The first evidence of a wheeled Shepherd's hut is 1596
Whilst thinking that the Shepherds hut is a relatively invention, maybe late 18th or early 19th Century, we were amazed to find out that these old beasts have been around a lot longer than that. Thanks to the presence of a few very early publications, we have traced a reference to a wheeled Shepherds hut from the 16th Century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Leonard Mascal, reputed to have become Chief farrier to King I, produced a number of very early works regarding rural life. His titles covered such subjects as fishing, plants and one entitled ‘Government of Cattel’ published in 1596 was split into three sections. The third devoted to discoursing the order of sheep, goats, hogs, and dogs, with true remedies to help the infirmities that befall any of them : also perfect instructions for taking of moales, and likewise for the monthly husbanding of grounds.
The small yet important description appears in this book “in some place the Shepheard hath his cabbin going upon a wheele for to remove here and there at his pleasure”. This is probably the very first mention of a shepherds hut in the form that we currently recognize. It is also the first glimpse that the Shepherds accommodation from as long ago as the late 1500’s was in line with his status as a very important member of the farming community. Those in more rugged terrain such as Scotland, Wales and Moreland areas of England had to deal with the elements it seems, a hut on wheels needs a track suitable to take it. Boggy ground or hilly areas rule out ease of access for a portable hut. In these cases a more permanent building, sometimes referred to as a ‘lookers hut’ was built to protect the shepherd from his sometimes bleak environment.A shepherds hut was a big investment to a farm or Estate, costing the equivalent of up to 6 months of the Shepherd’s salary. However it seems that ownership in most cases stayed with the Landowners rather than the Shepherd
New Video content To view an interesting video giving some additional historic background on Shepherd Huts, and reasons for their demise, click on the link below. It shows part of the Anglia Bygones series where fellow ‘Huttist’ Richard King of Thurgarton Iron Works and I recover a hut from a garden in Beccles, Suffolk, accompanied by a film crew from Anglia ITV. The video clip is shown by kind permission of our friends at Anglia ITV. Click on link below:
The decline of large flocks
Before the advent of artificial fertilizers, on many mixed Farms distant pastures from the farm which were normal inaccessible to the large farm manure wagons would have had a visit from the Shepherd and his flock of Sheep. The Sheep were not allowed to wander freely but were kept enclosed behind wooden hurdles. This process was called ‘folding’. Once the forage crop had been grazed, the Sheep, Shepherd, his dog and mobile home; his Shepherds Hut, would move to pastures new. The land would then be ploughed, returning the nutrients in the droppings to the land. The Hut contained a small stove, a straw bed over a cage where lambs could be kept (known as a Lamb rack) and a simple medicine cupboard containing various potions. This regularly included a bottle of to revive a sickly lamb (or Shepherd).
If you watched the Bygones video on the link above, you will have seen that the First World war would see big changes in farming practices. Large scale production of Ammonium Nitrate used in the manufacturer of explosives provided for the first time a cost effective solution with regards to a concentrated feedstock for the land. Combined with the advent of the tractor at the same time, the need for large flocks to fold the land went into steep decline. Many fields normally used for grazing could for the first time be turned to the plough and more lucrative cereals replaced one time grazing meadows. The final straw was the rising importation of Lamb from abroad due to improved meat transportation, including early forms of refrigeration. Many meadows that escaped were finally ploughed over in the second World War to meet the need for self sufficiency in Cereal crops
The medieval woolen trade had long since declined in favor of cotton and although there was a peak during the two World wars, it was too little too late for an industry in decline. By 1939, many old huts found a new lease of life as home guard outposts, in fact in some parts of the country we have heard the term ‘Home guard roofs’ used when referring to a pitched roof on a hut. Many were also used at the end of the second World war to house prisoners of war in as temporary accommodation. Many farms being allocated one or two laborers from a large number of POW camps set up towards the end of the war.
A few huts carried on providing comfort and shelter to their Shepherd, but by around 1950, most were either pushed into a wood to provide somewhere for the gamekeeper to store his Pheasant feed, abandoned on the edge of a field or worse, being broken up and burnt as they had became redundant.
This website aims to record the survivors that are still with use. The ones that got away, those that hid silently in the wood or sat quietly in the corner of a field ‘waiting’. It is these old Girl’s that are our true passion and once again history has a way of recycling. Lets hope they will be around in another 100 years.