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History & CommunityLittle and Large

Little and Large

I know Little & Large are a couple of comedians and I do not write funny scripts.

I am thinking of Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles writing about dairies, Little and Great. The Little Dairies were in the Blackmoor Vale and the Valley of the Great Dairies was to the south, near Egdon Heath, Bere Regis. Tess experienced both, first in the Blackmoor Vale where farms were often of ten acres, the grass watered by slow, silent streams flowing over beds of mud and with heavy soils and scents. Hardy said the prevalent water flower was the lily. In the Valley of the Great Dairies the flower was the crowfoot and the River Var or Froom watered the grass well, flowing rapidly with pebbly shallows. In this valley Tess could see cows in greater numbers than she had ever seen before. Farms were of fifty acres and milk and butter were more rank and  produced more profusely, if less delicately, than at her home.

Hardy published this story in 1891 having been born in 1840, so it may have been produced from childhood memories of perhaps 1850, and we must remember it is a story. Both of Hardy’s vales are to the east of our area of Dorset.

My own early memories of cows are from a smallholding at one end of the village, from which they were driven slowly to a communal milking parlour in the middle of the village by the dairyman on his bicycle. He would occasionally tap the rear of the hindmost with his stick. He zig-zagged to avoid the resulting “cow pancakes” which would remain on the road until there was a good rain storm. I believe the parlour had been provided by the county for the use of soldiers who had returned from the World War One. During the next conflict it was given a coat of creosote. The local builder employed his schoolboy son, and an evacuated cousin and myself to apply the creosote. It was summer time and wearing short sleeve shirts and without protective glasses, the splashes of creosote created some discomfort.

As an overview Barbara Kerr in Bound to the Soil says that West Dorset from time immemorial was a Dairy district, usually of small farms because of the topography, some owned by one man. In West Dorset in the 17th century there were several large landowners, like the Roses of Wooton Fitzpaine and the Arundells of Chideock, but by the end of the next century many of the old yeomen families farming 30 to 100 acres had gone. Then the Colfoxes, Gundrys and Udals were on the increase.

In the western vales drainage was often neglected, especially near rivers. Artificial fertilizers were not liked, “Muck’s your man—let the cattle do the work”. In Whitchurch Canonicorum wild daffodils abounded in living memory. On hillsides pigeon dung, ashes, rotten fish and ant hills mixed with lime was used. Valuable grass was often overtaken by yellow rattle, fleabane and couch. The valleys of the Axe, Char and Brit frequently had pastures of under 5 acres. Twenty to thirty cows were ideal, but many farms had fewer. Dairy cows wintered on hay, so haymaking was very important. Sheep took over until May, then cows grazed on water meadows in Summer.

Small farmers arranged the sale of their own milk, butter and cheese, no doubt locally. The large producer used heavy canvas topped waggons for butter and cheese advertised as “four days from Bridport to London”. Alternatively they could be carried in 100 lb wooden casks by sea from Bridport Harbour. In 1740 our local butter sold 4d to 6d per lb which rose to 1s 1d to 1s 2d. Chestnut wood pails, churns and elm cheese vats were within reach of the poorer farmer. The woman of the house worked hard making butter and cheese. The market was fairly stable until the mid 19th century at 9d to 11d per lb depending on the season. West Dorset sold more milk than cheese. Blue Vinney did not travel well and when unripe it was sold at Dorchester market for 1s 11d per lb in mid 18th century,  but prices fell to 5d per lb at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hard cheese was then 1 to 3d.  West Dorset farms spared little cream for cheese, preferring to make butter, which enabled them to avoid this depression in the cheese market. Despite high wheat prices in 1798 to 1801 farmers in the Vale did not plough their pastures and dairies, although some started to grow flax.

Large farm owners often let out cows to dairymen who sold the milk. In 1754 cows were let at £3-5s p.a. but by 1799 the average rose to £6 per cow p.a. In 1839 it was said “Farmers could live then” but by 1879 it became “Farmers can’t live now”. This reminds me of my Great Great Grandfather  who farmed seven acres in the mid 1800s, usually helped by his eldest son, until he became old enough to find work with another farmer, when the next eldest was employed. Our friend Sylvia Creed in  Dorset’s Western Vale states that the large estate owners like the Gundrys and Bullens rented out their farms to small local farmers in the 1880s who scraped a subsistence living. Renting a dairy was the only way a farmer could start, with letting starting usually in February and finishing in October. Owners would take cows back in this dry season and re let when they were again in milk. The dairyman had to supplement his income with pigs and hens in the dry period.

Around 1890 the agricultural depression hit the small dairymen and some small holdings were taken over by large estates. Before the First World War the pay of a farm labourer was about 12s per week. Many small farms were sold off in the 1920s, and some who had rented were able to buy them then. By the 1920s many were taking or sending their milk to milk factories in Bridport and Beaminster and the advent of the Milk Marketing Board in the 1930s helped to stabilise prices. Now they have to contend with the Supermarkets and imports.

Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday 14th October at 2.30 pm to hear about “Women in the RNLI” by Sue Hennessy in Bridport United Church Main Hall, following the AGM. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £2.50.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.  

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