Sybil Perry on pond digging

We have recently looked at the making of dewponds using the book by Edgar Stowe, a former headmaster at Market Lavington School. (See Mr Stowe on pond making.) In our museum, we also have an article from Country Life magazine on the subject. (See Dew Ponds.) The pond making business was run by The Smith family, based in Market Lavington and later, also at Basingstoke. (See The Smiths and The Smith Family at Work.)

We are very fortunate that Sybil Perry, whose maternal grandfather was one of the family of pond makers, made a tape recording about pond digging for the museum. Sybil, born Sybil Baker, became a school teacher and spent part of her teaching career working at Market Lavington School. The photo below shows her with her class in about 1950.

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Her tape informs us that brothers Thomas and Henry Smith started the family pond making business in the late 18th century and it continued through the generations into the 20th century, with Lionel Smith in Bedfordshire being the last pond maker.

Market Lavington parish extends southwards up onto the chalklands of Salisbury Plain. Before this part of the plain was taken over for military training, there were farms up there and the land was used for sheep and for growing wheat and barley. There was still some seasonal use of the hill land for sheep in 1950. Our photo shows a flock being driven back over the crossroads in Market Lavington village.

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Chalkland soil is a thin layer over the white chalk and needs manure to fertilize it and make it suitable for growing corn. So, sheep roamed on the plain, eating the grass, and were penned at night in sheep folds on the areas required for growing cereal crops so that their dung would enrich the soil.

Livestock require drinking water, but chalk is a porous rock so there were no natural ponds or streams at the farms on the plain, hence the need for dewponds to be made.

The Smith family made ponds locally, such as at Green Hill in Easterton, but they also plied their trade far and wide across southern England. As it would take a month or so to make a pond, they would stay in a bell tent in the summer, working from 4 am to 10 am and again from 4 pm until it went dark. In the winter, they would stay in lodgings. They employed local labour to assist them.

Next time, we will consider how Sybil’s information on the pond making process augments the knowledge gained from Edgar Stowe’s book and the magazine article.

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