The tradition of covering roofs with thatch continues all over the English countryside. Although most buildings are now roofed with tiles, there are still quite a few that have a covering of thatch. The thatch has to be renewed regularly, This is a lengthy and costly business that can only be carried out by the small number skilled thatchers, who operate around the country. Because of the costliness of maintaining it, having a thatched roof is now a conspicuous sign of wealth, whereas once it was not.
Walls need not be dull
With decorative plasterwork
They can give joy
I NOTICED THAT A CLOCK on the south wall of the nave of St Mary’s Church in Ashwell (in Hertfordshire, north of Baldock) bore the makers name “JJ Dison, Potton”. Being by nature curious, I wondered whether any trace of JJ Dison remained in Potton, a small town in Bedfordshire, about nine miles north of Ashwell. So, off we went to Potton, and what we found there was delightful.
In the tenth century, the town’s name was ‘Potun’ and in the Domesday Book (1086), it was listed as ‘Potone’. These names are derived from the Old English meaning ‘farmstead where pots are made’. During the Middle Ages, the Tudor, and Stuart eras, the Market at Potton was one lof the largest in Bedfordshire. This declined after the Great Fire of 1783 during which much of the centre of the town was destroyed. In 1797, the Shambles (a market area including brick buildings) were erected, but these fell into decline in the 1930s. A smaller version of the market building was constructed later, and this now serves as the town’s library. The two women working there were friendly but knew nothing of the clock makers of Potton They sold me three fascinating books that contain historic photographs of Potton.
Today, Potton, which once had its own brewery, is now a commuter town. Its station, first built in 1850, is on the former Great Northern Railway. Currently, commuters can travel into London on trains that terminate at London St Pancras.
We wandered around Potton looking at various old buildings and enjoying a coffee at a pleasant café that had only just reopened after several months of having been closed because of the covid19 pandemic. A pleasant walk along Church Causeway brought us the parish church of St Mary’s, perched on the highest spot in the town. Its construction began in the 13th century and many additions were made in the centuries following. As with so many churches we have visited recently, it was locked up. We walked around its exterior, admiring the many decorative gravestones in the crowded cemetery that surrounds it. We returned to the centre of Potton along the causeway, crossing a couple of fast-flowing streams along the way. These waterways are part of the Potton Brook network, tributaries of the River Ivel, which is itself a tributary of the River Great Ouse which flows into The Wash.
Well, enough about Potton: you must be wondering whether I have forgotten JJ Dison. I have not, but there is not much to say about him, but more than I had expected to discover. James Jeremiah Dison thrived in the early 19th century. His exact dates are not known. Amongst the Potton churchyard inscriptions (pottonhistorysoc.org.uk), there is one for ‘Jeremiah James Dison’, dated 29th September 1844, when Dison was aged 35. His wife, Jane (née Edwards) died in 1840, aged 31. The couple had two children, named George and Sarah.
Dison is listed (www.clockswatches.com) as working both in Cambridge and Potton. The British Museum contains a beautiful printed watch paper (an ornamental paper place inside a watch case by the maker or repairer of a watch) which informs us the JJ Dison was a ‘silversmith and jeweller’ as well as a ‘clock & watch maker’. It also mentioned ‘jewellery &c carefully repaired’. In a directory of Potton (in a “Directory of Bedfordshire”) dated 1839, JJ Dison is listed as a watch and clock maker at Bull Street. There was another member of his trade, Mr Henry Reynolds, at Moon Corner.
The National Archives in Kew contains an undated will prepared by JJ Dison, which has within its wording:
“Jeremiah James Dison of the towne of Cambridge in the county of Cambridge watchmaker…”. Whether Dison lived both in Potton and Cambridge, it is not clear. However, the watch paper and the clock in Ashwell’s church suggest that at the very least he worked there. Also his burial in Potton, rather than Cambridge, suggests that his main residence might well have been Potton. That he worked in Cambridge is suggested by a post placed on a watch collecting website (https://mb.nawcc.org/) in which the collector noted that he had acquired a watch “…sold by John Dison Cambridge…”. Another website (i.collector.com) listed:
“Late 18th Century pair cased Pocket Watch, J J Dison, Cambridge, number No 570, the pierced and engraved cock to a Roman enamel dial with later hands, both cased marked for London, 1789, Makers mark W L …”
It might be coincidence or possibly more than that, but James Jeremiah was not the only Dison working on timepieces in the east of England. There was Joseph Dison of Whittlesey and Thomas Dison of Biggleswade. Biggleswade is close to Potton and Whittlesey is just north of Cambridge.
The clock at St Mary’s in Ashwell is a product made by JJ Dison in Potton. A small plaque, which I was unable to read, the clock being too high above the ground, suggests that the timepiece was a donation to Ashwell’s church. Whatever its origin and story, seeking out its maker has been fun and introduced us to a pleasant town not far from London, which we hope to visit again.
THE FRENCH COMPOSER Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) composed the music for a surrealist ballet, “Le Boeuf sur la Toit” (i.e. ‘The Ox on the Roof’) which had its premiere in February 1920 in Paris. Today, the 4th of September 2020, I saw a pig on a roof and on other roofs I saw birds and dogs. None of them moved a muscle. They just sat or stood where they were without moving. No, I have not been taking hallucinatory drugs or daydreaming. These creatures are made of straw and sit on the ridges of thatched roofs in country villages north of London including Abbington Piggot in Cambridgeshire. On previous occasions I spotted these straw animals on the ridges of roofs in Suffolk villages including Stoke by Clare.
In many parts of England, thatchers, proud of their skills, sometimes add decorative straw creatures as finishing touches to their fine handiwork. These ornaments are variously known as ‘dollies’ (not to be confused with ‘straw dollies’) and ‘straw finials’. Many contemporary thatchers are still willing to add a straw finial to a thatched roof.
There are records of sightings of straw ornaments such as I have described dating back to 1689. The use of thatching probably goes back many thousands of years. However, because of its organic composition, thatch does not usually survive long enough to be detected by archaeologists. The remains of some buildings found on archaeological sites have structural features that are strongly suggestive of their suitability to support thatched roofing. Thatching is not confined to the British Isles. It can be found almost all over the globe.
Thatch, being made of straw and other related material does not last forever. It has to be replaced periodically. The same is true of the straw finials. They look great when they are relatively new, but like the thatch, they decay gradually and become deformed. In one village that we visited today, we saw what looked like a squirrel perching on the ridge of a thatched roof. On closer examination, what we were looking at turned out to be the tattered remnants of what might once have been a fine straw animal.
We saw the straw pig on a roof in Abbington Piggott. Having seen this and having had a drink in the village’s pub, the Pig and Abbott, I wondered if the place’s name had anything to do with pigs. The Domesday Book of 1086 list the village as ‘Abintone’, which means ‘estate associated with a man called Abba’. The village became known by its present name by the 17th century, the name being taken from the Pykot or Pigott family who owned the manor between the 15th and 19th centuries. And, just in case you are wondering whether the surname Pigott has anything to do with swine, it does not. It is derived from the Old English word ‘pic’ meaning a hill topped with a sharp point.
We would never have discovered the village of Abbington Piggott had we not been advised by our cousins in Baldock (Hertfordshire) to visit nearby Ashwell, a very attractive village. It was in Ashwell, where there was only one pub open (and it did not serve food), that we were advised that we should continue to Abbington Piggott where we found the welcoming Pig and Abbott as well as the pig on the roof.
You can listen to “Le Boeuf sur la toit” by Darius Milhaud on: https://youtu.be/Bv9ii_uc2Rc