Dorset’s big farming experiment

The village of Briantspuddle lies near tranquil water meadows in the valley of the River Piddle, some eight miles to the east of Dorchester in the south-west of the UK. Nowadays, Briantspuddle is all pretty cottages, thatched roofs and peace and quiet. The village was far from quiet in the first half of the 20th century when Briantspuddle became a centre of agricultural and social innovation.

River Piddle at Briantspuddle
The river Piddle near Briantspuddle (doesn’t look like a piddle to me)

 

The Bladen Estate: Ernest Debenham’s vision for a new agriculture

Ernest Debenham was an educated and practical man, an innovator, always keen to try new ideas. He was, after all, the grandson of the founder of the Debenhams drapery and department store empire. By 1900 he was in charge of the company and became very wealthy. Around this time, he decided that agriculture would benefit from being organised as a business. He developed the idea of self-sufficient farming where centralised processing and selling directly from the farm would “cut out the middle man”, reduce costs and boost rural employment. In 1914, he purchased several farms in the Piddle Valley around Briantspuddle where he intended to test these ideas. This land became the Bladen Estate, named after the old form of Blagdon or Blackdown, the hill above Briantspuddle.

Houses for workers

Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle
Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle – one of the houses present before Debenham started building. It shows the “Dorset” style he tried to emulate.

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Briantspuddle was a sleepy hamlet of about a dozen houses. To realise his vision of self-sufficient farming, Debenham planned a substantial expansion of the village although, because of the outbreak of war, new building did not start until 1919. He believed that good housing led to good work, so his first priority was to provide new houses for the estate workers. These were built in the traditional, Arts and Crafts style with thatched roofs, designed to blend sympathetically with the local environment. The new cottages were equipped with a bathroom and inside lavatory, and with self-sufficiency in mind, a quarter acre garden and a pig pen. Debenham also encouraged tree planting as a means of harmonising the new development with the surrounding countryside.

Cottages in Briantspuddle's Bladen Valley
Some of the “new” houses built by Debenham for estate workers in Briantspuddle’s Bladen Valley

 

Scientific agriculture

Dairy Ring 2
Part of the semi-circular dairy complex, now private housing

 

The Bladen Estate was established as an experiment to test how centralised processing and the application of recent scientific discoveries in agriculture might improve food production. Many aspects of farming were examined but perhaps the most innovative development was the central dairy in Briantspuddle. This was a purpose-built facility for collecting, testing and packaging milk from Estate farms. The new buildings were intended to be functional, the semi-circular design allowing easy access for transport. They were also meant to be aesthetically pleasing, imparting a special character to the area and, of course, they had thatched roofs. A unique aspect of the dairy was a bacteriological laboratory capable of testing milk for bacteria as well as fat content. Bonuses were paid to workers from farms supplying milk with the lowest bacterial count, so encouraging cleanliness in the milking parlour. The central dairy processed 1000 gallons of milk each day in to Grade A milk, butter, cheese and pig food. Milk was transported in covered motor wagons to a depot in Parkstone where it could be on sale within an hour of leaving Briantspuddle.

Old dairy buildings Briantspuddle
Some buildings I found at the back of the dairy complex, now private housing but looking like they once had an important function on the farm.

 

Animal husbandry was also approached systematically and scientifically. For each cow, detailed records were kept of weight, health, food consumed etc. Twice a year, the estate Veterinary Service examined animals for tuberculosis; cows testing positive were vaccinated. Similar intensive approaches were tried in relation to sheep, pigs and poultry and there were 70 bee colonies. Livestock were fed arable crops grown on the Estate; also balanced rations supplied by a company established by Debenham. The Estate had dedicated power and water supplies and its own transport depot, contributing to self sufficiency.


The end of the experiment

At its peak in 1929, the Bladen Estate farmed 10,000 acres of land in and around the Piddle Valley, including many individual farms, providing employment for 600 people. These were difficult times for business, especially for farming and the Estate required continual financial input to stay afloat. Eventually the funds required to subsidise the venture ran out, the Estate went in to decline and the individual farms were sold.

Ford over the river Piddle at Turner's Puddle
One of the constituent farms of the Estate at Turner’s Puddle, seen across the ford on the river Piddle

 

Despite the apparent failure of his experiment, Debenham should be seen as one of agriculture’s pioneers. His ideas for self-sufficient farming were ahead of his time. Many “modern” farming practices were tested on the Bladen Estate but at the time the tools to make them work were unavailable e.g. antibiotics to control disease under intensive conditions. Debenham was, sadly, wrong in one of his beliefs: increased production and centralisation have not allowed more people to live on the land; in fact the opposite has proven to be true.

21st century Briantspuddle

The contemporary visitor to Briantspuddle will encounter an attractive village with a remarkably consistent architectural style, a legacy of Ernest Debenham’s experiment and vision. The best place to experience this is the Bladen Valley, a small coombe populated by substantial, white-washed, thatched cottages originally built for estate workers, most still retaining their original look.

Bladen Valley 2
Cottages in the Bladen Valley, Briantspuddle – originally built for estate workers from 1919 onwards

 

At the foot of this valley lies the unusual War Memorial commissioned by Debenham to commemorate seven local men who died in the Great War (six names of WW2 fatalities have since been added). The memorial, sculpted in Portland Stone by the controversial artist Eric Gill, was dedicated in 1918, one day after the armistice had been signed.

War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
Madonna and child on War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle
Commemorating the names of the WW1 dead

 

In the main part of the village, there is the semicircular former dairy complex, now private housing, and the fine thatched Village Hall based on a converted 18th century barn which, together with the Social Club, provides a focus for village activities. Next to the Hall is the Village Shop and Post Office. This was once a granary but in 2002 became a community shop run by volunteers, “by the village, for the village”. It seems that in Briantspuddle, social experiments continue to the present day.

Dairy Ring 1
Another view of the semi-circular former dairy complex

 

Village Hall and shop Briantspuddle
The Village Hall (left) and Community Shop (right) in Briantspuddle

 

This article appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

When I visited the area, I came across the now-disused church at Turner’s Puddle a little way along the Piddle from Briantspuddle and was surprised to see snowdrops in profusion at this time of year (January 13th).

Turner's Puddle church with snowdrops
The disused church at Turner’s Puddle – to the left of the steps you may be able to see snowdrops in flower in January

 

8 thoughts on “Dorset’s big farming experiment”

  1. This was quite a revelation for me. I’ve often been nearby on main roads running past these places never knowing anything of their history nor how pretty they are. Did Ernest Debenham’s experiment fail or was there no one of his calibre to push it through into the modern world? Amelia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Amelia. It was a revelation for me as well. Like you, I had driven past the Briantspuddle sign on the main road many times but never stopped. When I did visit, I found the village to be very interesting but the most suprising aspect was the lack of any reference to the history. I also spoke to several locals who seemed to be unaware of Debenham’s experiment.
      The problem for Debenham was that, at the time, prices paid for farm produce were very low. This meant he had to subsidise his farms continually. Eventually he ran out of money and no one else was prepared to take the enterprise on. It was only after WW2 that agriculture picked up again with the drive to feed people.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When we drive through so many little villages in spring and summer, we often like to stop and get out at random to find something about the history and local culture. Our countryside is full of so many interesting and surprising gems like this story. Thanks for sharing a fascinating post.

    Like

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