08. The 1780 Geography of the Parish

There are sixty-two names in the 1780 list on the previous page which, while not a census, is as good as we have prior to the “real” nominal census which was not implemented for another sixty years in England. As the population of this parish would not have exceeded 500 in 1780 this is a large enough sample to represent the heads of the majority of the  Milton families of the time.

I have, since I catalogued the 1780 Assessment , taken a look at the 1791 Assessment and I have read what George Harris of West Wonford had to say in his 1991 (bicentennial) publication,  A Glance Back to Some History of Milton Damerel. Mr. Harris admits to being confounded by some of the data contained in the 1791 assessment (just as I am with 1780) but he sheds light on property ownership in Milton Damerel which was not apparent to one looking only at the 1780 report.

Harris explains how the terms for leasing land frequently led to hardship for the lessee and his or her family. The farmer paid ‘consideration” money’ at the start of the lease which was often as much as two thirds of the sale value if the farm were to be placed on the open market. Three names were listed on indentures and when any of the three died another payment had to be made for a stated amount which might be anything from the “best beast” to another money payment. Harris contends that the landowners created poverty and were certainly a major contributor to the annual average of 30 paupers in any given year.

I had two narrow goals in looking at the 1780 data which is the earliest of the surviving assessments, for Miton Damerel.

The first was to see if I could find Bartholomew Fishleigh who would have been in his prime at the time. This goal has been met and exceeded for not only have we found Bartholomew as both occupier and “proprietor” but we have learned, by pursuing him through later assessments, where he was located in the parish in the 1780s and perhaps where he had settled through his married life and even earlier. I am fully aware that I have not proven that the Bartholomew Fishleigh on the plaque is the same person seen on the 1880 assessment. We will pursue this matter later.

Maps of Milton Damerel, including the recent Ordnance Survey Explorer 126, show that most of the properties found in the 1780 assessment bear the same place-names today as they did 230 years ago. Bartholomew and his family occupied  Lea or Ley in the north east sector of the parish.  Ley today still boasts a thatched sixteenth century farmhouse on a one hundred acre property. I see on the internet that the “bothy” attached to the farmhouse is available as self-catering accommodation.  A good destination for a Milton Damerel stay in 2010 when we canoe the Torridge.

The second goal in studying the land tax assessment  was to learn what we can about the community as a whole. The 1780 data for Milton  tell us a good deal.  We have learned that the land was not well distributed among the residents of the day. Most of the population must have been farm labourers and their families, “cottagers”, as they were called.

The largest individual  assessment was for Derworthy which is located in the northwest corner of the parish.  It was assessed at 6 -18 -7. The second largest was that of the Rector for church lands at 6 -7 -4.  Both Elizabeth Rattenbury and William Rattenbury were each assessed more than these amounts if you total up the taxes on their nine and ten properties respectively.

It’s time to look at a map of Milton.

From Seymour Marks valuable monograph entitled Milton Damerel in 1951

Milton is a parish of scattered settlements whose area, including roads, waste and water is 4,415 acres or 6.9 square miles. Someone has suggested that the profile of the parish resembles the two-winged seed of the sycamore. This is apt.

Elizabeth Rattenbury’s holdings of WoodfordWhitebear and Walland are, like Ley situated in the northeast corner of the parish above Fore Street. Moving clockwise around the parish from Elizabeth’s properties, we find William Rattenbury’s holdings Buttermoor and Gidcott in the southwest and Milton Mill close to the geographic centre of the parish.  There are two important rivers in Milton.  The River Torridge marks the western border with neighbouring Newton St Petrock. The River Waldon flows in from Sutcombe in the west and initially bisects the parish into north and south sectors but midway,  where it is crossed by the Withypool Bridge, it becomes the southern border separating Milton from the parish of Thornbury.

Centrally located geographically and central to the lives of the people of Milton in Jane and Bartholomew’s day is the ancient parish church of Holy Trinity where we refound and photographed the Fishleigh plaque on the south wall in 2009.

The major road through Milton, once the turnpike , now the A388, enters in the southwest corner from Holsworthy Beacon and crosses in a northeasterly direction, finally passing, near Ley, to the bridge at Woodford, where it crosses the Torridge to Newton St Petrock. (We will return later to the story of this bridge because it has importance to the life story of  one of Jane and Bartholomew’s grandchildren.)

What were the inhabitants of Milton doing in 1780?

Farming, for the most part. The scattered holdings spread out over the parish would have been largely self-sufficient in those times, would they not?  Farming is most certainly what Bartholomew and Jane were doing.

Those who were not farming were doing work which was secondary to agriculture. Milling of  corn (I call it grain) for one. That had been happening on the Walden forever, well, for more than a thousand years as the name of the parish tells us. Thatching was another. It is apparent that Jane and Bartholomew had a thatched roof.   Hauling lime from the kilns on the lower Torridge to sweeten the fields was yet another. Carting of all kinds.  Were there Devon Reds back then?  Were they making butter?  Cheese?  Quarrying was certainly being carried on.

In his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon of 1808, Charles Vancouver reported to the Board of Agriculture on husbandry throughout the county.  While Milton Damerel is specifically mentioned only a few times, with various spellings, there is much to be learned from Vancouver’s report about the land and how it was used at the time.

Vancouver always began with a description of  the soil which the farmers had to work with or, one might sometimes say to “contend with”.  He found that in the region of Milton there were three distinct classes of soil. The first consisted of loose friable loam of a good staple, lying upon the schistus rock. The second he described as a well stapled reddish brown loam, on an understratum of rubbly clay which is found finally to rest on a hard shillot rock, breaking up into excellent building stones. The third class, he said, occupies valleys and low grounds and is composed of a thin grey loam on a subsoil of white, yellow and blue clay. This is a varied land whose undulating hills and river valleys present very different challenges or opportunities depending on where you are. To the untrained eye some fields look rich and highly productive. Others look and feel too soggy much of the year to grow more than pasture stubble. There is no lack of moisture.  I have found my feet ankle deep on squishy ground when inspecting and photographing the headstones at Holy Trinity and at the Chapel. One writer of the late eighteenth century, Polwhele, described the churchyard as so full of springs that the water is dipt from the graves during the burial service!

Devon was much criticized in Bartholomew’s time for its convertible husbandry or ley farming.  Yes, I said ley farming!   This was the breaking up of pasture for temporary cultivation of grain. Grass leys were broken up at intervals varying from three to as many as fourteen years. This transition for arable to pasture to arable etc. resulted in the multiplication of fields and hedges which were deplored by agricultural improvers like Charles Vancouver.  Wheat and barley were the commonest grain crops while turnips, called swedes in Devon even today, were included in the mix as winter feed. There was a heavy reliance on hand labour for breaking up old pasture where it was impossible to plow. Sowing was also labour intensive, according to Vancouver, where a single man proceeds with hand-implements including mattocks, shovels, twibills and twobills and even breast ploughs. So there we have it. There was Bartholomew and Jane and his family and other helpers practicing this very labour-intensive form of husbandry called ley farming on Ley Farm!  Imagine the mattock callouses!  Think of the shoulder and rib pains after a few hours on the breast plough! Not work for whimps.

While this ley farming was criticized Devon was admired for its excellence in the breeding of beef and dairy cattle.

Devon Reds and Friends Above the Torridge Facing Milton

These cattle have an excellent view of Milton hedgerows from across the Torridge


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