Wednesday, 14 August 2013

"They don't build 'em like they used to!"

Ty Unnos above Llithfaen, where the "Captain of the Mob" was arrested.
As you walk in the Welsh upland landscape, you may be surprised to see the settlements so dispersed, spread out without clear and compact village centres. Much of this is the result of illegal encroachments by cottagers onto the land held in common during the 18th and early 19th centuries in a period of rising population. These encroachments were accomplished by the traditional method of the “night house” “ty unnos”. It was the common belief that if a person could erect a house during the night and have smoke arising from its chimney by dawn, then he would be the legal owner of the cottage and the land around it as far from his door as he could throw an axe. A family could not possibly do this alone and without preparation so the ability to produce a house overnight was clear evidence of community support. In mediaeval times settlements would doubtless come and go as building on and farming the common was no escape from the Malthusian trap - it really only gave the people more room in which to starve. However in the 19th century when there was alternative work in quarrying and in shipping such settlements tended to survive and this helps to give the landscape a spread out appearance.

What limited the survival of the Tŷ Unnos houses was the Enclosures early in the 19th Century when the Common land was divided up amongst the various villagers and the landowners who had rights there. The long straight stonewalls characteristic of this area were built to partition the land. Where a Tŷ Unnos ended up on the land of a wealthy Estate there was “hell to pay” as the Tŷ Unnos tradition was not enshrined in law. Evictions followed and often these were resisted. Just down the lane in front of you survives the house of Robert William Hughes “Captain of the mob” who led the local resistance in 1812. The Dragoons eventually caught him hiding up above his chimney and he was tried, convicted and deported to Australia.

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