A brief history of Farming in Orwell

By Sue Miller

Saxon settlers were farming here by AD 550

Archaeological discoveries at a 6th century cemetery close to Malton Road show that there was a Saxon farming community here from  around the year 550 AD, probably growing corn in clearings in woodland between Orwell Hill and the River Rhee and grazing livestock by the river or up on the hill.

Communal farming in the Open Fields

Domesday Book shows that about 480 acres were under cultivation in ‘Ordwella’ in 1086.

Photo:Ploughing with oxen in the 12th century

Ploughing with oxen in the 12th century

More land went under the plough in the centuries that followed and was laid out as five large ‘open fields.’ Tenants cultivated one or more one acre strips in each field, but each field was cultivated as one, with every man sowing the same crop as his neighbour. Wheat and barley were the main crops, followed by rye, oats and beans and, from the 13th century, peas were also grown. Farming was very much a communal activity under the open field system, with strict rules governing the timing and conduct of all the seasonal tasks, from seed time to the turning out of the village livestock onto the harvested fields.
Photo:Orwell in 1836 - showing the Open Field strips and old enclosures

Orwell in 1836 - showing the Open Field strips and old enclosures

Enclosure changed agriculture and the landscape

Farming in Orwell was changed dramatically in 1837 by an Enclosure Act promoted by Lord Hardwicke of Wimpole Hall and the major landowners of Orwell. Gone were the wide, featureless, Open Fields. Instead 50% of Orwell householders were allocated blocks of land in lieu of the scattered strips they had farmed, but they had to fence or hedge and ditch them at their own expense. These are the hedges and ditches that characterise our countryside today.

Of Orwell’s 2083 acres 850 were awarded to John Bendyshe, lord of Orwell manor, and were let as Manor Farm and Spring West Farm.  Part of the 358 acres awarded to the Rector were let as Rectory Farm, with a new house built for the farmer. Enclosure also created Town Farm, (later Meadowcroft), Quarry, and Grove Farms. Malton, once a separate parish, was already enclosed and being run as a single farm by 1837. Altogether fourteen Orwell men described themselves as farmers in the 1851 census, though most farmed less than 200 acres, and eighty one men were employed on the land out of a population of 662.

Manpower and horsepower gave way to steam and the internal combustion engine

All the farms named above survived well into the twentieth century, but agriculture had entered a long period of depression as the price of wheat and other grains fell in the 1890s. The number of farmers dropped to eight by 1904, though there were still over thirty smallholders in the village. 

These were the Orwell farms and their tenants in 1910: 

Manor Farm, 447 acres, farmed by George Peters.  

Malton Farm, 623 acres, farmed by Joseph Marr.   

Rectory Farm, 236 acres, farmed by Charles Everett.   

Grove Farm 193 acres, farmed by Samuel Welch.  

Town Farm, 100 acres, farmed by Mrs E.Roads (owner).  

Spring West Farm,  397 acres, farmed by Charles Banks

Miller Brothers, one of whom lived at Town Green Farm, cultivated 112 acres, and two other men were described as farmers in Kelly's Directory. They were William Palmer, with sixty acres at Quarry Farm and William Wilsher who rented sixty-six acres from the Orwell vicar.    

The agricultural work force

Photo:Steam threshing at Malton Farm, 1950

Steam threshing at Malton Farm, 1950

By the early 20th century farm workers had substantially decreased in number as machines took the place of manpower.  Steam driven threshing machines and ploughs were in use here by 1880 and tractors began to appear in the 1930s. There were only thirty seven men working on the land by 1940, despite the wartime pressure on farmers to produce more food. By 1984 most of the work on Orwell farms was being carried out by members of the farming families and only eight other men were employed as farm workers.

Crops and Livestock

Orwell has always been a mainly arable village, the chief crops being wheat, barley, oats and beans, and from 1980 large fields of yellow rape became a common sight here. Fruit growing had for centuries been a sideline for most Orwell farmers and smallholders, and gained prominence for a while when the Miller family expanded White Arch Fruit farm in the 1960s.  

Until the 1950s most farmers kept some livestock - pigs, sheep and cows - and there were well over 300 acres of permanent pasture here until the Second World War when there were still thirty working horses in use on the farms.  By 1970 only one flock of sheep and a small herd of cattle remained. In 2016 no one keeps livestock here for profit, but sheep can occasionally  be heard in the High Street when shepherds from neighbouring villages temporarily graze their animals on Orwell’s meadows. 

Only two Orwell farmers remain in 2016, at Lilac Farm

Photo:Harvesting wheat on Lilac Farm. August 2012

Harvesting wheat on Lilac Farm. August 2012

West Farm, Meadowcroft Farm and Grove Farm are no more and  Manor Farm retains barely 30 acres. Much of their land is farmed  by outsiders from neighbouring villages. The only Orwell based farmers are David Breed and nephew of Lilac Farm on the High Street. 

The histories of the individual Orwell farms can all be read on this site.




This page was added by Sue Miller on 09/10/2012.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.