Making a Living
Farming & Withies
The communities of Stoke and its surrounding hamlets are still firmly based on the land and what it provides. The centuries have seen vast changes, from hunter/gatherers, saxon clearings, medieival and later drainage schemes, enclosure, through to the effects of globalisation on our modern agriculture. One significant factor has been the lack of a resident Lord of the Manor, and the individuality that was able to flourish under Bath & Wells.
The enclosure and drainage of Curry Moor and West Sedgemoor allowed the rapid development of the basket willow growing industry through the 19th century, which impinged on nearly every family in Stoke, especially before the development of withy harvesting, buffing and stripping methods.
The Village Farms in 1952 - Click HERE
Withy Stripping - Click HERE
Hauling Hay from West Sedgemoor
The occupation of willow basket making is still important in Stoke, even though the industry has been through many ups and downs since the 2nd World War, when plastics and cheap imports threatened its existence. Basketry is probably the oldest craft in the world, predating pottery, and baskets have been an everyday life essential for storing and transporting goods, as well as for fish related industries. Coates English Willow, the last Stoke basketmaking company, is host to a basket museum of items collected by the Coate family over many years. The collection provides an insight into the many uses of willow baskets over the centuries.
As part of the basket making tradition, willow chair making became an extremely important, if short lived, industry in the area.
For our Willows & Baskets section see HERE
The lack of a resident landlord also meant that individuals were able to flourish in their particular trades, rather than being employed directly by en estate. Hedgers, wallers, carters and even agricultural labourers were much freer than in some areas to decide what work they did and for whom. Rather than 'working for Farmer X' it would be phrased as 'going on with'. If the conditions or pay were not satisfactory, a worker could 'go on' with someone else.
Toll Gate Keeper - click HERE
Willow Coffin made by Frank Champion in 1916
Squire the Baker's Delivery Van
To read or download the full version of '19th Century Blacksmiths' click HERE
The 19thC Blacksmiths of Stoke St Gregory
“The smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands; And the muscles of his brawny arms Are strong as iron bands.” - Longfellow
At the beginning of the 19th century, we have the first records of blacksmiths in Stoke. We know from records of their childrens’ baptisms that William Hooper, George Jenkins and William Farthing were operating then as blacksmiths in Stoke. Although they may also have been practising blacksmiths earlier, two other smiths, Lot Watts and George Watts, became parents in the 1820s and 30s. They either worked together or had separate establishments in what later became Albert Williams’ Bakery and Village Stores.
Again from the baptism details, which record the father’s occupoation, we know that William Grigg was a practising blacksmith in 1839. George Whaites is recorded as a father in 1841, Martin Keirle in 1866, Daniel North in 1876, Henry Pulsford in 1888, and William Hector in 1890. All were blacksmiths in Stoke.
The 1871 census lists the following blacksmiths: George Hayman, age 20, born in Ruishton, living at Meare Green; Richard Hembrow, age 26, at Huntham, with wife Mary A, 24yrs (born in North Curry); Mark Keirle, age 29, born in Othery, with wife Anna, 25yrs (born Stoke St Gregory); Henry Kelland, age 44, at Cutts Rd Stoke St Gregory, with wife Sarah, 46yrs (born in Taunton); Albion North, age 14, apprenticed, presumably to his father Daniel, age 47, at his Meare Green smithy; Edward Pool, age71, at Meare Green, Stoke St Gregory, with wife Eliza 52yrs (born in Stoke St Gregory); another Edward Poole, age 58, at Meare Green, with wife Sarah 65yrs (born in Somerset).
Along with other tradespeople, they would have travelled more widely than the regular population. They may well have moved from their birth village for their apprenticeship, and would certainly have moved from place to place to complete their journeyman years, giving them a much wider experience of the world than many in the village. Two examples were the North & Grigg families.
Daniel North was born in Beercrowcombe around 1826. At the age of 15 he was apprenticed as a blacksmith to John Mare of Curry Rivel. In March 1853 Daniel married Hannah Jane Aplin, from Bickenhall. By 1861 they had moved to Denman’s Hill. By now the Norths had a son, Albion, and Daniel had an apprentice. This was Richard Hembrow, aged 16, son of John and Mary Hembrow, who lived further along the road in Meare Green. By 1871, Albion North, aged 14, had become apprenticed to his father as a blacksmith.
William Grigg had been born to James and Ann Grigg of Isle Abbots in 1804. He married Charlotte Andrews in North Curry in 1836. By the 1841 Census, they were living next to the smithy in what was called Lane End, later becoming known as Griggs Hill.
It would be wonderful to connect the Griggs of Stoke St Gregory with an Australian blacksmith, Joe Griggs, 1852 - 1934, but alas we can find no link. He was the unwilling maker of the armour worn by Ned Kelly in the shootout at the Glenrowan Hotel in June 1880. It seems Kelly took over Joe’s smithy and forced him to make a suit of armour from parts of ploughs and harvesting machines. Ned Kelly paid well in gold soveriegns, and later, when Joe told the authorities, he was allowed to keep the money.
Lot Watts headed the third family of Stoke’s Victorian blacksmiths. Lot Watts was born in Mark, Somerset, in 1793, to another Lot Watts and his wife Sarah. Lot the Younger married Stoke girl, Jemima Cummins, in October 1823.
In 1832, Lot’s house sufferred a devastating fire, caused by a spark from the chimney of his forge next door. The Taunton Courier reported on the incident on 13th June and gave a warning to all rural blacksmiths:
“It is hoped that this will be a caution to country blacksmiths who, for the most part, have thatched houses adjoining their smiths’ shops, and which, in dry weather, so very much endanger not only their own houses and property, but those ol their neighbours. The expense ol substituting tiles would be a mere trifle when compared with the damage to which they are daily and hourly exposed by the use of thatch.”
By 1840, when the Tithe apportionments were made, Lot owned and occupied the land, including the old village stores, around the corner to Huntham Lane, to what is now the rear entrance to Jessamine (724 on the map). By 1861 Lot had given up blacksmithing and he took over the farm, opposite the church, that became known as Watts Farm.