thatcher states ”The Squire is very particular and will have new ones every year.”

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Across the ricks and fields, to a dreaming spire… It could be anywhere in lowland Britain. These neatly thatched ricks are, in this case, on Weston Hill, looking towards Burford in Oxfordshire. A scene unchanged for centuries. Captured by Henry Taunt, in around 1905. In 1809 this county’s corn ricks were admired by the Agricultural Reporter, having ‘straight and clipt edges’.

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Lawhaden Castle, 1830… The Pembrokeshire cornrick is on the right. In the language of Wales, a rick was a ’Tas’… Conical ones being called a ‘Mwdwl’, or simply a ‘Reek’. Whatever the name, it is noticeable, that the general shape of ricks and stacks, is very similar, throughout Britain. Having much more uniformity than domestic thatching…

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By the sea, at Aberporth around 1910… The Cardiganshire hayricks are on the left. A close look, will see these finished with a rope top ridge. A popular finish in Wales, to all types of thatching. In this case, combined with sparred straw ropes and twine. This roping, was noted in the Agricultural Report, of 1794. Being good enough, ‘to make it almost impossible for the most boisterous of weather to affect it‘.

This type of rick appears in the background, of the earlier image, of the two gents making a corn stack, hinting at their location. Which is the same location, for the images below. A small hayrick, with no ropetop finish.

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Cardiff hayrick at Fairwater… ‘Swiss Cottage’, on St Fagans Road; built in the late 1890’s with uniquely twisted chimneys, new when this image was taken.The owners may have kept a large number of horses, as they needed a large quantity of hay… From the other side of town comes a very early record of this aspect of thatching. The 1316 records, for the manor of Roath show…’Autumn. In reaping, sheaving and binding 30 acres 3 roods of corn, 36 acres 3½ roods of beans, 7½ acres of barley, and 50½ acres of oats…. In 1 rickman hired for 3½ days to make 3 ricks in the sheepfold, 10½d., taking 3d. a day. In 1 man hired to thatch the said ricks, for 10 days 2s., taking 3d. a day. In 1 man serving him, hired for the same time, 15d.; 1½d. a day. In straw bought for thatching the said ricks, 2s. 8d. In rods bought for the same, 10d.”.

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A Sussex Farm… This photograph, by Harold Moore, shows an unusual method of fixing the thatch. By using only long thatching spars, as pegs. The thatcher is also using combed wheat reed, not the usual long straw, found hereabouts. This suggests a later date for this work, of say around 1960, when long straw was in decline, as a thatching material.

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Crapnell Farm, Dinder; July 27th 1912… This view of some Somerset work, was sent to one Mabel Butt, by her ‘Schoolmate’ Amy. And gives a date, some names as well as a location, for this thatching; which is rare. Amy writes…‘This is your brother Ollie thatching, Willie Perry is carrying reed up the ladder, Benny tying up spars, Archie propping up the other rick. & ‘Misgrove’ digging postholes. Percy was just outside the picture.’ The Butt family had owned this farm for several generations; Ollie being born in 1888, his siblings in the decade either side of this date. The ‘reed’ mentioned, is combed wheat, the material of choice, in the West Country.

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In deepest Devon… The village of Ilsington, below Dartmoor’s southern edge. Thatched hayrick’s await a winter’s feeding. Creating several small ricks, instead of one large one, had some advantages. Small hayricks heat up less, with a lower risk of fire. And if one should ignite, for any reason, the others could well be saved. Also only a smallish amount of hay, need be cut open and exposed to the weather.

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Channel Island Ricks… A Jersey corn rick, is on the left. Raised safely from the rats; on staddlestones. Wood, for spars, was scarce on these islands. So the thatcher held the thatch bottom edge, with the metal tyre, from an old wagon wheel. The top is woven. Ricks here, were often made from small, reusable, bundles of tied combed straw; called ‘Gluyaux’. .. The rick, on the right, is from Guernsey. This really is in the background. The photographer being more interested in the fine bullock plough… Two centuries ago, small ricks were known locally, as ‘Tas’. (Interestingly, the same as in Wales.) The rick thatcher being a ‘Tasseur’…

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Rickthatching on the Isles of Scilly…Fashion historians would love this picture, from the Gibson archive; but to us the gent in the top hat, on the rick is of more interest. He seems to be in the process of thatching, over that years hay harvest. The hay itself is being used as a covering, not the best material, as it soaks up water as well as shedding it. Showing how limited the supply of better thatching materials must have been. Both ricks and houses are thatched with the same roped method, if not material; in around 1880.


Finally, some metropolitan thatch…

In various pages on this site, mention has been made of the continuation of the thatcher’s craft, in and around London; long after thatch was banned from houses, in 1212… The majority of this work would have involved directional thatching, on temporary stacks and structures. Direct evidence for this is scant, but records do show this work, in an indirect way…

A scene, similar to that depicted in the riverside image, shown above at Derby, was described in a court case in September 1759.

It appears that one John Hilliar was killed, while building a rick of hay ’20 or 30 feet square’, belonging to a Mr Smart, the hay being unloaded out of a barge at Limehouse. After some horse play John fell off and later died. After standing trial for murder Richard Smith, a fellow hay stacker, was convicted of manslaughter. Leaving behind the records of his trial…

Haystacks also provided shelter for those without a bed for the night, but not always a safe one…
‘’On Saturday Night I was going to Chelsea, in the first of the five fields, from Buckingham House, hard by the King’s Head, I saw an old Man lying under a Hayrick,…. and as it was near the Houses, and I was benighted, I thought I might safely lie there too; so I went to the other side of the Rick, and laid myself down, and fell asleep. About 1 in the Morning, a little man came and snatch’d my Pocket-book out of my Coat-pocket.’’ This was the night of Saturday July 15th 1734…

The victim, William Payton was cut and beaten by various known villains, including Samuel Steele aka ‘Smoaky Jack’; their activities ended on the gallows at Tyburn… Buckingham House became a palace in due course, and the ‘five fields’ and their hayricks disappeared…

Ricks could also provide a hiding place. In 1779, Ann Green gave evidence…
‘As I was coming up from Birmingham to London on the 6th or 7th of June; at about the o’clock at night, being alone and near a farm house, …. near Tottenham-court turnpike, the prisoner stopped me, and asked me where I was going; I said to London, and enquired of him how far it was; he said it was near a mile; he asked me if I had any money;….; he asked me to show it him, which I did, and he took it out of my hand; but before he snatched the money out of my hand, he struck me a blow on the face;…., he ran away with it into a farmyard that was close by’.

Ann alerted the local watchmen, who searched the farm. ‘….there was a hay-stack on the outside of the yard almost finished, I searched round it, and we found two men, and pulled them out. We asked the girl if either of them was the man; she said no. We had almost given it up, when one of the men turning the hay from the bottom of the rick found the prisoner lying there…’ However the prisoner was eventually acquitted…

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‘A view of Hampstead, in Middlesex, from Pond Street…’ A conical thatched rick is shown, at the southern entrance to the village; in around 1780. John Middleton in his 1813 Agricultural Report, noted, ’There are no hay stacks more neatly formed, nor better secured, than those of Middlesex.’

 

In the same year as Ann Green had her misfortune, a robbery took place at The Angel public house in Islington. The landlord having a hayrick in his adjoining yard; no doubt containing fodder for his horses… In 1832 a thatcher was living at Hedge Row, Upper Street, in this parish.

In 1784 a certain William Cole was attacked returning to Whitechapel, from Stepney, his daughter gave evidence that they lived ‘close by’ a haystack…

The hay, in the ricks scattered about London, also proved a magnet for the criminal class…
William Walters and James Wilcox were indicted, the first, for feloniously stealing, on the 12th of June (1796), twelve trusses of hay, value 36s. the property of Thomas Paget and Joseph Stevenson.

Joseph Stevenson stated…
I am in partnership with Mr. Thomas Paget, in Wardour-street, Soho, we are distillers…. it was taken from a rick of mine…. at Kentish-Town which belongs to Mr. Paget and myself. William Walters spent six months in ‘The House of Correction’; James Wilcox was transported for 14 years…

The thatchers who worked in this area also crop up…
In November 1844, a witness Henry Bell Collison gave evidence…‘ I am a thatcher. I live in Albion Place, Londonwall’.
In 1828 ‘Robert Barton of 3 Davies Street Berkeley Square oilman and thatcher’; was insured with the Sun Life office.
Earlier, a ‘J. Palmer of Friar Place, Acton, thatcher’; had featured in an advert for ‘American Soothing Syrup’; which had evidently helped save his child… ‘to the astonishment of the neighbourhood’; in 1816…

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‘Westminster, from Chelsea Fields.’ In around 1820… A least one large thatched rick takes up the middle distance. Mr Middleton, the Agricultural Reporter, states that a ‘thatcher and labourer together’ cost nine pence, for every acre’s worth of hay, harvested, stacked and thatched, two to three miles from the city centre. Early May being the best time for mowing, in Islington, Marylebone and Paddington… in 1813. Thus a contemporary view, from the top of Westminster Abbey, would have revealed lots of open space; dotted with thatched ricks… It often comes as a surprise, to realise just how small London was, for such a long time.


A century later, various thatchers claimed exemption from military conscription, during the First World War, including those from…
Ruislip Common. Occupation: Hay Tyer, Thatcher and Small Holder.
Sudbury Croft Road, Harrow. Occupation: Gardener, Thatcher, Stacker.
Church Road, Hanwell. Occupation: Thatcher, Rick Builder, Hay Cutter and Agricultural Worker.
Church End, Hendon. Occupation: Haybinder and Thatcher.
Tachbrook Road, Southall. Occupation: Hay and Straw Binder, Rick Builder, Thatcher and Carman.

Most of these gents worked on the ricks and stacks, in the old county of Middlesex; areas now mainly lost to modern development…

 

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‘The Green, at Wood Green…’ In around 1910. In the field, next to the pub; there are thatched ricks. A few miles, and over a century on from the rick, shown at Hampstead. Middlesex still had a resident thatcher, until the 1960’s…