Thatching in Glamorgan
The thatcher’s craft, in this historic county, has much more in common with the trade across the Bristol Channel; than with the rest of Wales. As most work here, historically followed the South Western thatching tradition; of using combed thatch. Some possible cultural reasons for this link, have already been mentioned; in this tour’s main introduction. Whether true or no, the fact remains that in the past, Somerset and Devon were only a short boat trip away. While much of the rest of Wales lay behind some very impressive hills and mountains…
Sea View… The medieval Blue Anchor Inn, at East Aberthaw. Right on the coast, with clear views across the Mor Hafren, or Bristol Channel. To the other combed thatch areas of south west Britain…
The South Western thatching tradition, goes back a long way hereabouts. The Agricultural Reporter for this county, was quite specific, about the preparation and use of combed thatch, in 1815. In fact The Reverend Davies has left the best description of the trade, to be found in any of these reports. And it is worth repeating in full. I have added a few modern thatching names, in brackets, to assist the reader…
Thus, in his General View of the Agriculture and Domestic Economy of South Wales. Vol. 1, we find:
‘Glamorgan Cottages. Wheat straw of uncommon neatness.
The only known apology that can be made for this indiscriminate waste of straw, is that the thatching work is done with uncommon neatness; not surpassed, perhaps not equalled in any part. The origin of this neat thatching is the prevailing practice of the county in hand reaping their wheat crops, without any confusion of ears and straw. A similar care is taken in thrashing on the floor. The stalks are crushed as little as possible. When taken up to be bound in whisps, called bellies, an iron hand rake is sometimes used to comb out the loose or straggling straw. Sometimes the straw is drawn through an instrument, such as flax-dressers use, called a heckle. The butt-ends of the whisps are struck against the floor, to make them even; which are neatly bound with a twisted bandage of straw, and laid aside for the thatcher’s use. The thatcher trims the ears of each whisp with a reaping hook, that they may lie closer; or perhaps that they may not entice vermin.
Small whisps or pilions of straw, neatly bound, are laid across and bound to the spars of the roof, as a foundation for the upper covering (an underlayer), which is laid at right angle to the former layer. The thatcher divides the prepared whisp into two or three handfuls, which he lays on in succession, holding them firmly at the top with his left hand, whilst he is smacking the butt-ends with his right hand, to force the straw into a bevel line parallel with the spars or roof; fastening each handful in succession with a bent and twisted stick, called a scolp (spar); and so proceeds until the roof be covered.
It may be understood by the foregoing account, that the straw is very little crushed by the flail in thrashing; and even where thrashing-machines are used, they are so constructed, that the straw does not pass through them, so as to be rendered thereby, in their opinion, of less value for thatch-work. The straw thus uncrushed, and laid on thick, the points only make their honeycomblike appearance on a new roof. Lines of rod binders (liggers) are neatly laid in various fanciful figures, under the bases of the chimneys, and on each side of the summit of the roof.
If the windows stand higher than the front wall, they occasion elliptical curves in the thatch, with scarcely any projecting dormers, as usual in common building. The best straw, in the opinion of the thatchers is grown on the strong soil of the blue and grey lias limestone from St Donat’s to Penarth cliffs; being superior to the straw on the lighter soils of the white limestone, etc. which is more inland.
In most parts of Wales, straw of every kind is called gwellt. In Glamorgan, loose straw only for fodder or litter goes by that name: whereas the uncrushed and bound straw for thatching is called gawn: hence dyrnu yn welt is to thrash loose straw: and dyrnu yn gawn: is to thrash bound straw for thatching; which is sold by the farmers to cottagers and others, at about 8 shillings per hundred of five score: a price nearly equivalent to 3 shillings a thrave of 24 corn sheaves. Bound into 12 pillons or bellies of straw, in other parts of the district.
The thatcher uses two trimming knives; one made out of a piece of old scythe, bent to a right angle with the haft, edge inward, to cut level the eaves (eaves hook). Instead of a reaping hook; the other a bent shaving tool to smooth the surface as the thatcher proceeds, which is done with a steady backstroke downwards (shearing hook).
Formally thatchers worked more by day-work, requiring about 2 shillings per day: of late they work more frequently by piece: either by the quantity of straw, number of pilions, etc. or by the square of 100 feet. The charge on simple thatch is 3/6 per square: and 1/9 more, in all 5/3. For rowling, or laying a transverse course of neatly bound whisps, called gwrachod, across the spars of the roof, as a foundation for the surface layer (an underlayer).
Not withstanding the neatness and thickness of the Glamorgan thatch-work, it is said it will not last without repairing, more than fifteen to eighteen years. Whereas in the more slovenly manner in which thatching is done in other inland counties, it frequently lasts from twenty to twenty five years. There the straw is considerably crushed in thrashing (long straw), and is thrown promiscuously to the side of a pond or river to be well watered. It is then drawn from the wet couch, and bound into sizeable bundles, and these again laid in regular sided heaps of several feet or yards, and every layer wetted in succession. When fermentation commences, which is known by the heating of the heap, then is the time to lay it on the building. The straw yielding a vegetable gluten, which is supposed to render the thatch more firm and durable.
In some places, where fern in great quantities lie convenient, they are reaped, and laid on ordinary buildings in the same manner as straw; but the most durable of all vegetable thatches, is that made of green fern, full grown, and placed promiscuously under the foot of the thatcher, who is incessantly treading, beating and dressing; the materials being handed to him by a waiter. A partial fermentation ensues, which is supposed to conduce to it’s duration of thirty years, or even the age of man.
Rushes, sea-reeds and broom, are also used for thatching, where they lie convenient. Broom mixed with fermented straw, makes a durable thatch.’
So reported Walter Davies A.M.. He was Rector of Manafon in Montgomeryshire and had previously published his General View of North Wales, in 1810. So this gent had travelled a fair distance and seen much.
His notes on Glamorganshire cottages seem straightforward enough. A man of his times, he thought straw was generally better employed, as fodder or bedding, than used for thatch. As ever, at this time, materials other than straw were in use; where they were easily obtained. And the Rev. Davies was not the only reporter, convinced that ‘fermented’ material lasted longer. This being a commonly held belief at the time. Something two centuries of science have disproved.
His mention of a ‘Gwrachod‘, or woven underlayer, was quite accurate. In the past, these woven straw liners, cum underlayers were something of a local speciality. But have now largely disappeared. However in the early 1950’s, a superb example was created at the St Fagans National History Museum. Based on fragmented panels, from a house then being re-erected.
The building, from Kennixton on the Gower, took it’s final form in 1750. The underlayer was at least as old. The museum’s thatcher, yet another Mr Davies, quickly wove a good number of attractive copies, from combed wheat reed. Half a century on, they are still safe and dry; one of the most attractive and intriguing examples, of the thatcher’s art, to be seen anywhere in Britain…
St Fagans… On the western edge of Cardiff, this Edwardian image shows the railway station, a good few thatches and the castle and estate. Which, since the 1940’s, has housed a collection of vernacular buildings, from across Wales; several thatched. Although the thatch shown here has a line of liggers, along the eaves, in a long straw manner; the roofs are of combed wheat reed. The liggers being added to strengthen the eaves, of multi-layered roofs.
The bound ‘bellies of straw’, mentioned by the Rev. Davies in 1815, were also named in a thatcher’s bill half a century before….
One David James was employed at Cowbridge; working on the town’s ‘House of Correction’, in September 1759. His bill showed he thatched in 425 ‘bellis’, plus ‘half a quarter of 100’, making 432½; for which was paid just over 13 shillings. A further one shilling and five pence halfpenny was charged for ‘wetting’ these bundles. This has nothing to do with yealming long straw, which would have been much more expensive. But all cereal thatch lays better when wet.
Unlike much thatching work at this time, David James supplied the thatch. He charged 8 shillings for a hundred ‘bellis’, the same amount, as quoted by the Rev. Davies. But his rate for ‘trimming and patching the north side of house’, was only a shilling a day. 4000 ‘wackets‘ or thatching spars, were used on this job. Costing an average of one shilling and fivepence a thousand…
Ref; Glamorgan Archives Q/S/R/1759/D/28
Thatch is now mainly confined to the Vale of Glamorgan. Good numbers being found in villages either side of the A48; between Cardiff and Bridgend. And in the quiet, picturesque hamlet of Merthyr Mawr.
Merthyr Mawr….. A hamlet, with one of the best groups of thatched buildings in Wales. The opposite photo shows typical work in combed wheat reed. These days much thatching is also done in water reed, as seen on the tiny cottage above.
Thatching at Merthyr Mawr….. The thatcher opposite is working on the above cottage, in the 1930’s. In fact the thatching shown, is very likely his completed job… As was common at that period, the work was ridged and trimmed as it progressed.
Close by, on the east bank of the River Ogmore, near the castle, lies the cottage below; coated in water reed.
Capital Thatch.., A lock keepers cottage, next to the castle, in Cardiff city centre. This image from around 1920, appears to show some long straw thatching. But on very close inspection a butt up ridge can be detected, pointing to work in combed wheat reed. The line of long straw fashion liggers, around the eaves, seems to have been a local working practice, also seen in the above photo of St Fagan’s…
St Athan… A village still with some thatch. The 1930’s image shows more, but the tiny cottage on the right is still going strong. Dating from around 1800, the cottage has timber gabled ends; a rare thatching feature, in this area.
Curved combed thatch… Near St Nicholas. A seventeenth century home, revamped in the Cottage Orne style, two centuries ago.
Old combed thatch… Some worn, some new; all with a butt up ridge… At Gileston in the 1920’s.
New combed thatch… Above, at Fonmon, with an ornamental block ridge. Below, a similar topping, to a long Tudor farmhouse, at Walterston.
The old image above, from around 1900, shows thatch at Blackpill, on the Gower, near Swansea. A careful look will see a probable thatcher’s ladder protruding over the back elevation… The right hand cosy cottage, lies at Bonvilston.
Tranqil times… At Rhoose, which overlooks the Mor Hafren, or Bristol Channel. The Edwardian thatch shown, follows a localised thatching variation, seen in other images; of using combed thatch, in a somewhat long straw manner. With extra external fixings being used. This village sill has thatch, but now hosts Cardiff Airport, a somewhat noisy neighbour…
Old Barry… This large town still has some thatch. This Edwardian winter scene, shows typical combed wheat reed thatching. With the house on the right having been repaired.
Finally, another thatch at Bonvilston, and a cautionary tale from the village…
An attractive thatch, with a clever answer, to the problem of having a large front porch, as noted in the Technical section, on porches… This property, may well have been once thatched, by the unfortunate subject of the following article…
From the, The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette; 7th December 1850.
AWFUL DEATH NEAR BONVILSTON. On Friday morning last the body of Thomas Morgan, an old man of the neighbourhood of Bonvilston, commonly called Thomas the Thatcher, was found burnt to death on the road-side, not far from the Aubrey Arms. He was unfortunately much addicted to drink, he had been drinking the preceding night at both the adjoining public houses. He left the Aubrey Arms last, and was making for his own miserable home at Heol-y-March. He must have put a lighted pipe into his pocket, for it had set fire to his clothes, and when found his whole side was perfectly excoriated. The night was bitterly cold and frosty, so that even if he had not fallen a victim to one element, the other would have destroyed him. We hope that not only those who frequent public-houses, but the many who put lighted pipes into their pocket will take timely warning from this most awful event !
This warning fell on deaf ears… I know of many thatchers, who partake of the twin vices of tobacco and alcohol; even more who enjoy only the latter and none, who forsake both.