Thatching in Devon

111aThis historic county holds between a fifth and a quarter, of all Britain’s surviving thatch; there is much to see. Not unexpectedly thatching has often interested the many visitors who flock to this attractive area. One such, from the very end of the Victorian age, has left us a trail which can still be followed, and forms the next page… (Devon Thatching in 1901 ) And in 1808 one Charles Vancouver published his Agricultural Report on the county; in which he has a little to say on the craft.

As with most authors, of the Agricultural Reports in the West Country, he was mainly concerned with the production of the combed thatch he found. To him this was worth noting, as then combed cereal thatch was a minority material, confined to the South West of Britain. Which many of the authors, of the various other Agricultural Reports, thought superior, to the long straw thatching seen elsewhere.

The locals also seem to have agreed with this view… In 1785, one William Chapple, of Exeter noted the use of ‘combed wheat straw… which we call reed… bound in large sheaves called nitches. This enables the thatcher to finish his work much more neatly than can be done in the counties where no reed is made…’


Georgian thatch… ‘Stoke Cannon near Exeter, from a sketch made in 1826’. Devon thatching captured by one Jane Johns.

In his Devon report Charles Vancouver points out a fact, that should be borne in mind, by any who research the history of this craft. ‘In all cases the man who thrashes,(also) combs and secures… the bundles of wheat reed’. Confirming the fact that thatchers never have a hand in preparing this material. As opposed to long straw thatching, which they always prepare, by yealming…

The Devon reporter states that to thrash out, comb and tie six 28lb bundles of wheat reed, is called a ‘common day’s work’ and earned the farm worker between fourteen and sixteen pence; plus three pints of cider… This was the standard weight of a nitch of reed, as mentioned in the relevant page, in the Materials section; where a lot more information regarding this material is found.

A hundred nitches had a value of two guineas. Fixing a square (100 sq ft.) of these would earn a Devon thatcher eight shillings. As ever, at this period, the combed wheat reed would have probably been supplied by the property owner; along with quite a lot of cider…

Thatchers still tend to use the old thatch undercoats to fix to. These multilayered roofs are found in the earliest surviving thatch, found in this county, being some of the oldest seen anywhere in Britain. The timbers underneath are dated to 1299/1300, that’s over seven centuries old… The ‘smoke blackened thatch’ they support is of a similar age. The material used then was combed cereal thatch. There is nothing to suppose that combed material was not used for generations, before the turn of the fourteenth century… This continuity of working methods, makes the old images
found here, very similar to the modern ones. However, there is less repair work seen these days and more in the way of ornamental ridges.



Unchanging scene… At Broadhembury. The upper images show the village shop a century apart. The Edwardian thatchers are applying a multilayered coat of combed thatch; stripping the old thatch as they go. The same type of work as depicted in the modern image and on all the plain roofs, in the lower photo. Which have also remained much the same, in this village.

thatch england

thatching devon englandAlong with several other maritime counties, Devon also had its water reed beds.
A Sixty year lease was agreed in 1412, ‘for all that marsh land with the reed-bed growing there, which lies between the close called le Colverpark on the south and le Somerlane on the east, and the water of Derte on the west’. This was at Bridgetown, on the River Dart near Totnes; the rent being twenty pence a year…
The estuary of the River Teign, also produced water reeds until the 1970’s. But the best known reed beds were situated in the tidal lagoon,known Slapton Ley, in the very south of the county.The photo on the left shows Edwardian reed from these beds drying out. The beds only went out of production after the Second World War, due to the lagoon being contamiated with unexploded munitions; left over from when this area was used for allied D-Day training…

Water reeds from Abbotsbury in Dorset, were also used in parts of South Devon from at least the 1950’s. So although combed wheat reed was by far the dominant material, water reeds were known and used, in the past…

On the beach… At Torcross, in around 1885. Situated on the strip of land dividing Slapton Ley from the sea. The reed beds and lagoon are clearly visible, at the top of this splendid image. The beach runs down from the houses. There is a lot of thatch shown here; but was it local reed or combed wheat? The prominent cottage, in the centre of the houses, shows  some repairwork, very likely completed with local water reed, as the fixings are too widely spaced for cereal straw. This cottage is still thatched, the lagoon is now an important nature reserve; and the beach sports some rather heavy duty sea defences… And the stage coach ceased running some time ago.

Today most corners of Devon still have their gently curved roofs; all following the South Western tradition. But as might be expected, in such a large area, there is a little variation. The roof shape is slightly more curved in the east and south and the eaves a little wider. The flush ridges in the north are that little bit plainer; but not a lot.

thatch england

Another beach, more thatch… At Sidmouth. Where a splendid group of early nineteenth century, ‘Cottage Orne’ properties, grace the seafront.

thatch england

thatch england

More seaside thatch… The old images above, show roofs that are mostly still extant. The left at Paignton is one of many thatches in the Torbay area. The right hand Edwardian scene at Hope Cove, is still to be found, although the cottages now contain few fishermen.

thatch england

Torbay thatch… Perhaps the most photographed scene in the county, at Cockington. Images of the well known forge appearing in countless forms, over many years. This early photo, shows some neat, plain combed wheat reed thatching.

A Devonshire diplomatic incident … Opposite is an 1860’s image of the Cary Arms Hotel at Babbacome, then on the outskirts of Torquay. The next decade saw a royal visit from the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII; the royal party enjoying the view across Torbay from the front lawn… A problem arose when a Devon Cream Tea was ordered. The landlord one William Gaskill was forced to admit, that the hotel’s supply of the area’s famous clotted cream, had just run out! Mr Gaskill and Devon’s reputation was saved by the kindly intervention of another family, who offered the cream from their tea to the future monarch….

The mid Victorian thatch is of combed wheat reed, with the ridging very similar to that shown at nearby Cockington above. An early 1900’s fire destroyed the Cary Arms thatch; it’s still open for business, under tiles…

Another thatch at Cockington, depicted below, was in the process of having very large repair carried out, in around 1930. The combed wheat reed, creating a watertight golden patch. The much photographed cottage is still thatched. I wonder how big the finished repair turned out to be…

thatch england

thatch england

Functional thatching… On another working forge, at Branscombe. Like the one at Cockington, this also dates from around 1800. The 1920’s image, shows little has changed.
Meanwhile… Down on the beach at Branscombe; it’s August 1937 and the Sea Shanty Cafe’ is open… The local thatchers had recently gone over the top a little with the ridge, and have also repaired in between the various gable ends. In 1930 there was no ornate ridge, just a flush butts up one, widely used in this area. The Cafe’ is still open, topped once more with a traditional flush ridge.
Below, is a rather exotic looking barn, coated in combed wheat reed, with a new ridge; at Stockleigh Pomeroy.
Exmoor Thatch… Coastal work; above at Lynmouth. Captured on film by Francis Bedford, in around 1880. The Victorian thatching shown here follows the simple lines, still found hereabouts. Much damage was caused to this village by some lethal flooding in 1952. With 34 deaths and 420 homeless inhabitants… However this attractive scene remains much the same.

thatch england

North Devon… Thatch above, at Croyde; with a large eaves chimney, a Devon feature, along with the palm trees… Below is neat combed wheat reed, at nearby Georgeham.

thatch england

thatch devon

An education… This Edwardian image, is of Tawstock School. Built in the ‘Cottage Orne’ style in the early nineteenth century. Restored after a 1940 fire, the children hereabouts are still educated under thatch…

Another school…  Well until 2010, when the children at Cheriton Fitzpaine moved to a new building. They had been resident since around 1875; note the bell on top of the chimney… The structure was originally a long house of great length, dating from the seventeenth century. This image, of around 1890, shows a roof of combed wheat reed, finished with a plain ridge. Covering what is often claimed to be, one of the longest single dwellings under thatch. More long thatching, is shown below…

thatch england

Long rows… The Edwardian scene, at Newton St Cyres is still typical of many Devon villages. Unusually cottages were lost here, in the last century, to the straightening and widening of the village roads. But most of what is shown remains. The unassuming cottage on the right lies in Morchard Bishop. A village with around seventy thatches. This cottage and twelve others make up what may be the longest thatched row in Britain. It took 112 of my paces to cover the length of the terrace. That’s around 90 metres or 330 feet.

thatch devon

thatch devon

Tudor thatch… Both these cottages date from the sixteenth century. The upper cottage at Lapford still has it’s thatched rounded bread oven. The main roof being newly coated in combed wheat reed. The lower cottages are just a few of many, at Chumleigh.

thatch england

thatch devon

Rhyming thatch…Old Mother Hubbard’s Cottage at Yealmpton, has long been associated with the nursery rhyme by Sarah Martin; published in 1805. But this is no mere cottage. The building being in fact a Tudor Hall House. And has hardly changed since this photograph was taken, over a century ago.

thatch england

Non Conforming thatch… The Loughwood Baptist Chapel, at Dalwood. The Baptists have met on this site, since 1653 ; this, is one of the earliest chapels to survive, for this denomination. Thatched in combed wheat reed, its remote location helped; when non conformity wasn’t quite so legal…

thatch england

This Edwardian image is the farm at Hayes Barton, near East Budleigh; famous as the birthplace of Sir Walter Raleigh. It was leased by his father in 1551; with Walter probably having happy memories of this place; as he later, unsuccessfully, tried to buy it. It was renovated in 1627, a few years after Walter’s execution…

And whilst on the subject of executions…

Thatchers appear in many historic local records, sometimes being noted, as coming into too close a contact, with the criminal legal system; Devon thatchers being no exception…

The charges against them range from a minor 1755 case …
‘Memorandum of conviction of Robert Forde alias Road of Honiton, thatcher, for profanely swearing four oaths at the Dolphin inn in Honiton, by which he incurred the penalty of 12s. to the use of the poor of Honiton, this being his fifth conviction’.

To more serious cases in 1758…
‘Presentment against William Hawkins, junior, late of Crediton, thatcher, and John Balson alias Gooding of Crediton, thatcher, for feloniously stealing 16 niches of reed, valued 2s. 8d. and one bundle of spars, valued 5d’.
‘Presentment against Charles Leete of Colaton Raleigh, thatcher, for feloniously stealing at Otterton one ladder, valued 1s., the goods of Thomas Braddick’.

These last two cases involved a sum of under five shillings, which meant a conviction would rarely, if ever, include the death penalty… However one Devon thatcher was accused of a crime, which nearly always resulted in execution.

Richard Quaintance of Heavitree, now part of Exeter, worked as a jobbing thatcher, in the 1820’s. He became estranged from his wife and family and moved into the home of Kerziah Westcombe and her husband , as a lodger. Working for John Horrell a local thatcher.

What followed was a classic tale, of a love triangle, a quantity of arsenic and the death of the husband… The two culprits made a poor job of their crime and were soon on trial, at the Exeter Summer Assizes, in 1829. The jury took just six minutes to reach their verdict.

Their case was widely reported in the newspapers…
‘ Kesia Wescombe was found guilty of the wilful murder of her husband, Saml. Wescombe, by administering to him a certain quantity of white arsenic in broth, at Whipton, in the parish of Heavitree, on Tuesday, the 5th of May, and Richard Quaintance with maliciously inciting Kezia Wescombe to the murder. They were both sentenced to be hanged, and their bodies given to the surgeons for dissection…’

Thus on the 17th August 1829, on the roof of the porter’s lodge at Exeter Gaol…
‘On being asked if they had anything more to communicate, they replied, “No,” and after a few passages read from the burial service, the fatal signal was given, and the wretched beings were launched into eternity. The concourse of spectators was immense; it is supposed there could not be less than 12,000 persons present.’

It seems Richard was spared the final indignity, of dissection at the Devon and Exeter Hospital; his body being returned to his family.

Royal Oak - Heavitree

Heavitree… The Royal Oak is the only surviving thatch, in this parish. The pub moved into this building in Richard and Kerziah’s day. Being restored after bomb damage, in the ‘Exeter Bliz’ of 1942.

Heavitree was also the site of public executions, until 1795; Richard and Kerziah should have taken heed… The site was later occupied by a petrol filling station, in 1926. Not the only one in Devon at this time…


Fire risk… No one seemed too worried, in the inter war years it seems! This image, of the garage and café at Haldon Hill, to the west of Exeter, shows some Norfolk reed thatch, done in an East Anglian style. The café behind seems coated in a more local fashion. There was at least one other thatched petrol station at this time, in Oxfordshire… But not enjoying such a busy location, as this is where holiday makers struggled up Haldon and Telegraph Hills, on their way to Plymouth and Torbay, until the early 1970’s… Although the thatched petrol pumps were long gone by then.