One of the most primitive hand-tools in agriculture was misleadingly called a Breast Plough. It was used to pare turf or other surface vegetation and comprised of a broad ‘T’ handle attached to a stout wooden shaft which socketed into a flat angular blade with an upturned side. Essentially it was a large parring spade rather than a plough which was pushed manually and used mainly in the process of paring and burning once variously known as Denshiring, Devonshiring, Denbighshiring, dentchering or down-sharing (both Kent, Sussex) or Burn-baiting, burn-baking, burn-beating, beat-burning (western counties) and beting or torri-beting (Wales).
Denshiring involved the removal of a thin layer of weed and larvae-ridden turf in short strips. These were then dried by the elements and later collected to be burnt in small constructed heaps by smothered fire. The ashes were then scattered and ploughed back into the land to improve the tilth or collected and spread with manure. In effect, it was an early form of weed and pest control combined with dressing which probably originated in Devon and Cornwall prior to the 17th century though not necessarily performed by the Breast Plough. The practice spread to many counties in England, Wales and parts of Scotland particularly in the late 18th century when high corn prices prompted a considerable demand for additional arable land. Then waste or heathland, old pastures, or leys were cleared of vegetation in late spring or early summer in preparation for ploughing and the ensuing wheat crops. The depth and desirability of paring depended on soil conditions: many stones would for example quickly blunt a sharply honed blade. Despite disadvantages this method made rough ground easier to cultivate at a time when horse-drawn ploughs were inadequate, could not be used on steeper ground or the livestock to pull them was not available.
Primarily a tool for small farmers Breast Ploughs were also used for paring stubble and weeds, levelling mole or anthills, ploughing in potatoes, sainform, or vetches, work on water meadows and in some areas, cutting peat for fuel. Cleaning roadside gutters and overgrown grass verges in the West Country was another task, performed by the road men of district councils.
Working in rows from left to right with the handle held palms uppermost, the feet splayed and the knees bent, the ‘plough’ was shoved forwards from the upper thighs in a series of jerks which sliced off a thin layer of turf or topsoil in lengths of one to three feet (310-914 mm) to a depth of one to three inches (25-76 mm). The gait was aptly described by H J Massingham as a “duck-like waddle”.
Then, with a dexterous twist of the handle it was overturned or ‘whelmed over’ from left to right opposite the flange (or vice versa if a right-handed flange) depositing the cut sod face down on the ground to weather and dry. Finely cut turf dried more quickly but sometimes proved less manageable while thicker slices required greater physical effort but produced more fertilising ash. To ease the pressure on the thighs and groin from the chafing handle, pads of leather, wood or wool known as beaters, clappers, or belly knappers (Yorks) were worn strapped to the waist and the front of the legs. Other methods of protection included sacking, bags filled with straw, old pillows or discarded items of clothing tied around the handle or waist as appropriate and hard leather aprons. The pads were about a foot long (305 mm) and between four and six inches (102-152 mm)) wide but sizes varied.
Working the plough in straight lines across fields was excessively hard work suited only to men of good physic. A competent farmhand took four days to denshire an acre of virgin land while paring stubble an inch deep took half the time. Wages for such strenuous effort however were minimal, the men receiving little more than three shillings (15p) per day. In 19th century Gloucestershire, the work was speeded up when as many as ten men might be employed on a field of stubble. Some Breast Ploughs were worked with the assistance of an additional man pulling on the rope attached to the lower end of the shaft which not only produced a continuous slice but lighten the tasks considerably.
Breast Ploughs varied in size and shape from region to region adapted no doubt to suit local conditions and methods of construction and not least the made to measure requirements of users. Though semi-circular, crescent or intermediate blade patterns were produced, the majority were of triangular form made by blacksmiths from a single piece of iron or steel plate approximately 1.6 to 6 mm thick, between 203-458 mm in width and up to 432 mm in length with a sharply honed soft or deep ‘V’ cutting edge, the point being set in line with the shaft. The left side of the blade was turned up at right angles to form a flange or wing (called a ‘cock’ in the north) which acted as a kind of coulter to square cut the edge of the slice. Right-handed versions which pared from left to right were less common. In outline, the flanges resembled a dorsal fin sometimes squared off at the top and measured between 25-160 mm in height. Being a weak point this area was often strengthened by a small riveted corner plate. The socket which held the shaft was formed from the upper point of the blade. Many were short and square-sided some with overlapping ends. Open clasp sockets which gripped the shaft and sleeve sockets which enclosed the lower part of the shaft were also constructed. As the blade ran parallel with the surface the shaft’s length and any curvature had to be taken into account. Short shafts were invariably curved towards the base. Blades fitted to straight shafts were usually lifted upwards by a few degrees. The blade’s final position could be adjusted by means of a wooden or iron wedge called a Quoin forced between the shaft and the socket.
The Breast Ploughs from Kent, East Sussex differed. Though retaining widths from 245 to 300 mm the blades were more arrow-like in appearance and were riveted to the base of a square or oblong-shaped sleeve socket of varying length. The flanges too were higher and more pronounced some rising to 200 mm or so. Both the shaft and socket were often curved giving in some cases a combined angle to the horizontal of 10 to 15 degrees.
From the mid 19th century factory made blades became increasingly available and could be purchased more cheaply from the ironmongers than the village blacksmith. Most conformed to a regular pattern made with one piece of steel or two riveted together. One company alone produced no less than seven different widths between 8 and 14 inches (203-356 mm) and some also offered shafts in six foot lengths. Manufacturers included J Harrison, C T Skelton of Sheffield, W Gilpin and Whitehouse Bros. of Cannock, Skinner and Johnson of Ranskill, I.Nash of Stourbridge, Knapman of Totnes and Fussell of Mells. Blades were still being advertised in the 1930’s.
The shafts which were usually fashioned by joiners or village carpenters were made of ash, elm or oak. They were square or rectangular in section and morticed into large crosshead handles measuring between two and three feet (610-914 mm) across. Some wore straight beams, others were naturally forked lengths of timber cut from the hedgerows or were split shafted i.e. single poles split down the middle for a quarter or third of their length at which pint a ring ferrule prevented further branching. The bottom ends were tapered down to the blades surface enabling the sod to pass up the shaft smoothly. The handles were uniformly rounded or were broad in the middle with short rounded ends which fitted the body more comfortably. Handles fixed to undivided shafts often braced by a pair of wooden or iron cross supports. Shaft lengths ranged from as little as 4.5 in (1372 mm) to as much as 8 feet (2439 mm)) but beams of 6 or 7 feet were more usual. The added blade attachment however made the longer versions very heavy. In Cumberland and Westmoreland the angle was called the Crown and the shaft a ‘Pole’.
To support friable or longer lengths of turf two boards of varying size and shape were sometimes fixed immediately behind the blade and along each side of the lower shaft. Other variations included a narrow iron spine which ran down the centre of the shaft flattening to an arrowhead just above and behind the cutting edge which lifted the sod over the shaft. The most innovative Breast Ploughs came from West Devon and Cornwall. Someone there realised that if an iron guide rail was attached to the shaft and made to rise up from the left hand corner of the blade, adjacent to the flange it would act as a Breast or Mould board by raising that side of the sod until it turned over and fell to the ground face down, i.e. breasted aside. A more elaborate affair with three rails in descending order of height discharged its load in much the same way. Both examples gave a continuous cut and avoided the need to ‘whelm over’. This additional facility afforded them plough status which most likely gave rise to the term Breast Plough. In 1797 William Marshall thought this type to be in decline though the name was probably retained “after the mould board (in this case the iron framework) was laid aside”. There is no record that the raised guide rails were used elsewhere.
The word breast also suggests that the plough was propelled from the chest rather than the haunches. In reality both methods were applied though its use in the upper position became increasingly spasmodic. In Scotland a contemporary implement called a Flaughter spade (from the Teutonic verb to flauch or remove the skin) was used instead. Despite being similar inmost respects many were flangeless.
The age and origin of the Breast Plough is unknown. Some have speculated on its possible use in Roman times, that it may have been a development of the Parsnip(?) shovel illustrated in Markhams “Farewell to Husbandry” of 1620 or the doubleflanged trenching spade shown in Blith’s “English Improver Improved” (1653 Edilson), but there is little or no evidence to support these theories. Following Worlidges reference to the Breast plough in his “Systema Agriculturae” – 1669, the first conclusive description of the implement appeared in Dr. R Plot’s “National history of Staffordshire” published in 1686. There he stated “an instrument call’d a push plough, being a sort of spade, shod somewhat in the form of an arrow, with a wing at one side and having across piece of wood, and the upper end of the helve, after the manner of a crutch, to which they fasten a pillow, which setting to their thigh and so thrusting it forward, they will commonly dispatch a large turf at two cuts, and then turn it up to dry”. An early illustration appeared in J Mortimer’s “The whole art of Husbandry” (1707). Taken with other contemporary references it may be reasonably assumed that the Breast Plough was in use by 1650 and continued in service until circa 1850 when this method of paring rapidly declined. After that it remained in sporadic use in certain areas such as the Cotswolds until the 19030’s or 40’s employed latterly as a garden, allotment or small holding’s tool often by the men who had previously worked them across old pastures. A number of examples have fortunately been retained in museum or private collections.
The name Breast Plough was generally applied in the shire counties of Berkshire, Dorset, Gloucester, Lincoln, Oxford, Warwick and Worcester but elsewhere was better known by other local or provincial names including:
Beting(1) or Betting (20) Iron: (1) from the Welsh counties (2) Used in the English border counties including Cheshire, Herefordshire and Shropshire. From the old English word ‘Beten’ or the Anglo Saxon ‘Betan’ – to kindle a fire.
Cast-cutter: Meaning earth mounds (hills) created by ants or moles – from Kent.
Emmett-Irons: Meaning an ant or in context anthills – Kent, Sussex and Essex.
Denshire (1) Plough or Spade: A derivative of Devonshiring, also written as Dencher (2), Densher(3), Denture(4) and in the form of Down-share(5). Herts (1) Derbyshire (1) Devon (1) Kent (1)(2)(3)(5) surrey (1)(3) Sussex (1)(2)(3)(4) Wiltshire (1)(3).
Flaying spade: Meaning to strip or peel off: from Scotland and Northern counties, including Yorkshire dales.
Floating (1) or Paring Spade: (1) To pare turf or stubble: Northern counties, including Northumberland and Durham.
Push Plough or Plow: From Staffordshire and other Midland Counties, Cumberland and Westmoreland.
Spinning Plough: To remove grass turf carefully and thinly. From Somerset.
Velling Spade: Probably from the word Velly – A turf of grass: From Devon and Cornwall.
Breast Plough courtesy of Roy Brigden