Alan & Patricia Crook: Life under the Champernownes and Elmhirsts

This article is part of the People Make Dartington series, meeting a wide range of the brilliantly diverse individuals and businesses who contribute to Dartington estate life. View the full collection here

Alan Crook is fourth of eight children born to Frank and Annie May Crook who lived in the courtyard when Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst arrived at Dartington Hall in 1925.

Mentioned as ‘the Crook kids’ by Leonard Elmhirst in Dartington Film Unit reel ‘Dartington Farms and Industry’, Alan, 88, now lives in Kingsbridge with his wife Patricia.

Dorothy’s first cup of English tea

Alan: ‘When the Elmhirsts came in 1925, it was my mother Annie May who was supposed to have given Dorothy the first cup of tea (that’s a family joke).

‘I was born in the hall in January 1929 where we lived. My father, Frank Underhay, rented the farm in the courtyard from Mrs Champernowne. Our door was the second entrance on the right as you go under the arch. There were eight of us altogether including two late additions, with five children under five when I was born!

The Champernownes

Patricia: ‘The Elmhirsts brought the estate from the Champernownes. She was a great salmon fisher, she used to go out with my father to the weir at Totnes, towards Dartington. She used to stand on the weir and catch the salmon. She fell in once. The salmon go up the jumps and she fell in one of them, and her bloomers, as my father said, were hung out on the weir surface to dry. She was a big lady. And her husband was small, and they had one daughter.

‘They had a beautiful horse and Mrs Champernowne, or her daughter, used to come in on her horse, to Totnes, to my family’s fruit shop. I used to sell her things and she’d put them in the back of her bag on the horse, on the saddle bag. We also used to do a milk round, and go to the Champernownes (they had a big place at Staple in Dartington). Mrs Champernowne always wanted a half a pint of milk, and ¼ lb of cream, every day. I used to go in there with this and I used to put it down.

Alan: ‘When the Elmhirsts started developing the hall, I was four or five, and I used to run down and run round the scaffolding with shorts on, I mean they wouldn’t allow that these days. You know that was easy then. They were putting the big roof rafters up.

‘The Elmhirsts then lived at the back of the big banqueting hall, well it’s still there now and they had servants of course and there was a chap called Mills, can’t think of his Christian name, must be in the records. I knew Bill (who was a few years younger than me) and the daughter, Ruth. She married a chap called Ash and they set up the vineyard outside Totnes, Sharpham. I used to play football with Bill, when the green was there and the centre part was all grass (they had several gardeners to look after the grounds). The tiltyard was made as a theatre, that was LK’s little project. He had it built, but it was his idea. I mean she had the money, but he had the ideas. Well you’ve got that history in the books.

‘We used to go in the cellar, used to go up the [clock] tower steps and into the cellar. We used to see Dorothy at the Christmas parties and that sort of thing. At Christmas you had a very big ball; the fires were all lit, it was beautiful, the fires were lit. We always had a present presented, to all the children from the estate. A little wrapped up parcel I think it was. LK wasn’t overpowering or anything like that as I remember, I didn’t take much notice.

‘On Foundation Day they shut the drive to keep the estate private just for one day and people would come up from Dartington village. They did sports, running up and down, tug o war.

‘I nearly drowned in the Dart once, caught at Folly Island, half a mile up past the pumping station (below Park Road). I was about five and I was in the water but there was a bit of an island, you could get in up to your knees or so and I stepped out further out and went underneath on a shelf. My sisters were there, they hauled me out. So I stayed clear of water after that.

‘I was at Dartington Hall School from five to 11. I mean they didn’t make us work, we used to walk around the estate if we wanted to. They never shouted at us to come back or anything that I can remember. We used to down and walk along the river and round the back. Well it was too easy going, never made you work, they didn’t set you to learn your 12 x table or how to spell c a t and one thing and another but I enjoyed it as a child.

‘I remember on 2 September 1939, two other boys and I went down towards the river, through the wood, and we said yeah, it [the Second World War] be over by Christmas. Wishful thinking. 10 wasn’t I? Just over 10. We were quite safe, where we lived at the farmhouse, to walk up behind the field behind of an evening and look over Plymouth: you could see where they were bombing Plymouth. Bright red. The bombers came in from the sea up the estuary. We had a radio but no telly though, oh yeah, father used to talk about it.

‘Father paid for me to go to school, I was the only one – I was the favourite, because I was dim to start with! That was after he retired that was. Later he said to me ‘Do you want to go into farming’? He said: ‘Well if I were you I wouldn’t, cos it’ll be seven days a week working’. So I said well, I’d like to go down to Reeves timber importers in Totnes and start there.’

Before tractors: ‘Seven days a week working’

‘We moved out of the hall and up to Barton Farm which was built before the war. When I was on holiday from school during the war I used to help on the farm and I started work proper in 1949. I worked helping father with the harvest when we had horses and that. My two sisters, Phyliss and Janet, they washed the bottle and bottled the milk. Cut their hands often.

‘My father was manager of Barton Farm [90 cows], then when the war started he took over Parsonage Farm as well and the chicken farm out at Yarner, out at Shinner’s Bridge. That was until 1945, when some whizz kid came from university (that’s my words – I think he was). He came and said he wanted to put a manager over father, and father said no thanks I’m off. So he retired in 1945 and moved into Totnes; he lived next to the playright Sean O’Casey. They later moved to Paignton, that’s when father died over there.

‘Before the end of the war they had tractors of course, but before then it was all horses. They had about six carthorses, they did all the ploughing, carting things about. Chickens at Yarner, they were kept in an enclosed space, but on the estate, I don’t think there was chickens except for back garden.

Making hay: rakes, ricks and scythes

‘Well in the hay making, in the summer, they used to cut the grass and turn it over to dry. Then they’d put it in rows about this wide, metre wide, 3 feet. They’d have a horse in front of a hayrake and it had prongs out the front with a as far as I remember – pieces on the side to stop it falling out. There was a pair of handles at the back and a horse attached to the front and he’d pull it along and a man would walk behind and guide it and pull the horse around. The rake would pick it up and then they’d take it back to the rick in the field. A rick is where they store it.

‘Before they started they had to go out there and put a big pole up: they let it into the ground and support it, then they’d have ropes from the top and down onto a grab (a thing that goes like a forklift) and they’d pick up the hay. People would bring stuff in, tip it over, then walk away, go back and get another lot. And this grab would come down, and I presume it just picked it up and it was on an arm so they could pull it around and they would drop it onto the rick. One or two men would put it around and make a round rick. Then in the end before the winter they would put straw over the top like reed, like houses are thatched. Then when they wanted it they would go out and open it up and take out a scythe they called it, a blade about two foot long and six inches wide with a handle on the top, and they’d cut it out in slices so they could take part of the rick away.

The harvest: binders, stooks and sheaves

‘When the corn (barley, wheat, oats) started coming in in July, August, September, they had a binder, no harvester in those days. They used to make little sheaves about a foot thick. Boys and men would go round and stand them up into stooks to dry out – they used to put them like this, stand them up together like that, six in the pile, six sheaves.

‘If it rained before it was dry enough, they had to go round and pull them down and open them up against the string for them to dry out. And then they would have to either stand them up again or go round and pick them up and load them onto wagons. They would take them into the Dutch barn in the farm, and they would thresh it in the winter, just get the corn out of the ears. They wouldn’t crush it at the same time: that was another job in the granary for the feed.

Cricket for Dartington, rugby for Totnes and a hockey ‘one off’ where something started

Patricia: ‘On the Sunday we were playing hockey (on a Sunday, forbidden really) and Alan was captain and I thought, ooh he looks very nice. I was on the ladies side, I played for Totnes ladies and he was playing for the Hall weren’t you? On the way home I was on my pushbike and I was leaving to go back into Totnes and there was a little lady at Puddavine, just there I was coming down on the pushbike, and the lady was in front and she stopped the car dead. I fell off my pushbike and he came behind and he picked me up, he was behind me, he picked me up. He shouldn’t have really because I had cracked ribs and things, and from then on, you know, he came to see me and that’s how we got married in the end.

Alan: ‘I mended the bike, bought a new wheel that’s all.’

Patricia: ‘I taught him to swim, and he didn’t dance either did you [Alan laughs] and I said well you’re going to learn because I like dancing! We’ve been married 65 years.