THE PLAIN TILE IN ENGLISH ARCHITECTURE
Dr. R. W. Brunskill
What’s in a name? Roman tiles, Italian tiles, Spanish tiles, even pantiles have something more than a mere name. But the humble plain tile is just plain. Yet the name derives from Latin and was used in medieval documents to describe the ‘plane’ or flat tile of baked clay as distinct from the various curved tiles which were also used. It is the name still applied to one of the most widespread as well as one of the most versatile of building materials available for covering our roofs and our walls.
The word ‘tegula’ or tile was used to describe several clay products in the early Middle Ages including bricks and paviors as well as roofing tiles but the special word 'thacktyle’ was used certainly from the year 1212 and possibly from as early as 1189 in London. As the term suggests, tiles were used as an alternative to thatch where a more long-lasting, a more uniform, a more predictable, and, above all a more fire-resistant roof covering than thatch or reed or straw was required. This was especially true of urban buildings. Squeezed within their defensive walls, medieval towns were
crowded with timber-framed buildings covered with thatch and therefore vulnerable to the spread of fire from roof to roof. From an early date various municipalities attempted to counter the danger by legislating for the use of tiles. Use of plain tiles rapidly spread in town and country until by the 18th Century these were the normal roofing material for a third of the country.
The shape of the plain tiles is sometimes held to derive from the shape of wooden shingles, another alternative to thatch but one almost equally as vulnerable to fire. Many attempts were made to regulate the size of plain tiles. The best known is that made by statute in 1477/8 during the reign of Edward IV in which it was required that a plain tile should be 10½” long by 6¼” wide (most plain clay tiles of the present day are 10½” long by 6½” wide). Since tiles were sold by number, unscrupulous tile-makers were inclined to skimp on dimensions while the building owner expected to have to use the minimum number of tiles to cover his roof. The statutory size made an acceptable compromise though the limitations of a manufacturing process which depended on a mixture of judgement and chance meant that nominal dimensions could not always be maintained.
Bricks and tiles were generally manufactured together. Both tiles and bricks were normally made from clay dug close by the site of the intended buildings, worked and tempered and then burnt in a clamp or kiln made at the building site. Each individual tile was made by hand; it was not until well into the 19th Century that tile-making machines came into use and then more often for pantiles or other shaped tiles than for plain tiles.
From 1784 onwards the price of tiles was affected by the Brick Tax introduced by William Pitt the Younger along with several other ingenious taxes to help defray the cost of fighting the American War of Independence. Taxation records give some idea of the numbers of bricks and tiles manufactured at that time. In 1833, for instance, over 42,000,000 plain tiles were subject to the levy and, while they were produced in many counties of England, the largest producer was Staffordshire with nearly 8,000,000 made at that time. The tax on tiles was in fact removed in 1833; bricks had to wait until 1851 until they were free from tax.