Pehr Kalm

Postage stamp depicting Pehr Kalm, 1979 (commons.wikimedia.org)

Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) was a Finnish botanist and disciple of Carl Linnaeus. In 1747, he was commissioned by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to visit the North American colonies and collect plants which might be useful to agriculture. On the way he stopped in England and stayed at Little Gaddesden for three weeks, visiting the surrounding area.

Kalm’s account of his travels contains several descriptions of the topography, ecology and economy of Berkhamsted Common: but in the context of our first witness, William Saunders, what jumped out at me was Kalm’s description of how poor men with no land could go about building a flock of sheep of sometimes quite considerable size – the flock, that is, rather than the sheep.

William Saunders and his brother owned about fifty sheep before William made enough money from his various enterprises to rent three small meadows. They kept the sheep on the common during the day and folded them in farm fields at night – the farmers paid them for the privilege, sheep dung was so highly prized.

This economy was still in operation in 1835 when the common was driven by the estate. All the grazing animals (mostly sheep but also a few horses and one cow) were rounded up and put into a field at Coldharbour Farm, to be claimed by their owners. Several of the witnesses show that Kalm’s observations were still pertinent, nearly a century after his visit. Thomas Waterton, a furze cutter and rough carpenter by profession, had a flock of seventy sheep. He didn’t have any land in the parish but he didn’t feel the need of it: his garden gate opened on to the common. Charles Garrett looked after the poultry at Coldharbour Farm for his day job but still managed to build up a small flock of sheep – if eight sheep can be called a flock.

The total number of sheep rounded up on the 25th May 1835 was over five thousand, of which a third were deemed to be owned by people ‘having none or very little land in the parish’.

The importance of the witness testimony – and Kalm’s observations – is that they shift the focus away from what can appear quaint terminology and a dry legal discussion of ‘postcode’ rights, to how the commons were used. Kalm’s observations are more reliable because he is squarely on the side of the enclosers and ‘modernisers’. He has no ideological interest in protecting the local economy he describes in such detail.

There were many stakeholders in Berkhamsted Common in the first half of the nineteenth century. There were commoners like Augustus Smith, who had deep roots in the town (and still owned one of its principal estates) but by the time of the trial lived several hundred miles away. There were commoners like Robert Sutton (d. 1848) who divided his time between his country estate and Highgate where it was easier to commute to the city before the London North Western Railway opened. And there were people with no commonable rights at all, who used the common every day for their own purposes – and had done since time immemorial.

As always, it is the incidental details that catch my attention. Kalm remarks that one of the advantages of sheep farming in England is that ‘there is never any need to fear wolves’. In many words of praise for the common, I hadn’t come across that one. He doesn’t add but could have, ‘sheep aren’t always what they seem,’ especially when they come offering gifts in return for your commonable rights.

Extract from The Chilterns in 1748 An account by Pehr Kalm, visitor from Finland, translated and edited by Professor William Mead.

‘The Folding of Sheep on the arable. Sheep dung and urine are held here to be the best possible manure for arable land and sheep folded on fallow land are reckoned as something money cannot buy. It is also only through sheep that many a poor man obtains all his food and income.

The matter goes thus. Through his work, a poor man lays aside what he can, so that he can buy a few sheep – the more, the better. Then he goes to a farmer or landowner and offers to fold his sheep on his arable land at nights. For this, the farmer will give him a reasonable payment. The farmer is very pleased to have a proposal which is so rewarding for his farmland, and he agrees with the sheep owner to pay him a certain sum for every acre of land on which he folds his sheep. If the sheep owner sees that the farmer will not give him as much as he demands, he talks to another farmer and strikes a bargain with the highest bidder. When an agreement is reached, the sheep owner drives his flock by day to graze on the common land and the pastures of the open fields or on the farmers’ own land. Here, he always has the liberty to graze his sheep, because by their droppings they pay for what they eat. The abundance of all kinds of weeds which grow up on the arable land provides them with plentiful food. The sheep owner goes with them himself and in the evening drives them on to the fallow land as he has agreed. Here they are folded at night in the same manner as has been described on page 48. The more the sheep owner’s flock increases, the more acres he can manure each year, and, consequently, the greater his returns. If it is very bad weather, he feeds them at home at night with various kinds of straw and hay, which he then converts into manure and sells in the way he described on page 79. The mild air here in England, which permits sheep to graze out of doors throughout the year, enables them to be folded on the arable land both winter and summer so that the profit on a small flock is considerable. England also has the advantage that there is never any need to fear wolves, which are not found here. The wool from the sheep, the manure collected from them when they are at home in bad weather (which all sheep owners can sell), the occasional sheep which can be sold to the butcher, richly repay the coppers he lays out on hay and straw for the animals. When a man owns 30 or 40 sheep he can, by folding them on other people’s arable land alone, make for himself 20 pounds sterling a year, if a man has 150 sheep he can manure an acre of land with them in three weeks and will commonly receive in payment from the farmer 16 shillings for each acre he manures. The sheep are not kept for more than one night on any part of the arable land. Some of the sheep owners sell their flocks towards autumn or in the winter and buy new ones in the spring; since in winter they cannot fold them so much on the arable land, but must keep them at home and give them all sorts of straw and hay.’

Reproduced from Pehr Kalm, The Chilterns in 1748, published by Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society, Aylesbury (available from their website: https://bas1.org.uk)