The creation of a roof covering using plant matter such as brushwood, turf, heather, broom, water reeds or straw.
|Craft category||Plant fibre; Straw; Building crafts|
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Bronze Age|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople|
|Current total no. of craftspeople|
Thatch, which goes back as far as the Bronze Age, was the most commonly used roofing material in Britain until the seventeenth century, and continued to be so in many areas until much later. Historically, all sorts of buildings were thatched, not just inhabited dwellings: castles (Pevensey Castle), inns, churches (especially in Norfolk and Suffolk), barns, corn-stores, ricks, hay stacks, milk-stands and platforms, village notice-boards, walls (because they were often made of porous material) etc. Later on in the nineteenth century, the picturesque movement led to a surge in thatched follies and summerhouses etc.
Thatch began to decline in popularity from the seventeenth century as other roofing materials, such as slate and clay tiles, became more widely available, although thatch remained the chepest roof covering in some parts of England until the 1920s. Furthermore, as villages grew into towns, the rationale of thatch was last. The twentieth century saw a rapid decline in thatching for numerous reasons:
two world wars which split thatching families apart
the disbanding of large estates which removed the day to day workload thatches relied on
the younger generation leaving rural communities
farmers no longer thatching barns, sheds buildings and ricks, which had been a reliable source of income for thatchers
the widespread use of combine harvesters, which chopped straw into lengths too short of thatching
the shortage of thatching spars because estates were no longer managed on traditional lines and there was a shortage of woodsmen making spars.
Before 1940 the training of thatchers involved an experienced thatcher teaching a novice on an actual thatching job. The length of time the training took varied, but probably averaged at about six or seven years before they could work independently. Today, it is generally agreed that it requires about four years training plus another two years thatching before a thatcher is competent.
While methods of application are surprisingly uniform all over the country, the finished roofs vary considerably in style, technique and materials. The material used depended on what was locally available, e.g. brushwood, turf, heather, broom, water reeds or straw (and if stone was more readily to hand, then stone tiles were used instead of thatch), with each requiring slightly different skills. Historically there were three easily identifiable regional traditions: combed wheat reed in the south-west, long straw in the Midlands and southern counties, and water reed in eastern areas, especially East Anglia, and other wetland areas. The three main traditions have become diluted over time, and ‘hybrid’ straw thatches have emerged in the home counties.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Craftspeople currently known
Jenkins, J. Geraint, Traditional Country Craftsmen, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978
Cox, Jo, Thatch: Thatching in England 1940–1994, James & James, 2000
Fearn, Jacqueline, Thatch, Shire, 1978
Nash, Judy, Thatchers and Thatching, Batsford, 1991
Billett, Robert, Thatching and thatched buildings, Robert Hale, 1979
Mowbray, John H., Thatching: in a historical context, 1975
Collins, E. J. T., Crafts in the English countryside: Towards a future, Countryside Agency, 2004