Category: History

Agricultural History Exmoor Heritage History Scottish Exmoor Links sheep Sheep Farming

Exmoor – Land of Goshen?

Exmoor may seem like a forbidding, remote or even extreme environment to our modern minds.  To the Scottish shepherds who travelled south to Exmoor in the 19th century to work for Frederic Winn Knight it would have felt very much like home from home.  Most of them came from similar, or even more, remote rural areas in the Scottish Borders and they were used to wild weather and wild countryside.

But could it be that coming south might seem like coming to the Land of Goshen for these shepherd families?  Frederic Knight seemed to think so. On the 6th of November 1883 he had an article published in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette about Exmoor sheep farming.

He says in the article that although the climate of Exmoor may seem severe to a native of the Devonshire sea-coast the “shepherds from the Scotch borders have frequently remarked, on receiving accounts of snowstorms in their native hills, that on coming to Exmoor they had come into the land of Goshen.”  

He explains how his sheep flocks need no additional feed during the winter months and that “only twice in the last twenty years have I lost sheep in snowstorms and the loss compared with the number of sheep wintered has been infinitesimal, as it was accidental.  No sheep with liver-rot or fluke has ever been known on Exmoor.” 

Although Mr Knight doesn’t make clear precisely what he means by Land of Goshen – nor what the accident was that caused the loss of sheep during winter – it can probably be assumed he was referring to the balmy climate and agricultural benefits of farming in Southern England.  The newspaper article gives a very positive view of sheep farming on Exmoor at the end of the 1800s and should probably be seen as a bit of free media for Mr Knight wishing to put a very positive spin on his agricultural activities on Exmoor.

The Friends researches into the Scottish shepherds at Hoar Oak Cottage and elsewhere on Exmoor don’t necessarily paint a similar picture.  Their lives, for the most part, included highs and lows, good times and bad times.  Some stayed on Exmoor.  Most went back to their homes and families in Scotland.  So was Exmoor their Land of Goshen?  Maybe it was a bit warmer then the Scottish Borders.  Maybe the chance of a job with a cottage was attractive.  Maybe sheep farming in the south was easier than in the north.

We’ll never know.  We can only be sure that Frederic Knight certainly thought it was.  At least according to what he wrote in this newspaper article published over 130 years ago.

 

 

Posted by Bette Baldwin
Flower Festival History Lynton & Lynmouth Uncategorized

Flower Festival in Lynmouth

History and Heritage in Flowers
at St Johns Church Lynmouth

The Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage were delighted to join in the St John The Baptist Flower Festival in Lynmouth.  This beautiful little church – a Grade II listed building – was completed in 1870 and has, this year, undergone extensive repairs to the roof and improvements to the interior.  You can read more about St John The Baptist – its architecture and history – on this link.

This year the theme of the Flower Festival was the history of Lynmouth and the official opening was on the anniversary of the Lynmouth Flood 65 years ago.  There were floral interpretations of many aspects of Lynmouth’s history and each was accompanied by a brief history.  Here is a taster of just a few:

The Herring Fishing Industry was commemorated in a blue, silver and white display with the following short history:  
First mentioned as early as the 1500s, the herring industry of Lynmouth reached its peak in the late eighteenth century when, quite suddenly, the herring stock declined.  The export of herring to Europe ceased, as did the practice of using the fish for manuring the land.  However, Lynmouth herring was still  a valuable source of protein for the Hoar Oak shepherd families.  Even within living memory, herrings were sold for sixpence (2 1/2p) each from the barrows wheeled along the streets.
Smugglers were remembered in a delightful cave-inspired display and the history recalled that:
There are many tales of smuggling along this coast but the only record is of an incident in 1832 when a suspicious boat was sighted off Lynmouth and was watched by three “Preventative Men”.  That night a boat came ashore laden with 30 kegs of brandy and was met by a number of farmers with their horses.  A scuffle ensured but the smugglers managed to escape leaving their contraband on the shore.
The Paddle Steamers arriving in Lynmouth in 1830, the Boxing Day Meet of the Exmoor Foxhounds and the stirrup cup provided by the Bath Hotel and the Rising Sun Hotel, the amazing hydro-electric power station opening in 1890 as well as the Lynmouth Flood in 1952 were amongst other events recorded in flowers.
The Overland Launch of 1899 was commemorated with a display shaped to reflect the steep hill between Lynmouth and Porlock that the old style, heavy wooden Lifeboat was hauled up and over.  The accompanying short history tells a bit more of the story:

A severe gale blowing on the 12th January, 1899 prevented the lifeboat Louisa from launching at Lynmouth to help a ship in distress. The twenty-man crew, deciding to launch from Porlock Weir, were helped by 100s of villagers and 18 horses to haul the ten-ton boat 1400ft up Countisbury Hill.  In places, the narrow road had to be widened to allow it to pass.  continuing across the moor to descend Porlock Hill alone, the crew finally reached the stricken ship the following morning and every one was saved.
 

The St Johns Flower Festival was a great success with many visitors – locals and holidaymakers – who enjoyed the displays as well as delicious cream teas and cakes.  Well over £1000 was raised in donations. A great achievement.

Posted by Bette Baldwin
Agricultural History Exmoor Heritage History Uncategorized

John Shortland, Chair of the Friends, Discovers Hoar Oak

Forty-nine years ago, as a teenager fresh from school, I stumbled across an Exmoor farm and asked if I could camp for a couple of days.  As the days turned into weeks and then months, I moved into the farmhouse earning my keep labouring.  I thought I had found Paradise and would never leave.  The sudden appearance of my father – “time to get a proper job” –  changed that and, despite my protests, a career in the world of fashion was forged.  However, like so many of us that have been caught in its magic web, Exmoor never released me fully.  At every opportunity, I would rush back to the farm to gradually learn a way of life totally foreign to my Home Counties upbringing.  Many of the tasks I was carrying out had remained virtually unchanged for decades, quite probably centuries.  Over the years that followed I was privileged not just to be welcomed into the farming calendar but also into the social one, sharing times of joy and sometimes sorrow.

Exmoor, with its National Park status, gives the appearance of a place unchanged but this is not a strictly accurate picture.  The landscape is protected but much of the social structure has inevitably altered as the older generations pass away.  As a result, the Exmoor dialect is much less frequently heard and many of the local traditions and tales are in danger of being lost.  It is here where individuals and organisations like the Friends do such valuable work through research and by recording the memories of those that remain.  For example, it is thanks to the Friends that I now know that when, forty plus years ago I walked back to Brendon Barton from the Rockford Inn, and singing lustily (but not tunefully) the Exmoor Hunting Song, that I was following in the footsteps of Abe and Gert Antell, the last of the Hoar Oak residents, as they also sang their way home from the pub.  Writing of those times in a blog led to a request from the Friends for me to read my account of that first visit to Exmoor – captured in a video clip below.  Now I have the great honour of becoming Chair of the Friends. 

Discovering Exmoor literally changed my life: I finally got to follow my dream of working on the land – albeit in horticulture  and in the Cotswolds, another area of outstanding beauty.  Now, as Chair of the Friends, my hope is that in some small way I can give something back to Exmoor and, especially, to the people that love it.  It is those people, whether they live and work on the moor, are visitors, or only know it through the internet, that keep the landscape alive.  And it is through their eyes that the hardy shepherd families of Hoar Oak Cottage, who for generations toiled so hard in their splendid isolation, will live on.

 The tale of John’s discovery of Hoar Oak Cottage in 1968 and of his love of Exmoor can be heard here:

Posted by John Shortland
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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 philrycroft@msn.com 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
Bottom
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 http://www.devon.gov.uk/tithemaps.htm and then choose the Parish of Lynton in the drop down box.  .

 

 

Thanks to www.123rf.com Royalty Free Stock Photos for daisy image.

 

Posted by Bette Baldwin
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