Monday, 30 December 2013

The Heath, Great Livermere

Spinney Lane leading up to Heath Farm Great Livermere.

It is all too easy to overlook the huge amount of effort that has gone into creating our English landscapes.

Many of us today drive down the lanes of East Anglia without giving a second thought for the millions of man hours of back breaking toil that was required to turn the surrounding land into productive farmland.

We are also inclined to believe that our countryside is a never changing place.

Whilst every day we read in our papers and see in our media tales of climate change and food shortages. These fortunately always seem to occur somewhere else.

What however we often overlook is that having a surplus of population, climate change, and famine are not a new phenomenon, but one that has stalked our countryside in times gone by.

We least once before we plundered the fertility of our land to the point where it became desert.

This is the story of one man's efforts to restore the land to fertility, and to grow food in a time of shortage and acute peril. It is a story of enormous effort and an incredible amount of manual work.

And where did this all take place?

In rural Suffolk, at the village of Great Livermere, some five miles north of Bury St. Edmunds.

The following story, is that of my great great great grandfather Joshua Rodwell, a Suffolk farmer.

Loading Hay.

I suppose that like very many other Englishmen starting out on a search into my family history, I expected before I got back very far to find a farm labourer and to become stalled in my research at that point. Imagine my surprise when I found the following report from 1800.

On Clay and Marle. By Mr. JOSIAH RODWELL, of Livermere, near Bury , Suffolk.
The Gold Medal of the Board was voted, to Mr. Rodwell for this Communication.

BEING informed that you have voted to an excellent farmer in Surrey, justly celebrated for his exertions, a mark of your approbation, it has been suggested to me by some neighbours, who have for twenty-eight years viewed what I have done to improve a poor and almost waits tract of land, to send you, an account of my operations, which I have complied with, trusting that this is the most likely method of inducing others to examine well their soils, and whatever may be found beneath : my practice is confined and limited, but your attention can spread any knowledge throughout the kingdom, and render the exertions of an individual beneficial to a whole nation.

I wish at present, to call your notice to the effect of, digging and spreading marle and clay upon poor dry heaths, producing fern and gorse, but chiefly ling; originally of small value, at best yielding but a scanty support to ill-fed- sheep.

The Rev. Mr. Lathbury's father, about fifty years ago, was offered any quantity of this heath. at 4d. Per acre: the farm on which I have been working consists of 1400 acres, 700 of which were of this sort of heath ; it had been occupied by my predecessor, Mr. Garnham, for thirty-fix  years, at the rent of 140l. and never more than 150l. the landlord (Bapt. Lee, Esq.) paying tithe ; nor did Mr. Garnham at that rent do much more than make a living in it.  In 1771 it was valued for raising the rent, and 350l. a year demanded, not tithe-free, at which rent  Mr. Garnham refused it, as did several other farmers,  who examined the land ; and when I engaged  at that rent I was pronounced a ruined man by most of my acquaintance who knew the farm. I had a lease of thirteen years.

My operations at first were to inclose with thorn hedges, marle or clay, and break up 300 acres of the heath; and in the first seven years of the lease I finished what I meant to improve in that term; I marled or clayed 600 acres, at 70 loads an acre, being 42,000 large tumbril loads.  In this work I employed three teams, two of my own, and one I hired for several years.  It is severe work; and the -second year I lost nine horses, attributed to feeding on pea-straw from the new broken heath, a circumstance that deserves the attention of improvers.

In the eleventh year of my lease I applied to my landlord for a renewal; on which the farm was valued again by Mr. Hare, the surveyor at Peterborough, and I took a fresh lease of fifteen years, to commence at the termination of my old one, at the rent of 400l.
I immediately clayed and broke up 200 acres more, at 100 loads an acre, 40 bushels per load, inclosing all with quick hedges, and ditches 5 feet wide, and 4 deep ; after this, I improved 100 acres more in the same manner.
In the two leases of twenty-eight years, I clayed or marled 820 acres ; and I have clayed or marled so much over the second time, at 70 loads an acre, that the quantity I have carried in all is very little short of 140,000 loads.

Upon taking a third lease, I was, in 1798—9, particularly steady to this work, and, in forty- nine weeks and three days, carried 11,275 cubical yards, paying by measure of pits, and not by loads, which were filled and spread by 'four men and a boy, and carted by fix horses and two tumbrils.
In this business of carrying clay or marle I have practised handbarrowing; the men can make good earnings at 10d. a yard, wheeling it thirty rod; and down to 7d. a yard at shorter distances; and I am much inclined to think, .that if we had workmen used to the operation,, and handy at it, like those employed in navigations, that this method would be of all others the cheapest, especially on heavier soils. But by far the greatest part I have done by tumbrils, the expence of which put out is 5d. a yard for team, and a 2¼d. a yard for labour, and paying for laying picks, wedges, &c. also for stones that rise, increase the whole expence to 8 d. per yard, which is at least  ½d. per yard cheaper than I can do it with my own teams: the reason of which is, that the man who contracts with me drives his own horses, and looks after them; at 8 ½d. per yard, 140,000 yards have cost me £4958 excepting the small proportion hired at ½ d. a yard lower.

I come now to mention a few circumstances which I hope may tend to render this paper useful to others,, not having the experience which I have acquired, : I shall use but few words, but  they shall be founded on positive experiment, or  attentive observation.

Clay is much to be preferred to marle on these sandy soils, some of which are loose, poor, and even a black sand. By clay is to be understood a grey clayey loam, some of it brick earth, and all has with vinegar a small effervescence. Marle is & a white, greasy, chalky, substance, that effervesces strongly with acids: I make a universal rule, on a second improvement, to lay clay on the fields marled before, sometimes marle where clay was spread before ; but this not general, as clay answers best on the whole.

In the tillage of improved lands, I am attentive never to over-crop. My usual rotation has been,
1. Turnips.
2. Barley.
3. Clover, rye-grass, and trefoil, one or two years.
4. Peas.
 5. Wheat.

On some I have sown oats on the layer, and omitted peas and wheat, which is more favourable to the land; and I should with longer leases have done more so. Peas, it is true, are an improving crop, but the two coming together are perhaps working the marle too quickly. I have broken some heaths up; and sown oats, and even wheat, designing to improve on the stubble ; but sowing four bushels of oats I have gained but ten, and of wheat not more than three coombs at first breaking.

The coomb is 1/2 a quarter.  My crops, by managing attentively, have been good; I have had 11½ coombs of barley an acre, and even 14, and these over large fields ; I have had seven coombs an acre of peas over six score acres, and fine wheat after them.

On 90 acres, clayed 100 loads an acre, I have had after two crops, the one turnips, the other barley, cole-feed, and sold it on the ground for 1000 guineas; then turnips, a famous crop, followed by barley, on 75 acres, 16 coombs an acre; and by bats on 15 acres (poorer land)  10 coombs an acre. These crops are for the soil great; but in general my products have been highly to my satisfaction.
In regard to other manures, my farm has had the fold of from 40 to 48 score sheep; they manure, one year with another, 150 acres; and I am never without bullocks for increasing. the farm-yard dung. I top fold wheat from the beginning of November till Christmas, and even till February, and venture it on clayed land at the hazards of frosts at sun-rife, which sometimes injures it much, but the effect in general is great.

Of all mucking, that for turnips pays me best, particularly on clayed land : I know many farmers in Norfolk prefer laying it on for wheat, the turnips to have it at second ; but I prefer the other method.. And let me note, that I use long muck to choose, which I think far better than turning, mixing, and rotting muck; here also are different opinions; I speak only from my own experience. Wheat stubble, I think, should always be whelmed in for turnips.

I once ploughed in a fine crop of buck-wheat for turnips, and the crop was so much worse than the rest of the field, that they .were not penned regularly for the sheep ; yet, with this disadvantage, the barley, following was better than where the turnips were much superior.
I have dibbled largely, and with good success, and think it the best method; and I approve much of the drill roller as the next best.

In tilling these improved lands, it is a common observation in Norfolk, that shallow ploughing is necessary to preserve the pan: I have not found this the case here ; but, on the contrary, that the clay and marle works the better the more soil it has to incorporate with.

Having thus stated, shortly, the general managements of my improvements, I now come, with your permission, to the general result. Rent will speak this:

It is stated, that, twenty-eight years ago, the rent of farm was £150 a year, tithe free, and that it was then raised to £350 a year, tithe payable.  I may venture to assert, that, at that rent, without  improvement, it might have so stood on my landlord's rent-roll till doomsday, for a mere living could only be made on it even in good times. But upon my taking the third lease, commencing 1799, it was raised to £600 a year, at the same time that to the full value of £100 a year was taken from it; in other words, the present rent is £700 a year. Thus, while, with the blessing of God, I have done well in the farm, and have put five children into the world out of twelve living, I have added £350 a year to the value of the estate, which, at thirty years purchase, is 10,500; and, relative to the public at large, I may venture to assert, that these 1400 Acres have, in the last twenty-eight years, yielded £30,000 worth more of corn, meat, and wool, than they did in the twenty-eight preceding.  A fact which tends strongly to shew the national importance of improvements in agriculture, and also the wisdom of establishing a public board for promoting and encouraging such exertions as may be deemed laudable.
                                                I have the honour to be,
                                                                My Lords and Gentlemen,
                                                                Your most obedient servant,
Livermere, near Bury, Suffolk,                                                   Josiah Rodwell
                Nove. 18th, 1799.
(The Gold Medal of the Board was voted to Mr. Rodwell for this communication.)

140,000 cart loads is an awful lot of digging. Carts were much smaller in those days than our current trailers, but must have each carried at least a tonne at a time. Marl weighs about 2.2tonnes per cubic metres, which meant that there has to be a considerable number of holes at Great Livermere to find.

This proved to be the case when I made a visit out to the farm about a decade ago. They show up even more clearly in aerial photos, with the photos made by the RAF at the end of World War II being particularly clear.

1945 Aerial photographs showing the dark oval patches caused
by excavation of marl. [photo courtesy of Google Earth.] 
Spinney Lane is the diagonal lane running from NW to SE across the photo.

Indeed the pits in Spring of 1944 were sufficiently deep to be able to provide crews of Churchill AVRE tanks preparing to land in Normandy with valuable training in how to cross major craters. [1] 

Heath Farm in 1999 still showing clear traces of the Marl Pits.

The pits are still visible in the fields in 2012, although I have noticed that even over the past decade since I first visited the site that they are being lost very fast as tractors and ploughs have become very much more powerful in recent years.

One of the former marl pits, can be seen in the foreground, as the crops dip down.

Josiah was married to Elizabeth Medows.  Elizabeth Medows who had been born on March 13th 1751, and she was eventually to die on February 18th 1838 aged 87 at Livermere.

Josiah Rodwell appears to have been a considerable sheep farmer, before he commenced his arable activities at Livermere. He knew and co-operated with Arthur Young the agricultural journalist, who had been born in 1741 Bradfield in Suffolk.  Josiah was five years younger than Young having been born in 1746.

Josiah Rodwell had been born on the 5th of October 1746, probably at Mendlesham, where his parents John and Catherine Rodwell lived. His parents seem to have also been substantial tenant farmers, so that it is probable that they had moved in much the same circles as Arthur Young.

Josiah had started out as a sheep farmer, however the pressures of falling prices drove him eventually to change over to arable farming.


BURY, Feb. 14, 1787

At a Meeting of some of the principle Wool Growers near Bury, held this day at the BELL INN, to take into consideration the bill now depending in parliament, relating to wool.

I.       Resolved, That we consider many of the clauses of the said bill, as injurious and oppressive to the growers of wool.  That it needlessly and wantonly multiplies restrictions, fines, forfeitures, and punishments.  Is entirely adapted to lower the price of wool; but not at all calculated for its pretended purpose, that of preventing the practise of smuggling.

II.    Resolved, That we do earnestly request the wool-growers in other parts of the country, to unite with us in our endeavours to oppose a measure that would be so generally detrimental; and we hope for the support of all land owners and others in opposing the bill, to procure a county meeting for rendering such an opposition regular and effective.

III. Resolved, That another meeting be held at the Angel Inn at Bury, on Wednesday the 21st day of this instant February, at Four o’clock in the afternoon, on the said day.


Josiah was active in the Suffolk farming community, and corresponded with Arthur Young. Several of his comments appear as footnotes in Young's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Suffolk.

"The importance of this subject cannot be too much enforced; and it were an object worthy of the Board of Agriculture, to obtain a Bill from Parliament, permitting a general inclosure throughout the whole county, of waste lands.  Where the common consist of good lands, the advantages of converting them to private property, would be prodigious; and the poorest, by being so converted, would, I am persuaded, produce double their present value; whereas, at present, the profit is extremely small indeed.  And whenever a landlord lets a farm with a common right, which is valued with the rest of his premises, I believe every good farmer who makes use of it, would be a loser instead of a gainer." [3]

He went on to write:

"The importance of inclosing waste lands, is evident too from another consideration, supposing an equal profit only would be the result: the men who usually reside near a common, are the depredators of the neighbourhood: smugglers, sheep-stealers, horse-jockies, and jobbers of every denomination, here find their abode."

A Rodwell family tree drawn up in about 1845.  
[Please click on the image for a larger version.] 
The farm house at Heath Farm, which we believe Josiah Rodwell built.

Josiah appears to have been very interested in trees. The garden at Heath Farm contains a number of very large trees including Copper Beech, Wellingtonia and other fir trees, and he planted the magnificent lime avenue that leads up to the farm.


The trees in Heath Farm gardens.

The Lime Avenue at Great Livermere.

Josiah was an extremely effective tenant farmer, who was extremely fortunate that his career in farming coincided with the French Revolutionary Wars, resulting in a number of years of excellent prices for his crops.  He believed that he had made £30,000 in 13 years, which was more than most of the local landowners would have expected to have made in rents.

He went on to bring up a large family, of whom several of the boys were able to be sent to Cambridge University, which must have been unusual for this period.
Josiah was also widely employed to value and to sell farms over much of Suffolk, as well as serving on Grand Juries at the nearby Bury Assizes.

 “In his 56th year, Mr. Josiah Rodwell, an opulent farmer at Little Livermere, and highly distinguished for his agricultural knowledge.  He was at Woolpit fair the preceding evening; and, on the morning of his death, was as well as usual.”

Josiah Rodwell had died on the 21st of September 1802, which was the day after the Fair that was run annually at Woolpit. I hope that he had had a really good time at market.  He was buried at Livermere. [4]

His memorial was described in 1827 as being at the church at Livermere on the south side.

“Also a flat stone to Josiah Rodwell late of Livermere Parva who died Sept 21 1802."

However time seems to have removed the gravestone as despite extensive searches it is nowhere to be seen today, unlike this mans magnificent trees.

If I could leave a legacy in 200 or more years like the trees that Josiah Rodwell planted, I would be a die a very happy man. You cannot believe the thrill that I felt when I found them.  Much as I enjoy written archives, trees and holes in the ground are also an extremely powerful way to leave ones mark.

I would very much like the opportunity to visit and photograph Heath Farm one day. I have been unable to find out who owns the house at present.  If you live there and are prepared to let me visit the house and gardens, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted at

[2] Davy’s Suffolk Collections LXXI, page 80 onwards. Davy, David Elisha (ca.1840) Suffolk Collections.  British Library Add. MSS. 19147. Davy lived from 1769 to 1851 and was both a botanist and antiquarian.
[3] Young's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Suffolk. Page 167.
[4] A concise description of Bury St. Edmund's, and its environs, within the Distance of Ten Miles. Published 1827, page 242.