Widecombe History Group Talk on Thatching

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An illustrated Talk on Thatching by Rodney Cruze

Click here for a transcript of 19th century accounts for thatching repairs to the roof of the Church House, Widecombe.

Rodney began his talk by saying that he first became interested in thatching when still at school when heJordan Manor, Widecombe Parish saw a house at Puddaven, Totnes, being thatched by George Hingston.

After leaving school he worked on farms, at 18years old he joined the armed forces and served in the middle east for 4 years.

In the early sixties he became a labourer to Gordon Warne who had been trained by George Hingston, after enquiring if he would be interested in taking on an apprentice. He then worked for Gordon Wrane for two years learning all the skills of thatching.

rodney_resting.jpg (112141 bytes)Rodney brought to the meeting many tools of the trade which are comparatively simple (hands are used a lot especially with wheat straw). The tools exhibited were a Bat used for packing the reed, sometimes called a Drift or a Leggat, and a large specially made left handed sickle with an inclined blade which was used for trimming. All tools with a sharp cutting edge traditionally made by firms like Morris of Dunsford and The Finch Foundry of Sticklepath and Loder of West Ogwell Mill, were always of good quality.

During his thatching experiences he has found many interesting and unusual but olde-worlde methods of attaching the thatch to the timbers. i.e. some stitching done with brambles, a vast variety of nails, hemp cord coated with tar, this to prevent rats from eating through it. Blacksmith handmade nails, crooks and steel rods, incidentally, steel rods are not so good as hazel sticks which have a natural built-in tension, and even some instances of reed stitched on with wire.

There are two distinct tasks when thatching -

1. When thatching for the first time direct onto the timber roof structures, and

2. When thatching over a layer of thatch already in place.

Materials historically used that he has come across when rethatching old houses. Even heather, turf and rushes, particularly in places such as Scotland and Ireland, roped and weighed down with stones. Split hazel sticks were used for thatching a barn roof in Essex, this was discovered by Mr. Warne, rye and sedge grass, these were mainly used for ridging. Fine bamboo in Africa has been used with great skill by local tribesmen. Some thatchers even decorate the ridge of the houses with animals and birds made of straw but in middle Europe, Austria, Poland and Hungary, the ridges are held down with poles and even flowers planted along the ridge. The source and type of reed was demonstrated, i.e. the difference between wheat straw and wheat reed was explained. Water reed from places like Abbotsbury in Dorset is still used, Norfolk Reed was very popular in the past but not used so much now, the majority coming from Austria, Poland, Hungary, France, Turkey, Romania and around the Black Sea. Water reed is dangerous as it splinters and it is difficult to work with gloves on. He continued by demonstrating how the wheat reed is packed in wads in preparation for setting the eaves and gables.

Rodney then demonstrated spar making. Ideally hazel and willow is preferred, the sticks (gads) are cut when the sap is down, November to March and should be made into spars within a month after being cut. The spars can then be stored for several years before use in a dry airy loft (tallet). To make the spars supple to twist, soak in water for two days and then use.

Quite often during the normal life-time of a thatched roof, the ridging needs replacing and worn patches need repairing. These repairs can extend the life of the roof by anything from 6 - 8 years. Very cost effective if done well.. An old style of repair was known as "Huntsmans Coat" where the spars and rods are not all visible, this is not commonly used now. One roof he serviced lasted over twenty years.

Occasionally with old properties the timber itself has to be replaced due to the effect of age, dampness, wear and tear. When tackling a task of this nature it is then that the different styles of construction can be really appreciated, as the old thatch is stripped off , i.e. a style known as ‘full cruck’ is discovered when the natural shape of the tree when growing is maintained and used in the shaping of the roof. ‘Half cruck’ when the bottom half of the structure the shape of the tree is still utilized and the top beams cut straighter and held in place with square oak pegs, this method often used in conjunction with cob walls. Various poles used for roof timbers often Ash, Elm, Larch and even Sycamore. The heavy timbers, pit sawn in those days, were made of Oak or Elm. In thirty years of thatching Rodney has had to retimber only four roofs and on several old roofs as many as four layers of old thatch can be found. In one roof at Coffinswell the timbers were covered with smoke tar, dating from c.1400s. This showed there were no chimneys and the smoke just permeated through a hole in the roof. His skills were much in demand, and he has done work all over the county.

The design of a roof to take thatch is very important. Some architects and builders do not fully realise this, and if the pitch of the roof is not correct, particularly where two different planes meet, creating a hip or valley, it is virtually impossible to thatch the roof. It is not advisable to take off a slate roof with the intention of replacing it with thatch as the low pitch of the roof can create practical problems, e.g. poor wearability.

wid_thatch_postcards.jpg (99391 bytes)All the above information was vividly illustrated by photographs and drawings. These also showed the great skill needed in keeping this traditional skill alive. As Rodney's talk drew to its conclusion he showed some old photographs of Widecombe and the surrounding district. Thatched buildings of by-gone days including The Old Inn, The Blacksmiths Shop, The Shed near the Old Village Well, The Tavistock Inn, Poundsgate Post Office and The Church House itself where we hold our meetings. click on the picture on the left for a  larger image of these old photographs. He then produced a hand written copy of some parish expenses in the 1800’s relating to the Church House roof given to him by the late Mrs. Iris Woods, (see below).

Points of interest that were raised during the talk were -

1. to make 1000 spars a day was considered a good day’s work;

2. wheat reed 10 - 12 inches thick should last up to 30 years, average 20 years;

3. in Norfolk water reed has lasted up to 80 years, average 60 years, this is due to the very steep roofs and the windy climate of that county;

4. a niche of reed purchased today would cost £5 - £6, compare this with 1866 - 1870 when the cost would be between 9 pence and a shilling per niche;

5. the weight of reed means buying 80 niches to a ton, each niche being 28 lbs;

6. to thatch an average cottage would take 4 tons.

The Chairman thanked Rodney for a fascinating and interesting talk on a wonderful and much in demand skill.

Copy of accounts regarding Church House Roof

Click on the picture of the accounts on the right for a larger image.

1865accounts for the Church House roof

Pd Mr Thomas Warren’s bill for thatching 5/-

Pd Mr J Easterbrook for 15 nitches of reed 15/-

5 bundles of sparsticks omited last year 5/-


Pd Mr Mauned & J Easterbrook 32 nitches of reed @ 10d, £1 6s. 8d.

carriage of same 4/6

Mr N Easterbrook 3 1/2 bundles of spear sticks 3/6

Mr T Warren thatcher bill 12/6


Pd Mr Gidley 30 nitches of reed @9d £1 2s. 6d. Carriage 4/6

Mr R Mann 5 bundles of spear sticks 5/-

Mr T Warren, thatcher 16/3


Pd Thos Hext 25 nitches of reed @ 10d per nitch £1. 0s. 10d.

Mr Easterbrook 4 bundles of spar sticks 4/-

3 nitches of reed for Church House 2/6

Thos Warren, thatcher, 10/-


4 nitches of reed for Church House 4/-

Thos Warren thatcher, 3/9


J Easterbrook 6 nitches of reed, drawing same and spear sticks 7/-

Mr N Easterbrook’s bill for spear sticks 2/-


Mr Coneybeere 100 nitches of reed £5, carriage 16/-

Mr Abbott 31 nitches £1. 11s. 0d.

Mr N Easterbrook 8 bundles of spear sticks 8/-

Samuel Warren, thatching £1 11s. 6d.


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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:55:03.

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