Friday, 14 January 2011

Ty'r unnos

A ty unnos - no doubt of it. This illustration from Eurwyn William's The Welsh Cottage (a Christmas present from me to my husband), shows just how basic these cottages would have been. A one room hovel, with a door and no window, but it had cost nothing but time and neighbours' friendship and provided a family with shelter.

This is translated from the Welsh as "one night house" - in other words, a house which was built during the hours of darkness and habitable enough to have smoke coming out of the chimney next morning, earning its builder "squatters rights" on the tiny corner of land they had managed to appropriate. The one night houses were also built in other marginal areas (I have had one pointed out to me on Dartmoor, which is now slightly more substantial and welcoming than it must have been originally).

Various natural local materials would have been used in order to build the cottage. Stone would have been needed to provide foundations for the cob or turf outer walls. Often it would be large rounded river cobbles, leveled with layers of slate.Internal walls of wattle and daub were often placed on a foundation of brambles, which were also used to tie the roof materials to the timbers. Mud would have been needed to incorporate in the cob or wattle and daub walls, as would horse hair. The floor would have almost certainly been bare earth. However, the earth floor might have lime mixed with earth, or urine from bullocks, or even blood from a recently-slaughtered bullock might be used to harden it. Mixed with limewash, the blood would make an acceptable coloured paint, which could be used outside when waterproofed by the addition of tallow.

Below: an example of a local cottage (possibly a ty unnos) which has utilised the river cobbles and slivers of slate in the building of its gable wall. In 1881, it was home to net makers and sieve makers.
Below: I'm not sure if this was originally a ty unnos either, but it is a cruck framed dwelling, thatched, and with quite substantial end walls. The ty unnos would often be improved over the years - or else allowed to sink back into the land from whence it came.

Water nearby would be needed to supply the cottager's needs once living within, but also of course, to mix with the cob or daub. Turves were used as walls, as underthatch and also as the ridge along the roof. Timber would have been needed for door and window frames, doors, a bressummer beam over the cooking fireplace, and of course to provide roof timbers and in some instances cruck frames for the cottage.

Thatch would be made of wheat or rye straw, or else rushes, reeds, or moorland grass locally sourced. It would be laid across a framework of small branches which rested on the stronger joists, and over an underthatch of turf, bracken, gorse or heather. Willow or hazel would have been utilised to hold it in place, and also to make pegs to hold the framework timber together.

Whilst window glass was a luxury very few could have afforded, animal hides scraped very thin or oiled paper were sometimes used to allow some light into the interior. The poorest might just have had a flap of sacking, which would be drawn aside to allow daylight in (and often smoke out, presumably!)

Tomorrow I hope to find time to tell you more about the details of how they were built - illegally - and under cover of darkness.

a.r.o.s. for today: rain falls like tears on the empty hearth where a mother once cooked. This tumble of stones was once her home . . .


  1. Oh, always an adventure to visit your blog...this is so very interesting and sobering, too...

  2. What an interesting post. Life was hard, but how ingenious the cottagers were to build a shelter from such basic raw materials.

  3. This is new to me so thank you. When I lived in Turkey I learned that Turkish has a word for homes built in one day: gecekondus, which means "built overnight". Ha, I know I probably spelled it wrong, but it has a similar meaning.

  4. I know it's the child in me but when I saw the heading to this post I couldn't help wondering....

    A ty'r unnos - Aurus Rex?

    Aye, I know.

    I'm going away now..........


  5. This is really interesting. I've never heard of them before. I can understand them being built around here in our dry climate, but in the Welsh mountains? They were a hardy breed! But then, I'm sure they could never have dreamed of how pampered we are.
    Mexico, Guatemala. and Costa Rica have almost the equivalent.

  6. The 4th photo from the top of your post has a resemblance in feeling to the many cabins and old barns and outbuildings which have collapsed here and been covered in vines and saplings.

  7. Hi there, just reading back through some of your posts BB (I've been absent too long!) - this is fascinating stuff and has rekindled my interest in social history. I've also been re-watching Tales From The Green Valley (such a favourite!).I wonder if you could recommend a couple of books/authors covering the social history of the 17th C - I grew up near Chester, so am keen to learn about that area. I'm also interested in the history of farming practices in the era of Hardy's 'Tess' etc. I'd be grateful for any recommendations you may have.

    Willow x