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Fred White - the last Marsh Reeve

In 1991 I gave a talk to Long Sutton Friendship Club about the history of wildfowling in the area. Afterwards I was asked if I could meet up with Fred White, amongst other things an old wildfowler of Long Sutton. When I visited him he gave me a fascinating insight into his life as a farmer, grower, local councillor and wildfowler.

One of the positions that Fred held was “marsh reeve.” This is an old position as steward or bailiff for the drains around Long Sutton on the marshes up to the Nene at Sutton Bridge. As marsh reeve he was responsible for the maintenance of the drains. He also had to control rats to prevent damage; had to keep the drains clear; cut weeds, reed and grass. The expenses incurred in his duties had to be charged and collected by the marsh reeve from those properties and farms that benefitted from the drains. A form of drainage rates. When collecting pennies from the rows of worker’s houses children would run ahead of him shouting, “Here comes the marsh reeve.” Where the area benefitting from the drains was common ground a charge of 1s.6d for each horse and neat beast[i] and 3d. for each sheep grazed on the commons was charged. This job disappeared with the 1930 Land Drainage Act and the formation of the local drainage boards. When I spoke to him in 1991 he was 87 and even at that age his knowledge of the area was being called upon by his friends in the South Holland Drainage Board.

Fred told me that he was the first person in the area to grow strawberries commercially. In the 1930’s he went down to Kent to see strawberries growing and to learn how to grow and propagate them. He came back with strawberry plants and started to set up growing strawberries and grew the business alongside his other activities.

Fred White was the grandson of Shep White, who he refered to as “Grandad Shep”. He spent much of his childhood in the care of Shep White, living with his family in the small cottage that was just behind the then sea wall at the marsh access point called Shep Whites near Thimbleby House, Holbeach St Matthews. If you go down there the site of the old house can still be identified by some apple trees that were close to the house that when I was little remained as a pile of rubble, it having been demolished in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.

[i] A “neat beast” was an old term to refer to cattle, oxen and cows.

Map showing location of Shep Whites
Map showing location of Shep Whites

On high tides the sea water would splash over the wall onto the steps of Shep’s cottage. Yet he never knew the sea to flow over the bank. In view of this knowledge Fred considered it a waste of money when the sea bank was heightened. He said that time had proved him right because the level of the marsh had heightened and the water did not rise up the sea walls like it used to.

The cottage that Fred referred to was originally built by Mrs Thimbleby, of Thimbleby House at the top of the road leading down to the sea wall, to be occupied by her shepherd. In April 1826 the tide rose to such an extent at this point that it overflowed onto the land behind Holbeach Marsh and Mrs Thimbleby had 128 sheep drown.

Shep White and his family photographed just off the bank at his home in Holbeach Marsh  Back row from left to right: Henry, Kate, Nell, Emma, Luce and Edward (known as Ned) Middle Woodroff White (Shep) and his wife Jane Front row left to right: Maud, Herbert, Woodruff and Jane (known as Fanny).
Shep White and his family photographed just off the bank at his home in Holbeach Marsh Back row from left to right: Henry, Kate, Nell, Emma, Luce and Edward (known as Ned) Middle Woodroff White (Shep) and his wife Jane Front row left to right: Maud, Herbert, Woodruff and Jane (known as Fanny).

In 1863 Ned (Edward White) succeeded his father shepherding for Mr W.R. Caudwell, who at that time owned and lived in Thimbleby House. Ned’s name appears in the press from time to time for helping recover the bodies of unfortunate sailors and fishermen washed up on Holbeach Marsh. He was a highly accomplished shepherd winning awards. At Long Sutton Sheep Show in 1913 Ned won the prize for the shepherd who had carried the greatest proportionate number of lambs to the 1st June. He had reared 691 lambs. To put this into context, and consider the award is given in proportion to the number of ewes, the same award was won in 1863 for 137 lambs.

Fred White told me that his grandfather kept long wools, but whilst he thought they would be Lincoln long wools, they might have been Leicester long wools.[ii] My opinion is that they would have been Lincoln Long Wool sheep as there was a long tradition of rearing Lincoln Long-wool sheep on Holbeach Marsh as this sale from 1844 illustrates:

“Important Sale at Holbeach Marsh in the county of Lincoln 812 superior Long-wool Sheep and 63 head pure short-horns to be sold at auction by Wm. Gentle on the premises of Mr. Francis Thomas at Holbeach Marsh.” [iii]

It has to be noted that at that time Leicester Long-wool sheep were generally referred to as “Leicesters” in sale postings distinguishing them from the Lincoln Long Wool.

It is important to understand the nature of British sheep breeding and its stratified structure today and how this compared with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and how the consumer has affected this. The way I see this structure is different from some in that the layers, in my opinion, are not solely determined by the locations of Hill, Upland and Lowland. This stratified structure has three tiers:

At the top tier are purebred hill sheep I add to this tear other pure-bred sheep that are reared for ability to cope with a specific environment or conditions, in the case of Lincolnshire unreclaimed fenland and marsh. This is where I believe the Lincoln Long-Wool sat in the structure. “The breed is very free from foot-rot and matures early” [i] Useful attributes for fen and marsh sheep. The top tier today has a primary value to provide breeding stock in the stratified system, that does not say that its meat and wool did not have value (albeit in 2022 wool is now of no value, but hopefully this will change). Stephen’s Book of the Farm identifies similarities between overwintering Hill sheep and Marsh sheep referring in this case to Romney marsh in Kent, “whereas the hill- sheep farmers have to contend against winter storms and the failure of the frozen pastures, the Kentish sheep-breeders have to move their young sheep to higher grounds in winter owing to the flooding of their pastures, and not so much in search of better food as of sounder grazing.” This top tier provided pure bred breeding stock with surplus lambs sold down the chain for stores.

The middle tier in the UK is Upland sheep. These are still reared on lowly productive land. These can be cross bred hill breeds mated with more prolific breeding sheep. They can continue to breed in easier conditions with female lambs transferred down to the next tier.

The bottom tier are lowland sheep that grow fast and nowadays in south Lincolnshire often overwinter feeding on the remains of brassica crops.

This structure has been key to British Sheep farming for at least 200 years as it sees different sheep species matched to their ability to survive in different habitats and provides a market in the different tiers, and different types of farming and farmers working in line with their environments. However, there are two key affects where the consumer has had a significant effect on the market, that is consumption of wool and lamb meat.

The wealth of towns like Stamford and Boston in Lincolnshire owes a lot to the consumption of wool. The importation of cotton, and then the advent of man made fibres in the twentieth century saw wool decline in value to a state in 2022 where it is a waste product to many farmers.

The seventeenth century saw a trend of British sheep meat having increasing worth in the home market especially as the towns and cities grew. There was a market for mutton and lamb, but as the twentieth century progressed the main UK meat market was for lamb, and worse than that, the most popular joint was the leg, and lambs only have two legs! As the 1970’s progressed mutton became less common in British butchers shops and seldom if ever seen in the supermarket with the main market for this meat being abroad.

These two changes in consumption did not bode well for the Lincoln long-wool and other similar breeds that were known for their quality and quantity of wool and their ability to provide good mutton.

But this, in my opinion was not the largest threat to the breed. The key to the commercial success of the Lincoln long-wool was the fact that it was at the top tier of the strata of sheep and as such held high value as breeding stock.

Long wool sheep at Lincolnshire show 2019
Long wool sheep at Lincolnshire Show 2019

If you visit a rare breeds farm or an agricultural show as I have often done, and see Lincoln long-wool sheep the reason for the decline of the breed will be given as a change in consumption of meat and the fall of the wool trade. This overlooks the significant commercial income that could be gained from breeding stock. Earlier in the 19th century ram lettings of Lincoln long-wools were good money earners. In 1837 Mr. G. Casswell of Folkingham in Lincolnshire let a long-wool ram for £90. Whilst meat and wool were significant factors in my opinion the largest issue was the loss of the ability to sell breeding stock, especially abroad at various times to France, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the middle of WW1 Lincoln Long-wool Sheep could be found on French farms. In 1906 Mr Dudding of Riby Grove Farm in North Lincolnshire sold a ram to the Argentine for 1450 guineas and realised 1000 guineas per ram for export on at least two further occasions. In 1905 the Lincolncol long-wool Sheep Breeders Association issued 4855 export certificates, in 1906 6928 export certificates, and in 1907 3566.[i] The 1930’s saw this export trade disappear as restrictions designed to protect British agriculture prevented the export of breeding livestock. The impact of this was recognised at the Lincoln Long-wool Sheep Breeders Association AGM in 1934 when the membership voted to appeal for the removing of the embargo on stock exportation to New Zealand to be made to the government. By the 1970’s the breed was nearly extinguished.

Being a shepherd on the marsh required knowledge of the tide, weather and conditions just as much as the hill shepherd needs to understand their environment. For a good shepherd will not let his sheep perish even at his own risk as seen in this early example of a storm in 1571:

“ Between Humberston and Grimsby were lost eleven hundred sheep of one Mr. Spicers, whose shepherd, about mid-day coming to his wife, asked his dinner, and she, being more bold than mannerly, said, he should have none of his; then she chanced to look toward the marshes where the sheep were, and saw the water break in so fiercely, that the sheep would be lost, if they were not brought from thence, said, that he was not a good shepherd that would not venture his life for his sheep, and so he went straight to drive them from thence; both he and his sheep were lost and he was found dead standing upright in a ditch.”[ii]

The last thing Fred White told me before I left him was what he remembered most from his childhood at Shep White’s was the sound of the sea and the sound and sight of flocks thousands of geese in the winter.

The last shepherd to occupy Shep White’s cottage was Bill Lunn with his wife as mentioned in this article from 1949:


Fifteen Acre Strip is Freed

BRITAIN'S fenland is winning the centuries-old battle against the encroaching seas and monthly is reclaiming hundreds of acres of what will eventually become its richest arable land. Old Bill Lunn, weather-beaten Fens shepherd, talks with a countryman's delight about this near-miracle which has happened on his own back doorstep.

For 46 years Bill and his wife have lived in an isolated Lincolnshire cottage at HolbeachMarsh, on the very edge of the Wash, that 22 miles by 15 miles east coast inlet which every English child hears about from first geography lessons. Their 3 children, since grown up and married,paddled in the tides that crept up to their home from the North Sea. But now away into the distance on one side of Seabank Cottage the sea has been driven back. Barring unpredictable disaster it will stay away, held in check by a 6½-mile sea wall built out of Wash mud in record time by determined men using modern mechanised equipment.

Shepherd Lunn today looks out across a new bit of England, a 1500-acre strip on which 1200 sheep and 600 sleek cattle graze. It stands as a monument to the private enterprise of 3 Lincolnshire farmers, Joe Ward. Alec Hay and George Thompson, who between them risked £50,000 to push their farm boundaries half a mile out to sea. The new land will be grazed for a year or two. But its owners are already planning for future crops, first of which is likely to be sown in 1951.

Dr. C. J. Zuur, a Dutch expert, has looked approvingly at the finished job and carried back with him to Holland hundreds of samples of the reclaimed soil for analysis. Soon he will recommend to Farmers Ward, Hay, and Thompson the most suitable crops for their reclaimed land. From now on it is largely a cultivator's job, so Mr. E. G. Taverner, of Spalding, 42-yr old London-born Catchment Board engineer, who originated the scheme, has switched his spare-time energies to plans for biting another chunk from the Wash higher up the Lincolnshire shore. It will start next year.

Mr. Taverner looks forward to the day when the whole area of the Wash will be growing food for Britain."

It is hard to envisage any such desire to reclaim the whole of the Wash estuary being contemplated in 2022, indeed the political pressure is to reclaim farmland and take it out of production such is the change in priorities in the space of seventy years.

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