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Family VanQuaille: a story of Roofers since at least 1751

A lineage of roofers since 3 centuries

Roofers since at least 1751

The ancestors VanQuaille have been making innumerable roofs for historical buildings around Flanders in the north of Belgium. The oldest evidence dates back from 1751 with an inscription on a lead slab made by Adrianus VanQuaille. This lead slab is proudly hanging in the office of Amandus VanQuaille, 270 years later. 

Exquisite Craftsmanschip

Imagine: making roofs in 1751 (the year that Johann Sebastian Bach passed away !!) … it is very difficult to imagine.

At that time, many buildings in Flanders including rural churches had thatched roofs. Probably one of the ancestors of the  VanQuaille family came from France to start making ’tile roofs’ or ‘slate roofs’.

It was not only craftsmanship, but also audacity, a good vision of arts, and logistics that came into play. If a church or noble man asked to make a slate roof, the slates had to come from France or the South of Belgium. Slate is not available in Flanders. Buying and getting slates was done by chariots during winter time. Another way of transport were the rivers, like the River Scheldt, the most important stream in Flanders coming from France along the cities of Tournai, Oudenaarde, Ghent, Antwerp,… The incredible beautiful buildings of those impressive cities were built with stones and materials carried over this river. The family business of VanQuaille was not surprisingly located along this river, in the – at that time – nearly independent city-state of Gavere that was protected by a moated water castle, governed by princes.  From spring to autumn, time was used to work on the roofs with better climate conditions. With ropes, like mountaineers, roofers were hanging from the ‘cross’ or ornament (in the case of a castle) at the top of a tower to cut and to  put the slates on the steep slopes of the roofs.

But there was more: if someone asked for a roof, very often the craftsman was also the architect. He had to recognise the style of the church or a castle, he had to understand the wooden framework, how to make and shape the carpentry and how to make ‘typical’ details relating to a certain style or period. Each region in France, in Germany and Belgium had its own typical detailing : the school of ‘Poitiers’, the school of ‘Nemours’, the Burgundy school… On the roofs of the famous castles of the Loire region, one can see till today a showcase of the different styles and roof details. Roofers were not just people making roofs watertight: it was an art, a rich tradition of schools and a tradition that was transmitted within families, like mine.

If we compare this with the cheap roofs made today, it is hard to believe that roofers and many other craftsmen were highly esteemed. Industrialising brought cheap materials, without durability and becoming very ugly in time. What can compete today with a slate roof that stays 300 to 400 years? Everybody is talking about ‘durability’ nowadays. But those discussions are ridiculous if you compare it to the traditional roofs and craftsmanship. Noble men and craftsmen were thinking in really long terms: they were not just building for themselves, but for their children and grand-children. As a nice and wise saying goes: “we are not rich enough to buy cheap junk”.

Quite some artisans (like my father who studied in Angers-France) went to France to really learn the deeper skills and knowledge of their craft. Mostly they started working when they were very young. After quite some years they were skilful, but missed the general academic context. When they were 20 -21 years old, they went to school again, in France. They did learn a lot about theory, about history, both art history and building history, about the different ‘schools’ each with their own traditions, about materials… But they also visited the schools and places and travelled around to see, to practice and learn from the many different craftsmen around France, present Germany, up to Austria! Coming back, they were very proud to show their skills and to create ‘onion towers’ for the clients. And the clients could show off with a master piece that envious friends did not have… Many castles today still show off beautiful master pieces of this tradition.

In fact, the first ancestor-roofer started making “modern” roofs: stone roofs (in tiles or slate) that were safer and resisted fire (at least sparkles from the chimneys). Those ‘mineral roofs’ (coloured slate in grey, green or purple or fancy tiles ‘écailles’ like in the East of France) were incredibly durable, could not be eaten by all sorts of animals and birds,… Slate roofs were at that time ‘modern’, fashionable, state-of-the-art…

And in fact, even if I am an architect, I feel myself in this very tradition. It was not my intention to become roofer. But as a matter of fact ‘blood is thicker than water’ and leaded me to a very special kind of roofs: membrane roofs in textile. Today, membrane roofs in textile are the lightest possible construction system for roofs. They have 1 incredible advantage: a high light transmittance. Membrane roofs can have a light translucency of up to 35%. For huge spans, membrane roofs are undoubtedly the most reasonable solution.

PTFE is a very durable material that is not influenced by UV light. It resists dirt as no other material, is very translucent, light in weight,…. There is one ‘BUT’: it asks a lot of knowledge and craftsmanship from the designer. Creating membrane roofs is a specialised metier.

As in history, craftsmanship is extremely important. But it asks not only engineering. Is craves for artistic input from artistic people, combining both poetry, serious engineering and a feeling for logistics, and audacity (!) to climb on the high sloped curves of the roofs … just like in olden times.

Nihil sub sole novum !
Martinus Van Quaille
Archive: my godfather Martinus VanQuaille, roofer, climbing on the church tower of Gavere

The name 'van quaille' 'van caille' or 'van caelje'

The name of our family is spelled in different ways, depending on the writer who noted the name at birth: the lower priests had studied some Latin (called ‘church latin to be able to read the masses in Latin) and wrote ‘van caille’ with a ‘c’ as in Latin, the ones who studied Greek noted the name as ‘van Quaille’ with a ‘q’. In the same family we find brothers and sisters Van Quaille and Van Caille or Van Caelje around 1750.

Possibly the name van quaille or van caille came from the roofer’s profession.

Tuile 'écaille' alsacienne

Une tuile ‘écaille’ means a ‘scaly roof’ in French, in fact a name given to the flat (mostly) round roof tile. The “tuile écaille” is not only used in the French region of Elsace, but also in other French regions like the Jura, the Savoie, the Dauphiné and also in Germany and the north of Switzerland. 


In the period around 1750, Flanders belonged to Austria. Not only painters and sculptors, but many artisans travelled throughout different parts of France, Belgium or Austria: glass blowers creating fabulous glass windows for the churches, carpenters, masons, roofers….  We may not forget that many buildings before that time were covered with a thatched roof. If we look to the paintings of family Breughel, many roofs still had a thatched roof before that period. It is probable that artisans from France, mastering the technique of the  ‘toiture à tuile écaille’ (round tiles), were coming to Flanders in this prosperous century.

Like many other family names, it was quite obvious to speak to someone with the name of his profession (Baker, Miller, etc). So it is possible that ‘Van Caille’  simply means the man of (= ‘van’ in the Flemish language) the round tiles. 

‘c’ is pronunciated ‘k’, like in ‘calamitas’. But also ‘qu’ is pronuciated the same way, like in ‘quality’. Depending on the fact that the man writing down the name in a register, studied Old Latin or Old Greek, he wrote the phonetic name down as ‘van caille’, ‘van quaille’ or simply ‘van caelje’ as pronunciated in our dialect still today.

One thing we know for sure: the name of a long lineage of roofers with the date ‘1751’ was found on a slab of lead on the top of the church of Hundelgem, in the East of Flanders. Two descendants VanQuaille have been inscribing their name underneath, marking a restoration in later years, each time with about 100 years of difference.

I can hardly imagine that one of my grand children would ever sit on one of my membrane roofs, to do some restoration work, in the year 2230! But this was the obvious reality of a traditional community and real family business.




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