John Moon’s innovative farming practices turned Kelland Barton into “the most famous farm in England”. But bad fortune followed the Kelland family after they reclaimed their ancestral farm. Within 40 years the farm had halved in value and left family hands forever.
THE EXTRAORDINARY SALE
It was 23 Sep 1852. From first light, on a beautifully fine day, there was something of a buzz in the normally quite mid-Devon village of Lapford. People, horses, carriages and carts journeyed towards Lapford Cross and up Kelland Hill. This was the day of an unprecedented sale at Mr John Moon’s renowned farm at Kelland Barton.
Scores of newspapers across England, Scotland and Wales later reported the sight of “many a sturdy yeoman and honest English squire…wending their way to the sale”. Many had travelled long distances. Such was Kelland Barton’s reputation that the final assembled crowd numbered around 700 for the sale of just 120 animals! It was described as the best collection of livestock ever seen in Devonshire with the possible exception of the entire show collection at a particular Royal Agricultural Society meeting. Some praise for a single farm!
News soon spread across the country of the amazing turnout at the sale and the extraordinary prices achieved, said to be the highest ever seen for a farm. One pig sold for £31—about half the annual salary of a skilled tradesman. For a while Kelland Barton was the talk of the countries farming community. One newspaper described it as “the most famous farm in the country”.
John Moon was only 34. He had taken the farm over from his father Edmund in his early twenties and soon gained a reputation as an agricultural innovator. Devon farming practices were deep rooted in tradition but John “changed the opinion of many a farmer in the ancient school”. He established irrigation systems and imported wheat seed from Russia which was sown as late as May yet soon overtook the crop of bemused neighbouring farmers. Within a few seasons he began to win awards for his breeding of fowl, pigs, sheep and cattle. Even representatives of royalty came to purchase. He modernised the farm house and behind it established an extensive orchard. His propagated trees were reported to have unrivalled fertility and richness of fruit.
Kelland Barton was described as a “model farm” and amongst its greatest admirers was the Earl of Portsmouth, an influential politican, who took distinguished visitors on trips from his Eggesford Estate to view the showpiece farm. It was probably through the Earl that John, an unassuming Devonshire farmer, struck up an unlikely correspondence with a number of prominent men of the day including the social reformer and activist John Haughton and the artist JMW Turner.
As early as 1850 John looked to cash in on his hard work and narrowly failed to sell the farm for a high asking price of £11550. News that John was looking to sell up only fuelled interest in purchasing his prize animals leading to the remarkable sale of 1852. A further stock sale the following year resulted in similarly high prices and by 1854 John had successfully achieved a demanding sale price for the whole farm. This, however, was to be the pinnacle of success for both John Moon and Kelland Barton. John’s career and reputation declined after the sale and, for the new owners, the sale was start of years of bad fortune.
RETURN OF THE KELLANDS
Farming at Pennycott next door to Kelland Barton was John Kelland. He had spent years witnessing his neighbour, John Moon, achieve fame on his family’s old estate that still bore his family name. The two men were related and, perhaps with a touch of jealousy, it was John Kelland who dug so deeply to purchase the farm from John Moon. Pennycott was let out to the Leach family and John Kelland took on Kelland Barton from Lady Day 1854.
The Kellands string of bad fortune started in 1857. Within a 12 month period John lost his wife, Loveday, age 34, his father and his youngest daughter. The following year 19 year old John Player broke into Kelland Barton and stole £1200 of money and securities from the safe in John’s bedroom. The year after that John tragically died just two weeks after remarrying.
John’s wife, Harriett,was left to bring up the five children from his marriage to Loveday but there was to be an addition. Shefound herself pregnant from her short two week marriage to John.
Harriet raised her family in Barnstaple and did not remarry. She let Kelland Barton farm to John Hellings, a respected farmer and ploughing match judge. For a while Mr and Mrs Hellings were both fully involved in Lapford life—Mrs Hellings supervised the tea for 300 people at the opening of Lapford National School. But John Helling’s life was cut short. In 1866, aged 40, he died during a cholerea outbreak.
In Barnstaple, John Kelland, Harriett’s eldest stepson, was being schooled to take over ownership of Kelland Barton and several other Devon estates, but he unexpectedly died aged 17. The new heir to Kelland Barton, and several other Devon estates, was now William Henry Kelland. Despite attending Cambridge and becoming a barrister a road to ruin lead him to dire poverty (records suggesting he may even, quite unthinkably, have entered a London workhouse). In 1895, only a few years after funding a stained glass memorial window in Lapford church, he sold off Kelland Barton under a court order in an attempt to pay off huge debts. The purchase price was £6700, nearly half the price paid by his father to John Moon at the height of Kelland Barton’s fame 40 years previously.