Today when you come across the Oak House for the first time it can be quite a shock. It can seem a bit like an alien space ship has landed in amongst the more modern 1900s terrace and 1930s semi-detached urban housing. To see a large, old timber framed building sitting where it does in the landscape, in the middle of West Bromwich is quite a surprise. Of course, you then remember that this fantastic old house was there for around 300 years before any of the other houses appeared. In the 1600s the view from the Oak House would have been very different from what you might see now.
Today Oak House has two acres of grounds which include the gardens where we tell the story of what was going on in the landscape outside Oak House in the 1600s, our barns visitor centre, event space and classroom for our school visits and other visitor facilities like a playground and picnic area. But what would have been here if you had visited Oak House 400 years ago?
When the Turton family bought a large portion of land in West Bromwich including the area where Oak House sits, some time before 1616, it was already a working farm. At this period in history the presence of more and more landowners meant that the old medieval open field system, where each farmer had strips to farm in a variety of fields, was decreasing. The reasonably wealthy ‘middling sort’ like the Turtons were able to buy up land and have their own farm, employing people to work the land for them.
In 1634 Oak House and a considerable amount of land was purchased by John Turton from his father (John Turton Senior). The Turtons had been described as yeoman or wealthy farmers but they were moving up the social scale and were soon to be calling themselves gentlemen.
The land around West Bromwich was not the best farming land so the Turtons, like others in the area were also industrialists. The Turton family owned a number of water mills where they finished blades and made nails. We are also fairly certain the Turtons were involved in brick making and a brick kiln was found in the areas where the playground at Oak House is today. As well as farming, metal working and other industrial activities were a big part of the local economy well before the industrial revolution began in the middle of the 1700s. However, this story is for another blog!
We have two really good sources which give us an insight into the farm at Oak House in the late 1600s and very early 1700s. These documents are inventories (lists of property usually taken when someone died) produced in 1682 and 1705.
The 1682 inventory tell us that there was ‘corne about the Oak Ground. Cattle about the Oak Ground Seaven cowes and heifers. Eight calves. Horses. Three colts. In the Garden belonging to the Oake House One beestand & one garden roll. Poultrey about the house.’
Where the inventory mentions corn, this could mean any grains which were being grown, such as wheat, barley, oats or rye. Many farmers refer to their grain crop as ‘corn’ so it was usually whatever they were growing most of that was called corn. The inventory references wheat and oats so it is possible in this case, corn refers to barley which is being grown by the Turtons. We know that there was a lot of beer being brewed at Oak House, probably in the basement, so growing barley themselves would certainly be useful for keeping the beer flowing!
In the 1600s farms were mixed farms growing crops as well as keeping animals. We can see that the Turtons had a number of cows which would be used primarily for producing milk. This milk would then be processed in the dairy by the dairy maids who would make butter and cheese. The ‘waste’ products from these processes certainly wasn’t thrown away. Buttermilk might be drank by the servants and given to the poor as it was very rich (a bit like condensed milk) and while the curds made the cheese, the whey may also be drank at breakfast by the farm hands or servants or fed to the animals.
Young male calves were not required for dairy farming, apart from the ones chosen to become bulls. The calf meat was eaten and rennet from the stomach was used to separate the curds and whey in the cheese making process.
Chickens were kept mainly for eggs, rather than being eaten; not a huge amount of chicken was eaten in the 1600s. Other poultry may have been kept too such as ducks and geese for eggs and meat. Feathers from poultry would also have been important and would have been useful for making feather mattresses and pillows.
You would also have found bees at the Oak House, which were kept for honey to sweeten food as sugar was very expensive (although I’m sure this is something the Turtons did splash out on) but also for beeswax for better quality candles.
Close to the house you would have found the kitchen gardens full of vegetables and fruit to eat and herbs to flavour food, create medicines and to use in other household activities, like cleaning and keeping away insects.
Horses would have been kept for farm work as well as for transportation to get the Turtons from one place to another. In fact, the old timber framed barn at Oak House was built by John Turton in the 1650s to house his horses. He seems to have been buying fairly expensive horses at this time which certainly weren’t being used to pull ploughs in his Bromwich fields.
In the 1705 inventory pigs are also mentioned, which would have been kept for their meat as there was a growing demand for pork at this time. Pigs and poultry would have been fed on some of the waste products from farming activities as well as scraps and peelings from the kitchen.
Farming implements are listed in the 1705 inventory including two ploughs and two harrows (a harrow is an implement for breaking up and smoothing out the surface of the soil or removing weeds), an iron crow (crowbar), forks, spade, troughs and a wheelbarrow.
Hay is also on the list of goods and would have been kept for feed and bedding for animals. Hay would be made from the grasses and wildflower meadows towards the end of the season and then dried to use over winter.
The smaller scale activity such as raising chickens, cows, pigs and bees and looking after the fruit, vegetables and herb garden would have been generally found close to the house and would have largely been the responsibility of the women of the household.
The ideal farm in the 1600s was self-contained and sustainable. Fields would have been used to graze animals and grow crops with ploughs being pulled by horses or oxen, which were fed with crops which had been grown on the farm. The manure from the animals was spread on the fields and added to the soil to improve it. Farms practised crop rotation which meant that one year out of three a field might be left uncultivated to allow nutrients to regenerate. This meant that a third of all fields were left uncultivated each year.
Farming techniques were, however, developing in the 1600s as ideas were brought to England from Holland, clover and turnips became popular crops to grow. Growing clover or turnips meant you no longer had to leave a field fallow as clover adds nutrients into the soil and turnips have very deep roots which take nutrients from a different level to grain crops. An old technique of liming and marling the soil, which had been popular in medieval times was revived to improve the soil further. Records show that new farming equipment was being developed in the early 1600s such as draining machines in 1628, ploughs in 1623-27 and 1634, and mechanical sewing machines between 1634 and 1639. Unfortunately, we don’t know if any of these new developments or machinery were taken on board by the Turtons at Oak House.
Fuel was cut and collected from hedges, copses and rough pastureland and in Bromwich where there were few trees coal was being used for fuel too as it was in abundance and near the surface in some places.
It seems that amongst those that worked directly with the animals they saw them as an extension of themselves and their family, after all they relied on their animals for their livelihood and food. One late 17th century observer put it: ‘farmers and poor people’ made ‘very little difference between themselves and their beasts’. They went out with them in the fields in the morning, toiled with them all day and returned home with them in the evening. Their very language expressed their sense of affinity between them and their animals, for many descriptive terms applied equally to either. Children were kids, cubs or urchins, a boy apprentice was a colt. A woman expecting a baby was said to have got upon the nest, her husband would address her affectionately as duck or hen, less affectionately as cow, shrew or vixen. When she grew old she would be a crone, that is a ewe who has lost her teeth.’
So next time you’re at Oak House or when you drive or walk along Oak Road, take a moment to travel back 400 years in your mind’s eye and imagine the busy farm at Oak House with cows, pigs, horses, chickens and other poultry being tended to by servants and the vegetables, fruit trees and herbs growing near to the house, and the fields stretching down to Bromford lane filled with animals grazing and crops growing and workers going about their daily tasks.