Farms and Farming in Spencers Wood and Three Mile Cross

Until after the Second World War this was a rural area and farming and providing items for use in agriculture were always the major occupations.

During the Middle Ages, people grazed animals, fished and caught eels in the Loddon, and grew crops on the drier ground. Poor labourers worked on the land and for the lords of the manor. In the 18th century, improvements in land drainage and new equipment made farming more viable. Auction papers from 1815 describe some land in the area as being “fertile and well cultivated”, but most land remained unenclosed until later.

Mary Russell Mitford
Mary Russell Mitford

Mary Mitford of Three Mile Cross wrote in the 1830’s of being “fortunate” to live in an unenclosed parish, thanks to “the wise obstinacy of 2 or 3 sturdy farmers and the lucky unpopularity of a ranting madcap lord of the manor’.

She mentions sheep amid the gorse, meadows alive with cattle, and farms with orchards and ponds. Vegetables were a main arable crop and she saw women and children stooping for eight hours a day “setting” beans (planting the seed beans).

Highlands and Stanbury were the two large houses in the area, surrounded by parkland with small farms such as Weathercock Farm and Hill House Farm. By 1870 Whitehouse Farm near the Common, and Yew Tree Farm with its orchard were established on the high ground looking west. Lambs Farm was nearby on the west side of Basingstoke Road, and on the east was Mullins Farm, south of the post office. Wells for fresh water were important, and the 1871 Ordnance Survey recorded wells at Wilders Farm on Ryeish Lane and at the nearby Clares Green Farm. On Hyde End Road, both Floyers Farm and Grovelands Farm had orchards.

Growing fruit and vegetables for the busy town of Reading became profitable, and new farms were established: Nullis Farm near Wilders Grove Farm, Ryeish Farm near the junction with Hyde End Lane, and May’s Farm on Hyde End Lane. Great Lea Farm managed land south of Three Mile Cross. During the early 20th century, some farms amalgamated and more land was used for orchards, for example near the school at Ryeish Green. Flowers also were grown commercially, at Dearlove’s Nursery and at Prior’s Nursery, both beside Basingstoke Road.

By the 1890’s, both Pursers Pedigree Poultry Farm on Basingstoke Road and a 3.75 acre paddock with poultry on Hyde End Road had been established. Until the 1970’s, animals were taken to slaughter at a building near the allotments in Basingstoke Road. The meat was cut up, and either returned to the animal’s owner, or sold in the butcher’s shop at the front of the building. Fresh milk was delivered locally from Channel Islands cows at Mays Farm, and Spenwood cheese was produced in The Square.

Patricia Green, January 2016 with thanks to Margaret Bampton for input.

Mary Russell Mitford’s writing were first published in “The Lady” magazine.

Some Local Farms

I have recently been reviewing a report dating from 1938 found in the Berkshire Record Office about some of the properties then owned and rented out by the Hunter family of Beech Hill. They owned several farms, including two next door to each other – Sheepsbridge Court Farm and Body’s Farm.  The Group recently had an enquiry about Body’s Farm and as a result have discovered that it comprised of 100 acres and 30 poles and was rented out for £88 per annum. Body’s Farm had an attractive farmhouse and at that time was in the hands of a young and hard working tenant, name unknown.  The old cowshed was adapted from an old timber built corn barn.  (This could have been the barn that was consumed by fire in the 1990s.)

Sheepsbridge Court Farm was a dairy holding with some arable farming consisting of 222 acres 2 roods and 4 poles with a rental of £244.15 shillings (£244.75p).  It had a modern cowshed but the rest of the buildings were dilapidated and old.  Much of the thatch roofing required renewing.  The Hunters considered selling this but finding another farm for the tenant made it unviable.  As an alternative the holding could have been put to Body’s next door.    If sold the farm would have to realise £4275 in order to obtain an income of £150 per annum from the invested proceeds.

Sheepsbridge Court Farm was a dairy holding with some arable consisting of 222 acres 2 roods and 4 poles with a rental of £244 15 shillings (£244.75p).  It had a modern cowshed but the rest of the buildings were dilapidated and old.  Much of the thatch roofing required renewing.  The Hunters considered selling this but finding another farm for the tenant made it unviable.  As an alternative the holding could have been put to Body’s next door.    If sold the farm would have to realise £4275 in order to obtain an income of £150 per annum from the invested proceeds.

Left: The granary, Sheepbridge Court Farm

White House Farm was described as an attractive holding and that negotiations were afoot for the transfer of the tenancy.   Milk production accommodation was not good and the present tenant erected his own bale (a portable dairy house built on wheels or skids).

Two other farms were at Beech Hill but one of the smaller holdings was a pair of semis in Kiln Lane.  This is my home now and the report says that they are old and the brickwork perished.  Obviously damp despite a partial insertion of a damp course and many roof timbers appeared to have perished.  From a superficial inspection the report said that further expenditure should not be made to render them habitable.  In fact the Local Authority might take action under the Housing Act of 1935 but the cost of carrying out their requirements would render the scheme uneconomical, despite one of them being occupied.

The report goes on to say that all rents were paid up to date and the tenants appeared to be satisfied.  All the estates were largely agricultural but Sheepsbridge Farm was wholly agricultural. Proposals were made to build on Body’s Farm to a density of 4 houses per acre, and Whitehouse Farm only, including the allotments, to a density of 6 per acre.  The allotments became Diana Close in 1997 but the farm was restricted by the Planning Inspectorate which allowed Warren Croft to be developed in recent years. Body’s Farm has not been developed.

Margaret Bampton, December 2012

Farms and farming in the Nineteenth Century

Percy's Farm

So many farms are named on twentieth century maps of Spencers Wood that you would guess that they had to be small individual holdings. Indeed the land is not particularly suitable for extensive farming. The steep slopes down towards Grazeley and the poor soils generally are often wet and were difficult to cultivate. The Enclosure Acts formed the small regular fields as late as 1864. By then there was improvement in farming methods and machinery, and an urgent demand from the growing population of local towns for fresh food.

Aerial view of Percy’s Farm

Farmers could supply and transport milk, fruit and vegetables as well as fresh meat to Reading and even to London by train on a daily basis. For a time farming was reliably profitable, and a farm owner could make a decent income. Some village farms belonged to an owner who lived elsewhere with larger land holdings, and the farm here was run by his tenant. The owners of other farms lived on the land and either farmed themselves or had labourers working under the direction of the bailiff or farm manager. The ‘gentleman farmer’ was an important person in local society.

This variety led to a mosaic of arable and livestock farming. There were dairy farms, orchards, soft fruit farms, pig and poultry holdings, and growers of flowers and general ‘market garden’ producers. Goats were kept by the Red Lion opposite the post office. Local businesses developed to support these farms: the farrier, saddler, the local abattoir, the carter, vehicle maintenance and tool suppliers and repairers.

Individual farms could change hands quite frequently. Sometimes the farm name did not change, but often it took on the new owner’s name. Mullins Farm on Basingstoke Road is named on the first and second (1871 and 1900) editions of the Ordnance Survey maps, but by the 1911 edition it is called Body’s Farm. It retains that name to the present day. Farming was a widespread activity in Spencers Wood until the second half of the last century. Then pressures for housing and rising land prices resulted in the changes we see today. Eventually small scale farming could not last and houses, infrastructure and solar panels stand where fields and hedgerows once marked the farmland.

The History Group has information from some residents, and from varied sources such as Mary Russell Mitford writing in the 1820’s, and the Government Agricultural Census taken during World War II. We would be interested to hear from anyone who can tell us more about farms and farming in Spencers Wood.

Patricia Green, March 2018

Pig Farming

Over the years members of the group have recorded many memories recounted by residents and former residents of the village. As a result there is a large archive of historical data some of which has been drawn upon in writing the books published by the Group.  Other information has been used as a basis for posts on our website. In 2013 such memories formed the basis for a post on pig farming.

Body’s Farm changed hands in 1937, due to ill health of one of the Luckwell family, according to one account.  It then became a pig farm which was subsequently closed down due to swine fever.

Billy Wilson, who died in the 1990s, told us that pigs used to roam on what was called White’s Green, going down towards Beech Hill.  They might have come from Body’s Farm but it is more likely that the pigs came from the home of the Foremans.   Foreman was a free range pig farmer who reared pigs in mobile sties fitted with wheels on a field alongside the Loddon River.  The Foremans lived in a house in Lambs Lane, opposite the road to Kingsbridge. Jack Gray provided us with this information and he also told the story of the family of Bennetts, of which there were thirteen.They were involved in many of the farms locally including the Halfacres, who kept pigs and dairy cows.  Jack also mentions other farmers including the Brookers, Bowyers, Rays, Dances, Dunlops and Cooksons.

Left: Billy Wilson

[Other information relates to the fate of the pigs…] Another memoir recounts that the person concerned could remember a pig-sticker called Mr Kirby, who would visit Sheerman’s, the butchers in Basingstoke Road, on a Friday morning and that it was horrible to hear the pigs screaming. Also at the back of The Farrier’s Arms, there was a pig sty with a large brick and tiled store next to it with a fireplace.  Was this store used to smoke the bacon or was it where a smithy once stood?

Margaret Bampton, January 2013

All of the above ‘piggy’ memories come from our records and we would welcome any further information.

Great Lea House Farm otherwise Woodcock Lane Farm

In 2017 the Group by chance came into possession of two maps, a photograph and other information (for which we are very grateful) from different sources that all related to the same property.

The area concerned is Woodcock Lane which borders Spencers Wood and Three Mile Cross, runs alongside the Swallowfield Bypass and reaches the Devils Highway at Beech Hill to go on to Silchester – a major route in times past. Firstly, I was given a map by a friend who worked for Thames Valley buses showing the area in 1936, before the M4 was built.  It showed two commons namely, Whitley Wood Common and Lea Common which were both cut in half in 1971 by the M4.  The Swallowfield Bypass which was approved in 1963 went from Lea Common to Riseley protecting Three Mile Cross, Spencers Wood and Swallowfield from excessive traffic.  It also divided Shinfield Parish cutting off Grazeley Road where the new development in Three Mile Cross has recently been built.   It was at this point, so Ian Clarke [at that time Chair of the Parish Council] informed me, that the developers had cleared out the pond and it was remarkable in that it was a circular brick-built pond with an overflow making it tear shaped. See photo below.  

This pond can be seen in the photograph I was given by Bob Watkins, in January, and although obscured by trees appears to be the same pond in front of a farm house called Great Lea House Farm. It is not to be confused with

Great Lea House Farm, 1936 (donated by Bob Watkins)
Great Lea House Farm, 1936 (donated by Bob Watkins)

Great Lea Farm which lies the other side of the Bypass close to the caravan site, in Grazeley.

The picture shows Grazeley Road behind the farm and Woodcock Lane in front.  Bob discovered the picture when clearing out his late uncle’s house and had it copied and enlarged for us.  The property was once owned by the Body family who owned many other properties in the area including Hyde End Farm and Manor Farm on Basingstoke Road in Reading.   (Another family member was involved in the building of Three Mile Cross Chapel, now a private house at the end of Grazeley Road. Further information can be found in our book about the Chapel, called A History of Three Mile Cross Methodist Church.)   The farmhouse itself was demolished in the construction of the Bypass which thunders past the pond today.

The final item was another map from the 19th century showing that the house was then called Woodcock Lane Farm.  This map is sufficiently detailed to show the layout of the farm buildings and it confirms the picture is the same farm.   It also shows that Woodcock Lane is the drive to the farm with an avenue of trees lining it and how the lane got its’ name.  Woodcock Lane is also well worth a visit.

Margaret Bampton, March 2017

Right: Great Lea House Farm Pond (Patricia Green 2008)

Further information about Woodcock Lane can be found in Settlement and landscape