“About them stretched square fields, off some of which a harvest of oats had just been shorn; while others were grass green with the sprawling foliage of turnip.”
Falcon Farm – Orphan Diana, Eden Phillpotts.
For anyone that has seen the now famous Warhorse movie they will recall the Dartmoor scene where ‘Joey’ bravely ploughs a field in which turnips were to be planted. But although it is uncertain exactly when the turnip was introduced there is evidence of it being eaten in Roman times. On Dartmoor the turnip or turmit as it is known has long be used to feed both man and beast along with its later use as a break crop.
In the 1730s Viscount Townshend introduce the revolutionary new method of crop rotation which became known as the ‘four field system’. This basically involved dividing the available arable lands into four, one quarter would grow wheat, another clover , a third oats or barley and the last turnips or swedes. This system had the effects of restoring nutrients to the soil as opposed to simply leaving it fallow whilst improving yields and providing winter fodder crops. This practice slowly became standard policy on many farms and earned the Viscount the nick-name of ‘Turnip Townshend’.
But in Devonshire things move slowly and in 1796 Marshall notes the following; “Notwithstanding the unhsubandlike manner, in which Turneps are still cultivated, in this District, it is more than half a century since they were introduced into field culture:- a strong evidence of supineness (lethargy) of the Devonshire husbandman.”, he further adds: “The species, various; but not excellent. The proper method of raising the feed does not appear to be understood, or is not attended to.” It was Marshall who introduced the practice of sowing turnips after a grain crop instead of sowing onto grassland. The process of growing turnips involved firstly tilling the soil, this was done by ‘velling’ or ‘skirting’ (forms of ploughing) and burning. The seed was then sown at the rate of one or two pints per acre in July. In theory once the crops began to grow it was necessary to hand hoe the weeds out on a regular basis but according to Marshall this was a practice much neglected in Devonshire. He notes; “This phenomenon struck me forcibly in traveling between Exeter and Plymouth in the latter end of December 1791.” Once fully grown the turnips would then be fed to grazing cattle or sheep or taken back to the farm to feed housed beef cattle, Marshall, pp 194 – 198. In 1808 Charles Vancouver published his ‘General View of the Agriculture of Devonshire’ in which it appears that turnip growing had not improved. Still there was little attention paid to tillage and weeding. He does indicate the varieties grown, they being; the white loaf, green or purple types and that an acre of “good unhoed turnips is usually valued from 50s to 3l. (£).”, p.189.
In 1834 The Farmer’s Magazine noted the following with regards to the Dartmoor turnip crops which shows things were on the up as far as cultivation went:
“Turnips never were finer, and I am glad to see that many active and industrious farmers, notwithstanding the gloom which pervades agriculture, have tilled many of their wheat arishes to turnips, which (with the favourable weather for their growth) will produce half a crop, and continue good until late in the spring.”
As a guide to the cropping yields on Dartmoor Tanner mentions that in 1852 and 1853 a farmer called Fowler won the South Devon Agricultural Societies award for the heaviest white turnip crop which weighed in at forty three tons, eight hundredweight, one quarter and six pounds per acre. With regards to production he comments:
“The general plan is, to hand-beat and burn the turf which remains from the grass seeds sown, and the plough the land 3 or 4 inches deep, in preparation for turnips. Having a scarcity of manure, and little cash to expend in the purchase of a necessary supply the farmers rely on the ashes obtained from burning the turf for producing the desired crop of roots, which varies from 5 to 10 tons per acre. The turnips are drawn in November, and stored in pits dug in the field where they are grown; thus in a field of 10 acres, there will probably be fifty pits; and in this manner they are preserved until consumed by sheep or cattle. After the turnips are eaten, the land is ploughed for oats, and with this crop the land is again laid down in “seeds.”, Tanner, p.13.
According to William Crossing writing in the early 1900s it appears that although the farming improvements made at Prince Hall by Mr Fowler were unsuccessful he seemed to do well with turnips. It was said that he grew the largest turnips ever seen on Dartmoor but there was one problem, they were: “Proper gert benders, zure nuff – but most o’ mun was holla.”, p.113.
One disadvantage of feeding turnips to dairy cattle was that it could taint the milk, one old method of removing the taste of turnip from milk or butter was to dissolve a small amount of nitre in springwater and then add a teacup full to every eight gallons of warm milk which was freshly drawn from the cow.
In 2000 the University of Exeter carried out a study of Dartmoor’s agriculture and included in its land use data is a figure of 148 hectares used for growing turnips, swedes, kale, cabbage, savoy, Kohl rabi and rape. Although this does not give an exact figure of turnip production when one takes into account that the total hectarerage of agricultural land use on Dartmoor equates to 46,659 hectares then it’s obvious that very little turnips are grown today.
There is one Dartmoor story where turnips cost a farmer dearly, there was a young farmer who had a wealthy and childless landowning uncle which meant one day he would come into property and money. There was one slight problem insomuch as the young man had a tendency towards taking fancy to other people’s property, One day when his uncle had gone to market the nephew decided to help himself to some of his uncle’s turnips. Unfortunately during the process of stealing the harvest some neighbours spotted what was going on and on the old mans return informed him as to what had happened Needless to say the Uncle was none to chuffed and the upshot was that the young man was written out of his will thus leaving him without the “value of a pint“, Leger-Gordon, pp. 95 – 96.
Giles Whapstraw, THE TURNIP-HOER
I be a turmit hawer,
From Debbenshire I du come;
My parents be ‘ard-working vokes,
An I be jist the zame.
Chorus: An’ tha vly, ha! ha!
Tha vly ha! ha!
The vly be on tha turmits,
An tez awl my eye vur me tu try
To keep min off that turmits
T’was on a Vriday marning,
Avore tha break ov day,
That I tuked up my turmit haw,
An tridged dree miles away.
I zune did git a place ov wurk –
I tuked et by tha job –
An’ ef I ‘ad my time again
I’d zunder go to quod.
Tha next I tuked et by the yard,
T’was vor ‘ol Varmer Vlower,
Who vowed and zwared as how I were
A ripping turmit hawer.
There’s zome delights in haymaking,
An’ a few delights in mawing,
But ov awl the trades that I like best
Gie me that turnip hawing.
Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.
Marshall, W. 1796 Marshall’s Rural Economy of the West of England. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
St. Leger-Gordon, D. 1954. Under Dartmoor Hills. London: Robert Hale Ltd.
Tanner, H. 1854. The Cultivation of Dartmoor, A Prize Essay. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman.
Vancouver, C. 1969. General View of the Agriculture of Devonshire. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.