Farming has been the centre of Newchurch life until very recent times. Still the most important local industry, it has developed through marsh drainage, and the economic effect of wars and mechanisation.
Group pose by the stacks at Frostlands, circa 1920
Although there were many small freeholders, by the 13th century most of the marsh was owned by the church, which was either farmed or leased out. Large areas of pasture and arable land existed and at this time there were fewer sheep in the area than in other parts of Kent. The sheep were kept for their meat, wool and milk, which was used for making cheese. The monks were building up their sheep flocks at this time, although they were hampered by disease, drought and flooding. Disease and poverty had reduced the number of people on the marsh by 16th century, and many farms, houses and churches were left abandoned to decay and collapse.
The land was bought up by absentee landlords, who lived some distance away, to form larger holdings. These were laid down to pasture, which was less labour intensive than the growing of crops. Thus the numbers of sheep grew on the marsh, which became synonymous with sheep from that time.
It is estimated that in 1870 there were about 170,000 sheep compared with about 2000 cattle, and twenty years later this figure had grown to 225,000. At this time 80% of the marsh was pasture.
Mrs Winnie Wimble on hay-cart c.1935.
During World War II, in early 1940, farmers were forced to plough more than a third of their land for food production. To protect the flocks, the best sheep were ‘evacuated’ by train to other inland areas when preparations were made to flood areas of the marsh should invaders attack.
It is estimated that by the year 2000, less than 30% of the marsh was permannt pasture, whilst a vast array of crops were grown.
Delice Lloyds driving a tractor
Building the stack at Frostlands
Map of Newchurch showing the areas of pasture and arable land in 1847. Darker areas represent the arable land.
As most of the land was now owned by these absentee farmers, ‘lookers’ were employed to take care of the sheep. So from the 17th to 19th centuries, ‘sheep houses’ or ‘looker’s huts’ were built so that the lookers could use them as temporary accommodation and for storing any tools or medicines. They were mainly used during lambing, but also at other times such as for shearing or attending to the fly, maggot and footrot in the summer. The huts were brick built with tiled roofs; their only comfort a large fireplace. There, the looker and perhaps his boy helper and dog, could keep warm, and weak lambs could be revived. Surrounding the hut were numerous pens where the sheep could be kept close at hand and perhaps a cow for his own needs and providing extra milk for lambs. The looker could spend six weeks at a time in the hut during lambing,relying on his family to bring his provisions.
There were four known looker’s huts in Newchurch, but none have survived:
Looker’s hut: This shows a typical looker’s hut, although none were exactly the same. This one has been removed from a field in Midley and rebuilt by Dennis Cole at his farm in St. Mary-in-the-Marsh. D Chiverell