Thatching in Somerset
The historic county of Somerset, covered by this page, includes the two northern sections of the county; south of Bristol and surrounding Bath, which were hived off in 1974…
All parts of Somerset have followed the South Western thatching tradition, of using combed thatching materials. As has been mentioned, in this tour’s introduction, the county border with Wiltshire is the traditional eastern limit; for the use of combed wheat reed. As explained, this boundary once formed part of a longer cultural one; for many, Dark Age decades. In the century after 1850, long straw thatching did make some minor inroads, along this eastern border area. When cheap, plentiful supplies of thrashed straw were available. But nowadays combed wheat reed, along with water reed, completely dominate the thatching in this large county.
Somerset, can lay claim to the earliest written reference, for combed wheat thatching. Fizherbert’s, popular Book of Husbandry first appeared in 1534; his section on harvesting, mentions the material. ‘…in Sommersetshire, about Zelcester and Martok, …they do not thresshe it, but cutte of the eares, … and call it rede; and therwith they thacke theyr houses…the whiche is the beste and the surest thacking that can be had of strawe…’ ‘Zelchester’, or Ilchester, along with nearby Martock, still lie in an area annually producing many tons of combed wheat reed…
Romantic Estate…. Selworthy, in the west of the county, containing some of Somerset’s most photographed thatch. Both in around 1905 and today. The old village was rebuilt, in the ‘Cottage Orne’ style, in the early nineteenth century for retired estate workers. They were originally expected to sit around, in the suitably romantic costumes, supplied by their patron Sir Thomas Dyke Acland. This was the gent who travelled to St Kilda, in the Hebrides and left prize money, to encourage the locals to improve their thatched homes… The Edwardian thatchers, in the upper photo, have popped up in other pages; coating and ridging, in combed wheat reed. The vilage is now in the care of the National Trust.
Into the wind… The right hand photo depicts another National Trust property in this county, the Stembridge Tower Mill near High Ham, it being the last thatched windmill in the country. Built in 1822, with four floors and a thatched “cap”. Quite a feat to rethatch, before the days of plentiful scaffolding! Commercial use ended in 1908. Also in central Somerset, is the remaining tower of the Walton Windmill. As the old image shows, this was also a ‘tower’ mill, with a rather worn thatch. The structure probably dates from around 1793, built for the Marquis of Bath on an earlier site. Previous windmills would likely to have been ‘post mills’; where the entire mill turned to bring its sails into the wind. Unlike these two ‘tower mills’, where only the thatched ‘cap’ and sails revolved; thatch providing an ideal lightweight roof… (Stembridge photo; courtesy & thanks to Rick Cowley, Creative Commons Licence.)
As noted in the History section, Mr Billingsley the Georgian Agricultural Reporter, was favourably impressed in 1794, with the thatching hereabouts. The large, bound bundles of combed thatch, he described as reed sheaves, were named thus in 1676, when John Keach of Stoke St Gregory, accused three other villagers of theft.
It was a term also familiar to a later writer, John Cannon from West Lydford. In his extensive diary he mentions work on his thatched house. On the 9th September 1739, he agreed for his cousin to supply a score of reed. And ‘with Richard Vincent for 1000 spars & 100 stretchers & a thatcher to do the work on the west side of my house‘. (Twenty bundles of modern combed wheat reed would hardly need a thousand spars to fix them. But the writer is probably referring to the fifty six pound bundles mentioned by Mr Billingsley, at the other end of the century. Or possibly the twenty eight pound sheaves, mentioned in the 1861 bill below.) Two years later more ‘reed & spars’ were ordered, to allow Thomas Linthorn to thatch more of John’s house.
A Mid Victorian Charity Job… Completed by a very experienced thatcher. The bill opposite refers to work carried out in Stoford, near Yeovil, in 1861. One Yeovil charity administered the Woborn Almshouses, then nearly four centuries old and still in existence. The almshouse charity, at this time, owned thatched property in Stoford, which one John Shiner was paid to thatch. The George Harbin, mentioned in the bill, was the lord of the manor, based at nearby Newton Summerville; no doubt acting for the charity. From other paperwork, concerning this job, it seems most of the thatching material was supplied, as part of the local parish poor rate. Thus John was paid only for his labour, in thatching 14 squares and 68 sq. feet of roof, on two properties, at 3 shillings a square…
The bill mentions spars and tar cord, along with a total of 210 ‘Reed Sheaves’. As mentioned above, this was the hand combed cereal straw, used in this locality. By looking at the area John covered, it seems he used material bundled into 28 lb ‘sheaves’; similar to the traditional weight of the ‘Nitches’ of Devon and Cornwall. (He used around half the number of 14 lb modern bundles of combed wheat reed, required for this job.)
Unlike many thatchers at this time, John Shiner could sign his name, for receipt of the balance of his bill. His signature is shaky, but this may be down to the fact he was aged 86… In the census of 1861 John appears as a ‘Thatcher and Shoemaker’, aged 86; born at Halstock in Dorset. He was a tenant, in one of the Almshouses’ Stoford cottages in the 1820’s, thus had lived hereabouts for quite a while.
No doubt John sub contracted out some or all of this this work, perhaps to the Garret family, in neighbouring Bradford Abbas. Twenty years before in the 1841 census, one George Garret was noted as a thatcher, aged a mere 80 years of age… Thus John was not unique, in working into his ninth decade. Unlike John Shiner, George’s descendants practised the craft; for a further century and a half.
Paperwork… The receipt opposite notes that John Score, no doubt a farmer at Stofold, supplied 70 Reed Sheaves valued at 4½ penny each, which appear in the above invoice. It seems this formed part of the poor rate liability. The above drawing is of The Guildhall in Stoford, sketched by Sidney R. Jones in 1911. Now the village’s only thatch and a century older than the Woburn charity…
The marshy Somerset Levels, in the centre of this county, were once a source of water reed. The town records at Axbridge, mention reed beds at ‘Stobyngham’, in 1368 and more a little later ‘between the reeds of John Hurre and Robert Trypp’. These reed beds occur in the town records until the eighteenth century. Other beds are mentioned in local records, at Carhampton and Woolavington. John Cannon did some legal work, regarding a reed bed at Meare. But in his and later days combed straw was the material of choice. No doubt due to the extensive drainage of the Somerset Levels… This area also provides much willow, a valuable resource in John Cannon’s time, proving too much of a temptation for one Somerset spar maker. For as the diarist noted, in Glastonbury on 18th November 1741… ‘This day one John Tanner was whipped from the cross to the middle conduit…for cutting and feloniously stealing the shrouds of…willows to make sparrs which he sold.’ Evidently the crowd of onlookers jostled the official, carrying out the sentence, so much that the accused was hardly touched! The made up thatching spars also appear in a legal case, just over a century later, when William Gundry was accused of stealing ‘twenty six bundles of spars for thatching’, valued at a shilling a bundle; ‘property of George Gard of Martock’.
There is a little variation in style, within the county. Thatching in west Somerset, has much in common with neighbouring north Devon. Having a flatter pitch on many roofs and less overhang, to the gables and walls. The attractive points, on the mainly flush, butt up ridges, are more pronounced in the west, than in the south and the south east, of the county. These are also the three main areas, where thatch is to be found today. Not quite in the numbers of nearby counties, but sufficient to keep a goodly number of thatchers employed…
South of Bristol… Combed wheat reed thatch, at Portbury. Which lies in an idyllic spot, yet close to the city and it’s docks…
‘Hannah Moore’s Cottage’… in Cheddar. The site of the good lady’s school, in this village. Poet, playwright, author and educator, she was encouraged by William Wilberforce to set up schools for the poor, in the area around the Mendips Hills. The Cheddar school was up and running by 1790… Today the building is tiled; the old Edwardian image shows a directional repair, over the entire roof…
This cottage once stood at Yatton, a century ago. Coated in combed wheat reed, it has a line of liggers along the eaves. This was a common feature in north and east Somerset, but has nothing to do with a long straw finish. Just a means of strengthening the eaves.
Friendly Thatch… Keeping the Quakers Dry… Three of the earliest Meeting Houses, used by Society of Friends, still have thatched roofs. The oldest lies in Portishead; this building has been used by The Friends since 1669; once the farm of one Thomas Hodds. When the Quakers created this meeting house, they were regarded as an illegal sect. Often leading to fines, beatings and imprisonment. This took a sinister turn for one early member, Thomas Parsons, dying of ‘gaol fever’ in 1671… His fine thatched house still stands, close by the unassuming meeting house, he helped found. With toleration, came respectability and for some wealth. This helped preserve this building’s thatch. In 1897, a tiled roof was proposed, but Sir Edward Fry preferred thatch; paying for a new roof himself. His name might sound familiar; being a member of the cocoa dynasty… The roof today is in local, combed wheat reed, gently curved; with a simple flush ridge.
Leeves Cottage, Weston super Mare… This tiny building, attached to a restaurant, is the remaining section of a seaside retreat. Built around 1790 (not as some say in 1774), on the dunes, overlooking the Bristol Channel. It’s builder, one Reverend Leeves, placed his cottage on large tree trunks, straight on the sand… And it’s now one of this resort’s oldest buildings. An accomplished musician and composer, he was Rector of Wrington from 1779 until 1828. The upper engraving dates from 1805, two thirds of the original thatch has already disappeared . The bottom image from around 1930, depicts a scene that is similar to the cottage today (opposite); except the summerhouse has gone, and there is considerably more traffic… New Photo; copyright & thanks, Jo Turner (Creative Commons Licence).
More seaside thatch… Below, at Brean Down, just along the coast from Weston Super Mare. The Edwardian thatch, on the near end of the cottage, consists of a complete coat of repairwork. As used to cover ricks and stacks. The far end of the building has a very poor covering. Seemingly the children were charged with beachcombing… The cottage is long gone.
Near Bath… At Hinton Charterhouse. A combed thatch roof, with a rather formidable Edwardian lady keeping an eye on the photographer. Today thatch is found even closer to the city, at Newton St Loe, as depicted in a very neat thatch below.
Down Somerset’s eastern side…This image shows a quiet corner of Mells, a village with much thatching; which is not that common hereabouts. With combed wheat reed being used throughout.
Old & New… Images of a cottage at Milton Clevedon. A home that has had a circular staircase added at some point. The repaired roof dates to the Edwardian period. The modern photo dipicts a roof of combed wheat reed. Behind this elevation is a very large, thatched extension. Right image courtesy of Chris Down, under creative commons.
Town thatch… at Castle Cary. In the mid eighteenth century, the homes here were described as mainly of stone and thatched.The only remaining example, in this attractive small town, is a large pub; which has medieval origins…
Pantile country…The 1930’s photo of Glastonbury, on the left, shows ‘the last bit of thatch in the High Street‘. This was the street that John Cannon saw the spar maker being whipped down, two centuries before. This roof is partially covered with a famous Somerset product, the Bridgwater pantile. These were exported all over the world and surely spelt the end for many a local thatch. But more than a few are still to be found around Bridgwater, including the right hand house at North Newton. Which is four centuries old.
Down south… Above, An immaculate combed wheat reed at Hinton St George. Showing well the plain roof and butt up ridge of the South Western thatching tradition. This property was remodelled in Georgian times, with walls of local honey coloured Ham Hill stone….
Martock Nonconformity… Today only gravestones mark the site of the onetime chapel depicted opposite. Originally Presbyterian, it was ‘new built’ in 1701. This ‘Pound Lane Chapel’ then become the home of some Independents. George Whitfield the abolitionist preached here. Described as ‘’barn-like, with a steeply thatched roof and square latticed windows and a gallery supported on wooden pillars which ran round three sides’; it was said to seat 500.. By the mid 1800’s it housed the Baptists, being served by a lay preacher; George Paul preaching here for 30 years or more… The image from a little later, shows a well worn thatch, with an extensive repair. After some years of disuse it was demolished in 1913… Photo. courtesy of Marilyn Hunt
Still down south… A former toll house near Chard. The building was handily placed, to collect money on the old London to Exeter road. Two other thatched ones remain in the county, at Stanton Drew and Chilton Polden.
On the coast… At East Quantoxhead. A 1940’s roof showing combed wheat reed old and new. This cottage remains, along with many others in west Somerset. including the cottage on the right, at Burton…
Exmoor thatch… Above, at Luccombe; the cottage by the church acted as the village school for a while. In the foreground stands a feature found here and in neighbouring north Devon; a round chimney on an outside wall. It also occurs in parts of Wales. One of several building techniques, including combed thatch, that span the Bristol Channel. The right hand cottage lies in Exford. Thatching hereabouts has much in common with work in Devon, being farther west than Exeter…. Below is the Royal Oak at Winsford, still welcoming visitors today. I’m not sure if the dog, in this old image, is giving a welcome or a warning!
Finally, politics, power and thatching…
If a thatched cottage has a function above all others, that surely is to keep the occupants warm and dry. But not everyone was built, with that as the main intention… In Somerset’s Milborne Port, quite a few thatched properties owe their creation to a more unusual motive. Political power.
Altruistic thatch… Hardly; the century old cottages shown here, were created with an ulterior motive…
In the early nineteenth century, this settlement was already an ancient town, with the right to elect two members of parliament. A typical Rotten Borough; but this one was more democratic than most, as the vote was held by every male householder… These individuals were feted and feasted, before every election, by all sides, to secure their votes.
Until in 1819, the Whig party, known as the Blues ; controlled by one Lord Darlington, hit upon what seemed a good idea. Of building extra cottages and filling them with supporters. An estate of around seventy five houses, was thus constructed. Unlimited amounts of money and cider, being poured into this Newtown project… Every cottage was thatched, in the hope of obtaining the votes, of the local thatching families; the Newmans, the Helliers and the Frosts.
But this was a forlorn hope. As during the first six months, of building the new estate, these families also fixed £97.oo worth of combed wheat reed, for the other political interest… This was the Tory party of Red and Green, headed by the Marquess of Anglesey. To combat their rival, they to had started building projects of their own, all over the borough. The Marquess, incidentally, was the gent who had his leg blown off; sitting next to Wellington, at the Battle of Waterloo… His first building project was Waterloo Crescent.
For fixing nearly a hundred pounds worth of combed wheat reed, the thatchers were paid £47.oo. A similar ratio, of labour to materials, that was found, in Edward Freke’s bill of 1771; examined in the page on neighbouring Dorset. Which is the reverse, of what would be found, in a modern thatcher’s bill.
As they kept to an established rate of charges, it seems the thatchers, in Milborne Port, were a fairly honest bunch. As well as politically neutral…
These building and thatching activities continued, until Darlington gave up and sold out to his rival. The town lost it’s M.P.s and it’s influence, in the electoral reforms of the 1830’s, sinking into the obscurity of a village. But the legacy, of some attractive cottages remains; to mark the struggle between two Regency power brokers.
Newtown, then and now… Lord Darlington’s project, quickly became known as ‘Bluetown’… The builders being allowed to create some quite quirky cottages. The upper image, shows the three story ‘Castle’, in around 1905. With the thatched water tank, or ’Pump House’ in the background. The lower photo, shows a wintry scene. Around a century later.