The census of 1841 showed that 40% of the work force in the parish was occupied in farming and its related trades. Interestingly, quite a few of the farm labourers lived in the town rather than on the farms. They were often employed on a casual or seasonal basis and the farms and numerous smallholdings could not afford to offer accommodation. By 1911 the proportion of the workforce had fallen to 25% and a much large proportion now lived in cottages attached or tied to a farm as the smaller holdings and farms were absorbed into larger ones that could provide accommodation, especially those now owned by the Hambleden family.

Some such as the high-minded Farmer French of Great Doccombe agreed with Lord Rolle of east Devon who considered that ‘morals were more liable to be corrupted’ when the labourers were ‘crowded together in villages’. By ‘withdrawing the labourer from his former haunts in the village’, he would spend more time employed to the benefit of his family instead of ‘in the ale-house or in frivolous conversation with his neighbour’. Doccombe was provided with commodious workers’ cottages made of granite from Blackingstone quarry, allotments and a chapel of ease. On the other hand the Gregory Arms, that had developed a dubious reputation involving the landlord’s daughter, was closed as soon as French bought it in 1921!

Moretonhampstead and the surrounding parishes were noted for the continuation into the late 1800’s of the parish apprenticeship system begun in Elizabethan times. A large number of relatively young farm servant girls and apprentice farm labourer boys lived on the farms compared to elsewhere. Here is an extract from a typical apprentice indenture or contract: it was drawn up in 1745 for 9 year old William Weeks of Moreton, apprenticed until he was 21 to John Derges, husbandman of Little Doccombe farm in the parish.

‘During all which time the Apprentice his Master Faithfully shall serve, his secrets keep, his Lawful Commands everywhere obey. He shall do no Damage to his Master nor see it nor know it to be done by others without Letting or Giving Notice thereof unto his Master. He shall not waste his Master’s Goods nor lend them unlawfully to others. He shall not Commit fornication nor Contract Matrimony within the said term. He shall not play at Cards, dice or any unlawful Games. He shall not absent himself day nor night from his Master’s service without his leave nor haunt Alehouses or Taverns or playhouses; but in all things behave himself as a true & faithful Apprentice ought to do. His Master doth hereby Covenant promise & agree to teach instruct & direct or cause to Be taught instructed & directed the Apprentice in the best manner he can In husbandry [i.e. farming] work. Also to provide & procure for him sufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Washing & Lodging fitting for such an Apprentice both in the time of sickness as in health. & at the End of the Said Term shall & will make provide allow & Deliver unto the Apprentice 2 Good suits of Apparel, one for working days & the other for Holydays Together with 2 shillings & 6 pence in payment. In Witness whereof the parties above said have Hereunto Set their Hands & Seals the day & year above William Rogers & John Soper (JPs), John Derges & John Weekes X [his mark]’

[Transcribed with modernized spelling for ease of reading]

(Workers harvesting at Cranbrook Farm between the wars.)

Such indentures came to an end when compulsory state education in Moreton began in 1876 albeit in the face of strong opposition by the local farming community who resented the loss of their child labour and the cost of the new schools. Even then the school logs down to 1914 constantly referred to ‘mass absenteeism’ at whortleberry picking and harvest times.

It is difficult to generalize about the working lives of the adult labourers. They were usually paid in a mixture of money and kind that might include a weekly drink supply (probably cider) with extra at harvest time, dung for their potato patch and copse and hedgerow wood for their fires. The availability of work was dependent on the seasons and weather. Life became particularly hard for farmers and labourers in the late 1800’s with a decline in farming prices due to the final collapse of the Devon woollen industry and increased foreign competition. There was also increasing mechanization of farming techniques and a consequent need for fewer workers per acre worked. As a consequence farm labourers moved away to other areas of Britain and North America, South Africa and Australasia from where we receive frequent requests to the Moreton archives for family history information.

The population of the parish fell from about 2000 in the 1841 census to about 1500 in 1881 and remained around that mark until 1961 and then fell to 1300 by 1991. It has subsequently recovered to about 1800 in 2011 of whom about 5% work in farming, forestry and related trades. Local newspaper reports frequently testified to the hazards of farming as an occupation and it perhaps became even more so with the introduction of machinery. With no state or private pensions, farm labourers worked on as long as they could to avoid the workhouse at Woolborough (Newton Abbot) and the older men often found it hard to adapt to new mechanized methods.

Here is a typical report from the Western Times April 2nd 1884: ‘James Bridgeman, farm labourer of Moretonhampstead aged 72, was working at Wray Barton when he stood on the heap of pulp to adjust a belt and his clothes were caught up in the shafting of a turnip pulping machine. He was taken around twice by it with fatal consequences.’ A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned by the jury who considered that ‘no blame was due to Mr. Crump, the farmer, with regard to the arrangement of the machinery.

(Catching rabbits with a ferret at Cranbrook Farm in the 1920’s)