“Squire Forth he purchased Cator Court,
And hath remodelled all the place,
With building of such splendid sort ,
Which all the neighbourhood doth grace.”
Jonas Coaker – The Dartmoor Poet
Firstly it is always interesting to find the etymology of the place-name one is writing about – in this case Cator. The first recorded documented evidence of Cator came from the Pipe Rolls of 1167 where it appeared as Cadatrea. The English Place-Name Society suggests it is of Anglo Saxon origin The first element of Cada possibly refers to a person called ‘Cada’ and the second element trea stems from the Anglo Saxon word ‘trëow’ meaning a tree thus giving the place of ‘Cada’s Tree’.
FIRTH OF CATOR – Mr. Frederick Hand Firth was a onetime partner in his father’s bank – Thomas Firth & Sons. In 1865 the bank was taken over by the Parr’s Banking Co. which eventually came into the ownership of the Natwest Bank. Amongst Mr. Firths other responsibilities were as the Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Devon and local Justice of the Peace. He was also a member of the Conservative Party and member of the Board of Conservators of the Dart Fishery District.
His Dartmoor residence was the Cator Court Estate where he was a noted breeder of horses and ponies. In 1895 he sold ten cob and ponies at the Haytor Vale auction, amongst these was a hackney stallion called “King of the Forest 2nd” which had previously taken first prize at the Royal Show. Many of the Cator Dartmoor ponies were taken to Brent Fair in 1885 and some of the sale adverts expressly mentioned that they were his, such being his reputation as a breeder. Cattle and sheep were also main enterprises of the estate.
It was he who was responsible for building the ‘Headland Pass’ road which ran from the Moorgate on the Moretonhampstead to Tavistock road down to Challacombe. In 1873 he invited tenders from contractors for what was the going to be about a stretch of road two and a half miles in length. Today the small bridge that takes the road over the ‘Grim’s Lake’ is still known as the “Firth Bridge.”
Clearly the Firth family enjoyed entertaining as in 1881 they invited over 40 of their employees and neighbours to a dinner and tea event with amusements at Cator Court.
Firth was also a contributor to some local newspaper articles and letters probably the most informative was the description he wrote of a visit to Cranmere Pool in 1883.
In 1894 he put the Cator Court Estate up for auction with Messrs. Osborn and Mercer of London. His son, Mr. H. Mallaby Firth of Ashburton acted as his solicitor. The estate was advertised as being a “Choice Residential and Sporting Estate” Unfortunately it was around this time that the market price for estates had rapidly declined. In this case at the first auction the estate was withdrawn at £6,500, it was then decided to sell auction the estate in two lots which never reached the reserve price, and so it was again withdrawn.
The particulars of the auction give an interesting snapshot in time as to what the estate looked like and how it functioned.
LOT 1 CATOR COURT
The main building consisted of two sitting rooms, six bedrooms with bath and W.C. along with two servants’ apartments. The “Domestic Offices” consisted of a kitchen with a serving hatch to the hall, a scullery with sink, a cool larder, a cleaning room, a knife room, a boot room, and a cellar. Outside was a large building for coal, wood and general storage purposes, an ash pit, along with a servants W.C.
There were two stables, one with two horse stalls, a harness room with a fireplace, the other consisted of three stalls. There were two coach houses one of which had a loft above it. Adjoining the stables were two stone-built dog kennels with small courts, cattle shed and yard, loose box, and three bay shed in a nearby meadow.
The water supply was gravity-fed from the West Webburn River which also provided a means to flush the drainage.
The “Pleasure Gardens” contained a broad, flat lawn for tennis, a winding gravel bordered by flower beds that led into the “Laurel Walk” which wound its way to the kitchen garden. This was stocked with bush fruit with three six light frames and a forcing pit. The orchard was full of young full-bearing fruit trees. There was also a semi-circular “fernery” built of large rocks to a “considerable effect”. Finally, there was a 37-acre pasture will well-fenced enclosures.
In addition to all this there was an annual fee of 2. 6d. paid to the Duchy of Cornwall for venville rights. This entitled the owner to take on and from the Forest – “anything that will do you good except vert and venison,” vert being trees etc with leaves.
LOT 2 GREAT CATOR
Included an “Old Fashioned Farmhouse”, stone built with slate roof and six bedrooms, two sitting rooms, a cool dairy, kitchen, pantry, scullery W.C., and lavatory. Naturally being a farm there was a whole gamut of agricultural buildings. These comprised of a boiling house, house for 10 beasts with a granary above, a two-stalled stable, cart horse stable for four horses, a three-bay cart shed, cider house, calf house, implement house, two poultry houses, three piggeries, blacksmith’s forge calf loose boxes, a twenty-stalled cow byre, a root house, barn fitted with a water fed turbine threshing machine, chaff house, corn and wool chambers, a mixing house, and a bull pen and yard. There was also a four-roomed shepherd’s house with shed and pig sty. Having all these accoutrements clearly some land was included, and this totalled 511 acres of pasture and arable land, of which 320 acres was on Cator Down. All in all, Great Cator was described as being an ideal stock rearing or sheep breeding farm.
In 1895 Great Cator was advertised as being up for tender from Lady Day 1896 for a term of seven- or fourteen-years tithe free. Along with the house and buildings came 76 acres of pasture, 19 acres of meadow, 70 acres of arable land, 2 enclosed newtakes of 61 acres, and 300 acres of downland. In addition, there were grazing rights on Spitchwick and Lydford manors.
On the 25th of August of 1887 an auction was held at Cator Court to sell of the farmstock , the reason given for the auction was that Mr. Firth was “relinquishing farming pursuits.” In the sale were 342 ewes and lambs with 2 Dartmoor rams and a South Down ram, along with 3,000 lbs. of wool There were 43 cattle which included cows, heifers, calves and 3 South Hams bulls. Also included in the auction was the equine stock amounting to 3 cart horses, 5 thoroughbred mares, 6 cobs, and 30 Dartmoor ponies. Finally, 4 sows, 8 farrows and a boar were also offered for sale. Once again, the auction was a disaster with prices well below expectation. The after sale report noted that “the attendance was exceedingly large, but there was no disposition to buy except at extremely low rates.” When looking at these livestock numbers it is evident that the two main concerns of the estate were sheep, horses and ponies and would suggest a sizable enterprise for the times.. In 1890 another auction was advertised in which 137 acres of grass were up for sale.
On vacating Cator Court Frederick Firth moved into Ashburton where he died on the 18th of October 1903 and left an estate of a gross value amounting to £27,016. If you go by the Bank of England’s inflation calculator this would amount to around £2, 292,175 in today’s money. His obituary read – “ Frederic Hand Firth was the son of Thomas Firth, of Hartford Lodge, Great Budworth, Colchester, and Ann, daughter of Thomas Hand, of Middlewich, Chester, and was born at Witton, 8th August, 1824. He settled in Devonshire about thirty-five years ago, having purchased Cator Court, in Widecombe parish, and soon identified himself with the public life of the neighbourhood. He was a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Devon, and was prominent in administering justice and in assisting philanthropic and charitable institutions, and was much respected, not only in his own immediate neighbourhood, but by a large circle of friends and acquaintances. He became a member of the Devonshire Association in 1875, and from time to time contributed papers and assisted in the work of some of the committees. For many years he took an active interest in the Society, and seldom missed attendance at the annual meetings. He died at his residence, Place House, near Ashburton, on the 18th October, 1903, in his eightieth year, and was buried at Widecombe-in-the-Moor on the 22nd October, 1903.” – Transactions of the Devon. Assoc., vol. XXXVI, (1904), p. 36.