Building the traditional Tristan cottage, from quarrying volcanic stone to thatching with New Zealand Flax and fitting out the interior.

Building the Thatched House Museum

A new live museum built using traditional materials and methods by Tristan Islanders

Report from Dawn Repetto with pictures from Dawn, Tina Glass and Sean Burns of the building project in 2012

If you want to see if Tristan da Cunha's famous co-operative society is alive and well in the 21st Century, this is the page to find out!

Background to the Project

Since all Tristan houses have now been housed with zinc, it was decided to build a replica of a traditional thatched house typical until 1961 and which continued until the late 1980s but were then replaced by various solid roofing. This house will become a live Museum for visitors but also a monument for the younger generation to see how their ancestors lived so many years ago.

The "Thatched Tristan House Project" began in January 2009. Retired pensioners were employed to build the house as they had the most expertise in soft stone building. The work gang consisted of Herbert Glass, Ches Lavarello, Donald Hagan, Piers Hagan and Anthony Rogers who were later joined by Eric Glass and Joseph Green. Unfortunately Piers Hagan had to retire early from work on the house for health reasons. As well as the men mentioned, other Government and Factory Workforce have also helped with work on the house when required.

A site was picked for the house in the East Field beside the 1961 Volcano. We wanted a site which was away from modern Tristan surrounded by open space, livestock and the noise of the Big Watron (small stream) running nearby.

After a site had been picked, soft stone (which was not in good supply) had to be quarried from the cliff behind Jenny's Bog by the work gang. This was a long and difficult task and I was taken aback at the skill and hard work the pensioners put into this. Please don't be fooled by the title "pensioners", I visited the quarry one day to see how progress was going and they insisted I tried to lift the 'maul' to hit a stone. Well I'm sorry to say it was so heavy I could just about lift it from the ground and these pensioners made it look so easy! My initial thoughts were if they are this strong now how strong were they 50 years ago.

Phase 1: Quarrying the Stone

The original Tristan da Cunha Settlement contained robust stone houses which were designed by two Devon stonemasons, John Nankivel and Samuel Burnell. They, like Corporal William Glass, had been part of a British Garrison which arrived on Tristan in 1816. Opting to remain after the Garrison left in November 1817, 'they set in stone' a tradition of house-building which used local materials to provide wind and largely weather-proof dwellings. Nearly all the Tristan volcanic rock is unsuitable for house construction, but, close to the Settlement, above Jenny's Bog, there exists volcanic tuff, a sandy coloured consolidated ash, known by Islanders as 'soft-stone' which is easily cut into immense building blocks that form the gable ends of traditional homes.

Photos show Island men selecting a large tuff or soft-stone boulder, which they split and shape ready to be transported to the new house site from above Jenny's Bog.

Phase 2:
Building the East Gable End

Photographs show the early site construction including leveling the ground and siting the first East Gable End softstone blocks.

Unfortunately in May 2012 we had very strong winds which resulted in the completed east gable end falling to the ground. I was devastated but the work gang was not to be deterred. Before long they had rebuilt the east gable again and it was just like it had not happened at all.

Phase 3: Building the West Gable End

Photographs show the West Gable End taking shape incorporating an open fire place and chimney behind.

Phase 4:
Front and Back Walls added

Photographs show the house walls nearing completion and, right the impressive site west of the Big Watron and close to the 1961 lava flow

Bit by bit, stone was split, shaped and placed on the house until all the stone work was completed. Weather played a big part in the progress and the pensioners could only work on good weather days. Finally after a long and arduous task we are now ready to thatch the Tristan House.

Phase 5: Building a surrounding wall

Photos show men on 23rd October 2012 drawing stone by re-cycling stones from old wall remains around a former potato patch, then loading on a trailer used to transport to the village and finally constructing a wall around the new thatched house.

Phase 6: Cutting the Flax

Photos show cutting the flax for thatching on 29th October 2012.
The New Zealand Flax plant Phormium tenax was introduced to Tristan da Cunha in the 19th Century and provided thatching material. Some twine was made and the thick hedges provided a valuable wind-break. The species is invasive and the Tristan Conservation department has sought to eradicate it from the outer islands and outside the Settlement Plain on the main island. On St Helena there are extensive flax thickets, formerly used in a thriving string and rope industry which is now defunct.

Phase 7 : Raising the Roof

On 5th November 2012 the wooden roof timbers were put in place ready for the big 'Thatching Day' two days later.

Phase 8: Thatching

Thatching Day : A traditional craft skill restored and passed on to the younger generation

On Wednesday the 7 th November it was declared Thatching Day. It had been a very long journey to get us to this point but finally the day dawned, slightly overcast but luckily with no rain.

Under the Supervision of the Pensioners (Herbert Glass, Ches Lavarello, Eric Glass, Joseph Green, Anthony Rogers and Donald Hagan), Factory and Government staff assisted with thatching and everyone met in front of PWD General at 6.30am. After everyone had gathered we all proceeded to the Thatched House site. There was about forty men in total and although this was more than adequate to get the roof thatched the objective was to pass the skill onto as many people as possible especially the younger generation.

Flax bundles were collected from James Glass' garden behind the Cemetery where it had been previously cut and taken to the house site by tractor, here it was unloaded in readiness for thatching. At first the experienced men showed the younger guys how it was done, as many of them had never seen or tried this before.

The guys worked in pairs, with one person inside the roof and one on top, each pair sharing the same thatching needle. There are usually two people on the ground to throw up bundles of flax and give assistance if needs be. The flax bundles are attached with string (nelly yarn) to the rafters (purlins) using the thatching needle. A total of 6 rows of flax bundles go on the back and 6 rows on the front with an approx total of 1,500 flax bundles being used to complete the roof.

All the apprentices caught on very quickly and soon I was hearing all the lingo 'Nip' (when the string is gripped to stop from slipping), 'Haul' (the string is then pulled through), 'Up' (this is when the string is tight enough), and'Bundle' (when they are ready for the next bundle of flax).

The ladies in the community very kindly donated food for the thatching day so the men were well fed with refreshments. There was much persuasion however to get the men down from the roof for a mid morning snack and some hot coffee. St Mary's School attended the thatching throughout the day and it felt like a real community effort.

School pupils arriving Lunch arriving Lunch break but no time to sit!
Laying the turf on the roof ridge
Job done, fire lit and flag proudly flying - well done you all!

After a long day, thatching was completed at 3.30pm. The new fireplace was tried out and the flag was then raised and everyone gazed on in appreciation at what had been achieved. It was very nostalgic and it felt like we had stepped out of modern Tristan and back in time.

I spoke with some of the younger men after the thatching had been completed and they were really pleased with the day and what they had learnt. It was a new skill to tuck under their belt and I feel confident that re-thatching the roof in about 8 years time can be done by the younger men. However, I hope the pensioners will still be fit and well enough to sit in the garden when this day comes to give orders and ensure all is carried out correctly.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those people who have worked on the house, to Heads of Departments and the Factory Manager for assistance and help with workforce, to Sean the Administrator for his support and last but not least the pensioners, Herbert Glass, Ches Lavarello, Eric Glass, Joseph Green, Anthony Rogers, Donald Hagan and Piers Hagan for making this dream a reality.

Work has already started on the inside of the house and the pensioners hope to complete this work by the Christmas break.

Above Left and CentreL The core team of pensioners who masterminded the building of the new Tristan Traditional Thatched House: Left to Right: Donald Hagan, Anthony Rogers, Ches Lavarello, Herbert Glass, Eric Glass and Joseph Green
The whole Thatching Day Team pose outside the splendid new traditional Thatched House on 7th November 2012

Phase 9: Inside Work: Wooden floor, wall and ceiling panels

The pensioners team have been working very quickly on internal wooden fittings and progress is very good. As in the old days no wood is wasted so they have used wood from the Wendy House which was destroyed by a storm in May 2012 (see the Storms Page for details) to board up the back wall.
Scenes inside the house on 19th November showing the men busy fitting ceiling, walls and floor

Editor's Note:

Timber today is imported and expensive. A pine plantation was established at Sandy Point in the 1950s but attempts to harvest the mature timber were abandoned by the late 1980s. A natural renewable resource for the future hopefully.

Historically it was occasional ship wrecks that provided valuable timber for fitting out houses and constructing roofs. Tristan islanders earned an international reputation for saving lives of shipwrecked sailors and their passengers, often providing food and shelter without any recompense.

A notable example was the wreck of the American barque Mabel Clark which struck a rock off Tristan's Molly Gulch in May 1878. Later the Government of the United States rewarded Tristan islanders for their 'gallantry, heroism and humanity' by rescuing crew and passengers and providing food and shelter until they obtained a berth home. The reward included a gold chronometer and chain, a present from the President of the United States, Rutherford Hayes which unfortunately was probably sequestered off the island in 1910. As it was a gift to the island the community want it back and work goes on behind the scenes to try to return it.

The most tangible reward, however, was timber from the ship which readily washed ashore. Two name plates from the Mabel Clark still have pride of place in island homes and the ship's bell remains in use in St Mary's Church Bell Tower.

Phase 10: Fitting the Windows

Photos from Dawn Repetto on 23rd November 2012 show the glazed window frames being fitted to the almost complete Tristan Traditional Thatched House Museum

Dawn wishes to thank the Government Carpenters led by Dave Hendrikse for the lovely windows were made on the island - a brilliant job well done.

Phase 11: Partition Construction

Dawn Repetto's pictures show:

Left the house on 28th November and right and below scenes on 30th November as a central partition is constructed to divide the Tristan Traditional Thatched House Museum into two rooms, the back interior wood wall now stained and a shelf constructed over the typical open fireplace with a vase of arum lilies, common in Tristan cottage gardens during summer.

Phase 12: Painting and Table Building

More photos from Dawn Repetto taken on 13th December show the Thatched House team constructing a table for the Traditional Thatched House Museum and interior painting. It is hoped the Traditional Thatched House Museum will be officially opened on Wednesday 19th December.

Phase 13: Furnishing ready for official opening on Wednesday 19th December

Photographs from Dawn Repetto show finishing touches being made on Tuesday 18th December to make the Traditional Thatched House Museum authentic.

Martha Glass on a stool by the open hearth - similar to a scene she would have experienced as a child in her family home.
Care has been taken to source furnishings typical of basic Tristan da Cunha cottages.
Why not now visit the separate Thatched House Museum page
featuring the opening ceremony and subsequent use of the new live museum