Posts Tagged ‘pond digging’

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.


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 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.