“I have always had in mind the creation of a sound, practical, enterprise, preserving what is best in our country way of life, and based on sound, practical farming, as all country life must be.”
William Scott Abbott
From the Roman settlers 2,000 years ago to the experimental farmers of the 20th century, Sacrewell’s development traces the path of agriculture in this country – and has played a crucial role in its evolution.
Excavations at the farm have uncovered two Roman villas, a corn drier and a storage building, along with broken pottery, roofing materials and coins from a Roman settlement.
Sacrewell was the ideal site, as it was next to a spring and on Ermine Street, a Roman road and trade route, which ran from London to Lincoln.
The Romans were also the first to harness water power to mill grain here, as excavated millstones show. They built a raised ditch from the spring (now the River Nene) to feed the millpond.
Ermine Street (now the A1) meant that food and produce from the farm could easily be taken to markets in nearby settlements, such as Castor and Water Newton.
William the Conqueror had invaded England and won the Battle of Hastings. In 1086, he ordered a survey of all landholders and their assets. The Domesday Book mentions three mills in the Wittering area, one of which was probably at Sacrewell.
The farm was then owned by the St Medard family, as part of the Manor of Thornaugh, and they introduced a three-field system of farming which was the first form of crop rotation. Farms were split into three fields, one planted with winter crops, sown in the autumn, one with spring crops and the other left fallow to regain its nutrients for the following year. It meant there was food (and trade) all year, every year.
Sir John Russell, Earl of Bedford and a close advisor to the Tudor king Henry VIII, was given Sacrewell Farm. As Lord of the Manor, he had more than 20 tenant farmers, including a miller, Mr R Curtis.
The fields at Sacrewell were divided and named. Several of those names echo down the centuries and are still in use today – Cottages, Sacrewell, Wallets and Windmill fields all date back to Tudor times.
By this time, tenant farmers were no longer peasants. After the Black Death – the plague – in the 12th century, the lack of men to work the land meant tenant farmers were able earn a decent income and improved their place in society, even though they still had to pay a hefty rent to the Lord of the Manor and were not able to own their own land.
Sir John was a generous land owner and an innovator, introducing new farming techniques, greater opportunities for tenants, changes in farm layout and new crops such as clover, which was used to improve the soil.
Work began on the new watermill, mill house and Lodge Farm at Sacrewell, which were completed in 1755. By 1760, the Industrial Revolution had reached the farm. More machinery was introduced and water and steam power was taking over the roles of some of the workers. The number of tenant farmers at Sacrewell dropped to just three.
Francis Percival became a tenant farmer at Sacrewell and was described as “a great public spirited resident”.
By then, the old ways were co-existing with elements of modern farming that we would recognise today. Heavy horses were still commonly used to pull carts, ploughs and other machinery, although tractors were beginning to appear and steam-powered threshing machines were commonplace.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, thousands of men and horses were sent to the front line to pull guns and supplies and to carry the wounded. Many did not return.
Unable to fight, William Scott Abbott worked for the Red Cross as a driver and was awarded many medals for his service. As a fresh-faced young engineer, he arrived at Sacrewell, looking to take up a tenancy.
Before, during and after the First World War, revolution was in the air in the working classes. Unions were formed to ensure higher wages and lunch breaks for workers, and farmers soon joined in. William was at the forefront, supporting improvements to farm workers’ wages and conditions.
In a radical move, William Scott Abbott bucked the UK trend of breeding beef cattle. Instead, he started large-scale milk production at Sacrewell. He continued to pioneer the dairy business until the outbreak of the Second World War.
In a 1944 issue of The Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture, he wrote, “Speaking broadly, this country has lagged behind others in the breeding of this class of stock [dairy cattle], owing partly perhaps to the very fact of its success in beef production.
“British farmers have, consciously or unconsciously, always carried in their mind’s eye the picture of a beef animal, and this has affected their choice of dairy cows and bulls.”
His dairy business was a success and the Scott Abbott family soon earned enough money to invest in their own land.
The Scott Abbott family bought the whole farm for £13,000 – 550 acres of land, three houses, two cottages and 11 properties in nearby Wansford.
William Scott Abbott expanded his enterprise by introducing the first form of battery hen farming. He started with more than 1,000 hens. By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the number had increased to 4,000.
Young farm workers were once again drafted into the armed forces, leaving the land unfarmed. But, liberated by recent changes in the law, women were encouraged to take their place in the Women’s Land Army. Now 50, William and his wife Mary needed all the help they could get and soon had a draft of Land Army girls of their own.
The intensive production of food and dairy products pioneered by William, which was once so radical, soon becomes the saviour of the country. By 1945, his hen and dairy stocks were much diminished and rationing was in full swing.
William Scott Abbott died aged 70, leaving his widow Mary Abbott – and the dream of a legacy. His nephew, David Powell, took over the management of the farm and lived here until his death in 2012.
Following her husband’s dream, on 1 January 1964, Mary founded The William Scott Abbott Trust. The vision was to provide an agricultural education for all and although William and Mary would not recognise parts of the farm as it stands today, the educational values they promoted are still very much alive.
In the early days of the Trust, people used to come to the farm simply to watch the staff at work. They would ask questions about what they were doing and be given a detailed insight into life on a farm and food production.
The mill ceased to operate commercially because of a combination of health and safety requirements and a lack of people to operate it. David Powell went to great lengths to ensure that it was preserved and kept in good condition, making it a rarity that is now being restored, with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) became a tenant at Sacrewell that same year and is still carrying out its research on the husbandry of vegetable crops here today.
An article in The Times in 1965 described Sacrewell as “a pleasant and rewarding place to visit”.
Sacrewell was one of the first farms in the country to host a farm open day to help everyone to understand agriculture and the countryside. People had become accustomed to finding food ready-prepared in a supermarket and had lost touch with its origins.
Sacrewell Farm and Country Centre opened to the public – but not as you see it today. It was a working farm and people would drop in when they liked to see what was going on.
The Trust decided to stop farming in its own right and leased the land on a five year tenancy to Farmer’s Weekly farms, owned by Reed Business Information (RBI), who published the Farmer’s WeeklyMagazine.
Crops at this time consisted of potatoes, sugar beet, cereals and oil seed rape and were featured regularly in the magazine.
The tenancy was released in 2006, when RBI closed their farms division to concentrate on their core business.
The first rare breeds were introduced to Sacrewell at about this time – Lincoln Longwool sheep, soay sheep and Wessex saddleback pigs. They were later joined by Jacob sheep, bagot goats and, finally, British Lop pigs in 2013.
The animal village was also opened at this time, housing small animals for visitors to pet.
The grainstore moved to Sacrewell Lodge and the building was turned into an entertainment venue for events (now the playbarn) and had a few ride-on tractors for children to play on.
New offices and corporate function rooms were added to the current facilities, opening Sacrewell up to a wider audience.
Riverford Organic Farms became the new tenant farmer at Sacrewell, with the right to farm 508 acres of the land, bringing the farm to the forefront of the organic movement. It grows vegetables and runs an organic box scheme.
Its first harvest at Sacrewell was in 2009. Since then, it has built a state-of-the-art packing house to distributes about 8,500 organic vegetable boxes each week to homes in the region.
Sacrewell won £1.4 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the 18th century watermill and its associated buildings, install a hydroelectric generator and develop a centre for milling excellence. This will perpetuate and explain the ancient trade of milling for future generations.
Work on the watermill began. Sacrewell Farm and Country Centre rebranded as Sacrewell, bringing its heritage and educational values to the forefront of its offerings for visitors of all ages.
Sacrewell Mill re-opened to the public on 19 July, 2015. Among the first of the visitors were former Land Army girls Edna Dixon and Mary Watson who entertained everyone with their stories of Sacrewell.