The story of Gerard Spooner is an interesting adjunct to the bigger story of the decision made Frederic Knight to stock Exmoor with Scottish sheep and shepherds around 1870. Twenty years earlier, in 1852, Spooner had taken on the tenancy of Winterhead Farm from the Knight family and introduced Scottish sheep and flock management techniques to Exmoor. Spooner may have been influential in demonstrating to Knight that the challenges of running sheep all year round on the Exmoor hills were not insurmountable.
Gerard Spooner was born in 1823, one of the large family of Rev William & Mrs Barbara Spooner of Elmdon, Warwickshire. He married Mary Katherine Boland in Ireland in 1854 and together they had nine children of whom four were born in UK. The Spooners had strong links to Ireland, recorded in censuses as the birthplace of Gerard’s mother, wife and sister-in-law.
Gerard Spooner moved to Easter Ross in the north of Scotland and in 1849 a ‘G Spooner of Lochalsh’ was included in the ‘Inverness Courier’ list of local farmers and landowners who had been granted licences to shoot game. Gerard’s brother Lucius Henry Spooner also lived in the sheep farming county of Ross-shire at that time – working as a Land Agent and Drain Commissioner – and it would seem the brothers were established in the area. Nonetheless, within 3 years Spooner had migrated to Exmoor to become one of the Knight’s tenants – taking the tenancy on Winterhead Farm.
As was the custom for a tenant farmer Spooner rented the house and land at Winterhead but introduced his own stock of animals which, in Spooners case, included a mixed flock of Cheviot and Blackface sheep from the Scottish Borders. These were shipped to Devon from Scotland and the North Devon Journal of 10th June 1852 carried a report on the arrival of 1100 sheep which had travelled, with at least five shepherds and their families, from the Isle of Skye on the steamship ‘Glendower’, destined for Winterhead Farm.
Once on Exmoor, Gerard Spooner began to make his mark in farming circles and an 1856 newspaper article in Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette includes a report on the Bath and West Show. The selected section is the report on ‘Mountain Sheep’ and includes a report of sheep bred by Gerard Spooner.
During 1858, after just six years in Devon, Gerard Spooner and his family emigrated to New Zealand where Gerard died in 1907. Sheep descended from tups bred in his day were still being reported on in newspaper reports as in this item in the North Devon Journal where sheep in the Mountain Sheep class are still being noted as having been bred by Gerard Spooner.
In facing challenges that others may have avoided at that time, Gerard Spooner risked his own reputation and livelihood by introducing Scottish sheep and sheepfarming methods onto Exmoor. The measure of his success is that when John Knight’s son Frederic decided to expand his sheepfarming on Exmoor in and around the 1870s he seemed to have been sufficiently influenced by Spooner to reject the local Exmoor horn breed and look to Scotland to import more Cheviot and Blackfaced sheep along with their Scottish shepherds.
For more on Frederic Knight follow this link. (To come)
We are indebted to Nora Solesbury for her research into Gerard Spooner and preparing this story. More information and details are available if you would like to contact us.
Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive for permission to use newspaper images.