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The disappearance of the rural Welsh cottage

Mud walls and thatched roofs

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Today, hardly any rural cottages erected since before the middle of the 18th century survive in Wales — it was generally believed that the poor simply could not afford materials good enough to last. New research suggests that this is not the case.

In fact, cottages were built with great ingenuity and attention to detail, using the best materials available locally.

Examination of Welsh cottages and the study of contemporary surviving accounts by Amgueddfa Cymru have concluded that it was a lack of maintenance and, above all, changing fashions brought about by the Industrial Revolution that led to their disappearance.

Sustainable construction

Transporting materials cost money so traditional builders were expert at exploiting their local environment in a sustainable way. Cow dung, for instance, provided fertilizer for the fields, was used in the making of clay flooring, added to help bind cottage walls and also as a fire-retardant for chimneys made of woven wattle.

Earth and turf

As the poor could not afford bricks, cottage walls were built from stone, earth or timber. They used whatever they could most readily and cheaply get. In western lowland areas of Wales — Anglesey, Ll?n and west Wales — that was often earth.

Few earth cottages survive in Wales today; many more can by found in the drier areas of England. In the very wet uplands, many turf -alled cottages were built, as turf lasted much longer than earth.

Thatched roofs

Up until the development of the great slate quarries of north Wales in the 19th century, and the coming of railways, thatch was a very common material. Today, very few thatched roofed buildings survive compared to England.

Four different thatching techniques were common in Wales; only one still survives today in eastern Wales.

In west and north Wales the top coat of thatch was formed of knotted handfuls of straw thrust with a forked implement into a thick underthatch layer. The underthatch itself was often laid on a woven wattle foundation.

In the most exposed areas, the roof could be held down by a network of ropes pegged to the walltop, or held down by heavy stones.

Chimneys of straw and wattle

Cottage floors were often earth or mud. Partitions could be made of woven wattle or straw rope, covered with daub. The smoke hood above the chimney-stack was also often of daubed wattle, as was the chimney stack itself; no wonder that so many of these cottages were destroyed by fire.

But however sustainable the building materials used in these cottages, they fell prey to changes in society, and to fashion.

Changing fashions

With the growth of the Industrial Revolution, and the importation of food from abroad, more and more people left the countryside, most of them cottage dwellers.

More and more cottages, too, became the property of great estates, who began building larger homes for their workers. It was often easier to demolish the early cottages than it was to give them a second storey or to adapt them.

Today, traditional early cottages are rare survivals, and all the best remaining examples are listed as being of special architectural importance.

4 comments

Edward Selwyn Roberts on 17 September 2011, 18:05

A most interesting article. The gamekeeper's cottage, known as Nant Ddu, on the Kimnel Estate, St George, Denbighshire, was a long-low, white washed, thatched cottage. Now, sadly no more. My paternal gt gt grandfather, occupied Nant Ddu, from the mid to late 19th century. Blaenau Ffestiniog

Greg Stevenson on 3 November 2008, 12:14

Good article - give us more like this and better illustration please :)

I run a small company rescuing earth and thatch cottages - www.underthethatch.co.uk

click through to see some West Wales examples
GS

John and Trudy Pearce on 3 November 2008, 12:14

We appear to have no 2,we are currently restoring a listed thatch covered building in west wales which has a pole roof construction with willow wattling and thatched with the stob method long wheat straw process

keith payne on 3 November 2008, 12:14

interested to know your four common techniques of welsh thatching.

are mr and mrs pearce reinstating the stob method,that would be a step in the right direction.

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