Tracing Human history across the Moss

Most visitors to the Fenn’s Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses today, will be coming to enjoy the Nature Reserve and to look for wildlife or simply get some fresh air and exercise, but few can escape noticing the physical traces in the landscape and interpretation boards which tell the story of human involvement on the Mosses over many centuries. It is this aspect, the evolving relationship that humans have with the wetlands, that really intrigues me.

Books, such as “Fenn’s Whixall Mosses” by Andre Berry et al, describe the human history on the Mosses far more comprehensively than I will do here, but the following touches on a few key topics which interest me and which inform some of the artist ideas that Kim V. Goldsmith and I have been exploring.

Prehistory

Our experience of landscapes is most commonly focused on the period of recorded history and within living memory. But the open wildness of the peatbog makes it a little easier to imagine an ancient history stretching back to the post-glacial period when the bog first began to form.

In England and Wales, there have been over 106 findings of bog bodies, which range in date from Neolithic to the seventeenth century. Three discoveries of bog bodies were made at Whixall Moss during the nineteenth century. Carbon dating and peat stratigraphy provided inconclusive data for the age of the bodies, but it was estimated that the 1889 body may have been the earliest of the three, dating from late prehistoric or Roman times.

Such findings always inspire fascination and speculation about the history of the individuals concerned and why they were on the Moss. We can never really know the details, but we can be sure that people were visiting the wetlands, whether that be for foraging for food or fuel, or for other domestic or more spiritual reasons.

The mysteries of the bog as a place for getting lost, swallowed up by the Earth or by mythical beasts roaming the land, have provided a rich source for folk tales, myths, songs and poems through the ages. This has tended to create an image of peat bogs as desolate, dangerous places, places to be tamed by drainage, engineering and land management.

Medieval

The settlements of Whixall and Bettisfield are included in the Domesday Book. Whixall was a settlement in the hundred of Hodnet and the county of Shropshire. It had a recorded population of 4 households in 1086, putting it in the smallest 20% of settlements recorded in Domesday. Prior to the Norman Conquest, the Lord of the manor had been Aldgyth of Welshampton, but in 1086 the Tenant in Chief and Lord was Ranulf Peverel. The valuation in 1086 was just 5 shillings.

Entry for Whixall in the Domesday Book (Image courtesy of Professor John Palmer, George Slater and opendomesday.org)

It is interesting to note that Bettisfield had a more significant population of 28 households, and it was recorded under Cheshire, but is now within Wales. The Tenant in Chief was the Bishop of Chester under the Lordship of Robert, son of Hugh.

The Domesday Book set the tone for how land was to be valued. Land that yielded no tax because it was uninhabited or uncultivated was termed waste. Wetlands such as the Fenn’s Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses would surely have been regarded as waste … how would we value them today?

Records from the 13th and 14th centuries indicate that early uses for mixed deciduous woodlands around the Mosses were for felling oaks for greenwood and underwood. But there is no evidence of use of the Mosses themselves until 1572, although it is almost certain that peat cutting for fuel took place before then, as turbary (the right to cut turves or peat) was widespread in the region.

Turbary licences were granted by the Lord of the Manor, who derived some income. The licences restricted use as fuel to within the curtilage of the relevant property and the sale of turves outside of the manor was discouraged. There were fines for unlicensed peat cutting ranging in 1590 from 3d to 12d.

Enclosure

Over time, the Lord of the Manor increased efforts to control his lands and secure more income.

Part of the Moss within 600 acres of the commonland of Whixall was first enclosed under Articles of Agreement signed on 14th August 1704 following protracted discussions with some 50 freeholders and copyholders of the manor. Thomas Sandford was Lord of the Manor of Whixall and John Lord Gower held diverse copyhold lands within Whixall.

The enclosure was opposed vigorously by some 23 commoners and it took a decree obtained in the High Court of Chancery to reach a new agreement on a reduced area of 410 acres. An accurate record of the lands does not survive.

The later enclosure of Fenn’s Moss in 1775 was achieved by Parliamentary Act, only the fourth such enclosure to take place in Wales. The Parliamentary enclosure only required the agreement of the owners of at least two thirds of the land, and resulted in the extinguishing of common rights. The principal landowner, Sir Walden Hanmer, had seemingly recognised the opportunity to exploit the commercial value of the land and the potential to reclaim the land for agriculture by drainage.

Whixall Moss was enclosed by an Act in 1823. Both Parliamentary enclosures defined the pattern of fields, drains, footpaths and roads which remains evident today, particularly when viewing the landscape from above. Fenn’s Moss was characterised by over 100 narrow turbary allotments. Whixall Moss was characterised by a patchwork of small enclosures alloted to freeholders and copyholders of the manor for conversion to woodland, pasture or peatcutting.

Graphite drawing by Andrew Howe, comparing hand cut “acres” of Whixall Moss (foreground) and the regular commercial cutting on Fenn’s Moss
(from aerial photograph courtesy of Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)

Coming of the canal and the railway

The Shropshire Union Canal and the former Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway cross the Mosses. Given the wet, unstable nature of the peatbog, the construction of these transport links were both impressive feats of engineering. Like many other remote rural locations across the UK, the arrival of canals and railways must have had dramatic impact on the local communities. The new connections to the “outside world” would have also helped improve the commercial viability of the industrial uses of the land by making access to markets quicker and easier.

After an Act in 1793, the Ellesmere Canal Company began constructing the canal between Ellesmere and Whitchurch in 1797, and the canal section through the Moss was completed by 1804. Drainage and lowering of the groundwater table for peat extraction caused settlement of the ground and subsidence to the canal. So until the 1960s, a “Moss gang” was employed to build up the canal banks and maintain it. More recently, steel sheet piles into underlying soils have stabilised the canal and isolated it from the peat.

The development of the Railway was a more contentious matter, arising from the rivalry between the independent Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway and the Great Western Company, and resulted in opposition from some landowners and a divided community. After a Parliamentary Inquiry found in favour of the OEWR, the engineering project proceeded, and a single line commenced operation in 1863. There were stations at Fenn’s Bank and Bettisfield.

The line closed in 1965. The track bed remains a distinctive feature as the long straight footpath across the north of Fenn’s Moss.

Commercial peat extraction

It was not until 1851, that the larger scale extraction of peat for commercial use was recognised. The Hanmer Estate leased some 388 acres on North East Fenn’s Moss to Vardy and Co, “a company of gentlemen”. Further land was leased to Joseph Bebb and subsequently Richard Henry Holland and The Moulded Peat Charcoal Company which established a tramway link to the canal.

These early commercial ventures did not thrive. In 1884, George Wardle of Fenn’s Hall established a peat moss litter business, The English Peat Moss Litter Company, along with partner William Henry Smith, an ironfounder of Whitchurch. Their peat extraction operated on North East Fenns Moss. In 1889, they purchased the Lordship of the Manor of Whixall and expanded their operation by renting out turf banks on an “acre by acre” basis to local people for cutting Whixall Bibles.

The Company had built seventeen houses for its workers at Moss Cottages by 1898. Henry Williams of Whixall was the builder, using materials from the Fenn’s Bank Brick and Tile Company. This is now the site of HH Wardle Ltd, aluminium manufacturers, who were relocated there from Coventry in 1941 to avoid bombing.

The English Peat Moss Litter Company operations were located at the Old Shed Yard near the Manor House, now used for offices by Natural England. The Wardle family remain Lords of the Manor of Whixall, although sold the Manor House to Herbert Beckett in 1933.

By 1914, around 50 people were employed. Half of these went on strike that year for better conditions.

In 1923, the Hanmer Estate leased a part of Fenn’s Moss to the Bettisfield Trust Company Ltd to exploit black peat for distillation and extraction of paraffinoid and other chemical products. The Midland Moss Litter Company, which appears in the 1923 lease, manufactured packing for molasses-based cattle feed and livestock bedding using the white and grey peat.

The Midland Moss Litter Company continued to operate at Fenn’s Moss until August 1962, introducing a Dutch system of peat cutting of flats and drains which was significant in defining the present day landscape. It established works at the site of the remaining Fenn’s Old Works, although this structure is a replacement of an earlier building which burnt down in 1938. A narrow gauge railway was used to transfer the hand cut peat to the works.

The market for peat as bedding or for fuel subsided after the War for both the large scale commercial operators and for individual peat cutters who worked alongside in accordance with their allotted rights on Whixall Moss from the 1823 Enclosure. In the 1960s, the firm L.S Beckett began to expand in response to the growing market for using of milled peat for horticulture.

Tom Allmark took ownership of L.S Becket in c1950 and in 1956 he purchased Whixall Moss from HH Wardle, followed by the Manor House in 1957. Tom Allmark served notice on local peat cutters renting turf banks on Whixall Moss, some of whom refused and continued cutting.

In 1960, Tom’s son Herb Allmark took over the running and production increased when the firm took on the lease of the former Midland Moss works at Fenn’s Moss. L.S Beckett also first introduced mechanised peat cutting in 1965.

When the Hanmer Estate increased rents fourfold in May 1989, L.S Beckett sold its interests at Fenn’s and Whixall Mosses to Croxden Horticultural Products Ltd, part of the Lands Improvement Group. Croxden needed to make dramatic increases in peat extraction to reach up to 50,000m3 per annum in order to bring in enough revenue to meet the rent demands. At the same time, however, Croxden was in negotiations with the then Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) with regard to restoration of areas of the Mosses. In December 1990, all leases and land owned by Croxden was purchased by the NCC and large scale commercial peat extraction ended.

This pattern of industrial development from individual local workers and artisans to large scale corporations with no local interests is mirrored in just about all major industry sectors, and it is increasingly the case, that environmental concerns force radical alterations or bring the progression to an end.

Military uses

Many remote wilderness sites across the UK have been used for Military purposes, and large areas of the Mosses were commandeered during both World Wars.

In the First World War, military camps had been set up close to the Moss at Bettisfield Park, Park Hall, Oswestry and Prees Heath. In 1916, a new camp was set up at Fenn’s Bank for troops training at rifle ranges on North East Fenn’s Moss. The rifle ranges, known as The Batters comprised butt areas of high walls of railway sleepers banked with peat to absorb spent ammunition. Few visible traces of the ranges remain as they disintegrated back into the peat.

During the Second World War, the Mosses were used as bombing ranges for aircraft from local airfields. Two tragic fatal accidents occurred. The first involved a Spitfire on 14 June 1942, which crashed into Cadney Moss or Wem Moss (depending on reports), with the instant death of Sgt. Mager. The second occurred on 6th August 1943, when a Wellington III bomber suffered engine failure and fell into the edge of the Moss, killing five crew members.

The Mosses were also used for the Starfish decoy site, whereby fire baskets were lit to try and confuse German bombers on their way to industrial areas of Merseyside or Manchester. For obvious reasons, the purpose of the decay was kept secret from local residents.

On quiet days, when the only sounds on the Moss are the curlews and other birds calling, and the wind in the grass, it is difficult to imagine the relentless cacophony that must have been created by the military firing ranges and bombing practice, or the operation of the peat milling engines.

What of the future?

This narrative of developments on and around the Mosses over the last millennium is largely a tale of land ownership, requisition and control. There are many individual human stories within that history which are lost, although there are some good accounts, mostly from the last century, recorded by Berry et al. In future posts, I will include some of the stories I have recorded with people from the local community. Kim V. Goldsmith has similarly recorded several voices from the communities of the Macquarie Marshes, and it will be interesting to compare emerging issues and themes.

Since the ending of peat extraction in early 1990s, and more recent closure of the car breaker’s yard, the main focus of human activity has been the restoration schemes led by Natural England, and public visits for leisure, well being and watching wildlife. Balancing the needs of these and those of local farmers and communities will be an ongoing negotiation driven by a range of factors including global warming, biodiversity loss, economics and public attitudes to landscape.

By putting the spotlight on the culture and history of wetlands in the UK and at Macquaire Marshes in Australia, the Mosses and Marshes project asks questions about their future.

References:

  1. Berry, Andre Q, Gale, Fiona, Daniels, Joan L, and Allmark, Bill, Fenn’s and Whixall Mosses, 1996, Clwyd County Council
  2. http://www.opendomesday.org
  3. http://www.domesdaybook.net
  4. http://www.wetlandlife.org/
  5. Acott, Tim; Wetlands, Wonder and Place, a photo essay at https://spark.adobe.com/page/uhhjBGQc6V93z/ [accessed 4th March 2021]

Published by andhowe

I am a visual artist, based in Shrewsbury, making paintings, photography, books and digital media inspired by walking. My artistic practice focuses on the interaction between people and places.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: