The use of clay roof tiles in the UK can be traced back as far as the Romans, who used ‘under and over’ tiles. These are flat trays with cylindrical overs covering the joints, hence the term ‘double roman’ for modern interlocking tiles, which mimic the appearance of under and over tiles.
Plain or ‘flat’ clay tiles came into general use around the 12th or 13th century, and became the roofing material of choice in London following a royal decree from King John in 1212 prohibiting the use of thatch. Since then, the material has never been out of production. Plain tiles are still manufactured to the dimensions standardised by King Edward IV in 1477 (10 1/2 x 6 1/4 x 5/8 inches).
Overlapping tiles, such as clay pantiles, were introduced into Britain in the 17th century in regions engaged in trade with Holland. This is why pantiles are found in east-coast regions, from Scotland through to Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Similar regional distinctions exist in brickwork — yellow bricks in the south, blue tones in the Midlands and a blanket covering of red brick in the north. But how can we explain the origins of these regional distinctions?
The regional distinction lies in a combination of geography and geology. With no way of transporting heavy goods, early clay tiles and bricks were red in kilns local to the areas where they would eventually be laid. Naturally, as a raw material, the attributes of the raw clay varied from region to region. These geological dfferences came to the fore in the firing process, creating distinctive blends of colours and textures that, in turn, became unique to each region.
Sadly, following the industrial revolution and the post-war building booms, much of this regional identity was lost. Between the world wars, when demand for new homes was high, UK manufacturers struggled to cope with the demand for materials, and components were imported from Europe. Thousands of homes were roofed using European clay tiles, with some only now undergoing refurbishment and re-roofing.
Concrete tiles dominated when a huge rehousing programme started after the second world war, and by the 1950s British clay roof tile production had all but disappeared, with just a handful of factories struggling on using out of date production methods. The result was that our houses became more and more homogenised.
In the 1980s great advances were made in clay technology. Investment in large-scale clay tile factories in Britain led to a clay tile resurgence that coincided with a boom in slate. This created a renaissance in the use of natural roofing materials.
Ironically, the design of clay roof tiles has now come full circle — concrete profiles were originally copies of the classic clay tile shapes. But now, modern technology is enabling clay tile manufacturers to create classic models incorporating the very features that make concrete tiles so easy to install. At Wienerberger, our New Generation Sandtoft clay tiles have an open gauge, allowing roofers to easily set the gauge on the roof without the need for cutting or short courses.
The resurgence of clay tiles in the UK is now well underway, offering the beauty of a natural material combined with affordable installation costs, long-term durability and a colour that’s guaranteed not to fade.
- Originally featured in Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine (April 2016)