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The Flat Cap on ... Gutters

After some recent downpours The Flat Cap noticed that his gutters could do with a good clean. Maybe leaves, a dead bird, or some other debris had clogged them up. In any event water had been overflowing from them for a couple of days; and that’s not a good thing. So he popped down to his nearest branch of Wickes for some advice and a look round. There’s gutters and there’s guttering - the sort you get on roofs. Whilst they’re both designed to aid the flow of waste water obviously they’re completely different. But who came up with the idea, and how have these systems developed? The Flat Cap thought he’d try to find out.

Do a quick online search for “gutters” and you’re met with loads of articles. The general consensus of these is that the British gutter is just one more gift from our Roman ancestors. So if anyone asks you, “What did the Romans do for us?” you can add gutters to their long list of accomplishments. A decent waste water management system is a ‘must have’ for any civilisation looking to conquer large parts of the world and expand its empire. Fortunately the Romans realised this and even had their own goddess of the sewers Cloacina who presided over the great drain. She also had her own shrine; as would any self respecting minor deity. That was in AD47, and for the next thousand years nothing much seems to have happened in gutter design. Maybe people lacked ambition, or perhaps nobody thought to protect themselves from rainwater running everywhere. Or they could just have been too busy dodging out of the way of rampaging Vikings, or tending to the land and cattle. Either way it wasn’t until the Norman invasion in 1066 that guttering got a well needed kick start.

The Normans decided that Britain could do with a facelift so they set about rebuilding churches, stately homes, castles, bus stations, council offices and other public structures with stone roofs and parapets. The Normans were big on guttering and added lots of gargoyles to buildings which gave the impression of ugly gremlins spitting out the excess rainwater, melted snow etc. These gargoyles stopped rainwater from running down the side of the building and ruining the masonry. Clever though the Normans were it didn’t occur to William the Conqueror, or his descendants, that drainpipes might also be a good idea. That took almost another two hundred years. Then in 1240 King Henry III had a word with the Keeper of the Works at the Tower of London. The king was concerned that the newly painted walls of the Great Tower might look a bit shabby if the rain got to them so the Keeper invented the world’s first drainpipe. History does not record if he was paid a bonus for his invention, but the likelihood is that he was. At the very least you’d expect him to have been given a scroll and some gift vouchers.

The next king to get a guttering mention was another Henry, this time Henry VIII. He came up with an idea called Dissolution of the Monasteries. By closing down monasteries, friaries and convents between 1536 and 1541 he unwittingly created a market for scrap lead. These early scrap dealers then sold on the commodity to builders merchants who turned it into decorative cisterns, guttering and other waste water type items. These Tudor plumbing centres earned their owners vast sums of money which they were later able to spend on imports like tobacco and potatoes. Fast forward another two hundred years and the Industrial Revolution allowed the mass production of cast iron guttering. These have survived in places; for example if you live in a conservation area, or inhabit a listed building you can’t just rip off the old guttering and replace it with plastic. For the majority of modern homeowners however UPVC is the standard material, and much loved by builders who don’t have to lug around heavy materials.

Once the rain had stopped The Flat Cap left Wickes and spoke to a plumber called Seamus who was loading up his van with building supplies. Seamus said he could replace Bert’s guttering for him and gave The Flat Cap his mobile number. Seamus volunteered the following gutters and guttering related facts to cement his construction worker credentials:

  • A “guttersnipe” is not a jealous neighbour who makes petty remarks about other people’s guttering but a scruffy or badly behaved child that spends most of their time on the street. Seamus said he once caught a guttersnipe trying to steal the tools from the back of his van and had to chase him off

  • National Gutter Day is held annually towards the end of November

  • After a particularly heavy night out on the town writer Oscar Wilde told a passer by who helped him up, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

  • One inch of rain falling on the average roof equals 2,600 gallons of water - hence the need for decent guttering and adequately sized downspouts

  • Despite its name The Gutter Press isn’t a trade journal for people like Seamus, but a section of the newspaper industry that sensationalises its stories, or gets up to questionable tactics like hacking celebrities’ phones

  • People in the guttering game refer to debris in your gutters as "gutter clutter". An easy to remember term it's used repeatedly to market the various ways of removing or preventing clutter

  • Some guttering tradesmen use technical terms like box end, bargeboard, soffit and fascia to demonstrate their encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, Anyone wanting a job at a large builders merchants has to learn these terms very quickly or face ridicule and the threat of redundancy

  • Decomposed leaves from your gutter make a great mulch or compost for the garden

  • As well as leaves the most common items found to be blocking up gutters are tennis balls. As a young child Sir Andy Murray was always hitting tennis balls into the gutters of his home. He would then spend hours going up and down ladders retrieving them. It was only after one serious fall from the ladders that his mum decided to get him and his brother proper tennis lessons. A wise investment as it turned out

  • If every piece of guttering in the UK was laid end to end they would circle the globe seventeen times

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