An Industrialised Agricultural Estate in Berkshire

Article by John R. Gray

 

In 1859 Robert Tertius Campbell - aged 48 and recently returned from Australia, where his family were wealthy traders and landowners - found the country estate he had been looking for: the semi-derelict Buscot Park, bounded to the north by the Thames, and standing astride the turnpike road between Faringdon and Lechlade.  The estate totalled 3,500 acres and included the parishes of Buscot and the depopulated village of Eaton Hastings.  Not much more than half was productive farmland, and the majority of that was pasture.  This run-down estate was to become one of the most highly industrialised farms in nineteenth-century England.

 

There was little on the estate at that time to excite today's industrial archaeologist, apart from the flash lock and weir next to the Anchor Inn* at Eaton Hastings and the pound lock at Buscot.  There was also a short canal from the Thames, known as Buscot Pill, with its attendant wharf, a small brick and tile works, a malt house and a cheese wharf on the river.  Surprisingly, there was no wind or water mill on the estate, probably because other local mills served the need, which was no doubt small bearing in mind the high proportion of pasture. 

 

After Squire Campbell had moved into his eighteenth-century mansion, in 1859, his first move was to drain the land thoroughly.  Then, in 1863, at a reputed cost of £80,000 to £90,000, he built a 20-acre reservoir on a hillside to the west of the house, fed by two large water-wheel-driven pumps on the Thames, one with a single wheel at Buscot lock, the other with twin wheels at Eaton Hastings weir.  About one hundred men were employed on this work, and the village pub, the Campbell Arms (now the Apple Tree**), was enlarged to take these hard-drinking navvies.

 

The object of the reservoir and pumps was to supply an extensive irrigation system on the estate.  The work was supervised by Baldwin Latham, a competent but little-known civil engineer specialising in drainage and irrigation work. 

 

These were the first moves in what must have seemed a fantastic scheme to make sugar and to distil spirit alcohol from sugar beet.  This was a practically unknown science in England at the time, despite an unsuccessful attempt around 1860 to make spirit on a commercial scale from mangolds at Minety, in Wiltshire.  On the continent, it had reached a commercial level, having been encouraged by the Napoleonic Wars and the failure of the grape crops due to disease.  Campbell's spirit was exported to France at 2s 6d per gallon.

 

The distillery, built at a reputed cost of £100,000 on the island adjacent to Buscot lock, was opened in 1869.  The island is still known as 'Brandy Island' (the legend persisting that it was brandy produced there).  The stills, by Savalle & Co., produced excellent quality spirit from juice collected by Collett presses.  In 1871 the Collett presses were discarded and Campbell adopted the Le Play system, in which fermentation takes place in the sliced beet.

 

To collect the 10,000 to 12,000 tons of sugar beet per year and other produce from the farms, and for general farm haulage, Campbell built a narrow-gauge railway round the estate.  The railway, of 2ft. 8in. gauge had over six miles of track.  Three 0-4-0 tank engines were used, built by Appleby Brothers of Southwark, and named after Campbell's daughters, Edith, Emily and Alice.  The engine Edith was illustrated and described in Engineering on 20th January 1871.  For communications, the estate was equipped with a telegraph system (so novel at the time that it was the subject of an article in Country Life, extolling the virtues of the private telegraph over the traditional despatch of a messenger on horseback).

 

To complement the distillery, Campbell also built on the island a mill for the manufacture of oil cake, a gas works, an artificial fertiliser works and vitriol works, the latter two using the by-products of the gas works.  Coprolite (fossilised dung) and night soil were also employed as fertiliser at Buscot.

 

The south-east terminus of the railway was at Oldfield Farm, where Campbell built a large corn mill driven by an impulse-type water turbine, fed from the nearby reservoir, which in turn was fed by the main irrigation reservoir.  The power from the turbine was put to good use and there were numerous power take-off points used for threshing and to drive other machinery.  The dairy was also at Oldfield, and this too was a highly organised commercial enterprise; milk was collected from local farms and dairy produce sent to London, continuing an old estate tradition.

 

Campbell put the by-products of this factories to good use.  Sugar-beet pulp was used for the intensive fattening of livestock under conditions that would cause comment even today, when the merits of 'battery barley beef' are hotly debated.  The cattle were housed on slatted floors and their movement restricted for six weeks, while there was sufficient beet pulp for 12,000 sheep and 2,500 oxen per year.  Campbell also carried out breeding experiments to find the strains with the best conversion ratios and the Indian humped cattle that he imported for these experiments contributed an exotic appearance to the meadows of Buscot.

 

With a light railway and a turbine-driven mill, it is obvious that only the very latest had any place on Campbell's estate.  The main cultivations were carried out by one pair of 20 hp and two pairs of 30 hp Fowler ploughing engines, the 30 hp being over twice the size of normal engines and the largest built at that time.  They pulled six-furrow ploughs and at times worked through the night by 'lime light'.  Deep cultivations were also tried, and ploughing to the depth of 30 inches is recorded.  He also arranged that the water pumps could be driven by traction engine in times of drought.  Similarly, the Oldfield mill could be driven externally by traction engine should the turbine fail.  Traction engines were also widely used for estate duties.

 

Campbell had a good reputation as an employer, instituting a nine-hour day and paying well.  He was also reputed to have tried a six-day week for his dairy cows, though whether this was motivated by religious zeal or to give both man and animal a shorter working week is not recorded.  The plan did not work!

 

In 1871 Campbell told a visitor that the enterprise made a profit, but this state of affairs did not last long.  Unfortunately for Campbell, the Frenchmen he brought over to operate the distillery were called back to their country because of the Franco-Prussian War, leaving only the relatively inexperienced Englishmen to run the plant.  The war no doubt also killed the export trade.  The excise men were another thorn in Campbell's side, and even smuggling was not unknown, with stories of casks being sunk in the Thames for later collection.  Campbell was a sick man at this time, and a tragic incident involving one of his daughters did nothing to improve his health.  The obvious overcapitalisation of the estate must have added to his difficulties.

 

The outcome of these problems was that Campbell decided on what must have been a courageous move, to close the 'Berkshire Distillery' and to cut his losses.  Ten years after their opening in 1869, the distillery and factories had gone; everything saleable was sold off and the site cleared.

 

The section of railway from Buscot village to Oldfield Farm was retained for farm transport and remained in use until around 1900, but horses were used for haulage, the locomotives having been sold.  The cattle barn continued in use and Oldfield mill operated until about 1920, when the repairs needed to a broken turbine shaft could not be justified.

 

Most of Campbell's money came from gold trading in Australia, but during the early years of his ownership of the estate he raised £176,000 in the form of mortgages and other loans.  Two years after his death in 1887, the estate was sold by his trustees for £83,400, of which £68,000 was required to discharge mortgages.  Yet much of what was left of this remarkable enterprise continued to serve the estate and some remains can still be seen.

 

Distilleries and Factories

Nothing now remains on the site of the distillery, which today ironically houses the local Thames Water pumping station***, but a number of relics have been traced.

 

A red-brick cottage in Buscot village has typical 'factory' cast-iron windows that are reputed to have come from the distillery, and presumably other building materials from the factories were reused on the estate.

 

Most important amongst the finds has been a large iron cylinder now used as a water tank at Johnson's Farm on the Ardington Estate near Wantage.  This may have been purely a storage tank, but as it is fitted with bolted flange outlets, it was most probably a distillation cylinder.  Similar tanks were used at Ardington, one as part of the tower in the walled garden at Kitford, the other installed underground at the estate workyard.

 

The Buscot gasworks were also purchased by the Ardington Estate, and the building, now a private house, still exists today.

 

The White Horse Foundry at Wantage also bought surplus material from Buscot, and the steam hooter that was on the roof of their works until 1967 may have been from the distillery.  One of the bays at the foundry bears a strong resemblance to the Buscot distillery building, and was almost certainly re-erected there following the failure of Campbell's enterprise. 

 

Irrigation Works

The irrigation system is still used today for the supply of water on the estate, but on a much reduced scale.  At the reservoir are two 3ft. diameter cast-iron pipes of uncertain use.  Water is still supplied to the reservoir by a pump adjacent to Buscot lock, on the site of the original water-wheel-driven pump, which was replaced in 1935 by a reconditioned water turbine dating from about 1880. 

 

The site of the original water-wheel-driven pump is plain to see, as is the site of the twin wheels at Hart's weir at Eaton Hastings, close by the site of the Anchor Inn*.

 

In addition to the reservoir, there are two 'landscaped' artifical lakes fed from both natural sources and the irrigation system.  At the northern tip of the 'Little Lake', in a weather-boarded and roman-tiled building, is a further pump known as the 'Booster'.  This is a large piston pump driven by a reaction-type water turbine.  Both pump and turbine were obviously designed as a unit, but the maker was too modest, as no name can be found.  Though unused for some years, this pump is complete and sound.

 

Remains of the disused irrigation system in the form of brick conduits, cast-iron pipes and gate valves can be found all over the estate.  One of the main pipelines passes through a hill, having been laid by tunnelling.

 

Tramway

There are traces of the tramway in the form of small brick bridges (or their remains) over ditches and little-used gateways, including those on opposite sides of the Faringdon to Lechlade road west of Buscot village that mark the site of the level crossing.  No rails have been found in situ but they can be seen about the estate, serving as garden edging and building reinforcements.  Similar rails at the White Horse Foundry may have also come from Buscot.

 

The most obvious relic of the tramway is the cutting near Broadleaze Farm, about ¼ mile long, its depth exaggerated by the soil having been dumped on the top of the banks.  The locomotives are thought to have been bought by Appleby Brothers and offered for sale in 1880 by a subsidiary. 

 

Oldfield Farm

Oldfield Farm is important as the large group of buildings that included Oldfield Mill, the dairy, blacksmith's shop, cooperage, wheelwright's shop, saw mills and other estate workshops.

 

Unfortunately, the barn and part of the mill collapsed under the snow during the severe winter of 1962-3.  The site is now covered by a modern concrete and asbestos building.  A pile of rubble and a 35ft.-pulley shaft with pulleys are all that remain of the old buildings.  Fortunately, the remaining part of the building contains the water turbine (of the same unknown make as the 'Booster') that drove the mill, together with its gearing, a cast-iron sack hoist by Appleby Brothers, an early winnower, and - to show that Buscot's pioneering days continued - a Second World War grain-drying plant, in service when Buscot boasted one of the few combine harvesters in the country, echoing Campbell's use of an early reaper and binder in 1870.

 

On the north end of the building was the blacksmith's shop.  A gatepost outside this shop has a device used to shape the rims fro wagon wheels.  On the west are the carpenter's paint shops.  The only other buildings at the farm are the derelict saw mills, with hardware in situ, and the railway station.

 

The blacksmith's ship has two relics of the Campbell era: a lead plate from a wooden milk churn inscribed 'Robert Campbell - Buscot Dairy - Faringdon', and on the door post several brand marks 'RC'.

 

Buildings

Perhaps the most outstanding of Campbell's farm buildings is the magnificent cast-on-site mass-walled concrete barn in Buscot village, still used today for grain and machinery storage.  It pre-dates other known concrete farm buildings by about thirty years, having been built around 1870. 

 

Measuring 60ft. x 162ft. x 12ft. 6in. to the eaves, its concrete walls are 1ft. 4in. thick at the base.  The roof is in red double roman tiles and is lined on the inside with tongue-and-groove boarding.  The gable ends are red Bridgwater bricks.

 

Adjacent to the concrete barn is part of the cattle sheds, also in red brick and roman tile, as were the majority of Campbell's buildings.  At Kilmester Farm there are a number of smaller concrete-walled, roman-tiled buildings that can also be attributed to Campbell.

 

The buildings from this period are in the style of the Bridgwater area of Somerset, suggesting that a builder or architect from that region was used.  This possibility is further strengthened by the Berks. and Oxon. directory of 1863 giving 'Simmonds and Coulhurst' as the proprietors of 'The Estate Brick and Tile Works' at Eaton Hastings.  The Coulhurst family are well-known Somerset builders and builders' merchants.

 

One of the storerooms at Oldfield Farm has revealed some items of telegraph equipment, which, when dated, may prove a link with the estate telegraph of the 1870s.

 

 

SINCE THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN, A NUMBER OF FACTS HAVE CHANGED:

 

*The Anchor Inn at Eaton Hastings burnt down a number of years ago.

 

**The Apple Tree in Buscot village is now a private dwelling.

 

***The pumping station is no longer used by Thames Water, and the buildings stand derelict.  They are privately owned.





 
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