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The Acland Family and Exmoor

The Acland family are first recorded at Acland Barton, in Landkey parish to the west of Exmoor. Hugh de Accalen owned land there in 1155. By the 15th century the house had been rebuilt and a chapel had been added; the family had moved from the yeoman to the gentry class. By the 1550s they held land in Loxbeare, Chittlehampton, Tedburn St. Mary, High Bray and Swimbridge. Later in the 16th century the younger son bought Culmjohn Manor, in Broadclyst parish, and then Killerton was purchased. A century later the latter became the centre of the estates held by the family.

In 1745, the 7th baronet, Sir Thomas, married Elizabeth Dyke, as part of the marriage settlement he gained the Manors of Holnicote and West Luccombe, and also Pixton. The land he owned then extended into 24 parishes in Devon and Somerset, a substantial sum of money was included. Sir Thomas accepted his wife’s surname and ever since the main branch of the family have the surname Dyke Acland.

Sir Thomas, on the death of Edward Dyke in 1746, took over as Master of the North Devon Staghounds. The hounds were very big and would cover the long distances across the moor with ease; they also worked well in water. Sir Thomas had kennels built at Holnicote and near Pixton at Jury and Highercombe. Eventually these large hounds died out and were succeeded by the Devon and Somerset Staghounds.

In 1767 he became Warden of the Forest of Exmoor when the holder of the position, the third Lord Orford, sold his interest in it. The Aclands held this position until the end of the lease of the Royal Forest on 1st August 1814.

His son John married Lady Fox-Strangways, and Pixton, Tetton and Petherton Park, all in Somerset, were settled on them. In 1775 Sir Thomas gave up as Master of the North Devon hounds and Major Bassett took over. In 1778 his heir John died and in 1779 the house at Holnicote burnt down and he lost his collection of stags’ heads that were his pride and joy; he also lost a lot of silver. In 1784, he became joint Master of Staghounds with Major Bassett, but in February of the next year he died. His grandson (aged seven) died two months later, and his second son, another Sir Thomas, inherited. He was also a great hunting squire, altogether he killed 101 stags, a collection of heads is still at Holnicote and is the most significant 18th century group in the country.

In 1790, the 9th baronet bought the Tithes of Exmoor Forest, but in 1794 he died, leaving a seven year old son to succeed him. The family had acquired the Manor of Bossington by now and in 1802 inherited Selworthy and Luccombe Manors through an Arundell family connection. In 1808, this Sir Thomas came of age, but hunting was not a family pastime any more and politics and philanthropy took its place. In 1810 and 1812, Sir Thomas applied to the Crown for permission to buy the Forest, or at least have the lease extended, but was unsuccessful.

When the Royal Forest was sold in August 1818 Sir Thomas had bid £5000, but John Knight’s bid was £50 000. Sir Thomas was allocated 3201 acres, but sold this to the Knights.

Sir Thomas established schools in Selworthy and Luccombe parishes in 1820, and in 1828-9 converted three farmsteads in Selworthy village to seven cottages for estate pensioners on Selworthy Green, making it very much as we know it today (Cottage on Selworthy Green, Lorna Doone and National Trust Shop and Information Centre, No 1 Lower Cottage and Greenbanks, Nos 1 and 2 Rectory Cottage, Periwinkle Cottage, Selworthy Cottage, Westbourne Cottage).

Both the 10th baronet and his son, another Thomas, and two grandsons, served as Members of Parliament. Holnicote was a much valued holiday home throughout the 19th century, but Pixton went out of the family to the Carnarvons as part of a marriage settlement in 1796. Both the 10th and 11th baronets were very involved in agriculture and ran experimental farms for a while. The Acland plough was invented to enable farmers on Exmoor to cut the runnels along the hillsides for water meadows. They also revived the Bath and West Agricultural Society as they saw it as an improving influence, particularly the 11th baronet.

When Exmoor Forest was sold, Sir Thomas gathered his large herd of Exmoor ponies onto Winsford Hill, leaving a small herd on the Forest for John Knight. They were centred at Old Ashway Farm and were run down the lanes to Killerton for the winter. Although one or two stallions were added to ‘improve’ the ponies, Sir Thomas always kept the pure bred ones recorded. Eventually it was realised that they were more able to withstand conditions on the moor and no more breeding experiments took place.

In 1917, the 12th baronet, who had asked to be called Sir Thomas when he inherited, leased all his moorland, over 7000 acres, to the National Trust for 500 years, with the agreement and active support of the family. This was followed in 1944 by the gift of Killerton and Holnicote to the National Trust by his great-nephew Sir Richard Dyke Acland.

I. J. Richardson

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