the backbone of village life


'The soil is loamy; subsoil. clay' is how Kelly's Directory describes Bracon Ash. 'The chief crops are wheat, barley and turnips.' For Hethel, 'The soil is clayey; subsoil marl. The chief crops are wheat, beans, peas, turnips, &c.' It certainly seems that the heavier soils of Hethel were more suited to pasture - and the land at Dairy Farm (now Church Farm) was too heavy for light ploughs and had little arable land until World War 2 when there was a campaign to plough up as much land as possible. Bracon Ash, on the other hand, seems to have lighter soils that proved suitable for market gardening.

Farming Revolutions

Hethel and Bracon Ash obviously benefited from the 'Agricultural Revolution'. General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk by Arthur Young (published 1804, reprinted 1969) is a County volume by the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement before its 5-volume national review (finally published in 1818). Britain was at war with France; a blockade threatened food supplies; the government wanted to evaluate the best practices of the agricultural revolution and see them implemented nationwide. Norfolk was a key county - not only because it was mainly agricultural, but because Thomas Coke of Holkham (1754-1842) was one of the pioneers of agricultural reform on the county's largest estate.

Examples of 'good practice' among farmers and estate owners include several entries about and some research by Sir Thomas Beevor of Hethel (1726-1814). He was created a Baronet on 22 January 1784 'for services to agriculture'. He favoured 'dibbling' rather than 'drilling' (the latter favoured by Coke and by the Board of Agriculture) on the rather heavy soils of Hethel.  Sir Thomas was extending his arable land: he 'broke up an ordinary pasture and dibbled in pease; the crop five quarters an acre. Then he sowed buck-wheat; followed by wheat; which produced six quarters an acre; succeeded by turnips, and barley, with grasses.' 

In 1802 turnips are 'the crop which, in Norfolk, is made the basis for all others' - largely as a result of promotion by 'Turnip' Townshend of Raynham Hall (1674-1738) a century earlier. Sir Thomas Beevor successfully experimented with 'Swedish turnips' (presumably what we now call 'swedes') as an alternative. And in Bracon Ash, Mr Howman gets his only mention in the book for cultivating Turnip Cabbages (= Kohlrabi) for more than 30 years - observing that 'those which were left in the seed bed [i.e. not transplanted] came to much the larger size'. Sir Thomas was also commended for experiments in manuring his land, including the use of leaf litter.

100 years later agricultural suppliers were competing to supply artificial fertilizers - these old ads come from the Betts family. And new crops were introduced, mainly to save on imports which had been threatened by 2 World Wars. The Dutch were invited to demonstrate sugar beet production, and East Anglia became the prime area for beet sugar production. And more recently oil-seed crops have become key elements not only in the farming economy but in the landscape.

The title on this postcard is Dutchmen raising Sugar Beet at Bracon Ash. The Dutch built the first successful sugar beet factory at Cantley in Norfolk in 1912 and this photo was taken by Norwich photographer Tom Nokes around that time or soon after. 

Landowners and Tenants in 1840-42

The Tithe assessment records of 1840-42 show that most of the land in Bracon Ash and Hethel was owned by 3 landowners: the Berneys & Kemps in Bracon Ash, and Hudson Gurney in Hethel. The vast majority of farmers were tenants and whilst about a dozen people worked small farms of between 10 and 70 acres; most of the larger farms of the 1840s still remain today.

The estates of Bracon Hall, Bracon Lodge and Mergate Hall all had some fields as well as gardens and plantations. Bracon Hall had its own Home Farm in East Carleton Road, near Mulbarton, where William Smith was tenant of Elizabeth Berney, farming 234 acres which included land by Bracon Hall and near Bracon Lodge. In later years it was rented by the former maltster of the nearby Mulbarton Malt House. The great barn still stands - now converted into housing.

The Home Farm for Mergate Hall, reached from a drive off the Turnpike, no longer belonged to the Hall. Eleanor Smith was the owner-occupier of 84 acres near the farmhouse plus some fields by Marsh Lane. When it passed into private ownership is uncertain. 

Mergate Farm in Hawkes Lane, with 265 acres of land, was still owned by Sir William Kemp of Mergate Hall in 1840 and for some years the tenant had been George Barnard until his death early that year. His widow continued to live there and her son Richard farmed the land.

Bracon Ash Tithe Map 1838
Bracon Ash Tithe Map 1838

Other farmers of Bracon Ash were tenants of a few fields - William Butcher had 16 acres near what is now Woodlands and William Lack had 16 acres off Long Lane. Robert Myhill had 9 acres off Cuckoofield Lane; John Tillett rented fields in various parts of the parish amounting to more than 50 acres, and Edward Blythe rented much of the Glebe land from the Rector. 

In Hethel parish, much of the land had been bought up by Hudson Gurney of Keswick Hall when the Hethel Hall estate was sold in 1828. His main tenants were Samuel Gardiner working nearly 300 acres at what is now Hill Farm; and James Claxton with 156 acres at Dairy Farm (later renamed Church Farm). Hethel Hall still had a small estate when it was bought by Sir John Boileau of Ketteringham Hall, and all except the gardens around the Hall were rented out as relatively small farms to John Hubbard (68 acres); John Roberts (62 acres).

Along the border with East Carleton Rev John Henry Steward owned and rented out almost 50 acres to John Aves of Hethel Hall Cottage - now the home of a chicken farmer using the same land. And most of the Rector's Glebe (60 acres) was rented by John Crane who was living in the Moat House and gave his name to Cranes Road.

Hethel Tithe Map 1842
Hethel Tithe Map 1842

Corporation Farm on the Wymondham Road had over 200 acres of land, belonging to the Corporation of Norwich via the Great Hospital, farmed by William Stannard in the 1840s. In Potash Lane, James Bloomfield Rush owned (= mortgaged) Great Potash Farm and 153 acres of land and rented a further 126 acres from Isaac Jermy of Stanfield Hall - a deal that was to prove catastrophic towards the end of the decade. Isaac Jermy also owned Little Potash Farm where William Cook was the tenant of 40 acres, supplemented by almost 40 more acres rented from Sir John Boileau.

This pattern of land ownership lasted well into the 20th century. The Kemps' Mergate Estate was broken up and sold off in 1948. The Berneys' Bracon Hall estate has reduced in size as fields and farmhouses have been sold off since World War 1. The Myhills were able to buy their farm from the Gurneys in the 1930s. As landowners rather than tenants, local farmers were free to invest and improve....

Farms & farm houses

The larger farms are described on their own pages:

Church Farm, Hethel (formerly Dairy Farm) 

Hill Farm, Hethel 

Corporation Farm, Hethel

Mergate Farm, Bracon Ash

Home Farm, Bracon Ash

Lodge Farm, Hawkes Lane, Bracon Ash

Hall Farm (Bracon Hall), Bracon Ash

Other farms of Hethel & Bracon Ash