Posts Tagged ‘dewpond’

A Boitle

March 3, 2014

If anyone wonders if we have mis-typed the title of this blog then no, we haven’t. This post is about an item which locals call a boitle.  Just as a matter of interest, we have also heard them called bittles by people who come from Rowde, just the other side of Devizes. If you want to find them in a dictionary then you’ll have to use the accepted spelling and name of beetle. In the dictionary, amongst the meanings of beetle we find that it is a large mallet with a wooden head. That is what we are looking at today.

Our ‘boitle’ belonged to the Smith family. The Smiths were famed pond diggers who were able to make the permeable chalk downs waterproof so that ponds could be constructed, suitable for animals to drink from. The wealth of the chalk depended on sheep and, without the so called dewpond, the sheep could not have survived.

In fact we have only the head of the Smith boitle.

Late 19th century boitle (beetle) used by the Smith family of Market Lavington when making ponds.

Late 19th century boitle (beetle) used by the Smith family of Market Lavington when making ponds.

This mallet head is some 30 cm long and is made of wood. It has iron banding for added strength and an iron plate over the business end. We can see what is left of the handle. Sorry! We don’t know how it was fitted.

Ben Hayward of Easterton wrote about pond making (according to Ned) in 1829.

Extract from Ben Hayward's 1829 note book

Extract from Ben Hayward’s 1829 note book

We only have Ben’s book in digital format, but this piece of writing, transcribed, appears as part of our pond digging display.


So, the boitle was used to beat the material used down to make a waterproof layer. Ned would not have used the boitle we have for we believe it dates from towards the end of the nineteenth century.


Dew Ponds

August 11, 2013

The Smith family of Market Lavington were renowned pond diggers throughout the south of England. In 1969 the Country Life magazine featured the work of the last of the pond digging Smiths.

Article about Market Lavington dew pond diggers from a 1969 issue of Country Life

Article about Market Lavington dew pond diggers from a 1969 issue of Country Life

Here we present some extracts and images from the article.




Pond digging members of the Smith family, alas, are no more but their memory lingers on at Market Lavington Museum

The Smith Family at Work

June 22, 2011

The Smith family, of Market Lavington were dew pond diggers by trade. The family passed the skills from generation to generation and prepared ponds over a period of at least 160 years, starting in about 1780.

Sybil Perry, former pupil and teacher at Market Lavington School descended from the Smith family and sent us a tape explaining the art and science of pond digging and the reasons why they had to be dug.

Chalk land suffers disadvantages when it comes to crop growing in that the soil, which is able to support a wealth of flowering plants, is rather impoverished when it comes to fattening up heads of wheat or barley. It needs fertilising and the time honoured way of doing this was to have sheep grazing on the open down during the day and then penning them in a small area overnight. The sheep produced dung which, effectively, added nutrients to the required area. Next day, when the sheep were out on the downs, the shepherd would move the hurdles so that a new area was treated the next night. It was quite labour intensive, but simple and effective.

But there was another snag in that chalk is a porous material and does not hold water. Sheep can’t live without this vital liquid. That was where the pond diggers came in.  They had the skills to produce a tough layer that would hold water – mostly rain water – so that sheep could get a drink. Dew ponds (a misnomer really) were vital to all of the agriculture on chalk downland, like Salisbury Plain.

For much of the south of England, if you needed a pond, you called in the Smiths. Our picture shows the team at work, probably in the Basingstoke area. It is thought to be early 20th century.

The Smith family at work on a large pond, probably near Basingstoke. The early 20th century photo is at Market Lavington Museum

The diggers would have lived on site whilst digging. No doubt the tent provided the required shelter.

Let’s have a look at the people.

Pond diggers and the tools of their trade

We can see that they had basic hand tools – spades and large wooden hammers used to help puddle the surface to make it water-tight.

Mr and Mrs Charles Smith, who lived at Broadwell House, feature in a display at the museum this year.

The Smith Family

May 21, 2011

Earlier this year, as a display was being developed, we featured Charles Smith in mannequin form but with a singularly bald head. One of our stewards – a fantastic group of people – has now found a hat to make him look  less like an egg-head.

A felt hat has been added to Mr Smith. He looks so much better with it.

Even better is that a search through the photo archive has revealed a real photo of Charles, his wife, Mary Jane (her mannequin was featured too) and their children. So here we show the real Mr and Mrs Smith.

Charles and Mary Jane Smith and family. Charles, like many other members of this Market Lavington family was a dew pond maker

The Smith family shown here consist of:

Children in front:
Standing – Walter Goulding Smith 1897 – 1975
Seated – Minnie Ethel Smith 1894 – 1906

Seated left to right:
Thomas  Smith 1878 – 1947
Charles John Smith 1852 – 1917
Mary Jane Smith 1855 – 1938
Charles junior 1882 – ?

Standing behind, left to right:
Jack Smith 1884 – 1972
Mary Ann Jane Smith 1886 – 1971
Willie Smith 1888 – 1918

Jacob and Mary Ann Smith

December 14, 2010

Jacob Smith was one of the famous family of pond diggers who hailed from Market Lavington. Our photographer seems to have chosen to have the people upright rather than the landscape.

Jacob Smith and his wife Mary Ann – a photo at Market Lavington Museum

We have some information about Jacob and his wife

Jacob was born in Market Lavington in about 1856.

In 1861 Jacob was living on Northbrook with mother Sarah. She was described as a pond digger’s wife.  The census notes H. absent – so I’d presume Jacob’s father was away making a pond somewhere. Jacob  had an older and younger brother present at the time of this census.

In 1871 Jacob was lodging in Lambourn in Berkshire and he was described as a pond digger.

Jacob married Mary Ann Scratchley towards the end of 1879. She was daughter of a West Lavington agricultural labourer.

In 1881 Jacob was living on White Street, surrounded by other Smiths. He had his wife, Mary Ann with him and was described as an agricultural labourer – maybe the need for pond makers was less at that time for some reason.

In 1891 Jacob was called a pond maker He lived on White Street with his wife Mary Ann. There do not seem to have been any children to this marriage.

In 1901 Jacob was a pond maker visiting Mildenhall near Marlborough. Another pond digger from Market Lavington was with him so presumably they were working in that area. Mary Ann Smith was at home on White Street with a niece called Rose Polden.

In 1911, the couple were still on White Street and Jacob was still a pond maker.

Both Jacob and Mary Ann died in 1918. They are buried in Market Lavington churchyard.

Pond makers produced so called dewponds – which actually collected mostly rainwater. This allowed farm animals to survive on the chalk lands. The making of such ponds was technical and hard work. The Smiths had a wide reputation for their skills.

This letter, published in The Sussex County Magazine in July 1953 describes a ‘Smith’ pond in Nottinghamshire.


As an ex-resident of Eastbourne, with some family connection still there, I am interested in tracing any information that I come across in this county, that may be of interest to readers of your magazine, and I wonder whether the following might interest you.

During a visit to the Notts. Farm Institute, at Brackenhurst, near Southwell, I was shown a dewpond in the grounds, and obtained further information when I was told that it had been constructed by someone from the South of England. It does not appear that the person who constructed it, in 1952, is a native of Sussex, but he has constructed dewponds in that county.

The original dewpond at Brackenhurst Hall was constructed in 1928, by Tom Smith, of the Smith family, from Market Lavington in Wiltshire. When it became dry in 1950 attempts were made to find the original builder, but he had died in 1947. His business however, was carried on by Mr. R. E. Dear, who had worked with Tom Smith on the original dewpond, and Mr. Dear constructed the present pond. It was found that the cost of building a new dewpond would be less than that to build a static water tank, and the present dewpond is what might be called an “assisted” dewpond, insofar as some roof rain water is fed into it, (Part of the purpose of the pond, apart from ornament, is to serve as a supply of water for fire, if necessary). But the traditional methods of construction were used. Mr. Dear, incidentally, stated that he still constructs dewponds in Sussex. Berks and Wiltshire.

J. W. BANKS, 186 Vernon Road, Old Basford, Nottingham.

The Tom Smith mentioned in the letter was Jacob’s nephew.

The Smiths

October 6, 2010

Names and occupations can be awkward. In Market Lavington we have Bakers who were tinsmiths, Potters who ran a bus service and many of our Smiths were pond diggers.

Pond digging is not a major occupation these days, but when animals were kept on chalk hills, before the days of mains water, some supply was needed. But chalk is porous and it took skill, knowledge and perseverance to create a pond in a spot where it would fill with natural water and so provide this vital liquid for farm animals.

These ponds are often called dewponds but in truth they relied on rainfall. The Smith family of Market Lavington were famed for their pond making skills throughout the South of England. Much of Wiltshire is chalk land so they did a great deal of work in their home county. If you look at censuses and search for Smith born in Market Lavington they crop up scattered around the countryside and the occupation, invariably, is pond digger for the men folk camped or took lodgings where they worked leaving the women and children back at home which might have been on White Street in market Lavington.

As time went on and the family grew and spread other branches, away from Market Lavington continued working on the ponds. Our photo shows that the firm was based in Basingstoke as well as Market Lavington.

The Smith family and workers at a pond dig - a photo at Market Lavington Museum

Smith signboard and dog

At the time of the 1901 census Charles J Smith was 45 and was working at Chute in East Wiltshire. A 19 year old Charles Smith, perhaps a son, was with him.

At Market Lavington Museum, we are lucky to have a recording made by Sybil Perry, a descendant of the Smith family who explains the rather complex process of pond making. We also have other artefacts used by pond diggers.