Events that shook boughs of my beloved farmhouse tree
People come and go but a farm – with its house, barns and fields – lives on. David Hill, who researched the history of the Devon farm where he grew up, describes what he found.
Eastacott, my childhood farm, my farmhouse tree as I called it because it was as old as an oak tree, the rooms being the branches, saw many changes over the centuries. Although probably built in the 17th century, I have only been able to trace ownership back to 1780. At this time the sixty acre farm was owned and farmed by a John Follet. By 1800 it was in the ownership of Robert Webber who also owned the adjoining properties of Middlecott and Westacott, as well as farms in other parishes. He never lived at Eastacott, renting out the property to a Richard Follet and in 1803 to John Mogford while he was probably residing in the parish of West Anstey. In his will drawn up in 1810, a year before his death, he describes himself as... "I Robert Webber the Elder and Yeoman of West Anstey."
He left Eastacott to one of his sons James, with a proviso which was to cause legal problems until 1877. "If James should depart this world without issue lawfully begotten of his body then and in such case I hereby give the same estate to my grandson Robert Webber his heirs and assigns forever," the will stated. James, a bachelor, was looked after by his niece Mary Moore, and to repay her, he took the necessary legal actions in 1832 to ensure her ownership of Eastacott. On January 6 1854,when James was almost eighty and in poor health, a part of the house was destroyed by fire caused by a maid hanging wet clothes too close to kitchen fire to dry off over night. It was uninsured and furniture, hogsheads of cider and £300 (over £18,000 in today's money), plus deeds, wills and legal papers relating to Mary's ownership were destroyed. Solicitors acted with speed to ensure that Mary, in the eyes of the law, was the legal owner. This was completed just before her uncle died in October. Mary only lived for another six years and in her will left Eastacott in joint tenancy, until her nephew James Webber Moore came of age, to sister Sarah and the two farm bailiffs John Roberts and Robert Bucknell, a first cousin once removed.
All three were resident at Eastacott, and Robert had also been a bailiff for her uncle who had left him £50 in his will. The term "joint tenants" was to cause yet more legal problems. But James Webber Moore never inherited Eastacott, and when John Roberts died intestate, his sister Elizabeth Fulford successfully contested the will made by Mary relating to joint ownership in the courts, was successful and was awarded her late brother's share which had been valued at £325 and 11 shillings (£325.55p).
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Legal disputes were also ongoing during 1875-1877 between Sarah Moore and the Webbers. A Bristol court issued a summons demanding she leave Eastacott, and a writ was issued in August but never signed and served. The plaintiff was one Robert Webber, a resident in Delphi Carrol County, Indiana USA. On August 28 Sarah's married sister Joan Crudge died leaving Sarah £1,000 (about £48,000 today).
Enter the Hill family. In 1853 Thomas and Rebecca Hill, my great, great grand parents, together with their son Thomas were tenant farmers at Over Woodburn later known as West Woodburn in the parish of Oakford. By 1868, Thomas, 80, Rebecca, 86, and Thomas, their son aged 44, were all dead, with Mary Ann, née Crudge, at only 33, a widow with six children aged under one to nine years. With family help she continued farming at West Woodburn, but on the death of her mother, Joan, in 1877 the family moved the three miles to Eastacott. It had been agreed by her mother and aunt that Joan would leave enough money to Sarah to enable her to sort out all the legal problems and to give a home to Joan's daughter and her young family.
When Mary Ann died in 1891 aged 56, her Aunt Sarah had to rewrite her will as her niece had been the chief beneficiary. In her new will substantial shares in Eastacott, Middlecott and Westacott were to be left to Mary Ann's two sons – Thomas, my grand father, and John. Thomas would inherit her share of Eastacott and John, shares in the much smaller properties of Middlecot and Westacott. In the same year Thomas married Grace Buckingham of Owlaborough, a farm just across the Crooked Oak river which was a boundary between Eastacott, Middlecott and Owlaborough. At later dates John married Marie Buckingham and his sister Ellen married John Buckingham.
Thomas and Grace moved to live with a farming cousin J.B.Hill at Cruwys Morchard, with John farming Eastacott. By the time of her death in 1897, aged 86,ownership in the three properties had been sorted out. Thomas, Grace and their three small children Nellie aged five (my aged maiden aunt), Herbert, aged two, and Maurice, aged one, returned to farm Eastacott. John rented Barton farm in the village, but within a few years the family had moved to Knowle, Cullompton.
In 1901, John Hill, my father, was born. Another son, Thomas had died much earlier in infancy, and with him went the first born name Thomas which had been the first Christian name of the first son for generations.
Grandfather Thomas Hill brought Eastacott into the 20th century by installing an engine to replace horse power in the roundhouse, to drive the barn thresher and power the barn machinery including the chaff cutter, in 1907. Four years later water from a field spring 230 yards away was brought in by lead pipe, and brass taps were fitted downstairs and in the stable. Around this time family sadness struck when Maurice, a musically talented lad, contracted meningitis, and his mental health deteriorated.
In November 1919 the Western Times reported an accident suffered by Thomas, when his pony and trap on the return journey from East Anstey auction were involved in an incident with a loaded horse-drawn timber wagon. The trap overturned, and he suffered a head injury which was treated by a doctor. Just over a year later he was dead aged 58.
Herbert and John were now running Eastacott with Nellie assisting her mother Grace. In the mid 20s Herbert married, and when his wife Hilda inherited a corn, seed and grocery business from an aunt and uncle they moved to Braunton. Grace died in 1930 aged 63, and the farm was valued at £950; the depression had taken its toll on land prices, as in 1921 just the livestock and machinery had been valued at £822.
John, aged 31, married Annie Manning, aged 23,who found herself moving into a house run by her sister-in-law. They continued working together, sharing a house in South Molton when they left the farm in 1966.
In 1939 a storm raged over North Devon, with thunder and lightning lasting four hours and four inches of rain falling in nine hours. The Plymouth and Exeter Gazette, in its report, stated that my father lost two yearling cattle struck by lightning. In 1943, having suffered severe migraines for years, my father on his doctor's advice had all his teeth taken out in an attempt to cure the affliction; it didn't work! Unable to follow the government's diktat about putting more land under corn for the war effort, he rented out forty acres to Mr Down of Barton Farm.
In 1947 after a wait of sixteen years I was born. In the late forties and early fifties the interior of the farmhouse was modernised. A bathroom was installed in what had been the small bedroom occupied by Brian and Clive – the evacuees – at the top of backstairs. An Elsan toilet was put in downstairs, fewer trips to the outside little 'ouse! A small stove and immersion tank heated by the stove were fitted downstairs and Calor gas cylinders were delivered on a regular basis from South Molton providing gas lighting in three rooms downstairs (Aladdin lamps and candles continued to be used upstairs). A gas washday boiler, cooking stove and gas iron were also purchased.
In 1953 there was sadness,when both Maurice and Herbert died, Maurice in an Exeter mental home and his brother from a stroke. During my father's custodianship of my farmhouse tree no exterior modernisation was carried out, and he continued to milk his cows by hand and work with a shire horse. Electricity was connected to the farmhouse in 1963, but not the cobwalled outbuildings, one of which had collapsed in the 50s and was rebuilt with cement blocks. My father enjoyed the amenity – and a TV – for only a few months. He died in December in the farmhouse where he was born and which he had only left for seven nights – his honeymoon. Nell died in 1972 and Annie in 1989 in a Cornish nursing home. My farmhouse tree was sold in 1965 for £10,900. Custodianship by the Webbers, Moores and Hills was at an end.
The Farmhouse Tree – A book of childhood memories, by David Hill, will be published in October.