This is an abridged version of the original “THE STORY OF BRIANTSPUDDLE – DORSETS 20TH CENTURY MODEL VILLAGE” written by two residents of the Dairy Ring, Campbell de Burgh and John Snoxell, in 1983 to help raise funds for the village hall.
Since then more research has been undertaken and a book produced by Sue Taylor covering the whole Parish was made available in time for a Centenary Exhibition of the Bladen Estate held in the Briantspuddle village Hall in 2014 . Called “A Short history of Affpuddle, Pallington, Briantspuddle, Throop and Turnerspuddle” it is a fascinating compendium of information with many photographs ancient and modern and well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy.
Up to the 20th Century Briantspuddle was a quiet fairly typical Dorset hamlet notable for little other than the peace and tranquillity of a rural setting. In 1914 Ernest Debenham, an entrepreneur who had made a fortune out of a London based drapery business, acquired many thousands of acres in the area around Briantspuddle, Affpuddle, Bere Regis and Milborne St.Andrew. He then embarked on an experiment in social and agricultural engineering which was to change the face of the area in a unique way. The legacy of this experiment is a “model” village with a particular charm and character rivalled only by Milton Abbas in Dorset. Briantspuddle today is the larger of two villages within the parish of Affpuddle, the other village being Affpuddle itself. Both villages sit on the lower reaches of the river Puddle (or Piddle) about 8 miles east of Dorchester and 3 miles west of Bere Regis. Briantspuddle now contains a Shop/Post Office, a Social Club and one of the finest village halls in the county of Dorset. Some 200+ people live in the village, with a fair sprinkling of age and talent.
The village was first mentioned in the history books in 1083, when there was an assessment made for land tax purposes, called the “Geld”. Briantspuddle was then known as Pidele and was held by Godric the Priest, who was noted to have “four hides ten and a half acres”. Later, in 1086, the Great Domesday Book described the same place as having “land for three ploughs, a mill, thirty eight acres of meadow, twelve acres of woodland, eleven furlongs of pasture in length and four in width”. The whole lot was worth £4 and Godric was probably in charge of “about a dozen people who worked the land”. At this time, the parish of Affpuddle was divided under the manorial system into three manors known to us today as Affpuddle, Briantspuddle and Throop.
By the 13th Century Pidele had become Priestpidele, or Priest Puddle, presumably through association with Godric, and by the early 14th Century several people jointly owned various pieces of this land. The part owners were at one time identified as the Prior of Christchurch, the Frampton family and the Turbeville family. It was from this period that a member of the Turbeville family, Brian, probably gave his name to that parcel of this land now called Briantspuddle. In 1683 the three manors in the parish of Affpuddle were united into one estate by William Frampton of Moreton. He bought Affpuddle manor in 1675 and the remaining manors of Briantspuddle and Throop between 1682 and 1683. Ownership remained in the hands of of the Frampton family until 1914, when hard times forced the sale of part of the estate to Mr.Ernest Debenham for £49,500.
Up to 1914, Briantspuddle consisted of barely a dozen cottages of which the oldest is Cruck Cottage. Known to be occupied at least in 1620, Cruck Cottage is so called having the original cruck beam (from ground to roof) still in place. The village hall was once a barn and part of the tenement at No.26 Briantspuddle. Other old cottages along this road, east of the crossroads, are Nos.18, 20 and 25 Briantspuddle. South of the crossroads, up the hill towards Bovington, is Briantspuddle hollow where Chapel Cottage was once a Methodist Chapel. Also in the hollow are No.73 Briantspuddle and No.2 The Hollow, which were shown as freeholds on a 1770 map. To the east of the crossroads, towards Affpuddle, No.4 Briantspuddle was where the owner of Blacksmith’s Shop and the Mill once lived, and dates back at least as far as 1703. The mill, which no longer exists, dates back even further. North of the crossroads is Bridge House, which shelters an outhouse, once a Blacksmith’s shop, and closer to the crossroads Nos.7 and 8 Briantspuddle are houses where once a carpenter and blacksmith are believed to have lived.
Change had been imperceptibly slow since the early days but from 1914 the pace of change was to quicken dramatically by Ernest Debenham. Born in 1865, the grandson of William Debenham, the originator of the Debenham drapery and department store enterprise. Ernest was educated at Trinity College Cambridge and ran the Debenham’s business directly from around 1900. It was not until he was around 50 that the concept of a self-sufficient agricultural enterprise came into being. He was a man with a practical imagination and was always experimenting with new ideas. An idealist, he liked doing things on a large scale.
The concept of the Bladen Estate was that of a scientific test-bed for agricultural experiments and Briantspuddle became the practical realisation of this concept after Ernest Debenham had stayed at nearby Moreton House on holiday in the early 1900’s. He was very aware of the need to harmonize new buildings with the old Dorset tradition, of which he was a great admirer, and went to great pains to achieve this. Trees were one of his great passions and a good deal of planting went on during the period, with the help of Ursula Waterhouse and the advice of Richard St.Barbe Baker, founder of the “Men of the Trees”.
The Bladen Estate, so named by Ernest after Blackdown Hill nearby, was acquired in 1914 from the Frampton Estate and eventually covered more than 10,000 acres, included a dozen individual farms and at its peak provided employment for as many as 600 people. The major building programme started in 1919 after the First World War had inevitably delayed matters; a Swedish worker (who spoke no English) had been recruited to manufacture the blocks of which the buildings were to be made, but he was recalled home at the outbreak of war. The first 12 cottages, among them the “Ring” at Briantspuddle Farm, were designed by Halsey Ricardo, the architect responsible for Sir Ernest’s London residence at 8 Addison Road. These set a high standard for the rest of the estate with particular emphasis on an expansive and symmetrical layout and the sympathetic use of natural materials and local crafts. The design of the Ring shows also that the buildings were not to be purely functional but were to impart, through their design, a unique character to the area.
Ernest’s idealistic yet businesslike attitude towards building design is summed up by an extract from a brochure produced in 1929 for visitors to the estate.
“The first consideration when conditions became more normal was the provision of suitable housing accommodation for the workers, since it was at once recognised that housing is an economic asset not only by means of the value of pleasant buildings in themselves, but also from the fact that those housed in them as a rule generally give better work“.
Thus each house had an inside bath and lavatory and a garden of about a quarter of an acre.
By 1929, forty new cottages had been erected on the estate, with a further eight in course of construction. The consistency of design, which retained a particular character yet avoided stereotyping, gave Briantspuddle its “model” reputation, the best example of this being seen in the Bladen Valley.
In line with Ernest’s philosophy of self-sufficiency the estate had its own transport depot based on a workshop in Briantspuddle, which is now the “Queen Post” building by the crossroads in the village. The estate boasted 2 steam wagons for carrying pigs and feedstuffs, 16 tractors, 6 vans and lorries, 8 cars and 12 motor cycles. The estate was similarly self-sufficient in electric power and water. Electric power (at 250 volts D.C.) was supplied to the farms and some residences from what is now Bridge House. Two oil powered generators supplied current for 18 hours per day after which a storage battery took over when the power station shut down. The National Grid superseded this system in 1936. Adjacent to Bridge House is the water pumping station which extracts water from a chalk borehole. Water was pumped from the borehole to two reservoirs on the southern part of the estate from which it gravitated to the farms. The borehole still supplies water to the area, in particular to the J.K. Atomic Energy establishment at Wool and as far afield as Poole.
Experiments were carried out on almost all types of farming on the Estate between 1919 and 1929, many of them with the close collaboration of Professor Boufleur, then head of the Cirencester Agricultural College. One of the main activities was dairying and a milk processing factory was set up in the “Ring” buildings at Briantspuddle Farm. The farm itself was organised on modern lines and milk was imported from all the dairy farms on the estate for testing, separation, bottling etc. About 1000 gallons of milk per day was processed into “Grade A” milk, butter and cheeses, and pig feed. The factory contained a fully equipped bacteriological laboratory where the purity and fat percentage of the milk was analysed. The workers on the farm producing the milk with the lowest bacterial count received a bonus, with a further bonus below a set standard. “Grade A” milk was on sale in Parkstone within an hour of leaving the Briantspuddle dairy. Milk processing was moved to the new Central Dairy at Milborne St.Andrew in 1929.
By 1929 the Bladen Estate had grown, through further acquisitions to well over 10,000 acres. Ernest commissioned Eric Gill to create the First War memorial in Bladen Valley and planned a similar memorial for those who fell in the Second War, the “Garden of Peace” at the east end of Affpuddle church. The church also contains many carvings by Loughran Pendred similarly commissioned by him. In 1929, however, the building work stopped, the number employed consequently fell greatly and the scale of the operation declined with some of the individual farms being let from around 1932 onwards. Ernest’s “Grand Design” to link Affpuddle and Briantspuddle was obviously never realised. The reason for the end of the venture was basically that funds to subsidise it ran out. It was never intended as a profit making venture and needed constant financial support to survive.
Ernest sold his shares in Debenhams Securities in 1927 thus ending the direct family connection with the Debenham drapery and department store business. The slump during the 1920’s, culminating in the Great Crash of 1929 saw prices tumbling, record unemployment and industrial disruption. Agriculture was no exception, with milk prices being halved during the decade. The Bladen Estate therefore went quite against the national trend in building, local employment and production; this could only be achieved with subsidies which eventually became impossible to sustain.
The estate never regained its former glory after 1932 although several of the ventures survived for many years. Ernest was knighted in 1931 for services to agriculture. Ideal Home Dairies at Milborne St.Andrew became the centre of milk production from 1929 onwards. Milk was processed, packaged in waxed cartons and distributed throughout the south of England. Managed by Martin Debenham, Sir Ernest’s son, Ideal Dairies, later called Bladen Dairies, supplied Cunard and the Home Fleet with milk until it was sold in 1941 to Independent Dairies, later to become Express Dairies.
The people who worked on the Bladen Estate frequently commented that many “modern” farming practices were tried many years ago on the Bladen Farms and while many of the experiments were probably unsuccessful, the estate in general was many years ahead of its time. In the application of scientific techniques to agriculture Sir Ernest was undoubtedly one of Britain’s foremost pioneers. In one respect trends in agriculture have proved Sir Ernest wrong in his belief that increased production would enable more people to live on the land. In fact fewer people work the land than ever before yet production has increased enormously with the application of scientific methods that Sir Ernest pioneered.
This article only scratches the surface of the many activities that went on during the period of the Bladen Estate up to its eventual disintegration in 1952 on Sir Ernest’s death. The legacy of the enterprise is a village with a unique history and a special character imparted to it by the fine buildings put up during the period. In this respect Briantspuddle is truly Dorset’s 20th century model village.