The Manor and The Bishop/High Farming

Chapter V: High Farming

The enclosure of Chard Common, begun 1819, allowed scrubland to be brought under cultivation. The total enclosure of the common took twenty-five years throughout this time ditches introduced to drain away excess storm water. It was unusual for French drains to be dug and piped land-drains took even longer to be laid. There was a fear that there still would not be enough corn harvested to provide bread for the poor. The price of wheat fluctuated dramatically due to bad weather. Corn was imported free, which promoted a backlash of political unrest - demands for a law to ban imports.

At times, the lot of a farm labourer was very hard particularly if injured or became ill. His only recourse was The Friendly Societies or the Labourer’s Friend Society, founded by prominent businesses men and politicians.

In the early eighteen hundreds, another grand project to promote trade was the building of Chard canal – finally opened in 1842. This became one of the last and probably the finest constructed waterways in Britain. The main haulage being coal from Taunton - for the growing industrial expansion requiring steam power, as well as for normal domestic heating. The weaving trade still relied upon waterpower to work their looms. Soon steam began to make inroads in the production processes giving greater flexibility to where new factories built.

By the early to mid nineteenth century, there was a baby boom - an increase in the population. As these children grew up a number of poor harvest, wet summers, put pressure on grain stocks - the poor were beginning to go hungry – particularly the children. At the same time there was experienced another period of prosperity in Chard town - which saw the building of a new weaving mill, for the production of lace.

On the farms the husbandry of animals had begun to be improved… there was a move to increase the numbers per acre In the middle of the nineteenth century grazing one sheep to the acre was considered average and maintaining fifteen areas sufficient for one man. A farm labourer earned eight shillings per week for a twelve-hour day, usually from six to six. This was the start to the industrialization of Britain, naturally of Chard too which was to have such a dramatic effect on the life of country dwellers.

In the 1851 census, half the population was living in urban areas. Although we must not confuse urbanization with industrialization in the instance of Chard, they are the same, and for that matter, Tatworth could be included as well. You would think that as food production increased wealth would remain where it was produced… but it did not. The wealth of the country was in the towns, not any town but industrial towns… and that is where the population flowed. What saved Tatworth as a thriving village was its river, its lace mill, Chard Road railway station and the butter factory. Like its parent town Chard they were dominated by the manufacture of lace and their mills their principle employer. In thirty years, between 1821 and 1851 Chard Parish increased in population by over two-thousand souls. On the day of the census, Sunday March 30th 1851, 5,297 people lived in the parish. According to the census, there was full employment and nearly half worked in the four lace mills making ‘plain net’ lace. As with all weaving mills, the workers had to get use to the vibration, noise, dust and danger. The working day was organized in shifts and turns linked to time and the insistence of good work as a way of life.

The remainder of the working population retained a rural life – worked at the same job for life working their way up the ladder from junior to journeyman, farm boy to farm worker. It was a steady existence regulated by the seasons and nature. What was certain was that their working hours were flexible, frequently exhausting, certainly long, and poorly paid. This secondary group of workers were in the main craftsmen doing jobs very much like those a century before: building, metal working, leather work, making carts and farm implements, and carpentry. Farm work was noticeable so too domestic service. It would be safe to say that the majority of children worked too from the age of nine upwards. Of the fifty percent who did not attend full-time work by far the largest percentage were housewives then children under fifteen. Only a very small proportion of the population lived beyond seventy.

In the 1840s short time was ordered at the lace mills – there were some closures. This caused enormous suffering. There was no work on or off the land and over a period of months, the situation got much worse – militancy began to be formed amongst the unemployed. The Chartist movement had support and there were disturbances. The mill workers from a number of mills ganged together and picketed Holyrood Mill and the troops were called out to back up the special constables. The mill-workers marched to Perry Street to try to engage more strikers. Eventually the gangs were dispersed. The next day saw virtually a general strike with all workshops, and shops, closed. Over a thousand people attended a meeting. It was a difficult time, which was not forgotten. Eventually the workers returned to work but they were hard times… it took the Crimean war 1854-56 to bring about any sort of industrial expansion.

By the middle and late nineteenth century there was almost twice as many lace makers in Buckingham as there were in Devon. Thirty years later the statistics had changed to the opposite position - Devon outstripped Buckingham. In the use of finished work – making lace up into garments it was eleven to one; Devon had considerably more dressmakers than any other county in Britain, similarly for glove making.

In 1864, the school leaving age was twelve, if not required to work at home. In Tatworth if the lad was not to go into the mill it was to the farm he went to work on the land. His first job was pig minding on the corn stubble and in the woods on the common. Other days were spent rook scaring rattling his cans at the same time he would be picking up stones from the field. For this, he was paid sixpence a day, which he gave to his mother. If he were lucky, he could go back to school to finish off his schooling. Unfortunately, parents often continued taking him away from school the older, the boy got even though the law stated that twelve was the correct age to leave school.

By the time he was twelve he was able to follow the plough which meant being up at five o’clock and under a carter take out a team of four horses. Their life was hard. There were no days off and no holidays. If he was not required for ploughing, he took his turn carting corn to the mill in Forton. The horses were decorated with bells and either he was paid with a bundle of straw for beer money or given a shilling or if he were lucky the miller would give him a small jug of beer.

What the census reports of 1871 and 1901 confirm Devon outstripped all other counties for most country trades… the exception being straw plaiters. It must be emphasized again that Chard is close to three west-country county borders and sits on a main arterial road, within easy reach of Lyme Bay. These geographic facts place their working populations in a most beneficial position.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, agriculture had been in the doldrums. There had been a period of continual cultivation without proper husbandry with the result was that crop harvests decreased and the land began to become sterile. The old ways of laying fields to fallow - crop rotation taking place, was put aside and forgotten. The landlords demanded results without expenditure. Economies were put in place to try to make up for the shortfall. This did not happen for it needed the spur of increased prices to make cultivation profitable again. A series of social changes stimulated the turnaround… the first being the invention of machines to increase manufacturing output. The machines were housed in factories. To feed the factories required heavy wagons. These travelled over poorly made roads. To satisfy demand more factories were opened increasing the demands on the transport system.

The construction of canals linking up industrial towns and cities to transport heavy freight was the answer. The factories, canal construction teams, the freight haulage and all the other feeder businesses required labour. The men and their families had to be housed and fed and now they had the money to be able to do so. Some of that money went into the farmers pockets. Food became profitable to grow and cultivate. The need to make harvests more abundant required the land to be made fertile. The increase in meat production helped the land to be manured.

On the coat tails of the canals came the invention of the steam engine. Steam power was first used to drive beam pumps to drain mines. It wasn’t long before the reciprocating engine converted to rotary motion and the railways born. Quickly steam power took over the job of the watermills and factories became free from having to be alongside rivers and streams.

In the early eighteen hundreds farming was a matter of handed down, gained experience and intuition. This experience gave some knowledge of chemical and physical action that contributed towards: the fertility of the soil, action of insects and small mammals, reaction prompted by the elements - sun, wind and rain, irrigation, rotation of crops, choice of seed or strain, areas of country and local geography, past land use, amount of self manuring, availability of trained staff and profitability of the farm past and present…. these all contributed towards the quality of the harvest. By the mid eighteen hundreds all these factors were known and partially understood by all farmers. A few took the chemical side more seriously and the knowledge gained was circulated through pamphlets, technical papers, and local farmer’s clubs. Still it took two world wars to advance all farming beyond plain experience into theory and best practice.

The open-field system was still operating in the bulk of the country. The local market catered for the purchase and sale of stock. There were only a few well made-up roads and the fields small with high overgrown hedges, few ditches, and little provision for suitable land drainage. Oven still pulled the heavy wooden plough and the corn still hand cut with scythe and sickle. Probably the single most important discovery to achieve almost immediate benefit to the grower of crops was an understanding of the nutrition of plants and the composition of the soil. This understanding was driven ahead by the German chemist Liebig. His book made popular by Voelcker, Johnston, and their experimental station helped form the Royal Agricultural Society, incorporated in 1840 and four years later the Royal Chemical Society, and in the same year the Cirencester Agricultural College.

In a way, it is unfair to single out one particular moment or one particular thing, which contributed most to the massive leap forward in agricultural improvements. What one can say is that by the time of The Great Exhibition agriculture became an art. Good drainage was understood, proper fertilization proved essential, and rotation of crops known to be beneficial. Each contributed to changes in the chemical component of the soil. It was understood that the farmers had within their own farms the means to improve their crops. They had the hay and straw to break up and loosen the soil, manure which contained all the constituent parts to ensure fertility and the distribution of sown crop – their roots to add their own particular action to the composition of the soil. All these were rich in both organic and inorganic substances, combining both nitrogen and minerals – the object being to restore elements of fertility each crop exhausts. The correct grassland, hay, and root produce the three ems: meat, milk, and manure.

The farming system in the middle of the nineteenth century was traditional and caused no real problems for the villager. It was based in the main on sheep and corn – an age of High-Farming. The sheep were hurdle flocks, feeding on the wasteland in the summer, fallow field mainly after the harvest - in the autumn, and strewn turnip and mangels in the winter. It was a period of plenty and gave an appearance of well-tended stock on well-maintained land.

The scientific approach to farming was not something the farmers contemplated, studied nor sought. That they yielded to better methods learnt through contact with their peers – information passed on through word of mouth not by reading about it. They were willing to try new methods if someone they respected advised them to. If that were backed up by proof by seeing increased yields and their associate receiving greater monetary rewards - the acceptance of a new method assured.

The talk at the animal pens at Chard market, as the buyers and sellers saw the larger animals, and the sight at the mill, of larger ears of grain - giving more flour per ton weight, convinced the farmers that these new fangled ways were beneficial. The wants of plants and animals to give greater yields were slowly being recognised. That these things could be done artificially, using chemicals unheard of was a revelation.

Farmers, by this time, knew about the beneficial nature of lime, chalk, grit and ash… they were also aware of the positive effects of turned over stubble and root. Village horticulturists used soot, crushed bone meal, seaweed, and shoddy, to augment the more natural manure. They were experienced enough to tell if a soil was going to be productive by its feel, look and colour. However, they knew nothing about superphosphates, guano, nitrates, potash, and dried blood – a whole variety of compound chemicals.

What are different today are soil test kits that give chemical composition… that if poor recommend what chemical, or composition of chemicals, would correct the deficiency. When the soil test shows a reasonable content then the farmer adapts this to the crop, which varies according to the crops natural requirement. Knowing what is lacking necessitates a judgement as to whether the cost of application is going to make the difference, from an economic point of view, considering the forecasted weather pattern, present state of the ground, long-term retention, by the soil. There is no point in spreading chemicals if not retained in the ground - washed away, quickly diluted, lack penetration.

Soil erosion caused by heavy rain was, to a large degree, prevented by suitable ploughing. The object of good ploughing is: to turn in surface weed, stubble and root; prepare – break-up the ground for sowing; allow the elements - air, light, wind and rain, to have a greater beneficial effect; help retain water – hold back, prevent ‘run off’ - an action that erodes lighter particles of the soil – mainly denudes the soil of limestone this causes the soil to become acid. Soil needs four constituent parts: sand or silica, 60%; clay – hydrated silicate of alumina, 25%; limestone, – calcium carbonate, 7.5%; humus - decayed organic matter 7.5%. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, most farmers were aware of the facts that were talked about and passed on; some gave the subject more importance and made a study of them. The Royal Societies promoted better land husbandry accepting the scientific results of experiments. Another rule of good farming practices was proper land drainage the theory being the removal of surface water, creating a change to the physical structure of the soil, allowing what chemicals that were present greater influence and improving the temperature of the soil. The beneficial nature of good land drainage was applied according to the geophysical nature of the land and soil.

As the land became more productive and the farmers received, larger benefits it became necessary to either employ more labour or find some other means to compensate. Throughout history, man has always come up with some tool to bridge the gap – to replace his fellow man or solve a production problem. In this instance, the age of industrialisation helped. About this time a whole host of mechanical devices designed… some found their place in the development of farm machinery others fell by the wayside. Probable the first was a devise to lift potatoes… all, of course, powered by the horse. This in no way prevented the machine becoming later adapted for the tractor. From the middle of the nineteenth century, all machines superseded the labour intensive workings of the farm. The ten-year period between 1853 and 1862 were the golden age of English agriculture built upon the principles discovered by Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert; the aim and objectives, method and effects of manuring. If there is such a thing as a period of boom this was it!

It would be naive to believe that these discoveries, and the results obtained from them, would remain a secret, or not adopted elsewhere… especially when they were broadcast at the various Royal Societies and written about in trade papers. What transpired here became common practice aboard; the difference was their fields were much bigger – giving them a surplus.