A Look at Farming in the Widecombe District over the years


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It was agreed that we should build up a record of farming and the local practices on the land over the past hundred years or so while there are still people 70 to 80 years old that can be questioned and who have spent their life on the land and can give us firsthand knowledge of how it was!

One source of information could be our local auctioneers and land agents and our Chairman Terry French has been in discussion with Sawdye & Harris and Rendells and they have both agreed to see what old posters of farm sales they have that we could get copied. These two firms have been associated with each other over the years. At one time known as Rendells & Sawdye. They then separated individually into John Sawdye and Rendells. Mr Harris then joined Sawdye and became Sawdye & Harris.

Terry has so far seen, courtesy of Paul Griffin of S&H several sale posters including a 1918 sale at Southcombe for Mr Hannaford, 1927 sale at Drywells and Jordan, a fodder sale at Blackaton in 1927 for Mr Wilcocks, several sales of live and dead stock (animals & implements) at Pitton, Jordan and Dunstone and furniture and house clearance sales. 1942 saw the sale of Higher and Lower Blackaton amounting to 612 acres. We hope to get copies made of the most interesting ones.

Reference was made to a talk once given to the group by Kit Hall, see previous minutes when she described the activities of her relations at Blackslade in the 19th century.

It was agreed to try to obtain copies of old tenancy agreements that so often spelt out precisely what the tenant had to do regarding the maintenance and hedges, the amount of farmyard manure certain fields had to receive etc.

Mr Fred Daw explained that farms had to be kept in good repair, hedges and ditches regularly maintained. He mentioned the old rotational system of farming. Ploughing a field when the grass crop was poor, growing swedes, corn, mangolds, flatpole cabbages, potatoes, corn and then reseeded to grass. This is rarely done today. Most crops had to be hoed by hand, dutch hoes were pushed while turnip hoes were drawn towards the worker. Mr Daw remembered in 1925 the first time his father bought a three row ‘scuffle’ which ripped up the weeds between three rows at once. His neighbour Mr Nosworthy asked to see it work and when he had driven halfway down the field shouted "stop - you’ll rip up all the turnips" - can’t stop now in the middle of the field said his father and when he reached the far end turned around and returned doing another three rows. He left and the next day his neighbour came to see him - "What a fool I was he said - you did more good in ten minutes than me and the boy could have done in a day"!.

Harvesting was discussed. Cutting grass and corn with a scythe, then progressed to a one wheeled reaper, then a two wheeled grass machine and for corn, a binder. All this long before the age of the combine harvester. Turning grass for hay by hand with a two pronged fork (prang), then came the horse drawn kicker and turner. These implements gradually being converted to being pulled by tractors after W.W.II.

The skills of hedge laying and repairing with a shovel, now undertaken by a swing shovel! Nowhere near such a neat job as years ago but far quicker.

The threshing of the corn. By hand with a ‘Draishel’, an ash pole attached to a lump of holly about 15 inches long and swivelled. This was done in the doorway of a barn, the wind blowing the light ‘dowse’ away leaving the corn and the straw separated, the straw was fed to the animals and the corn crushed to feed the younger stock. Some farmers had a frame shaped like a saddle with bars on it and the corn was physically beaten onto this frame to knock the corn off the straw, very labour intensive! Wheat grown for thatching, still in mid Devon there are farmers who continue to grow it for this purpose and combing the wheat straw to produce reed for thatching. Some corn ricks were massive and Mr Peter Harvey remembers a rick that took three days to thresh. Small round ricks were sometimes made so that a rick at a time could be taken into the barn at once. Barn threshers were an advance, then mobile ones drawn by steam engines and the large tractors came around from farm to farm to do the job.

Farming in those days was a social occasion with perhaps as many as 15 friends and neighbours turning out to help with the harvesting of the crops. Now alas farming is a solitary occupation!.

Memories of the problem faced by farmers when the corn got wet after being cut and stooked. The ears of the corn would start to grow out green and this meant that the corn was being spoilt. This had to be dried before harvesting and it meant taking down the stooks and laying the sheaves down with the stubble end facing the wind to dry. As the inside of each sheaf would be wet, they needed turning inside out by twisting each sheaf, a very time consuming job. The sheaves had to be stood up again each evening and this could go on for many days. Sometimes there was a lot of weed and sometimes red clover amongst the straw, this too had to be dried. Red clover was a very good feed but when it grew to about a foot high it would flower (Clover Buds) and this was so rich it often caused animals to get full of wind (fermenting in the stomach) and many animals died as a result of eating too much. If the animal ‘blew up’ it sometimes had to be stabbed with a implement similar to a sharpening steel making a hole in its side to let the gas out and so save the animal.

When farms changed hands there was an elaborate lot of details to record. These writings were called ‘deeds’. Now all you get is a small piece of paper from The Land Registry Office which registers the ownership and any financial loans etc attached to the land like mortgages etc.

Early deeds make fascinating reading. They can list rents such as four shillings and two geese or six pence as well as tithe payments, in most cases tithes paid to the church or vicar. It has been said that the richest vicar in Devon was one at Drewsteignton. This was due to the good land in that area and the fact that it produced top quality wheat.

The names of fields was also discussed. The study of field names is fascinating and the names often gave clues as to what the field was used for, the importance to the farm, its size, shape, position. For example gorse was grown as a crop to be bruised and chopped and fed to livestock, this led to ‘fuzzy field’, ‘ broom field’, Gorse bottom’, broom park etc. Recently at Fagins in Wales we saw a Gorse Mill. While today a large field can be ploughed in a day, to plough an acre a hundred years ago was considered a good days work with a single furrow horse plough.

The spelling of places and fields can also be confusing. Those that could write a hundred years ago, and do not forget many people could not even write their name, would write what they thought they had heard and a choice example of this in our parish is the farm now known as Corndon which has always been quted by locals as Quornon also known to have been written as Quornon or Quarnon.

Others for instance

  • Northway = Narraway.
  • Southcombe = Sercombe
  • Bittleford = Billaver
  • Ponsworthy = Paunch’ry or Pawns’ry

There are many examples of this in the local vernacular!

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:55:39.


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