Straws in the Wind by Meyrick Brown

By Observer Reporter in Farming

This year’s Pembroke Farmers Club Town and Country Agricultural Show, to be held at Lamphey on Wednesday, August 2, marks two hundred years since it’s formation.

Two hundred years with changes that could not possibly have been forseen!

There appears no doubt that the Pembroke Farmer’s Club is the second oldest in the UK - older than the Royal Agricultural Society of England and even older than the Royal Welsh.

It was formed after the temporary inactivity of the Pembrokeshire Agriculture Society in 1813 and many members support the claim that it is indeed the oldest as the Brecknockshire Society, which was formed earlier, lapsed for several years during and after World War 2 -during those wartime years the Pembroke Farmers kept the Red Cross going by raising considerable sums of money -over £1,000 on one occasion.

It remains on record that the Club was formed on August 9, 1817, at The Green Dragon, Pembroke, with the main instigators being Lord Cawdor of Stackpole and Sir John Owen, of Orielton, with the proviso that it’s aims should always be for ‘The encouragement and improvement of agriculture.’

A GUINEA A TIME

A few years later, it was determined that the annual membership should not exceed one guinea (£1.05) and be not less than half a guinea. The club progressed to hold many competitions, including valuable incentives to farm workers.

Over the years, several livestock champions at Pembroke have gone on to win national awards in all categories, including the Champion Welsh Ox in December 1850 - raised by Captain Kindersley of Kilpaison - which went on to win the supreme championship at the Smithfield Show in the following year when it actually took a fortnight to take the animal by bullock cart to the event.

In August 1902, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited Pembroke and another encounter with royalty was during World War 2, when there was a visit by Major Bowes-Lyon, the then Queen’s brother.

During the 19th century, Wales, not least Pembrokeshire, was almost entirely an agricultural country. Towns were few and served mainly as markets for the produce of the neighbouring countryside - the rural population being thin and fairly evenly distributed.

IGNORANT FARMERS

Much of the land was waste and open, although most of the farmed arable land had by then been enclosed. Holdings were traditionally small and scattered averaging 50 or 60 acres but, sometimes, much less.

Sad to say, local farmers of that time tended to be ignorant of even the most elementary principles of agriculture and ran their farms according to age-old methods handed on to them by their fathers and grandfathers.

The chief business of farming with most, and the whole with many, was dairying and rearing of stock, and tillage was carried on by most with a view to the improvement of pastures, more than to any great advantages or profits that could be derived from corn.

With such views, no grass-lands were ever broken up without such quantities and qualities of manures in readiness as would be adequate for the purpose of improving as much as possible of its future agriculture. Wheat was confined to the southern coastal areas and barley was more commonly grown, together with oats and rye. The chief vegetables seemingly were peas, beans, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, together with vetches and mangels. These crops were grown for subsistence and local consumption only as there were few means of transport for any trade in cereals.

ROCKY ROADS

At the same time, lime -because of the prohibitive cost of transport - was not obtainable in inaccessible districts and many of the roads were sometimes described as ‘mere rocky lanes, full of hugeous stones as big as one’s horse.’

The advent of the Turnpike Trusts, however, improved the condition of the roads immensely, but made travel expensive because of the tolls.

Agricultural tools were primitive and extremely inefficient. The Welsh plough, then in common use, was looked upon as the most awkward, unmeaning tool to be found in any civilised country - there were also a great variety of harrows but many were useless - their bad design made sure that they did not pulverise the soil properly.

Most of the carts in use were without wheels as they had to be used in steep areas where wheeled vehicles could not be used

November was considered a busy time on local farms, as elsewhere, as the houses and outbuildings had to be prepared for rough weather during the winter. Chimneys were swept, for a shaft clogged with soot might be ignited by the constant fires burning on the hearths below.

WINTER STOCKS

Farmers would carefully examine their sheep and cattle, choosing which ones to keep through the coming hard months. Those destined for slaughter would provide nourishment through the winter, but the meat had to be smoked or salted to preserve it - any surplus would be sold to the local markets.

The harvest of grain was stored in barns and outhouses, to be threshed as needed. Unthreshed grain was considered to keep better, so the supply was eked out over the winter, topping up the wheat bins, or arks as they were called, on a regular basis. There was also a belief that as the straw dried, the remaining sap it contained would drain back into the grain, providing a slightly heavier flour which produced a better bread.

As porridge was a staple diet in many poor rural households, a fresh supply of oats lasting through the winter was much appreciated. Regular threshing also provided fresh chaff for the horses and loose pieces of grain that could be swept up to feed the poultry and pigs.

SHOEING CATTLE, AND GEESE

A familiar sight on the roads around Narberth during the summer and autumn months would have been the drovers, capable and experienced men who took large herds from the farms and villages of Pembrokeshire to sell at local fairs or to destinations much further afield.

These herds included not only cattle and pigs, but sheep and geese and usually consisted of the livestock that their owners had bred for sale.

It was also necessary to shoe the cattle, even though they were never ordinarily shod. Rough terrain would harm the feet of the animals, so special smiths were employed to shoe the beasts. They used iron shoes shaped into half moon shapes - one to each side of a cloven hoof. Drovers often carried an extra supply of iron shoes in case of emergencies, wrapped in greased cloth to prevent them from going rusty.

Even geese were shod, their tender feet being tarred to protect them from rough ground, but this might have to be renewed several times on a long journey. By the 1850s, hired drovers were being paid half a crown (2s6d) a day, besides travelling expenses.

HERDS GATHERING

A number of drovers roads crossed southern Pembrokeshire, converging on Narberth and Whitland. One route ran from Angle and another from the farms near Bosherston and then through Hundleton to Pembroke. The town served as a collecting point for the whole of the Castlemartin peninsula and the herds would have been driven on towards Sageston, where they joined other herds brought up from the Tenby area.

Fairs at which animals were sold were being regularly held at Narberth: these fairs were used by local farmers to sell their stock. In the late 19th century, local schoolchildren were given the day off school to help to drive the animals into market.

For drovers taking their herds into England, the route now headed for Whitland by a track well to the south of the main road - thus avoiding the toll gate at Pwll Trap - thence the herds would have travelled slowly on to St. Clears and Carmarthen before making the long trek towards England.

Sometimes, in remoter areas, the drovers were unwilling to pay the tolls levied on the main roads. In such cases they would, if possible, find a route that ran parallel to the road, and keep to that. In the same way, toll bridges were avoided and rivers were crossed where shallow fords existed or at low tide near Laugharne.

‘STOCK’ MARKETS

Two hundred years ago, the price of British-grown grain - a commodity vital to the baking of bread and the brewing of beer, two items representing household staples, particularly for the poor and working classes - reached an all-time high.

We know this because, just as today’s media reports on the movements of the stock market, listing prices and trading volumes, so too did newspapers of the late 18th and early 19th century report on agricultural markets. Known as the Corn Returns, these reports set out the volume and average price of the main corns (wheat, barley, rye, oats, beans and peas) sold in a given week.

The inflated price of wheat in Britain at this time (50 per cent more than average and twice what it had been a decade before) was mainly the result of Napoleon’s Continental blockade. In 1806, frustrated by his inability to invade Britain or overcome the formidable Royal Navy, Napoleon Bonaparte issued legislation, known as the Berlin Decree, which forbade France and her allies from trading with the British.

NOTHING CHANGES!

The world needs food - and its need for food is ever-expanding. Many of the issues debated, and the economic scenarios played out, in the mid-19th century have parallels today as developing countries enter global markets with agricultural products vulnerable to the trio of climate change, governmental policy, and speculation.

This year’s Pembroke Town and Country Show is being held under the presidency of Edward Morris (maintaining the Loveston connection) who, with chairman, Richard Prout, will oversee the unveiling by the Lord Lieutenant of Dyfed, Ms Sara Edwards, of a commemorative stone plaque.

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