(Field survey of Pinkery Pond and the Pinkery Canal; © John Hodgson)
“All lands are capable of Improvement, none being so profitable by nature as they are capable of being made by man’s assistance.” (Hitt, T. 1761, quoted in Tarlow 2007)
The term reclamation is often used to describe the drainage of coastal marsh or fen for cultivation, where the land has been literally ‘reclaimed’ from the sea.
Away from the shore, it is used to describe the extension of agriculture into unimproved land, often in upland areas. Regardless of whether the land had been previously farmed or not, it was being ‘reclaimed’ from its natural state. It is this type of reclamation which took place on Exmoor in the 19th century. Reclamation was closely associated with enclosure and the agricultural ‘improvement’ movement. Originating probably before the 16th century, improvement was at first largely concerned with animal husbandry and improving breeds. By the 19th century ‘improvement’ had evolved and was as much about patriotism and moral advancement as agriculture and profit.
Britain’s population grew dramatically after the Napoleonic wars and many people believed expanding agriculture through reclamation was necessary to feed an increasingly numerous and industrialised society. Large-scale, ambitious and expensive reclamation projects were undertaken with high hopes of both financial profit and moral reward. However, improvement was expensive and only the landed class were capable of undertaking such projects. A good example can be seen on the Duke of Sutherland’s estate in the Scottish highlands. However, when the financial reward failed to materialise, as it often did, the moral or patriotic aspect was increasingly emphasised for justification.
John Knight’s purchase of the former Royal Forest of Exmoor in 1818 falls towards the end of the reclamation story, and the reclamation of Exmoor can be seen as the last great project of its kind undertaken in England.
By the start of the 19th century most productive land in England had already been enclosed. To a prospective ‘improver’ such as Knight, the unenclosed ‘wastes’ of Exmoor would present both a challenge and opportunity. Although wealthy and influential, the Knights were not part of the landed class. His money came from industry rather than land. However he was aware of the social aspects of improvement through his family relationships to the social elite, such as Richard Payne Knight, his father’s cousin, who had used his wealth to develop a famous estate at Downton Castle near Ludlow in Herefordshire and become a major figure in the Georgian ‘picturesque’ movement. In addition, John Knight’s sister married Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, who developed extensive and famous gardens at his house at Hestercombe, near Taunton, of which John Knight can hardly have been unaware. The embellishment and improvement by major families of other estates already in existence near Exmoor, such as Dunster, Holnicote and Killerton, would also probably have been well known to Knight. It is likely he was also aware of the earlier attempts to enclose and improve the wastes of Dartmoor by pioneers such as Tyrwhitt. Knight's motivations could therefore have been social as much as economic, reflecting a desire to be seen to create a modern and efficient country estate, thereby becoming part of the country’s landed elite, as much as actually creating an economically viable business.
The most obvious symbol of John Knight’s Exmoor venture is the new Forest Wall. This 29 mile long boundary symbolised the enclosure of Exmoor and its new status as private property. John Knight began his reclamation project with the intention of replicating the type of farming he was most familiar with, arable cultivation. However, many of the new methods of ‘scientific farming’ were only possible on a large-scale, and private ownership and enclosure were seen as a precursor to reclamation. The reclamation of Exmoor may have had social or moral aspects, but only the remains of these physical processes survive as archaeology.
Large-scale drainage, for instance, was seen as essential in reclaiming the moorland for cultivation. The Knights set about cutting shallow surface drains, known as ‘sheep-drains’ with enthusiasm. These are a familiar hazard to those walking or riding on the moor today. However, until recorded from aerial photographs the scale of this undertaking was not fully appreciated. On the central plateau dense concentrations of sinuous and irregular drains have been mapped on The Chains, Great Buscombe, Trout Hill, Lanacombe and Elsworthy. On the southern ridge very straight drains were cut on Squallacombe, whilst more irregular ditches meander over the hills to the south around Deer Park and Long Holcombe. In total, over 200 kilometres of drains have been recorded within the former Royal Forest.
The Pinkery Canal was created by John Knight, but remains something of an enigma. Several theories have been proposed to explain why it was created, including a role as an aesthetic water feature, a water supply to power an incline on the Simonsbath to Porlock Railway and even an actual canal to transport raw materials for reclamation. This remains unresolved, but survey has revealed that at least two similar features have been cut, to the north and south of the central ridge. Both seem to bear some relation to the sheep drains which lie above them. It therefore seems probable that the canal was used as a water management feature to aid the reclamation of the uplands, even if this was perhaps not its original function.
Ultimately the drains failed. The only means of permanently reclaiming peatlands is by subsoiling, deep ploughing to break the impervious soils which caused the ground to become waterlogged. In the 1870s, John Knight’s son, Frederic, turned to the latest farming technology to overcome this problem, purchasing an Agriculturalist traction engine made by Savage of King’s Lynn to pull a massive subsoil plough to break the ironpan. This fearsome looking plough, developed by the Duke of Sutherland for his reclamation, was known as the ‘Duke of Sutherland’s Toothpick’. Frederic Knight’s purchase suggests he might have been inspired by the larger Scottish project.
Although effective, this experiment was shortlived, perhaps curtailed by the depression of the 1870s. Beyond the legacy of the improved grasslands on Titchcombe, Duredon and Ashcombe, little evidence for this episode of steamplough reclamation can be seen. It has been thought that some of the sheep drains may have been cut by the steam plough. However, steam ploughs can only operate in straight lines, and most drains are irregular in shape. The only exceptions to this may be a small area of exceedingly straight drains recorded on Squallacombe to the west of Cornham Farm. Only two inconspicuous monuments to the steamplough’s passing survive. The former engine shed in Simonsbath is now two cottages, and only in certain lights is the brick arch above the shed’s former massive doorway revealed. The second is simply the name of the entrance to the hills at Titchcombe, known to locals as 'Engine Gates'.
Ultimately, Frederic Knight recognised the folly of attempting arable farming at such an elevation, and turned increasingly to sheep ranching as an alternative. From the late 1860s the Knight’s planned farms within the former Royal Forest were taken in hand and turned into herdings. Flocks of Cheviot and Blackface sheep were imported from the uplands of northern England and Scotland, along with their shepherds, who introduced a new style of sheepfold, or stell, to give them their Scottish names. These stells are some of the most enduring structures within the former Royal Forest, but in the 19th century were at the cutting edge of farming practice. These enclosures range from the small, and functional, such as the circular stells at Hoaroak and Three Combes Foot, to the large, elaborate and undoubtedly aesthetic, as at Buscombe Beeches.
Each element of a reclamation project touched upon another, either directly or indirectly. For instance, the introduction of sheep ranching was linked to the farm-scale use of catchmeadow irrigation to provide flocks with winter food, which in turn was part of the wider subject of water management, taking in drainage, which in turn is linked to soil improvement.
Brown, J. 2008. Steam on the Farm; A History of Agricultural Steam Engines 1800 to 1950.
Hegarty, C and Wilson-North, R. 2014. The Archaeology of Hill Farming on Exmoor. English Heritage.
Orwin, C.S. and Sellick, R.J. 1970. The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest.
Tarlow, S. 2007 The Archaeology of Improvement in Britain, 1750-1850.
Banner image: Field survey of Pinkery Pond and the Pinkery Canal, © John Hodgson (2010)
Image 1: Forest boundary, Peter Bonvoisin (2012)
Image 2: Lanacombe Stell, 15606_26 (14 January 1997), © Crown copyright.HE