James Maxwell Johnstone was born in 1852 in Crawfordjohn near Muirkirk, South Lanarkshire. He came from a long line of Scottish shepherd families who had lived and worked for millennia in and around Crawfordjohn. He moved with his parents to Betws Garmon in North Wales in the 1870s where the family ran a combined sheep farm and slate quarry called Y Garreg Fawr.
He met and married Sarah Thomason in Betws Garmon in 1881 and after their marriage the couple moved to live and work in Keswick where two daughters, Marion and Emily, were born. In 1884 the family moved back to Scotland and lived at Templelands, near Muirkirk, where a son Samuel was born in 1885.
In 1886, the family moved to Exmoor to take up the Hoar Oak herding and live at Hoar Oak Cottage as employees of Frederic Knight. James Maxwell Johnstone was related to the two previous Hoar Oak shepherds, William Davidson and John Renwick.
James and Sarah had ten more children during their time at Hoar Oak and their family of thirteen children must count as one of the ‘ longest’ of what were known then as ‘long families.’ The family tree below shows the children and, where known or applicable, who they married.
During the Johnstone’s time on Exmoor, Hoar Oak Cottage changed ownership from the Knight family to the Fortescue family and in 1902 Viscount Ebrington, heir to the Fortescue family, put in hand arrangements to extend the cottage (more information to come) in order to house the expanding Johnstone family. By 1903, when the photograph below was taken, Hoar Oak Cottage had become a substantial farmhouse with outbuildings.
The Johnstone’s time on Exmoor spanned a difficult agricultural period, locally and nationally, and things were changing on Exmoor. The new owners, the Fortescue family, had decided that it would be better to let their Exmoor properties untenanted and, as a consequence, many of the shepherd families, including those from Scotland, were to lose their jobs. No doubt James Maxwell Johnstone could see the writing on the wall and in October 1903 he headed north to visit his family in Keswick and Lanarkshire to find out if he should return ‘home’ with his wife and children.
He returned to Exmoor and Hoar Oak just in time for Christmas and we will never know whether he found things better in the north, nor what the family’s plans were. Three months later, on 24th March 1904 at the age of 52, James died at Hoar Oak Cottage with his wife Sarah at his side. The cause of death as recorded in the official entry of death is ‘syncope’ an old term meaning a sort of ‘fading away’ but most likely a heart attack or similar.
For James, the worry about what to do was over but Sarah was left with a large family to care for. Although a few of the older children had, by this time, left home to marry, enter service or work as agricultural labourers there were still seven children under the age of twelve living with their mother Sarah at Hoar Oak Cottage. The youngest was just ten months old. Sarah would have been very reliant on the goodwill of the Foretescue Land Agent, George Cobley Smyth-Richard and an entry in his diary for 21st March 1904, five days after James’ death, casts a little light. It says:
“I rode out to Hoar Oak and saw Mrs Johnstone on the loss of her husband and said I should like to see how her affairs stood. Saw Rob Little and arranged that he should see her boy and tell him that he should for the present go on looking after the sheep. Robert gave a very good account of the sheep and Molland [the bailiff] of the cattle and I arranged that the latter should go to Castle Hill at an early date.”
The ‘Rob Little’ and ‘Robert’ referred to is Robert Tait Little who was then Head Shepherd on Exmoor and another of the Scottish shepherds who had come to work on Exmoor in the mid-1800s. The two men and their families would have known each other well and were part of the close-knit Scottish shepherd community that had built up on Exmoor. Indeed, James’ journey back to Scotland in 1903 and his death at Hoar Oak Cottage three months later, is recorded in Robert Tait Littles Diaries. The ‘boy’ referred to is Samuel Johnstone who, at the time of his father’s death, was 18 years old – old enough to keep Hoar Oak going immediately after James died but, as we learn, not old enough to take on the herding.
Land Agent Cobley Smyth-Richards visited Hoar Oak again on the 12th April 1904. What he found, or what he thought, is not recorded. Family history tells us that Sarah was offered the chance to go back and live with her family in Wales or to James’ family in Scotland but her choice was to stay in North Devon – no doubt aiming to keep her large family together and possibly wishing to be near her husband’s grave in Lynton churchyard. What is known is that within eight weeks of James’ death Sarah and the younger children were gone from Hoar Oak Cottage and living in a cottage at Shilstone Farm, Brendon.
Information from the Brendon School Admission Registers shows that the younger Johnstone children had, by June 1904, been admitted into school but one of the girls, Mary Johnstone, was found to have consumption and was ‘sent home’. The records indicate that all of the Johnstone scholars had ‘left the district’ by 10th January 1913 by which time Sarah and the younger children had moved to Lynton where she was working as a cleaning lady in the Sinai Hotel. Sarah lived and worked in Lynton for many years and, like many women, dealt with the trauma of her sons being involved in the First World War. Her eldest son Samuel was in the Royal North Devon Hussars, her second son James also joined the Hussars and was eventually evacuated from Salonika, like so many, due to ill health and her youngest son Thomas, volunteered for the Dorsetshire Regiment, was transferred to the Devonshire Regiment 5th Battalion and was killed in action in August 1917 during the opening phase of the Third Battle of Ypres near the Belgian village of Langemarck. You can read the Johnstone brothers’ stories on this link.
Sarah also lost two grandsons in WW2 and the war memorial outside Lynton Town Hall carries the names of her son and grandsons. As an older woman Sarah went to live with her youngest daughter Agnes and husband Reg Sedgebeer in Gunn and then later with her daughter Jane Johnstone at Hawkscombe Cottage, Porlock where Sarah died in 1945. Her own death certificate records her occupation as ‘Widow of James Maxwell Johnstone, Farm Shepherd’ – a touching demonstration that she still saw herself, first and foremost, as James’ wife.
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