A brief history in tiles 

 

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You might not think there is much history behind the humble roof, but the roofing landscape in Britain is different from anywhere else in Europe with a rich and interesting heritage. Roof tiling is typified by the widespread use of concrete tiles, which are present on about 60% of all pitched roofs. Slates (both natural and artificial) represent over 20% of the total, and clay tiles around 10%. These figures hide large regional and local variations. Despite these stats, parts of the country that are valued for their architectural heritage, generally show a marked preference for slate or clay tiles rather than concrete.
 
In mainland Europe there is an almost complete reversal of material use. Clay is the chosen material in countries such Germany, Holland, Belgium and France. To explain why things have developed this way, we must look back at the history of roof tiling.
 
From early days until quite recently buildings were roofed with whatever material was most readily available close at hand. One of the earliest roofing materials to be used was natural hand-split slate, which was heavily used in regions where slate could be quarried. In Wales, the South West, the North West and Scotland, natural slate is still, even today, the predominant material seen on houses.
 
In more central areas such as the Cotswolds and the Pennines the local material was heavy stone slate, and this can also still be found commonly on roofs in those areas.
 
In all other areas, before clay tiles came into widespread use, thatch was the only alternative because it was too expensive to supply heavy stones or slates using horse-drawn transport over distances of much more than 10 or 12 miles.
 
 

When were the first tiles used?

The Romans certainly used clay tiles in England. They were of the "Under and Over" type ("Tegula and Imbrex"). A flat tray with curved up sides, the "Tegula" was laid on the roof, and the joints between two trays were made rainproof by means of the inverted cylindrical "Imbrex" tile covering them. After the departure of the Romans the art of making such tiles was lost, and only a few monasteries continued to make clay plain tiles for their own purposes, a situation that continued until the 12th century.
 
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At first clay plain tiles were simple rectangles of clay with nibs pressed out by hand, and laid to overlap the joints of the ones beneath. They were generally 10½ x 6½ inches, which was a size that was not only convenient to press out by hand, but was also easy to handle on the roof. Less scrupulous manufacturers sometimes made them smaller to save on their costs, prompting King Edward IV in 1477 to pass an Act of Parliament laying down their minimum size. Today plain tiles remain standardised at 10½ x 6½ inches and are often referred to in the industry as "ten and a half by six and a half tiles". Although this size has persisted as the norm through the centuries, in some places plain tiles were historically supplied in non-standard sizes; in York for example many of the older buildings are still roofed with tiles using 12 x 7 plain tiles. Where replacements are needed today for such odd sizes, manufacturers can usually offer to make them to those sizes.
 
More general use of clay plain tiles seems to have commenced in the 12th or 13th centuries. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, thatched roofing was no longer allowed in London and clay tiles provided an obvious fireproof alternative.
 
Overlapping tiles were first re-introduced into Britain from the Netherlands in around the 16th century. It was the Dutch nation that probably discovered the idea of linking tiles together using an ogee or S-shape, rather than relying on their vertical overlaps to prevent the ingress of water. This new design was effectively a Roman under and an over, joined into one tile. It was a clever idea, not at all as simple as it at first appears. Even today tilers who are not familiar with the way pantiles overlap find it a difficult concept to understand. In order to make them fit against each other from side to side, and also from top to bottom,  it was necessary to chamfer the top right and bottom left corner (shoulder) of each tile.
 

These tiles became known in England as pantiles, believed to be from the Dutch word panne (German pfanne). The advantages possessed by pantiles over plain tiles were easily apparent. While plain tiles were laid with their side joints merely butted together, pantiles actually overlapped each other from side to side. Because water could fall through the side joints of plain tiles, 2 to 3 thicknesses of tiles were used to ensure that they were watertight. Pantiles on the other hand only required 1 to 2 thicknesses at any point. It is for this reason that we refer nowadays to plain tiles as "double lap tiles", but we call tiles which overlap or interlock with each other "single lap tiles". To construct a roof using plain tiles you need 60 tiles per square metre, but if you use pantiles you only need about 15 tiles. The savings in weight and labour time are obvious.

 

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It was some time before pantiles were made in any numbers in England, but there are early records of them being imported from the Netherlands. This trading link resulted from Flemish weavers settling in East Anglia. English merchant ships would discharge their cargoes of wool and it was convenient to reload with tiles to provide ballast before returning. In this way pantiles became well established up and down the East Coast from Scotland to the Thames Estuary, and around the Severn Estuary.
 
One of the first historical references to clay tiles was a report that Daniel Defoe, author of Gulliver's Travels, having failed as a hosier, became the proprietor of a factory on the Thames at Tilbury to manufacture clay pantiles. The works closed in 1703 when he was arrested either for debt or for his seditious writings.
 
Early pantiles were fairly irregular and not very efficient at keeping out the water, so they tended to be used on buildings of lesser importance.  You can still see plenty of examples where old and twisted pantiles were used on old cowsheds whilst the main house is roofed using natural Welsh slate.
 
Alongside clay tiles the other popular roofing material has always been Natural Slate. In the mid 19th century slate began to be used more widely outside its native areas with the development of the railways. The slashing of transport costs meant that suddenly slate became a viable economic proposition. Instead of being used only on expensive houses and public buildings, slate started to be used on mass housing. The evidence is still to be seen today in most inner city areas.
 
During the first half of the twentieth century clay tile technology took a significant step forward. Instead of the simple overlapping ogee shape (an "S" laid on its side), tiles were designed with raised weatherbars, which interlocked with each other from one tile to the next.   Even if the finished tiles were twisted due to drying or firing faults, the interlocks were able to cope adequately with any water, and this not only improved the performance of the roof as a whole, it also allowed architects to design lower pitched roofs.
 
However, most of these developments occurred on mainland Europe, so between the world wars, tiles flooded in from other countries, particularly Belgium. The names of the 'Courtrai tile'  and the 'Marseille' shape became well known in British roofing circles. Thousands of housing estates were covered with such tiles, and many are only now undergoing refurbishment and reroofing.
 
'Marseille' roof tiles were patented in France in 1874, at the same time as the first clay presses. Marseille roof tiles were exported to England, America, Australia and New Zealand.

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Roofing in the 1960s

 

In the face of such aggressive competition from abroad, and failing to put in place the necessary investment to combat it, the British clay pantile industry all but disappeared by the 1950s. Its reputation had been shattered by an inability to keep pace with demand from a booming housing industry plus variable product quality which led to some tiles becoming susceptible to frost damage. By the 1960s many architects believed that you could no longer obtain clay pantiles in Britain. In fact a handful of small tileyards struggled on, using out-of-date techniques and quoting lengthy delivery periods.
 
It was concrete tiles that gained the upper hand at this time in Britain. When concrete tiles were first introduced into the UK in the 1920s, they failed to become popular, but after World War II when the huge rehousing programme was started, demand rapidly took off. It is during this era that Britain's roofing story diverges from that of other Western European countries. Whilst we in Britain invested in ever faster and more automated production lines for concrete tiles, other countries did the same for clay tiles. 
 
Furthermore, in the 1960s concrete tiles appeared in a larger format than hitherto. They were much more regular in size and shape than clay tiles and therefore favoured by contractors as being easier to fix on the roof. Skill levels in the UK were already slipping behind those in other countries, so the ease of laying concrete tiles compared with clay tiles was a huge factor in their favour.
 

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Roofing Today

 

It was only in the 1970s that the renaissance of the clay tile industry got under way. New French technology for computerised kiln firing and automated handling was developed, and this, together with German machine pressing technology allowed clay tiles to be made much more efficiently. The shape of the tiles became more regular, they could be made larger, they were cheaper, they no longer suffered from frost problems, and their supply was more reliable since they no longer were dried in open sheds at the mercy of winter frosts.
 
In France, the Low Countries, Germany and Spain, all these developments took place during the 70s and 80s. In Britain, where concrete tiles continued to dominate the roofing scene, the developments in clay remained sluggish.
 

Bridgwater - an early centre of clay tile manufacturing

The Somerset area had become a thriving centre for clay bricks and tiles from the 17th century onwards and was the only part of Britain to invest in clay tile production in the post war years. Unfortunately it proved to be only a half-hearted attempt and the numerous small manufacturers in the region were never able to improve the quality of their products enough to match the consistency of the new concrete tiles. This was partly because of the type of the local clay, and partly because the "flat firing" technology that was to appear in the 1970s was not yet available to them. The last of the Somerset tile makers disappeared in the 1950s and "Bridgwater Tiles", as they are referred to today, have not been mass produced since.  There remains, nevertheless, a thriving second hand market in Bridgwater double romans, which are still very much in evidence on older properties throughout the South West and occasionally in inner cities across the country.
 
 

The present day....

From the 1970s there was a slow but steady recovery in clay tiles and slates but it wasn’t until recently that the dominance of concrete tiles was challenged for the first time. In the early part of this century major investments in modern and efficient new clay tile factories led to the introduction of an array of innovative new products that made clay tiles more varied and more affordable than ever, especially against concrete. This has led to a clay tile resurgence that has coincided with a boom in slate, as new and cheaper slate imports arrived from overseas. These developments have combined to create the beginning of a renaissance in natural roofing materials in the UK.

 For more information on the roof tiles and slates available today try The Tile Guide

 
 
 
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