The booklet "Three Simonsbath Carpenters", published by the Friends of Simonsbath Sawmill in 2015, summarised the life of James Harvey (1798 – 1870s).  He was first recorded working for John Knight in Simonsbath in 1834 and in the booklet was described as being the first resident Simonsbath carpenter whose name we knew.  Recent research has identified an earlier carpenter, John Smith, who, with his son, was working for John Knight in December 1819.

In the autumn of 2016, while researching the life of John Knight, Rob Wilson-North, the Conservation Manager of Exmoor National Park Authority made contact with descendents of John Knight living near Kidderminster.  They showed Mr Wilson-North several boxes of old family papers which had been stored in the attic of their home.  They very generously agreed to have these documents archived and in November 2016 they were transferred to the offices of the National Park Authority and the process of cataloguing the papers began.   

Among these documents was a 35-page booklet summarising some of John Knight’s earliest Exmoor accounts.  These cover the period between May 1919 and March 1820, at the very start of John Knight’s great venture.  A section in the abstract of the accounts covers the wages of various tradespeople working for John Knight. 

There is no reference to a carpenter in the early parts of the abstract (covering the period May to November 1819).  However, on 11th December 1819, under the heading “Carpenters’ Wages”, it is recorded that “Smith” (he is later identified as John Smith) was paid £5 11s 0d for 37 days’ work at 3s a day[1].  “His Boy” (later identified as his son) was paid at 1s a day for a similar working period.  

This now makes John Smith the earliest Simonsbath estate carpenter whose name we know!   

John Knight first knew that his bid to acquire the King's Allotment on Exmoor was on 23 July 1818 when the tenders were opened at the office of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests..[2] John Smith was in post by the end of October the following year so was almost certainly the first resident estate carpenter.

Subsequent entries in the accounts give John Smith’s wages as 18s a week and his son was paid 6s a week, although this fell to 4s 6d in February.  This may have been when a second carpenter, Thomas Branch, was appointed.  He is recorded in the March accounts and was paid 28s a week – significantly more than John Smith.  He seems to have started on 14th February 1820.

In addition to his wages, John Smith was also paid for other work, including 15s 6d for felling timber in December 1819 and 6s for helping to cross-cut timber the following month. 

In addition to the carpenters’ wages, the abstract of the accounts also records significant expenditure on buying-in timber.  In January 1820 John Smith’s expenses “after timber” of £1 16s 9d were refunded.  Presumably he was scouring the district for the timber needed for building works and other projects on the estate.  At the end of the same month he was paid 5s 6d for a trip to Wade Mill “measuring timber”.    Wade Mill is near Molland and it is perhaps not co-incidental that a few weeks later, on 8th February 1820, “Smith and Co” were paid £5 0s 0d for “drawing 126½ [feet?] of timber from Molland.”  

The same day Smith was paid £2 5s 0d for 36 “black poles” at 15d each delivered and 9s 9d for three large scaffold poles (at 3 s3d each delivered).   It is perhaps surprising that the estate carpenter was paid for these items so it is possible that this is a different Mr Smith.  There were certainly other Smiths in the area, including a blacksmith of that name, who was paid 3s for nails and 2s 6d for repairing locks in March 1820.

Other people were supplying the estate with timber.  For example, on 19th October 1819, George Thorne was paid £11 13s 4d for 200 deal planks.  The following week “Ronaldson” was paid £1 0s 0d for two cartloads of timber and a further £1 17s 0d for two loads of old timber in December 1819.  Ronaldson appears to have been a mason employed by the estate.  He features in the Labourer’s Wages section of the accounts from 30th October 1819.  On that day he was also paid £11 3s 1d for repairs at Simonsbath House.  From December 1819 onwards he has a separate entry in the accounts under “Mason’s Wages”.

The accounts include various payments to people for carrying timber to Simonsbath, including long and short planks from Lynmouth (about 9 miles north of Simonsbath).  In March 1820 there are also a number of payments for sawing including 11s 10d to Farthing for sawing in Lynmouth.  The 1841 Census records a carpenter called Richard Farthing, aged 50, living in Lynmouth and the 1851 Census lists a sawyer of the same name, aged 65, living there.

Others sawing for the estate at this time include a Mr Geen and a Mr Parker, who was sawing at Little Bray (about 7 miles (11 km) south west of Simonsbath).  The challenge these people must have faced to get timber to Simonsbath must have been enormous.  The modern route from Lynmouth to Simonsbath (via Hillsford Bridge and Brendon Two Gates), for example, is about 9 miles but it involves a combined ascent of some 594 metres (1,950 feet) and a descent of about 287 meters (941 feet).  Work had scarcely started on converting the ancient moorland tracks, barely passable by packhorse, into usable roads for wheeled vehicles. 

[1] 1s (one shillings) = 5p.  1d (one penny) = 0.42p

[2] Orwin 1929, 21.