There is plenty of evidence that the Romans used clay tiles extensively on their properties. Although the use of clay tiles diminished somewhat during the Saxon period, by the 12th century there are records of clay tile use being encouraged particularly in place of thatch for fire safety. The size of tile (10½” x 6½” x ½”) was standardised in 1477.
In the early years the use of clay tiles, like many other building materials, was limited by cost. Nonetheless, for those who could afford it, clay tile was often the material of choice.
Another limiting factor was transport. Prior to the advent of mass transportation systems it was rare for clay tiles (or any other materials) to be transported any significant distance, typically not more than a day’s cart journey. Exceptions were made for the roofing of churches and the homes of the very rich, who often had access to clay fields and kilns further afield, and employed the labour, which made the costs much cheaper.
As a result the pattern of clay tile usage correlates closely with the areas in which clay and ‘brick earth’ are found, and it is perhaps not surprising to find that the manufacture of clay tile from the later medieval period was closely aligned to that of brick-making.
By the late medieval period a more stable social, economic and political climate resulted in an increase in wealth, generally enabling more people to afford materials such as brick, glass and indeed clay tiles.
From the 17th century clay tile became the ubiquitous roofing material for large parts of the country where the raw material was close at hand – mainly the southeast and east of England and the Midlands.
Modern nib tiles (bright red) and peg tiles hung on nails are visible in the top picture (although quite a few have no fixings). Below, the nails used to fix the peg tiles can be seen more clearly.
Greater wealth in the 19th century, improved transportation and the introduction of taxation on fired building products such as tiles and bricks to fund the Napoleonic wars led to a reduction in the use of clay tiles and the increasing use of other roofing materials, particularly slate. However, it was the advent of the railway more than anything else that caused the roof map of England to change from red to grey. During the 19th century slate tended to be cheaper and thus it overtook clay tiles as the roof material of choice for the rapidly developing urban landscape.
During the 20th century mass-production of machine-made clay tiles resulted in a resurgence of clay-tiled roofs, particularly during the inter-war period. However, increase in competition from man-made tiles such as concrete tiles and man-made slate resulted once again in a downturn in the use of natural clay tiles. In more recent years homeowners have rediscovered the beauty of the material and there has been something of a resurgence in the use of handmade clay tiles.
The tile typically found throughout this period is the double-lap tile (one where the overlap between courses of tiles is greater than the length of a tile) but one should not forget the single-lap tile where the tiles interlock at edges only. Although today we are used to seeing the single lap tile in the form of concrete roofing materials, the history of single lap tiling goes back many centuries. The most common form is what we generically refer to as ‘pantiles’. These should not be confused with genuine Roman tiling, which in fact has not reappeared in any significant manner in this country since the 4th century AD.
The use of pantiles is not as widespread as clay tiling generally and it tended to focus on the eastern side of the country. Records indicate that pantiles arrived somewhere around the 17th century, with home-produced pantiles appearing from about 1700. Because the tiles were originally imported, their distribution tends to focus on the ports of the eastern seaboard. The exception is Bridgewater in Somerset, where pantiles were certainly established by the late 1750s and where a prolific pantile-making industry later emerged, supplying tiles throughout Somerset and the neighbouring counties.