Farming and associated activities

Farming was the main occupation for most people in the area, Shaftesbury being the central distribution point for produce through its important weekly markets and auctions. Produce was processed and sent to many long distance destinations.


Grant’s Farm

Peter Stanier writes that Salisbury, Semley and Gillingham Dairies Ltd was a major dairy processing and supply business, sending produce to London from Semley Station from the late 1800’s.

It had a transport department, cheese cellars and a tin-smith shop for making milk churns. Gillingham was also known for the Oake Woods bacon factory.  Oake Woods & Co. grew to be a major employer in the town, with a workforce of 150. The factory had its own well and the extensive cellars were said to be the best in the country for curing.

Agriculture was a major provider of raw materials for other industries such as brewing, malting, milling, paper making, textiles and rope, twine and net making. Dorset-grown barley and hemp were both noted for the highest quality, while animal products went to tanning, gloving and the food processing and dairy industries.’

There were five mills on tributaries of the River Stour, at Melbury Abbas (Barfoot Farm), Spragg’s Mill, Cann Mill, French Mill and Gears Mill. A second stream, the Fontmell Brook, had at least seven mills, including Higher Mill, Piper’s Mill, Hurdle’s Mill, Pegg’s Farm and Farrington Mill. Cann had two flour mills (one still produces flour) and, like Shaftesbury, had several market gardens. Ashmore was heavily wooded, and a good source of material for faggots and hurdles.


Hurdle making, Ashmore

Local farmers grew crops and reared animals which most suited their particular situation and land. Many farms were devoted to dairy pasture, producing large quantities of butter and cheese, while others specialised in growing wheat, oats, barley and beans. Fontmell Magna and East and West Orchard were well known for their apple orchards and cider-making.


Orchards in Motcombe with pigs

There were extensive watercress beds in Fovant, Ludwell and at Springhead, using the local natural springs. Watercress was taken to Semley Station, and sold in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester.
Even in the town, Shaftesbury residents often kept pigs and chickens in their back gardens, and during the war they were encouraged to produce as much food themselves as possible. There were extensive allotments in the town, some of which were later used for post-war housing, for example on Coppice Street.
Many young farm workers signed up, and so women, children and those too old to serve were encouraged to take their places and help.
Throughout the early 20th century there were outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, and restrictions on movement of animals were enforced by law.
Apart from farms/small holdings, it was common in many of the villages surrounding Shaftesbury to have a butcher, market gardener, cowkeeper and at least one blacksmith.


Blacksmith in Ashmore

The Shaftesbury and Gillingham Agricultural Shows

In 1908 there were separate shows for each town. In 1912 an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease caused both shows to be cancelled. In 1913 Gillingham suggested that the shows should be  amalgamated or that they should be held in alternate years. Shaftesbury unanimously turned down the suggestion.

Between 1914 and 1918 Shaftesbury Show was suspended for the duration of the war. However both societies met regularly to raise funds, and the Shaftesbury minutes record £740 being sent to the Red Cross for the purchase of X-Ray appliances to be installed in local Red Cross Hospitals in Mere, Gillingham and at the Westminster Memorial Hospital in Shaftesbury.

In 1919 the Shaftesbury Show restarted, with an admission price of 1s 6d.(worth £6 in 2017) The show moved onto land owned by Mr Burton. The Shaftesbury Committee arranged a ‘Promenade Concert with fireworks and illuminations’ to be held at Pensbury House on the same evening as the show, and to engage the Shaftesbury Comrades Band.
In 1920 the Gillingham Show restarted but as there was no capital, all members were asked to deposit £5 on long term loan. This was later refunded after a successful show in 1921. Shaftesbury’s society was also lacking in funds. Members were asked to produce a float of £4 each. There is no record whether this was refunded.


Farris stand at the agricultural show

The Cattle Market

In 1902 Mr John Jeffery applied to the town council to revive the town market. Permission was given and sales were held from then on every fortnight for many years. By 1908 special sales of store cattle and barren cows started and up to 400 cattle a fortnight were being sold.

Most of the stock walked to and from the market. The auctioneers arranged to walk the cattle to Semley station and rail them free of charge for long distance buyers.  Cattle bought by the Midland buyers were taken to the auctioneer’s farm, kept over the week-end free of charge and loaded on Monday.
The market developed rapidly. During the First World War it carried on successfully and was ready to take advantage of rapidly developing motor haulage.

Gillingham also had a calf market, the second biggest in England in 1911.

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Shaftesbury Cattle Market

The Prideaux Family

In 1878 Charles and Veronica Prideaux moved to Motcombe, and set up a business selling eggs and butter.

In 1892 they opened a factory in Stalbridge followed in 1897 by one in Shillingstone. By 1900 Charles began producing edible casein or Casumen, and the Prideaux Casein and Milk Food Company Ltd was founded. They gained contracts for military hospitals and opened a factory in Evercreech. This was followed in 1907 by a factory in Mere and in 1910 by one in Castle Cary.

In 1914 C & G Prideaux Ltd was incorporated, the shares being held by the family. Full cream milk powder was produced under the name Dorsella. The First World War brought new Government contracts and increased business – especially with regard to dried milk powder for hospitals and abroad. During the war the turnover amounted to £1 million per year. It also meant a change in the workforce.With many men leaving to fight and women taking their place, the workforce now totalled over 200. A print works in Gillingham was started during this time to produce packaging.

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Prideaux contract for milk with J Garrett, 1919

After the war, fearing unionism and the left, Charles called a meeting of his returning workers; during which he discussed the financial details of the business, along with other matters. He later took advantage of new Government subsidies to build new houses in Motcombe for his employees. In 1920 26 houses were built, all with gardens and modern conveniences.


Prideaux factory with chimneys in the background, Motcombe

Price of Wheat

In 1900 the price of wheat per quarter was 25s 8d [£101 in 2017]; in 1910 36s 11d [£147]; and by 1915 it was 52s 10d (£211].

In 1916 Britain had only six weeks supply of wheat, and voluntary rationing was introduced. Food prices rocketed as shortages became worse.

When the Corn Production Act was passed in 1917, guaranteeing a minimum price for wheat and oats and  minimum wage for farm labourers, the price increased to 75s 9d [£302]. In 1920 after the Agricultural Act was passed regulating cereal prices, the price of wheat rose to 80s 10d [£323], more than twice the price in 1910.

Most of the agricultural land and villages belonged to a few very extensive estates, with large farms appearing to dominate land tenure. However this is misleading as many people rented an acre or two and kept livestock: a few cows, pigs, sheep or chickens. With this, and careful cultivation of their gardens, they were able to supplement meagre farm workers’ wages.

The greatly increased demand for home-produced food during the First World War helped to increase farmers’ income, and encouraged them to develop more efficient ways of production. Because of the shortage of labour, farming became increasingly mechanised, and every viable piece of land was used. Farmers and local businesses became part of the supply chain for local military bases, such as at Fovant,


In 1900 there were 17 allotments sites in Shaftesbury including Enmore Green and St James.

Mr B E Freame of Gillingham wrote a letter in October 1914 to the Western Gazette, urging each parish to harvest and re-sow allotments of men who were serving in the forces. From a national point of view it was of equally vital importance that every acre of land should be fully cropped.
Mr Freame was fully aware of the shortage of labour but felt certain that those appealed to for help “would readily make some little sacrifice to, in some measure, pay the debt we all owe to those who in some way or another are rendering such valuable help in our country in the time of her need.”


July 9th
“Wheat Still Falling – Slump follows Government buying from India There was a sensational fall of 7s a quarter in wheat at Braintree (Essex) Corn Market on Wednesday, 52s (£2.60) being the top price. In three weeks wheat has declined 14s (70p) at this market. It was stated that the drop is due to the large buyings of Indian wheat by the Government. In spite of the fall of wheat there is no reduction in the high price of bread, which remains at 8½d,((3p) as when wheat was 66s (£3.30).”

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Hay making, Bozley farm June 1916

Western Gazette extracts 1912 to 1919


August 23rd
Foot and Mouth Disease
‘Arthur Hiscock of Motcombe was summoned for a breach of the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Order – PC Churchill stated he saw two men driving a number of cattle through a field on defendant’s farm towards a gate leading to the back of defendant’s premises. He then saw the defendant come out and open a gate to allow the animals to cross the road. Witness spoke to defendant about the matter and he replied it was impossible to milk the cows where they were.  He also told the officer that he would rather risk prosecution than cause cruelty to the cows by leaving them unmilked, and at the same time caused great loss to himself. Supt. Bowles informed the Bench that immediately the news of the outbreak was received, constables were sent round to warn all the farmers that the animals must not be moved. The order was advertised in the Western Gazette and other papers, and bills were posted in the neighbourhood as soon as possible.’
(The Bench felt sympathy for the accused and fined him a nominal amount).


Making Manure/Compost
The Board of Agriculture and Fisheries desire to draw the attention of farmers and gardeners to the need for seeking new sources of potash manures. This country’s supply of artificial potash manure comes almost entirely from Germany, the existing stock is very small and no further importation is possible for the present. In view of the lack of employment for unskilled labour in many districts farmers might well begin by collecting all readily available vegetable refuse with the view of drying and burning it and storing the ashes for early spring use before the winter sets in. Similarly during the winter much labour might be employed in rooting out old hedges and clearing off other coarse vegetation in itself objectionable. All these cleanings might be burnt and the ashes used in late spring at a time when potash manure may be of great value.’

Farmers and the War – Valuable Suggestions from Board of Agriculture.
The acreage under wheat should be largely increased wherever practicable. In this direction it should not be forgotten that on clean land, and by the aid of suitable artificial manure, good crops of wheat can be obtained in successive years. Where wheat cannot be grown, the sowing of winter oats, winter barley and rye might be substituted. These crops ripen early and allow the labour on harvest to be evenly distributed. The cabbage crop is also one to be considered where land can be spared. It provides a considerable weight of food suitable for either human or animal consumption.

The slaughter of immature or breeding stock of every description should be avoided. Where circumstances permit, the total head of livestock should be increased, particularly animals such as pigs, which multiply quickly.”


Sheep shearing in Ashmore


June 2nd
‘At a meeting of the Board of Guardians and District Council in Shaftesbury, Mr Day called attention to forms which had been sent out by the Agricultural War Committee asking farmers to state their requirements in the matter of labour for the hay harvest.  Mr Hopkins pointed to the proximity of hay-making, and said he hoped all the hay would be in before those forms were completed. He suggested, however, that the military authorities should give instructions that if a farmer applied for three or four men, the commanding officer of neighbouring camps should be empowered to send suitable men at short notice.’

August 18th

‘Dorset County Agricultural Committee – Soldier Labour for the Harvest

It is anticipated that the number of soldiers who will be available for work in Dorset will be approximately 300, and Lord Crawford considers it most important that farmers should utilise all other forms of auxiliary labour, whether of civilians, women, holiday workers or others, as it will be extremely unwise for farmers to rely entirely on soldiers’ labour for getting in the harvest.’

August 25th
‘Compton Abbas Sir Richard Glyn’s Horticultural Show In order to encourage the best use being made of the gardens, no classes for flowers were scheduled, and the classes were arranged entirely on the grounds of utility. During the afternoon Sir Richard entertained the exhibitors to tea in a large marquee. Prior to distributing the prizes at the close of the repast, he gave a short practical speech in which he emphasised the national importance of increasing the vegetable supply by every means at their disposal.’


 Traditional ploughing early 1900s


January 12th
The Shortage of Food – Shaftesbury Rural District Council.
‘Mr Day called attention to the question of the ploughing up of land with a view to the production of more food. Mr Day said as the land had been so denuded of labour he did not see how they were going to increase their crops locally. Further, every acre they ploughed up reduced the feeding supply for cattle. It was an open secret that there was a great shortage of food in the country both for human consumption and for cattle. Mr Gibbs said if they ploughed up pasture land it would shorten their milk and cheese supplies, which were none too plentiful now. It was resolved to appoint a committee.’

October 12th
Next Year’s Land Cultivation in Dorset

‘In accordance with the instructions of the Food Production Department, the Dorset County War Agricultural Committee had arranged a survey of land in the county, and every field had been scheduled. The Committee allocated the area of pasture which it was necessary to break in order that the government scheme for ensuring the food supplies of the country in the time of national emergency could be carried out as far as Dorset is concerned.

(A farmer) Mr Good remarked that he had an order served upon him for the breaking up of 82 acres of land, but he was sorry to say that he could not do it. As a matter of fact he could not cultivate the land he had already, for the reason that he had neither horses nor men sufficient. He had endeavoured to get ploughing done by steam tackle, but the firm applied to had not fulfilled their promise yet. If the land had to be broken up he would have to give up keeping heifers. He generally kept from 50 to 60 heifers and he would also have to disperse his flock of sheep.’

October 26th

Collection of Acorns

‘Mr Gordon, in the Management Committee, called attention to the fact that a large quantity of acorns is required by the Naval Cordite Factory for certain processes for which grain had  hitherto been used. The Superintendent of the factory had appealed to owners of woods to arrange for the collection of acorns, and had asked whether the Education Committee would allow the school children to assist in the collection. The Committee thought it very desirable that the children should be allowed to assist, and as the matter is urgent a communication had been sent to the correspondents of schools to the above effect.’

December 14th
Dorset Farmers and Food – Secretary to Board of Agriculture at Dorchester
At the Town Hall, Dorchester an assembly of farmers took place . The enemy submarine had made it imperative to grow more food at home in order that they might not weaken the nation by having to buy food from foreign sources. It was not now the submarine alone which concerned them, but whether there was food enough in the world, even if they could get it into the country, to enable them to feed the people.
They, too, had to divert food for the support of France and Italy. 
The speaker proceeded to point out that it was necessary to make up the present deficiency of food by every possible means in their power, and that was why they were appealing to the farmer to pull the country out of the scarcity which faced them.  Many of the women who were coming out to help the farmers, were, to say the least, enthusiastic and farmers should be considerate to them.
The main point at issue was that we were 20% short of the normal output of food, and it was up to the farmers of the kingdom to make up that deficiency and add to the supply of food to the best of their powers. 

The “Traitorous Pig” Pigs were causing perhaps more trouble than anything that the Board of Agriculture had to deal with. Some people wrote to the Board to the effect that what was being done was positively ruining the pig trade; others wrote to say that all pigs ought to be got rid of; while others expressed their opinions that pigs in the country ought to be doubled and trebled. 

Calf Slaughtering: A Silly Order

Mr Sampson, as an auctioneer, expressed the opinion that the scarcity of calves was entirely due to the action of the Government. Dorchester was one of the best markets in England for the production of the best veal, but since the Order came into force all they had seen in the market was comparatively speaking a load of rubbish. The Order with regard to milk too, had had a marked effect .’


February 8th
Iwerne Minster – Meeting of the Horticultural Society
‘At the annual meeting it was announced that a number of fruit preserving jars had again been obtained by Mr Ismay, and would be on sale. It was also decided to make a quantity of jam this year co-operatively, as owing to the scarcity of sugar it seems unlikely that it will be possible to obtain any supply for private jam-making. A certain quantity of the jam made will be allotted to the villagers in proportion to the fruit supplied by them, any surplus after the village is supplied to be at the disposal of the Food Production Committee.’

March 8th
Dorset Committee Meeting – Horses and Their Rations
‘The Chairman stated that there were at present 101 Government horses working in the county. Considerable delay in the ploughing was inevitable owing to the difficulty in obtaining horses suitable for the work at the price sanctioned by the Government. The Committee anticipated some further difficulty in keeping horses in good working condition on the rations at present allowed, 14 lbs oats of very inferior quality, 14 lbs chaff of equally inferior material and no loose hay. Some sickness had occurred amongst horses on arrival, and the Committee had to report the loss of 4 horses from pleurisy, paralysis, diabetes and heart disease. The Secretary stated that they had now permission to buy in bulk any hay which the District Purchasing-officer did not require.’

German Prisoners as Ploughmen
The Committee, it was further stated, were endeavouring as far as possible to avail themselves of the use of German prisoner ploughmen, to be worked under Government Order, by which gangs are to be established, together with a proportionate number of horses, in districts in which horses are considered more suitable than tractors.’

March 22nd
Fontmell Magna – A generous landlord
Sir Richard Glyn has generously come to the assistance of his cottage tenants and allotment holders who work on the Fontmell Estates. A consignment of four tons of seed potatoes has arrived, and has been distributed to the tenants under the supervision of Mr Day, estate agent. The gift came as a welcome surprise, and is one more proof of the deep interest Sir Richard takes in the welfare of his cottage tenants.’


April 25th
Farmers’ Club and Horse Show Society – Prices for Agricultural Produce/Problems with Wages
A meeting was held to consider the new orders regarding wages, labour, milk etc. After a long discussion a resolution was passed protesting against the summer milk prices as proposed, and particularly against the penalising of Wessex producers. It was further pointed out the inability of Wessex farmers to pay the proposed increase of wages in face of an actual decrease in the prices of milk for the coming months as a whole compared with last summer’s prices. It was agreed to send copies of the resolution to the National Farmers’ Union with a request that it be at once placed before the proper authorities. It was also suggested that no further increases be granted unless farmers be given corresponding prices for their produce.’


Shaftesbury and Gillingham Show archives
Dorset in the Age of Steam – A History and Archaeology of Dorset Industry c. 1750 – 1950 by Peter Stanier
Extract from “Discover Dorset Farming” by J H Bettey, pub. The Dovecote Press
Mr David Jeffrey

Prideaux family archive
Melbury Abbas – A Narrative History of a Dorset Parish by Bob Breach
Kelly’s Directories
Shaftesbury New Market, leaflet (June 1957)

Western Gazette, selected articles