Thatching in Middlesex

The Craft in England’s Lost County


98aModern London is a relatively new creation. By the mid twentieth century, the urban areas, around the historic city had grown six fold since 1885 and it was felt these new suburbs needed their own identity. Thus in 1965 Greater London came into being. In this process the historic county of Middlesex, was swallowed up entirely; the only English county to have suffered this fate. Nearly all the old county became the London boroughs of Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon, and Hounslow. However a legacy remains, including some postal addresses, a first class cricket team and a few thatched buildings….

The survival of old thatched buildings, through decades of development, is less unlikely than might first appear. Most surrounding counties still have many hundreds of thatches and Middlesex seemingly shared similar numbers in the past; as the laws banning the craft, in the City of London never applied here. So there were large numbers of thatched buildings, for the developers to remove; a feat they never fully achieved. The protection of being listed, finally helped to preserve the surviving few. But as will be seen, even this protection can occasionally fail…

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On Shepherds Bush Green… This thatched cottage, long an inn, was once used by one Miles Sydercombe, to house an early version of a machine gun. Which failed to kill Oliver Cromwell; passing by, from Hampton Court to the City in 1657. None of which saved this old thatch from demolition, in April 1890. A few years after this sketch was completed.


From surviving old images, Middlesex appears to lie on the boundary, between the Eastern and Southern thatching traditions. With the Eastern style seemingly more dominant. Along with all it’s surrounding counties, Middlesex was mainly a long straw thatching area. But with the rivers Thames, Colne and Lea, forming three county borders, rushes and reeds must have been in use, in earlier times…

Getting some bearings…


A lost landscape… To help visualise how this small county once appeared, I have included this map of 1807. It shows London tucked away in a south eastern corner. And a very rural landscape, dotted with green country estates. This view dates from the same period as most of the surviving thatch. To assist the modern eye, the location of London’s Heathrow Airport is marked with a star & Wembley Stadium with a diamond. Both having extant thatched roofs nearby…


The March of Suburbia…‘An Old Fashioned House in a New Fashioned Town’

The loss of Middlesex thatch, from the time of the 1807 map, to the recent past, is well illustrated, by the fate of the cottage shown below…

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Green Lanes, Palmer’s Green in the parish of Southgate… This cottage was built in around 1780, by a Governor of the Bank of England. As a lodge to his big house, which stood on the eastern side of ‘Green Lanes’, then an unpaved track, in Palmer’s Green. The upper image shows the cottage just after 1906, when the track became a widened road and swallowed up the cottage’s front garden… The thatch is a neat long straw roof, completed in the Eastern style.


In around 1911 the cottage and it’s two acre rear garden, was being used as a florist’s shop and nursery. As shown in the old postcard above. Which noted that the cottage was, ‘A relic of the Green Lanes, happily preserved to us , by a public sprited local florist’. But things changed very rapidly in the couple of decades after that…


Almost swallowed up… The  two grainy images that follow, were used as publicity, for the firm of florists in around 1930. The image below shows some ornate thatch… On what is now ‘Ye Old Thatched Cottage’. A sign above the door informs customers that this is, ‘An Old Fashioned House in a New Fashioned Town’

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The demise of the firm of florists saw the end of this cottage, in 1938; the two acre garden no doubt proving ripe for development. The building was replaced by a branch of Burton’s, the gent’s outfitters…


The three storey art deco building still stands, just up from the Nat West bank. Right image courtesy of Christine Mattews, under Creative Commons.


Contemporary image… The print of the small thatch opposite, entitled ‘Near Palmers Green…’ dates to much the same period as Percy Whellock’s shop; being drawn in 1797. This is from the Antiquities of London and its Environs by John Thomas Smith. He seems to have mainly drawn ‘picturesque’ buildings, many in a sad state of repair, no doubt seemingly rather ‘romantic’… Several more appear below.


The thatch here covers a very small home, likely a squatters cottage, perhaps on the side of one of this areas former ‘Green Lanes’…


Early records, concerning the craft in Middlesex, often note the wages of thatchers. In the 1270’s workers at Edgeware earned 2d a day. Early in the next century, work at Teddington paid 3½d, for a Thatcher ‘with man’. The shortage of skilled workers caused by the Black Death, allowed thatchers and their assistants to claim 9d, at Paddington in 1350. In the 1380’s 4d a day was recorded at Isleworth; which had increased by a penny, at Sutton, early in the fifteenth century…

Regulated, seventeenth century wages, for this county in the reign of Charles II, stipulated a rate of 8d for short winter days, with another 10d added, if meals were not provided. Working long summer ones paid 12d, doubled if no food was on hand…

For much of it’s history, the county seems to have had plenty of long straw thatching material but being close to London, this could be expensive. According to the Elizabethan writer, John Norden; the village of Heston was: ‘a most fertile place for wheat… accounted the purest in many shires’. The grain, good enough for the Queen’s white bread. With much of the resulting straw, no doubt used as thatch. John Middleton, carried out the Agricultural Report for Middlesex; in 1798. He wrote that the older farmhouses were thatched, but owing to the high price of straw and it’s greater value for manure, many new roofs were tiled…

More contemporary images… The well thatched cottages above, opposite and below could well have been seen by John Middleton, on his ‘Agricultural’ travels… The upper scene dipicts ‘A veiw of the Pound and Cottages at Stanmore…’ With everything in sight thatched and a crop of wheat, stooked up in the field in the background.
The print opposite is a little earlier, from 1779; again depicting a decent thatch, atop a home ‘Near Harrow, Middlesex’. The roof appears to follow the angular Eastern thatching tradition; having a large catslide extension.
The lower cottage lay ‘By the New River, Hornsey, Middlesex’; in the 1790’s. The New River was built to supply London with clean water, almost two centuries before this image captured the rural scene.


However, the high price of straw, noted by John Middleton, didn’t deter the use of thatch on all new buildings… At this time, the rich and fashionable loved the Picturesque style of architecture. In rural Middlesex as elsewhere, they created more than a few thatched ‘Cottage Orne’ buildings, in this fashion. In fact much of what remains here, dates from this period. Often the only reminder of long extinct, country estates.

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Surviving Cottages Orne… The upper image shows an attractive thatch, at Hanwell. One of several fashionable houses, near the church. The tiny lodge, below, pictured in around 1905 and shown today with a coat of water reed; is perhaps the only original building, from the old village of Wembley. Now in a sea of suburban houses, it once formed the entrance to Wembley Park. Which was created two centuries ago, along with this little building, in the ‘Picturesque’ style.

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A lost Cottage Orne…At Spring Hil, near Lower Clapton. This summer scene, dates from around 1905. When a new public park opened, on the west bank of the River Lea. The long straw thatch shown here, probably started life as an entrance lodge, for Spring Hill House; once owned by the oldest son of Charles Dickens. The park remains but both buildings have disappeared…



North Middlesex thatch….

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Colney Hatch Lane…  A quiet scene, in around 1905; showing some neat long straw thatch, in an Eastern style. The cottages are long gone, the ‘lane’ is now the busy B550…

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Leafy Enfield… Where the above former farmhouse still stands, coated in water reed. The building dating to around 1804; when the open fields here were enclosed. Below left is an image titled ‘Lodge Gates near Enfield 1900’; depicting some neat Water reed work. This Lodge seems to have disappeared, not so the lower right Enfield Cottage; which probably dates to around the same period as the old farmhouse. Lower right image courtesy of Christine Mattews under Creative Commons.


Before the camera… Above is a print is titled ‘near Scotland Green, Ponders End’; an area to the east of Enfield.

Opposite is an image from 1797, depicting ‘Green Street, Enfield Highway’, a short distance from Scotland Green; this and the image above, show two more of the ‘Picturesque’ buildings found in the’ Antiquities of London and its Environs’ as noted. Thus the artist didn’t have to move far to find inspiration… He has shown largish thatched homes in a very poor state. Perhaps using a little too much artistic licence…

Tottenham Mills… Downstream from Ponders End. This print depicts some large thatched mill buildings; these were supplied with water from the River Lea; which also formed Middlesex’s eastern boundary. The image, from around 1810, shows some Eastern style thatch. A pencil drawing from 1828, has the roof tiled, but two large thatched hayricks stand close by. Ricks are also seen in this print on the Essex side of the river; the whole area being noted for its rich hay meadows…

West Middlesex thatch…

Out west… Above is a 1920’s shot of ‘Weir Cottage’ at West Drayton, depicting a well thatched long straw roof. This building once lay on an island, in the River Colne; the boundary between Middlesex and Surrey.




Lost pub… Images from the inter war years, above and opposite, show the ‘Old Magpies’ pub, at Harmonsworth. This old inn stood near the main London to Bath road, close to the western county border. Dating from Tudor times, it was demolished in 1951; as this area became too close for comfort, to the expanding Heathrow Airport. In 1937, seven years before the airfield was constructed, Harmonsworth had three blocks of thatched homes, but ‘Heathrow Farm’ was tiled. Below on the left, are cottages thought to be at Heathrow, in around 1935…  All the thatching was in  long straw, with the earlier Magpies image showing extensive outside fixings and repairwork.



Longford… lies to the north of the airport; once the site of a ford over the River Colne. The opposite scene from the 1940’s remains unchanged, except the barn hs lost its thatch… However the old cottage below bravely keeps up a thatching tradition hereabouts.


Newer thatched buildings, also exist in the old county. Constructed along with the multitude of others, as the Middlesex suburbs grew. Some 1920’s, Arts and Crafts cottages at Kingsbury, are good enough to grace most villages; let alone a busy road junction… thatch london

Kingsbury… A parish of 140 scattered dwellings, in 1901. These thatched houses, designed by Ernest Trobridge, recall this rural heritage. Earlier images show them thatched in long straw.



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Earlier image… Ernest Trobridge’s cottages, in the 1930s. Showing what must be the original long straw thatch; topped with a cut pattern ridge. An unusual combination in this area.


DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME…

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The Plough Inn, Northolt… When this pub was built in 1948, it’s thatching became quite newsworthy. One reason being that the Norfolk Reed thatch had been treated with fire retardant… As the newspaper cutting shows. However the poor Plough eventually succumbed to fire just over six decades later… In former days, Northolt was well known for its wheat fields and later for the hay it produced for the London market. The latter being protected by numerous thatched ricks, well into the twentieth century.

Long Forgotten Thatch…



Before the camera…
Three more prints from the ‘Antiquities of London and its Environs’ by John Thomas Smith; all dating from the 1790’s.
Opposite is a small rural cottage ‘Near Battle Bridge…’ An unfamiliar name today, but now the site of King’s Cross Railway Station… Thus this little thatch, well coated with a round chimney lum, lay less than two miles from St Paul’s Cathedral and the heart of the City of London… The bridge in question spanned the River Fleet; like the cottage this has also disappeared, now running underground into the Thames…




By the Thames… The title of this scene ‘Near Chelsea Bridge…’ is incorrect, as the only bridge hereabouts was the old wooden ‘Battersea Bridge’…
This scene could be from either side of the Thames; however the artist seems to have kept mainly to the northern Middlesex bank. The thatch here covers the building in the background, which is perhaps in the process of being thatched, as a ladder is shown in place. A full hipped roof is depicted, with a small chimney at the rear….




‘Near Mrs Teshmakers, Edmonton’… In another ‘Environs of London’, a book published at much the same time as this print, the lady of the manor of Edmonton was one Mrs Sarah Teshmaker, living at ‘Fordes Grove’, in the west of this parish… Thus we have a location, for the well thatched, single storey dwelling shown here. Depicted is a hipped roof coated in long straw; with the artist detailing some of the sparred liggers, on both ridge and eaves.

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More long disappeared, Middlesex thatch…
Above are two photos of thatch in 1890’s Edmonton. The left at Church Lane is in a sorry state… The right at nearby Church Road shows a eastern style roof, in a much better condition; but both soon disappeared.
On the left the drawing is of ‘The Water Carrier’s Cottage, Townsend’s Yard, Highgate’. Dated to around 1845. Cottages hereabouts were said to be ‘insanitary’ a few years later and were ‘improved’ twenty years hence. When dwellings, such as this one were very likely demolished.



Chamber’s Cottage… Which was mentioned in ‘The Builder’ magazine, in May 1895… ‘A old thatched cottage in London, only three miles and three furlongs … from St. Paul’s this, assuredly, ranks, after its kind, as one of the strangest survivals that can now be found. The cottage is in Paddington, standing on a plot of land behind St. Mary’s terrace… and is occupied by the caretaker of the Church of St. David’s. The church is but a temporary iron structure, to be, replaced shortly by a new one, together with schools and a vicarage, and to make room for these the cottage will be pulled down.’ Which took place the following year. The photo on the left, entitled ‘The Last Cottage in Paddington’, must date to around this time. The thatch is in a poor state; unlike the neat roof shown in the 1886 drawing…

Almost forgotten and neglected thatch…

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‘Rather quaint’… Is how this house was described, in around 1905, by an occupier. At first glance it seems like another early nineteenth century, ‘picturesque’ house, often found in these parts. Part of this building is just that, shown here with a coat of long straw thatching. But at it’s core lies a medieval hall house, dating from the late fifteenth century. And is a grade two listed building… I’m writing in the present tense, as this property is still standing; just.

zzzx1149This is ‘The Hermitage’ in Heston. As mentioned, this parish’s wheat fields were praised by the Elizabethan writer, John Norden. This building being perhaps a century old, when he passed by…

After lying empty and being purchased for development, a fire destroyed the thatch, in 2003. And at the time of writing, no action on restoring this important site has been taken. The protective covering, shown opposite, has now disappeared, leaving the building in a sorry state. One may well ask, what on earth is going on…



Finally, on a happier note; some rural thatch…

A rare rural haven… On the left, near Harefield. Not even this old county is fully paved over. Located in the leafy valley of the River Colne; this former lock keeper’s cottage, was already a century old, when the Grand Junction Canal was constructed, in the late eighteenth century. Not far away, from the canalside thatch, lies yet another ‘Picturesque’ lodge, from the early nineteenth century. The view south from here is still across a few open fields… To the stadium at Wembley and on over the countless homes of ‘Metroland’; to the centre of London…

A close look at the craft of thatching ricks and stacks in this county, can be found at the bottom of the last sub page in the history section, or just click  Here . There are quite a few examples…


A look at thatching, in  London, the old county town of Middlesex, follows in the next page. Or just click the green link…

Thatching in the City of London