Author: Bette Baldwin

Exmoor Johnstone Uncategorized

Looking for Sarah

Sarah’s Story
In 1881, Sarah Thomason married James Maxwell Johnstone in a tiny church in the beautiful Welsh village of Betws Garmon.  The couple moved to Keswick in the Lake District and had two children before moving to Muirkirk in the Scottish Borders and having another child.  In 1886, Sarah and James and the three children moved to Hoar Oak Cottage  where they lived for nearly 20 years had ten more children.  In 1904, when the last child was just ten months old, James died and Sarah was left on Exmoor with her thirteen children – a long way from parents and family in Wales and Scotland. Sarah died in 1945 after a long widowhood spent living and working in Lynton before going to live with her daughter Agnes Sedgbeer in Gunn and finally with her daughter Jane Johnstone in Porlock.  You can read Sarah and James story and find out more about their 13 children  on this link.
Looking for Sarah
The search for Sarah and her story and the hope to find a photograph of this amazing and courageous woman was, in many ways, what started two of her descendants – Bette Baldwin and Will Bowden – on the search into Hoar Oak Cottage and the setting up of The Friends.  Now after many years it is time to return to that simple, original aim – of looking for Sarah.

Might there be a photograph out there somewhere?  Might there be a photograph of Sarah and James out there somewhere?  When James died in 1904 photography wasn’t all that common – certainly not for poor people.  But when Sarah died in 1945 it would have been much more common.  The hope is there may be a photo of her somewhere and we can track it down.  We know so much about her life but we do not know what she looked like. How nice that would be.

If you think you may be able to help or need more information please get in touch by contacting Bette Baldwin on:

Tel:        07967182903




Posted by Bette Baldwin
Johnstone Messines WW1

Thomas Johnstone on The Somme

Thomas Johnstone

100 Years Ago at Messines, Belgium   June 1917
On the night of 9th June 1917, the 5th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment took over the forward trenches at Torreken Farm just north of the wrecked village of Messines on the night of 9th June 1917.

They faced enemy artillery which was located on the Messines Ridge overlooking the area and as a result had heavy casualties – men killed and wounded – every day.  They remained in these positions for 10 days until relived by an Irish regiment on the 19th June.

This is a link to the a You Tube clip which tells the hideous, courageous, unbelievable but successful story of the battle at the Messines Ridge.  It is told from the perspective of the Irish regiments but gives a clear picture of what life would have been like for Thomas in the June of 1917.

These two links tell Thomas Johnstone’s story:

Thomas Johnstone Goes To War
Letters to Sarah Johnstone

Posted by Bette Baldwin
Agricultural History Heritage History Sheep Farming Stells

Protecting sheep in winter

When the early shepherds travelled to Exmoor from Scotland with their sheep it was not surprising that they continued to use the traditional Scottish ways of caring for their flocks.

During the winter months’ a careful watch on the weather was essential for a sudden snowstorm could result in the loss of large numbers of sheep. If the snow came late in the season, the losses could be even greater for the ewes would be heavily pregnant. Even if they survived, the stresses the weather caused through cold, exhaustion and hunger would often result in the death of unborn lambs. One way to protect the sheep was to build stells – stone enclosures that the sheep could enter whenever bad weather was imminent.

Perhaps what is more surprising is that, although the shepherds are long gone, it is still possible to find traces of their methods both on the ground and through the notes they kept – for example in Head Shepherd Robert Tait Little’s diaries.

In his diary for 1879, he enters details of two visits to Scotland, travelling by railway to Dumfries from South Molton.

Alongside, he also makes detailed notes for the design of circular stells, quoting directly from the writings of Captain William Napier (published 1822) who farmed at Etterick:

“…a circular stell of dry stone dike, ten yards in diameter, with a three feet open door, and six feet high, including cope, as [sic] the least expensive, and the most sure and efficient improvement that can possibly be adopted…” 

Just yards from Hoar Oak Cottage the remains of a such a stell is marked by low earthen banks. Bracken grows in the disturbed soil of the stell floor to form a perfect circle, making its position and size clearly visible.

Why circular? Although stells can be oval or even rectangular (as at Buscombe Beeches to the southeast of Hoar Oak), Captain Napier considers circular to be far superior: “…the action of the blast [wind] upon the circular surface of the wall, causes a rotatory motion in the air, to such a considerable height, that when the diameter of the circle is kept within proper bounds, the snow is thrown off at a tangent in every direction, and the included space left thus uncovered within…” He also states that it is not just he that is of this opinion but also of some others including, rather tantalizingly, a “Mr Little.” There is no way of knowing if he is referring to one of Robert Tait Little’s shepherding ancestors.

It is well established that sheep flocks that live and roam on unfenced mountain and moorland, learn through the generations to remain within a limited, albeit large, area of many hundreds of acres. They know where to forage and also where and when to take shelter. The shepherd, by building stells, takes advantage of this instinct for the sheep naturally enter and remain within the enclosure whenever bad weather is due. There is no need for a gate to retain them. Here, they are safe and can be kept well fed. Perhaps an even greater advantage of stells is that the shepherd is also safe for there is no need to be out on the moor searching for lost or buried sheep in drifting snow.

The photo below is an abstract from the landscape photo used by The Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage to show the cottage in its Exmoor setting.  The Hoar Oak stell can be seen in the left foreground.  The structure was probably built under Head Shepherd Little’s instructions when Shepherd Renwick o(1879 to 1886) or Shepherd Johnstone (1886 to 1904) were the shepherds in charge of the Hoar Oak herding.


Posted by Bette Baldwin
Art Heritage History

Guest Blog by Artist Phil Rycroft

In 2016, South Molton artist Phil Rycroft painted this beautiful watercolour of Hoar Oak Cottage.

We asked Phil to tell us a bit about his inspiration for the painting and he writes:

Many years ago, back in the mists of time, in the early seventies, I recall walking on Exmoor, ill prepared, in unsuitable clothing and footwear, with no map and only guessing where I was. It was a typical Exmoor day, horizontal misty rain, cold, wet and after I had become slightly lost I stumbled across this remote farm house. Sheltering under its walls out of the wind, gave me the chance to recuperate and refresh. Taking stock of the situation I got to wondering how on earth anyone could making a living there with no apparent signs of stock or crops.  Perhaps we weren’t so far from a village or larger farm and maybe this was not a farm but a workers cottage.

When it was time to make my way back to Brendon Two Gates – with no map – I was not really sure which direction I should take.  I resolved to myself that if I could find the drive or track away from the cottage and back to civilisation, I would then be able to reach my car. But no path, track, or drive was to be found. This got me thinking, what was this cottage doing out here in the middle of nowhere with no visible connection to the outside world?  I did eventually get out, but the experience had kindled a fascination, with lots of unanswered questions.

Having revisited the site several times since, drawing and painting in this very magical spot, I still wonder what life must been like there.  So different to our own. No noise, no central heating, no electricity, phone, yet this was only 50 or so years ago. A world away on our own doorstep.”

When not drawing, sketching and painting Phil has a busy family, work and sporting life enjoying, amongst other things, mountains rather bigger than the Exmoor hills.


The beautiful watercolour of Hoar Oak Cottage created by Phil is available to purchase as a framed or unframed print and as greeting cards.  If you are interested please contact the artist on or 01769572100.


Posted by Bette Baldwin
Australia Heritage History Life@Hoar Oak Cottage Vellacott

Guest Blog: Vellacotts of Tasmania

The Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage welcome guest bloggers and our very first are Rob and Elaine Vellacott from Tasmania, Australia who have shared their story and their links to Hoar Oak Cottage.

Robert Vellacott was born (1940) in Perth West Australia, the youngest of 7 children of Harold and Irene Vellacott. He grew up and was educated in Perth. He completed a plumbing apprenticeship and whilst on a working holiday round Australia Rob met Tasmanian, Elaine Cable, who was working in a local shipping company. They married in 1963, settled in Devonport and had 2 children. Robert became a plumbing instructor at the Devonport technical college for 25 years and is now retired but is the local tourism association secretary and takes an active interest in local government and council affairs. They began researching the Vellacott family in Australia and England and their discoveries led them to Hoar Oak Cottage.

They write:
“In September, 2013 we visited Hoar Oak Cottage which had been the home of my great, great grandfather and mother Charles & Elizabeth (nee Passmore) Vellacott. This was very special day for us because it represented the fruition of years of research into our Vellacott family. We were most probably the first Australians of the Lynton line of Vellacotts to visit Hoar Oak Cottage since my great grandparents lived there almost 200 years ago. The restoration and conservation work was still underway at the time of our visit however one sensed the quiet isolation and freedom the family must have felt whilst living there, especially the children who would have enjoyed roaming the rolling hills and investigating the creek. This photo is of our first sight of Hoar Oak Cottage as we travelled across Cheriton Ridge.”

“On the day it was lovely to meet up with the descendants from other families who had lived at the cottage and especially Jim & Mabel Vellacott who still live locally in Devon.  Jim and I – both GGGrandsons of Charles Vellacott of Hoar Oak Cottage – laid flowers in the hearth of the cottage as a little memorial to all our families.”

“My great grandfather, Josiah Vellacott, was the last son of Charles and Elisabeth Vellacott and in 1866 Josiah, with his wife Mary and their 3 sons migrated to Queensland, Australia seeking a better life in a new country.  However, they found life tough dealing with the heat and remoteness of the sheep farm where Josiah worked as well as the isolation from their extended family back on Exmoor.  Josiah and Mary had two more sons before tragedy struck the family in 1871 when Josiah was found drowned. Mary was left with five young sons, the oldest being 11 years old and the youngest was two years old.  Not able to manage, she sent the eldest boy out to work; put the next two sons in an orphanage and kept the youngest two boys with her until they were able to work. Later she married again and went on to have another 4 children. Despite the hard and tragic life the family faced, the descendants of Josiah and Mary Vellacott made the most of the opportunities given in a new country and are now well established across Australia and many other places world wide.”

Rob’s wife Elaine takes up the story:

“I am a 4th generation Australian and was born in Tasmania. Most of my Australian ancestors have been farmers.  In researching the Vellacott family name I was fortunate to find Lorraine Vellacott who had researched the two lines of the Vellacott families.  Her research was very thorough and we were able to link the Australian line with the two UK lines. It has been an interesting journey, especially when Robert and I were able to visit Hoar Oak Cottage in 2013 and meet descendants of the Vellacotts and many other families who had lived in the cottage. My hope is that Hoar Oak Cottage will continue to be of interest for those travelling to the Exmoor National Park.”

Rob and Elaine have shared the following photos of members of the Australian Vellacott family.

Grandchildren of Josiah & Mary Vellacott’s youngest son John:
  Dorothy, John & Winifred – the “Queensland Line” in 1995
Second youngest son of Josiah and Mary Vellacott:

William and Harriet’s sons:


And finally, a photo of the youngest grandchildren of William and Harriet Vellacott:

Rob and Elaine finished their Guest Blog by saying:

We are very thankful for all the help received and friendships formed during our research into the Vellacott family and our hope is that Hoar Oak Cottage will continue to be of interest for those visiting Exmoor.

Thank you to Rob and Elaine for being our first Hoar Oak Cottage Guest Bloggers and sharing their fascinating story.  You can find out more about the Vellacotts at Hoar Oak Cottage on this link.

If you would like to contribute a Guest Blog please do get in touch.

Posted by Bette Baldwin
Heritage History Johnstone Old House Names

A new house sign for Hoar Oak Cottage

For many years, Hoar Oak Cottage has slept in silence in its remote patch of Exmoor.  A few people knew its name and history but many didn’t.  Since the Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage started working to save the cottage and its history and prevent its stories from being lost – there has been an ambition to have the cottage’s name somewhere on the site.   The aim? To let people know what the cottage was called.  And to give them a clue as to where they could find more information. On 9th May 2017, the aim of having a house sign at Hoar Oak Cottage was achieved.

Thanks to Steve Pugsley and his team at Ardosia Slate , a beautiful piece of local, recovered slate was supplied and engraved and donated to Hoar Oak Cottage.  The Ardosia folks cleverly incorporated the Hoar Oak Cottage web-address into the house sign enabling people to find out where to go for further information.

Thanks to Ben Williams at Badgeworthy Land Company, the Friends were given permission to transport the heavy sign out to the cottage by Landrover.

It was put in place by Will Bowden and Bette Baldwin, founder members of The Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage, and ‘dedicated’ by Margaret Waters – all three are  descendants of Shepherd James Maxwell Johnstone and his wife Sarah, who lived at Hoar Oak Cottage from 1886 to 1904 and had thirteen children there.


And last but not least thanks go to Jim Baldwin for bringing additional lifting power to the day and to Matt Harley from the Exmoor National Park Authority for giving The Friends permission to put a house sign at Hoar Oak Cottage.

If you would like to find out a bit more about how Hoar Oak Cottage got its name please visit this page on our website.


Posted by Bette Baldwin
History Old Field Names Tithe Appoirtionment 1836

The Daisy Field

The Hoar Oak Cottage Fields

Thanks to the 1836 Tithe Surveys and the Commutation Act of 1836 we learn the names of the fields around Hoar Oak Cottage – some pretty, some plain  – but all quite descriptive.  Nineteen parcels of land owned by John Vellacott at Hoar Oak were surveyed, numbered and named including:

House Field
The Gate Field
Higher Hills
Lower Hills
Bottom of the Mountain
Higher Six Acres
Lower Six Acres
Hoar Oak Common
House and Gardens
Mountain (several parcels of land have this name but different numbers)

The names above are very descriptive but of particular interest are the following, rather romantic-sounding,  field names:

The Daisy Field
Goviers Lake Field
The Oaken Piece
Bottom of the Mountain

Where did those names come from?  Who gave them to these bundles of rough Exmoor land?  How long were the fields known by these names before 1836?  These are questions we’d like to find answers to.  If anyone can help please get in touch.  More information about the 1836 Tithe Maps below……….

About The 1836 Tithe Survey and Commutation Act
From 1836, for a decade or so, the whole of England and Wales was surveyed.  This was a huge task and its aim was to establish the boundaries of each parish as well as every parcel of land within the parish, who owned it, its value and the calculated tithe the owner would be liable to pay to the parish. Why was it done?  To formalise the money raised to support the parish and its clergy. Its not that long ago that people needing help and support in hard times would turn first to their family and neighbours and then, if needs be, to the parish to provide them with food, clothing, money etc.  The money for the parish came from the community, from ‘tithes’ paid by local property owners.

Prior to The Commutation Act passed in 1836, this tithe payment had been made, generally speaking, “in kind”.  The 1836 Act changed all that.  The survey produced, for each parish, a map which identified each plot of land, who owned it, its size and its monetary value in terms of tithe payable to the parish. Once the tithe maps and apportionments were drawn up for each parish the landowners had to convert their payment in kind to a monetary payment.  Finding the hard cash was probably a challenge for many.

In 1836, that duty to pay would have fallen on John Vellacott who owned Hoar Oak Cottage and the land around it at that time. The total duty for Hoar Oak Cottage and all of its fields was £4.7.6.  Using the National Archive currency convertor  this was the equivalent of £200+ in current money.  We don’t have any record of what John thought about paying this new charge. In 1836, Hoar Oak was occupied by Richard and Betsy Lancey who were either relatives of, or working for, the Vellacotts.  The Lanceys were busy then with the marriage of their daughter to their lodger, George Saunders the Thatcher – more on this link – so perhaps weren’t too worried about paying tithes either.

However, the tithe maps and apportionments do give fascinating information about Hoar Oak Cottage and the land around it.  We often think of Hoar Oak sitting isolated and remote in a barren landscape but the Tithe Maps show it was surrounded by clearly marked fields with specified names and, no doubt, specified functions.  Even the notes written by the surveyor show the realities of life at Hoar Oak as he mentions how wet everything is, including the paper he is trying to record his survey measurements on.

The Tithe Map and Apportionment document for the parish of Lynton, which includes Hoar Oak Cottage, can be found online.  Follow this link and then choose the Parish of Lynton in the drop down box.  .



Thanks to Royalty Free Stock Photos for daisy image.


Posted by Bette Baldwin
Life@Hoar Oak Cottage Poetry Shepherd Little The Womens Life

The Housewifes Poem

Dorothy Little was the second to last housewife at Hoar Oak Cottage and the last housewife at The Mines Cottage. The story of her life at these two cottages was captured in a poem written by her friend Mollie Hawcutt. It has been shared with The Friends by Dorothy’s son David Little and with the permission of Mollie Hawcutt. The poem is transcribed below but if you click on this photo of Dorothy at Hoar Oak Cottage you can see a video of her Grandaughter Louise Holman (previously Smith) reading the poem.


Poem about Dorothy Little by Mollie Hawcutt

She was last by the Mines, almost last at Hoar Oak:
her cottages, broken shells, crumble and ache for what they have known,
homes, with a story to tell.
Cob, slates and plaster nearly all gone,
Only some stones remain
To remind us of shepherding, echo the song
of life which will not come again.
Hoar Oak was first, a house then tin-faced;
three bedrooms, a privy, a kitchen range.
No water laid on but a tap nearby,
(that was the place where it never ran dry)
whilst shepherding, living as one with the flock:
Then, the sheep were their life, the sun their clock.
A cart came each month with goods from North Molton:
Large sack of flour (she baked her own bread.)
Turves were cut, sticks were gathered, tasks never forgotten,
there was always a fire in that grate blacked with lead.
When they moved to the Mines
there was still love and laughter.
They could hear in the house when Barle Water ran high.
She washed clothes in a boiler tub down by the river,
and walked to Flexbarrow when her tap ran dry.
They were happy days then, which time cannot alter;
But progress was coming, it did not pass by.
On route to Cow Castle few glance at the hollow
fenced off, with a notice which says “Do not climb”
for the old shepherd’s cottage there is no tomorrow,
Daisies now carpet the house by the Mines

Mollie Hawcutt belonged a Writers Group and often would go and do readings for local groups – church, WI, etc. and some years back had an exhibition of her photos and poems in Barnstaple called the Lens and Pen Exhibition. Mollie’s daughter Sue will be working with The Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage to bring this exhibition to life once again by digitising the exhibition materials and making them available through the website. Mollie also appeared in a well know local book from the North Molton History Society when Judy McCarthy included some of Mollie’s collection of Exmoor poems and photographs. More information on this link.

Thanks go to David Little, Mollie Hawcutt and Louise Holman (previously Smith) for permissions to use the material on this page.

Posted by Bette Baldwin

The Hunt and Shepherd Little

In the Exmoor book by H.J.Marshall (1948) Exmoor:Sporting and Otherwise the story is related about how Shepherd Will Little’s knowledge of the countryside around and about Hoar Oak Cottage was ignored by the Exmoor Hounds when they were out hunting on the moor.

The book makes frequent mention of Hoaroak Cottage and the ancient boundary marker that is the Hoaroak Tree as well mentioning people linked to Hoar Oak Cottage. At the time Marshall was writing, the shepherd at Hoar Oak was William Little and H. J. Marshall tells the tale that Will Little was one of the few who knew the good ground between Exe Head, Chains Barrow, Ruckham Combe and on via Saddle Gate, to Chapman’s Barrows.

Marshall recounts this tale:
He (Will Little) was once on Exe Plain when the Hounds passed in full cry, a horse rode up to him and inquired his way . “Come with me and I will take you across the Chains” replied the shepherd. The horseman did not like the prospect.
“Is there a way around?” he inquired
“Yes” said the shepherd “You can ride down Hoccombe Combe, there in front of you, go past my cottage in the valley, then ride under the hill on sound heather. But ‘tis a long way round. Better come with me”
The rider shook his head.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do” said the shepherd “ I’ll jog along quietly and be at Saddlers Stone a long while before you can gallop there!”
So it was settled. And the young shepherd jogged leisurely along over the bog and reached Saddlers Stone, well known to all hunters. He sat there for some time before the stranger came up, his horse covered in sweat from hard galloping.

There’s no doubt that Will Little, shepherd of the Hoar Oak herding and resident of Hoar Oak Cottage, not only knew his way around the moor but had stout legs and a good set of lungs!

This fascinating book is now out of print but it is worth tracking down a copy if only for Lionel Edward’s lovely pen and ink illustrations and the hand drawn map of Exmoor on the inside cover. The book recalls epic hunts crossing the moor from’ Bratton to Porlock Bay’ – referred to in the old Exmoor Hunting song of the same name and which has been captured in this YouTube clip

Posted by Bette Baldwin

Great Snow Storm of 1878

On March 29th 1878, Exmoor Head Shepherd Robert Tait Little (RTL) recorded in his diary:  “Great Snow Storm. Lost 290 Sheep after a fine winter.”

By the end of April, RTL is clearly in a better position to assess the damage and another page from his diary, shown below, details the losses from the great snow storm of 1878.

1878: sheep lost in a severe snow on the night of March 28th and morning of 29th March 1878.

A    21 Winstitchen
B   28 Simonsbath
C   40 Larkborough
D   28 Badgeworthy
E   13 Chains (Hoar Oak)
F   40 Cornham
G   55 Duredown
H   57 Pinkery
Total Dead 292

Dead from March 28th till April 27th 292 Sheep. Perhaps 260 would die owing to the storm. Weather good after. Snow all away by April 1st West wind and no rain. Winter good.

Note: The letters A, B, C etc relate to the code number Robert Tait Little had given each of the farms and herdings. Hoar Oak was also known as the Chains herding and was Code E. They lost 13 sheep at Hoar Oak in the bad weather. Elsewhere in the diaries RTL uses the just the code letters to record information about the farms – a sensible timesaving approach to record keeping avoiding writing out the long farm names.

This collection of information about how many sheep had died at the various Exmoor herdings would have been made over the two or three weeks following the dreadful storm of March 28th and 29th, 878. Although Robert Tait Little says the snow was ‘all away’ by April 1st it is likely that it would still have been difficult for him to get out to some of the most remote farms or for the shepherds to get to a village to report their losses from the great storm. The heavy snow and large drifts would have remained longer up on the high moor making it difficult to get about and, as is often the case in such conditions, the sheep can get buried in snow drifts only to emerge, still alive, some days or even weeks later.

As a consequence it is not until April 27th, nearly a month later, that RTL appears to be in a position to make a full tally of lost sheep over those 4 weeks and to write it up in his stock diary. It is interesting that he makes a judgement about how many he thought actually died from the storm – he says perhaps 260 would die owing to the storm. The reason for the other 30 deaths – other than usual winter losses one supposes – is not stated. It does seem, from RTL’s notes, that the weather before and after the great storm had been not too bad. No doubt a bitter irony.
Research by The Friends has shown that this snow storm was worthy of being recorded and mentioned in the annual Symons British Rainfall Records of 1878. This book contains an overview of weather throughout the British Isles on a month by month basis as well as recording rainfall including snow throughout the year.


Clearly this weather event was of sufficient importance and of such a devastating effect as to feature so strongly in both Robert Tait Little’s Diaries and in Symon’s British Rainfall book.
What was happening at Hoar Oak Cottage during the great storm of March 1878?   At this date Hoar Oak Cottage was occupied by William and Fanny Davidson. They had several children, a son born at Hoar Oak in 1872, a daughter in 1873, another son in 1877 and another daughter in 1879. Later in 1879 the family had moved on to Winstitchen and so during the Great Storm of 1878 it is very likely that the Davidson would be at Hoar Oak Cottage with 2 small children and a tiny baby. RTL’s diary records that 13 sheep were lost to the great storm from The Chains herding run by William Davidson. Was the experience of the great storm one of the factors which resulted in Shepherd Davidson taking on the Winstitchen herding? The farmhouse at Winstitchen is more substantial and much closer to the amenities of the village of Simonsbath – perhaps more desirable than being at Hoar Oak for a young family. We shall never know for certain but, other than the Johnstone family of Hoar Oak Cottage, few shepherd families stayed there once they had more than one or two children.
About Symon’s British Rainfall Guides
G.J. Symons first produced a four-page pamphlet English Rainfall, 1860 with information for over 150 stations. He next produced the first volume of British Rainfall to cover both 1860 and 1861, the series was initially known as Symons’s/Symons British Rainfall from 1860 – 1899 and was then continued as British Rainfall until 1968. It was produced by the British Rainfall Organization – an independent body managed first by George Symons and then in succession by Herbert Sowerby Wallis and Dr Hugh Robert Mill who instituted a broad of trustees. In 1919, the operational function of the British Rainfall Organization became a branch of the Meteorological Office. From 1961, monthly information from all stations was included for the first time. From 1969 – 1991 rainfall information was published in monthly and annual totals of rainfall.
More info on this link

Posted by Bette Baldwin