Farming at Fortstewart in the C19

Strongholds of the propertied class, country houses were symbols of landed power, homes of a class whose right to rule was based on land ownership. Fortstewart house and estate was a focal point in Ramelton during this era; its owner, Sir James Stewart had an annual income of £4,000 in 1834, according to the Ordnance Survey Memoirs. In 1987, a set of 1855-1879 "Workmen's Account Books" for Fortstewart estate were discovered. A perusal of these records gave a fascinating insight into the workings of one estate nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. With the consolidation of smallholdings in the aftermath of the huge post-famine emigration, farm holdings had increased, resulting in higher yields from crops. In Fortstewart the seasons of the year saw different kinds of agricultural activity, which had an effect on the expenditure of wages and the numbers of labourers employed.

The coming of spring saw longer days and milder temperatures. Traditionally, potatoes were planted beginning March 17th, using horse-drawn ploughs, and oats sown at the end of the month. Turnips were sown during April and May.In the summer months, crops were weeded by hand, and by July and August, haymaking was under way. Autumn saw more backbreaking work when the spring-planted crops were harvested. Flax was pulled, steeped and spread out to dry. Reaping hooks were used in the harvesting of barley, oats and wheat, and the sheaves were tied by hand using corn bands; the binders were mostly women, this explains the extra females on the books at Fortstewart during these months.

The cold dark days of winter made outside work difficult, so threshing was carried on indoors. In Ulster, this meant using a flail, or whip-like implement to separate the grain-heads from the stalks.

Cattle and horses had also to be attended to during the year. Workers were employed in the general upkeep of the estate's gardens. Farm implements like scythes, reaping hooks, rakes and harrows were made and repaired. Thatching, cutting and drawing wood, and killing rabbits are recorded as tasks in Fortstewart's account books. A man's wages averaged one shilling a day, women were paid half this amount. Surprisingly, the wage levels for Fortstewart in 1879 were exactly the same as for the 1850s.


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