The Cumbrian Migration
By Denys Ryder, for Meon Matters March 2006
It was the state of farming in this part of Hampshire at the end of the 19th Century that led to a migration of a group of individual, yet neighbouring, farmers to sell up, in what was then Cumberland, and bring their families, livestock, goods and chattels down to East Hampshre. The land was ‘corn sick’ and said to be ‘only capable of growing grass’. The only water supply being the river Meon and dew ponds on the hills. But that was no problem to sturdy Cumberland farmers.
In 1890, Hud Smith came to manage Basing Park Estate, just north of the A272, and owned by one of the Nicholson Gin family. Hud Smith told other Cumbrian Farmers that they could come to Hampshire and take on big farms (500 to 600 acres each) at very low rentals. At the time, they farmed between 40 and 80 acres in the northern Lakes, under Skiddaw, one of Lakeland’s highest mountains.
Westbury Manor and Riplington Farms
As a result of this information, Robert Hind of Millbeck Hall and Isaac Wren of Lowgrove Farm came down by train to West Meon from Keswick in 1893, to look at two farms in the Meon Valley; one was Westbury Manor Farm and the other, Riplington Farm. Each man liked the other’s farm better, so Robert took Westbury Manor Farm from Colonel LeRoy Lewis, who owned Westbury House, and Isaac Wren took Riplington. The rent for both farms was 5/- (25p) per acre/annum.
Robert had four children, and the boys, Alfred and Reginald, farmed Westbury after his death. The line died out as none of the children married or had any offspring. Isaac Wren farmed Riplington Farm until his death, when it was taken over by his son Arthur, who farmed it until the mid-1950s. Arthur had five children, Cyril, who farmed at Liss, Arthur, Peter, Jean and Mary, who is married to Tom Luff and farms at Ramsdean with their eldest son Graham and his wife Debbie.
There is a story about the two families and the move down from Keswick. They booked a special train to bring them to Petersfield; they loaded livestock, a few implements and furniture onto the train, and boarded a passenger coach themselves. The train was timed to arrive at Petersfield at 10.am and the carters and wagons from both farms were sent to meet them. Owing to delays en route, the train did not arrive until late afternoon, by which time the carters had spent a ‘happy hour’ or two in the nearby pub and were quite merry by the time the train arrived. Happy Hampshire carters met travel-weary Cumberland framers, neither of whom properly understood each other’s accents. What a recipe for disaster …
Other Cumbrian Farmers Arrive
John Fawcett was next, moving to Manor Farm, West Tisted. Fred Rook followed in 1898, and after a period as a pupil of John Fawcett, took on Church Farm, Priorsdean. Today, Fred Rook’s grandsons, Ian and Nicholas, farm at Manor Farm, Clanfield.
John Edgar, a close neighbour to the Wrens, was next. He looked at Tigwell Farm (now part of the Bereleigh Estate) but came to Old Place, East Tisted. In those days, farms traditionally changed hands at Michaelmas (Sept 29th) or Lady Day (March 25th), the times in the year when rent was due to the landlord. The Mitchells, who lived around Loweswater, one of the loveliest lakes in the Lake District, did not come to East Hampshire but settled at Elsted, just across in West Sussex.
The Atkinsons of Skelgill Farm, Newlands Valley, Keswick, Cumberland
George and Mary Atkinson came next, and took South Farm, East Meon, from September 1905, but did not come down until March 1906. After them, two further families came; Alf Stanley went to Liss and Edwin Stanley to Bydean Farm, Froxfield.
This made a total of 9 families who came down from Cumberland to farm in Hampshire between 1892 and 1925, but (apart from the Mitchells of Elstead, who still farm the same land) only one of the original families continues to farm and live in the same farmhouse to which there forebears came, and that is Michael Atkinson and his family at South Farm.
The Atkinson name has been synonymous with farming and community matters in East Meon for over 100 years. George and Mary arrived with their family of five girls and two boys from the small, 40-acre, Skelgill Farm, about 5 miles south west of the town of Keswick, and at the start of the Newlands Valley. Skelgill is situated under the mountain called Catbells, overlooking Derwentwater, the lake in Beatrice Potter’s story of Squirell Nutkin.
The actual date on which they came down is unknown, but it was about the 19th/20th March 1906; the farm records held at South Farm show an entry in the diary, of certain fields being sown with grass seeds on 22nd of that month. The family, like Isaac Wren before them, hired a special train to bring family, livestock, goods and chattels down from Cumberland, but this time to West Meon station.
George Atkinson took the tenancy of South Farm from the executors of John Bonham Carter of Buriton, with effect from September 1905. Isaac Wren ran South farm for George Atkinson for 6 months until he was in a position to move south in March 1906. The farm was 568 acres (129 hectares) with a rent of £293 per annum, just over 10/- (50p) per acre.
The farm included a working water mill, described in auction particulars as ‘The valuable recently erected brick and slate turbine water mill, driving a pair of gristing stones, having three fine large stores, with hoists to same.” At the sale of the previous tenant’s effects, George bought 5 steers at £5 each and a further 7 at £4.5/- each (£4.25). Other purchases from around the district included a water cart (£7), a tip cart (£9) and a saddle and bridle (16/- or 80p).
Milk Production at South Farm
In the accounts for October 1909, the sale of milk from the farm first appeared, and continued unbroken for 92 years, until 2001, when milk production throughout the whole top end of the Meon Valley ceased due to poor prices. In those days the farmer received 1/6p per gallon (1.5p per litre).
Sale of South and Lower Farms
In May 1908, the Bonham Carters sold 1450 acres made up of Hyden and Coombe woods (530 acres), South Farm (576 acres, George Atkinson being the tenant at the time), Lower Farm (257 acres, with Sam Hardy as tenant) and Hyden Farm (87 acres). Lord Hotham’s trustees purchased them. What is interesting about Lord Hotham is that he created an ambitious water supply scheme which involved putting in a pumping station at South Farm, almost adjacent to the springs, the official source of the river Meon, pumping the water to a reservoir on the top of the downs at Salt Hill, and from there supplying by gravity ‘The Estate and the Village”. This, today, is still the main water supply for the village.
George Wilson joined the army during World War I and was taken prisoner by the Germans in France in March 1918. He was posted as missing. By coincidence, Albert Smith, the village thatcher who lived at Frogmore, was also taken prisoner of war in May 1918. He met George Wilson at a reception camp and in a letter home to his family mentioned that they had met. That was the first indication that George Wilson was alive. On returning home from being a POW in Germany, he arrived at Petersfield Station in the middle of the night and walked home to South Farm, arriving unannounced at around 4.30am, to the joy of the family and of the herdsmen, Arthur Dowlen and his two sons Sunner and Charlie, who were milking at that hour.
George Atkinson senior died in the Petersfield Cottage Hospital on 3rd May 1922. George Wilson and his younger brother Joseph carried on the farming business at South Farm, as partners. Wilson Atkinson, George’s grandson, told me that his father, George Wilson, fell in love with Sarah Cowx and, as they wanted to get married, decided to take on the tenancy of Lower Farm from Sam Hardy when it became available at Michaelmas 1926. By this time Lady Peel of Leydene House was the landlord, and the rent was £216 for just under 300 acres (72p/acre).
In 1928, Lady Peel granted to the two brothers the grazing rights over Hockham and Small Down, plus Hockham Cottage (where Wilson now lives with his wife Jill), a total of 159 acres for a rental of £35/annum. In addition, a further 52 acres was added in 1942, which brought the total farm up to 1079 – a great increase from the 40 acres their father had farmed in Cumberland.
Lady Peel and the Leydene Estate
In 1949, Lady Peel died, and is buried in East Meon churchyard. In 1953 an auction was held in London, when 10.309 acres of lane were offered for sale. It included, under Lot 12, all the land that the Atkinsons farmed, comprising by now some 1178 acres. All the farms had tenants, and it was believed that Sir Dymock White, who owned a large part of the Southleigh Estate outside Havant, met some of the farmers on the north side of the South Downs Way at the Bat and Ball, and suggested they not bid against him, as he would be bidding for the whole estate and would be prepared to sell them their farms after the sale. This is what happened, and in 1953 both Lower and South Farms were bought by George Wilson and Joseph. The brothers continued to farm the two farms in partnership until George Wilson’s death.
Farming now and in to the future
George Wilson died on 26th June 1958 and the partnership of G.W. and J.Atkinson was dissolved on 31st October 1958. J.Atkinson Ltd was formed by Joseph at South Farm, and farmed by himself and his son Michael, until Joseph’s death on 22nd December 1965. Since then, the farm has been run by Michael, and more recently by his two sons, Nicholas and Matthew.
At the same time, Wilson Atkinson (on the left, above, with wife Jill, George and Elizabeth, and their three boys) took over at Lower Farm and farmed it, and Peak Farm, West Meon, until his retirement in 1990, under the name of Wilson Atkinson Farms. His only son, George, and daughter-in-law Elizabeth, now farm it. George has a young family, James, William and Oliver, and I wonder which one will be the farmer taking over from their father. This year they are celebrating 80 years at South Farm.
Currently, Michael divides his time between the farm, where his idea of retirement is ‘doing what he wants to do when he wants to do it’, and his hobby, a passion for vintage tractors. Of these, he has about 20. He is also committed to the Parish Council, of which (like his cousing Wilson before him) he is currently the Chairman. Nicholas is married to Sue, who runs Harvesting Cream Teas at Parsonage Barn through the summer; they have two children, Tilly and Jack.
Matthew, Michael’s younger son, has three children, Jenny and Joe, and Florence by his second wife, Tina. Joe, at the age of 13, is a very keen rugby player and has just been selected for the Hampshire Under 14’s team. Jenny is seen at the head of a scratch team of girls, pulling against the boys in the Tug of War at the 2005 May Fair.
As we go into the 21st century, imagining what happened 100 years ago this month at South Farm, it may be difficult for readers to comprehend the brave decision that the Atkinsons took at that time, moving lock stock and barrel from one part of the country to another. Farmers, by their nature, have to be adaptable; the weather, the public’s buying habits, government legislation and many other factors influence their lives. Will the Atkinsons be the farmers of one of the loveliest parts of East Hampshire, and still live here, in another 100 years’ time? I leave it to our readers to muse on that one.
In the meantime, the editors of Meon Matters would like to wish all the Atkinsons, and their extended families, congratulations on their first 100 years in the valley, and to thank them, and farmers like them, for continuing as custodians of our lovely East Meon countryside.