Tŷ Unnos: The One Night House

Nov 22, 2023 0 comments

Near the village of Llanycefn, in Pembrokeshire, in south-west Wales, stands a small stone cottage. Legend has it that the cottage was built during the course of a single night following the tradition of tŷ unnos, which translates into English as “house in one night”. According to this centuries-old tradition, anyone who could erect a dwelling on common land between dusk and dawn could lay claim to the land and the house. Variations of the tradition held that there must be a fire lit in the hearth by first light, and smoke must be coming out of the chimney. It has been cited that the squatter could also extend the land around the house by the distance they could throw an axe from the four corners of the house.

The Llainfadyn Cottage in Rhostryfan was originally a ty unnos. Photo credit: museum.wales

Although tŷ unnos has no legal ground, it was commonplace across Wales and Britain between the 17th and 19th centuries. During this period, many landowners had fenced off their properties into large, privately-owned farms forcing the eviction of those who lived and earned their living from that land. Pushed to the margins, many peasants took the tradition of building houses under the cover of darkness in the hope of outwitting their greedy overlords.

There are many villages in rural Britain where you will find houses identified as a squatter’s cottage built during one night according to local folklore. The house would have been originally built of a mixture of clay, mud, turf and straw. Any other materials would have required more effort and longer time.

The process would have started with the squatter’s family and their friends gathering building materials and bringing them to the site, ready to begin as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon. Working throughout the night, they would have erected four simple walls and added a thatched roof. Non essential elements such as windows would be added later, but a door was required to secure the entrance. Then, as dawn was breaking, a fire would be lit on the hearth, and the smoke issuing from the chimney would have been evidence that the work was complete and a new home had been established.

Penrhos Cottage in Pembrokeshire. Photo credit: Rory Pearce/Flickr

Once the family’s claim to the land had been established, the house would be gradually rebuilt with sturdier materials such as stone and slate. So while there are many cottages that were built according to the tŷ unnos tradition, there are no surviving original examples.

Penrhos Cottage in Pembrokeshire is one example of a tŷ unnos building. This two-room house once served as a home for generations of families, before it was abandoned. It was purchased by the local authority in the 1970s and turned into a museum. The Llainfadyn cottage, built in 1762 in Rhostryfan, Gwynedd, is another example of a tŷ unnos. It is been serving as a museum since 1962. The last known tŷ unnos was built in 1882 in Flintshire by four brothers from Lancashire. A fictionalized account of their adventure appears in Oliver Onions' 1914 novel Mushroom Town.

The concept of the one night house is not restricted to Wales. Similar customs and folklore exist in Ireland, Italy, France and Turkey. In eastern France, for instance, it was generally understood that that everyone had a right to appropriate a portion of the commune’s land to build a house between sunset and sunrise. The younger members of poor families would sometimes spend the whole winter preparing the woodwork of their house with their family and friends, and then on a fine night when all was ready, the family would assemble on a patch of waste land, and with great agility would erect the house, complete from its wooden threshold to its thatched roof.

The Ugly House near Betws-Y-Coed—another example of a ty unnos. Photo credit: Steve Daniels/Wikimedia Commons

A similar tradition exist in Turkey. In the capital city Istanbul, almost half the population live in gecekondu—a temporary dwelling put up quickly, usually over the course of a single night. In his book "Shadow Cities," author Robert Neuwirth details how these squatters take advantage of a legal loophole that stipulates that if construction begins after dusk, and the squatter moves into the finished house before dawn the following day without attracting the attention of authorities, then the authorities are prohibited from demolishing the building the next day. Instead, they must initiate a legal proceeding in court, making it more probable for the squatter to retain occupancy.

The origin of this remarkably pervasive folklore is hard to trace. There is a Welsh tribal law that states that every freeman had at his marriage “a right to the cultivation of several pieces of land,” and that a ty-unnos was built when a young man married. Similarly, the old Norse laws provided that every man had a right to build for himself a sceter (upland dwelling for summer use), and take in land as far as he could throw his knife.

According to various scholars, the tradition might have origins to old Germanic law, or Roman law, or Ottoman law or even to Indo European law. In reality, nobody clearly knows where this ancient subversive legend came from.

Llainfadyn Cottage in Rhostryfan. Photo credit: Ozymandias/Flickr

# Tŷ unnos: Homes made using 17th Century 'squatters' rights', BBC
# The worldwide one-night house, Open Democracy
# The One-Night House, Folklore


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