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Mucky Wenlock: An interactive history of the town farms of Much Wenlock
To look at the farms in more detail click on "Mucky Wenlock; an interactive map of town farms" in the side menu.
‘Archdeacon Plymley, in his ‘General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire’ in 1818 drew attention to what he believed was a good principle. Farms should be of sufficient size to make good use of the working animals they used and had to feed. (Plymley:109-119) He concluded that it was a good idea that farm labourers should have a cottage and up to six acres of land. This allowed the labourer and his wife to grow their own food and that included fattening a pig and keeping a cow. The wife could produce a small amount of hemp cloth. Significantly it was an area that could be cultivated by hand; half an acre or so for vegetables and corn, the remainder for pasture and hay. At this level the labourer could provide for his family and still be able to put in a full days work for the farmer. The wife had occupation at home rather than having to go out to work and they might have sufficient surplus to pay for basic schooling for the children. Drunkenness’ was certainly a problem in this county according to Archdeacon Plymley and he noted the high level of malted beer included in the payment in kind to day labourers. He concluded that work as a labourer and followed by work after 6pm on their own plot was most likely to keep them from the ale house. The initial research, for the book on ‘Agriculture in Shropshire’, was done by a Mr Bishton. (Plymley:intro.) He was both a landowner, owning Kilsall Hall near Tong, and also a land agent for the Sutherland Estates. Bishton in contrast to Plymley concluded that quarter of an acre was sufficient.
Archdeacon Plymley also felt that farms should be in the region of a hundred acres or more. This was because animals were needed to work a farm. Three horses could work a farm of about 90 acres that in turn supported one family. A farm of 30 acres still needed plough horses but they were not fully occupied. A family still needed to be supported but the return was not sufficient to keep the working animals and a family.(Plymley:365) The farm horses could be used for carting goods in the same way that a labourer’s wife could earn a second income outside the home, but in Archdeacon Plymley’s view, these were choices that contributed to a general moral decline. There would however always have been the alternative of sharing working horses with another farmer.
Two types of farm
This may be a historic reason for the creation in Wenlock of the two significant groups of holdings in the town: firstly smallholdings where the tenant or owner had a second occupation; agricultural labourers and lime burners feature in the 1851 Census,(PRO HO 1071989) and secondly larger farms. They were both able to continue into the second half of the 20th Century because Wenlock declined after the dissolution and there was little pressure on accommodation in the town. Small scale quarrying incidentally still existed up to the 1950s (Williams).
Meeting new demands
Agriculture in Shropshire responded to the changes from the 16th to the end of the 19th Century in a number of ways. In north Shropshire dairying (which had received an impetus from the demand for cheese to feed the Civil War troops) continued to expand. (Thirsk,1997:49) Cheshire was known for its cheese but this gave way to an increased demand for fresh milk for the northern towns and cities and thus dairy farming expanded on the north Shropshire plain until eventually more ‘Cheshire’ cheese was produced in Shropshire than in Cheshire. Much Wenlock, although in the uplands, also saw an increase in dairying to supply the adjacent industrial area that later became known as Ironbridge and then with the arrival of the railway in 1860s also further afield. Evidence for this was the number of pigsties clustered around farm buildings apparent on 19th Century maps of Much Wenlock, (O.S.1882), as housed pigs were fed substantially on whey. ‘Cowhouses’ were also described in the 1842 tithe apportionments. This was in addition to the more general diversification into meat and barley production. By 1776 Much Wenlock and Corvedale had the greatest concentration of herds of pedigree Hereford Beef cattle in the County.
The survival of town farms
Final enclosure in Wenlock Town took place in 1777. There were 704 acres enclosed of which 551 acres were part of the common field system (VCH IV:173). However, nearly 50 years after enclosure, when the tithe apportionment was produced, there were still farms in the town: they had not all moved to more convenient and efficient situations on their enclosed fields (Harvey:75).
The major landowner after the Dissolution was the Lawley family, but by the time of the 1842 Tithe Apportionment (SRO 29/29) Sir Watkin Williams Wynne owned over half the acreage in Wenlock. However, Archdeacon Plymley (Plymley:90) noted that in each Parish he visited that, although he had previously identified the main landlords, there were more small landowners in Shropshire parishes than he had anticipated including some in Much Wenlock. An analysis of the tithe apportionment shows 15 people owning some land themselves often renting further fields from the main landlords. Whether this was a high or low count in Wenlock was not made clear.
The agricultural depression from the end of the 19th Century until 1939 meant that there was little money to modernise farm buildings (Harvey:18). A large absentee landlord who does not appear to have spent money on farm improvements and the general economic decline appear to have combined to form the key to the survival of so many farm buildings in the town and their continuance in use until quite recently.