Conservation and Historical Thatching

Conservation and Historical Thatching

We believe that the finished appearance of any thatched roof can be explained logically.  The reasons may be the abundance or lack of local materials when the thatching took place, the plentiful supply or not of skilled labour and the financial constraints on the part of the person paying for the thatching.

The singular most important factor will be the decisions that the thatcher took when he carried out the work on the roof, especially when it comes to Conservation and Historical Thatching.

He will have decided how much of the old thatch to remove, how thick the new coat of thatch was to be, what style and design of ridge was to be fitted, how steep and long the ridge would be, what overhang and shape the thatch would be at the edges of the roof and a whole host of other factors.  When the roof had been completed that thatcher would have stamped his own mark on the roof.

Large Stock of Historical and Listed Buildings

We have arrived at a position today in the UK with a large stock of historical or listed thatched buildings; English Heritage believes this figure to be about 24,000.  Decisions have been made as to why these buildings have been listed and consequently how any work carried out on these buildings should be undertaken focused mainly on what materials should be used, what style of ridge should be fitted and how much of the old thatch should be retained.

In order to generate such specifications a reference point in history has been taken and those involved in conservation argue that it is this ‘look’ which thatchers should replicate.  The danger with any such approach is that social, economic and financial conditions which existed in the past are very seldom mirrored in the present.

Insurance premiums of 100 years ago were high because thatch was considered a very high fire risk, there was no legislation that banned people from burning rubbish in the countryside and the sparks from passing traction and steam engines were one source of thatch roofs catching fire.  Few chimneys had insulated flues and there were no fire retardant felt or boarding although the use of turfs or scraw did contribute to being a fire barrier under the thatch.

The local farm hand would use locally sourced materials to patch up and re-thatch roofs on a regular basis and when he was not thatching he would be cleaning out ditches and cutting hedges.

Historical Thatching


Listed Property in Northern Ireland

We have recently finished the re-thatch of a very old listed building in Northern Ireland. The roof timbers and associated turf-scraw (used as a fire barrier and insulation) was not strong enough to take a new coat of thatch.

A complete new roof was therefore pitched over the old timbers and the thatch was fixed to this.

When the project was discussed with the builder I said it may be nice to show some of the original roof from the inside by fixing a piece of glass or Perspex to the ceiling. This he duly did and the enclosed photo shows how anyone viewing the roof from the underside would not know there is a new roof pitched over the original especially as there are no rafter feet showing or rafters fitted to the outside of the gable wall.

Property on the Isle of Skye

Historical thatching in Northern Ireland

Today’s Thatchers Full-time Professionals

Today thatchers are full-time professionals who charge rates in line with the rest of the building industry; thatch owners rightly expect their roofs to last a long time and thatchers strive to achieve the best possible job, which sometimes means having to forgo or improve on some of thatching practices of the past.

We believe that there should be more dialogue between thatch owners, thatchers and conservation and listed building officers and it should not just be in times of crisis such as when the straw harvest is ravaged by wet weather as happened in recent summers.  A balance has to be met between the wishes of thatch owners who pay a lot of money to maintain their thatch roofs and conservationists who wish to see the maintenance of a particular style of thatching.

We as thatchers also have a duty to take account of local styles and traditions which contribute to making thatching especially in the UK such a varied and pleasing roof covering.  We at Master Thatchers will continue to strive to achieve this and to balance the longevity of thatch with its aesthetic and historical appeal.