The Isle of Wight Society

April 2018

Needed: a revival of the ancient craft of thatching.

By Helena Hewston

A romantic and picturesque picture of the Isle of Wight would include a thatched cottage.  The softened edges of the roof line, the earth colours from gold to black and the balanced proportions of the building are easy on the eye and fit well into the landscape of village and town.  Practically every village has a cottage or two.  Shanklin Old Village, Winkle Street and St Agnes's Church in Freshwater are examples and they contribute in the promotion of the Island to visitors wanting to capture something of  times past.


Thatch was the only roofing material available to the bulk of the population in the countryside until the late 1800s. Buildings of some social and commercial standing had slabs or slates as those in the centre of Newport, manors and country houses. The change came when Welsh slate became more easily transported and the Industrial Revolution saw, a decline in agriculture, depopulation of the countryside and a growth in housing in towns. 

The chief material used was wheat straw.  It has a hollow stem, which, when packed closely together, repels water. The short stemmed wheat, which is now grown, is no longer suitable. Now most thatching material comes from Turkey and Eastern Europe. Water reeds were also used. These now come from Norfolk. 

There are many Island buildings that show evidence of  having been thatched.  At the gable end a change in the brickwork often indicates where the roof was raised and strengthened to take slates and tiles. 

The number of thatchers on the Island has declined but hopefully this craft will revive.  They are needed in the preservation of historic buildings. New buildings have regulations which reduce the fire risk. One was built in Wellow in the last 20 years. It contributes to the environment by reflecting the character of the area.  It is also considered an ecologically good building material as the roof is lighter in weight, gives sound and temperature insulation and is somewhat  resistant to wind damage.  Gutters and down pipes are not needed as the depth of the thatch keeps the water from the walls.


The roof slope of 45-55 degrees and a depth of 12ins (33 cm)  ensures rain and snow run off. It should last over 60 years with the ridge needing attention every 12-14years.  The roof line can be finished either flush or blocked. Blocked ridges give a thatcher a chance to decorate the roof and provided a signature to his work, whether as a  kangaroo, as was added in Godshill but later removed,  or scallops which is more common. Moss is not considered detrimental but when the horizontal wooden “sways” and the hair pin “spars” start to show through the surface then the roof in in need of re-thatching. 


This architectural statement has had a place for hundreds of years on the Island, with care it may continue to be part of our heritage.

[Go Back]

Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

Website design by Netguides