David Morris at the door of a shepherd's hut

Learn How Shaftesbury Was Once The Centre Of Shepherd Hut Building

Shepherd huts are currently all over the home and lifestyle magazines. Celebrities are snapping them up and fitting them out with today’s high-end luxuries. But originally, these shelters would have provided the most basic living conditions for agricultural workers. And the Shaftesbury area was full of them.
A forthcoming talk at Shaftesbury Town Hall will explain how our hilltop town was once at the centre of British shepherd hut production. Dave Morris has devoted much time to researching and restoring these structures. And he’s authored a book on the topic. ThisIsAlfred.com’s Keri Jones asked Dave to describe a shepherd hut.
“The simplest description is a small shed with a wheel on each corner and a curved tin roof. That sums it up in the briefest form, if people have seen one in a garden or at a country show,” Dave explained.

The huts were used as a base for agricultural workers and Dave says that they could be considered the English, lowland version of the Scottish bothy – a refuge for mountain farm labourers. “In the very far north of England and Scotland, you are less likely to come across a traditional shepherd hut. That’s because of the terrain. People would build a more permanent bothy,” said Dave. “But down towards the south of England you see the more mobile shepherds’ living quarters and it’s interesting to see that the style changed with the region and the need.”
Dave grew up in a South Somerset farming community and he remembers seeing shepherd huts from an early age. “I was aware of them. They were fun things. There weren’t so many in Somerset because of the farming landscape and the way that animals were attended to but they were quirky, quaint little hideaway huts on wheels that could be towed from field to field. That appealed to me as a child. It was like a den on wheels,” smiled Dave.
“And then, as I got a bit older, I became fascinated by them. I realised that they were dying out. In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s they became almost extinct. They were abandoned in corners of fields as farming changed. Pre-1970 farming almost resembled Victorian-era methods. Then by the 1980s, farming was becoming more intensive and the shepherd huts were abandoned and left to rot. Suddenly there were fewer of them around. That piqued my interest.”
Shepherd huts were not so prevalent in Dave’s home county. “Somerset has slightly different agriculture and a different landscape. It doesn’t have shepherds in such high numbers as Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. Terrain, as well as farming methods, affects whether you would have a hut on your farm. I’m still aware of the few places that had them around our area but nowhere near as many as you would have had around Shaftesbury,” said Dave.
Our area of the Blackmore Vale and Cranborne Chase would have been filled with shepherd huts. “Absolutely. It’s centre of the target,” said Dave. “Anywhere from Sherborne, through the rest of Dorset into Hampshire and Wiltshire is one of the key areas where you would have been likely to see a shepherd hut being used in the 1700s,1800s and early 1900s.”
Our area’s most famous author, Thomas Hardy, featured one of the structures in his writings. “There’s an immediate association in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ with the character Gabriel Oak and the shepherd hut. It’s not there by accident. This is stuff that Thomas Hardy would have been very familiar with,” Dave explained.
One of Britain’s most prolific shepherd hut builders was based in our hilltop town. “The Farris Company, who made shepherd huts, was actually based in Shaftesbury. Farris probably was one of the biggest mainstream shepherd hut manufacturers through the 1800s. They were two brothers. They started in Combe Bissett near Salisbury. They set up their own respective companies and John Farris came to Shaftesbury. They made hundreds. They were probably one of the last companies to make them. Farris would be making them, or repairing the huts, until the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were certainly well-known and well-respected agricultural engineers. I don’t know how many people were employed,” said Dave.
What’s the earliest reference to a shepherd hut that Dave has uncovered during his research? “The first written record is in the late 1500s in a manuscript, a book on animal husbandry. There’s the classic line, ‘the shepherd hut is a cabin going up on a wheel’. I found several image references from before then. The earliest is from 1363. Shepherd huts go back much further than the Victorian era – the time that people would initially associate them with.”
Some people are passionate about sheds. There’s even been TV programmes about that obsession. Does Dave believe that the addition of wheels puts the shepherd hut a cut above sheds?
“It certainly helps them stand out from any other shed. They can be moved from field to field, or from farm to farm. That’s just their practical working need. But through that, they start picking up their own history, because they travel. It is interesting when you speak to people who have one. You learn the route it has been on. It’s been to farm sales, it’s moved farms, it’s moved villages. It has seen different landowners. Often on the inside of the original shepherd hut there are scribblings and jottings left by the shepherds who have used it in the past. You might see lamb tallies – the number of lambs born in a particular year, or doodles about the weather. The whole object starts to have its own history which makes them a little more fascinating than any other particular type of shed,” enthused Dave.
Shepherd huts have become very trendy recently. David Cameron famously spent £25,000 on a luxury model for his Cotswold garden. He already has one outside his Cornish holiday home. Dave says he’s happy that shepherd huts are popular again.
“It pleases me that people are enjoying and using their huts in many ways. There seems to be no end to the innovative ideas that people are coming up with. That hasn’t changed in nearly 100 years. It doesn’t matter how you are using your hut, but there should be a nod of respect to how these were used back in the day when they were really tough living spaces. The shepherds would have been on the knife-edge of success or failure in any given year. That’s really difficult living. Provided we don’t lose track of that, it shouldn’t stop us enjoying our huts, however we use them.”
So is the audience for Dave’s talks primarily male? There is that cliché that men are obsessed with sheds and shepherd huts are similar. “You’re talking to a shed man here, definitely,” Dave laughed. “It is right across the board. Men, women, children, everybody loves shepherds’ huts. There’s something about them. It’s something that fascinates, attracts or is quaint, interesting or has a historical or useful link. There are so many interests.”
Dave Morris’s talk, delivered as The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society’s Teulon Porter Memorial Lecture, is called ‘The History Of The Shepherd’s Hut’. It takes place at 7.30pm on Tuesday, 2nd October at Shaftesbury Town Hall. Historical Society members can enter without charge. If you’re not a member, you can pay £5 on the door.

Copyright 2018 Keri Jones

Was This Gabriel Oak’s Shepherd’s Hut, As Described By Thomas Hardy?

Aeronautical engineer David Morris has devoted his spare time to researching, restoring and writing about Shepherds’ Huts and Living Vans. In particular he has rescued and rebuilt a derelict hut, the last one used for shepherding at Waterston Manor near Puddletown, Dorset. Waterston was transformed by Thomas Hardy into Weatherbury Upper Farm in his novel Far From The Madding Crowd so it is not entirely fanciful that this van was the model for Gabriel Oak’s living quarters. There is a strong link with Shaftesbury in that this hut was one of many built by the Farris company of agricultural engineers.

David’s daytime job is Curator of Naval Aircraft at the Fleet Air Arm Museum. He is a Research Fellow of Bournemouth University, a published author, and has appeared in the TV series Britain at Low Tide. At 7.30p.m. on Tuesday 02 October at Shaftesbury Town Hall he will deliver the Teulon Porter Memorial Lecture on The History of the Shepherd’s Hut. While he will range over the earliest depictions of Shepherds’ Huts and their forms in different societies, he will deal with the Hardy and Farris connections. David’s work is strongly represented in our current temporary exhibition A Small Dairy Farm in the Blackmore Vale and his book is available in Gold Hill Museum shop. Admission to the Teulon Porter Lecture is free to members while non-members may pay £5 at the door. Entry to Gold Hill Museum, where there is also a permanent display about the Farris company, is free, though donations are welcome.

Dorset Button Mice

Children Encouraged To Find Special Gold Hill Museum Mice

There are mice in Gold Hill Museum. And the Museum Trustees would like your children or grandchildren to try and track them down!
“There are only six of them. And they have little Dorset buttons on them. That’s what makes them special,” said Elaine Barratt.
The museum’s team of volunteers have decorated toy mice with the type of buttons that dozens of Shaftesbury workers would have made in the 17th and 18th centuries. Elaine says the soft toys have been hidden all over the museum, to create a fun activity for younger visitors.

“We have a really good quiz to enhance the experience for 7- to 12-year-olds who come to the museum but we didn’t have anything for younger children, so one of our stewards, Lyn Pagano, came up with the idea to make these little mice and dot them around the museum in different display cases. Then young children, even toddlers, can go around and find them. All of the six are different designs and the children will be given a sheet with a photo of each, that they can tick off when they find them.”

While the youngsters search for the mice, adults can learn about button making, which was once a significant Shaftesbury industry. “A gentleman called Abraham Case started making them in the 1620s, we believe. It became a huge industry for Shaftesbury over 250 years until the Industrial Revolution and the machine completely killed the industry. It was a cottage industry employing a lot of women, children and probably men. They earned their living making Dorset buttons,” said Elaine.

The buttons are very different from the fasteners we know today. “Originally, there were a lot of sheep locally and they used a sheep’s horn and linen. Then the buttons developed into metal rings, which were sewn and blanket stitched around spokes with a little cross stitch in the middle. That secured them. They would have a shank put on them. The modern equivalent is much more decorative because those who make them have a lot more time. There’s a lovely display of them in Gold Hill Museum including the original ones. Some of them are so tiny they must have been made by children,” Elaine said.
The museum mice are wearing handmade Dorset buttons. “I made them,” said Elaine. “I couldn’t get rings small enough so I used florist wire around a pencil to form the rings.”

Gold Hill Museum is open every day between 10.30am to 4.30pm until Wednesday, 31st October. Admission is free but donations to help fund the maintenance of the historic building are gratefully received.

Copyright 2018 Keri Jones

Ned_Kelly_Wanted_Metal_Sign_ (1)

The Amazing Upjohns

The founder of what grew into a multi-national pharmaceutical corporation, the first President of the American Institute of Architects, and the executioner of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: all share the surname Upjohn and similar humble origins in early nineteenth century Shaftesbury. Archivist and Librarian Ray Simpson has created a fascinating display on Shaftesbury-born William and Richard Upjohn, who emigrated within months of each other to the United States and who with their offspring achieved distinction in the fields of pharmacy and architecture. Elijah Upjohn, on the other hand, was transported to Australia as a petty criminal aged 16. His life of crime continued until 1880 when, as a prisoner in Melbourne Gaol, he volunteered to deputise for the regular hangman and conduct the execution of the notorious Ned Kelly. The story of the Amazing Upjohns is free to view outside Gold Hill Museum Library.

Ciorstaidh Trevarthen

Expert Declares Museum’s Oldest Object Is Even Older

An unexpected result of the Saturday 14 July session at Gold Hill Museum with Ciorstaidh Trevarthen, Finds Liaison Officer for Dorset and Somerset (above), was the significant re-dating of what was already thought to be the Museum’s oldest artefact. A hand-axe, currently labelled as a 200,000 year old Acheulean specimen, appears to be considerably older, with a date range of 500,000 to 250,000 BCE. Ciorstaidh advised that it was a particularly good example, finely made by a species of human predating Homo sapiens. It was found on Castle Hill, Shaftesbury, and may have belonged to one of the earliest Shastonians.

The morning linked in with the Museum’s Found Underground exhibition, where visitors are able to handle and identify mystery objects. With her wealth of knowledge and experience, Ciorstaidh was able to shed light on garden finds brought in by members of the public including pottery, metal and glass objects, and a ring which was definitely not from a Christmas cracker! She also identified 15th century buckles and a knife end, a medieval thimble and a small piece of multi-coloured Roman glass.


Could You Be The Next Chairperson at Gold Hill Museum?

Have you got what it takes to lead one of Shaftesbury’s most loved institutions?
Gold Hill Museum (owned by The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society) is looking for a Chairman. It’s a voluntary role, but Acting Chairman Elaine Barratt says that the right candidate could find the position highly fulfilling. “It’s a wonderful organisation to be Chairman of,” Elaine said.
So you might be wondering why Elaine is so keen to pass on the leadership baton. “I would love to be the permanent Chairman but I doubt I would have any luck in finding someone to take on the work that I do in my other museum roles,” Elaine explained. “I basically keep the museum open, arranging all of the volunteer shifts. I also manage the shop,” she added.
If you were appointed Chairman, you would need to ensure that Gold Hill Museum remains compliant with the rules of The Arts Council for England and the Charities Commission – the organisations that it answers to. The successful applicant would be given advice on their responsibilities, of course.
“You would need to prepare the meeting agenda, check minutes and ensure that the museum remained on track,” Elaine explained. She added that she would be particularly keen to hear from an applicant with marketing skills.
So how much time would you need to commit?
It seems it is one of those roles where you’ll get out what you put in. “The job is what you make of it, really. You could undertake an enormous amount of work if you wanted to,” said Elaine. “But in terms of what is necessary, I think two or three hours per week would be the level. The committee meets every second Wednesday of the month and those meetings take up to 2 hours,” Elaine offered.

So what kind of person would make a good Chairman? Would the role suit somebody orderly, studious and happy to work alone? Or does the job require a people person?
“You need to be a bit of both really,” said Elaine, “You certainly have to be organised. You do need to like people and to get on with your fellow trustees. We also have around 40 volunteer stewards. You need to be able to talk to them, encourage them and make them feel they are a valuable part of the organisation,” she cautioned.
If you had little time for the Tudors or Tolpuddle Martyrs when you were in school, you could still be in the running for the role. “You don’t need to know much about history. I am ashamed to say that I had lived in the town for 40 years when I joined the museum in 2013. I gained so much knowledge afterwards,” Elaine said.
Elaine says that Gold Hill Museum is not a ‘stuffy’ institution. “When I started as the volunteer coordinator, the stewards were middle-class, well spoken and a lot of them were very elderly. There were very few local people involved in the Museum. I wanted to change that. And I have. We have a lot more local people with a personal, local history. It brings a different dimension,” Elaine said.
Gold Hill Museum is open daily during spring, summer and autumn. It closes for the winter but there is still work to do then.
Elaine says that any successful applicant committed to maintaining the high level of satisfaction reported by visitors, will do well. “We have a happy team of volunteers that’s what the visitor book says. They are friendly and knowledgeable. People go away with the impression that this is a happy museum. That’s all I could really ask for,” Elaine said.
If you are interested in applying for the Gold Hill Museum Chairman role, email chairman@goldhillmuseum.org.uk before their AGM on 17th July.

Click here to listen to a podcast of this interview

Copyright 2018 Keri Jones

Sir John Stuttard delves into the archives at Gold Hill Museum

Sir John on “Turbulent John” at Gold Hill Museum Thursday 21 June 3.30pm

Former Lord Mayor of London Sir John Stuttard (above) has, with the assistance of Gold Hill Museum Librarian and Archivist Ray Simpson, written a biography of prominent early nineteenth century Shastonian John Rutter. Originally from Bristol, Rutter set up a printing and publishing business in The Commons, Shaftesbury, producing local historical and topographical guides. As a Quaker and a Whig sympathiser, Rutter was viewed with some suspicion by the Grosvenor connection which dominated local politics. In an age with a very limited male electorate and no secret ballot, it was easy for powerful landowners like the Grosvenors to dictate the outcome of Council and Parliamentary elections. Not to vote for a Grosvenor candidate was to risk eviction. Shaftesbury, with two MPs before 1832, was a typical pocket borough. In opposing Grosvenor influence and advocating Reform, John Rutter encountered a great deal of hostility and was nicknamed the “Turbulent Quaker.”  As part of Shaftesbury Civic Society’s Civic Day on Thursday 21 June at 3.30p.m. in the Garden Room, Sir John Stuttard will be keynote speaker at a free EqualiTeas event.

Listen to Keri Jones’s podcast of his interview with Sir John by clicking here

First floor Chapter House Wells Cathedral (2)

S&DHS Members Enjoy Privilege Visit to Wells

Eighteen members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society enjoyed their summer outing on 05 June to the Somerset City of Wells. An expert guided tour by Cathedral volunteer Anne Smith highlighted the sculpture-laden West Front, the secular stories (frequently featuring toothache) carved in the capitals of internal pillars, and the unusual Scissor Arches inserted to strengthen the Crossing under the weight of a central Tower. The tour was timed to include the noon striking of the fourteenth century clock, with its rotating jousting knights and quarter-jack Jack Blandiver. Welcomed to the nearby Wells and Mendip Museum by Trustee Andrew Fawcett, members were able to examine plaster casts of the four capitals telling the story of a grape thief and his salutary punishment, and walk through an impressive reconstruction of a Great War trench. The afternoon concluded with a privilege visit to the City of Wells Almshouses, courtesy of the residents, with a tour of terraces dating from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and tea and home-made cake in the Guild Room. This was the meeting place of Wells Council until the eighteenth century saw the building of the Town Hall, which plays the part of Warleggan Bank in the latest series of Poldark.

Shaftesbury Camera Club Exhibition 2018

Shaftesbury’s Photographers Give Us Their Best Shots

Twenty years ago, serious photographers had to invest thousands of pounds in expensive and often bulky equipment in order to win awards. Today, the high quality lens in the smart phone in your pocket allows anyone with an eye for composition to compete with owners of more costly and cumbersome kit.

You’ll see what can be achieved on a range of cameras during the Shaftesbury Camera Club’s Annual Exhibition.

“We’ve had extremely good work submitted on smart phones. They are perfectly acceptable,” says the club’s David Lampard.

David will discover which images are being displayed just a few days before the start of the week-long exhibition at Gold Hill Museum.

David expects that 25 members will each display up to six prints. That limit prevents over-enthusiastic entrants dominating the exhibition. He reckons that there’ll be around 100 works on show.

Some of the entrants could be considered semi-professional. “We do have members who sell their work,” David adds.

You’re being encouraged to view the entries and vote for your favourite three photos. The overall winner will then be determined by the public poll.

The Shaftesbury Camera Club was formed eight years ago and David says he’s pleased with the steady growth in membership. “We had 40 people last year but there are 46 members attending now,” he says.

David is hoping that the annual presentation will pique interest and bring additional recruits. “A few people usually join us following the exhibition,” he says.

Club members travel up to 12 miles to attend the twice-monthly meetings on the second and fourth Thursdays at the Royal British Legion Club in Shaftesbury. There’s an additional session during months containing five Thursdays.

You can judge the photographers’ creative talents at Shaftesbury Camera Club’s fourth annual exhibition in Gold Hill Museum’s Garden Room between Saturday 5th May and Friday 11th May.

Buddhist Monks Create Religious Artwork for Shaftesbury Fringe Weekend

You’ll be able to watch Buddhist monks create beautiful patterns and perform traditional Tibetan dance in Shaftesbury this summer.
The eight men are visiting from the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in India, which was established when the order was exiled from Tibet in 1959.
Over the course of five days from Monday 25 June the visitors will use millions of grains of brightly coloured ‘sand’ to create an intricate ‘Mandala’ design on a tabletop in Gold Hill Museum.
Tour organiser Jane Rasch says the work is deeply symbolic. “It’s made as a meditation, a sacred circle,” Jane says. “At the centre is the image of a Buddha represented by a thunderbolt. It’s made is to take away any negative effects which may come about as a result of taking a life, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”
There’ll be a talk about the Mandala process at Gold Hill Museum at 6.30pm on Wednesday 27 June.
The monks’ work will then be destroyed, to promote the principle of “impermanence and non-attachment,” at 11.30am on Monday 2 July.
Jane says spectators are often visibly moved as the painstakingly created vibrant colours are swept together into a pile of grey dust. Each grain is considered a blessing and visitors will be able to keep a small bag of the sand.
During their stay, the monks will also perform the masked dances and ‘extraordinary chanting’ associated with the Tibetan New Year festivities at Shaftesbury Town Hall at 7.30pm on Thursday 28 June.
The monks previously visited Shaftesbury during Gold Hill Fair. Jane says that they are keen to return in time for the town’s Fringe festival before heading to the world-famous Edinburgh event.
For more information listen to the podcast by clicking here