The Derbyshire Gate Post Mystery Explained?



In the last post I queried the large perforations to be found in the tops of some Derbyshire stone gate posts or stoops. I thought they made handy viewfinders, but could find no other explanation. Then I found some more photos I’d taken at Callow Farm. These are a pair – one with a partial orifice, the other without.

And it’s at this point things may become as clear as Derbyshire mud. But I have found an explanation. The only problem is I don’t wholly understand it.

It comes from a worthy volume published in 1813 and available for free from Google. (How I hate it that they have laid claim to all the old books in the universe, but how I love being able to access such works without leaving my desk, this despite the fact that much of the scanning is often execrable.)

The book in question is volume 2 of General View of the Agriculture of Derbyshire by John Farey senior, Mineral Surveyor of Upper Crown Street, Westminster. This is what he says. I’ve increased the font in hopes comprehension might strike:

Anciently, the Gates in the Peak Hundreds were formed and hung without any iron-work, even nails, as I have been told; and some yet remain in Birchover and other places, where no iron-work is used in the hanging: a large mortise-hole is made thro’ the hanging-post, perpendicular to the plane of the Gate, at about four feet and a half high, into which a stout piece of wood is firmly wedged, and projects about twelve inches before the Post; and in this piece of wood, two augur holes are made, to receive the two ends of a tough piece of green Ash or Sallow, which loosely embraces the top of the head of the Gate (formed to a round), in the bow so formed : the bottom of the head of the Gate is formed to a blunt point, which works in a hole made in a stone, set fast in the ground, close to the face of the Post. It is easy to see, by the mortise-holes in all old Gate-Stoops, that this mode of hanging Gates was once general.

From this it seems clear that any iron hinges and latches were later additions to such old stoops. John Farey goes on to praise this kind of improvement:

A great contrast to these rude Gates, is exhibited, on the Farm of Mr. Thomas Harvey of Hoon Hay, who has four sets of hooks and catches, all adjustible by nuts and screws, fixed in his Gate-Posts, which are very stout, in the line of a private and bridle Road thro’ his Farm ; so that from whichever quarter the wind may come, in blowing weather, the Gates can readily be shifted, so as to be shut too by the wind, instead of being forced open thereby : there is also a screw for adjusting the top thimbles of these Gates, for making them shut more perfectly.

So there we have it – a loopy length of ash or willow used to do the job of a gate, though I still can’t quite picture it. But then instead of wondering about that, I found myself distracted by Mr. Farey’s genuine enthusiasm for more efficient gatery with all its iron trappings.

In this modern era we all assume a well functioning gate is a good thing – guarding property, keeping out vagrants and cold callers. But this notion of privately controlled land is fairly new. And to my mind it has had every one of us hoodwinked. Simon Fairlie puts it succinctly at the start of his very enlightening essay A Short History of Enclosure in Britain  from The Land magazine:

Over the course of a few hundred years, much of Britain’s land has been privatized — that is to say taken out of some form of collective ownership and management and handed over to individuals. Currently, in our “property-owning democracy”, nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population, while most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.

He then explains that from Saxon times, and continuing under Norman rule into the Middle Ages, the Open Field System was the norm. It was also the norm in much of Europe until modern times, wherein each family had its own plot within a communally managed ecosystem.

The notion of one man possessing all rights to one stretch of land would have been unthinkable to British medieval smallholders. The king or lord of the manor owned an estate, but not in the way we understand ownership. The peasant population also had rights and, at specified times of the year, could graze stock, cut wood or peat, draw water or grow crops on various pieces of land, often in a number of different places.  English farmers also met twice a year at the manor court where land management issues were discussed, and those taking more than their fair share of communal resources challenged.

The benefit of the Open Field System is explained as follows:

A man may have no more than an acre or two, but he gets the full extent of them laid out in long “lands” for ploughing, with no hedgerows to reduce the effective area, and to occupy him in unprofitable labour. No sort of inclosure of the same size can be conceived which would give him equivalent facilities. Moreover he has his common rights which entitle him to graze his stock all over the ‘lands’ and these have a value, the equivalent of which in pasture fields would cost far more than he could afford to pay. CS and C S Orwin The Open Fields, Oxford, 1938

A group of peasant farmers could also share equipment such as a good plough and a full team of oxen to haul it, a facility that would benefit them all. One herdsboy could supervise the daily grazing of the community’s cattle, taking them out after family milking, bringing back in for evening milking at their individual homesteads, so leaving farmers free to carry out other income producing pursuits. Everyone’s sheep could also be driven out to the common moorland to graze, each animal identifiable to their owners by a sheep mark.

Somewhat strangely I have learned that the sheep mark of my Callow Fox ancestors was still in existence in 1930s, when the fiery right-to-roam campaigner G H B Ward, editor of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers’ Handbooks went to interview my great uncle Robert Fox about the history of the Callow Foxes. Ward visited him in his cottage at Foolow and there saw the sheep mark belonging to an earlier Robert Fox (1780-1863), who used it to mark the horns of his sheep communally grazed on the Longshaw pasture. Enclosure took place there during the early 19th century, the Inclosure Act commissioners awarding the Duke of Rutland nearly 2,000 acres. And so the former sheepwalk used by William and Sarah Fox of Callow during the 18th century, and by their son George and grandson Robert into the early 19th century was turned into the headquarters of the largest grouse-shooting estate in the Peak District (David Hey The History of the Peak District Moors).

For nearly a century this former common land was policed by gamekeepers, and the general populace denied age-old rights including access to paths and bridleways. It was only with the mass trespasses of ramblers like G H B Ward during the early 20th century that the countryside began to be opened up once more. One cannot help but cheer when one learns that the decline in Rutland fortunes led to the sale of the estate in 1933. Ramblers and other members of public raised the necessary funds to buy the park and then handed it over to the National Trust. Sheffield Corporation bought the moors, which are now part of the Peak District National Park. Humanity is now free to roam there once more, as we saw on our recent visit – hundreds of families striding out in the fresh upland air.


The fact remains though that Britain’s big landowners exploited the Inclosure Acts to enrich themselves by taking for their own use alone (and still hanging on to them) thousands of acres that were once communally used for centuries by their tenants.  But I leave the last words on the Commons land rights to Simon Fairlie. At the risk of sounding totally reductionist I contend that this is how we ended up where we are now; the wretched state of the planet; and the current tax-haven millionaires’ mortal fear of any notion of communal rights or shared resources. If we continue to let such people control and grow rich on resources which should benefit all – more fool us.

Britain set out, more or less deliberately, to become a highly urbanized economy with a large urban proletariat dispossessed from the countryside, highly concentrated landownership, and farms far larger than any other country in Europe. Enclosure of the commons, more advanced in the UK than anywhere else in Europe, was not the only means of achieving this goal: free trade and the importing of food and fibre from the New World and the colonies played a part, and so did the English preference for primogeniture (bequeathing all your land to your eldest son). But enclosure of common land played a key role in Britain’s industrialization, and was consciously seen to do so by its protagonists at the time.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

38 thoughts on “The Derbyshire Gate Post Mystery Explained?

    1. I would have agreed not too long ago. Now I think there is deliberate intent on the part of the few, and one wonders how much more the planet is going to stand. Or at least I’m sure the planet will remain in some form, but we won’t be too comfortable living on it.

  1. I can’t help agreeing with Fairlie. Once again, we see greed and privilege at the root of so much that is wrong with our world. And once again you have taken a small thing like the gatepost and used it to create a well-researched, fascinating story of so much more. Thanks Tish.

  2. I got bamboozled by the gate posts. I started out understanding but then I think wine impeded my judgement. Not for the first time. 😕 I do know that as we drove around England we were always passing imposing entrances.

    1. Oh yes – the huge classical gateways with the big, big gates. Was worried you might be being blown inside out in Portugal. Heard an unexpected gale came your way. Take care, both.

    1. Yes. The greed of the few is global, the loot is in the tax havens and the whole system works to impoverish the poorest people to death and take all their resources, preferably by making them extract it for nothing. I’m thinking particulary of DRC Congo and the coltan mines – the must have resource for all our inter-web technology, phones and tablets.

  3. There are those who argue that without the enclosure of the commons giving rise to private property rights and all, we would not have had the current state of development.
    Rousseau thought the person who first enclosed a piece of property and called it his, has contributed the most towards our civilization ( I would prefer to call it culture and not civilization).

    1. I suppose it depends on whether you think the capitalist march to total earth pollution and economic inequity across the globe = progress. The enclosure model of course underpins what happened next with colonialism, and we both know the ‘benefits’ of that. Btw: You weren’t winding me up, were you,Mak? And of course I count it as one of the best of all scientific improvements that I can sit in Shropshire and ‘talk’ to you in Nairobi 🙂 I hope you are well over there.

      1. Winding you up? Tish that would never be my intention. I think you did make a good point when you talk about private property being of recent origin and how it has seen enclosure of the commons by a few.

        I am well over here. Though Nairobi weather seems confused of what it wants to be: rainy, dry and hot and everything in between.

  4. I think I understand the gate post now. The green ash or sallow is the hinge, looping and holding the gate in place. However it seems an awful lot of hardwork to bore out the stone to use wooden, not metal, hinges. Then I suppose the wooden loop hinges would be cheaper and quicker to replace than metal.

    1. Thank you for that, Brian. I’m thinking they were simply using what was to hand – stone and tree parts. Latches and hinges on gates would appear to be quite a late development in Derbyshire. Before enclosure the only need they had to enclose things was presumably when they were gathering in sheep for sale of for shearing, or for rounding up stray livestock as in the village pound. Not sure now when they made an appearance. It’s actually quite hard to imagine a landscape that wasn’t filled with walls, hedges, fences and gates. There wouldn’t be much in the way of roads either – only tracks and paths and packhorse routes.

  5. Reminds me of a ‘joke’ I once heard….a young man was resting under a tree when the landowner approached him.
    ‘Get off my land’! he shouted. ‘What makes this your land?’ the young man countered.
    ‘ Well, it was given to me by my father.’ was the reply. ‘So how did your father get it?’ ‘It was given to him by his father!’ ‘And how did his father get it?’ ‘ It was given to him by my great grandfather!’ ‘So how did your great grandfather get it?’ ‘Given to him by his father!! Come on now…move along…’ ‘So how did it fall into the hands of your family in the first place?’ ‘We fought for it!!!’.
    The young man stood up. Rolled up his sleeves and said…
    ‘O.K. then….I’ll fight you for it.’

  6. That’s brilliant! Basically a modified mortise and tenon joint, and using the natural materials that abounded, rather than the (probably expensive at that time) ironmongery. 🙂

  7. You bring memories of my history lessons with all the talk of gates, common land and open field systems!

    Every time we return to England the enclosed land feels horrid after the open land of the Algarve. Whilst land is owned it is rarely enclosed in the hills, and the original trails are still used. Consequently it feels much more open and accessible. And their life approach feels the same.

    We are but trustees of the land not owners.

  8. Great research Tish. That’s an interesting history, and as others have pointed out, the idea of property being a recent thing is something that’s not usually in our conscious minds when we think about the past.

    1. Thank you, Swarn. Shared resources, open access etc are not convenient ideas in our English current Tory run/old school tie society. I think it may also explain quite a lot of the recent (more than bonkers) Russophobia: – the mega-capitalists are in a dither over any socialist tendencies. Or any notion that suggests a better way of doing things for the majority.

  9. In a way, the story of the gatepost is a preface of the technological revolution. Now that we have hinges on our doors and take them for granted, it is hard to imagine how it was done before modern machinery. Enjoyed the post. You managed to include so much in your story. Your approach makes history fun for all.

      1. In a sense, I suppose it is also entertaining, But my attitude towards learning history is not that of amusement. I am both fascinated and awed by the stages of development of man and society. For me, the stages of social cooperation as you have described here are much like observing the changes of a human being… who is the same person at age 16 when occupied with camouflaging his acne as he or she is at age 30 when working all day in order to provide food, shelter, education and culture for his or her children. In our tradition (recorded in the old testament), our forefathers laid down rules for the harvest of agricultural growth which included an amount of the harvest which should be left on the field to be gathered by, and used by the impoverished. As society becomes more sophisticated, it continuously tries to maintain its obligation to care for the poor and incapacitated. There are cases throughout history when the government, whether in the form of royalty or elected officials awarded unfair benefits to the rich. But eventually, if the common good was breached by personal interest, the society would find ways to reorganize and reestablish fair laws. I would guess that most people in England consider the many services provided by welfare agencies in Great Britain of today no less fair than the accepted practices hundreds of years ago. All in all, I believe that the study of history could be compared to the self knowledge of a human being.

      2. I agree with you about the study of history as a parallel for gaining self-knowledge. As a discipline, though, it has tended to be rather undervalued in Great Britain, but then until the 1980s at least emphasis in schools was much on the great and the good, plus chronicles of kingly pursuits etc. Our current Tory government would prefer that kind of approach. These days school teaching of history has more emphasis on everyman, but in disjointed topic segments e.g. the Romans; the Great War, thus rather missing out on the perceptions of change and continuity that inform our understanding. Nor are we very generous to the needy these days. Our welfare services have been shrunk to the bare minimum, and the people who may need assistance considered a burden on society. We live in mean times.

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