Thatching in the Georgian Agricultural Reports
The General Views of Some Georgian Gentlemen
One of the most productive sources of material, for research into country life during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, are various reports; submitted to the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement, by a roaming group of knowledgeable gentlemen. The craft of thatching is mentioned in many of these reports, where rural housing and methods of harvesting are discussed. Providing an unequalled picture, of the trade in late Georgian Britain…
It seems the country was split up, usually along county boundaries, and a local worthy was then appointed; to give his, General View of the Agriculture, in his locality. He was expected to have known the area for at least a year. The various
reports date from the 1790’s, to around the time of Waterloo in 1815. Often two gents covered the same area, at differing times. As shown, the Reverend Gooch was given the task of reporting on the rural situation, in Cambridgeshire…
Most of the reporters were neutral in favouring thatch over other roofing materials. But Mr Lowe, in his 1798 survey of Nottinghamshire would have none of it, stating that thatch was ‘ A dangerous, ill looking, vermin harbouring, dusty, and unprofitable covering.‘ but he was in a small minority. Several reporters happily pointed out the superior insulating properties of thatch, and the tendency of tiled roofs to blow off. Henry Holland who roamed the countryside of Cheshire, doubted, in 1808 that; :‘…the substitution of slate for thatch, in cottages and small farmhouses is an advantage. Thatch renders a house warmer in winter and cooler in summer… A room below thatch may be kept warm with half of the fuel which it would when below slate..’ He also notes, ‘Dairy maids give preference to thatched cow houses for preserving a uniform temperature.’
These intrepid gentlemen visited some very remote spots; where transport and travel were difficult to say the least. A vivid picture is drawn, of one of these excursions in Cornwall. Here a Mr G.B. Morgan reported that: ‘wheaten thatch on houses large and small is common’. But: ‘I had occasion often during my survey, to take shelter in some of these miserable dwellings and found the poor inhabitants busy placing their bowls, crocks and pans to catch the waters pouring in at the roof’.
One can imagine Mr Morgan, gazing out through the window, at his horse dripping in the yard. Hoping the rain will stop before nightfall, and he can then gain the comfort of some nearby inn.
Anyway, he survived; to publish his report in 1815. As did Thomas Quayle, his report on the Channel Islands did not include Alderney; due to the danger of capture by French Privateers…
What the reporters saw… The period, in which the reports were published, also saw many amateur and professional artists roaming Britain. Many producing quite detailed images, of thatched roofs. Allowing us to see, the world of the reporters, through contemporary eyes. The upper print, from 1790, shows a roof romantically untidy, on a weather boarded farmhouse, probably in Kent or Essex. One Sarah Williamson, created the lower ink drawing in 1779. This is also of an unknown location; complete with a large rick and long ladder, in the background. The lack of overhang, on the gabled ends, hints at a location in Wales or the North.
In 1814, at the other end of Britain, no naval problems with privateers, faced John Shirreff, as he travelled around the islands on Orkney. He noted the traditional thatch, of weighted roped roofs: ‘…covered almost every year with a little fresh straw, very ill applied…’ So it seems these gents, were not afraid to criticise what they saw… In Kent, the author of the report, noted with disdain: ‘… thatch is the common covering. Which is put on, particularly in the eastern part, much worse than any other part of the kingdom that has fallen under my view. The stubble of wheat is raked up for this purpose; which being often done in winter, when by rainey seasons it has become half rotten, of course cannot last a long time on a building…’
But good practices were also recognised. The Somerset report is full of praise; for the use of ‘reed sheaves’, or combed wheat reed. ‘…the workmen are very dextrous in making and the thatchers no less expert at using it… it is of such superior neatness, that the thatched buildings…excite the admiration of many strangers…’
The author of this 1794 report, a Mr Billingsley, also raises the issue of money. The local thatchers received three shillings a square, for new work and two for recoating. Repairwork, was at a rate of 4d; for every one of the large sheaves used. These seem to have been double the size, of the standard twenty eight pound (12.5kg) ‘nitch’, then popular in most of the West Country.
A rare glimpse… Of two Essex thatchers at work, in the early nineteenth century. It is very unusual, for the craft of thatching to appear in artwork, of this and later ages. The thatchers here are working at Coggeshall Abbey, on a medieval chapel, that became a barn. The artist has shown some typical East Anglian details, in the pointed ridge ends.
Below is another Essex scene, the River Roding in this case, as it flows into the Thames at Barking Creek. A location now transformed, by time and the spread of the Metropolis…
Out West…The left print is of ‘The Parsonage at Lynton’. Showing a typical curved Devon thatch. The upper pencil drawing, depicts a ‘Gloucestershire Cottage’, with a squarer roof of long straw. Signed, by a ‘Miss Jordan’ from Cheltenham.
In Scotland, the reports coincided with the Improvements; then being carried out by many landowners and gentry. These included depopulating much of the Highlands, in the infamous Clearances… Where thatch did survive, this often meant replacing traditional roped roofs, with standard thatching methods.
Until then, most thatching here had been done by the cottager, or, by bartering time, by the neighbours. Now thatching paid… To thatch a roof, using the stobbing method; then cover the roof with clay, cost six shillings a rood, with all materials supplied. So noted Sir John Sinclair in 1795. He was covering ‘The Northern Counties and Islands of Scotland’; not the easiest report to compile. A Mr Henderson did it again, in 1812. He noted mostly traditional roofing; the thatch, being fixed by heather and straw ropes. Showing that the ‘new’ methods had a windy, climatic limit.
Windy limit… This print of a water mill, on Shetland, shows some roped thatching. Confirming Mr Henderson’s report, of 1812.
But further south, stobbing became very popular. In Banffshire it was known as ‘Tippeting’. The reporter noted, that to cover a layer of thatch, a yard wide (0.9m). Around eight handfuls of straw, called ‘Grips’ or ‘Tippets’, would be needed. All pushed into the old coatwork, with a forked ‘Stob’ .
In Ayrshire, other methods were noted by Mr Aiton in 1811. Here fifty shillings a rood was paid, for collecting and thatching heather… This seems very expensive; perhaps pulling up and gathering heather took a long time; or our man misheard the amount. Either way, these heather roofs, reputedly lasted seventy years…
A Rood… An old measurement, consisting of 17¼ feet, squared; equalling 297 sq ft. (27.6 sq m). Or just under three squares of thatching.
Eastern Scotland… Where stobbing held sway. The above print, of Upper Largo, in Fife, shows a mixture of tiles and thatch. The thatch could well have been stobbed. Often using material from the Tay reed beds and mostly finishing with a ridge of turf. A type of ridge seen in the lower image. ‘Near Arbroath, on the Coast of Forfarshire.’ This beach side thatch, also has a wooden barrel, as a chimney lum…
In Lincolnshire, the 1799 report was by no less than the ‘Secretary to the Board’. He notes: ‘Thatching three shillings a square for houses; 6d to 9d a yard for stacks (ricks), running measure.’ But also that: ‘Beer to none of these prices’. So the craftsman bought their own, on this occasion. In Westmoreland, Mr Pringle mentions ‘victuals‘ also being included in a days wages. The thatcher being paid a shilling more if they did not partake of them. (The 1817 bill, shown in the page on rick thatching, is another example of ‘non beer pricing’.) It was an old custom; supplying beer or cider and food, as part of the wages. Tea was expensive, and no one in their right mind ever drank the doubtful water…
The worthy secretary also mentions the cost building a Lincolnshire house. ‘About Reevesby… The old buildings are of timber, walled with clay, covered with reed; some with wheat and rye straw, which when new, will cost one third less than brick and tile.’ He gives the costs of a tiled cottage for two families, at eighty guineas (£84). An ‘improved’ cottage, up in Kincardineshire; built of ‘stone and lime’, cost around twenty five pounds. The cost including either a slate or a stobthatched roof. But a traditional thatched home, of ‘turf and stone’, cost only fifty shillings… A tenth of the cost.
Turf and stone… Thatched with heather, and finished, with a turf ridge. It seems fifty shillings, would have purchased a much bigger version, of the small shieding, above. More like the right hand, heather thatched cottage; with walls purely of turf. Whole communities, of such buildings, were swept away in The Clearances. Photos; courtesy Highland Folk Museum.
Several of the reporters, gave a wage for the thatcher. These wages vary, as prices appear to have risen sharply, during the two decades or so that the reports cover. ‘The average Yorkshire wage’ rose seventy per cent from 1790 to 1804; thatchers then receiving two shillings and seven pence. An average, for the whole period of the reports, seems to be around two shillings a day (24d.) and might be interesting to see what this meant, as a standard of living. The 1796 Norfolk report, contains a long and humane section, on paying a decent wage. The author, Nathaniel Kent, put the Norfolk thatcher on 20d a day, this was 2d more than the summer wage of a farmworker. He discussed a living wage with several persons, involved with the workhouses of the period. These, in general, were not the grim institutions; described in Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’. Those lay some decades into the future…
Grim institution… Hardly. This benign row of cottages, in a narrow lane, once served as the workhouse, for the Northamptonshire parish of Wollaston. Until in 1835, it became redundant, as the ‘Unions‘, combining several parishes, were built all over Britain. And then things did get rather grim…
The agreed sum, these worthies from the ‘Houses of Industry’, could feed an inmate on, was 18d a day; this did not include accommodation. So Georgian thatchers did not have a great deal of spare cash; if only being paid by the day. Being paid by the square was probably a little better. Mr Kent concluded, that as long as the worker did not have more than a couple of offspring all would be well. No doubt an industrious wife, also made a world of difference.
It seems thatching was as well paid as the other building trades. Just a little more lucrative, than the farm work done by the majority of the population. As long as the thatcher stayed healthy and the work and weather were kind; a living could be made. But old age and illness, almost inevitably meant, either parish relief or the house of industry’…
Finally… A few more old images from the age of the Georgian Reporters.
Blyth, in Northumberland. Then a busy fishing and coal port, with thatched dwellings near the sea; almost certainly covered with heather. That being the favoured thatching material, in this area. The artist has also shown masonry gabled ends, to the thatched roofs. Another local feature.
The town centre, of Chipping Barnet in Hertfordshire. Over a hundred and fifty, horse drawn coaches a day, passed through here. Coming and going to London, along the Great North Road. Passing close by, the thatched basket makers shop; situated on the right of this print, published in 1805.
A quieter street, in 1784; at Castle Acre in Norfolk. The cottages on the left, seem to have a sharp angled thatch of water reed. Hinting that this material was transported a fair distance inland, well over two centuries ago. The reeds probably coming off marshes, near Kings Lynn, over a dozen miles away.
Looking down the River Rheidol, towards Aberystwyth. At Llanbadarn Fawr in Cardiganshire. A row of thatched cottages, lie in the middle distance. And another load of hay is heading for the rickyard. The bonneted head of a woman, is just visible, on the extreme left. The artist has shown her, atop one of the growing hay ricks. With a roped and weighted, completed specimen, in front of her.
Many more enlightening comments, by the intrepid Georgian reporters, are often used as a guide, in the section, on the craft found in the various counties of Britain… One of the best descriptions of the Georgian trade, appears when the county of Glamorgan is examined.