The Peat Cutting Industry

Peat, or turf as it is often called, is an organic deposit formed from decayed plant material, the degradation of which has been inhibited by acidic, anaerobic and waterlogged conditions. The main zone of peat formation on Exmoor follows the central plateau from The Chains to Exe Plain.

Peat formation on Exmoor probably began in the Bronze Age, but developed at different speeds in different areas, some perhaps beginning in the Iron Age. The depth of peat therefore varies in different places with the deepest deposits reputed to be on Warren Allotment, up to 2.4 metres deep. Human activity, particularly tree clearance from the late Neolithic period onwards (circa 2000 BC), may have been a contributing factor in its development.

Peat has been used as domestic fuel on Exmoor, since at least the medieval period, and this undoubtedly has had a great effect on the shape of Exmoor’s landscape. Historically the value of turf as a fuel is reflected in the close control held over this resource. Within the Royal Forest of Exmoor, Forest Law closely controlled turf-cutting or ‘turbary’. Peat cuttings, or turbaries, could disturb the deer and unlicensed cutting was therefore an ‘Offence against the Vert’ under Forest Law, punishable by fine. The right to legally cut turf on the Forest was sold by the forester at a daily rate of a few pence. In 1635 a cutter in Bray reportedly cut sixteen hundred turves a day which he sold for sixpence per hundred.

The remains of extensive turbaries within the former Royal Forest have been transcribed from aerial photographs, from The Chains in the west to Pinford Hill in the east. Made up of small and irregularly shaped pits, such turbaries reflect small-scale and piecemeal peat extraction over a long period of time, potentially originating in the medieval period.  However, the largest and most regularly shaped peat cutting pits in the Royal Forest, such as those on Exe Plain near Blackpitts are probably 19th century in date, possibly associated with the development of Simonsbath as the centre of the Exmoor Estate after the sale of the Royal Forest in 1819.

Peat cutting earthworks on Brendon Common (© Crown copyright 1973, Ordnance Survey Licence No. 100024878)The most extensive evidence for peat cutting on Exmoor can be seen outside of the former Royal Forest, for example as recorded on Brendon Common (see image left; copyright information below). Alongside the rights of estover (the right to take wood), pannage (the right to turn out pigs in the autumn to eat corns and other nuts), piscary (the right to fish) and pasture (the right to pasture cattle, horses, sheep or other animals on the common land), the right of turbary was one of the ‘rights of common’ available to Exmoor’s commoners. Economically, the right of pasture was undoubtedly the most valuable. However, without the warmth provided by burning peat, any farming on and around Exmoor would have been very difficult, if not impossible.

All turf cutting on commons was carried out under the restrictions of ‘dominant tenement’, to provide fuel for only one dwelling. Personal preference dictated where each commoner cut their turf, but most returned to the same pit each year. Tools and cutting techniques probably varied, both over time and from cutter to cutter, and this mixture of variation and routine may go some way towards explaining why turf pits in close proximity can differ in shape and size.
Roughly speaking, eight thousand turves were required to heat a cottage for a year, and twenty thousand for a farmhouse. One man was expected to cut around one thousand turves a day, so between one and three weeks of each agricultural year must have been dedicated to this task. It was a strenuous job, sometimes shared between friends and family. More often than not, however, it was a solitary task. The turves were cut by hand in the spring and left to dry during the early summer, either besides the pit or, if it was wet, stacked on higher ground. The remains of over 80 turf stacks have been identified to date, but it is likely more of these ephemeral features remain to be identified.

When dry, the turves were collected and transported to the farm or cottage by horse and cart or dray, to be stored ready for burning. For ease of use it was common for the dry turves to be built into tall stacks or ’ricks’ the yard or garden, close to the kitchen door. More recently, some farms such as Cloggs Farm adapted existing outbuildings for use specifically as turf stores, although these are rare.

Despite at least one attempt in the early 20th century to industrialise peat extraction on Exmoor, it never developed beyond a cottage industry. With improved rail and road communications other fuels such as coal and oil could be easily transported to even the remotest Exmoor farm and turf cutting for fuel has now almost completely ceased. However, the centrality of peat cutting to life on Exmoor might go some way to explain why this simple common right and cottage industry has left such an enduring mark on the landscape of Exmoor.

Cain Hegarty

Further Reading

SEM7230 Burton, R.A., 1989. 'The Heritage of Exmoor.' Roger A. Burton.

SEM8306 Hegarty, C. and Wilson-North, R. 2014. 'The Archaeology of Hill Farming on Exmoor'. English Heritage.

SEM8623 Herring, P., Sharpe, A,. Smith, John R., and Giles, C. 2008. 'Bodmin Moor, An Archaeological Survey, Volume 2: The Industrial and Post-Medieval Landscape'. English Heritage.

Rotherham, I.D. 2009. 'Peat and Peat Cutting'. Shire.

Image Credits

Image 1: Peat cutting earthworks on Brendon Common, 17 April 1973; © Crown copyright 1973, Ordnance Survey Licence No. 100024878