The theme this week for #52Ancestors is Characters. Another theme I have struggled with, I don’t have any actors in my tree or any one story that speaks louder to me than anyone else’s. I thought therefore I would write about my Great x2 Grandfather, William Pilbeam. He is the ancestor I use when I want to shock someone! Tee hee, he was a Chicken Crammer!
William Pilbeam was born on 4 April 1849 to James and Sarah Pilbeam and he was born in Warbleton. The 1851 census had them living at Rushlake Green and James was a Dairyman. Farming was in the blood.
By 1871 William and his widowed mother had moved to Little Rigford Farm, now known as Rushford Farm at Three Cups near Punnetts Town. Sarah was described as a Farmer of 20 acres and William was a gardener. I presume he was helping his mother with the farm. Also living with Sarah was her unmarried daughter, Emily, 23 and her daughter Harriet and her husband James Martin. They went on to farm Ebenezer Farm in Punnetts Town. By the 1881 census William was farming at Little Rigford Farm. At 20 acres it was a small farm and as we saw from the later MAF document in the blog post about George Pilbeam, it was a mixed farm and imagine was subsistence farming. George was one of William’s sons.
In 1891 the farm has now become Rushford Farm and William is described on the census return as a Chicken Fattener. Poultry farming was especially suited to small farms because of the level of skill and supervision required. The farmers organised themselves into two groups, rearing and fattening. Chickens reared on one farm were sent to a fattener who force fed them using a locally invented machine - the crammer, and after killing and preparation sent to London markets by train from Heathfield. In 1893 two years after the census an estimated 1 million birds were sent to London by train from Heathfield.
For a short period of time the chicken cramming would have added to the income of failing Wealden farms in place where the landscape leant itself to subsistence farming. The topography meant that fields were small and hilly which gives the Weald its character. Chicken cramming was quite lucrative in the Warbleton area and for a time gave substantial employment, for instance the 1891 census shows 19 employees within a 3 mile radius of Rushford Farm were involved in the business. I have looked at the census returns from 1851 to 1911 and charted the industry in terms of people involved and there is a definite peak around 1891.
The 1901 census described William as just a farmer but my feeling is that as the cramming was going on all around him he was still involved and then the 1911 census he has written Farmer and Poultry Fattener. Poultry Fattener is crossed out. Someone didn’t want to advertise the fact he was involved maybe although I do recognise that attitudes to what is seen, today, as a barbaric practice was not seen in the same light at that time, or was it?
William died in 1919 and George, son described himself on the 1921 census as a Farmer with his widowed mother. Again the MAF form only mentions 17 fowl, so hardly a chicken cramming business by the beginning of WW2. The industry had largely died out by the 1950s although I know people today have memories of chicken sheds around Punnetts Town. There was a number of them across the road from my grandparents house where Granny would take us to buy eggs from Mrs Lower, while on childhood holidays. Apparently if you know what to look for there are relics and signs of the industry everywhere!