Mergate Farm

Hawkes Lane, Bracon Ash

Mergate Farm is close to Mergate Hall, facing Bracon Ash Common. It was owned by the Kemp family from the late 1400s until 1948 and rented out to tenants. As might be expected, this part-thatched, part-tiled house has been much altered over the years. The core is  a 16th century thatched building with lobby entrance that is only one-room wide. In the early 17th century this was enlarged with an extension added to both the north and south ends. The cross-ways timber-framed extension at the south end has two storeys. It is thought  that the central chimney-stack was added in the early 18th century.  A single-storey room - possibly a schoolroom - was added in the centre of the front of the house, probably by George Barnard and is shown on the tithe map. Later the same century the house was altered and enlarged with single and double red-brick storeys on the east side and verandas added.

Mergate Farm, 1794
Mergate Farm, 1794

Above is the earliest picture we have of Mergate Farm, but there is an even earlier estate map, drawn up in 1777 when it is described as 'belonging to Anthony Merry, Esq. and occupied by Robert Green.... surveyed by Robert Spinks of Sibton, Suffolk' (NRO ref: MC 332/12, 704X5). Adjacent land  is more correctly shown as owned by Mrs Merry - more about her and her relation to the Kemp family under Mergate Hall. The Farm comprised almost 195 acres, and the field names are listed (below), including Coldham Close; Chapmans Close; Plowed Brickiln Pightle; Deadmans Graves; Ochre Close; Butter Bush and Farther Spong. 1777 presumably marks the year Robert Green took on the farm on a long lease. He was churchwarden in 1798, and his son Oakley the following year - both signatures appear in the registers.

Robert Green (1733 - 1798) was related to the Kemp family, owners of Mergate Hall and farm. His sister-in-law, Honour Oakley, married John Kemp at St Stephen's church, Norwich, in 1743 when John is entered as 'of Swardeston' and Honour as 'of Bracon Ash' (although she was born in Elsing). Their daughter, Anne, was buried in Bracon Ash in 1744. Thus Robert Green and family would have been a good prospect as a long-term tenant of Mergate Farm, and seems to have had a close association with the village. He first married Amy Oakley in Flordon in 1758, witnessed by John Kemp, when both are described as 'of this parish'. Robert and Amy had three known children, Oakley, Robert and Amy, of whom only Oakley (1755 - 1804) lived beyond his first year. Amy died in 1764 and was buried in Flordon churchyard shortly after her baby daughter. Robert married again in 1766, to Mary Carpenter widow of John Carpenter (1730 - 1764) who had also been Churchwarden of Bracon Ash - his signature is in the register for 1762. Robert and Mary had one child named Robert, who died in infancy, and then Mary died in 1768 and was buried next to her first husband on 24th April. Robert married for a third time, to a widow Sarah Love (nee Gibbs). It seems that Oakley Green carried on the tradition of being churchwarden at Bracon Ash and continued to live at Mergate Farm after his father retired - he is mentioned in the Will of Mrs Merry as someone working her land. Oakley died in 1804 by which time he had moved to Flordon where he was buried on 29th May. This seems to be around the time that Mergate Farm was taken on by the Barnard family, who lived there for much of the 19th century.

The Barnard family were occupying the 'Farm House' near Mergate Hall in 1841: George (age 72), his wife Mary (68), probably his brother Richard (60) and younger members Maria (38) and Eliza (19). There are 3 servants. The following year, in the tithe assessment, the farm, with 264 acres of land, was in the hands of the executors of George Barnard who died that year aged 73. He had been baptised in Wymondham in 1769, son of George & Esther Barnard, and married Mary Girling in 1794 in Weston Longville. The Rector who married them was James Woodforde (or diary fame). Their first 4 children were baptised in Wymondham, but from Dennis (1800-1859) the remaining children were baptised in Bracon Ash. A plaque on the buttress in the south-east corner of the church states: 'Sacred To the memory of GEORGE BARNARD who during a period of forty two years resided in this Parish. He departed this life on the 25th day of June 1842 in the 73rd year of his age And of MARY his wife who died 13th April 1862 Aged 89 years'. So the Barnards must have arrived in Bracon Ash around 1800.

Mergate Farm, 1860
Mergate Farm, 1860

Of their children, Charles (1804-1871) is probably best-known for his engineering inventions and ironworks. He must have seen the damage stray animals could do to crops on his fathers farm at Bracon Ash and set about experimenting with a weaving machine that could make wire netting. One of his early looms is in the Bridewell museum and features on the doors of City Hall, Norwich. Later he had a mill or powered looms and his rabbit-proof fencing saved Australian farming made him a fortune! At the end of his life, Charles returned to his roots and lived at Mergate Hall.

After the death of George Barnard, his widow, Mary, continued to live at Mergate Farm although much of the farm work was probably taken over by their son Richard (1808-1853). In 1851 he is listed as 'Farmer, 400 acres employing 15 men, 4 boys' which is a very large farm for that era. He married Frances Alice Hicks and their 3 daughters were all baptised in Bracon Ash: Mary (1848-1862); Alice (bap. 1850) and Fanny (bap. 1851). Edward Barnard (1802-1884) is also listed as a Bracon Ash farmer in Directories.

From 1861 to 1881 Mergate Farm seems to be in the hands of Benjamin Stannard Fryer (farmer of 400 acres) - no name is given, but address 'Bracon Common' suggests this farm. The owner, Sir Kenneth Hagar Kemp, returned to live at Mergate Hall about this time and it is likely he took over the farm and installed trusted managers in the farmhouse. In 1891, Charles Lister, Farm Steward, is resident, and by 1892 another farm bailiff, Charles Cuching, is there. The next specific mention of Mergate Farmhouse is in 1901 when William Funnell and Isaac George and their families are resident. It seems that the house was divided to accommodate two families by making the south wing into a separate dwelling, and stayed that way until 1905.

In 1905, Allen Charles Westgate, farmer and cattle dealer, moved across the Common from Home Farm to Mergate Farm. Some 25 years later he would move back! In 1925 there was a grand auction sale of his stock and according to the Register of Electors he moved to Unthank Road, Norwich. However, by 1929 he was back - living at Home Farm

Thomas William Betts (1885-1963) came from a farming family at Mangreen. He seems to have rented the land of Mergate Farm after A C Westgate left, but lived in Long Lane, Mulbarton for another few years. By 1929 he and his family had moved to Mergate Farm and later added Home Farm to his tenancy. In 1938, the local newspaper reported a stack fire which could have been disastrous: one stack, the produce of about 15 acres of corn, went up in flames, but the fire brigade was able to save adjacent stacks.  Besides farming 365 acres, he dealt in cattle. His son, Thomas B Betts,  learned farming the hard way though working for his father. In 1948 the Mergate Estate came up for sale and Tom Betts joined other major tenants in the area to offer a joint bid rather than outbid each other. Thus the Betts became owners of Mergate Farm and Home Farm. Thomas B Betts moved his family into Home Farm, where his wife also ran the Post Office. When he retired, his sons bought him out and John Betts moved into Mergate Farm in 1960.

As the 21st century opened Mergate farm saw major changes. The old farmhouse with some outbuildings and a paddock were sold; the cattle yards and barns were converted into separate dwellings and also sold; and the land was bought by Richard Long of Crownthorpe (near Wymondham), probably better known for his haulage company. Today, many of the crops feed his bio-fuel digester to produce enough electricity to power Wymondham College as well as adding to the National Grid.