The History of Thatched Roofing in the UK
Drive down any country Lane in England and you are likely to see quaint family homes and farmhouses with thatched roofs. Some of the thatching you would see would be fairly modern by comparison, but many of the roofs could be hundreds of years old. That's because thatched roofing was a staple of British home construction for centuries.
The history of thatched roofing in Great Britain is not as clear as we'd like it to be. In fact, very little research had been done into thatched roofing history in Western Europe until the early to mid-1990s. But the more we learn about this historical construction method, the more we are coming to appreciate the genius behind its design.
As a starting point for this discussion, let us define what thatching is. Thatching is the craft of constructing a roof using dry vegetation. Base materials can be anything from straw to water reed to heather – and even rushes, too. Roofs are constructed by gradually layering the chosen materials to create a surface that is heavy enough to act as an insulator and thick enough to keep moisture out.
As a craft and construction method, thatching is still used in developing countries around the world. In Great Britain, we view thatching as a way to preserve history more than anything else. To that end, there are now efforts being made by a handful of organisations to preserve existing thatched roofs for posterity's sake.
Earliest Examples of Roof Thatching
Quite a bit of debate exists over how far back thatched roofing history actually goes in Britain. There have been some suggestions that thatching dates as far back as the Bronze Age, but such assumptions have never been proven. The earliest documented record of thatched roofing we have to date is circa 700 AD.
Although little is known of thatched roofing history during the eighth and ninth centuries, historians assume that thatching with wild grasses and straw was probably fairly common for the day. No specific archaeological evidence directly points to such early dates because none of the structures from the era remains standing. Thus, we have to assume. Fast forward to the 11th and 12th centuries, and it's a different matter altogether.
Thatching and the Norman Era
The Normans were well known for roof thatching when they made their way to the British Isles in the 11th century. As the Normans conquered England and eventually integrated with the English, their methods for thatched roofing became the standard. To date, we have numerous records from the 12th and 13th centuries indicating thatched roofing being used not only for family homes but also castles, churches, and even university buildings.
The oldest surviving structures in England with thatching still intact date back to the 14th century. These are open-hall buildings with multiple layers of thatching that, through the years, have taken on certain characteristics that enable us to track the history of the buildings themselves. For example, some of the lowest layers are still coated with medieval soot that has remained protected underneath the newer layers above it. This soot refers us back to the Norman era.
13th Century Decline of Thatched Roofing
Though history indicates thatched roofing was still prevalent during the 13th century, thatching began to see a decline in urban areas due to the risk of fire. Having so many structures so close together in an urban setting was just too dangerous. The problem was so threatening that thatching was actually banned in London in 1212. Other cities followed London's example. Still, thatched roofs remained the first choice in rural settings.
One of the most attractive aspects of thatched roofing back then was the cost. Put simply, it was cheap. Property owners could roof their houses for next to nothing. They would enjoy very low maintenance costs over their lifetimes as well. As natural materials were readily available across England, thatching remained popular outside of urban areas well into the 18th century.
Thatching and the Industrial Revolution
The real decline of thatching as a primary construction method was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Industry brought with it other building materials in greater supplies and at a lower cost. For example, Welsh slate, which had previously been reserved only for those with means, became a relatively accessible construction material that gradually began replacing thatching.
Some estimates suggest there were as many as one million structures with thatched roofs in England at the start of the 19th century. But the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent negative impact on the number of skilled tradesmen capable of thatching caused a sharp decline beginning in the 1860s and 70s. The number of thatched structures would continue to fall in Britain heading into the two world wars of the 20th century.
Thatched Roofing in the Modern Era
With the Industrial Revolution and the new building materials that came from it, builders and tradesmen who still preferred roof thatching eventually found themselves in the minority. Yes, there were new structures built with beautifully thatched roofs as durable and trustworthy as ever before, but older thatched structures were disappearing faster than new construction could replace them.
Britain turned the page on the 19th century and, with it, embraced the idea of urban expansion. Cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool became focal points for construction and development. Thatched roofing was never even considered in these cities thanks to centuries-old bans that remained in place. Meanwhile, rural construction came to a near standstill. The future of thatching didn't look good.
It's ironic that the introduction of mechanised agriculture in the early 1900s actually made things worse for tradesmen still engaged in the ancient craft of thatching. Mechanisation encouraged farmers to switch to short stemmed crops for easier harvesting, but those crops aren't suitable for thatching. Water reed was increasingly seen as the only alternative.
Meanwhile, the devastation of two world wars and the construction projects that followed all but brought an end to thatching as a normal means of roofing. By the post-war era, all the attention new thatching once received was refocused into preserving what remained.
Thatched Roofing Today
Fortunately, the number of structures with thatched roofs in Britain has been fairly stable since the 1970s. Conservation efforts have largely seen to that. Even more encouraging is the fact that thatched roofing is making a comeback of sorts – at least on a small scale. We are gradually seeing more builders offering thatched roofing in rural settings in an effort to preserve part of our history and encourage more environmentally responsible building at the same time.
Leading the way in keeping both the practice of thatching and thatched roofing history alive in Great Britain are the National Council of Master Thatcher's Associations and the National Society of Master Thatchers Ltd. Both organisations are committed to promoting both the history of thatching and continuing the craft into the future.
Thatched roofing history in Great Britain goes back centuries. So next time you're driving down a country lane, and your eyes are drawn to a beautiful home with a thatched roof, remember that you are looking at a piece of history. What has always been a remarkably efficient, cheap, and environmentally responsible construction method is also capable of reminding us of where we came from.
Will thatched roofing survive another hundred years? There's no way to know. We do know that thatched roofing history is an important part of British history that still holds a lot of things for us to learn. The more we learn, the more we come to appreciate thatching and the craftsman who can still do it.
Historic England – https://content.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/thatch-and-thatching/thatchandthatching.pdf/
CTTG – http://www.traditional-thatch.org.uk/content/about-thatch/history/