Agriculture & Rural Society

Wembury’s history is in many ways a microcosm of that experienced by much of lowland rural England. Agriculture – part animal husbandry, but chiefly arable – dominates today’s landscape. Now farmed by a mixture of owner-occupiers and tenant farmers, earlier this was an area of medieval manors, open fields, and the emergence of substantial agricultural estates linked with the enclosure movement.

The community was, for centuries, small and inextricably interwoven with agriculture. Before 1800 the population was less than 400, and by 1881 it was still only 560. And these limited numbers were structured in a strict social hierarchy. For example, enumerators’ returns for the 1881 census reveal a handful of prominent landowners controlling the estates; below them came their tenant farmers; and a large agricultural labouring class provided the pyramid’s base.

This social structure fed through to the historic settlement pattern. Mansions – Langdon Court, Wembury House, Thorn House – stood on their estates. Tenants’ farmsteads were either well dispersed around the parish, or to be found in the two main settlements: Down Thomas in the west and Knighton in the east. And it was in these settlements that most of the labourers’ rented cottages were to be found.

As in many other places, much of what is now seen as heritage emerged through this system. St Werburgh’s Church, in its striking position overlooking Wembury Beach, is Grade 1 listed, dates from the 14th century, and may have had predecessors as far back as the 9th century. Both Langdon Court and Wembury House are Grade II*. And around both these houses are clusters of buildings and features listed as either Grade II or II*. Outstanding amongst these are the Grade II* Hele Almshouses, built close to Wembury House in 1662 and still in use.

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