Thatching in Sussex is not done by regular workers on the farm but by a professional expert who is engaged by the farmers in turn. The results are much more workmanlike and there is probably not a stack in the county which suffers from winter rain or storm. The thatcher is paid by piece work and he gets through the work steadily. But as he goes from farm to farm according to his own convenience — as the travelling thresher does it —- it happens in broken weather that one farmer’s stacks suffer more than another. This applies also when in the north the work is done by the labourer on the farm as he cannot always be spared at the time the stacks are ready for him.
I do not know whether the thatcher is usually old but it was an old man I watched at work one day. Age has a more old fashioned look here than in the north. The old men here all wear a white fringed beard with mouth, chin and fore-cheeks clean shaven; the kind of beard pictured in old photo albums containing the likenesses of grandfathers and great uncles standing stiffly beside solemn matrons in crinolines and curlers.
Agricultural labour ages a man early and possibly my old thatcher was not as old as he looked. I sat down on a heap of golden straw hot with the sunshine to watch him. He quickly reminded me that I would get wet as he had poured water over that straw for drawing and it was dry merely on the surface. The essential point, he told me, is that the thatch is put on wet. It cannot be drawn even and close nor patted down tightly — while it is dry . He lays down a batten — I think that is the local name — consisting of two stout sticks connected by a thin piece of rope and with a clutch for fastening the one into the other .
He draws out the damp straw from under the heap and lays it evenly on the rope until a truss of sufficient size is formed. He then hooks the two sticks together and gives them a twist, pushes a broad, four pronged, fork into the truss, kneels on one knee and hitches the twisted sticks over his shoulders.
He then climbs the ladder, shoves a sharp pointed stake into the stack half way up and places the truss on this. He begins at the bottom tucking the newly laid straw under the last strip done and the top ends firmly into the body of the sloping roof. When he has completed a strip he combs the broad fork through it to remove all loose straws and then proceeds to fasten down top and bottom with pliable wands of split chestnut, using forks of the wood to keep them down securely. He does this as he goes along and does not leave the roping — no rope is used — until the last. There are only two rows of wand fastening, one at the bottom and one at the top with a few short lengths round the corners.
At the top, the ends of the straw are left upstanding, like a brush or a clipped mane and, when the upper fastening is done, the thatcher cuts this neatly to a straight line.
I forgot to mention in its place that immediately after the straw is placed and before it is fastened top and bottom the old man climbs down and carries up a pail of water and with his hands sprays this over the newly laid straw. Then it is well battened down with the flat of the fork. To be well wet, straightened, tucked in and beaten firmly down is, he tells me, the secret of success and no storm and no rain can disturb or penetrate that thatch. When lifting one of the trusses on his shoulder the old man was at one time on his his elbows and knees. He remembered that he was getting too old for the job and he thought he would not be able to continue many more years. He didn’t know where thatchers were to come from as the young men did not take to it. His own son refused to learn and it required a good deal of skill and practice, as one could see. I asked him how they managed to split the thin wands of wood. He replied that if I had time to watch them, I could see them at work in the afternoon as he supposed the master would want that corn they were leading in thatched at once. The splitting, he said, could never be learned properly unless one began young. The wands must be of fairly even thickness or they were no good. An inexpert hand spoiled them by making them too thin in places. That corn however was not to be thatched but threshed at once and the old man got his wages and I missed for this year seeing the splitting.
I asked him how he was employed when the thatching season was over. He was a woodman he told me and cut faggots. Here one goes back to the days of Robin Hood, the old time forest, and the wood man with his chopper and his bundle of faggots on his back.