The Wolverton Farms: 19th and 20th Centuries

As the 19th century began, the farms on the Wolverton Estate were entrenched family concerns, with sons succeeding fathers as tenants. Thomas Harrison at Wolverton House farmed about 400 acres and after his death in 1809 the responsibility was taken on by his son Richard. Upon his death in 1858 the farm was managed by his widow Grace until 1869, and then by her son Spencer Harrison until 1892. I should add here that the Harrisons had other business interests and other sources of wealth and they probably employed a bailiff to manage the Wolverton House Farm.

When Spencer Harrison gave up the farm in 1892, the Trust decided to separate Wolverton House from the farm and rent it as a large country house. In this year Warren Farm was created and the trust built a new farm house in the field that used to be known as the Warren. Henry Barrett was the first tenant and he remained there until his death in 1917. The Turney family then took over the tenancy, which they retained until 1970 when the entire estate was sold to Milton Keynes Development Corporation.

Brick Kiln Farm has been tenanted by the Wilkinson family since 1742. Not only did George Wilkinson farm the land but he also made bricks and this tradition continued into the 19th century. The Wilkinsons were there for several generations until the death of George William Wilkinson in 1893 at the relatively early age of 45. This man, although had managed to carry off the idea that he had substantial wealth, was in fact living on borrowed money and was in debt at his untimely death to the sum of £1,100.

The Trustees, themselves owed money, could not consider a further Wilkinson tenancy and this long period of family tenure came to an end. A man called I J Shirley took over in 1893 and farmed there until 1931. After this the Luckett family took on the farm until 1970.

Once established, tenant farmers, were usually able to pass on the farm tenancy to the next generation. thus in all parts of the estate. The Ratcliffe family, for example had been on the estate since 1722, at Park Farm and Stonebridge House Farm. The Gleeds were established at Manor Farm and the Battams at Stacey Bushes Farm.

1834 Map of Wolverton

As you can see from this 1834 map, there were six significant farms on the estate in the 19th century: Wolverton House, Wolverton Park, Manor Farm, Stonebridge House, Stacey Bushes and Brick Kiln. To these can be added Debbs Farm, no more than 90 acres, which was close to Stony Stratford and was later absorbed by the new Warren farm.

When a survey was conducted for the Trust in 1847 the two largest farms were Brick kiln with 468 acres and Wolverton House Farm with 478 acres. Manor Farm had 323 acres under its control and Stacey Bushes 409 acres. Stonebridge House in the east had lost land to the railway and was left with 318 acres. Park farm was smaller at 150 acres and Debbs Farm had only 89 acres.

After this report Debbs Farm, which had been struggling under the last tenant, John Whiting, was absorbed by the Wilkinsons and Park Farm was split between Manor Farm and Wolverton House Farm. Wolverton Park Farm house was then rented to J E McConnell, Superintendent of the Wolverton Railway Works.

Farming was very hard in the last quarter of the 19th century. Cheap corn could now be imported from North America and frozen sheep and cattle could now be brought to England from Australia and New Zealand, again at lower prices. As a consequence the Trust had to reduce their rents by 10% and 20% in the 1880s. Conditions were not to get better for British farmers until after WW II. As I mentioned earlier,, G W Wilkinson was heavily in debt when he died in 1892.

A new farm house and buildings for Stacey Bushes farm was constructed in 1848 on Stacey Hill. The old farm buildings by Bradwell Brook were demolished. The Battams family continued to farm there until 1888. It was farmed by John Richards until 1920 and thereafter by Edward Norman until 1937. He struggled during the depression. He was succeeded by a member of the Luckett clan until 1960 and in the last decade of its existence by B C Gurney.

Stonebridge House was also rebuilt in 1855 but continued under the tenancy of the Ratcliffe family until 1884. The Norman family occupied the farm until 1948. Then for 5 years it was let to Raymond Turney. The last tenant in its history was W E Gurney.

Manor Farm had similar longevity of tenure, coming into the 19th century with the Gleed family it then passed into the hands of a branch of the Wilkinson family, who thereafter farmed it until 1929. The Whiting family then took over the farm for the last 41 years of its life.

The Radcliffe Trust – Part IV: The Farms

The manor, which the Radcliffe Trust took over in 1713, was still largely an agricultural estate, as it had been for at least 800 years. Change there had been: the growth of commercial activity at Stony Stratford in the Middle Ages, and the forced abandonment of the old Wolverton village in the 16th century – but agriculture remained at the core.

Radcliffe assumed several major tenancies, which continued for the early part of the 18th century. Richard Wodell held the major part, about 550 acres which included the land around Wolverton House and what later became Warren Farm. William Harding was the tenant of Stacey Bushes Farm, which at the tim amounted to 289 acres. James Brittain held the 276 acres on the west side of the estate and probably lived near to the brick kiln. William Swannell rented 243 acres at the northern end of the estate and Thomas Scott rented 147 acres around the stone bridge on the Newport Pagnell road. There were also a number of smaller holdings – mostly closer to Stony Stratford.

Thomas Harrison was appointed estate manager in 1872 and served in this capacity for 36 years. he was succeeded by his son, Richard, who then put in another 49 years in the job. For 85 years the Harrisons loom large in Wolverton affairs. Not only were they agents for the Trust but also substantial tenants. Thomas Harrison farmed the land largely based upon Wodell’s farm and between 1782-6 spent £1,840 rebuilding the farmhouse, which he named Wolverton House, and which still stands today. Harrison was paid an income from the Trustees as their agent and he also managed the Earl Spencer’s estates in Bradwell, so he was a man of some resources beyond that of his income from farming, and it is thought that he employed a steward or bailiff to manage the day-to-day affairs of the farm and house him at some farm buildings in The Warren, later to be known as Warren farm. Harrison was a member of a new breed of farmer emerging in the late 18th century – the gentleman farmer.

During this period other families with generational continuity were emerging – the Ratcliffe family at Stonebridge House Farm and Park Farm and the Wilkinsons at Brick Kiln farm.

In many respects the best years of agriculture were over by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Food prices had risen, but rents had also risen by 14%. Grain prices reached their peak in 1812 and then began to fall and farmers everywhere struggled. Rent reductions of 10% were allowed between 1820-24 and again from 1829-36. Farm labourers wages fell and unemployment was high. Desperate people responded by burning hayricks and destroying farm machinery. Everyone suffered in one way or another. Richard Harrison, probably the wealthiest man on the manor, was a partner in the Stony Stratford Bank, which failed in 1820, and he was left with considerable debts. The decline continued throughout the 19th century. In 1800, 80% of the population earned their livlihood directly from agriculture. At the end of the century that figure was down to 4% – an astonishing social change.

We can look back now and see that the coming of the Railways could not have been better timed in the case of Wolverton. Men who had been on borderline wages of 6s. a week, could now find work at Wolverton Station for 18s. a week. Had the London to Birmingham line gone through Buckingham, as first planned, Wolverton would have further declined, Stony Stratford, having lost the coaching trade, would have become equally poor, and I would not be writing this today.