Thatch in Early Names and Places

Thackers, Theakers & Thackthwaite

Thatched Place Names… Why so few?

Part of the legacy, left by the peoples who inherited Roman Britannia, are the names, of the towns, villages, hills and fields, that we still use today. Very many incorporate aspects of the agricultural life our ancestors followed. Wheat and rye, hazel and ash, field and wood, all crop up in differing forms, in many place names. But the early, English speaking inhabitants of these islands, gave us surprisingly few names, that relate to thatch or thatching. Which is intriguing, as the vast majority of Britons then had a very close association with the craft…

Names that locate a ‘thatched homestead’, are rare indeed. Thakeham in Sussex and Berkshire’s Thatcham, are two. And still have examples of the thatcher’s art. But why so few locations, when thatch is supposed to have kept the weather at bay; for the vast majority of our forebears. The answer, probably lies in the question.

It would have been pointless and very confusing, to say you lived in the ‘thatched farm over the hill’, when all the farms over the hill were covered in the same way. Better to have your settlement, ‘near the ashwood’ or ‘by the crooked stream’

thatch history

Thatch at Thatcham… Alongside the Roman road, from London to Bath. These attractive cottages, are old enough to have seen everyone, from Samuel Pepys to Charles Dickens, trundle past; in their coaches, to take the Bath waters.

The various thatching materials our ancestors used, are also found in place names; but again not in any great numbers. Reeds are mentioned in a few places. Redmire and Reedness, in Yorkshire, recall a valuable source of material. As expected, Norfolk has a Reedham, ‘a place of reeds’; a resource still very much in use today.

The Norse settlers, in Cumberland, have left us two Thackthwaites; ‘an area of land supplying thatch’. A visit to either village will show, that the land in question, was probably next to water; providing a useful crop of rushes or reeds. Plants much in evidence today, and a guide to the type of thatch, used in the Lake District.

Over in Yorkshire, Thackside, in Newtondale; ‘a stream with thatching reed’; hints at a further aquatic location of materials…

thatch history

Signs…The two Thackthwaithes, in Cumbria, lost their thatch long ago. However, the name lingers on…

Another area, where ‘thatch was collected’; is Thaxted, in Essex. Here it may originally have been reeds, from the nearby River Chelmer. But later straw, was the material of choice…

thatching history britain

Signs… Thaxted, still has thatch, as well as a splendid sign. Both a common sight, in the eastern counties of England.

Thatch… Not The Only Name in Town.

The attentive reader may have noticed, that ‘Thatch’, was rendered, in differing ways, in the various place names, mentioned above… This is not down to the vagaries of old spelling, but due to the use of similar, but separate names for the craft. These were, ‘Thack‘ and ‘Theak’. Until a century or so ago; the craft was practiced by Thackers and Theakers; as well as Thatchers.

The first two names have all but disappeared from modern usage; however, the diligent academics who collected and collated, ‘The English Dialect Dictionary,’ ensured their survival. This immense work, was published at the end of the nineteenth century. It gives a wealth of information; which has provided the backbone of this section…

These were not purely local names. They were both used over a similar, large region; that stretched from central Scotland, on down to the counties of the North Midlands, in England. It covers most of an area, that used thatch in what I have named the ‘Northern Tradition’. This is the area where the stobbing method of thatching was widely used, turf ridging was common, and thatched gable ends rarely swung out over the end walls…

A whole range of thatching terms, employed these names. So a spar became a ‘Thacking-Peg’, a straw rope, a ‘Theaking-Band’. A roof in need of covering, was ‘Thackless’ and a thatched cottage was a ‘Thacky‘… There was a little variation. A ‘Thacker’, could also be a ‘Thackster’; or in parts of Scotland a ‘Theeker’.

These are old names, coming from both Norse and Old English. So old, as to predate other forms of roofing, as eventually ‘Thack’ simply meant a roof. Tiles became ‘Thack-Tiles’ and slates, ‘Thack-Stones’. With ‘Theak’ also being used to describe, the act of covering up. So a ‘Theaking Snow‘, was a deep blanket, and much colder, than a cosy ‘Thacky’…

Thatching with tiles… The advert opposite, from the Caledonian Mercury of 1732, tells its own story. With the term ‘thatching’ now being used alongside any form of roofing. The ‘pantyles’ here being for sale and ready for use in the Edinburgh area.

thatch history

In the land of the Thacker…. St Bees in Cumberland, around 1830. Full of circular, ‘theaked’ stacks and distant ‘thackys’. A saying hereabouts, suggests throwing a young ’Barn’ onto the roof… if he manages to stay up there; he’ll make a good ‘thacker’… Hopefully any roof was not covered by a ‘theaking snow’, when the lad was tossed up!