The worldwide one-night house

Ecovillage Network UK evnuk at
Thu Nov 28 15:01:12 GMT 2002

The worldwide one-night house
  Colin Ward  -  7th November- 2002

In Cotters and Squatters – housing’s hidden history, a veteran anarchist, 
writer, and educator explores the story of squatter settlements in England 
and Wales. From our cave-dwelling recent ancestors to the Diggers and the 
industrial revolution, from 20th mass squatting to modern claims that ‘The 
Land is Ours’, does the one- night house hold a key to the crisis in rural 

Colin Ward

Scattered around the world there is a belief that if you can build a house 
between sunset and sunrise, then the alleged owner of the land cannot evict 
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 
is emerging from the chimney. This last stipulation seems an impossible 
result of a single night’s work, yet it is remarkable how, if you visit a 
village in many parts of rural Britain, your hosts will draw attention to a 
particular cottage, sometimes with a long and narrow garden close to the 
road, but sometimes eccentrically sited on the village green, and will 
explain that it was said to be a squatter cottage, 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 legitimised 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 (I am told, though 
I have never found an example) as statutory law, frequently as customary 
law, and universally as folklore.

For example, in the self-organised invasions of land on the fringes of the 
cities of Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century, the 
occupation of the empty site takes place once darkness has fallen, and 
token walls of straw matting or corrugated sheeting are erected. In some 
cases, according to the whims of the ruling regimes, the police swoop in 
the morning, in which case another, later, invasion happens; and in other 
cases the settlers are left in peace. When, 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.’

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 and the goodwill of the 
whole village. Thus, the Cumbrian poet, Robert Atkinson, celebrated the 
festive atmosphere of the construction of an earthen-walled house at the 
end of the 18th century: ‘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.’

The Italian version of the folklore of the one-night house was the subject 
of Vittorio De Sica’s film Il Tetto (The Roof) which appeared in 1956. A 
more recent film La Estrategia del Caracol (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.

In eastern France, a scholar, G. Jeanton, from the Bresse region around 
Macon, described how it was generally understood there that everyone had a 
right to appropriate a portion of the commune’s land to build a house 
between sunset and sunrise. He explained that 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, ‘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.’

It had been suggested that this right was a survival from Roman law, but M. 
Jeanton remarked that the same custom had been found in Cornwall where 
Roman law had not applied. He suggests that it is more likely to derive 
from ancient Indo-European folklore.

Turkey has a similar tradition. Long ago, the authors of a study of global 
housing issues explained that ‘perhaps half of Ankara’s 1.5 millions live 
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.’ Roger Scruton remarks that ‘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 with tracks 
running among them through which no cars can pass

Similarly, in the case of squatter settlements all over Latin America, 
favourable circumstances can enable those overnight adventurers 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 own labour into capital.

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. For 
you’ll just have to read my book.

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