Thatching in the Counties of Derby, Nottingham and the West Riding of Yorkshire

The ‘King of the Thatchers’ and a Travelling Architect

84aThis may seem an oddly shaped area; two counties and part of another. But apart from sharing many Northern thatching characteristics; this area’s thatching methods also once came under the close scrutiny of a very keen observer. One Charles Innocent, author and architect; dead these last eighty odd years and a guide worthy of following today.

The title of his book, dating from 1916, The Development of English Building Construction, explains it’s contents well. In it Mr Innocent gives thatching a good deal of space, providing a unique look at the trade, in the first years of the twentieth century. Most of his research took place around his Sheffield home and in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. An area today with few examples of the thatcher’s art. Most of what he found disappeared long ago; making his observations invaluable…


‘Thatched Cottage at Brinsworth’…. The thatch shown here lay six or so miles, from Charles Innocent’s Sheffield home and close to Treeton; where he closely examined a thatch, on the former medieval Manor House. Both thatches are long gone…

Two local thatchers, at least, were persuaded by this travelling architect, to empty their tool bags. Showing him and us, what type of work they were doing. In September 1911, a Nottinghamshire thatcher showed Charles Innocent his few tools. The first was a paddle shaped piece of wood; to which the thatcher had not given a name. He used it to: ‘bat’ in the eaves. Second was a fairly standard eaves knife; made from a scythe blade. A side rake and a pair of shears completed his toolkit. Also shown were some: ‘thack-pegs’ and ‘tar-band’; (spars and tarred twine).

These tools show our Nottinghamshire thatcher, used only long straw. There was no legget, in his kit for reed thatching. The first tool, shown to Charles Innocent, would be unfamiliar to most modern thatchers. Mr Innocent called this a: ‘Batting Board’ . Stating it was used to beat down new thatch and spars; by thatchers across the width of Southern Britain. I found a similar tool, around two centuries old, in a roof in South Somerset. This should not be confused with a legget; there are no groves or teeth, to drive reed into place. Instead this seems to have been a handy implement; for use on long straw roofs, ricks and repairwork.

In the same year, a thatcher in Derbyshire, had also been persuaded to show the tools of his craft. They were very similar to those used by the Nottinghamshire thatcher. The Derby man also had a long needle; for stitching on new work and another tool, he called a ‘Butteress’. This was used, when coating by the stobbing method, made of wood, long and narrow. A cleft in one end, was used to wrap the straw around, before pushing it up into the old coatwork. He also had his father’s metal version. From this thatcher’s collection of tools, we can deduce that he also used long straw; using both the standard and stobbing methods. This seems to almost be the southern limit for stobbing; a very common working method, in more northern areas…

thatch derbyshire

Derbyshire thatch… At Littleover in around 1890. The roof may or may not have been stobbed; but what is clear is the use of boarded gable ends. A common detail in this area.

In the West Riding, Charles Innocent was able to inspect two thatched roofs, in detail. To the north west of Sheffield, at Greno Wood Head, he found some farm buildings still thatched. The tenants of the farm had covered one, with straw laid on bracken. Copied, so they told him, from what they had seen in Derbyshire. The other structure had a layer of straw, weighted with pieces of turf; this was of the farmers own invention. Along with heavy branches, laid over the roof; the turf sods had stopped recent gales from causing damage.

No professional thatchers seem to have had a hand, in any of this work. This was the use of skills learnt thatching ricks; that enabled farmers and farm workers to keep their property dry…

Another material was noted, in south Yorkshire, where a small amount of heather thatching was done, by besom makers. Along with the use of bracken, in Derbyshire, a thatcher from that county, mentioned the former use of flax, as a covering. So it would seem the area had several thatching materials, a century ago; in common with much of northern Britain.

More conventional work was seen at Treeton, on the east side of the city. Here Mr Innocent was shown, what was alleged to be the old village manor house. As with many such buildings, it’s use had changed; being then occupied by a miner’s family. The oldest part of the building he saw, was of cruck construction. The thatch here was of straw, laid on turf sods, fixed by spars driven into the underlying turf. This is a method formally used, in most of the Northern area.

He dated a younger part of the roof to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Here a straw thatch was tied to wooden battens; in a standard long straw fashion. This was a type of work, described by Henry Best, over in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in 1641. As described in the History section.

The whole roof now had a thin repair coat. This was held in place with wire strands; fixed around sharpened wooden pegs, driven into the coatwork. These pegs were not conventional spars. The old picture of the cottage, near Dewsbury shows a similar finish. As already seen on this tour, the method also seems to have been quite popular, around the Manchester area and in Scotland. Often using more conventional spars. As with some of the other roofs he examined, this last coat, was probably the same type of work, used to thatch the local ricks.

thatch yorkshire

Near Dewsbury… An old image, of a thatch at Smithy Brook, with gables and ridge in mortar. The directional thatching is pegged down with wire. Whether Charles Innocent passed this way, we’ll never know, but this type of fixing was described by him. Most of the old images in this page, date from the time of his travels….

During his researches, our man travelled to some other counties, he was intrigued by the wide variation, in the methods and styles he found. He also heard quite a few tales. In Leicestershire he was told of an old craftsman; known as the; ‘king of the thatchers’. Named so, for all the improvements he had brought to the trade. To the lesser thatchers in the area, his fate could not have been much of an inspiration; as he had recently died, a pauper, in the workhouse…

Perversely, it was a good time for Charles Innocent to be carrying out his studies. As he was able to see the construction of so many old buildings, in great detail; many being either in a state of dereliction, or the process of demolition. He really thought the art of thatching was doomed. But I think he would be glad to know, that the modern thatcher still has work; some, less than ten miles, south of his home city….

This is the roof on the Revolution House, to the north of Chesterfield. Part of a former pub; where clandestine meetings plotted the Glorious Revolution, of 1688. The rest of Derbyshire’s thatch is thinly spread; villages to the south of Ashbourne have a few; especially picturesque Osmaston. Even more scattered, are the roofs in Nottinghamshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The suburbs of Nottingham contain some thatches. There are also some nice examples, in and around Knaresborough…


Revolutionary thatch… Above is the remaining part, of the old’ Cock and Pynot Inn’, at Whittington near Chesterfield. Seventy years ago, this thatch had a tiled ridge, over a coat of long straw. But like most modern thatch in this area, it has succumbed to an ornate ridge and a coat of water reed. The left sketch is from the Illustrated London News, of 1847. The dormer window of the existing building can be seen, as part of a long row of thatch. The pub was then called the ‘Cock & Magpie’. It had recently been sold to the landlord, a Mr Woodhouse, for £735. This sum probably bought him the whole row of thatch…


West Riding… The top left hand image shows a single storey thatch at Royds Green, still a rural spot south east of Leeds. This long gone roof was ridged with mortar, a century ago. To the right is another roof held by staped wire, only four miles from Leeds city centre, at Seacroft, alas no longer extant.

The lower left photo, is before Charles Innocent’s time, dating from 1867 and shows: ‘Old Houses opposite Railway Station’, at Ilkley. Turf ridges top all these cottages, which are coated in straw, except for one in heather, down at the far end. The right cottage lay at Great Ouseburn. It’s repairs being held down, with some thick liggers, and a few large spars. Being the home of the: ‘Great Ouseburn and District Poultry Society’.

More single story thatch… The spendid photo opposite, depicts the ‘Boot & Shoe pub in Tockwith, near York. Showing a neat long straw thatch, dating to around 1910. Below on the left, is another neat roof of the same material, at nearby Long Marston. The lower right hand photo, shows a tiny cruck built cottage at Birstwith, west of Knaresborough. The Boot & Shoe is still extant, but much altered, under tiles…

Unlucky Jim… This  postcard dipicts ‘Ryecroft’. The reverse states that ‘our Jim say (sic) that they would not give him time to dress up…’ But he looked pretty tidy anyway, for the photographers. This ‘Ryecroft’ was likely situated in the Bradford area, of the old West Riding. The wearing, long straw thatch has been stobbed into place. The sparwork, around the roof  edges is not normal; the thatcher pushing in one half of a twisted spar and then sparing down the other half, as a ligger… The ridge is completed in a similar fashion, with some turf on the roof apex. All fairly basic work, perhaps Jim thatched it… In around 1900.

A rarity… This old image, on the right, is dated June 5th 1906; and shows a rare peice of thatching hereabouts, a water reed roof, topped with a block ridge…  This rather ornate thatch was at ‘Whitehall, Nr Askern’; north of Doncaster, then in the old West Riding. The little cottage it seems, was selling soft drinks, no doubt to travellers, on what is now the busy A19. Perhaps being connected with the local spa, then in it’s final years.  Local thatchers may have completed this roof, some sparwork, on the right hand gable, shows some longstraw thatching influence. Or the owners may have brought in thatchers, from East Anglia. More than a few were travelling the length of Britain at this time…

thatching derbyshire

thatch derbyshire

Picturesque Osmaston… This Derbyshire village has a good deal of thatch, in a very attractive location, near Ashbourne. Being rebuilt, as a model village around 1850. The old image shows long straw work. Today everything is in water reed., as seen in the upper photo.

thatch derbyshire

Baslow… Lies in the Peak District, just over a mile north of Chatsworth House. The cottages dipicted in the above image are still extant, lying on the banks of the River Derwent. The thatch shown consisted of directional repairwork, fixed with spars and liggers and topped with a mortar ridge. Today the roof is of Water reed. The old photo opposite shows thatch at ‘Upper End’; the roofs appearing to be of well laid long straw, ridged in the same material.

Derbyshire… Old and new; very old, in the case of the above cruck cottage, at Melbourne; which has origins in the fifteenth century. The cruck timberwork being well preserved, under a water reed roof. The same material found on the seventeenth century cottage, top right at Repton; which is not the only thatch, in this large village. There is also more thatch at Melbourne , as shown in the bottom right image, of a long Tudor period building. But the lower left cottages at Bakewell are long gone.

thatch derbyshire

thatching derbyshire

thatch history

Medieval Nottinghamshire… at Normanton on Soar, like the Melbourne cottage above ,this is also cruck built. Tree ring dating here, shows two building periods, in around 1454 and 1490.

thatch nottingham

Sixteenth century Nottinghamshire… This large roof, at Collingham, belies it’s age. The building having an Elizabethan origin…

Below, at Rempstone… A thatch at Rempstone, dating to the time of a major fire, in this village in 1638. Which no doubt removed many other thatches…

thatch nottingham

Finally, two images of Clifton, now in the City of Nottingham…

thatching nottinghamshire


Clifton… This village lies in the south of Nottingham and still retains some attractive thatched roofs. But none are similar to the late Victorian homes, shown here. The upper cottages consisted of multilayered long straw, ridged with turf. In these more southerly parts, of the Northern tradition, old images show turf often being placed over a worn out straw ridge. But they rarely depict turf, on a newly coated roof; perhaps being used, as more of a repair. No turf on the lower cottage. This image shows an ornamental pattern ‘saw tooth’ ridge. With a rope top finish. A finish occasionally once seen, in neighbouring Leicestershire…