Thatching in The City of London
Fires, Some Theatres, An Ice house & A Wedding
This is the story of the craft, in the historic City of London and its early suburbs; an area that remained small, until the arrival of the railways. Then London spread rapidly, into the surrounding Home Counties. These later suburbs, in Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Essex, Surrey & Kent are covered when these counties are examined… (some links are at the bottom of this page.) For much of the city’s history, the majority of Londoners lived under thatch and would have been very familiar with the thatcher’s art. Only wave after wave of destructive fires, which forced the city fathers to make thatching homes illegal, ended house thatching here.
Getting some bearings…
City on a hill… Late medieval London, looking from Westminster, as imagined in Victorian times. St Paul’s Cathedral dominates the small cramped city; it’s spire fell in the 1560’s. London Bridge lies on the right, with what is now Southwalk Cathedral, at its far end.
For those unfamiliar with what is now Central London, the two maps that follow, will hopefully help locate the various places mentioned in the text. The red diamonds show the boundary of The City of London, which has basically remained unchanged for centuries…
Above; The City, Southwalk and the north. Below; Westminster, St, James, and the west.
A quick guide to what the letters stand for… A… Moorfields; Probable source of thatch, 1170. B… Tower of London; Thatching, 1278 & 1333. C… Bishopsgate; Thatching source 1298 & site of ‘Thacker’s Alley’ 1799. D…Candlewick Street; Thatching 1302. E… Westminster Abbey; Thatching 1333. F… Coleman Street; Thatching 1377. G… Chancery Lane; Thatching 1422. H… Bermondsey; Site of thatch in a painting 1569. I… Bankside; ‘Rose Theatre’ 1587 & ‘Globe Theatre’ 1598 & 1997. J… Shoreditch; ‘Curtain Theatre’ 1577 & ‘The Theatre’ 1576 & Thatching 1693. K… The Mint; Thatching 1624. L… Site of ‘Thatched House Alley’, off The Strand 1633. M…Piccadilly; Thatching 1651. N… Wardour Street; Thatching 1651. O… Off Seven Dials; Thatching 1651. P… Site of ‘Thatched Alley’ 1799. Q… St James’; Site of ‘Thatched House Court’ & The Thatched House Tavern’ 1704 & Thatching in Green Park 1716. R… Covent Garden; Thatching at Church 1631.
Safe, behind stout walls, city living had its benefits but also a downside. In one of the earliest descriptions of London, in the 1170’s, William Fizstephen noted two recurring problems, or ‘pests’. ‘The immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires.’ No doubt one often led to the other…
In a foretaste of future events, a ‘Great Fire’ took place in 1087, when St Paul’s Cathedral and ‘the largest and fairest part of the whole city’ went up in flames. This was not the first calamity to befall London. The revolting tribes under Boudicca, laid waste to what was probably a mainly thatched, Early Roman London, in the year 60. In 675 the very first St Paul’s, was destroyed in yet another conflagration. Yet no action was taken against thatching, for the first millennium of the city’s history, as thatch was the only roofing material readily available to all.
Another fire of 1136 was recalled by a city alderman; who puts that outbreak down to the houses being built of wood and ‘covered with straw and stubble’. This formed the preamble to the 1189, ‘Assize of Buildings’. This insisted that thatched roofs should be removed. But seems to have been enacted more in hope than expectation, as the each of the city’s aldermen had to supply a ‘sturdy iron hook‘; for pulling off burning thatch… Each large house was expected to keep two ladders on hand and have a barrel of water handy, in the summer months. To warn the populace, local beadles also had to supply, ‘a good loud sounding horn‘. More serious for the craft, was the total ban on new thatched buildings which came in 1212, after yet another serious conflagration. Perhaps a thousand citizens died in this fire; so drastic action was proposed. Owners of roofs, of ‘reeds or rushes’ had eight days to plaster them over, or they were liable to demolition by ‘the alderman and law abiding men’. Aldermen could be fined, if they failed to keep a thatch hook handy. New buildings were not to be covered by ‘reeds or rushes nor any kind of straw nor thatch’.
These early statues tell of a craft, being practiced with several materials. The ‘straw and stubble’, would have had only a short wagon ride into town; harvest fields lay close to the city, for centuries after this period. The ‘reeds and rushes‘, could well have come from the river marshes, of the Tyburn, Fleet and Lea; west and east of the city walls. Fitzstephen noted the ‘great fen or moor’, that lay to the north of the city. Known today as Moorfields, this must have also been a useful material resource. Reeds were cut at nearby Bishopsgate, on land north of the city wall; close to the Bedlem Hospital. ‘William Poyntel, dwelling without Bysopisgate’, paying six shillings to the City authorities, for the right to harvest them in 1298.
Behind stout walls… This image, from the famous Luttrell Psalter, depicts the city of Constantinople; which the illustrator had most certainly never seen! But there were walled towns enough, in the early to mid 1300’s; when this masterpiece was created; to inspire the artist. London should have been thatch free for a century; but in earlier times, the mixture of tile and thatch buildings shown here would have been common enough… image courtesy British Library.
Although illegal, house thatching was just too popular and cheap to quickly die out. At least three legal spats occurred over two centuries, after the 1212 legislation. In January 1302, one Thomas Bat appeared before the city court, ‘and bound himself, and all his rents, lands, and tenements, to keep the City of London indemnified from peril of fire and other losses which might arise from his houses covered with thatch, in the Parish of St. Laurence Candelwykstrete; and he agreed that he would have the said houses covered with tiles about the Feast of Pentecost then next ensuing’
Close by… A print from 1810, showing ‘ A View of Westminster’. With cereal straw harvest fields, still very close at hand.
In 1377 an ‘inquest … of Nicholas Twyford, Alderman of Colmanstrete, held on Sunday after Michaelmas, (heard) that the houses of John Conyngton, Thomas atte Ramme, Geoffrey Puppe, Robert Lucas, Henry Neel and Adam Wymonham and the hoggesty of John Pondere’, were ‘thatched with straw against the ordinance’, the Sheriffs were ordered ‘to warn the above persons to strip their roofs within forty days, on pain of having the work done for them at their expense and paying the Sheriffs 40 shillings for their trouble’…
In 1422 the local court or wardmoot, was informed that straw was used to cover some fifteen homes in Chancery Lane….
Thatchers of course, can cover more than just houses… In 1278 it was recorded that the authorities at the Tower of London; were buying 6,250 bundles of reed. This thatch was intended to protect partly completed stone walls; from the ravages of a coming winter. A temporary workshop was also to be thatched. So it seems thatcher’s were to be found in and around the City every autumn, working to protect large building projects, from the frost and rain, until the next spring. Usually thatching any temporary workshops, on the site. This continued for centuries, after the job at the Tower. In 1631 the church at Covent Garden, being built by the Duke of Bedford was protected thus. His accounts show, Edward Bankes being paid thirty shillings and four pence for straw and ‘And to Richard Moore for thatching the walls of the Church to preserue them in the Winter’; three pounds and two pence… Total cost; £4.10. 2
The previous winter saw payment made to ’Thatchers ymployed in thattchinge the Roofe of the Arche of the new building’. This was on the Queen’s House, down the River Thames at Greenwich…
(This autumnal covering, of partly constructed buildings, is looked at more closely in the History page, on the later medieval period.)
Meanwhile, back at The Tower of London in 1333, 3000 reed bundles were delivered, but this was not for temporary work. A new building to cover, the ‘engines of war, mangonals, etc’ was being thatched; the reed cost 25 shillings. ‘…24 bundles of withi for binding the said reed to the timber’, cost 3 shillings. And ‘...half a hundred “shotis” of hazel rods for binding the reed’, cost 3 shillings and 1½d. The ‘engines of war’ must have been quite large, as perhaps a thirty square roof was required, to protect them from the weather. Thatchers here creating a roof of water reed, held in place with hazel ledgers; tied on with thin willow bands… However, the Tower was royal property and lay just outside the limit, of the Lord Mayor’s ban on thatching.
In the same year, as the king’s siege engines were being housed; a more normal contract was being completed, further up the Thames. The Abbey, at Westminster, needed a new roof on their ‘Sparrowhawks Mews’. One Robert Gamun, was employed ‘lathing it anew and covering it with reed’. He is described as a ‘redere’, by the accounts clerk but is a thatcher by another name. One of the earliest named thatchers recorded in Britain.
The villages around the city, slowly became its suburbs and London officially crossed the River Thames; in the mid sixteenth century. Then Southwark came under the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction. A few years later, a little way east at Bermondsey, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder shows a very pastoral scene; in his festival or marriage painting of 1569. This rare glimpse of Tudor thatching, depicts what is perhaps an elaborate smoke hole; on the house behind the bakery. He also shows the other thatched roofs, of all shapes and sizes; that then lay just across the river, from the Tower and the City of London. The church depicted could well be St Mary Magdalen, with its surviving medieval tower. It lies in the right position, just across the Thames from the Tower of London…
Tudor Bermondsey… As seen by Marcus Gheeraerts. As his name suggests he wasn’t a local lad but hailed from Bruges. A Fleming like Peter Bruegel, whose paintings seem similar. Both artists liked steep angular thatch, which reflected their Flemish homeland. A softer line was probably followed by thatchers hereabouts…
London’s first successful theatres appeared in the 1570’s, to the north of the City, in Shoreditch. These being The Theatre and the The Curtain; thatched and built as always, just outside, the city’s jurisdiction. The next decade saw the creation of playhouses south of the River Thames, in Bankside. The Rose being built in 1587. After a dispute with their landlord, the Burbage family dismantled The Theatre, on the night of 28th December 1598 and also relocated south of the river. Rebuilding the wooden structure the following Spring; naming it The Globe. These were big structures, each with room for an audience of around 3000 Londoners, standing and sitting. The Curtain continued on as a playhouse, until at least 1611, when it was described as a,’ large mesuage or tenemente, built of timber and thatched, now in decay, called the ‘Curtaine’, with a parcell of ground adjoyning thereto, wherein “they use to keepe stage playes…’
Shoreditch… The left hand image is a detail of ‘A view of the Cittye of London from the north’. It was thought that the theatre shown here was the ‘The Curtain’, but recent excavations have shown this playhouse to be rectangular. It lay right against the City boundary. So the building shown here must be ‘The Theatre’, before it was dismantled in the Burbage family’s ‘moonlight flit’…
Thatched buildings were still to be found in Shoreditch, in the final decade of the seventeenth century. ‘A close, with a brick and thatched house’, was the subject of a mortgage in 1693. It lay at Haggerston Lane, St. Leonard, Shoreditch. The right image is from around 1900. Showing the parish stocks and whipping post protected by thatch, at St Leonard’s Church…
No records exist of The Globe’s reconstruction. But when Phillip Henslowe altered The Rose in 1592, he left a record of his expenses, including payments to his thatcher. In what has become known as Henslowe’s Diary, he kept a meticulous record of all his financial dealings. It is famous for the information, about the plays and players he sponsored. But the overlooked building accounts, of when he enlarged The Rose; by making it more oval than circular, include the costs of altering the thatch.
Under the year 1592, Phillip Henslowe’s accounts show he paid his ‘thecher’ on seven different occasions and the ‘thechers man’ once. The amounts vary from twenty pence to three. Looking more closely, the thatcher was probably earning five pence a day, as there are two payments for this amount and more in multiples of this amount. The thatcher’s assistant received three pence. Another payment for ‘12d unto the thecher a bundle of lathes’; was for wooden sways, used to hold thatch onto new timbers; this is the only mention of thatching materials. At this time the employer usually provided the coating material and this could well have been included in two payments, for ‘Bryngen of Stufe’. For centuries after this time, thatching materials were often called thatching stuff..
These accounts seem to show a thatching job, where the roof was covered in stages; as the timberwork was completed by the carpenters. The thatch was held on with sways, with the Tudor thatcher probably fixing these to the timbers, with straw rope. The thatcher then seems to have been paid for each stage, some bigger than others. Unfortunately Phillip Henslowe didn’t place his payments in a time frame, within the year 1592, so how long the alterations to his theatre took is unknown. But these accounts do prove that The Rose was covered in thatch, a very suitable material for a multisided building, which would be difficult and costly to tile. Excavations, on the site of The Rose brought to light a thatching spar, still attached to some thatch. The spar is exactly the same as those used today; around two feet long (60cm), when straight, with a double twist. Being slightly shorter than spars used for coating, it was likely used on the playhouse’s ridge…
South of the river…A detail of John Norden’s view of Bankside, in 1600. The Rose and Globe theatres have their flags flying, above their thatched roofs.
Evidence of the newly reconstructed Globe being thatched, comes from another written source, this time a letter. In it Sir Henry Wotton describes a rather dramatic performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, in June 1613.
‘I will entertain you at present with what hath happened this week at the Bankside. The King’s players had a new play, called ‘All is True’, representing some principal peices of the reign of Henry V111., … Now King Henry, making a mask at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff wherewith one of them was stopped did light on the thatch, where being thought of first as an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran around like a train, consuming, within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds. …wherein nothin did perish but wood and straw and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that perhaps had broiled, if he had not… put it out with bottle ale.’
It seems the play had only just started, as in Act 1 scene 4; Shakespeare called for ‘drums and trumpets, chambers discharged.’ Rebuilt and tiled, it survived three more decades, before disappearing under housing. And as modern Londoners know, it made a spectacular return, three and a half centuries later…
Shock of the old… The rebuilt Globe Theatre sits well among the modern buildings of today’s Bankside. Just 750ft (230 m) from its original position. And giving central London its first new thatch in quite a while.
In 1624, not long after the fire at The Globe and not far away, householders in The Mint were prosecuted at the local court leet for having their homes ‘thatched with reed and not tiled’. This area once housed one of Henry VIII’s royal mints and became a ‘liberty’, outside normal legal jurisdiction. Home to many debtors and criminals, who had no objection, it seems, to living under thatch!
Later in the century, a survey carried out by Parliament in the 1650’s, shows thatched roofs north of the Thames. These lay in the areas being developed, usually by aristocratic owners, in some very well known locations.
In a detailed description, of the houses in Piccadilly, a thatched house with a value of over six pounds stood next an inn called the ‘Sign of the Crown’. From here a footpath led to the windmill, now the site of Great Windmill Street…
To the north east lay lands owned by the Pulteneys. They allowed development of an area fronting Colmanhedge Lane and the Oxford road. The sixty and more properties here were described mainly as ‘Cottages, Cutts, Shedds or meane habitacons’ built with mud walls and thatched roofs… In 1671, in a bid to stop this type of housing, a proclamation, forbidding unlicensed construction in ‘Wind-Mill Fields, Dog-Fields, and the Fields adjoyning to So-hoe’ came into effect. Colemanhedge Lane changed to Wardour Street and the Oxford Road also became a Street…
Yet more thatch was to be found north of modern Seven Dials, in an area named ‘Marshaland’. Among other buildings stood ‘Three tenements of timber and Flemish wall, with thatched roof, occupying, with gardens, etc., half an acre’. This area now lies close to the junction of Neal Street and Shaftesbury Avenue…
But thatched roofs where found after this time, on the north side of the Strand in what became known as ‘Thatched House Alley’. John Strype, in his 1633 London Survey noted… ‘The Thatch’d Alley, but narrow, and not over good, hath a Passage into Maiden lane.’ The houses here seem to have still been thatched at the century’s end… Nearby Exchange Alley still exists.
A London street index of 1799, names both the Strand properties and others, associated with the craft; none of which now survive.
‘Thatched Alley’. An L-shaped alley running off both Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley, in parish of St. Sepulchre’s. It lay right on the edge of the city limits, and is now covered by Charterhouse and other streets. When thatched property existed here is not recorded.
‘Thacker’s Court, Bishopsgate Without’. John Strype, in his 1633 London Survey mentions, ‘Dunning’s Alley, very large and ordinary; the west end divides itself, and falls into Half Moon Alley which leads into Moorfields: In this Alley are these Courts,……….‘Cock Yard, very mean, at the upper end of which is Thacker’s Court, but mean.’ As seen, ‘William Poyntel, dwelling without Bysopisgate’, paid to cut reeds hereabouts, in 1298. The thatchers, who lent their name to the area are not known… The site is now covered by railway lines; north of Liverpool Street Station.
‘Thatched House Court, St James’ Street’. This gave its name to the well known ‘Thatched House Tavern’, in business by 1704. It was much used as a meeting-place for clubs and societies. Visitors included Dean Swift and the artist J.M.W. Turner. It was demolished in 1862. Through the tavern was a passage to Thatched House Court, which has also disappeared.
Also in the St James’ area, lay a building thatched with royal approval. This was of the ‘great icehouse in St. James’s Park’. King Charles the Second had it constructed in the late 1660’s, thatch being the perfect covering, due to its excellent insulation. This lay in ‘Upper St James’ Park’, today’s Green Park.
The king’s grandfather, had had a large one built, at Hampton Court in the 1620’s, also thatched. His was 30 ft (9.1 m) deep and 16 ft (4.8m) wide. The St James’ version must have been at least as big, as accounts show the large sum of £25. 15. 6 being paid, to; ‘George Clayfeild, for repairing the thatching of the great icehouse in St. James’s Park’, in 1716.
The famous Great Fire of 1666 was started at a tiled bakery in Pudding Lane. The old city was now free of domestic thatch and it was the timber houses that burnt so well that dry September. The writer Daniel Defoe tells of many refugees. He recalls them building snug homes, for the oncoming winter; often with thatched roofs. Many set up home in the Moorfields, still open land and where their ancestors once harvested thatch. So it would seem, that a good many of the poorer inhabitants of Restoration London; still knew the thatcher’s craft.
As well they might. A century or so later Dr Johnson had a conversation, regarding the long life of water reed thatched roofs; with a ‘Great Thatcher’ he met in the city. This gent may have been a visitor, but could well have been local, perhaps having a flourishing business. As has been noted, there was work thatching houses on the edge of the City and providing temporary shelter for building sites, every autumn. But he may also have been involved, in covering the multitude of temporary ricks and stacks, in and around the City.
Straw, hay and fodder were needed, to feed and bed the thousands of animals kept in London. Not only horses, but also the countless milking cows. Fresh milk couldn’t travel far before the railways came. In 1813 it was reported that Hackney had 600 cows in residence. (Milk was tuppence farthing a pint.) All this produce had to be protected from the elements, along with anything else stored temporarily out of doors. Many of these must have also been scattered throughout the City itself, down through its history…
How the city was surrounded by thatched ricks and stacks; until relatively recently, is shown in the final page of the History section as per this link; Thatching Ricks and Stacks ;as below.