Thatching in Wiltshire

107aYou’ll not travel far in this historic county, before seeing some Wiltshire thatcher’s work. Most villages and many small towns having at least a few thatched roofs; some have a great many indeed.

Long straw, thatched in the rounded Southern tradition, was the type of work, historically found in most of the county. Thomas Davis, in his agricultural report of 1813, states that ’wheat reed’ was used in the ‘south west part of the county’. This area is adjacent to the South Western combed thatch area. But any combed thatching hereabouts, seems to have disappeared, before the advent of the camera. Today, as elsewhere in the Southern, traditional thatching area, few long straw roofs remain. Combed wheat reed, is now the most common material used, back again, two centuries after being noted by Mr Davis…

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Pickwickian thatch… The Wagon and Horses at Beckhampton. This old inn dating from 1669, was an inspiration for Charles Dickens; when writing The Pickwick Papers. Being the scene of the ghost story ’The Bagman’s Tale’. This attractive building is still coated in long straw thatching. Alongside the old London to Bath road.

Apart from Mr Davis’s note on wheat reed, the Georgian reporters had nothing else to say, on the state of thatching in this county. However, a later local writer, Richard Jefferies, left a couple of intriguing glimpses, of the craft he found, in the Wiltshire of the 1870‘s… In Wildlife in a Southern County, he describes his local thatcher, as a man of ‘no little consequence… the most important perhaps of the village craftsmen.’ Full of ‘infinite gossip’. His spars came from the pollarded willows, down by the village brook. He made them in a farm shed, by a ‘great rickyard’. But this was no solitary craftsman; the author noted that this thatcher had things well organised. On both ricks and houses, he stayed up the ladder, laying thatch. An assistant was engaged, just bringing up full yokes of long straw and thatching spars. He was in turn, being helped by two or three women. As ever, doing the backbreaking jobs of yealming and yoke filling. This gang must have covered quite an area of roof, in a long nineteenth century working day…


Of no little consequence… This image, by a Mr Trotman of Chippenham, shows thatchers in Richard Jefferies area; a couple of decades after his time. No women yealming out, in this shot, just the normal thatcher and likely apprentice… (The role of women in the craft is examined in the History section.)

However, Richard Jefferies’ thatcher had some competition… The oldest lady in the area, reckoned her age, by the number of times her home had been thatched. ‘It had been completely new thatched five times since she could recollect. The first time she was a great girl, grown up; her father had thatched it twice afterwards; her husband had done it the fourth time, and the fifth was three years ago. That made about a hundred years altogether’. A low average lifespan of around twenty years. But ‘the straw had lasted better lately, because there were no great elm trees to drip, drip on it in wet weather’. So this lady’s family were probably quite good thatchers. Whether they were professionals or no, Richard Jefferies doesn’t say; but they were a tough crowd. From her dates it appears that both husband and father, had thatched their home when well into their seventies. Both working through necessity rather than choice no doubt. Her memories take us back to a much harsher world, of well over two centuries ago.

Tough Crowd… ‘ A Wiltshire Worker’, is the title of this splendid image, from around 1905. This ‘worker’ is kitted out with knee pads and a leather palm guard; a sure sign he is a thatcher. Who, by his apparent age, has climbed many a ladder… The white sign notes that one Tom Popejoy was licenced to sell tobacco. The Popejoys seem to have been based at Burbage; giving a clue to our man’s location…

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Thatch and tiles… Thick long straw thatch at Hodson Bottom, Chiseldon, around 1900. A place familiar to Richard Jefferies…

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Deceptive thatch… All looks new, on these attractive cottages, at Chilton Foliat, coated in combed wheat reed. But carbon dating, on this multilayered roof, shows the earliest existing thatch, to date from around 1625; give or take a few decades. The timber framing being a couple of centuries older. A good example of what can be learned, by preserving multilayered thatch.

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Cruck Framed… This thatch at Pewsey, looks its age, showing a cruck timbered gable end, but is a little younger than the thatch at Chilton Foliat; dating from the Tudor period. And thatched in long straw.

Open for Business …The Edwardian Post Office at West Lavington, under a well laid long straw roof. This village still has thatch; along with the long thatch hooks, kept by the parish to pull off a burning roof…

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Really new… The left hand, new cottage, has a roof of long straw and sits happily, amongst a great deal of other thatch; at Collingbourne Ducis. The upper cottage, also accommodates a motor car, at Coombe Bissett; probably dating to around 1960.

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Long row… At Downton, above; in the 1920’s. A place with many extant thatched buildings. Although the central cottages in this row have long gone. Unlike the row of six cottages, below, at Kilmington, which started life as a silk factory, in the eighteenth century. The shadowy roof is of combed wheat reed.

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thatch wiltshire

thatch england

Wiltshire long straw… The left hand thatch is situated at Sandy Lane. An attractive group of cottages built in the picturesque style, for the Bowood estate, in the early nineteenth century. Nearby lies the tiny thatched Church of St. Nicholas, timber built, in 1892. The right hand photo, of a century ago, depicts Horningsham Congregational Chapel. Said to have been founded in 1566 for the Scottish Presbyterian workmen, building nearby Longleat House. But no evidence supports this. The chapel is now coated in combed wheat reed. One of several thatched, non conformist buildings in Britain…

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Valley thatch… Much of this county’s thatch lies in it’s river valleys. Especially that of the Avon and it’s tributaries. The lower Edwardian scene at Amesbury is still found in scores of locations. Such as at Upavon, above.

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Very Wiltshire… Sheep, thatch and an anceint monument. At Avebury. Where at least one thatched cottage was built up against one of ancient standing stones. This was demolished when the site was cleared in the 1930’s. However this attractive thatch survived. Along with many others hereabouts. Photo; courtesy Astrid Holm

thatch england

thatch england

Down south… Two neat combed thatch roofs, in the south of this large county. On the left, at Hamptworth. And a home with a rare double storey porch, at Donhead St Mary.

King Henry’s Wiltshire Barns… The right hand barn, once stood at Wolf Hall, near Burbage. Outlasting the house of that name by many years. This was the home of the Seymours. There was a legend, that King Henry and Jane Seymour held their wedding feast, in the ‘Long Barn at Wulfhall’. They were in fact married, in London. The barn succumbed to fire, in the 1920’s…

thatching wolf hall

The lower image, is of the Tithe Barn at Tisbury, its timbers dated to 1279. Once belonging to nearby Shaftesbury Abbey, it was covered with expensive stone tiles. Until King Henry’s Reformation brought it down in the world.. It is one several claimants, to having the largest thatched roof in England; at 188 feet (56.5m) in length… Tisbury photo; copyright & thanks to ‘Rwendland’ (under Creative Commons license).


Finally, a divided home…


Border thatch…This lodge, dating from 1803, on the western edge of the Longleat estate still stands. It enjoys an unusual position as half the building lies in Somerset! This century old image shows a roof in long straw. With no combed wheat reed, in sight. (The traditional material from Somerset). In fact, at this period, the long straw/ combed thatch boundary had been pushed a little way into Somerset. Due to the abundance of mechanically thrashed long straw. Today the position is quite reversed…