Farming in the Upper Kennet Valley
The following articles feature pioneering farming practices practiced by the Swanton family.
Reproduced from articles in Farmers Weekly
October 3rd 1931. The Farmers Weekly
WON PRIZE FOR THE BEST FARM FOUR YEARS IN SUCCESSION
Started with £500 now pays £14,000 yearly for wages and feeds
Successful Farming Series
Former Draper’s 4,000 acres: Successful because he is a Bachelor
In the fertile valley of the Kennet, two mites from Marlborough, lies one of the show farms of a county noted for its standard of farming. Mr. Frank Swanton, with headquarters at North Farm, Overton, controls a group of farms which have won fame in many agricultural competitions.
Led by Mr. W. T. Price, the Agricultural Organiser, Wiltshire was the first county to start clean-milk competitions, and from that sprang the idea of the Roll of Accredited Milk Producers, which him been running in Wiltshire for several \Tars. Entering two dairies for the first county competition held in 1925, Mr. Swanton’. won the second and third prizes; and, In 1927 he took the first prize.
In three years he won the cup presented by the Devizes Agricultural Society for the best dairy herd over 50 in number, and in four years, including the present, was awarded the trophy for the best cultivated farm of ever 400 acres.
Competitions of this sort are often won by men who farm as a pleasant hobby, without too close an eye on the profit and loss account. They are frequently won by genuine farmers with medium-sized and more manageable holdings. They do not appeal to
the type of large farmer not very numerous, who counts his acres in thousands, whose methods are often rough and ready and whose land and roads are sometimes known for their untidy appearance.
It is, therefore, all the more to Mr. Swanton’s credit that his five farms, totalling 4,000. acres, should attain such a standard of efficiency.
Mr. Swanton in 1914 began his tenancy of North Farm, which then comprised 1.000 acres. Five years later the whole estate of 7,000 acres was bought by the late Lord Manton, and for four years Mr. Swanton helped to administer the farms as ” Farm Manager ” to the ” Olympia Agricultural Co.,” under which title the estate was run. In 1923, owing to the death of Lord Manton, the holdings were again let and Mr. Swanton rented three farms on his own account anti took a further one In partnership with Messr’s. George and Henry Wilson the Wiltshire sheep dealers. Two years Inter he purchased the farms anti now rails them as owner-occupier. Recently he took the fifth farm, and is assisted in the management by his nephew, Mr. Barnard Bush, a descendant of a well-known Somerset farming family. .
The farms are mainly devoted to cows, pigs, sheep and cereal crops. There arc 300 .dairy Shorthorns divided into live herds to suit the accommodation of the various farms in which they are kept. The reds and dark roans are separated front the whites and light roans and kept in different herds. During the course of25 years it has been my privilege to inspect many good herds of Short horns, but I have seldom seen a lot of cows which fill the eye better than the Overton ones. 131g, upstanding, roomy cattle, with deep bodies, wide backs and good udders and teals, they are a pleasure to look at, and the herd shows evidence of years of careful building up. In 1923Mr. Swanton began to grade up his herd for entry In Coates Short horn herd Book, and the time is now arriving when he will reap the fruits of his labours. The grading – up process is lengthy business, occupying some ten or twelve years. A cow of true Shorthorn type officially recorded and having given 800 gallons in one year, or 1,300 in two consecutive years, is inspected by a qualified judge. Passing the inspection test successfully, she becomes a ” Foundation Cow.” Sired by pedigree bulls, the fourth generation in the case of a heifer and the fifth in the case of a bull is eligible for entry into the Herd Book. – About 25 per cent of Mr, Swanton’s herd are foundation cows and a further 50 per cent, are grading-up cows that is, daughters and grand-daughters of foundation cows.
Milking is done by hand twice daily and the yields officially recorded. The average for the full-time cows of all the herds for the year is 750 gallons.
There are five pedigree dairy Shorthorn hulls, of which the chief is that gallant veteran Leam Peerless-12 years old and still in use. A descendant of that famous cow, Primrose Gift, which was for three yearn in succession Champion Cow at the Royal Show, Leam Peerless was bred by the late Lord Manton, and there is no doubt that Primrose Gift’s strain transmitted through Peerless la a factor In the milking qualities of the present herd.
Oilier hulls which have been used were purchased from such breeders as Captain Fitzroy, Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, Mr. Eustace Abel Smith and Captain A. S. Wills. Yet another noteworthy sire was Preshute Salaam 111, which was bred by the late Mr. C. J. K. Maurice out of the noted cow Preshute Salaam.
Leant Peerless has the distinction of having sired two of the best cows In the herd. One gave over 1,200 gallons in one year with her first calf and the other yielded 79 lbs. per day this summer. .
All the cow calves are, of course, weaned and kept for replenishing the dairy herds, and the total head of cattle Is 651r, whirl’ Includes about 40 stirk heifers bought every year and sold as down-calvers.
As we entered the yard of one of the sets of buildings Mr. Swanton observed, “This used to be called Dirty Fyfield, but when the County Clean Milk Competition was won by this dairy we renamed it Brown’s Farm.” There is no sign of dirt in the yard and buildings of Brown’s Farm. Grade A TT milk is produced from four of the herds, and the milking sheds and dairies provide evidence of strict supervision and keen workmanship intelligence and conscientiousness are demanded of the present-day dairyman, who has to operate high-pressure boilers and maintain temperatures for sterilising plants, and these characteristics are found in the Overton men.
Folding pigs in movable pens is an innovation which is proving very successful. Titosows of which 110 Large Whites are kept farrow in the permanent buildings and are transferred with their families to the folding pens as soon as possible.
“The folding ‘system is the best possible way of keeping young pigs,” raid Mr. Swanton as we passed along the lines of pens. Being moved out to clean ground every day they are much healthier and avoid such troubles as scour, worms and anaemia. The benefit to the land Is enormous.”
The pens are very substantially built to Mr. Swanton’s design, and arc at present fitted with skids and moved by a horse, although experiments are now almost concluded for moving them on a pneumatic-tyred lifting device by man-power alone.
Danish Pig House
When the pigs are eight weeks old they are weaned and allowed to run for two months In half-acre grass plots provided with thatched shelter huts. They are then shut up in the excellent Danish pig house built at a cost of £500 under Mr. Swanton’s supervision by direct labour to accommodate 200 pigs. This fine brick building is a noteworthy feature of the farm, and greatly assists in fulfilling the contract with the factory of 100 bacon pigs per month.
Mr. Swanton records the progeny of all his sows. Preferring a pure breed, he uses Large White boars, and is thus enabled to sell the best of his young boars and gifts for breeding purposes.
Note the growth and development of the Overton herd under the influence of the Marketing Act. During the last 18 months the number of breeding sows has been trebled, adding some 1,400 extra -bacon pigs to the year’s output.
“We are endeavouring to do the job we were asked to do,” said Mr. Swanton, ” but the fact that imports are not regulated sufficiently to maintain a reasonable market price makes it difficult.”
As you expect on find which runs well over the Marlborough Downs and provides training gallops for the Manton race-horses, sheep form an important part of the life of the farm. The breeding ewes number about 1,400-400 registered Hampshire Downs, 600 registered Suffolk, and 400 Cheviots. Practically all the Hampshire Down lambs are fatted and sold early in the season, with the exception of a few ram lambs which are sold at the August Ram Sales.
The Suffolk flock, which from the point of view of numbers takes second place In the Suffolk Flock Book, Is kept expressly for breeding rent lambs. This year 190 promising young rams have been kept, and up to date about half have been disposed of, chiefly at sales in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Northants. The ewe lambs are kept for replenishing the flocks.
The Hampshires and Suffolks are hurdled every night on the arable land and graze on the downs In the day. The 400 Cheviots are crossed with Suffolk rants, and the lambs sold off.
Mr. Swanton has always been keenly interested in sheep and some few years ago, acting in conjunction with Mr. George Wilson and Mr. H. W. Tomlinson of the Wiltshire County Agricultural Staff, he assisted in starting the Marlborough Shepherds’ Supper, an annual event at which last year some 90 shepherds and 70 farmers sat down to supper in the Town Hall. The evening is devoted to pleasure and business lectures and discussion upon sheep and their treatment).
It is not surprising that the 1,000 acres of arable land, with such heavy blocks of sheep, should yield heavy crops of corn. This year Mr.. Swanton has grown 300 acres of wheat and 250 acres of barley and – oats, the rest being green crops. The wheat yield will be the best since 1921 With the exception of one piece, the average is working out at something like 15 sacks per acre and one exceptionally good piece of 39 acres of Garton’s Victor is turning out at nearly 19 sacks. Mr. Swanton makes a point of buying the best strains of wheat and the bulk of his crop is sold for seed.
With an annual wages bill of £8,000 paid to 79 employees and £6,000 paid out for foodstuffs a large’ return Is necessary, but Mr. Swanton enjoys a quiet confidence In the future of Agriculture, and has never, regretted the decision which made him forsake the drapery trade which his parents had thought fit to place him.
He comes of a line of Somerset-shire farmers and after forsaking the shop counter, at which he spent the first six years of his bulginess career, he wits given moo by his father with which to start farming. He attributes the success he has achieved to the fact that he has remained a bachelor and has made his farm his hobby and his partner.Farmers Weekly, August 15, 1969 (xv)
Farmer of two eras
A DRAPER’S assistant at the beginning of the century and a farmer with 4,000 acres by the 1930s, Mr. Frank Swanton is 85 and still working. He now manages 1,000 acres for his 21-year-old son Robin, who is just leaving Harper Adams.
FARMERS WEEKLY last ran a profile of Mr. Swanton in 1934. Before revisiting him I looked back through the faded pages. A picture of the launching of the Queen Mary was carried in the same issue
There among the columns of type stood Mr. Swanton clad in breeches and leggings with a broad-brimmed felt hat pressed down firmly on his head. The article made the farming of the 1930s seem more remote than ever and it was hard to believe that a man could actively bridge the gap between two such different worlds.
I called at what has been his home since 1914 North Farm, Overton, tour miles west of Marlborough on the A4�and waited in the yard. Exactly on time Mr. Swanton, at the wheel of his Land-Rover, swung round the corner. He had been checking his son’s 350-ewe flock on the downland grazing above the farm.
Families so often say of their aged but active grandparents that they do not look their age. Mr. Swanton looks what he is a vigorous octogenarian. He still keeps a tight rein on his farm and workers. Each day he is up before breakfast to brief his foreman and throughout the day I spent at Overton I watched him making sure that the farm was run as he wanted it to be. He still goes shooting and still sits on Wiltshire County Council he is the longest-serving member.Mr. Swanton was born in 1884 of farming parents. He wanted to go on the land, but his father, who rented 200 acres, did not feel he could take him on as agriculture was in the grip of a severe depression in the late 1890s. 1,000-acre North Farm, Overton. Instead, he was persuaded to go into the drapery trade. He must have viewed the future gloomily when he took up his apprenticeship behind the counter of a shop in Frome
Iii his sixth year as a draper, in1906, Mr. Swanton’s parents came to the rescue. They gave £500 to each of their children – Frank, his brother and sister. With this back they joined forces and took the tenancy of a farm at Highworth Three years later Frank broke away on his own and rented a farm at Chiseldon, but in 1914 this was taken over by the army to serve as a camp It was then that the tenancy of fell vacant and Mr. Swanton, keen to expand, took it on. Subsequently he bought not only North Farm, but four others, until he owned 4,000 acres
Mr. Swanton became not only one of the largest farmers in the county but also one of the most progressive. He built his dairy enterprise up to 300 pedigree Shorthorns divided into rive herds. The average milk yield was around 750 gallons in 1934.
A pig enterprise was developed and 200 baconers a month were being produced by 1938. After farrowing sows and their litters were put in movable pens. At eight weeks the weaners were moved to a Danish-type fattening house which Mr. Swanton put up for £500 in the early 1930s, to be followed by two more with a capacity of 1,300 pigs.
He also had 1,400 breeding ewes registered Hampshire Downs, Suffolks and Cheviots. About 1,000 acres were down to arable crops.
Since the war the Swanton family has sold 2,000 acres. Apart from North Farm, which has been made over to the youngest son who will shortly be taking over, the remaining acres are owned and farmed by Mr. Swanton’s two elder sons, one of whom also runs a garage at Marlborough.
Mr. Swanton changed from Shorthorns to Friesians in 1961. “It was my biggest mistake not changing over earlier,” he said. But soon after he went out of milk altogether. He has also abandoned his registered sheep in favour of cross-breds.
Indeed, he has moved with the times at North Farm and of the livestock enterprises developed before the war only the pig enterprise remains relatively unchanged. The Danish building is still in use, the only addition being an insulated roof. The outdoor pens look much the same as they do in the FARMERS WEEKLY pictures taken in 1934.
When interviewed on that occasion he was asked to what he attributed his success. ‘ ‘To remaining a bachelor and making my farm my hobby as well as my partner,” he replied.
Perhaps he answered this impossible question with his tongue in his cheek for within a year, at the age of 51 , he married and had three sons. I reminded him of his comment on marriage. All lie would permit himself by way of a reply was a slight smile.
Mr. Swanton has the air of someone who has done exactly what he wanted with his life. He admits he has been fortunate. Could a young man with today’s equivalent of :C500 he was given do what he had done? “No, I don’t think so,” he replied, and then added, after looking critically at me “But we had to work, you know .
He may talk nostalgically about the past driving his T-model Ford down the then narrow and dusty A4, his great days of expansion, the arrival of his first combine during the war and with pride of receiving his OBE tor services to agriculture, but he is still vitally interested in the present.
After leaving Mr. Swanton, his son, Gillie, took me to see his dairy unit at Fyfield Farm. There had been some trouble with the milking equipment. Within minutes Mr. Swanton drove up to see if he could help. David Campbell.