TitleOld Farming Records - Birch Centenary Chronicles 47
AbstractOld Farming Records

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 47.

Published in Parish News - August 2007

For many centuries the main occupation hereabouts has been farming. Many changes have taken place and an idea how this area looked at various times can be gleaned from records to be found in local and national archives.

A starting point is the Domesday Book, commissioned in 1085 by William the Conqueror. Essex was one of three counties which do not form part of what is known as Great Domesday. Along with Norfolk and Suffolk this county is to be found in Little Domesday. The details consist of a record of landholders, their estates, the size and content of the estate, and, most importantly, the value of estates. These formed not only a basis for taxation and evaluation but also of legal entitlement to land at the time of Edward the Confessor.

Later reports are not on the same scale but were often aimed at very much the same ends but they contain less detail. We are, however, fortunate in this area as an Account Book (covering 1747 to 1764) kept by Daniel Taylor of Layer Breton, is in the Essex County Record Office, Chelmsford. Taylor kept meticulous records in the form of a cash book. Here he noted what he sold and who to. Among the names noted are some still familiar to us today. For example James Row bought hops, while Tiffen was a fairly regular customer for cheese. Another purchaser of cheese Robert Macno also bought butter, milk and eggs. He settled an account on 26th March 1747 and both parties signed the book! In addition to such "farmgate" sales Taylor rented out land and, of course, bought cattle - Isaac and Samuel Barrett supplied some from St Osyth in 1765.

Wages were a regular feature in the accounts - small amounts by today's reckoning but vital to the labourer's family in those days. William Howard received just over 42p for 4 days work hoeing half an acre of turnips while John Goodey was paid 35p for a weeks work in 1764.

In the late 18th and early 19th century a much wider picture of agriculture was recorded by Arthur Young who toured the entire country making comparison as to crop yields, farming methods, and the wages, rent and rates paid, among other details. He devoted two volumes to the position he found while visiting Essex. Little is known about the specific farms in this area but he notes, in several places, the experience of Mr Powell, of Birch Holt. Young found the land to be "strong loam upon a whitish clay bottom". Crop rotation was to leave the land fallow one year, followed by barley, clover and wheat, in subsequent years. At the time of Young's visit a change was to be made as the "land was sick of clover on the drier soils". On those soils the rotation was to include turnips and oats.

The yield for all crops in our area was slightly higher than the County average - wheat was 26 bushels locally per acre; barley 32 and oats 40. One of the methods used by Powell was to hoe beans three times but, unfortunately, there is no record of the amount harvested. In Layer de la Haye fallow land was ploughed 8 times! Rates paid depended on land values and in Birch it was noted that "dry turnip land paid the highest rates". Tithes paid in Birch were 25p per acre and this was double the amount paid 20 years earlier. Horses cost £1-50 each, cows 60p and pigs £1 each. Labour costs were quoted as including beer. A head man was said to receive £10 per annum, boys £3, women £4. 50p and girls 10p! Winter rates were lower than those paid in the summer and it has to be borne in mind that education was not compulsory until late in the 19th century so children could start work much younger.

Other records, normally kept for tax purposes, exist for each parish, and many estates, together with newspaper adverts of property sales. A more recent set of papers, compiled to assess the product of every farm, as it was in 1941, is to be found at Kew. The outbreak of the Second World War led to the restriction of food imports to save shipping space for military purposes. Rationing was introduced to ensure an equal system of distribution was set up and alongside this War Agricultural Committees (War Ag) were created covering the whole country. The very nature of their work was to visit each farm to ascertain what farmers produced and to advise them on how to improve matters in the national interest. This did not make them exactly welcome visitors! The returns made by farmers, and the advice they received, were recorded and in many cases they show a degree of interference in personal matters. In some cases it was seen as teaching grandmother to suck eggs! As an example the signature of the Inspectors in this area, show them to be farmers in the same parish. This was probably the case elsewhere in the country and may have affected the view farmers had of what they saw as unnecessary interference. The records paint a picture very different to that seen today. One point is that not only farms but smallholdings were included most of which have since disappeared.

It is a little difficult to reconstruct the figures as they are recorded by holding in some cases which clearly cross parish boundaries Birch Holt (noted by Young, above) in 1941 was recorded as being in Messing. The farmer, Mr Faulds, grew 35 acres wheat, 21 barley, 16 oats, 7 mixed corn and wheat. Crops also included beans, mangolds and cabbage for fodder. Lucerne, flax and small fruit was also grown. There were 13 cows, 1 bull, 50 other cattle and 112 sheep. Five men were employed one being under 18.

Some of the remarks made by Inspectors were rather harsh - Stamps Farm - the farmhouse was in good condition but the farmer "had no knowledge of arable and the land was infested with "ox tongue". Another farmer is said to know nothing of arable farming "does not try to do his best" his ditches and fences were very bad and a "hindrance to neighbours".

It was no surprise to me to read that Shatters Hill was 100% heavy clay but the fact that 1.5 acres of strawberries were grown on the land would have been welcome today! The farmhouse was said to be "fair" with piped water and electricity neither of which extended to the farm buildings. The need to employ extra labour seems a poor point to make when so many farm labourers were being called to the services. No mention is made of Land Girls and it may be that these records formed a basis for allocating them when they did arrive. The lack of capital was another "defect" recorded which seems to reflect the neglect of farms in the inter war years.

No doubt there are many in the area who can recall the effect of the war on agriculture and may even know what effect the men of the War Ags had on farming.

PublishedAugust 2007
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath