Note on “Braunton Great Field”

Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1889, Vol XXI, pp. 201-204.


Sir J.B. Phear, M.A., F.G.S.

Prepared by Michael Steer

The paper was delivered at the Association’s July 1889 Tavistock meeting. Braunton Great Field is one of only three medieval open strip fields still operating in England. Much of the English farmed landscape once consisted of these large areas of several hundred acres, divided into hundreds of unenclosed strips of land, with farmers holding strips in a number of the different furlongs surrounding the village. Documentary evidence suggests that at Braunton, the Great Field was divided into strips by 1202, and that the divisions could date back as far as 855AD. The current names of the furlongs at Braunton are instantly recognisable in a fourteenth century document recording land bequeathed to Eleanor, wife of Ralph de Gorges in 1324. Among the other land, she received 1 acre at ‘La Crofta’, two acres at ‘Myddelforlong’, and half an acre at ‘Longeland’ – names still in use today. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

At the meeting of our Association last year in Exeter our late distinguished fellow-member, Mr. Robert Dymond, by whose death the Association has sustained a loss which we all deeply deplore, read a valuable paper on the “Book of the Customs of the Manors of Braunton” in the opening passages of which was mentioned, as a peculiarity of one of the manors, namely, Braunton Gorges, on the authority of Mr. Lipscomb, its present steward, “the existence of scores of allotments, or undivided plots, in Braunton Great Field varying in size from a few perches to perhaps a couple of acres."

Through the kindness of Mr. Lipscomb, and under the guidance of Mr. W. H. Lock, Mr. James Day, and Mr. James Reed, I have, since our last meeting, been afforded facilities for visiting "Braunton Great Field," and Braunton Down, and have been enabled to ascertain facts relative to both which seem to be worth recording, as serving to indicate that the first of these unenclosed arable lands, if not the other, is in some degree a survival or representative of the old Anglo-Saxon common field cultivation.

The " Braunton Great Field " is an open hedgeless tract of rich alluvial land, three to four hundred acres in extent, lying between the village of Braunton on one side, and the marshes which at this part border the estuary of the Taw on the other. Its surface is a dead flat, rising but little above the level of the marshes, and the soil is doubtless by origin a natural reclamation from the bed of the estuary.

The whole field is under arable cultivation in small unenclosed plots, amounting in number to several hundreds in all. The lesser plots appear to approximate in area to half an acre, more or less, and the others to be multiples of this quantity, or very nearly so; very few, however, exceed the limit of two acres.

The annexed plan of the field shows the method of partition. [Not included in the Archive.org scan.]

From this it will be seen that the entire area of the field is constituted of sixteen or seventeen different parcels or sections of unequal sizes, each bearing a distinctive name, derived evidently in most instances from some local feature. One section, for example, is named the Mastich (or that next the Marsh Ditch), another the Hayditch (or Hedgeditch), a third the Hedgelands, and so on. Each of these named sections is divided again into narrow parallel strips; and it is noticeable that generally the parallel strips of one section have a different direction from those of its immediately adjacent neighbours. The line of demarcation between any two strips is commonly indicated by a narrow unploughed balk, and that of the sections by a "bond" stone sunk in the ground at the corners.

The multitude of narrow strips into which the whole field is thus partitioned, amounting as already stated, to many hundreds, are distributed among a considerable number of separate owners in a seemingly capricious fashion. Some persons own very many of the strips scattered all over the field; that is to say, several strips in almost every division of it. Others have a few-only, one here and there. But in all cases the strips of one owner are everywhere separated from each other by interposed strips of other owners. In 1875 Mr. Rolle, the lord of the manor, owned a considerable portion of the Great Field in a very large number of plots, averaging about an acre apiece in area; but he afterwards sold them.

The tenure of the plots is at this day unqualified freehold, subject to no seigniorial rights or claims, and most of the holdings are small.

So far as I can discover, there is no tradition in the parish directed to account for the present state of sub-division and ownership of the Great Field. All that can be gathered is, that in popular belief the arrangement has come down from time immemorial substantially the same as it now is. A very sufficient explanation, however, can be found for it, if the field be regarded as a specimen of the Anglo-Saxon system of communal cultivation, which has survived to our times, emancipated from all its original servitudes. The named sections, each with its own direction of furrow, correspond with the "shots" or "furlongs" of the Anglo-Saxon field - the word "shot " implying direction or slope - and the strips of each section resemble very closely the "half acres" of which the "shot" was made up, the larger ones being plainly amalgamations of two or three of those of normal size. We have only to imagine that in this particular manor the "geneats" or "villeins" of former days managed in the course of time, either by purchase or otherwise, to free themselves from the claims of the lord; and then, bearing in mind that when two adjoining strips came by inheritance or other cause of transfer into the hands of the same holder, the division between them would usually become obliterated, so that a double-sized or treble-sized strip would be the result, we have before us a state of things corresponding exactly with the existing condition of the Great Field.

We can conceive that in the gradual development of the manorial system the usual course of change as time ran on, probably was, that in the first place the villeins, for valuable consideration of some sort, either completely cleared their shares in the common ground from all servitude to their superior lord, or converted it into a defined pecuniary payment or rent; then that strip by strip the shares of the smaller and poorer holders passed into the hands of the larger until, with the aid of a process of exchange, all the strips of a "shot" came under one owner, and were consolidated and enclosed with a hedge as a modem field to meet the requirements of altered husbandry. And it may perhaps be conjectured, without much risk of substantial error, that the transition from the manorial system of the Anglo-Saxon times to the landlord and tenant system which prevails now in England, was brought about by some such steps as these.

It is obvious that, under a process of this kind, the bulk of the communal land of the manor would in most cases gravitate into the hands of the lord; and it is accordant with this that Mr. Rolle had come to own so large a proportion of the "Braunton Great Field" as he did at the time when he parted with his interest 'in it. But if we ask further. How has it happened in this particular instance that so early a stage in the course of development (as compared with the modem state of things around it) should have become, so to speak, stereotyped, and rendered enduring? it is not easy to find a satisfactory answer. Doubtless, it was quite an exceptional thing for all the villeins of a manorial common field to achieve entire freedom in their holdings, as I have ventured to suppose occurred in this case; and in the cause of this exception, whatever it was, lies the difference between the Great Field occupiers and their neighbours. But when once the small cultivator's freehold was established, there existed little or no force tending to disturb or alter it, and it would pass by inheritance or purchase unchanged from cultivator to cultivator, until at any rate quite recent days, when, by reason of social considerations, land became worth to a landlord much more than its mere cultivating value, and so the occupying owner often found inducement to sell his freehold, and become a tenant farmer. As regards, however, such a minute distributed ownership as that of the Great Field, the operation - of an influence of this kind would be a minimum, and the small cultivator would probably continue unaffected by it It is also perhaps worth noticing, as an exceptional circumstance in the case of Braunton, that the Domesday return gives to the king's manor of that name the remarkable number of 40 villeins and 30 bordarii with 30 ploughs as against 1 plough only on the lord's demesne.

Note. - An extract from the Braunton Rate Book, with which Mr. B. M. Atkins, Assistant Overseer, has been so kind as to furnish me since the foregoing paper was read, gives the following particulars for the Great Field at the present tim : Area 354 a. 2 r. 6 p.; number of strips, 491; number of owners, 56, or thereabouts.

The plots formerly owned by Mr. Rolle were those numbered as follows:- 623, 627, 628, 629, 636, 637; 649; 657, 658, 660, 663; 670, 673, 675; 685, 697, 710, 718, 719, 724, 726, 729; 747, 751, 753, 761, 763; 772, 778, 783, 785, 788; 789, 797, 798, 808; 809, 814, 818, 819, 828; 861; 876, 880, 891, 893, 897; 920; 926, 927, 933, 946, 951, 954, 956, 959, 963, 966, 969, 970; 988, 995, 1000, 1003; 1004, 1005, 1022; 1035, 1039, 1046; 1049, 1054, 1056. The semicolons divide the strips of the respective parcels.