BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th January 1999 (p.9), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THATCHING

Within a lifetime the role of the thatcher, or 'thacker', has almost been phased out of existence in he Peak, bringing the loss of a craft which has been unbroken from prehistoric times.

The diminishing number of people who live, or who have lived in thatched houses will attest that they are warmer in winter and cooler in summer than other dwellings. Unfortunately thatch was also favoured for wasps' and bees' nests and there are records of homes being burned down through attempts to smoke out the resident insects. Thatch was always a great fire hazard in days gone by, especially in towns where the flames easily jumped from roof to roof. This risk was probably in the minds of the bailiffs and burgesses of Derby when in 1574 they granted a lease on a property on condition that the incoming tenant 'new build the same and cover with tyle'. It was eventually discovered that thatch could be fireproofed with a mixture of alum and lime, a cost offset into the present century by a reduction in the fire insurance premium.

One early type of thatch utilised wheat stubble, the short straw left after the corn had been cut. Sometimes it was applied in alternate layers between stubble and wet clay or road sweepings mixed with lime. The result gave a life of less than twenty years whereas longer lasting materials included wheat straw, sedges, rushes, flags and reeds. Rye had a good reputation for the length and strength of its straws and Norfolk reed is still widely used for its superior durability. Wheat straw and rush were most commonly used in the Peak. In the days when straw was stooked in the field after harvest, long lengths were readily available to the thatcher and he bought direct from the farmer - today's baled straw would be useless to him. In turn the farmer was a good customer, thatch being ideal for insulating buildings which housed livestock.

A rush thatch lasted longer than straw and was more likely to be used if it grew in the locality. At Castleton we find Rushup Edge, from where rushes also used to be gathered every year for the rush bearing ceremony in Peak Forest church, while just outside the western boundary of the Peak District National Park are the place-names Rushton Spencer and Rushton James.

Farmers of the Staffordshire moorlands were able to make their own rush thatch for hay ricks left out in the fields after harvest. The thatched roof could be lifted off for a quantity of hay to be taken away, then anchored down again with stakes and ropes against the winter weather.

STRAW FINIALS

Large scale thatching, however, has always been left to the expert. His preparations begin by soaking the straw in water to make it pliable and then straightening it into thick, heavy bundles called yealms (Old English for a handful) to be bound with either twine or a straw bond. The yealms are laid tightly side by side, overlapping, and fixed in place with wooden pegs or spars, traditionally of hazel or willow. The completed roof is always designed to overhang the walls to keep them dry in wet weather.

It is often said that a well-thatched roof will last 80 to 100 years if the ridge is kept in good repair. A thatcher often topped off his ridge with a straw trademark finial. Into the latter half of the 19th century, a Derbyshire ridge might have been surmounted by cocks and hens, small sheaves of corn, house chimneys, crosses and, in one instance, a little man with a gun at one end of the roof aiming towards a crow at the other.

In many parts of the Peak gritstone slabs were the most common type of roofing, surviving while Welsh slate began to replace thatch from the 19th century. Generally speaking, thatch continued to be seen longest on poorer, tenanted property. Low rents meant that landlords could not recover the expense of strengthening work necessitated by changing to a heavier material.

Of the few remaining thatched properties in and around the Peak, the most photographed must be the house now known as Thatch End at Nether End, Baslow. Another example is seen between Pilsley and Baslow and will be familiar to those who drive through Chatsworth Park. Almost hidden from view is a private house on Nottingham Road at Tansley whereas a charming long cottage with a low thatched roof stands beside the road on the outskirts of Ashover. At Idridgehay is a house named South Sitch, dating from at least the early 17th century. Another thatched cluster survives around Osmaston, south-east of Ashbourne, in Coronation Cottages, the village hall and several estate cottages.

The Peak also has a connection with the thatched Revolution House at Old Whittington, near Chesterfield, where the Fourth Earl, later 1st Duke, of Devonshire helped to hatch the plot which led to the Glorious Revolution. The Revolution House can be visited by the public and admission is free.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th January 1999.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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