THE old houses in the main street of the village had commodious outbuildings showing that they were originally designed as stables, shippens and sheds for agricultural purposes. At the end of the nineteenth century there were fifty men farming in a small way. Their land was in Braunton Great Field and on Braunton Down. Braunton was a typical Saxon village and agriculture was the main industry of its people. It would be well at this point to consider the scene of their activities.
Braunton Great Field is a hedgeless tract of arable land. some 360 acres in extent, lying between the village on the west and the reclaimed marshlands of the River Taw. The Great Field is divided into some 200 strips varying in size from 3/4 acre to 6 acres, but in 1889 there were double that number. The lands are separated from each other by baulks, locally termed " landsherds" and "launchers." In 1840 there were 490 strips under cultivation. The Great Field has been in existence for many generations and is one of three existing fields, originally cultivated under the Open Field system in this country. That it existed in 1324 is shown in the entry in the Calendar of Close Rolls 1323-7 where many of the existing lands in the Great Field are mentioned.
Right up to the 20th century the villagers exercised their ancient rights of gleaning ears of corn after the last rakings had been harvested from the strips. During the month of August it was a common sight to watch villagers, old and young, picking corn, and a good handful was plaited into a "zang." At the end of the day valuable stores of wheat and barley would be taken home as food for poultry and pigs.
A day thus spent in the Great Field was profitable and enjoyable, and the boys and girls of the village eagerly anticipated their own harvest time. Those were the days when over 30 small farmers cultivated strips in the Field. Today there are less than a dozen and they use modern machinery. Tractors, harvesters, self-binders and up-to-date ploughs have taken the place of the horse-drawn, wooden framed ploughs and other primitive implements.
At the end of the l9th century much of the corn was cut by the scythe and gathered into sheaves by the sickle. The farmer and his men, after cutting around the borders of the land, worked in rows, and the field, which can now be entirely harvested in 2 or 3 hours, took that number of days to lay low. The corn was made into sheaves by men and women who followed the men with scythes. They first made a binder with a handful of straw and then bound what they had gathered with sickles. These were then stacked and left to dry. Some of the wheat harvested in this way was later threshed with the primitive flail.
One of my early memories was that of watching threshing in the barn, near my home. The barn floor was well swept and the sheaves were then opened and spread out in layers. With great dexterity, on the part of the threshers, the flail soon came into action. It was swung in all directions, never missing its aim. The barns were built with wide doors on each side, opposite each other and a wood floor was laid between the door for use in threshing the corn. The doors were open and the wind passed through carrying out the "doust." It was arm-aching work, but very little corn was left on the stalks. The reed was gathered into large bundles and the corn and chaff swept into a heap with a besom broom.
This exercise went on all day until the stacks were all threshed. Then came a great day when we boys were given an opportunity to take part in the barn work. The winnowing machine was placed in the middle of the barn, the doors of which were thrown wide open to create a draught. Then we took over the handle and the mixture of corn and chaff was thrown into the machine. Soon the chaff, locally termed "doust " was flying into the farmyard and the golden corn was passing into a bucket set at the side, later to be sacked and sent either to the miller or corn merchant.
The final stage was combing the reed. This was an occupation for a wet day, when the bundles of reed were combed of all loose straw and chaff by the barn worker. He used a large wooden framed comb with iron teeth. The reed was used for thatching straw ricks, the farm house and farm buildings. Before the thatching could be done two more barn activities had to be performed, rope spinning and spear or spar making. This was really the work of craftsman and hundreds of yards of strong straw rope could be made by a good worker in a day with only one tool the "wynk."
Spar making was also a great craft and there was much competition among the workers in turning out the best spears from hazel and willow rods, their only tool being a sharp hook or chopper.
Technical instruction was given to farm workers in ploughing, hedging, ditching, rope and spear making and sheep shearing. The great day of the year for the farm workers was that of the annual competition in ploughing and ditching. There was great preparation some days before the competition. Harness was oiled and polished and the brass work made to shine. Ploughs were cleaned, shares sharpened and the horses were gaily bedecked in red, white and blue ribbons, for there was a special prize for the smartest turn-out. When the competitions were ended and the judging done, the farmers and their men hurried home to don their Sunday best and then go to the dinner, which was held in the Board School. Judges, farmers, competitors, local worthies and business men sat down to a real West Country dinner. I well remember one such gathering in 1898. The tables literally groaned with huge rounds of beef, plum pudding, fruit tarts, junket and cream and the beer and cider were drawn from the wood. When the tables were cleared the prizes were distributed and speeches were made by the judges and others.
One of the judges was Farmer Hunt from a neighbouring parish. In a speech replying to the toast of " The Judges " he dwelt on the hard times of the farmer, and to illustrate his remarks told this story. "A friend of mine, Farmer Brown by name, went up to the Big House to pay his rent. At the particular moment of his arrival the squire was at dinner with a company of friends who had been shooting with him. Brown rang the door bell and the butler soon appeared. He inquired if the squire was at home. but was told that he was engaged and could not be disturbed. The farmer replied, "You go in and tell your master that Varmer Brown has come to pay his rent." The butler delivered his message and soon Brown was ushered into the dining room and told to take a seat by the fireside. The squire, anxious to please his tenant, started a conversation and said, "Well, Brown, how are things going?".
Farmer Brown began to tell the terrible bad times he was undergoing;
"'Tis trew", said Brown,
"thair wadden a bad crop of turmuts come up in the top field".
"Well!", said the squire, "that's good news."
"'Aw! but most of them was ait by the vlies", was the farmer's retort.
"Then again, the'ole chestnut mare had a vine colt", said Brown.
"That's something to be thankful for", said squire.
"Aw, but the pore thing broak his leg", said Brown.
"Then one of me cows had tew fine calves", said the farmer.
"That's good luck, when one is the usual number", replied squire. "Oh!", said Brown, "both of them be daid!".
After being commiserated for this bad luck, Brown went on:
"One of me sows had eleban young pegs".
"Well! what do you want better than that", said the squire.
"Aw!", was Brown's quick reply, "her only got ten tets".
"Well! well! what does the odd one do?".
"Aw! he's got to look on like I do now!", was Brown's smart retort!
The squire was furious, the guests embarrassed - but the farmer was triumphant
That story has been repeated hundreds of times since, but Farmer Hunt was the first to tell it in North Devon, when he said : " That is what the farmers are doing today ! "
Braunton's Red Devon cattle were renowned all over the county. especially those of the late Peter Horden Tamlyn and John Reed. These breeders won premier awards at all the great shows, including Smithfield and the Royal. Braunton Marshes, adjoining the Great Field have for long years been the finest cattle grazing lands in the county. When the corn harvest was gathered in there was still much activity in the Great Field. The potatoes and roots had to be harvested and preparations made for the next crops. Besides ploughing and harrowing there was the carting of farmyard manure, seaweed and lime to be used at planting time. Seaweed. generally bladder wrack, was a favourite fertiliser for potatoes and root crops. It was gathered from the rocks at Broadsands and brought in long-tailed carts to the Great Field.
Boatmen at Vellator would also bring loads of weed up the Pill and deposit them near the Quay, but most of the farmers transported their own and thus obtained a cheap and valuable manure. Gathering seaweed was not a pleasant job on a cold and wintry day, for it had to be taken from the rocks with the hands. Women could often be seen working in the fields. They not only took part in the hay and corn harvest, but they also helped to harvest the potatoes and hoed the mangolds and turnips. After the potato harvest they went over the land and picked up the small potatoes which, when washed, they sold for 2d. a peck. Their pay for a day's work varied from 6d. to 1 /-. At that time 14/- a week was considered a good wage for a male agricultural worker but many were paid only 12/- a week. Some of them however had a cottage on the farm at a charge of 1/6 a week. They also had a piece of potato land and a daily supply of skimmed milk. Those were hard days, and it is surpnsing that so many were contented with their lot. They brought up large families and many of their sons and daughters are the farmers who work their own farms today.
2. SHIPPING AND TRADE
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SHIPPING was a very important industry in Braunton. To the south of the village the Caen joins another stream, the Knowle Water at Vellator, forming what is known as Braunton Pill. Ships up to 200 tons burthen could come up to the Quay and there were over a dozen ketches manned and captained by Braunton sailors.
These ships were registered at Barnstaple and traded between Bristol Channel ports and Barnstaple,
Fremington, Braunton and Bideford. The names of Chugg, Drake, Butler, Clarke, Chichester, Incledon Rogers, Ayre, Mitchell, Hunt, Packwood, Coats, Bray, Watts, Lamprey and Tucker and their vessels, Emma Louise, Lenora. Bessie Gould, Quiver, Bessie Clarke, Two Sisters, Fishguard Lass, Wesleyana, Acacia, Cambria, Jane and Sarah, Kitty Ann, J. M. J., Linda and F. A. M. E. will long be remembered in the annals of Braunton shipping. They went down to the sea in ships and did much to bring wealth to the village and improve the amenities. They brought cargoes of coal from South Wales and the Forest of Dean, corn from Bristol and Liverpool, timber from Bristol and Cardiff, and lime stones from Caldy Island. Some of them did coastal trade between Bristol Channel ports and Ireland, while one even crossed the Atlantic to bring cargoes of dried cod (Newfoundland Turkey) from Newfoundland}.
Coal was then sold from 16/- to 20/- a ton and 6d. was charged for delivery of half a ton by the local farmers, who assisted in discharging the cargoes. When these vessels were unloaded they either crossed over to Fremington and loaded up with china clay for Gloucester or took gravel from Broadsands as ballast. This gravel was used for building purposes at Bristol, Cardiff, Barry and Swansea. Sometimes cargoes of iron ore from Spreacombe mines and locally grown potatoes were taken to Swansea. When not engaged in the coal trade cargoes of limestone were brought from Caldy Island in South Wales. At that time farmyard manure and seaweed were the fertilisers, used by the local farmers. This necessitated the annual spreading of lime over the fields before planting. All around the coast of North Devon lime kilns were built near the available landing places. There were three kilns at Vellator and single kilns at Chivenor, Strand, Saunton, Croyde, Woolacombe and others along the shores of the Taw and Torridge and the sea coast from Appledore to Hartland. Those kilns were kept burning many months of the year to provide farmers with the necessary lime.
During the 1880's, Vellator was a busy part of Braunton. Sailors and others engaged in the lime trade would be up on East Hill, which had a commanding view of Barnstaple Bay, and watch for incoming ships. As soon as they saw them making for the Bar they began to prepare for berthing at Vellator and discharging next day, The chief lime burners at Braunton were the firms of Harris and Lauder and the last local family to work in the lime kilns were the Pedricks.
After the unloading operations were completed the kilns were packed and the burning began. A few days later carts would be hurrying to Vellator to fetch loads of slaked lime. There was always a limited amount for sale. Consequently competition among local farmers to get sufficient for their needs, was keen. The people living in South Street were awakened early by the horse drawn butts from the farms. and on wet days the rutted streets became a quagmire. The clatter of these vehicles gave little rest to those who wanted sleep. Other carts on their way to Vellator were those loaded with iron ore from Spreacombe mines. This was a useful ballast cargo for local ships and was taken to Swansea for smelting.
The last cargo of hematite was taken away by a Captain John Chugg on the Two Sisters. The last mine captain was a Cornishman. Captain Poad, who, with his foreman, William Mitchell, walked every morning from South Street to Spreacombe, a distance of three miles. Remains of the last cargo of hematite can still be seen on Vellator beside the Big Quay.
As the local ports, Barnstaple, Bideford Fremington and Braunton were situated on tidal rivers, local shipping was much dependent on the state of the wind and tide. A few small steamships brought cargoes to Fremington, but nearly all our vessels were mainly windborne ketches of about 100 tons burthen.
Contrary winds often kept sailors either in port at home or on the Welsh side of the Channel, for to reach either of our ports the treacherous Bideford Bar had to be crossed. This could only be accomplished when there were high or spring tides and dependable winds and it was the aim of every sea captain to "catch the Spring," otherwise it meant hard time for the family.
The sailor's wives well knew how much their existence depended on such conditions and they often had to ask for credit at the shops with excuse, "Maister has lost his Spring." Barnstaple Bay has always been a dangerous part of the Devon Coast for shipping. Old records tell us of numerous wrecks and disasters in the Bay and on Saunton and Croyde Sands. Here are just a few :
3. VILLAGE CRAFTS
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THERE were many clever craftsmen among the workers in wood, metal and leather. There were 8 master carpenters and wheelwrights, 4 blacksmiths and 5 shoemakers.
My paternal grandfather was a carpenter and wheelwright. His workshop adjoined his house in South Street. Outside was an open yard, which was generally stacked with three trunks. Between the yard and the workshop was the Sawpit. My grandfather and Uncle John worked together. Sometimes, when the weather was suitable, they would work on the farms, repairing farm buildings, gates and fences, but for the greater part of the year they would be busily engaged in the workshop. Their raw material was elm and oak timber, all of which they felled on the farms with their own saws and axes.
The trunks lay for many months in the wood yard and were afterwards sawn into planks in the saw pit. I have a vivid picture of my uncle standing on the top of a framework fixed over the saw pit. A large tree trunk was placed in a standing position and held there by "iron dogs ".
My uncle held the handle of the pit saw at the top and my grandfather, with a moveable handle in his hands, stood in the saw pit. They began their sawing early in the morning and kept working until lunch time. After a short rest they began again and went on till dinner time, and, after an hour's break they went on again with short rests till 6 o'clock. It was sweating work, but at the end of the day there was a small pile of planks and a pit partly full of sweet smelling sawdust. The planks were laid on drying racks in the Workshop and after some weeks of hard labour there was enough sawn timber to be made into carts, butts, wheel barrows, gates, doors, forms, troughs, windows, rough furniture and even coffins. Some of the best tree trunks were cut into suitable lengths with the cross cut saw for making boxes for wheels.
Running across the middle of the shop was a long carpenter's bench and in front of the window a lathe. This lathe was driven by a hand-turned wheel so that, when any turning had to be done both carpenters were engaged, one to keep the lathe working and the other to operate on the wood.
Both my grandfather and uncle were clever turners and whether it was the making of a box for a wheel, the handle of a chisel, the leg of a table or chair, or a peg top for the boys, the workmanship was first class. The woodworkers of those days began with the rawest of materials, but the articles they produced would stand wear and weather for long years.
It was a most interesting experience to watch the construction of a cart. There were no machines for making any part of the woodwork other than those tools resting on the bench, hanging on the walls or locked in the tool cupboard, with the exception of the lathe. The shafts and framework were sawn out of the most carefully selected wood. This was cleaned and planed, and what a variety of planes were to be seen on the shelves of the tool cupboard !
Bars and spokes for the side of the cart were fashioned and smoothed with the draw knife and spoke shave, and round mortise holes were bored in the framework with old fashioned drills. After the axle blocks had been fitted the spokes were mortised in place and the cart frame was completed.
The construction of the wheels was not an easy task. The box of the wheel was first fashioned by placing the selected piece of tree trunk in the lathe, after it had been stripped of bark. My uncle took the wheel of the lathe and my grandfather plied the large chisel.
Soon the box began to take shape and when it was finished was smooth and perfect in shape. The axle hole was then bored and mortise joints chiselled out to hold the spokes, which were carefully cut, smoothed and tenoned at each end. The felloes - "vellies" they called them - had already been cut from rough wood with the adze, a tool seldom used today except in a shipyard. These were then shaped with draw knife, smoothed with spokeshave and afterwards mortised to hold the spokes. Dowels and dowel holes were made and the spokes, already fitted to the box, were then fitted to the felloes and the rim made firm. When the wheels were completed my uncle trundled them singly to the blacksmith's forge, some 400 yards away. It was an amusing sight to see him playing hoops in the street, but this practised hand kept the wheel turning.
There were four blacksmith's forges in the village, where the smiths were kept busy shoeing horses, making all the iron work used by carpenters such as bands for wheels, axles, bolts, hinges, nails, gates, gate-hangers, farm implements and many of the utensils now machine made. The two smiths who did my grandfather's work were Mr. William Perryman and Mr. William Evans, who both had sons to assist them.
Pincer Evans was a man of many parts. Not only was he a clever worker in iron but he also held the office of "pound keeper." He also practised the art of dentistry.
The Village Pound was just outside his forge and I remember on many occasions seeing pigs, donkeys, calves and other animals locked in the Pound and there they remained until their owners came to retrieve these straying animals and pay the fine of 6d. on each.
Often villagers suffering from toothache rushed to the smithy and the dextrous smith soon relieved the sufferer by using the special pair of pincers made for the purpose.
The banding of the wheels was done outside the smithy just below the mill stream, upon a large round iron plate let into the ground. The wheel was placed on the middle of the plate and the iron tyre, almost red hot, was brought from the forge and placed in position. It was hammered on and then water from the stream was thrown over the hot tyre to cool it. The contracted metal soon fitted tightly and was as firm as a rock. The axle casings were then fixed. Not long after my uncle was playing hoops back to the carpenter's shop with the finished wheel. When both wheels were completed they were fixed on the well greased axle and the rest of the iron work was bolted on to the shafts.
After receiving the coats of paint in grey and red the cart was ready for its work on the farm. Such vehicles are now manufactured in a few days, but are far inferior to the work of those old craftsmen.
Often the ordinary work in the carpenter's shop was interrupted by an urgent call for a coffin. All other work was set aside and special planks were soon taken out and laid on the bench. Each plank was carefully planed and sandpapered. Boiling water was brought and the sides were carefully bent; and in a short time the framework was completely finished. All elm coffins were polished, so the French polisher from Barnstaple had to be fetched. Often he had to work through the night, by candlelight, to completely finish the job and there was no rest until the coffin was taken out of the shop.
Yes ! Those Victorians were mastermen of many parts. They worked hard and produced the best goods at an average wage of 20 shillings a week, perhaps less.
Another of the ancient village crafts was boot and shoe making. There were five leather workshops in the village. When not cobbling damaged footwear the shoemakers made boots for the workers. They were all hand sewn and very hard wearing.
I often sat by the bench of the shoemaker who lived near my home watching his clever hands, as he sewed on the uppers to the welts fixed on the last, then they were hand soled. I would sometimes help him wax his threads and heel ball soles and heels. It was sore work for the hands, but those handmade boots stood the wear and tear of all kinds of weather.
In that shoemaker's shop another important trade was carried on. for Mrs. Williams. the shoemaker's mother, was a laundress. After washing day was over and the clothes were dried, the neighbours brought their flasks of linen to be mangled.
The mangle was a huge box, with measurements approximately 6 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet. It was loaded with large blocks of stone. In the middle was an arrangement consisting of roller, cog and chains worked by a handle. The box rested on rollers placed on a smooth table. By turning the handle in one direction the box was moved forward and by turning the other it moved backwards. This movement caused the rollers to pass backwards and forwards over the clothes placed smoothly on the table.
There were several of these mangles in the village and they were made locally. A few of them had been presented, through public subscriptions. to widows, in order that they might earn a living.
There were some dressmakers and quilters among the women folk. They went to the homes of the people for whom they were working and made clothing for the family or large quilts for their beds. Those were the days of the patchwork quilts. One of my aunts was an expert quilter and her quilting frame was very much like a hand-weaving loom. The quilt was fixed in the frame which rested on trestles, and was then hand stitched. It took several days to make a quilt, but the work was of such quality as to last a lifetime.
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