Thatching in Gloucestershire & Herefordshire

And a vist to the Temple of Vaccinia

102aThe craft in these two counties, generally follows the Southern thatching tradition. The roofs are not quite so rounded as in counties further south; but much thatching has a gentle curve. Over most of this area, long straw was the dominant material, this is now rarely seen. Reeds, of either combed wheat or water are mostly used. But in the south of Gloucestershire, combed wheat usage marks a return to a traditional material.

thatch england

Arts & Crafts… An early example of this genre, is All Saints at Brockhampton by Ross, in Herefordshire, built in 1902. The modern thatching, has replicated the pattern of the original water reed roof. Which follows no local style… The interior, is decorated with tapestries, designed by Burne Jones.

Combed wheat reed thatching was noted by Thomas Rudge, in his agricultural Report of 1807. ‘The best and most durable thatch’ was to be found around Berkeley and the ‘Lower Vale’. He noted that straw was cleaned by iron combs; after having the ears cut off; locally called ‘Helm‘. Mr Rudge thought this a ‘remarkably neat thatch’ that lasted thirty years. Coating with this combed helm straw cost five shillings a square, including ‘spicks and rope yarn’. Spicks, a Gloucestershire term for spars, were four pence halfpenny a hundred. Rope yarn, for tying on new work, was tenpence a pound, this was twine soaked in Stockholm tar… In Herefordshire a local name for a spar is a Buckle.

In the ‘Upper Vale’ and the rest of the county, Mr Rudge noted that threshed long straw held sway; as was the case in Herefordshire. Here two centuries ago, the wheat was cut very low to the ground; usually by gangs of men from Cardiganshire. The local women and children, gathering and tying the sheaves. Each gang of harvesters from Wales often, but not always, had one member who could speak enough English to act as an interpreter… So reported Mr Duncombe, in his agricultural report for the county, in 1805. The gangs then retuned home, to their own later harvest. The ‘Lower Vale’ combed thatch seems to have mostly disappeared, as cheaper long straw from mechanical threshing, became available in the mid/late nineteenth century…

Today, thatch is scattered widely over the two counties. Good groups are to be found in several villages, close by the cities of Hereford and Gloucester. Areas north of Cheltenham and in and around Chipping Camden, also have some worthy examples. However, as will be seen, the district’s most noteworthy thatch, covers a tiny summerhouse, in Berkeley…

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Herefordshire rarity… A long straw thatch at Bartestree. Not a common sight, with most other roofs now of combed wheat and water reed. This cottage also shows the local curved style well.

thatch herefordshire england

thatching herefordshire england

Herefordshire cruck construction… This cottage, at Much Marcle, consists of a single ‘bay’, erected in the sixteenth century. The old Edwardian image, shows the roof covered with a coat of directional repairwork… Below, is a combed wheat reed thatch at Leintwardine; a place with some very attractive roofs.

thatch herefordshire england

thatch england


The above Edwardian image shows thatching at Bodenham. Written records also survive, of thatching hereabouts… Three decades earlier a Mr Williams, of Brockington, employed two thatchers. In 1873 John Merrick had completed 10 squares of coatwork, at four shillings a square. The item on his bill, for ‘Wetting Baltines’, could refer to yealming long straw. A year later a rough account was kept, of work by William Laurence. He does not seem to have been paid ‘ by the square’, but for each ‘thrave’ of material used. Being paid sixteen shillings a thrave. (Which was seeminly a much larger amount of material, than a normal thrave of 24 sheaves.) The bundles of ‘stuff’ mentioned were very likely thatching spars..


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A roof of combed wheat reed at Sutton Lakes, cleverly crafted to follow to the local Herefordshire style.

thatching herefordshire

Old Herefordshire thatch… Below is an extensively repaired, Victorian roof at Kingsland, in around 1900. The 1930’s image on the left, shows a long straw roof, topping a cottage orne style building; seemingly in the Ludlow area. The roof above at Eastnor is also of longstraw. All three roofs have a ‘rope top’ ridge. A finish much favoured in Wales…
Left hand photo, by kind permission of Tim Croft

thatch england

thatch england

A modern combed wheat roof, at Brampton Bryan. One of several thatches in the area.


Down into Gloucestershire…

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Leaning thatch… As this ‘two bay’ cruck cottage, at Dymock, dates from the 1400’s, I guess its allowed to lean a little… Away from the Cotswolds, most extant thatching in this county, covers timber framed buildings. Creating some very attractive dwellings. Such as those at Haresfield on the lower left and Brookthorpe, on the lower right… All being coated in combed wheat reed.

thatching england

thatching england

The Lower Vale… As noted above, combed cereal thatching was in use in the early nineteenth century in ‘The Lower Vale’… The above image, from much later in that century depicts combed thatch at Frampton on Severn. The clue to the use of combed material is found in the employment of ‘Butts Up’ ridging on all the cottages; this can only be achieved with combed thatch. The coatwork is neat, the eaves being reinforced with line of fixing, as with long straw thatching but commonly in use on combed thatch in this period… Several of the buildings here still have thatched roofs…

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Cotswold thatch… At Chipping Camden. Showing a very rounded combed wheat reed thatch.
Snapped… The driver has left the two passengers in the car and captured a water reed job in progress; at Stanton. This Cotswold village is a long way from any reed beds… The work very likely being carried out by thatchers from East Anglia. The passengers cloche hats date this to around 1930…

thatching england

thatching england

Century old Cotswold thatch… Again at Chipping Camden on the left, where much thatch is still to be seen and at Stanway. All the roofs being coated in long straw, with the Stanway cottage ridged with a rope top finish. Similar work was once common in Shropshire and Wales…


Estate thatch… 1778 & 1779. The above bill shows ‘the thatcher and his man’ earned two shilling a day, working for Farmer Bivans. He was based at Standish, one of areas owned by the large Sherborne estate; of which he was a tenant. John White also worked directly for the estate, as seen below, working for a half penny less each day… He charged three pence a hundred for his ‘speeks’, or thatching spars… And on this bill he left only his mark. ( Two more accounts, from the Sherborne estate, pop up on this site.)


thatching england

thatch england

More estate thatch… Two early ‘Picturesque’ cottages at Badminton, the left thatch dates from around 1750 and is one of the first examples created in Britain. By one Thomas Wright, for the 4th Duke of Beaufort. The upper Edwardian image shows a still extant cottage, of a slightly later date, with a full ‘Cottage Orne’ makeover. The lower cottage lies near Bristol, on the Blaise Castle Estate, one of group of ‘Cottage Orne’ buildings, dating form 1810…



Bristol thatch… Well, right on the city limits, when this Edwardian photo was taken, at ’10 Cotham Vale’. Showing some curved long straw, in the very south of old Gloucestershire. The Cotham cottage has long been replaced by urban expansion…

Finally… The Temple of Vaccinia; Britain’s Most Illustrious Summerhouse.

In the pleasant little town of Berkeley, in Gloucestershire; lies an elegant house with a large garden. This pleasant property, was once the home of a quite remarkable man; Edward Jenner (1749-1823). A country doctor for fifty years; who had the wit and the wisdom, to develop a safe and effective cure for smallpox. And thus help found, the science of preventative medicine.

A man of many parts; he studied natural history, collected fossils from an early age and in the year following the first ever ascent, he built and flew his own balloon… ( He met his future wife, when his balloon landed on her father’s estate.) A follower of fashion, he also had a ‘Picturesque’ thatched summerhouse built, at the end of his garden.

On his rounds, Doctor Jenner came to know of a popular belief; that milkmaids, who caught the cattle disease cowpox, recovered and did not fall prey to the feared killer smallpox. Doctor Jenner felt confident enough to test this theory; using his thatched summerhouse, as a laboratory.


The Temple… The left photo was taken on 21st June 1932 and shows the summerhouse, thatched in long straw, looking much as Jenner knew it. Sometime after the 1930’s the roof became rather dilapidated, with unfortunate results for the original ornate ceiling underneath… The right hand image depicts the building today, coated in combed wheat reed. The overhanging trees make a poor site for thatch; but reflect the garden of Edward Jenner’s time.

In May 1796, he infected his gardener‘s son, one James Phipps; with cowpox. A couple of months later, young James had exposure to the dreaded bug and he stayed healthy… Smallpox really was a killer. In the century before James’s exposure, 60 million people, including five monarchs; had died in Europe alone…

The Turkish practice, of using a mild form of smallpox to inoculate a person; had been known of, in Britain, for a couple of generations. But this ‘cure’ often killed the patient. And, it seems the cowpox theory was known in various countries but the local medics, never made widespread use of it. Unlike Doctor Jenner.

Not a man to waste time, the good doctor began to vaccinate all and sundry, in his thatched summerhouse. Giving our language a new word and medicine a new technique. Here Doctor Jenner began the world’s first mass immunisation; free, to rich and poor alike. The small building became known as, The Temple of Vaccinia…

By 1802, a hundred thousand shots of the doctor’s vaccine, had been used all over Britain. A grateful parliament gave Edward Jenner the huge sum, of ten thousand pounds, to keep up the good work. A further twenty thousand pounds, following four years later.

Today, the doctor’s home is a fine museum. But the little thatched building in the garden, is not so well known as it should be. Much of the world’s well being, relies on what first happened here…