In a parish of Whitwell's size, about 5,000 acres in extent, agriculture has always played a prominent part. Situated on the narrow permian limestone belt, the village is bordered on the west by the opencast shales and on the east by the new red sandstone. The positioning of the village in relation to the surface geology has inevitably forged the nature and scope of the agriculture practised.
The type of ground surface in the Parish varies considerably as one would expect over such a large area. Much of the higher ground has but thin soil cover and in places the underlying limestone outcrops. Most of this land was formerly uncultivated and was held in common as rough pasture. Other parts of the poorer ground were and still are in some cases covered with scrub or woodland. Elsewhere the soil is mainly clay on lower magnesian limestone varying in depth from a few inches to two feet or so, but several areas of differing soil conditions are visible within the Parish; for instance, a strip of glacial sand and gravel at Red Hill; three patches of glacial boulder clay at Whitwell Common and a stretch of middle permian marl between Whitwell and Belph.
In the midland counties of England, the medieval open field system of land cultivation commenced during the Anglo-Saxon period, tended to reach its peak in the late 13th or early 14th century and then the area under cultivation often declined during the 15th or early 16th century in favour of a more profitable and less laborious sheep-rearing economy. The reversion from arable to pasture in some villages occurred as a direct result of periodic pestilences, such as the Black Death, which caused partial depopulation of parishes, but there is no evidence for this in Whitwell. However, early enclosure of the arable land in the village, probably during the 16th century, must have taken place because, at the time of the Parliamentary Enclosure of Whitwell in 1813, the old open field land was already enclosed (in closes) and only the commons and wasteland remained to be enclosed and apportioned. The early enclosure of Whitwell's fields may have been due to the fact that the manorial holding in the village in the late medieval and early post-medieval period was almost entirely in the hands of one person; any objection from tenants could easily be dealt with, if the Lord of the Manor wished to adopt a policy of enclosure to improve farming methods. No traces remain of the ridge and furrow pattern on Whitwell's fields, since there have been upwards of 400 years of enclosed farming to destroy them, coupled with a prevalence of shallow soil which would tend to lose its ridge and furrow pattern more quickly. Only the place names and old maps give us a clue to their extent. The pre-enclosure and the enclosure periods have nevertheless left their traces in the village. The older homestead complex within the original settlement area, the nucleus for the open field system, can be seen to comprise cottage, garden, pigsty, barn with loft and small croft at the rear. This can be contrasted with the farm complex typical of the enclosed farm consisting of house, croft (orchard), barn, byre, pigsties, dovecote and associated cottages for farm labourers set amid their fields.
In 1813 the lands owned by the Duke of Rutland (descendant of the Manners family) in the Parish of Whitwell were exchanged for those in Great Barlow owned by the Duke of Portland since 1741. Agreement must have been reached between the two landowners that Parliamentary enclosure of the common and wastelands should take place and hence the Whitwell Enclosure Act and subsequent award of land, which took more than ten years to complete. The Duke of Portland was no doubt anxious that enclosure should take place, as he was a well known progressive agriculturist of the period. During the mid l820's some exchange of land took place between the Rector of Whitwell and the Duke of Rutland in order to consolidate holdings. The Glebe lands, those belonging to the Church, were at this time approximately 150 acres in extent and before the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 the Church received substantial payment in kind from the village landowners - hence the tithe barn, the ruins of which are still to be seen in the Old Rectory grounds.
During the l9th century the farms changed little in size, in fact many of the larger farms remain today. It is the large number of small farms and homesteads of less than thirty acres, which have disappeared or have ceased to have agricultural connections. The average size of the farms outside the village was 100-150 acres with four larger ones of approximately 200 acres - Steetley Holme, Burnt Leys, Highwood and Bondhay. Many of the public houses were also farms including The Old George Inn, 145 acres, Dale Inn, 27 acres and Half Moon, 15 acres. Lieut. Col. Bowden of Southgate was the second largest landowner in the village after the Duke of Portland and even as late as 1906 there were few owner occupiers.
It is surprising, too, that the majority of farming families of the 19th century have disappeared. Those remaining today are Ellis, Mellish, Warrener, Walker, Glossop, Arthur (in the Parish of Barlborough) and Blagg, the latter only mentioned from 1890.
Farming in the 19th century required a considerable labour force. A large farm of 200 acres employed five or six labourers - the married men often living in tied cottages and the single ones ‘living-in’. The wages in 1900 were approximately 18s. to £1 per week for a married man, with eggs, milk, potatoes and cottage free. During the period 1859-1865 it is interesting to examine the wages diary of a local farmer, which showed the following entries:
whilst William Unwin 1864-65 received £4 and five shillings more if a good boy. Presumably he was as he stayed on the following year at a wage of £5:10s.
The fastening penny was given when the labourer was hired; this formed a contract between employer and employee. Single labourers and maids were acquired annually at the hiring fairs held in the spring at the market towns such as Retford and Newark.
The diet of the farming people included large quantities of milk and fat bacon particularly for the labourers in the kitchen. These were supplemented at the farmer's table with plentiful supplies of eggs, butter, meat, pig products and sometimes game, brick-oven baked cakes and bread. Several pigs were killed during the winter months of each year, (in 1873 Henry Thompson, a Whitwell butcher, charged 2/6d. for killing a pig), and the farmer's wife with traditional skill dealt with a range of products, taking the customary fries and pies to her neighbours. They also churned butter, some for home consumption and some to sell at Worksop market. To assist in their household chores and in looking after their menfolk, most farmhouses had a maid. From the same wages diary we find that in 1859-60 Mary Laking, (possibly the sister of Tom), was hired for £3 per annum, fastening penny 1s., whilst Margaret Rotherham in 1860 was promised £3:10s. with 5s. more if a good girl.
Horses, of course, assumed great importance on a farm before mechanisation and farms were often compared in size by the number of horses they used. The position of horseman was the highest paid and highly coveted; other jobs were second horseman, cowman, shepherd and odd job man. Their day commenced between 4 am and 5 am, in order to prepare the horses for work in the fields by 7.00 to 7.30 am and they retired to bed at 8.00 pm. Mixed farming was practised with crops grown on a rotation system of turnips, barley, new seeds put down for two years then ploughed for wheat, followed by oats. The turnips were used for sheep; the barley possibly for malting at Worksop, which had an extensive malting industry at this time; the seeds for the cattle; wheat for a cash sale for flour milling, (no doubt taken to the Corn Exchange at Worksop, built in 1851 and now the Town Hall), and oats to feed the horses. Few potatoes were grown and certainly no kale, neither was any silage made.
At the busy times of the year casual labour was employed particularly at hay and corn harvest and on threshing days. Irish labourers are known to have been employed by Whitwell farmers at these times. They often slept rough in barns and outhouses, (some in the disused and derelict tithe barn). The cost of the hire for a day's threshing by Thomas Smith's steam threshing machine in 1872 was £1:8s. Coal was necessary for the steam engine, which had to be stoked and supplied with water - a full time job when it had to be pumped and carried. A threshing day started with breakfast at 6.30am and steam had to be ready for a 7.00 am start. Meal breaks at 9.00 am for lunch, 12.30 pm dinner and 5.00 pm tea were welcome relief from the dust, smoke and noise. All the men were fed on such occasions and a pint of ale was provided to accompany dinner. In summer, when harvesting, half gallon stone ale flasks were filled to quench thirst in the fields. The cost of 18 gallons of ale from George Minckley in 1873 was 18s. We find occasional references to trade tools particularly on old bills, for example, a stack knife for cutting the bands was made in 1872 at George Hartley's forge for 6d.
Few farmers now keep sheep, but before piped water, sheep were useful as they were thought to require little or no water. The sheep had to be dipped two weeks before clipping to wash the grease out of the wool. The local sheep dip was at Mill Ash, Belph although there were others in the Parish. All animal transit was on foot or by float and so market day each week was heralded by flocks of sheep and herds of cattle being driven along the narrow winding roads towards Worksop, Retford, Mansfield or Chesterfield. The farmers en-route added their animals and then assisted with the drive. Sometimes the distances were too great to accomplish in one day and an overnight rest in a nearby field would be necessary. Many farmers provided a service to the community by using their horses for carting and it is not surprising to learn that the Inland Revenue exacted a tax - in 1873 a licence for a carriage of 4 cwt or more was £2:2s.; for a horse or mule 10/6d.; for a carriage (under 4 cwt) 15s. Horses used for carting required regular shoeing and the cost of a new horse shoe from G. Hartley, (Blacksmith), in 1873 was 8d., whilst two new harnesses from George Lindley, (Saddler), cost 15s.
With light provided by candle or storm lantern, water to pump and carry, little machinery, long working days and no holidays, little wonder that the annual events in the farming calendar assumed great importance. These included the Agricultural Shows at Harthill and the Welbeck Tenants' Show. The latter was only introduced in 1890 but rapidly assumed considerable importance. It was the aim of the Duke to raise the standard of the cattle, sheep and pigs, owned by his tenants, in the same way that the horse breeding had succeeded. The judges were instructed to 'ignore any animal which had been put in show condition and look for the best looking animals in natural condition'. From a modest beginning of classes in Horse, Cattle, Sheep, Pigs, Butter and Eggs in 1890, (attendance 4,000), it extended to Wool, Table Poultry, Cheese, Honey, Shoeing Smiths, Poultry, Block Tests, Long Service, Cottage Garden Produce, Employees Poultry and Best Cultivated Farms, by 1898 (attendance 11,000). The benefits of the Show were proudly boasted in the Worksop Guardian of August 10th 1898
'As a result of the constant widening of the schedules we now sit down to breakfast eggs for which we have had to obtain specially robust egg cups, one being sufficient for a hungry man instead of two or three bantam looking things of the days of yore. Our table poultry includes the capon which our inquisitive epicure visitor mistook for a young turkey; our butters go to favoured customers in the town instead of being put into the cartwheel; our fleeces are expected to require a prop to be put under the floor of the 'George Inn' wool chamber, our knowledge of great weights is becoming so improved by the block test that what we now sell by hand is often not more than 6 stones beyond what we get paid for; our beasts have been good 'uns for some generations but are still improving and may be passed over as satisfactory and likely to maintain the excelsior reputation of the Worksop Christmas Cattle Market.'
Prominent amongst the winners at the shows were W.T. Mellish, Springfield, Belph; George Mellish, Belph Grange; George Walker, Manor Farm; G.P. Webster, Butt Hill (who also won the prize for the best farm of 150 acres in 1898); J. Collingham, Bottom Mill Farm; T. Palmer; Albert Hind, Arrow Farm; W.H. Marlow, Henneymoor; F.J. Elsom, The Chestnuts; Sam Booth, Bondhay; F. Gosling, Cinders; W.F. Ashton, Greenwood; J. Ellis, Highwood; W. Futtit, Hall Leys and the George Inn (who also won 3rd prize for the best farm of 300 acres). Valuable prizes and silver cups were won and coveted.
In the autumn, the Whitwell and Creswell Farmers Association held the Annual Roots Show at the George Inn. Drawn roots, corn, butter and eggs were exhibited on trestle tables in the covered-in yards, where Ashover House now stands. The day culminated in a hot meal served in the Long Room of the Inn, including meat joints, boiled mutton and caper sauce and accompanied by excellent ale and merriment.
The George Inn was certainly the centre of farming activity; another event of the calendar was the twice yearly rent day, when tenants paid the Duke of Portland’s agent on 25th March and 30th September (Leaving days). In May an Annual Welbeck Tenant Farmers' Dinner was held, and often in the same week a Rector's Rent Dinner, when the toast 'To the Health, Wealth and Prosperity of the Farmers of Whitwell' was proposed.
The links of the farming community with the Church were strong, their attendance at Church services was regular and special evening services were held at Rogationtide to offer prayers for the Harvest and, of course, those of thanksgiving at the Harvest Festival. Many of the farmers played a prominent role in the life of the Church and conduct of Parish Affairs. The positions of Churchwardens in the late 19th century were held for many years by George Unwin and Matthew Hill of the Birks Farm, also Mr Jackson (Firbeck), Mr Ellis (Highwood), Mr Walker, Mr Sydney Smith (Burnt Leys). Guardians of the Poor and Parish Overseers included many other notable farmers - Mr. Webster (Butt Hill), Mr Eyre (Creswell), Mr Glossop (Manor), Mr Hill, Mr Warrener (Southgate and Walls), Mr Woolfitt, Mr Mellish, Mr Clayton, Mr Pentelow and Mr Lowe (Dumb Hall). They also filled the positions of Surveyor of Highways and Assistant Overseers, thus playing their full part in the affairs of a rural community. When the Local Government Act of 1894 brought the Whitwell Parish Council into existence, not surprisingly, the agricultural community was well represented - with three farmers out of the seven initial members on the Council.
The close of the 19th century saw the emerging of a different Whitwell - a village with a new colliery and a new emphasis. The novelty of the colliery was attracting not only people from outside the village to work there, but inevitably tempting many of the agricultural workers of the village with the promises of higher wages.
Gradually the agricultural scene began to change. The combine harvester appeared, representing the ultimate in labour saving - the first machine in England was used in 1926, although in 1939 there were still fewer than 100 machines in the country. Reasons for the slow mechanisation were varied. The depression hit farmers of the 1920's had reduced corn acreages drastically and reverted to grass while high operating costs also proved discouraging, especially when labour could still be bought for less than £2 per week.
Since the 1950's corn acreages have increased simultaneously with a declining labour market; in fact most areas of farming activity have changed to intensive operation, relying on bulk-handling equipment and other ancillary machinery. The agricultural engineer is an established member of the farming community.
Changes in the farming scene are all around us; disappearing hedgerows to give ever bigger field acreages; buildings for intensive rearing and corn drying. Other changes occur less noticeably; out of the original 41 farms, only 19 are still active in 1989. Four farmhouses have been demolished and 16 houses have been converted into private dwellings.
The Anglo-Saxons came over from the continent around 450 AD to begin the process of agriculture and livestock farming, some 1500 years later we are still greatly influenced by the continental effects of the Common Market - butter mountains and milk marketing quotas have been the new problems for farmers to contend with.
The Whitwell Umber-framed tithe barn was of post and truss type. The early history of the barn is obscure, for documentary evidence of the building is non-existent from the time of its construction until it is mentioned in a church terrier of 1824. At that date, the barn is merely listed with the other buildings in the rectory complex -'The Rectory House, Barn, Dove Cote, four Stables, Chaise House, Fodder Room, Cow House with a Granary above, two small gardens, one hard Pleasure Ground...' and was then probably still used for its original purpose of storing the rectorial tithes in kind.
The Whitwell Enclosure Award Map of 1814 shows the barn as a rectangular structure, with the oval ornamental pond at the western end already in existence. By 1883, however, the barn had contracted in width at its western end. It thus appears that, between 1814 and 1883, and most probably soon after 1814, the western end of the barn, possibly two or three bays in length, was replaced in stone, but without the aisles. At the same time, the timber upright would have been shrouded in stonework, and the wooden lintels of both doorways, which are of re-used timber, would probably have been made from timbers of the demolished section of the barn. There is no conclusive evidence available to show whether the eastern end of the barn was rebuilt in stone or not during the 1814-83 period but judging from the haphazard nature of its construction, the western end was rebuilt in stone rather hurriedly when the condition of this end of the timber framed barn made major renovation necessary.
After the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836, when tithes in kind were replaced by an annual rent charge, the barn would cease to be used for its intended purpose, and would then presumably have been used as a more general storage building. The barn appears to have remained in existence until 1884, when the old rectory was demolished and replaced by a building to the design of J.L. Pearson, RA on the same site, but at a higher level than its predecessor. At this time all the other outbuildings of the old rectory complex were completely destroyed but the ruins of the western end of the tithe barn were allowed to remain.
Details of Farms