The History of Thatchers and Thatched Roofs

The History of Thatched Roofs

Between 5000 and 1800 B.C. the first hunter-gatherers colonized the area between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The increasing number of people caused a rising demand for food, which quickly led to a shortage of game and the need to develop alternative strategies of survival. People became sedentary in those places where they found the most favourable conditions to survive, for instance, in warm and fertile coastal regions and at riversides.

People contrived to domesticate and breed wild animals. They learned how to cultivate and reap certain plants and started to discover the sea as an additional source of food: They went out to sea by boat and caught fish and mussels.

The hunter-gatherers protected themselves from wind and weather in caves, log huts, yurts or even in simple burrows covered with branches. As men followed their food resources, they needed mobile and lightweight housing.

Farmers, cattle-breeders or fishermen though, required a different type of dwelling and longevity, not mobility, became now the primary focus. Accordingly, other building materials were employed – instead of using hides, leaves and branches men started to build with reed, sticks, logs and grass sods. The characteristics of reed as an aquatic plant made this robust natural building material an excellent choice for thatching.

The first thatched houses were built in the Germanic settlement area which in the New Stone Age was situated in what is today Schleswig-Holstein and the south of Denmark

These first basic houses just had one roof or one ridge with an open fireplace situated in the middle of the room. The fireplace constituted the centre of domestic life – it bestowed warmth and light. The smoke arising from the open fire proved to be of advantage for these houses. The high concentration of creosote in the smoke lead to an increased resistibility against fire and flying sparks. The smoke dried and conserved boards, beams and reed. It hardened the timber, protected it against pest infestation, kept insects away, dried the crop and cured fish and meat. The smoke escaped through chinks in the walls and through a hole (in German called the „owl hole”) situated in the gable peak. Of course such a smoky house had also its drawbacks: Blackened furniture, watery eyes and breathing difficulties are among the disadvantages as well as soot and smut dripping down during periods of humid air or strong solar heat.

The construction of the roof was quite simple. Round timbers served as rafters, branches and sticks as battens. The reed was fastened to the substructure with rods. The walls consisted of wattle, latticed framework or clay.

The mining of metals and further developments in the field of metallurgy influenced the methods of construction. In the Iron-Age (500 B.C. to 0 B.C) nails, bolts, hoops and metal fittings enabled builders to use new joints in their timber constructions. The time-tested thatched roof obtained new frame constructions and substructures.

These new possibilities of construction allowed to build larger houses and to divide them into different sections. Formerly houses only consisted of a single room – now they were divided into living space and stables. Size and layout of the house essentially depended on the climate and on the number of the livestock. Both these factors affected the harvest yield and the supplies needed.

In the Middle Ages (500-1000 A.D.) numerous towns came into existence and quickly became centres of economic, politic and religious life.

The increased population density led to a surging demand for food, which in turn considerably influenced building construction. In order to make the best of the limited space within the city walls, a denser building development emerged, featuring multi-storey houses. Different layers of population devised different designs according to their needs. Town halls, monasteries, churches and the houses of wealthy citizens were made of brick or quarry stone. Farmhouses were built using timber, clay and reed. If fire broke out in the town, it easily spread from house to house and all too often caused devastating damage.

In the course of time in urban areas stone buildings with hard roofing replaced frame houses with thatched roofs. This process, however, took very long. In 1388 for instance the city of Flensburg passed a bill which prescribed that new developments should be build with stone roofing. It was not until 1770 that the last building with soft roofing disappeared from the city. In the countryside, however, the thatched roof kept its importance

Summing up, we can say that for 6000 years reed, due to its unique qualities, has proven itself to be a reliable material for thatching, especially in the countryside.

The History of German Thatchers

Up to the Middle Ages it was the responsibility of each house owner to thatch his own roof. That is to say, that the first sedentary Teuton actually was the first thatcher as well. In the course of the centuries this craft became linked to agriculture: All farmers knew how to thatch and how to repair their roofs. In mediaeval times the craftsmen in the cities began to specialise themselves: The professional thatcher emerged. In the cities, as the thatched roofs disappeared, the profession of thatcher lost its importance. This explains why thatching was merely regarded as a subsection of roofing in general. It was not until the 01.09.1946 that four straw thatcher guilds were founded. In 1970 they were renamed to „Reetdachdecker Innung” (Guild of the Reed Thatchers).