Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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1 Dec 2014

Looking Back Over 100 Years: an interview with Douglas Matthews


In 2008, when I was researching my PhD looking at Transition Town Totnes, I went out to visit Douglas Matthews at his farmhouse near Staverton.  Douglas was 99, and still slept in the bedroom he had been born in.  He died a few months later having just reached the age of 100.  He was still sharp and focused, and delighted to share his memories.  It is all too easy to imagine that prior to present-day consumption levels life was bereft of pleasure, fun, anything rewarding.  I thought it might be useful, in the context of our theme this month, to share my conversation with Douglas as a way of challenging that.  

We met in his office room in his old stone farmhouse:

“This is a church commissioners’ property.  The church commissioners connected 5 farms together and built this set of buildings, and my grandfather came here with his two sons and his wife.  The two sons were Alfred and Richard, one was never married but Alfred married and they produced me on January 5th 1908, in this house in the room I’m sleeping in actually, which is interesting that I have gone back there!  

I had a Governess to begin with, I was a precious little boy, and then I went to Totnes Grammar School and then I went away to Taunton to boarding school, and came home and I didn’t really know what I was going to do, but automatically slipped into farming.  That was about 1926.  In 1934 I got married and my parents moved to the house down the road which is now called Staverton House and I moved in here with my wife when farming was at a very low ebb.  

I remember that I had started, it was Schedule D in the old days, the income tax was based on the rent, it was twice the rent, and then there came the day when income tax was to be based on a balance sheet done by an accountant, so before I took over the farm I took over doing the accounts for the farm, for the year before I took over, and the first year I took over we made a loss of £500, and the next year, I took over and I made a profit of £450, the year after that I made a loss of £400! (laughs) 

Douglas Matthews

But I farmed the place for 54 years, 250 acres when I started, and I added bits and it was 300 acres by the time I had finished in 1989. The farm has all been sold off, the buildings are all dwellings, and I’ve got the farm house, that’s the basic story.  We were all working horses until 1934.  

What are your memories of agriculture when you came into it?  

When I came into it I think a farm worker got about £10 a week or something like that.  There were no holidays, no Saturday afternoons even.  I think they had about 5 or 6 men on this place.  

People worked 6 days a week? 

Yes. We had 20 or 30 cows, 40 acres of cereals and about 50 breeding ewes or something, when I took over.  I developed this as a dairy place.  When I finshed in ’89 there were 75 cows, a big herd in those days.  Nowadays if you haven’t got 400 you are not in the line at all.  A complete change of everything.   

So it was all run with working horses when you came in? 

Yes. We had 5 working horses.  A head horseman who had 3 and the second horseman who had 2.  

What kind of horses were they? 

They were, you know, fluffy things, Shire horses, fluffy feet.  We had a cob which my uncle used to ride around checking the cattle, then I took over that job.  The cob also ran the two traps, one had hard rubber, that was for Sundays and Bank Holidays, and the other one had iron band, that was the only transport we had.  We’d go to Totnes with the butter, my wife’s grandmother and mother used to make butter, it was all hand work. 

Then you used to sell the butter in Totnes? 

Yes, usually a shopkeeper or someone from Brixham or somebody who ran a dairy shop, you had a contract with them that they would take all your butter and that’s where they used to meet in Totnes, and we used to do the shopping for the household.  We used to have a lot more deliveries, we’d have bread delivered, not milk because we didn’t need it, the post of course was delivered, butchers used to deliver, and this was all horse transport, and this gradually changed. 

You see two wars have made such a difference.  Any thing that would help the war had money added to it in, and the techniques developed in the war were developed into other implements.  This is your oil business coming in, fertilisers and pesticides.  My first tractor was a second hand Folson in 1934, then I had a Ferguson, when I left farming I had 4 David Browns, just processed through, they had spade lugs on the tractor wheels, then rubber tyres came in, all these developments have been so interesting.

I have been so fortunate to live through 2 wars.  You see I registered for joining up but they wouldn’t take me because it was a reserved occupation.  My parents weren’t in it then 1934, I married, and war didn’t start until 1939, then I was an air raid warden in 1939, and then as far as I’m concerned there were all sorts of agricultural development committees, the technological development committee, the feeding stuffs committee, I was going to Exeter one day a week, and this is what you felt.  You weren’t fighting so this was the thing you could help with.  Of course there was a complete fear of starvation from U boats.  

The whole Dig For Victory thing of trying to increase production from gardens and allotments, how did that manifest, what was the process that encouraged people… 

I was on these committees to try and make farmers produce from every acre of land they could, things like big acres of potatoes that were grown, and we were all rationed as regards meat and all that sort of thing.  It seems funny to meet people who haven’t had this sort of thing, you had to do it and that’s it.  

What else?  Farming became very prosperous.  The subsidies that were put on various things we produced in order to get as much produced as possible, no Government had the guts to actually cut them after the war, because agriculture meant something.  That is partly what has happened now, there has been a big blitz, an arrogant Government in power, and producing things we don’t want that are subsidised.  It has all happened at once.  You can’t altogether blame this Government because they have tackled it, but if each Government since the war had gradually reduced it, it’d have been alright, but now it is such a shock to agriculture.  

What are your memories of Totnes in the 1930s? 

Traps, horses and carts.  Once or twice a year they had a horse sale on the Plains, it’s a completely changed place.  Dartington Hall of course has changed Totnes more than the War I think.  We’ve still got relics of Dartington Hall, and the type of people who came in 1923-25 when the Elmhirsts bought Dartington Hall, millions of American money you see.  Dartington Hall was just a relic, the roof was falling in of the Great Hall, and I used to know the manager very well of DH Limited, and he said that the Elmhirsts put in £13 million in one fell swoop into the kitty, so that was very helpful.  £13 million meant a hell of a lot, my God! 

You have talked about how in the 1930s on the farm the energy mostly came from horses, but what about in the house?  Was there electricity then? 

We had electricity in 1932. 

So before that you would have had paraffin lamps?  

We had paraffins lamps, log fires and log stoves.  But they had a mains supply to the village from Totnes I think it was, because they didn’t have a distribution place here then, and I tried to get them to bring a line up to Furzedon.  In the end they agreed to but on the condition that I would spend at least £30 a year on electricity.  I agreed and that’s when we had it.  That was just ordinary domestic electrics, but as I got more mechanisation I had a 3 phase supply brought in.  

So in 1932 when the electricity came in, apart from lights, what would you have had to run on it? 

Lights was the main thing.  We gradually went over to electric stoves, television, radio, radio of course came in I used to make radio sets with my pocket money, made one for an old aunt, a 5 valve set, I used to make a useful bit of pocket money with it.  A loudspeaker with a big horn, and see when I was away at school I had a crystal set there, I used to hang the aerial out of the window.  This was in 1922. 

Then electric irons I suppose.  We had several kinds of iron before that.  One was the plain kind I have there against the door as a door stopper, which you put on the stove.  Another had an outside case into which you would put a hot iron, which you heated up on the stove.  What else did we have?  I don’t think we had electric heaters for quite a while.  On the farm, when we got the 3 phase supply, as it developed we got a milking machine, a corn dryer, various things. 

When you had the horses in the 30s how much of the land would have been required to feed the horses?   

No.  They were just on fields where there was grass.  The horseman would come back in the winter in the evenings to feed them. 

So there was a whole local industry that supported the horses? 

There was a blacksmith we used to take them to in Broadhempston.  A vet, a chap called Sanders from Buckfastleigh, and a chap who used to come from Chudleigh to castrate the lambs.  They used to have fire in the corner of the field and the male lambs were brought into the enclosure, and he would sit on a plank that was on something to keep it off the ground he was about the same height as I am, a longish plank and the chap would sit on one end, and the chap who did the castrating would sit on the other, and the one at the far end would hold the lamb by the front legs on their backs, and this chap would sit with his legs apart and the lamb hind legs under his legs cut out the testicles, he’d put a clamp on the testicle bag first of all, then he would cut out the testicles and then with a hot iron he would cauterise it… 


He has vegigris (?) I don’t know how he got the verigris but he put verigris on, I remember the smell of it, and that was how we kept the ram population down.  The vets, you see we didn’t have tubercular tests in those days but then we had tubercular testing, and I remember I had a pet cow here and she failed the test.  There was a little chap called Triggs down the road who had a small holding and I said to him “I’ve got a cow here that’s producing a good amount of milk, she’s failed the test, are you prepared to take her for 12 months, I could understand if you didn’t want to but it’s up to you”.  He said “oh yes I’ll take her”.  I said that at the end of 12 months I’ll have her back. So I did, I got the back and she passed the test!  Extraordinary that.  The test was not infallible by any means.  

You were asking about other services.  It was only really the vet and the blacksmith, they were the main people 

In peoples daily lives people were more skilled in a range of practical skills.  What could people do? 

Like pottery and that kind of thing?  The men used to do their gardening on good Friday, they had a day off and they would work overtime to do the farm garden and make a little bit of money that way, and cut the grass and everything…  There was the Mother’s Unionand my uncle was in the Farmers’ Union.  I took a postal course in agriculture from Bristol to learn the technical side of farming, I wanted to acquire as much knowledge as possible.  Staverton used to have a cricket team and a football team, I used to play rugby for Totnes, until I got married and decided that life was worth living! Rugby has changed a great deal, it used to be a great game, but money has changed it.  

During World War Two, where did the training for Dig For Victory come from? 

I think it used to be via the Agricultural Discussion Societies.  There was one in Kingsbridge which was more go-ahead than here.  They used to get some really good speakers.  I used to go after cars came in, before that it was too far to go in the trap.  Once Dartington Hall started up we had much better speakers here. 

What local industries were there? 

Well there’s Riverford.  John Watson arrived just after World War 2.  He took over Riverford Farm, and he was a friend of Pete Trumper who was the one that made the connection between the two of us.  John used to ask a lot of questions.  We had lots of long chats, and we’d come up with a brilliant idea, we’d discuss it, and then two weeks after I’d see John and I’d ask him “how did that idea go that we’d been talking about”, and he’d say “which idea was that Douglas?”  Riverford wasn’t organic then, he developed the organic side with his sons.   Now their vegetable boxes go a long way, my daughter infBristol gets one. 

What are your memories of Totnes after WW2? 

Well Dartington Hall had a lot of influence of course.  Totnes had a market, there is no real market anymore.  The old one used to be at the top of town.  It was every second Tuesday and sold cattle, pigs, and sheep.  In the middle of the High Street was the pannier market, which nowadays is out in the open, then it was all covered, with old stalls with top and bottom doors and a separate bit in the middle.  Anyone could sell anything, rabiits, and so on.  

Then the supermarkets came in, but in fairness the markets were more or less stopped by the time they arrived.  I used to take produce to Totnes, then to Newton Abbott, and eventually to Exeter, as transport became cheaper.  You talk about cheap oil, but it costs me £600 for oil to heat this house for 3 months! 

Where did your food come from?  

Looking way back it practically all came from this area.  We had a couple of house pigs that ate the rubbish.  A local chap would come by, cut their throats and cut them up, and make bacon and hams.  We used to preserve it in saltpetre, the wives would make a salt solution and baste it every 2 days, then it was put up on hooks in the dairy to dry.  I still have the hooks out there now.  I suppose we might have had an orange on very special occasions.  There are no seasons now.  They just go to a part of the world where they can get it.  In those days strawberries were strawberries. 

What would your normal supper have been? 

The main meal was lunch, not supper, if the husband worked at home.  Evening meals were a professionals thing.  Lunch was normally roast beef, lamb or mutton, hot or cold, hot or cold chicken, stews, potatoes and veg, peas and beans, potatoes baked or boiled.  We had meat every day, hot or cold depending on how the husband and wife were getting on!  For tea we had bread and butter, jam and cream.  For breakfast it was bacon and eggs.  Supper was just a snack meal, bits and pieces of what you liked. 


Apples, pears and plums.  Apples could be kept all year round.  They were kept in a cellar under the house.  Certain kinds of pears could be kept.  We had plums, greengages, and Victoriaplums, we usually made those into jams.  

What other things happened on the farm? 

We did haymaking, and silage making, we were the first farm around here to make silage.  We used to made it in wooden towers.  The Saxons used to build these to the height of about 20 feet.  In the early days we used to make hayricks, we’d load the hay in the wagon and bring it onto the rick.  Then we had sweeps, pulled by horses.  The tines would go under the grass, and be picked up by a metal pole and a pulley on top with a wire led down to grabs. 

A chap would stand at one end with the grabs, at the other end another chap with the horse, he would back the horse up to load up, then go forwards and tell hum when to stop, and then the control rope would release the hay.  Then I had a Buick car with a sweep on the front, I could drive around the field sweeping up the hay at 30mph!  Then we made silage, self-feed silage, using an electric bar that we moved forward each day. 

Did you mourn the passing of working horses? 

It depends very much on the individual.  If economics was your objective then the change away from horses brought great pleasure.  If you were artistic and poetic, it was a shame.  I started retiring my horses in 1934 when the first tractor arrived, I just stopped replacing them as they died out.  The horsemen just became tractor drivers. 

Tell me about orchards in the area. 

Fursedon Farm used to have 26 acres of orchards, growing cider apples.  Now we have none.  Whiteways, the cider people, had a place next to the farm, and we used to take our apples to them.  Hills, was another one.  Now it is all sold, buildings and everything.  The countryside has become a commuter area.  Staverton used to be all houses for railway workers or farm labourers.  There are none of them now, it is all commuters. 

How affected would you say your life has been by cheap oil? 

Completely affected by it.  Compare driving 3 horses to driving a tractor!  It is a viable product so to speak.  Horses, if you start them at 8am, you have to bring them in by 5pm they are tired out.  With tractors  on long summer evenings you can just go on, you can continue working after your tea.  

Well I guess there is some research going on about growing oil but it won’t really affect me.  I shan’t be here to deal with it!  For a long time I have thought that we are using up the storage of supply, we just keep on using it, but we have to stop.  It’ll be a slow change but a colossal one.  Green fuels may be a part of it but there are so many vehicles now!  We buy a lot of new cars, but we don’t get rid of enough, so there are more and more. 

Would you say that cheap oil has been a blessing or a curse? 

A blessing.  But it was also a blessing for the type of war we were able to fight.  Is it a blessing if you put the two together?  I don’t know.  I am very glad though to have lived through the period that I have lived through.