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Fox Tor Farm

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In nettles, stereobate; deep, stands Fox Tor Farm, and the plant—sure and faithful follower of man— is significant upon this sequestered fastness : for hither it came with those who toiled to reclaim the region in the past, and no other nettles shall be found for miles. Other evidences of human activity appear around the perishing dwelling-house, where broken walls, decaying outbuildings, and tracts of cleared land publish their testimony to a struggle with the Moor. Great apparent age marks these remains, and the weathered and shattered entrances,the lichened drip stones, the empty joist-holes, point to a respectable antiquity.” – Eden Phillpotts, The American Prisoner, p.4.

A group of fallen walls and perished outbuildings, of which no more than the foundations remain, mark the grey spot in its desert of green where once stood Fox Tor Farm. Respectable apparent age distinguishes these fragments and the weathered and shattered entrances, the empty joist-holes and fretted casements suggest antiquity. Yet one hundred years ago this place had but newly sprung into existence. Its entire life, its erection and desertion, its prosperity and downfall, were crowded within the duration of little more than half a century. Long years ago its brief days were numbered and for six decades it had already written hope, enterprise and failure upon the wilderness.” – Eden Phillpotts, The Miser’s Money, p.2.

Teetering on the very eastern edge of the infamous Fox Tor Mires as if tentatively dipping a toe in the quaking bog are the desolate ruins of an old farm. Having Fox Tor as its southerly neighbour it goes by the name Fox Tor Farm. How anybody would chose to live in such a drear part of the Dartmoor landscape beggars belief? Granted there would be no problem with noisy neighbours or passing traffic and peace and solitude would be assured. But some folk did in fact decide that such a location would be suitable for a farm as the time-worn ruins prove today. During the early 1800s there were some men who thought that, with an eye to profit, certain tracts of Dartmoor would be ideal for ‘improving’ for the purpose of agricultural use.

Such a man was Mr. David Gray, a gentleman from Dawlish whose ambition it was to turn a worthless tract of Dartmoor into a productive farm. It’s a pity he never heeded ‘Old Crockern’s‘ warning; “If you so much as scratch my back will tear your pockets out.” In other words any attempt to make a profit out of Dartmoor will result in financial loss and ruin. His intention was to enclose a tract of land situated in the Swincombe Valley where he would build a farmhouse and offices. So he applied to the Duchy of Cornwall  for a lease which was duly granted on the 24th of June 1807 for the period of ninety nine years.  In total the lease covered some 582 acres but some of which (sixteen acres) was useless for agricultural purposes due to old tin workings and rocky ground. Stanbrook, p.42. The actual bounds of the lease ran from Scurhill (Skir Hill) to County Combe (Nun’s Cross Brook Head) to Plymouth Dock Leat (Devonport Leat) to Thomas Tyrwhitt’s Land (Tor Royal Newtake) to Fox Tor Hill to Steanan (Strane Bottom), Hemery, p.356. Sadly Mr. Gray’s dream of fame and fortune never came to fruition and a year later he quietly removed himself to Teignmouth. In the February of 1809 another gentleman full of intent and ambition took over the lease, his name was Thomas Windeatt. Three years later (1812) work on the farm began and according to William Crossing who described the farmhouse as being; “built for a gentleman’s residence,” 1989, p.37. According to the Duchy Records the ‘gentleman’s residence‘ fell slightly short of such a description as it consisted of a kitchen, a bedroom and space under the roof. Access to Fox Tor Farm was by means of a rough track than ran over Ter Hill and another going  from Whiteworks across the Strane River to a hunting gate in Tor Royal Newtake on Strane Hill then over  the River Swincombe at Stream Hill Ford and onto the farm. Many of the original fields still appear on  tithe apportionment and map of 1839 the actual farm itself consisted of nine fields; just over 5 acres of arable, 3 acres of pasture, 5 acres of enclosed moor, a small potato plot and 5 acres of course land, as can be seen below. The pastureland would have been used at that time by cattle with rough grazing available in the course piece. Water for the farm was via a pot-water leat taken from the nearby River Swincombe. Mr. Windeatt’s claim to fame is not as an agriculturalist but as a ‘despoiler‘ who was responsible for the demise of the nearby Childe’s Tomb. Whether under his instructions or by his workman’s own volition stones from this ancient monument were taken for use in the building of the farm with some forming the actual doorsteps. Another large stone was used to build a clapper bridge over the Swincombe which lays between the farm and Fox Tor. In 1889 some workmen were repairing some of the enclosure walls when they came across the actual head of the cross which stood on Childe’s Tomb. There was also a local story that whether Windeatt never trusted banks or not for some odd reason he was said to hide his money in the various cracks and crevacies on nearby Combestone Tor. On Windeatt’s occupation of the farm William Crossing wrote; “This individual’s efforts at cultivation do not appear to have been attended with conspicuous success, for the house has long been in as ruinous a condition as that to which he reduced the tomb (Childe’s Tomb), and the fields have returned to their natural state, nothing having been naturally achieved but the alienation of the land from the commonerWhether the money which it used to be said he was in the habit of concealing in the crevices of the rocks of Cumston (Combestone) Tor was the fruit of his work at Fox Tor Farm we are unable to say, but we should judge it to be extremely doubtful.” 1987, p.96.

For whatever reason Mr. Windeatt never stayed at Fox tor Farm for very long as by 1817 one Jeffery Eden and his wife were occupying the farm. As far as the actual lease goes it had ended up in the hands of Mr. William Wingate by 1940. During the Eden family’s stay at the farm they managed to rear ten children. At this time the farm was employing a couple of labourers; a Mr. Cleave and Sam Parr. Crossing tells of how one of Cleave’s main jobs was the preparing the land for cultivation. This back-breaking work involved burning of the surface and then paring it for which he got paid 4d a yard. Local lore relates how Sam Parr was a squatter who once lived in an old tinner’s hut (the ruins today are known today as Sam Parr’s House) on the opposite side of the River Swincombe. However, this ‘squat’ was on land included Wingate’s lease so just maybe he did pay rent as was not a squatter. The 1841 census returns show that the Parr family were still living in the converted tinner’s hut by which time had acquired the name of Stream Cottage. Jeffery Eden died sometime in the early 1840s and his son William took over the lease of Fox Tor Farm in 1847. In 1848 the farm was in difficulties and the Edens found themselves in debt both for the rent and for the charge of cattle straying. Also by the summer of that year the farmhouse had come inhabitable so it was suggested that for the granting of a 7 year lease they, the Edens, would undertake the repairs. The following year a new chimney was constructed and the thatched roof repaired, further repairs were undertaken in 1851. In the April of 1857 the farm was deemed by the Duchy as being in a state of disrepair and uninhabitable and recommended several alterations to the property. These included replacing the slate roof with one of thatch and raising the bedroom and kitchen walls by three feet. This would then provide enough space for two further upper floor bedrooms thus allowing the downstairs bedroom to be utilised as a dairy. There is no mention that these and other suggested improvements were ever carried out but it is recorded that William Eden’s brother Richard took over the lease in the September of 1857.
Once again life at Fox Tor Farm proved to be a challenge for the family, according to the census returns one of their sons was classified as being -‘dumb and a lunatic‘ and another son as being ‘a lunatic from birth‘. At this time there also were concerns as to the safety of livestock pastured in the area of the Whiteworks Mine due to the number of open pits.  In the march of 1859 Richard Eden conceded the fact that it was impossible for the family to remain at Fox Tor Farm. He wrote to the Duchy stating that due to the difficulties the family faced bringing up ‘afflicted’ children and the fact he could no longer afford the rent he intended to quit the farm on Michaelmas Day 1859.
Following the Eden’s departure the lease was granted to one Samuel Chaffe who then rented the property out to Richard Worth. This tenancy was short lived as the family had moved to Powder Mills by 1863. Following their departure Fox Tor Farm fell into a dire state of disrepair and consequently abandoned. However there were still those who thought they could make a go of the farm despite its state of dilapidation. In 1874 one Henry Ransom approached the Duchy with a view to taking over the lease. He stated he would build a ‘substantial dwelling place, repair the old cottage and repair all the fencing. He further added that on the land he intended to grow oats, turnips and greens as well as establishing a rabbit warren. In return all he asked for was a 60 year lease starting on Michaelmas Day of that year. For whatever reason the Duchy never pursued Ransom’s offer and he lost interest in his plans. In 1877  Samuel Chaffe was given notice to quit the farm and the lease went to one John Gemmell. Once again ‘Old Crockern’ tore the pockets out of Gemmell as by 1879 he had fallen into arrears with the rent. The consequences of this was that the local auctioneers took 150 of his sheep as compensation. In 1880 he was still behind with his payments so the bailiffs were sent to Fox Tor Farm to take possession of his effects along with some more sheep. Towards the end of 1880 the lease had been transferred to a Mr. James Lamb who after repairing the enclosure walls which by then were classified as ‘newtakes‘ grazed sheep on the land. Stanbrook, pp. 43 – 52. There is one place-name that alludes to how hard it was to make a success of Fox Tor Farm and that is ‘Mount Misery‘. This name was given to the highest north eastern corner of the farm, possibly in the time of James Lamb’s occupancy. The name would indicate land which was unproductive either for grazing livestock (in this case sheep) or for growing crops.
As can be seen above all that bears evidence of 50 years of occupancy are the ruined walls of the farm and its associated enclosure walls. The English Heritage Pastscape Record describes the site thus; “The ruins of Fox Tor Farmhouse are at maximum, 1.8m in height. The coursed walls, up to 0.7m thick, are mortared and have a rubble infill with some dressed slabs on the corners. The interior and much of the surrounding area is covered by tumbled material and debris. The ruined outbuildings have walls of coursed drystone construction up to 1.2m in height.
The surrounding C19th field system is clearly visible. The field boundaries are either well constructed coursed drystone walls on average 0.7m high and 0.7m thick or 0.6m high earthen banks, most of which have one revetted face and an associated, silted, ditch. Small plots of cultivation ridges, probably spadeworking, are visible centred at SX 6287058 and SX 62887063. These open ended plots have ridges each about 1.7m wide and 0.2m in height.” – Online source – HERE.

Fifty years of toil and strife from ever hopeful people who bravely thought they could make a living out of a remote tract of moorland ended up as a mass of ruined walls which sadly outline their efforts. Today some of their lives can be relived by fictional characters who appear in the pages of Eden Philpott’s novels; The American Prisoner and The Miser’s Money. Apart from that Fox Tor Farm sits forlornly in the landscape as a poignant reminder of ‘Old Crockern’s warning.

Crossing W. 1987.One Hundred Years on Dartmoor. Exeter: Devon Books.
Crossing, W.
1998. Princetown – It’s Rise & Progress. Brixham: Quay Publications.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale Ltd.
Stanbrook, E. 1994. Dartmoor Forest Farms. Tiverton: Devon Books.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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