In the summer of 1980 a tall scrawny graduate with no real experience of hard physical work or what thatching entailed sat down at The Thatchers Rest in Kings Ripton, Cambridgeshire – the home of Malcolm Dodson of Dodson Brother’s Thatchers, to discuss the possibility of entering the thatching trade as a trainee.
Over a cup of tea and cake Malcolm explained in a measured and thoughtful way that Thatching was tough, the hours long and the pay mostly unrewarding. He could have looked at the young man sitting across from him and told him that he was probably the most unsuitable candidate for such a job – as others had done before. He did not and listened to the man explain that he understood this but he was determined to make a go of things and would be able to find somewhere to live local to Kings Ripton, he would be able to get into work every morning for 7.30am despite not having a driving or motorbike licence and that Malcolm would not be disappointed.
Six weeks later that scrawny man did start work with Dodson Brother’s; he had found lodgings in Godmanchester and he did cycle the 6 miles into King’s Ripton every morning and the 6 miles back every night. The work was tough, the pay was not great – his fellow graduates were starting work on salaries of 3-4 times as much but the young man had got the start in the trade he was after and Malcolm had made it possible.
That young man was me.
Malcolm sadly passed away in 2011 aged 70.
Malcolm’s knowledge of thatching techniques and how to achieve a better and longer lasting roof was second to none; he was a leading light in the thatching world, prepared to listen to anybody but also not afraid to take issue with anybody if he thought their views were erroneous or could not be substantiated.
Ten years ago Malcolm wrote a piece in The Thatchers Standard which was and still is the in house magazine of The National Society of Master Thatchers and I would like to reproduce it word for word. It is one of the clearest, most thought provoking and careful pieces on thatching I have ever read. It also demonstrates Malcolm’s insight into issues affecting thatching and I also happen to agree with every single word.
So, what is proven conversation? It’s a method or system adopted at a certain period using the materials that were available at that time that has proven to WORK, AND BE COST EFFECTIVE!
Our craft could well be considered to be progressive practical conservation. As demonstrated by thatching craftsmen in meeting all the necessary challenges of the last century. Nothing stands still, it either progresses or eventually goes backwards into decline.
A new material, tool or system cannot be started until a new development has arrived or a trial is adopted. A simple example would be you cannot use a blacksmith’s hand made nail until the blacksmith has produced a hand made nail etc.etc.
Are we still hand gathering thatch, fixing it with mud, vines or withies and replacing on a very regular short-term period?
Or adopting systems that are more successful, that last longer and changing those that fail for alternatives. Or meeting the requirements for today?
There are many forms of conservation from proven down to theoretical target or percentage preservation.
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So how has our craft gone from possibly 100% monopoly of roofs in no more than 2000 years to the last ¼ of the last 1% TODAY. We have successfully lost 99.75% of that monopoly
Q. Is that down to our failings or more powerful factors?
In my talk on ‘The Path of the National Roof’ I attempt to cover some aspects and reasons for this phenomenal decline of our craft. As history is often guess work or versions I can only say that possibly the Romans introduced the edible snail, the natter jack toad and an alternative roofing material called a tile. Early wars and fires could have contributed. But powerful people or bodies have possibly contributed the most.
Legislation has always been against our craft for hundreds of years.
The enclosure act deprived poor people from harvesting “thatch” from the common lands.
Thatch has been totally banned from areas of the country for hundreds of years.
Restriction on boundary limits for buildings that could have been thatched, coupled with in-fill policies.
Grant aided draining of our countryside, removal of our hedgerows and wooded areas.
Grant aiding the removal of thatch for an alternative roofing material and the total destruction of thousands of our period thatched properties with Councils condemnation notices.
Improvements in communications making alternative roofing materials more available and at the same time drastic changes in agriculture with the loss of stacks, thatched farm buildings and village blacksmiths
No wonder the term arose that THATCH IS A DYING CRAFT
Gordon Dunkley from Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire could remember 36 thatched properties in his village that declined to just 5 until he thatched his own. In our village we can recall 19 thatched roofs that declined to just 8. That’s in a lifetime and in villages where there are still working families of thatcher’s
Q. How many properties are there, that now have an alternative material from the original on their roofs AND
HOW MANY ARE LISTED?
Q. How many period thatched properties were TOTALLY DESTROYED?
And, then comes LISTED BUILDINGS
In the next issue we hope to continue our journey and expand our recordings to cover the trees, birds, windows, countryside and relevant interesting aspects. We will look at the impact and implications of agriculture on our craft of thatching that’s based on individuality and diversity and practically look at the reasons and methods for improving and saving our craft.
So not to make this too “drawn out” (another nice thatching term) we will finish with a countryside adage: “You can’t make a silk purse from a pig’s ear”.
In other words if you make a cock up of your initial laying of your thatch, whatever you do afterwards, you will never make it perfect and as a consequence the term: “You’ve made a pig’s ear of that!”
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Source: The Thatcher’s Standard. Issue No.6. Autumn 2004
See also Our page on the website regarding Conservation & Historical Thatch.