Chilbridge Farm and the Richards family
The longest-serving tenants on the Kingston Lacy Estate provide a picture of farming, and of a typical Dorset farming family, over the last 150 years, as Peter Gooch explains
Published in April ’16
The Richards family were from Purbeck originally, but by 1869 Henry Richards was a tenant on the Charborough Estate at Abbots Court Farm. In that year the farmhouse was destroyed in a disastrous fire – an account by Henry’s seven-year-old son says, rather aggrievedly, ‘I was put out on the lawn in my nightshirt’ – and Henry moved to Chilbridge Farm on the Kingston Lacy Estate, about two miles as the crow flies to the north-west of Wimborne town centre. Almost 150 years on, Henry’s great-great grandson, Bill, is farming Chilbridge’s 1300 acres and the Richards family are Kingston Lacy’s longest-serving tenants.
Farming dynasties are hardly a rarity in Dorset, but there are not many tenanted farms in the county that have been in the hands of one family for such a long unbroken period. What adds interest to the story of Chilbridge and the Richards family is that every transaction was recorded in a day book for later transfer to formal ledgers, while the overall performance of the business was meticulously monitored by a series of tables and charts, all in beautiful script. They create a fascinating story of historic trends in farming in Dorset.
Henry’s sons, Frederick and Arthur, took over the farm together. The latter would ride his bicycle to Chilbridge from his home in Wimborne until he was 85, when he was knocked off it by a motor-car. He threw the machine into the hedge in disgust and for the next few years walked to the farm and back. Frederick died in 1928 on a ship in the Indian Ocean on his way to visit a daughter in Australia. He was buried at sea and his wife was landed at Colombo, where she had to wait for three weeks for a ship to bring her back – an ordeal almost inconceivable to modern travellers. He was succeeded at Chilbridge by his sons, Fred and George, but Fred died in a baler accident when his son, Jim, was only 14.
It was not until the 1950s that Jim took on the tenancy, and he was running the farm in 1983 when the Bankes family made the estate over to the National Trust, although the change in ownership did not make a great difference to tenants like Jim who were running their farms successfully. Having trained both alongside his father and at Kingston Maurward, Jim’s son, Bill, joined him and, with Jim today enjoying well-earned retirement, Bill holds the tenancy and runs the farm.
When Henry came to Chilbridge in 1869, the land was given over mostly to sheep, hay and oats, with a little wheat and no barley. The reason for the hay and oats, which occupied almost a third of the acreage, was that the power on the farm was provided by 35 working horses which, along with eight saddle horses, required fuelling just as much as today’s tractors do. The first tractor arrived in 1936 – and the grandson of the first man to drive it still works on the farm. As for the sheep, by 1900 there were over 1000 ewes and lambs, but in 1939 the decision was taken to sell them and the lot were driven down to Wimborne Market in four batches over the space of a month.
Even before all the sheep were sold, dairy was increasing in importance and by 1955 there were 200 cows being milked at Chilbridge and 50 more at Pamphill, on the other side of the main Wimborne-Blandford road. In that year, George Richards bought 80-acre Newton Farm at Sturminster Marshall (where Jim and his wife, Wendy, still live, having bought a further 35 acres in 1990) and the number of cows milked there rose as high as 100. The total number of cows peaked at 550 in 1980, but in 1983, not only did the National Trust take over but milk quotas were introduced. By 2001, dairying made less commercial sense and all the dairy cows were sold.
Alongside the cattle were pigs – over 1000 of them at one time – and, most notably, poultry. There had been chickens on the farm since World War 2, but this side of the business expanded steadily and eventually became its most important element. At its peak there were 120,000 layers and 40,000 rearers and the farm was selling a staggering 26 million eggs a year. For three years running, Chilbridge Farm was the proud winner of the National Poultry Award. Then came Edwina Currie, the salmonella scare, a fall of sixty per cent in the demand for eggs and the sad sight of lorry-loads of perfectly good eggs being taken to the landfill site at Stourpaine. There has been no poultry at Chilbridge since 2010.
This potted history demonstrates how susceptible farmers are to changes in the market, and how alert they have to be for opportunities to move into more profitable activities. These are not developments that they can control; rather, they have to react to circumstances and the successful farmers are those like the Richardses who react most quickly and most intelligently. The stakes are high, and it is often not realised what a capital-intensive business farming is: build a new pig unit, install a new milking parlour, buy a new combine harvester, develop a new strain of chicken, and you are looking at an outlay of several hundred thousand pounds before you see a penny of your money back.
A constant even after tractors had replaced horses has been the cultivation of arable crops, which today is the main activity of the farm, to the exclusion of almost everything else. The farm’s records show which crop was grown in which field, back to well before World War 1. No barley was produced before 1914, oats for the horses vying with wheat as the main crop. The records also show the astonishing effect that modern developments have had on the efficiency of arable farming. In 1959, for example, each acre of wheat at Chilbridge was producing 1.93 tons and the equivalent figure for barley was 1.58 tons; in 2015 the figures were 5.14 tons and 4.61 tons respectively, easily a record in both cases.
The farm records are also a reflection of the social history of agricultural Dorset because they record what each man on the farm was doing and how much he was paid. Taking a fortnight in October 1915 as a snapshot, there were 21 employees being paid between 2/- (10p) and 7/10 (39p) a day. Their duties ranged from threshing to ploughing to shepherding, while the duty of three unfortunate individuals is recorded simply as ‘dung cart’ for most of the fortnight, for which they each received 15/- (75p) for a six-day week. This was under wartime conditions, and the payroll would have increased when peace came; as late as the 1970s there were almost fifty workers on the farm, which was bucking the general trend at a time when the agricultural workforce was decreasing precipitously. However, Chilbridge could not be immune forever from the economic pressure to reduce staff numbers and today, Bill Richards runs the farm with just three other full-time employees.
In the year of the National Trust takeover and the introduction of milk quotas, 1983, it became clear that the milking parlour at Pamphill was no longer needed, quite apart from the fact that cows were having to cross the increasingly busy main road four times a day. Wendy Richards was already running a successful horse and dog feed business and that moved into some of the Pamphill buildings, which were eminently suitable for the sort of diversification which the government was recommending to farmers as a supposed cure for all their ills. The dairyman’s wife, Joyce Cheater, had for some time sold eggs from her kitchen window and in 1984 a butcher’s opened in the renovated milking parlour, followed in 1985 by a farm shop in the calving and rearing unit. A year later, to coincide with the opening of Kingston Lacy House to the public, a restaurant was added. In recent years, under the management of Bill’s wife, Lulu, the enterprise has not only grown but evolved still further with the conversion of a barn used for storage into small business units, which currently accommodate everything from a butcher (most of whose beef is supplied from a small Aberden Angus herd that is still kept at Chilbridge Farm) to a picture framer to an antiques dealer, alongside the farm shop. There is also a children’s play area and the priceless asset of easy parking.
Bill and Lulu have a daughter, Laura, who is a radio and TV producer, and two sons: Jack (26), who at first turned his back on farming and did a degree in criminology and psychology but is now a farm trader buying and selling grain, and James (19), who is currently working on a farm in New Zealand for six months. When they join their father at Chilbridge and eventually take over from him, they will be set to ensure the continuation of both a successful farm and a distinguished dynasty of Dorset farmers. ◗