Saturday 15 January 2011

T'yr unnos Part II

(The photographs show what remains of a one-time cottage, and the cauldron, tin baths and buckets which had once been used there. This is more likely to have been a dwelling permitted by the farmer in the 19th century, to tempt an agricutural worker to stay put at a time when farm workers were being lured away to the towns with the promise of work in the mines and mills. Farmers also benefitted by being able to charge a small rent for the corner of the field (as this cottage was situated and many more in the parish) and to have a worker on call, who could be laid off in slack times. The poor worker would be obliged to try and earn a crust in other ways, as the rent would still need to be paid . . .)

Who were the people then, who were forced to build their house in such a manner? Why was it necessary to do it under cover of darkness, and perhaps at the time of the year when the weather was least likely to be kind to house-builders but the hours of darkness longer? The ty unnos would have been built and lived in by the type of worker-peasant class who were agricultural workers for those with farms - a different class of person to the cottager, who had a little more independence. The worker-peasant was a "largely despised" class - who were paupers when without work.

Farmers had little inclination to build dwellings for their labourers, believing that such houses would soon become "nests of vermin, pilferers and poachers" and the general inclination was to pull DOWN such houses.

The ty unnos was a social necessity for this lowest of the low, who found it necessary to encroach upon common land - in other words, become squatters. The farm labourer would want to be as close to his place of employment as he could, but that proximity would be governed by the suitability of the landscape - no-one could build in a bog, for instance, although often the agriculturally marginal moorlands of sour acid soil were often chosen as the squatters would be less likely to be thrown off. As for surrounding land, it was reckoned that a man could lay claim to as much land as he could enclose after throwing an axe as far as possible from the building - although in Cardiganshire this was generally noted to be something in the region of 6 acres so these farm workers must have had good upper body strength! If the man (and his family) could reside in his new built house for a year without any interruption, he could claim this as his freehold property and replace the original hovel with a more permanent building.

It is not hard to imagine the work and organization leading up to the building, such as this extract from Eurwyn William's book The Welsh Cottage, which refers to an upland Tregaron district in Cardiganshire in the early 20th C:

"The first indication would be that the village carpenter was preparing a door and window for someone . . . the cottager would prepare several essential items beforehand and seek the assistance of his friends . . . Later on, a meeting-place would be set, like a crossroads or a hillock, in such a way that none would know until the last minute where the cottage was to be built . . . Work was begun as secretively as possible, about ten o'clock; sometimes there would be 30 or 40 workers, according to the man's popularity - some of them building, and others on the look-out in case anybody came to hinder them. Then, in the early hours of the morning the new house-wife would bring food for the helpers before they scattered and went ahead to set a fire on the new hearth, because the house, according to country law and lore, was considered to be safe once smoke arose from the chimney. "


  1. Isn't it amazing how they used to build so fast. Not to mention enclose a few acres at the same time.
    I've picked up a few books on early cottages and several seem to think that the average cottage had around 1/4-1/2 an acre. Enough to grow veg for the family, keep chickens and a pig in the sty. Sadly I leant out one of these books and when I asked for it back was told it 'had been thrown away'!!!

  2. The quality of life and health in these hovels doesn't bear thinking bout, does it?
    How did they ever raise a child?

  3. I have really enjoyed learning about T'yr unnos.

  4. A really interesting post, it just shows how very hard life was for an ordinary ag lab living a hand to mouth existence with no guarantee of work especially in the hard winter months. Can you imagine living in one of those T'yr unnos during the kind of weather we had in November and December?