The worldwide one-night house

Colin Ward
7 November 2002

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, occasionally (I am told, though I have never found an example) as statutory law, frequently as customary law, and universally as folklore.

Image taken from Oscar Zarate's poster for the film Wistanley (click for bigger image)

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 encrusted 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.

Il tetto  and La Estrategia del Caracol

LEFT: Il Tetto (The Roof) - a gently funny tale of a newlywed couple looking for a home of their own in crowded Rome after the second world war. RIGHT: La Estrategia del Caracol, an exhilarating film set in an huge old house in the abandoned centre of Bogotá.

In eastern France, the 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 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, in 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….’

Self built houses in Christiana, Denmark.Photo by Larraine Worpole

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 more…you’ll just have to read my book.

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