Villagers fight to restore historic thatched cottage built in under one night

Penrhos Cottage near the village of Llanycefn in Pembrokeshire
Penrhos Cottage, near the village of Llanycefn in Pembrokeshire, is at risk of becoming dilpaidated, as locals claiming the home is of historical significance and should be restored (Image credit: Google)

Villagers are fighting to protect a 200-year-old cottage that represents an ancient homebuilding tradition in Wales.

Penrhos Cottage near the village of Llanycefn in Pembrokeshire is a rare surviving example of tŷ unnos, which means 'one night house' in English. 

It ruled that anyone capable of building a house in just one night would legally be allowed to keep the land and the property.

What is the ‘one night house’ tradition?

Tŷ unnos is a custom that if a squatter could build a house on common land between dusk and dawn, then the occupier could lay claim to the legal freehold of the property.

There were regional variations on the rules, such as the stipulation that smoke had to be issuing from the chimney before the sun rose and the variation that the builder could also claim all the land within the distance they could hurl an axe from each corner.

It is a custom and has no basis in either English common law or medieval Welsh laws.

Dafydd Wiliam, principal curator of historic buildings at St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff, told the BBC: "Between the 17th and 19th centuries the enclosure of land into large, privately-owned farms and the eviction of those who lived and earned their living from that land, pushed the rural poor to the margins. A theme common to many regions of the world.

"As a folkloric tradition, there were no hard and fast rules and people may have believed different things in different areas. In some areas people believed that throwing an axe from the threshold of the finished cottage would mark the extent of the small holding that went with it.

"However, as an axe would have been a valuable tool to an impoverished family, no-one would risk blunting it by actually hurling it."

The last known tŷ unnos was believed to be built in 1882 in Flintshire by four brothers from Lancashire - an adventure which was fictionalised in the 1914 novel Mushroom Town.

Locals are fighting to preserve the house

Locals are fighting to preserve the cottage, which has been described as an "important architectural landmark" in Pembrokeshire (Image credit: Google)

Why are locals fighting to restore the home?

Penrhos Cottage has been empty since its two previous owners, two elderly sisters, left in 1967, but locals are now trying to raise funds to refurbish it and perhaps turn it into a museum.

“We’re determined to do everything we possibly can to protect it and ensure that it continues to remain here in Maenclochog for many more centuries to come,” said Shan Harries, clerk of Maenclochog Community Council.

“A few years ago we were told that the cottage was going to be restored by its owners, Pembrokeshire County Council, which would allow it to be opened once again as a museum. But we were recently told there is insufficient funding available for this to happen.

“Our main concern is that we don’t want to lose Penrhos because it’s an important architectural landmark here in north Pembrokeshire and has been described by Visit Pembrokeshire as a hidden jewel.”

Williams adds that examples of genuine examples of tŷ unnos homes is virtually impossible because they had to be simple structures that were quickly replaced with a sturdier stone structure.

He added: "So while there are cottages you could say are part of the tŷ unnos tradition, there are no surviving original examples."

 ‘All in all, it’s in reasonably good condition’

Ms Harries visited the site to assess it for cottage renovation and told the Tivy-Side Advertiser she was “pleasantly surprised” about its condition.

“One of the small sash windows isn’t closing properly and recent roadworks outside has resulted in an uneven frontage which means that surface water is now running back into the house,” she said.

The need for fresh stone cladding and thatched roof costs were also considered when the cottage was assessed recently.

“And naturally it has to be re-limed. The roof was re-thatched just a few years ago but all in all, it’s in reasonably good condition.”

The cottage still features a Welsh dresser filled with China cups and plates along with the kitchen range used by sisters to cook.

Sam Webb

Sam is based in Coventry and has been a news reporter for nearly 20 years. His work has featured in the Mirror, The Sun, MailOnline, the Independent, and news outlets throughout the world.  As a copywriter, he has written for clients as diverse as Saint-Gobain, Michelin, Halfords Autocentre, Great British Heating, and Irwin Industrial Tools. During the pandemic, he converted a van into a mini-camper and is currently planning to convert his shed into an office and Star Wars shrine.