Women & the Craft of Thatching

From Medieval Labourer to Land Girl


The attentive reader will have noted, in other pages, how often in the past women were involved; both in the harvesting and use of thatch. Perhaps the idea of women working in the fields may not come as much of a surprise, but the role of women in the building trade, is less well documented…

On the site… When women started working on construction sites, is unknown… From the surviving accounts, it would seem, that when a medieval thatcher was working; the chances are he had some female helpers. In the page on thatching in the later middle ages; the labours of one female assistant have already been seen, working for a fourteenth century thatcher. Here ecclesiastical employers, at Ripon in Yorkshire, were paying 5d a day in 1399; to a thatcher working in the town’s Cornhill district. His female helper received 15d, for five days: ‘serving the thatcher‘.

Later records, give us some names for the thatcher’s assistants… In 1443, Katherine Coke and Alice Carleton each received 2½d a day. For: ‘drawing thatch and serving the thatchers‘; at Hedon in Yorkshire. They yealmed 2d worth of barley straw and mixed the mortar for the ridge. And one Somerset clerk’s wife, helped out with some thatching at Bath, in the early sixteenth century…

 

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Three women, four days… This invoice, dated 1793, records the employment of ‘ three women four days at 9d a day’. As ever it seems these ladies, working at Sherbourne in Gloucestershire; were labouring for a thatcher; who was earning double their wage…


The working setup of a thatcher, with labouring women, was described in neighbouring Wiltshire in the 1870’s, by local writer Richard Jefferies. In ‘Wildlife in a Southern County’, he describes his local thatcher as a man of ‘no little consequence… the most important perhaps of the village craftsmen.’; full of ‘infinite gossip’. The author noted that this thatcher had things well organised. On both ricks and houses he stayed up the ladder, laying thatch. An assistant was engaged, just bringing up full yokes of long straw and thatching spars. He was in turn, being helped by two or three women; doing the backbreaking jobs, of yealming and yoke filling. This gang must have covered quite an area of roof, in a long nineteenth century working day.

By the end of the nineteenth century, better paid factory and domestic work, gave women building workers some choice. As their wages were always less than the men and the scope of learning any skilled building trade was denied them; they seemingly grasped the new job opportunities, and soon disappeared from the scene…

Some women worked for free. Those married to a thatcher often helped out. In 1900, a Hampshire clergyman found most of the long straw yealming; being done by the thatcher’s wives… Over five hundred years, after the woman from Ripon, had yealmed for her thatcher…

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Helping out… Another pair of hands, are always useful for a thatcher. This Edwardian wife, was certainly doing more than just posing. For the Dorset photographer, Mr W. Pouncy; in around 1905

On the Land… Apart from working in the trade, women were also closely involved in the production of cereal straw thatch.

The gathering and storage of the harvest, could literally be a matter of life or death, in a subsistence economy. In times past everyone took part in harvesting the grain and thatch for the coming year. In 1809, the Agricultural Reporter noted, in Oxfordshire that. ‘All the women about Baldon reap in harvest…’ For working every daylight hour, they received ten shillings a week. Men earning more; showing the darker side of farm work, for women.

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Harvest time… At Edenhall Estate, Cumberland, in the year 1782.

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Harvest time… Near Invererary Castle, in the early nineteenth century. Everyone was needed to reap and gather, in this Argyll field. In 1797, the Agricultural Reporter noted, that it was a Berwickshire farm worker’s wife, who paid their cottage rent. By the work she did, at planting and harvest times.



As late as the 1920’s, it was remarked how deserted many villages became; during the late summer. The whole rural community were in the harvest fields… Anyone and everyone took part. The author, Ralph Whitlock remembered his father being pleased he’d got.. ‘Old Sergeant and Mrs Endicott’, to lend a hand. Old Sergeant was an old soldier; with only one arm… The farmer’s weren’t that fussy. While the binder reaped the harvest, Mrs Edicott and her companion followed the machine; stooking the sheaves. In Ralph Whitlock’s part of Wiltshire, these were called Hiles. As he says: ‘the more hilers the better’

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Taking a break… In a Berkshire harvest field. A scene captured, by a Mr Vasey, in around 1910. This ‘Mrs Edicott’, is well prepared, with her stout apron and hob nailed boots. The young lad would not have skipped school; as academic institutions, have shut down in the summer for centuries. To free up some labour, for the vital harvest.



Once the harvest was in, many West Country farm workers, especially women, were employed in the production of combed wheat reed. Combing by hand being the most common work. A further method, consisted of Drawing the reed; out of what was often called a Reed Press Thomas Hardy, has his Durberville heroine Tess, engaged in this work… ‘Putting on their gloves all set to work in a row in front of the press, an erection formed of two posts connected by a cross beam, under which the sheaves to be drawn from were laid ears outward, the beam being pegged down by pins in the uprights, and lowered as the sheaves diminished…’

Tess pulled handfuls of straw out of the press; being under pressure they came out straight and clean. When she had sufficient, she cut off the ears with a hook. Placing the stems in a forming bundle. (These ears, would have later had a normal thrashing.)

For the unmarried rural woman, it was either a case of working as a servant or in the fields. But the coming of the railways opened new horizons; women left the villages in droves. As with their sisters, in the building trades, new employment opportunities gave some choices. In the latter part of nineteenth century, my grandfather’s generation, took full advantage of these new circumstances. Only he and his brother stayed in their village. Every one of his twelve sisters took the train, from the middle of Somerset to London; making their lives there. Retracing the working patterns of their forbears, evidently held no attraction…

Your country needs you; twice… With the outbreak of the First World War, the gathering and storage of crops, quickly became a matter of national survival. The menace to food supplies, by German U boats, was just as acute as in the Second World War. In 1914, the country only produced half it’s food…

Radical measures were called for, then enacted. Five days after the outbreak of war, all suffragette prisoners were released; unconditionally. Mrs Pankhurst said: ‘What is the use of fighting for a vote if we have not got a country to vote in.’ Countless more taboos were broken, when a Women’s Land Army was eventually established. The volunteers quickly being named, Land Girls.

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Sign up… A desperate government needed help, for all aspects of food production. As this leaflet from 1917 shows.



Now, the descendants of many of those women, who had left the country for a better life; were heading for the farms and fields. And things were now very different. This generation, drove the new tractors, worked the thrashers and thatched the ricks. Around a hundred female thatchers, were trained and working by 1918. They received a uniform and twenty two shillings a week…

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Threshers above, Thatchers below…

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thatch history


Training up… Land Girls during a two week training course, near Framlingham, in Suffolk. Towards the end of the First World War. A trainee, one Daisy Brock, noted that the course lasted two weeks. Starting at eight each morning, the volunteers firstly learnt the art of yealming long straw, and carrying full yokes aloft to the ricks. Then, instruction on thatching over the rick and trimming their work followed. A competition, to find the best rick was held at the course’s end. Lady Cranworth gave out the prizes. With the local farmers giving out some kind compliments … Photos; Capt. Schreiber

thatch history

thatch history

 


The image below, shows another competition, each girl having to complete a strip of work, from eaves to ridge. Photo; © IWM (Q 54604), thanks.

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At the end of the war, German civilians were starving; the British were not; having just gathered and stored, the biggest cereal harvest in their history. On this occasion helped by fifteen thousand public schoolboys. If any of these helped the new female thatchers, the ghosts of Katherine Coke and Alice Carleton, must have surely raised a smile…

In 1939, the start of the Second World War, saw Britain having to plough up two million acres, just to get back to the production levels of 1914… But at least a new Women’s Land Army was soon up and running. Once again volunteers were needed; aged between 19 and 30. One third of the new recruits came from the cities of The North, London and it’s suburbs. These city girls often proved the best workers. In all his years on a Somerset farm, the most adept rick builder and thatcher my uncle ever saw; was a Land Girl from Stepney…

And in Northern Wales….

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‘’Women’s Land Army thatching demonstration at Gwernygo’’… These four images were taken by Geoff Charles on 14th August 1943. Wartime ricks, in the old county Merioneth needed protecting; and it seems quite a few locals have given up their Saturday, to see the Lands Girls at work… They are being shown the use of patent ‘Darby Thatching Needle’ which was claimed to do away with the use of thatching spars. (There is more on this tool in the page on Rick Thatching.)
It was also claimed that ‘a novice can make a weatherproof job with it’; but the ‘Girls’, both on and off the ladder, seem to be very confident at showing off their skill with the implement. Geoff Charles has captured their audience well; interested and perhaps slightly overawed… Photos; under Creative Commons Licence, courtesy of National Library of Wales.

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wales land army thatching

And down in Devon…

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Trained up… This Second World War Land Girl, seems well qualified, her thatching looks very tidy… The rick was very likely in Devon, with the thatch consisting of combed wheat reed; fixed with twisted straw ropes, held in place with extra long thatching spars. These ‘Yard Spars’, of 3 feet (900mm) or more in length, held better, in a soft rick, than normal, shorter ones.(Image courtesy of Tiverton Museum of Mid Devon Life, www.tivertonmuseum.org.uk)

The Land Army reached a peak, of around 80,000 members. A good number of these learning to thatch the all important ricks. But, as in the First World War, no Land Girl it seems, carried on the trade in the post war world…

We assume our modern society, is more open and equal, than what has gone before. But, still less than one per cent of today’s thatchers, are women…