The Thatchers of Orwell

By Janet Chessum

Photo:Arthur Prime at work

Arthur Prime at work

There used to be a father and son in Orwell, Arthur (mostly known as Joey Ding) Prime and his son Harry Prime, who were thatchers.

They thatched houses, barns and corn stacks

They thatched houses, barns and corn stacks in Orwell and the surrounding villages. The stacks were in the farmers ‘stack or rick yards’; this was before the combine harvesters came into use.  In those days the wheat, barley or oats were cut with a binder, which cut the corn and bound it into ‘sheaves’. These sheaves were then stood up in the fields in what were known as ‘stooks’ or ‘shocks’. They stood there to dry and were then put onto carts and taken to the farm and built in to stacks to await the traction engine and threshing tackle to come along and thresh the sheaves. These stacks were thatched with a thin covering of wheat straw to keep them dry.

Joe and Harry's thatching was featured in a magazine

Joey and Harry thatched many of the beautiful thatched cottages in the area getting their photo into an East Anglian magazine as the standard of their thatching was excellent.

They used wheat straw, which in those days was a much longer straw than it is today. To prepare the straw for thatching it was tossed with a pitchfork, then well wetted by throwing buckets of water over it. Then it was ‘pulled’ out in to straight bundles called ‘yelms’. These measured about 18” wide by about 6” thick. About seven of these yelms would be taken on the shoulders of a man to take up the ladder to the thatcher.

Willow 'spits' and iron 'spears' held the thatch in place

The thatch was held in place by willow spits. The willow was wetted before being twisted into the shape of the spit. The spit was shaped like a ‘staple’. On houses and big barns the straw was also held in place by iron ‘spears’. These were made for the Primes by the local farrier/blacksmith Arch Sutton, who happened to be brother-in-law/uncle to Joey and Harry.

Joey and Harry also had the reputation of keeping the local pubs in business, but they were also very likeable and pleasant.

Janet Chessum (nee Sutton), niece and cousin to Joey and Harry.

This page was added by Janet Chessum on 16/03/2013.

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