Sunday, 29 May 2011

Book Review by Andrew Simpson

Andrew is a keen local historian and has just written an historical account of Chorlton in the period between 1800 and the mid-19th century. Andrew's book should be available in the autumn of this year.

The Book of the Farm by Henry Stephens (first pub. 1844) new edition abridged and edited by Alex Langlands, pub. Anova Books (Batsford Ltd.)2011, (ISBN 13: 9781906388911; ISBN 10: 1906388911), 304 pp., £25:00.

Recently I walked the meadows in the company of David Bishop, and Ingrid Burney. It was one of those conducted tours that Dave and Ingrid do so well. David provided a detailed description of the plant life we encountered and Ingrid retold old folk tales fitting them into our surroundings.

It is easy to take the meadows at face value and assume that what you see is what it always was. But the land has been altered, by land fill tipping and before that by the construction of a sewage works. In fact even before the start of the walk I fell across someone who remembered living in a house by the footbridge across the brook when his father worked at the sewage farm in the 1950s.

Go back another hundred years and the place was different again. Much of the land was pasture and meadow land and was farmed in small parcels by families like the Higginbotham’s who settled in the township in the 1840s and were still here in the 1960s.

Meadowland as David’s is wont to tell you are perhaps one of the finest examples of how to sympathetically use the land. It is a skilled task and involves regularly irrigating the fields so that they can produce early grass for pasture.

I was reminded of this by the republication of 'The Book of the Farm' by Henry Stephens. I first came across it while watching 'The Victorian Farm' on TV and quickly found that it could be downloaded from Google Books has now been reissued by Anova Books as well as being available on Kindle.

It was written in 1844, and ran to countless editions. It was the manual for anyone wanting to be a farmer. Everything is here from what crops to plant and when to how to make a well, as well as sound advice on hiring labourers, the construction of a water meadow, and the best location for the milk house and cheese room. I learned which materials were best for building a farm house and how much I could expect to pay for materials, as well as the most up to date scientific information on planting wurzels.

It was a practical book and so “the cost of digging a well in clay, eight feet in diameter and sixteen deep and building a ring three feet in diameter with dry rubble masonry is only L5 [£5] exclusive of carriage and the cost of pumps.”

He calculated that that two brood sows could produce 40 pigs between them and that retaining six for home use the remaining 34 could easily be sold at market. So many of the smaller farmers and market gardeners in the township might well keep at least one sow and use it to supplement their income. Nor should we forget that these animals were destined for the table and so the slaughter of pigs was best done around Martinmas in early November because “the flesh in the warm months is not sufficiently firm and is then liable to be fly born before it is cured” and doing so in early November had the added advantage that cured hams would be ready for Christmas.

To read Stephens is to step back into the world that was Chorlton in the 1850s and for that alone it is worth making the effort to get a copy.

Andrew Simpson, May 2011