Vol. 10 No. 2 - 2015
One of my favourite buildings in Craigavon is Bloomvale House at Ballydougan on the Gilford Road, Lurgan - a fine two-storey thatched house with front wall built in roughly coursed galleted rubble blackstone – the thick mortar joints filled with stone chips.
Built in 1785 by a Huguenot family named Gascoigne, it was a linen merchant’s house and a centre for receiving and final processing of linen from out-weavers who worked hand-looms from home. It appeared on the front cover of Ulster Architectural Heritage Society’ publication Craigavon (1969) – one of the first published lists of historic buildings and sites commissioned by a public authority (Craigavon Development Commission) in Ireland.
Bloomvale is an unusual survivor because most houses of this quality would have been re-roofed with the more fashionable and durable slate at some stage as happened at the Grange in Waringstown (date-stone 1698).
A even more remarkable survivor is the thatched planter’s house (pictured right) at Edenballycoghill north-east of Waringstown. Also built around 1700 in fieldstone and mud, it has harled and limewashed walls. It was essentially a derelict shell when its owners undertook the herculean task of restoration.
But these were the houses of yeoman farmers and merchants. What about the homes of ordinary workers? For them money was scarce and houses were essentially built by their occupants, the extended family and neighbours using materials that were close to hand and, where possible, free: mud and stones gathered from the fields, rough-hewn timber, either cut down or rescued from the bog, sods of earth and straw.
Examining old maps of what was to become the Craigavon area, one is struck by the large number of rural dwellings scattered along its tangled web of roads. Farming alone would not have supported these numbers. In 1844 Lt. Col. Blacker stated “This is a manufacturing county and there is a vast number of small farms, if farms they can be called, that are held by men who cultivate them and weave also.” The linen manufacture system of “putting-out” gave employment well outside the urban centres to weavers working from home, with many households having two or more looms. Their industry may not have brought prosperity but it could explain why so many vernacular thatched dwellings in the Craigavon area survived for so long. “The shop”, the room containing the loom, provided a small and, with luck, steady cash income, helping pay for the upkeep and repair of the dwelling; it also provided extra living accommodation when home weaving died out. And the high density of thatched cottages helped ensure steady work for thatchers, ensuring that the skills base was maintained.
Thatched roofs could be constructed with a large overhang to throw rainwater clear of the walls – there were no gutters or down pipes on these dwellings. Although some houses were built using fieldstone with mortar made from mud or sometimes lime, the majority of these houses used mud as the principal building material.
Mud walls up to 18” thick were built directly off the ground. Floor plans were very simple reflecting the limitations of the materials used. A common layout would have a central kitchen with bedrooms off to either side.
The hearth would be constructed on an internal wall and a jamb wall afforded some shelter from the wind with a “spy” window to give a view of anyone entering. The upper half of the front door (there was no back door) was left open to provide ventilation and light while keeping children in and animals out. Windows were tiny as glass was expensive; sometimes they were only used on the front of the house.
To give additional sleeping accommodation and storage a loft, accessed by ladder, was often constructed over one or more of the bedrooms. Extensions e.g. for a weaving shop, a parlour or to give accommodation for animals were generally added at the gables resulting in long low cottages and outbuildings following the slope of the land.
Mud may seem an unsuitable material for walls but if well maintained by regular coatings of limewash it could last for centuries. Limewash “breathes” better than modern paints, allowing moisture in the wall to escape. It was made from quicklime on site, a hazardous process as quicklime causes severe irritation when it is inhaled or comes into contact with wet skin or eyes. Diluted to the consistency of milk, the limewash was applied in 4 or 5 coats, preferably not in hot weather when it would dry too quickly.
For centuries cottages were roofed in a similar manner as illustrated above. Typically purlins (a, b and c in Fig 1) were 9” diameter roughly-hewn oak branches, the straightest that could be found, spanning from gable to intermediate walls. These carried rafters 4” to 5” in diameter, the ends of which were built into the mud walls. 1” thick timber laths running parallel with the purlins were fixed to the rafters at approximately 9” centres to support the “scraws” or sods; this gave a solid base for the thatch covering which was secured in place using “scallops” - thin branches of willow bent to the shape of a staple and then hammered in with a wooden mallet.
Wheat straw was the preferred material for thatch - it had to be straight and not broken; modern strains of wheat bred with short brittle straw to suit the combine harvester are unsuitable for thatching. Oat straw, rye straw and rushes were also used in North Armagh although rushes were considered to be a very inferior roof – they were short lived and needed constant attention. Flax, the raw material of linen, is widely thought to produce the longest lasting roof, 15-20 years compared with only 7-l2 years for wheat and even less for other materials. Today in Ireland almost no straw and reed is farmed for thatching and the vast majority of thatch materials are imported. With a few exceptions the thatcher’s skills are not passed down through the generations and many of our thatchers are from eastern Europe.
Four or more acres of ground were required to grow enough wheat straw for a single dwelling. After harvesting seed heads would be removed by lashing (beating) wheat or against a barrel or, later, using a horse-powered barn thresher. Some seeds would inevitably be left and rats and mice would eat their way in through the thatch to find them, leaving a track for rainwater to enter.
The picture above shows the underside of a thatched roof with later beam inserted to offer some support to the purlins. It shows the rough-hewn nature of the laths. The original purlins are still visible at Bloomvale House although they have been reinforced by later sawn purlins.
Thatched cottages were once the norm in the countryside but there are now fewer than 80 listed thatched dwellings considered to be viable remaining in Northern Ireland. Recognising that thatched cottages were ‘at risk’, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency offered owners a 75% grant for repairs to their thatched roofs and up to 90% if they received income support. Recently even this financial support was withdrawn when DoE’s budget was significantly reduced as part of government cuts.
Houses built with mud walls are usually small and are particularly difficult to extend and modernise because sections of the mud walls can collapse when forming new openings, sometimes bringing the roof down too leading to planned work being aborted in favour of the much simpler option to rebuild – removing all the constraints imposed by existing walls. But owners of thatched cottages are often very attached to them and are will put up with the limitations of space and shortage of modern conveniences.
Modern building materials are of questionable use for maintaining old buildings. Corrugated steel or asbestos sheeting to cover the thatch was seen as a great step forward, was cheap to transport, easy to fix, able to take rainwater gutters and offered many years trouble-free service. But defective flues resulted in roof fires under the steel sheeting which, if not spotted in time, could lead to destruction of the dwelling and even fatalities.
Cement, invented by the Romans and reinvented in the 19th century, also seemed like a wonder material – strong, quick setting and waterproof; it even sets under water! But it is quite unsuitable for rendering old mud walls. Cement expands when warmed while mud tends to shrink; it is stronger than its background so doesn’t move as the building moves and differential thermal movement causes cement-based renders to crack, allowing water to enter. Trapped moisture and condensation on the back of the render can gather at the base of the mud wall, causing deterioration and failure. Patching mud walls using brick or concrete block also destroys their homogeneity, making the original walls less stable.
“Improvements” such as blocking up redundant flues, storm-proof double-glazed windows, central heating and “tin” roofs reduce natural ventilation within mud walled dwellings, exacerbating problems caused by condensation. External improvements to raise and resurface roads close to mud-walled dwellings could also cause problems, with flooding under timber floors resulting in rot – the original floors would have been mud but concrete, tiles and timber were often used for improvements.
The hearth in the kitchen was where all cooking took place – the cooking pot was suspended from the black chimney crane which could be swung away from the fireplace to allow food to be served safely. This is a rare survivor in a former thatched cottage now used as a shed.
Perhaps the greatest threat to our historic mud-walled and thatched dwellings came from their size and layout which greatly limited opportunities for modernisation other than by extending in the traditional manner at either end. The distance between front and rear walls was 12 to 15 feet, usually with bedrooms accessed directly off the kitchen or through other bedrooms. Introducing a corridor only served to make room sizes even smaller. Many of these dwellings were extended with poorly constructed (often flat-roofed) kitchen and bathroom extensions – initially a source of pride to the occupants but rarely very successful.
In the latter part of the 20th century the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s home replacement grants in rural areas accelerated the loss of heritage dwellings –the original dwelling had to be demolished before the final payment of the grant. Rather too late to be of use the rules were changed: on a recommendation from the Environment Heritage Services the original dwelling could be retained.
This may explain why the surviving cottages in the Craigavon area tend to have been larger than the norm and better suited to today’s needs and aspirations. Replacement grants are now only considered where there is an imminent and significant risk to the occupier.
The Bluestone Road contains some of the best thatched cottages in Ireland – all currently in an excellent state of repair. Perhaps the finest of these is the Red Cow Inn – now a private dwelling. It is approximately 48 feet long, 21 feet deep, and 22 feet high.
On the first floor it has three compartments which may have been the sleeping quarters for passengers on the stage coaches passing close by on their way from Armagh to Carrickfergus.
This article has shown most of the historic thatched cottages in the Craigavon area – there are also some modern ones. The following pictures show photographs taken by staff of Craigavon Development Commission about 40 years ago. Can you help identify them?
With thanks to Jack and Violet Gilpin for advice and encouragement.
Click here to view the interior of Cruck House, Ballyvollen at the Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra.