The Royal Forest of Exmoor was an area ‘afforested’ under medieval laws to establish the Monarch’s sole right to hunt there – as well as to any game shot in the Royal Forest. It was never a forest in the modern sense of the word and although some Royal Forests were valuable sources of timber for the Crown – to build ships for the Royal Navy in particular – this was not the case on Exmoor. At the beginning of the 1800s, the Royal Commission for Crown Lands decided to sell off the Royal Forest of Exmoor and in 1812, a survey was undertaken to establish precisely which parts of Exmoor belonged to the Crown and which parts could, therefore, be sold. The results of this survey were drawn up into a map and an Awards document – these large and extensive documents are preserved in the National Archives at Kew, London. Collection Ref: MR1/535
John Knight – a wealthy and successful Midlands ironmaster and industrialist and MP for Worcestershire – was the successful purchaser of the 16,000 acres of Exmoor for £50,000. He began an ambitious agricultural experiment which involved the enclosure and reclamation of Exmoor. The Knight family lived, initially in Lynton, but soon moved to Simonsbath House where the plan was to make Simonsbath the village at the heart of Knight’s Exmoor Estate.
He also began to instigate road and canal building, railways and ports, mining projects as well as agricultural improvements. For the purposes of telling the Hoar Oak story the focus will be on Knight’s agricultural and sheepfarming activities.
John Knight built a boundary wall to ‘enclose’ the section of the old Royal Forest of Exmoor which he had purchased. In this way the old common rights of the locals to use the moor for summer pasturing, peat digging and other purposes was ended. Knight saw a lucrative and growing urban market for meat and wool and his aim was to improve Exmoor in order to farm sheep and cattle all year round. Some of the land he purchased was on the gentler, rolling hills of Devon and Somerset and here he built several substantial mixed farms which were let out to tenant farmers. He imported vast quantities of lime, from South Wales, to ‘sweeten’ the soil and dug and ploughed the land to grow crops to feed large herds of sheep and cattle. But other parts of the land that he had purchased and enclosed, were the old, established summer herdings up on the high, moorland wastes of Exmoor – a rugged landscape of wild weather and poorly drained, boggy soils. One of these herdings was in the Hoar Oak Water valley and included the small one roomed cot or telling house which became Hoar Oak Cottage.
In 1841, John Knight handed over his Exmoor Estates to his son Frederic who decided to introduce his own style of year-round ‘sheep ranching’ on the high Exmoor herdings as well as introducing a more traditional tenant farmer regime on his estate.
Roger Burton, author of The Heritage of Exmoor (1989) explains that:
“No attempt had been made by John Knight to colonise Exmoor in the traditional landlord and tenant farmer relationship and when he relinquished control in 1841 the total rents received on Exmoor were only £70. It was in trying to farm the whole of his 16,000 acre estate on Exmoor with only his three sons and hired hands to help him, that John Knight had made his greatest mistake. This policy placed too great a burden on one man’s purse. Moreover, it had denied him the all important family unit so essential to the establishment of a settled farming community.”
Burton goes on to explain that Frederic Knight seemed to have little faith in either the local Exmoor Horn breed of sheep nor the local Devonshire shepherds to achieve his ambitious plans and began to purchase and import herds of Black Faced Sheep from breeders in and around the Scottish borders. It appears that the Border Scottish shepherds – in many cases with their wives and families – were ‘part of the deal’ and their job was to travel with the sheep down to Devon and get them settled in on Exmoor.
In total, over 5000 sheep and over 20 Scottish shepherd families migrated to Exmoor. They and the fast transport of the developing railway infrastructure enabled Knight to achieve his aim of raising sheep and selling their meat and wool into the large urban centres. Those shepherds created a unique Scottish community of hill farmers based around the village of Simonsbath in the centre of Exmoor. More on this link. Knight built several new farmhouses up in the hills as permanent homes for his Scottish shepherd families and leased Hoar Oak Cottage to house his shepherd working the Hoar Oak and Chain herdings.
Ultimately, and for a variety of reasons, Frederic Knight gave up Exmoor. He sold the reversion of the Exmoor Estate to the Fortescues – reversion being the agreement that Frederic held an interest in the estate until his death – and the Knight experiment on Exmoor came to an end.
More can be found out about John and Frederic Knight in these references:
E.T.MacDermot (1973) A History of the Forest of Exmoor
Orwin and Sellick (1970) The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest