The Global One-Night House
"It was a notion held among the peasantry in olden times, that he who could in one night erect a 'Mushroom Hall' or a 'now-or-never', without hindrance from the officials of the manor, had obtained a copyhold right to the land."
- Richard Health The English Peasant 1
There is a belief around the world that if you can build a house between sunset and sunrise, then the owner of the land cannot expel you. There are many variations on this theme. The condition might be that the roof is in place, or that a pot is boiling on the fire, or that smoke can be seen emerging from the chimney. This last stipulation seems an impossible result of a single night's work, and it led me to wonder if the story was simply an account of events that could not really happen, like Birnam Wood's transplantation to Dunsinane.
Could this belief belong to the realm of fairy tale descriptions of the impossible, like Jack's fast-growing overnight bean-stalk? But collectors of fairy stories from many countries were unable to help me find one depending upon the magic of overnight house-building. Yet it is remarkable how, if you visit villages in many parts of rural Britain, your hosts will draw attention to a particular cottage, sometimes long and narrow and close to the roadside, but sometimes eccentrically sited on the village green, and will explain that it was said to be a squatter house, originally built in a night.
Sometimes searches into manor court rolls in the county record office show that the legend is well-founded and that the building of the cottage may have been legitimized by local definitions of "squatters' rights" or regularised by the imposition of annual fines which became converted into rents, or eventually, to freehold tenure.
The concept of the one-night house has an astonishing global distribution, sometimes as folklore, sometimes, it is said, as customary law, or even at statutory law. For example, in the self-organised invasions of land on the fringe of the cities of Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century, the occupation of the chosen site takes place once darkness has fallen, and token walls of straw matting or corrugated sheeting are erected. Sometimes, according to the whims of the ruling regimes, the police swoop in the morning, in which case another later invasion happens, and another, until the settlers are left in peace. Eventually, the dwelling is given a roof, as John Turner noted, "a common and heartening scene in villages and squatter settlements throughout Peru is the celebration of roofing a house, a ritual occasion that brings family and friends together." 2
Novelists and film-makers love the folklore of the one-night house for its dramatic possibilities, and they enjoy especially the symbolism of the local community pooling its efforts to provide a house for a new couple, celebrating not only the formation of a new family but the goodwill and solidarity of the village or neighbourhood. Thus the Cumbrian poet Robert Anderson (while forgetting the fact that clay or mud walls have to be built in stages and allowed to dry out), joyfully described the festive atmosphere of the construction of an earthen-walled house at the end of the 18th century:
"That everything might be done in order, and without confusion, a particular piece of work is assigned to each labourer. Some dig the clay, some fetch it in wheelbarrows, some heave it upon the walls. The rustic girls (a great many of which attend on the occasion), fetch the water with which the clay is softened, from some neighbouring ditch or pond. When the walls are raised to their proper height, the company have plenty to eat and drink: after which the lads and lasses, with faces incrusted with clay and dirt, take a dance upon the clay-floor of the newly-erected cottage." 3
The Italian version of the folk-lore of the one-night house was the subject of Vittorio De Sica's film Il Tetto (The Roof) which appeared in 1956. The script was written by Cesare Zavattini, who based it on the experiences of a couple expecting their first child, whose income was not enough to buy them shelter, and who decided to build a hut in a settlement called Val Melaina. Apart from the use of their own labour, a builder specialising in clandestine building would have to be employed, and the materials would have to be purchased in advance.
Zavatini suggested to Rossellini that a film company should pay the cost of the materials, (about 60,000 lire at that time), in return for the right to film the operation. This proposal came to nothing, but Zavattini pursued the idea with Vittorio De Sica and eventually they made the film.
Michele Gandin's account of the making of the film provides us with details of the illicit house-building sector of the 1950s in northern Italy. Apparently, if the police arrived before the roof was laid, the builder was subject to heavy fines, and the building would be demolished. If the roof was there and the building occupied, security had been won. It became a matter for the endlessly protracted procedures of the civil courts, usually sympathetic to the plight of the young couple and their child. The convention of building in the hours of darkness with concrete blocks and cement-and-lime mortar, with no time allowed for the structure to dry out in stages, added to the difficulties and disappointments of this method, but also to the drama of the film. 4
A more recent film, La estrategia del coracol (The Snail's Strategy) made in Colombia in 1993, seeks to dramatise the belief that its director, Sergio Cabrera, describes as a remnant from ancient Germanic law, claiming that so long as there is no trace of a break-in to the site and that it is furnished with a table and four chairs, a house built in one night, if it has a roof, cannot be torn down. 5
In eastern France, a scholar, G. Jeanton, from the Bresse region around Macon, described how it was generally understood there that every individual had a right to appropriate a portion of the commune's land and to build a house between sunset and sunrise. If the house was finished by dawn, the constructor's right to the land was recognised by local custom, and "up to the present time (1923) none of the communes seem to have disputed that right." He explained how the younger members of poor families would sometimes spend the whole winter preparing the woodwork of their house with their parents and friends. 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 "rustic, no doubt, but complete from its wooden threshold to its thatched roof," and "when the sun rose, its rays would shine on the bunch of flowers that the peasant architects had placed at the top of the roof." 6
Writing many years later, in 1939, Jeanton explained that a man who already had a house could not claim the right to build a one-night house, that the house could be inherited by descendants, that if it were sold the commune had to be compensated for the value of the ground, and that sometimes a small rent was payable to the commune. The legal position was uncertain, despite the Civil Code and a batter of lawyers. In some districts a man who wanted to build could apply to the commune and be granted permission without the obligation to build in one night.
It had been suggested that this right was a survival from Roman Law, but Jeanton remarks that the same custom is found in Cornwall where Roman Law had not applied. He suggests that it is more likely to derive from ancient Indo-European folklore. 7
Turkey has a similar long tradition of recognition for a particular special status for the house built between sunset and sunrise. A long time ago the authors of a study of global housing issues explained that "In Turkey, where perhaps half of Ankara's 1.5 millions live in this way, there are gecekondu -- acknowledging the fact that, to avoid instant legal destruction, any temporary dwelling has to be erected in a single night between dusk and dawn." 8 Their most recent admirer is the philosopher Roger Scruton who sees the contemporary gecekondu as "the happiest example of modern urbanisation that I know," and explains that, "These grew up as a result of an old Ottoman law which contains all the wisdom that a city needs. According to this law (the validity of which has never been tested), anyone who finds a plot of land that is neither owned nor used can establish title to it, on condition that he erects a dwelling the in the space of a night. (gece = night; kondurmak = to find lodgings). The result is a miracle of harmonious settlement: houses of one or two storeys, in easily handled materials such as brick, wood and tiles, nestling close together, since none can lay claim to any more garden than the corners left over from building, each fitted neatly into the hillside, and tracks running among them through which no cars can pass. In time the residents cover them with stucco and paint them in those lovely Turkish blues and ochres; they bring electricity and water, they light their little paths not with glaring sodium lights but with intermittent bulbs, twinkling from afar like groudned galaxies." 9
Similarly, in the case of squatter settlements in Latin America, favourable circumstances can enable those overnight adventures to form communities that evolve in about fifteen years into fully-serviced suburbs, providing livelihoods as well as homes, through people's ability to turn their labour into capital. This is something that neither government nor the market economy can do for the least influential of citizens.
The British equivalent of belief in the special qualities of the one-night house is explored in the chapters that follow. It has survived best in the memories and folk-lore of the Welsh, as can be gathered from chapters 4 and 5. One of those who celebrated it, particularly in the context of friends and neighbours building a next for a newly espoused couple was the Welsh author High Evans who described how he had never met a happier-looking woman than Ellen Richards, who had reared six children in her turf cottage, with it peat fire. "The poor cottage was her castle," he remembered, "and love transmuted everything into gold." Lest we should accuse him of sentimentality, he described the way she had managed, and explained that:
"The caban unnos, a squatter's cottage of turf, is a hut built in one night, hence the name. If a man put up a cottage between sunset and sunrise and if he lit a fire on a hearth and sent smoke through a chimney, it was a recognised custom that he might remain in possession of the house although it was built on common land. Sometimes this happened when a bachelor took it into his head to get married and to set up house. His friends would gather at twilight and work all night to construct the turf hut; it was one of the conditions that the house should be complete with the chimney smoking before sunrise the next morning, and if there was time and labour enough a turf wall would be raised to enclose a garden. Hundreds of such houses were built, and hundreds were filched from the rightful owners by the schemes and trickery of the landowners." 10
The intriguingly widespread folklore of the one-night house seems to be an attempt to find a loophole in the stranglehold of land-ownership to create an opportunity to change a family's destiny. And the fact that the examples I have cited of this tradition attribute its origins almost at random to old Germanic law, Roman law, old Ottoman law and Indo-European tradition, show very clearly that nobody knows where this ancient subversive legend came from, but that we all have an interest in claiming its legitimacy.
Peter Sparkes of the Faculty of Law at Southampton kindly suggested to me the links between the different legal traditions I had mentioned, speculating that "the universality of this supposed custom must mean that it derives either from Roman law (Ottoman law is Roman law as applied to the eastern empire) or from Germanic custom. Roman law basically applied to south-western parts of Europe and Germanic custom to the north-eastern parts. The case you discuss at Macon is interesting because in pre-revolutionary France this lay just about on the border between two laws..." 11
No authority I have consulted, however, suggests any legislation or example in case law that refers to this belief. All the same, in many human societies there is a belief that access to land, regardless of the kings, conquerors, robber barons or bureaucrats of the past, must be a natural right for the current generation of humanity. This was beautifully expressed in the 18th century by Thomas Spence in a work with a memorable title. It is: "A Lecture read at the Philosophical Society in Newcastle on November 8th, 1775, for Printing of which the Society did the Author the Honour to expel him." 12
Spence explained to his audience that the first land-holders were usurpers, and tyrants over "poor dependent needy wretches" and that the same must apply to those who have since possessed the land by inheritance or purchase,
"...And any of them still can, by laws of their own making, oblige every living creature to remove off his property (which, to the great distress of mankind, is too often put in execution); so of consequence were all the landholders to be of one mind, and determined to take their properties into their own hands, all the rest of mankind might go to heaven if they would, for there would be no place found for them here." 13
The Highland Clearances in Scotland were an immediate illustration of the point he was making, as were the side-effects of Enclosure in England. Over a century before Spence, Gerrard Winstanley declared that "the poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man." He held the view, widespread among the radicals of his day, that it was the Norman Conquest which had deprived the people of their land, and that with the deposition of Charles I, the ultimate heir of William I, the people had won back the land by the same right of conquest. He thus added the argument of a legal title to that of a natural right.
Many cultures around the world have a traditional belief that the land is naturally the common property of the people. "The landlord owns the peasants but the peasants own the land" is a Russian saying from the days when the rich measured their wealth in 'souls'. In England and Wales, most people assume that the pathetic remnants of the common land are in fact common property. This belief itself can be seen as a precious survival of ancient popular wisdom. For in legal fact, as the historians of the commons explain, "all common land is private property. It belongs to someone, whether an individual or a corporation, and has done from time immemorial." But they go on to conclude that
"Common rights were not something specifically granted by a generous landlord, but were the residue of rights that were once more extensive, rights that in all probability antedate the idea of private property and land, and are therefore of vast antiquity." 14
And in all probability, so too is the belief that, despite the claim by the powerful to be monarchs of all they survey, the poor and homeless can, overnight, win a place in the sun.
- Richard Heath The English Peasant, London: Fisher Unwin 1893 p.87.
- John Turner "The Re-education of a Professional" in John F.C. Turner and Robert Fichter (eds) Freedom to Build, New York: Macmillan 1972 p.133.
- Robert Anderson, cited in Anthony Quiney Wall to Wall, London: BBC Publications 1994.
- Michele Gandin (ed) Il Tetto di Vittorio De Sica, Milano: Cappelli Editore 1956 pp.29 and 53.
- La estrategia del caracol (1993), directed by Sergio Cabrera. (Information from Fancesca Leita of Centro Espressioni Cinematographiche, Udine).
- G. Jeanton in Maconnais Traditionaliste et Populaire Tome IV (1923) cited in 7. Below.
- G. Jeanton "Les maisons construites en une nuit" in Revue de Folklore Fracais Vol 10 No 2, Avril-Juin 1939 pp.33-39.
- Peter Wilsher and Rosemary Righter The Exploding Cities, London: Andre Deutsch 1975 p.19.
- Roger Scruton "Under scrutiny" Perspectives Issue 32, December 1997/January 1998 p.91. The standard account is Kemal H. Karpat The Gecekondu: rural migration and urbanization in Turkey, New York: Cambridge University Press 1976.
- Hugh Evans (1854 - 1934) The Gorse Glen, trans. From the Welsh by E. Morgan Humphreys, D.N. and E.N. Lloyd A Book of Wales, London: Collins 1953 pp. 153-154.
- Peter Sparkes, personal communication 26 May 2000.
- Thomas Spence "A Lecture read at the Philosophical Society in Newcastle on November 8th, 1775, for Printing of which the Society did the Author the Honour to expel him." Reprinted in N. Beer (ed) The Pioneers of Land Reform, London: G. Bell & Sons 1920.
- W.G. Hoskins and L. Dudley Stamp The Common Lands of England and Wales, London: Collins 1963.