Category: Uncategorized

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
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

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

The Post Gets Delivered to Hoar Oak Cottage

Nicky Rowberry – one of the Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage – has been doing some archival research recently and found the following news item published in the North Devon Journal on July 24th, 1902:

It reads as follows:
On the representation of Mr. E.J.Soares, M.P. the Postmaster-General has granted a daily delivery of letters to Hoar Oak Cottage, Lynton. Badgeworthy Cottage and Tom’s Hill were included in the applications, but in these cases the Postmaster-General declined, as the cost would be too great.
For such a little news item it packs a punch for those interested in Hoar Oak Cottage and also raises some interesting questions.
• How did they get their post before this? Would they have walked into Lynton, Simonsbath or maybe to a nearby farm – Cheriton or Scoresdown for example – where their post might have been left for them?
• What happened in 1902 to bring about the change to a daily delivery?
• Did the postman really go all the way out to Hoar Oak Cottage every day from July 1902 onwards?
• Why did Badgworthy Cottage and Tom’s Hill have their requests for daily deliveries turned down by the Postmaster-General?
• And just how much post would they have been receiving to make this a worthwhile addition to the postal round!!
To try to get some answers we searched for sources of information and came across The British Postal Museum and Archive which can be found at This is a very useful resource with a wonderful selection of pictures and information available on their website.

Many thanks go to Penny McMahon an archivisit at the British Postal Museum and Archive who has given us some of the answers but we will need to make a visit to the Postal Museum ourselves to do some more in-depth research. Here is some of the immediate information Penny was able to tell us:
• To find out which Post Office would have served Hoar Oak Cottage in 1902 we will need to look in the local authority archive – the Postal Heritage Museum doesn’t keep that info but it is likely to be Lynton or possibly Simonsbath.
• After 1897, under the so-called ‘Jubilee Concessions’ which were granted as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations, the Post Office agreed to guarantee delivery at standard postage rates to every house in the United Kingdom. Although this concession did not specify the frequency of delivery it was assumed to mean a minimum of one delivery weekly. Up until then the standard postage rate did not cover delivery to very outlying villages, hamlets, farms and cottages so this would have been a very useful concession for people who lived in remote spots such as Hoar Oak Cottage, Tom’s Hill and Badgworthy Cottage.
• Penny McMahon searched the index series under the following subject terms; Soares, Lynton and Simonsbath and was unable to find any information under the term Simonsbath. Under the search term Lynton, Penny found some references to salary increases for members of staff as well as increases in office expenses and suggested that these references might be worth chasing up as the new delivery out to Hoar Oak Cottage may have been the reason for granting these increases.
So, we still have more digging to do at the Postal Museum in order to try and find out a bit more but are very grateful to Penny for her help.
We do know that the post office was in Simonsbath in 1856. Orwin and Sellick record in their book The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest (publ 1929) that the shop and inn at Simonsbath was also the receiving point for letters…..letters arrived, from South Molton, at 12 noon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, outgoing post being dispatched at 1.30pm. However, by 1902 it may be that Lynton was the centre for the post.
The reason that Hoar Oak Cottage but not Badgworthy or Toms Hill had the post delivered is most likely to be due to a simple matter of distances. If the post was coming from Lynton the latter two cottages were perhaps just a bit too far from the post office and the postman’s regular route and so prevented Queen Victoria from being able to fulfill her Jubilee Concession!! This rough sketch of the area helps to show that – as the crow flies – Hoar Oak Cottage was about 4 miles from Lynton whereas Badgworthy was about 5 ½ miles and Toms Hill around 6 miles.

Of course, the actual routes taken to get to each of these cottages would have been considerably more but this sketch does, nonetheless, help to give us a rough idea of the relative distances.
Thinking about how much post the families at Hoar Oak would have been receiving and whether, therefore, a dedicated delivery was worthwhile is an interesting question too. James and Sarah Maxwell Johnstone were the residents at Hoar Oak Cottage in 1902 and at that time the oldest of their 13 children would have been away from home working as farm labourers or, for the girls, in service. The post would have been an important way for those older children to keep in touch and perhaps send a little bit of their wages home to help their mother’s budget. And of course Sarah’s family were in North Wales and James’s were in Dumfrieshire – so sending news or gifts would have always been by post. Having a regular delivery would therefore have been an invaluable services for them out at Hoar Oak.

Posted by Bette Baldwin