Land, Labour and Learning

Land, Labour and Learning

John Billingsley, of Ashwick Grove, near Shepton Mallet, one of the county’s leading agriculturists, declared in his detailed survey of Somerset’s farming in 1795 that not enough grain was grown there for the needs of its people, but that if the vast areas of marsh, waste and common field were drained and enclosed, and then improved with proper management rather than farmed by the traditional methods, then the county could be self-sufficient and the value of the new lands at 30 years’ purchase would increase by six million pounds. In the 1760s a visitor noted how on the Levels north and north-east of Bridgwater the only worthwhile stock were the black West Devon or Cornish cattle, since the local beasts were heavy, sluggish and unshapely, producing soft and spongy beef. Locally-born colts, too, had to be removed to drier areas for rearing or they would become nothing but drudges in the damp conditions. Indeed, the only native success recorded in the whole county at the time were the great cheeses made at Cheddar, which fetched three times as much as their rivals from Cheshire.

There were, of course, farmers who wanted to improve their stock and yields. Mr. Speke, when advising William Pitt on his new estate at Burton Pynsent, recommended 600 Dorset sheep for their wool and better market value, and a black horse and 10 or 12 Northamptonshire mares for both plough and coach work. He suggested the creation of a dairy of 30 or 40 cows, which could be let, in the tradition of that part of the county, for four guineas each a year. For the undrained acres of West Sedgemoor he could, however, only suggest the traditional rearing of oxen for plough or market.

From 1777 the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society offered premiums for improvements in machinery, stock and husbandry, and individual farmers came to be known as successful specialists. Messrs. Morgan of Woolverton, Day of Foxcote, Young of Camerton, Holbrook of Corston, and Smith of Twerton, were leading sheep breeders who had rejected the native Mendip variety in favour of Dorsets, and were taking advantage of a Spanish ram given by George III to the Bath Society. Mr. Poster, farming near Yeovil, and Mr. Lowman near Crewkerne, had brought in Leicestershires, while Mr. Jeanes of Aihampton had discovered a cure for footrot, that scourge of the wetlands which, in one year in the parish of Mark, was said to have infected 10,000 sheep.

Mr. White Parsons of llchester challenged his neighbours to produce a Devon bull better than his own, and won. Agricultural societies at Dunster, Dulverton and Wiveliscombe among others offered prizes at the turn of the century for the best heifer and calf, and best stallion, the best bull, and the best boar. Individual farmers elsewhere were known for their own particular contributions: Mr. Anderdon of Henlade and two farmers from Halse had successfully used the seed drill in the 1790s; Mr. William Moxharn of Glastonbury had turned several peat bogs near the town into fine meadows, and Mr. Waiwyn of Kilmersdon had improved his grassland with the introduction of sanfoin. Land­owners like Mr. J. F. Luttrell of Dunster, James Bernard of Crowcombe and Squire Rogers of Yarlington were known respectively for the formation of water meadows, the cultivation of turkey rhubarb, and the application of marl. Mr. Parsons of West Camel had become an expert in burning clay so that it could be spread on fields.

Progress as a whole could not, however, be made without the wholesale co-operation of landlords, tenants and commoners in the vast areas of moorland and marsh. Billingsley described how at Wedmore in the 1770s some 3,000 acres of common had been enclosed and drained. The many cottagers whose common rights had for years caused overstocking lost their grazing, but in return gained opportunities for work so that the value of the land had risen and the parish poor rate had not. To an agriculturist this was justification enough. The vast area of King’s Sedgemoor proved a much more difficult problem. After years of negotiation an Act was passed in 1791 under which the King’s Sedgemoor drain was dug through the centre of the moor, but because of opposition from the bishop of Bath and Wells, who feared loss of tithe income, the villagers of Weston Zoyland had to wait ‘ until 1834 before they, years after their neighbours, could take advantage of enclosure in their parish. Enlightened landowners like John Knight, who rescued Exmoor from oblivion and created the village of Simonsbath, were few.

Agricultural improvement was slow, and bad harvests in the 1790s, the French War, and rapidly increasing population created a crisis which became acute. It was all very well for a few patronising farmers at Dunster Show in 1800 to give Richard Hurley of Sampford Brett a prize for bringing up six children without the help of parish relief, or to give John Gould of Withycombe another for serving as a ‘menial servant in husbandry’ with the same employer for 23 years. These two were among the fortunate ones. There were too many in the same area of the county for whom life was a bare existence.

In April 1801 a survey was carried out among the Brendon and Quantock parishes of Williton hundred to discover what stores were available to feed the poor. Wheat, barley and potatoes were their staple diet, but Elworthy had only enough barley left for the spring sowing and the overseers had brought in rice instead, and several other parishes had supplies of pilchards or herrings. Chipstable had plenty of oats, but the potatoes were nearly gone, wheat supplies were low, and only barley for seed, but the poor had found herrings for sale at Wiveliscombe market which cost 3d. a day. While the French War lasted prices rose and the crisis with it. Political agitation which followed was as acute in the country as anywhere. In the autumn of 1830 landlords and farmers for miles around Ilminster destroyed or dismantled their own threshing machines lest the ‘tumult’ should burn them down, and only Lord Egremont’s machine at Beercrocombe was left standing. Furniture from an empty farmhouse on his estate had been removed for safety, but the neighbouring tenant wrote to his lordship asking whether lintels should be taken down, ‘for theyl be carred away otherwise’.

The alternatives to violence were full of risks. Some labourers moved to the towns, only to find unemployment there was at least as bad: Frome had 557 men on the poor rate in 1831, out of a total population of 12,240. The vicar there was one of many who encouraged men to emigrate: in 1831, 85 people left for Canada, and in 1832 a further 138, all at the expense of the parish. The Colonial Land Emigration Commission employed Mr. A. A. Mullett as a ‘selecting’ agent in Taunton in 1842 as one among many channels by which the labouring poor could find a new hope. Mullett received £1 for every married couple and 7s. for each single adult selected for free passage out of Plymouth. The Salisbury and South Wilts. Herald, among other West Country newspapers, advertised for ‘healthy young (and not large) working families’ willing to brave the uncertainties of the unknown. From the 1840s onwards men and women in their hundreds, probably in their thousands, taking up the offers of men like John Toms, the Chard postmaster and shipping agent, sailed for the colonies or America, creating communities of Somerset folk across the world. There were Shepton Beauchamp people at Buffalo and Pittsburg, families from Middllezoy, Othery and Weston Zoyland in Lake County, Illinois, Austins from Baltonsborough in Tasmania and Victoria. The name Somerset, given to county, town and village in eight states in the U.S.A., on the southern tip of Africa, in Quebec, Queensland, and Tasmania shows how widespread was emigration from the county.

Letters home left readers in no doubt that the promised land did not always live up to expectations. Emigrants might have been sent off, like a group from Bridgwater in March 1852, with a blessing from the pompous curate, but Samuel Howell, who left Castle Cary at about that time for Iowa was not alone in wishing he was back home; but he was trapped, for no-one would give him a cent for his possessions. More fortunate was S. L. Wilcox, formerly from the Highbridge district, who was living at Williamsburg, Long Island, in 1864. Exactly how he made a living is not clear, but of his two Sons, the younger fought in four battles on the Union side in the Civil War before he was 17, and then entered the machinery business. The elder, a civil engineer and architect, was a staff officer at Gettysburg and published maps of the battlefields of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. Somerset men were again distinguishing themselves beyond the seas.

The risks of emigration were probably better than starvation at home. In 1843 it was established that the labourer was worse off in Somerset than in Wiltshire, Dorset or Devon. The man later to be one of the leaders of the Agricultural Labourers Union, George Mitchell, began work in the fields of Montacute at the age of seven for a few pence a week. By the age of 19 he was paid 4s. a week whatever the hours, working one haymaking time from 4 o’clock in the morning, when he harrowed a field of turnips, and then made hay for a total of 18 hours, all on inadequate food. Montacute was in fertile country, but only in the 1870s, when Mitchell’s organised strikes in the area had raised weekly wages from 9s. to 10s., the truth began to be told. That wage was still totally inadequate, living conditions appalling. Yet a large farmer could make a fortune in seven years, for he paid so little rent to his landlord and so little wages to his men.

Cannington was in a similarly rich district, and wages there in the 1870s included the usual daily ration of cider. One typical labourer, who did not care to be too closely identified, earned 2s. a day on piece – work, but nothing in wet weather. He sent his five daughters to school, which cost him 2d. a week; 1s. 6d. went in rent, 6d. to clothing and coal clubs. He had a tiny garden for potatoes, but kept no pig. The only meat his family ever ate were red herrings. The day before that man was interviewed he had but 5½d., with which he bought a loaf and a herring for his entire family; he himself had nothing to eat all day. Any allotment he and his fellows were lucky enough to get was let by the farmers at four times the rate the farmer himself paid the landlord. One family was found at Athelney for whom even bread was a luxury.

The agricultural depression of the late 19th century made the lot of the labourer potentially worse. America and the colonies still beckoned some, and so did expanding industrial South Wales. The Agricultural Labourers Union began campaigning in the Ilminster area in 1872, and at first their efforts had the desired effect of raising wages. At the Church Congress in Bath in 1873 the Labour Question found the church divided: some advocated a policy of direct support for the unions, others did not want to offend honest employers. The Reverend Stuckey Coles of Shepton Beauchamp, who acted for the Labourers’ Friend Society, rather sat on the fence; Sydenham Hervey, curate of neighbouring South Petherton, went to a meeting held in his parish addressed by the union leader, Joseph Arch, and by George Mitchell:

Arch spoke about 1½ hour, with great. earnestness, vigour, fluency and at times eloquence—a superior looking man—which Mitchell is not. A tolerable number of labourers present, nearly all of whom seemed quite satisfied to be left alone…

Annual meetings of the union were held on Ham Hill for some time afterwards, and in 1877 Mitchell asked the schoolmaster of nearby Stoke sub Hamdon to teach his children the tune John Brown for the coming demonstration. ‘Of course’, wrote the master, who owed his position to farmers and glove factory owners, ‘I did not accede to his request’. . .

But there were farmers, at least, who were changing with the times. W. B. Peren, who had 230 acres/93ha at Compton Durville, near South Petherton, was especially proud of his herd of cows. Where others before him had named only the inmates  of their stables, Peren named his cows, or rather those with breeding, for he made a clear distinction between three Irish cows, the half-Alderney, and the rest, all serviced by his bull Baron Fawkes. There was Evangeline, presumably inspired by Longfellow, Roseblush, May Queen, Rosetta, Queen of the Roses, and Blue Rosette. He took Baron Fawkes, Queen of the Roses and her calf to the Bath and West show at Exeter in May 1879, but came back without a prize. However, that year he made a cash profit of nearly £1,086, clearly the result of good stock management. Here was a farmer far removed from a century before, when Mr. Speke was advising Mr. Pitt.

Map of Somerset's Inland Navigation

Horizons were changing in other ways, for the network of canals and railways which crossed the county extended the markets for agricultural products and brought even the remotest villages into contact with a wider world. The Parrett, the Yeo, the Tone, and the Bristol Avon were all in various ways improved to make navigation possible far inland from the county’s ports, and a good livelihood was made in the carrying business. Bradfords had been trading up the Parrett since the 15th century, and Welsh coal was brought in barges in the 17th century as far as Ham on the Tone, and from there taken overland as far as the Blackdowns. By the 1740s the Langport firm of Stuckey and Bagehot had been established, and in the 1790s they were trading regularly with Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and London by road and by water. By 1866 they owned 14 East Indiamen and 19 barges as well as having a controlling interest in a large banking concern.

Canals seem to have exercised a peculiar fascination, but more were built on paper and described in Acts of Parliament than were ever opened to traffic. The great challenge was to build a waterway to link the Bristol and English Channels. Famous canal engineers like James Brindiley and John Rennie surveyed routes, parts of which were later adopted in more modest schemes. The Channel-to-Channel idea remained alive, if impractical, until late in the 19th century, when the Board of Admiralty discussed a plan to link Lilstock with Beer in Devon by a canal not only wide enough to take a Dreadnought, but with a basin along its route large enough for such a vessel to turn round.

The more modest schemes began with coal canals, intended to give the Somerset coalfield a cheap and efficient outlet via the Kennet and Avon at Bath to the London market. Indeed, the first such canal was a branch of another of those grandiose schemes, the Dorset and Somerset canal, which was to link the Dorset Stour with the Kennet and Avon. A branch from Frome to the collieries at Nettlebridge was to be the first stage, for Frome was then one of the most important cloth manufacturing centres in the West of England. Nearly eight miles/12.8km were dug, and a lift or balance lock built by Mr. Fussell, owner of the nearby Mells ironworks, was installed. But although five more lifts were planned the money ran out in 1802 and the branch was never finished—and the main canal was not even started.

Topography was the great problem for the two other coal canals. From the Kennet and Avon at Limpley Stoke a line was planned to Midford where it divided, one branch running up the valley through Combe Hay, Dunkerton and Camerton to Timsbury, the other via Writhlington to Radstock. The first branch was partially opened in 1798, but the gradient at Combe Hay proved insuperable: caissons and then an inclined plane with a crane were tried without success, but with much delay, and finally the canal was opened in 1805 with a flight of 22 narrow locks at Combe Hay. The Radstock branch was also partially opened in 1798, but another gradient faced the navigators near Wellow. In 1815 the whole line was converted to a tramway.

Two canal broadsheets
Two canal broadsheets

The remaining canals in the county came very late in the day. Schemes to link the Avon below Bristol with Taunton, and Taunton with the Exe at Topsham in the 1790s only produced 11 miles of canal in 1814, between Tiverton and Holcombe Rogus, after four years of work, but the general idea was retained and in 1827 the first section was completed between Huntworth, on the Parrett, near Bridgwater, and Taunton, and was named the Bridgwater and Taunton canal. In 1837 the canal was extended at the Bridgwater end to connect with the ingenious new dock which had been built north of the town. At the Taunton end a narrow canal named the Grand Western was built between Taunton and Greenham on the Devon border. Designed by James Green, it had a series of eight lifts and an inclined plane at Wellisford operated, after many difficulties, by a steam engine. Else­where there was a short-lived canal from 1834 linking Glastonbury with Bason Bridge; the Chard canal with four inclined planes and a tunnel opened in 1842, and the short Westport canal (1840).

Almost universally the coming of the railways spelt ruin for the canals. Brunel’s broad gauge track for the Bristol and Exeter railway snaked its level way along the Somerset moors much as the M5 motor­way was to do a century and more later, reaching Bridgwater in 1841, Taunton in 1842, and the county boundary in 1843. By 1844 the line was opened to Exeter From that date the county was rapidly opened to rail travel. The Wiltshire, Somerset and Weymouth line reached Frome in 1850 and continued through Bruton and Castle Cary to Yeovil in 1856. Frome was also linked to Radstock for coal traffic in 1854 and Frome’s wooden station buildings remain as a rare survival from that period. Meanwhile a line was built between Taunton, Langport, Martock and Yeovil in 1853, and the Somerset Central railway opened a broad gauge track from Highbridge Wharf to Glastonbury, largely along the course of the old canal. That railway, in 1858 extended at its western end to a pier at Burnham, was driven eastwards to Cole, near Bruton, to join the Dorset Central line from Wimborne, thus creating the famous Somerset and Dorset joint railway. In 1874 a link with the Midland railway brought traffic along a dramatic route over the Mendips to Evercreech and then south-east to Templecombe and on to Bournemouth. At Templecombe the Somerset and Dorset, familiarly known as the ‘slow and dirty’, was connected with the main route from London Waterloo to Exeter and beyond, a line which in 1860 reached Yeovil Junction and Crewkerne.

Somerset's Railway System c.1910

Branches from the main lines served the county well. The growing resort of Clevedon was linked with the network from 1847 to take at least some of the seaside trade which Weston had recently been enjoying. Minehead was not reached until 1874, though Watchet’s commercial possibilities had ensured that it was linked with the main line at Norton Fitzwarren in 1862. In 1859 Watchet had become the terminus of the West Somerset Mineral railway, a narrow gauge track which by conventional route and by a huge incline brought iron ore from the Brendon mines to be shipped to South Wales..

Wells, almost in the centre of the railway web, was joined in 1859 to Glastonbury, in 1862 to Shepton Mallet and the East Somerset railway, part of which still remains, and in 1870 by a track from Yatton on the Bristol line to Cheddar, the romantic Cheddar Valley line. Yeovil, with four stations, Wells with three, and others with two, made rail travel in Somerset of the greatest value in the economic and social life of the county. Each station was a depot for agricultural and industrial products, and farms and businesses in all but the remote west were brought into communication with the rest of the commercial world.

Just as the farming landscape of open fields and undrained marsh had virtually disappeared, so, too, did the traditional cropping. Grain could be bought easily where the land would not produce it well, and the village baker by the early years of the 20th century was at the end of a chain which involved farmers in Canada and the United States and importers in Bridgwater and Bristol. Somerset grew more naturally the rich grass with which by nature it was blessed. By 1904, 71 per cent. of its 1,043,409 acres/422ha were grassland or orchards, supporting 478,447 sheep, 113,572 milking cows, and 129,869 other cattle. For centuries the farmers in the Bristol and Bath region had supplied produce to those two cities, and in the 1860s the proprietors of hotels and boarding houses in Weston super Mare were also in the market, buying up lambs at Congresbury spring fair to satisfy the appetites of their visitors. But only through the railway network was it practicable for a Liverpool purveyor, advertising in the Weston Mercury in 1867, to require weekly supplies of new potatoes, gooseberries and other early garden produce. Where once Somerset’s wool had been in demand, now Somerset’s butter and cheese, strawberries, sheepskins, and shoes were required.

The railways also revolutionised the social life of the county. After the County Council was established in 1889 its committee meetings were held as conveniently at Bridgwater and Highbridge as in Taunton and Wells, and members met as often as not in railway hotels as in public buildings. Communications were so good, it seems, that offices of the Council were to be found in Bath, Wells, Glastonbury, Frome, and Weston super Mare. And this mobility was soon being enjoyed by all. In 1872, when Francis Kilvert visited Taunton, he found members of an archaeological society touring the local churches in drays and ‘two Antediluvian parsons in a gig, who seemed to have been thrown out and to be making a steeple chase towards Trull Church to fall in with the rest of the Archaeologists’. In 1880 the Rev. S. 0.Baker of Muchelney, much more advanced in his notions, took 30 members of the Muchelney and Low Ham choirs on their annual treat, going by train from Langport to Weston junction, and thence by carriages to Burrington Combe. By the turn of the century the annual outing from Merriott was even more adventurous, those not content with the sands and shops of Weston taking a steamer trip across the Bristol Channel to Cardiff. Indeed, those steamers, plying along the coast from Weston to Lilstock, Watchet and Minehead, were an important attraction to the growing holiday market.

Directory Advertising, 1914
Directory Advertising, 1914

The railways had played a vital part in the creation of the resorts of Weston, Clevedon and Minehead. By the turn of the century they were creating a land market more familiar to more modern times. A proposal for a line from Minehead to Porlock was seriously canvassed so that the north coast of Exmoor might be opened for development, providing weekend cottages for Welsh businessmen. Prospective purchasers of these havens of peace had, however, to be guaranteed a return to their offices on Monday mornings, and the proposers of the scheme proved unable to control the tides at Watchet harbour on which all depended. Sites in the Quantocks for chalets and bungalows were offered for sale during the same period, and all along the coast of west Somerset apartments were offered to holidaymakers brought so near by the railway.

The county was thus open to people from a wider world, a world glimpsed in every village in letters home from emigrants, in tales told by soldiers who had served with the county regiments in Egypt or India and by navigators on the canals and railways. And it came at that great 19th-century institution, the village school. There had, of course, been schools in the county for centuries: a grammar school at Wells before 1185, another at Taunton by 1286, and one at Bridgwater by 1298, all founded by churchmen; chantry schools like the one at Woolavington where in the 1380s John Hody, son of a peasant, could learn enough to go to Oxford and become a rich man; foundations by laymen, such as the grammar school at Ilminster, founded in 1549, or its like at Martock, where Thomas Farnaby, an educationalist with an European reputation, began as master in 1605. By the mid 17th century there were small schools all over the county often kept, like the one at Williton, by a clergyman dispossessed of his living after the Civil War; and others run by Dissenters removed when the Church of England was restored. Bruton had seven schools in 1665, one taught by a Dissenter, and Shepton Mallet had five schools.

In the early 18th century Henry Grove’s Dissenting Academy at Taunton was ‘one of the most celebrated in all the West’, and attracted the sons of prosperous families. A similar school at Watchet at the end of the century was, however, rejected by a prospective parent in favour of a rival at Bridgwater: ‘I grant you the expences is more’, he wrote, ‘but I consider the [sic] lam as much in one week at Bwater as in two at Watchet’.

Free elementary schooling had been offered at East Harptree and High Ham in the late 16th century, and by the early 19th there were as many as 80 ‘blue coat’ or charity schools in the county. Sunday schools for children who worked on weekdays appeared by the 1780s, and the energetic Hannah More established 11 of her schools in Mendip villages between 1789 and 1799. She was not aiming, as she often said when attacked by local landowners, to produce scholars, only to ‘form the lower class to habits of industry and virtue’. Neither landowners nor many parents believed her.

By 1818 there were 109 endowed schools, 487 day schools, and 253 Sunday schools in the county. Many were very small and short-lived, often dame schools where an ignorant old woman earned a few pence teaching simple letters and numbers. Only a few of the old grammar schools survived to respectability, including one at Ilminster, where in the 1820s the master introduced talks on optics and astronomy, engaged a dancing master (whose class clashed with Latin and was therefore popular), and only failed to have gymnastics because of the exorbitant charges of the teacher. Young William Halliday assured his Mama in 1830 that he had not till then been ‘folaged’, but was sure that ‘Mr. Allen has had many intentions to it’. Twenty-two years later he and his family were massacred at Cawnpore.

After 1870 a village school education of a reasonable standard was available to all. If few village children achieved the highest flights of learning, few could have been unaware of a wider world, where red seemed to encompass and dominate the globe. It was truly the end of an era when the Queen Empress died in 1901, an event to be marked at Barrington school, and doubtless in most others, when the mistress shared with her pupils ‘a few facts’, as she recorded in her log book, about the queen’s last hours.