History in England

The base of the information contained in this page was sourced from the excellent publication “Red Rubies – A History of The Devon Breed of Cattle”, written by Clive Thornton.

The copyright is held by the Devon Cattle Breeder’s Society in England and we thank them for the authorisation to use this material.

A fat Devon heifer exhibited by the Duke of Bedford at the 1805 Smithfield Show.

A fat Devon heifer exhibited by the Duke of Bedford at the 1805 Smithfield Show. Although there can be no doubt that the Devon can be numbered among the earliest breeds of domesticated cattle, historians have not so far succeeded in ascertaining the period when they first became an integral part of agriculture in the South West of England.

In 1893 the Devon Cattle Breeders Society commissioned James Sinclair, the editor of the Livestock Journal and Agricultural Gazette, to produce a History of the Devon Breed and in this he was assisted by William Houseman, who had previously published works on various breeds of cattle and had also conducted research into the aboriginal races.

They were unable to find any direct evidence that the Devon was descended from the aboriginal race of cattle in Britain, or for that matter, that any parent stock of another breed from another country had been introduced at any particular time to produce them. Nevertheless, they were able to quote many reliable testimonies to the antiquity of the breed.

Sinclair recalled that Professor Boyd Dawkins had claimed that the only domestic cattle known in Britain before the Anglo-Saxon conquest were the Longifrons race introduced in the Neolithic age. The conclusions, so far as the Devon was concerned, were that the shape of the head, the length and fineness of the face, and the smallness of the bones, appeared to afford evidence of descent from the Longifrons.

The size of the smaller Devons, largely found in North Devon, and the length and upward spiral curvature of the horn, was regarded as trace of the Urus.

Sinclair and Houseman thus formed the view that the Devon sprang from these original breeds, a conclusion which they felt was strengthened by the close resemblance the Devon bore, except in colour, to the Chillingham cattle which many feel to be the modern counterparts of the original cattle in Britain.

So far as the colour of the Devon was opposed to the theory of it’s descent, Sinclair inclined to the view that man had evolved and fixed colours which most pleased him in other species and that to insist too rigidly on the colour test would mean that the Devon would have to be regarded as being of foreign origin. But then the same difficulty arises – how could the foreign founder fix the red colour if we could not from the same materials?

Sinclair referred to the similarity of the Devon and Sussex breeds to the Saler breed of France and suggested that there may have been some exporting and importing of these breeds. It is certainly more than coincidence that red cattle have developed on both sides of the English Channel. However, we now know that Devons were acquired not only by the French Government but also by Saler breeders with the view to improving their stock.

Indeed, in the early part of the nineteenth century, so concerned was one M. Tyssandier D’Escous, a leading Saler breeder, at the introduction of Devons, Durhams and the West Highland cattle into the Saler herds, that he set about improving the Saler by internal selection to preserve its purity. There is also some evidence the Saler cattle may have been used in Devon at the same time because there is a record of one James Parsons White bringing in a French bull of unspecified origin to improve the size of his Devons and it seems reasonable to suppose that if there was traffic in one direction it could lead to the reverse.

The Saler is similar in many respects to the Devon. A reference to the Devon standard type in the later part of the eighteenth century shows an even closer likeness in that both were described as being of dark red colour with no white permitted and the general description of the structure was very much the same. Some fifty to sixty years later not only was white permitted in the Devon around the udder but a lighter coloured type was also admitted.

These changes were due to the introduction of Shorthorn bloodlines into the Devon as part of an improvement scheme introduced by some Devon breeders to improve the milking qualities of the Devon. Those who have studied the Saler breed have inclined to the view that they are closely related to the old Celtic and the African breeds and were probably located in the Massif Central in France when red cattle migrated from Africa through the Iberian Peninsular into Northern Europe and the British Isles.

Paintings in caves have been found depicting such cattle which date back some 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is distinctly possible that the Devon’s tropical survival kit is an inherent characteristic dating back to the time when the Phoenicians came to South West England for tin. Red cattle from North Africa could have been among the goods they brought to barter for the precious metal which was mined in Cornwall. This could further connect its origins with the Saler. Professor Boyd Dawkins suggested that the Celtic Ox (Longifron) came from Central Asia but other authorities refer to red cattle existing in India.

The more likely explanation based on what is now known is that the red cattle spread to the British Isles from the continent of Europe many thousands of years ago and mingled and blended with aboriginal British cattle. As Sinclair said, we should be disposed to estimate the antiquity of the whole red colour of the Devon, the Sussex and the Saler cattle not by centuries but by thousands of years.

It is well known that a race of domesticated cattle has existed in the British Isles for many hundreds of years.

The Saxon invasion of the fifth century brought with it newer strains of cattle and these were blended with the older aboriginal cattle to produce the mix of cattle that developed into the breeds we now know. Although there are written records of Saxon agriculture and reference to cattle, there is insufficient evidence as to the type so as to establish that these cattle included what we now know to be the Devon breed.

The earliest written notice of red cattle in the west of England places them in Cornwall. It was in a note sent by the Duke of St. Albans to Viscount Falmouth which was handed over to the Devon Cattle Breeders Society in January 1884 and read as follows;
“In a letter written in 1580 and preserved in the Record Office among the Irish MSS, Sir Nicholas White, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, says that Dingle Harbour in Kerry was known as ‘Coon Edaf Dearg’ which in Irish means ‘Red Ox Haven’. White says that this name was owing to the first settlers who came from Cornwall and brought cattle with them. The native cattle were black.”

It is an established fact that the Pilgrim fathers took red cattle from Devon with them to America. The Pilgrim memorials relate that in 1627 Edward Winslow “hath sold unto Capt. Myles Standish his sixth share in the red cow”. It was the same Edward Winslow who arranged the first importation of one bull and three heifers in 1627.

Although occasional references to cattle can be found in history books, they are generally insufficient to distinguish one type from another and only when a reference to the colour and the locality appear is there any clue as to the likely breed. It was not until the later part of the eighteenth century that writers on farm livestock began to appear and much data can be extracted from such sources.

George Cully in his ‘Observations on Livestock’ published in 1786, Arthur Young in his ‘Annuls of Agriculture’ in 1791, William Marshall in ‘The Rural Economy of the West of England’, published in 1796, and George Garrard in his ‘Description of Varieties of Oxen of the British Isles’ all described the Devon in some detail and all in terms which show a remarkable degree of uniformity. These references to the antiquity of the breed supported by events dating back to the seventeenth century provide very clear evidence that for at least three hundred years the breed has existed in a form that would be readily distinguishable when compared to the modern Devon.

ohn Lawrence, a noted agricultural writer, completed a ‘General Treatise on Cattle’ in 1805 and also referred to the Devon in some detail and, although he did not disclose the sources of the historical data, he pronounced that “from the Devons have derived the Herefords, Old Gloucester Red and the Sussex”. He added that not only were the red cattle of North Devon one of our original breeds but that they were also one of the breeds that had preserved most of the original form.

Lawence expressed the opinion that Devons were “the finest bullocks in the Smithfield market; they are a healthy breed and easily fed, they are fleshy, with small bones and they bear the best weight on the most saleable parts; they are a cherry colour or bright red”.

Robert Fraser writing a ‘General View of the County of Devon’ for consideration by the Board of Agriculture and dated 1794 said “The breed of cattle in North Devon is remarkably fine and is perhaps the best in the Kingdom, many people preferring them to the famous Longhorn breed of Mr. Blakewell”. Robert Blakewell himself might not have disagreed with this view since he is reported to have said to an enquirer that in his opinion the Devon could not be improved by an alien cross.

The Reverend Richard Polwhele completed a ‘History of Devonshire’ in 1797 and also shared the view that

the breed of cattle famous in the North of Devon were, in many respects, superior to any other in the kingdom and those around South Moulton, North Moulton and Barnstaple excelled most others in the district

Richard Parkinson writing a ‘Treatise on the Breeding and Management of Livestock’ in 1810 summed up the merits of the Devon in the claim that they were ” a copy for all persons who breed oxen for the yoke” and “none are equal to them in the plough” and ” with a great propensity to fatten they have no superiors for their size”. In 1808 Charles Vancouver completed a study of agriculture in the County of Devon for the Boards of Agriculture. He divided the county into districts and then proceeded to make a detailed appraisal of the cattle therein.

He found that the North Devon was by far the most numerous throughout but that there were variations in the cattle of the breed between one district and another, which he attributed to the terrain. In the main the cattle foraged and fended for themselves with straw as a supplement to whatever they could pick up. Many were used as draught oxen at the time. Some of the cattle he found were described as South Moltons and others as South Hams (now known as the South Devon) and there are references to the old Malborough Red in one area. He mentioned that crosses between these breeds and the genuine North Devon were preferred in that particular section and presumably the Molton and Malboroughs were absorbed in the process.

A recent review of the past two hundred years of British farm livestock complied by Stephen Hall and Juliet Clutton-Brock includes a chapter on the Devon which concludes that “the Devon has always been acclaimed as one of the most attractive of the ancient lineages of locally developed breeds of cattle in Britain and is perhaps particularly worthy of conservation in its traditional form”.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the farmers of North Devon and Somersetshire found themselves possessed of an old breed of rare excellence.

As regards grazing properties and the quality of beef and second to none at the yoke. But it was not until a Board of Agriculture report that they realized just how good their cattle were as compared to other breeds.

However, during the Napoleonic Wars, which raised the prices of agricultural produce, many farmers were short-sighted enough to sell their best cattle to grazier or butcher, when a trifle more than ordinary market price could be obtained and so the great majority of the choice Devons left the district, until the breed, drained of the choicest specimens, was rapidly declining in merit and would have degenerated, perhaps past remedy, had not a few staunch breeders resolutely refused to allow the strength of their herds to be sapped. At the most critical period, when the destiny of the breed hung in the balance, Francis Quartly appeared on the scene.

About the year 1794 he turned the energy of his mind to the work of improvement of the breed. Fortunately, there were a few breeders who had refused to sell all their best cattle. Francis Quartly did more than the negative work of refusal to sell. Forestalling or outbidding the butcher and the stranger, he bought up, as far as he could do so, the remnant of the best and so founded the herd, the influence of which reversed the current of events and so became the means of restoring the breed.

Francis was the youngest of three brothers and, apon his fathers death in 1793, took over the family leasehold property at Champson-in Molland, near South Molton and also herd of Devons which his father had bred since 1776. He began the systematic improvement of the herd, firstly by adding the best cattle his neighbours would sell. From then on it appears that he bred almost entirely from within his own Champson herd with his selections from outside said to have been almost entirely females which were then bred to his own bulls. His brother, the Reverend William Quartly, a student of the principles of breeding and a good judge of Devon cattle, established his own herd of Champson blood at West Molland where he remained until 1816, when the land and stock were taken over by his elder brother Henry.

Henry retained possession and continued to breed superior Devons until his death in 1840. While neither Francis nor William were married, Henry was the father of James and John. The elder son, James, succeeded his father at West Molland and became a highly distinguished breeder of Devons. John succeeded his uncle Francis and maintained the high reputation of the family as a Devon breeder.

Francis Quartly was fortunate in possessing what he described as a magnificent bull. Arthur Young, writing in his Annals of Agriculture, recalls visiting Francis and commented on the bull as follows;

Mr Quartly’s bull is much the finest that I have seen in Devonshire

he has a flat and very straight broad back and chine, twenty inches wide in the hips and twenty long in the quarters; his loins good; thick through his shoulders; his legs thin and short, thin skin and well feeling flesh; wide between the eyes and yellow around them; fine thin horns. All his three bulls, which are brothers, are extremely light and thin in the neck but full and heavy in the bosom. He does not let his best bull cover under five guineas a cow”. Young noted that the Quartly ‘type’ was primarily suited to beef or ox labour but there were also good milkers in the herd. The working oxen at Champson were said to be unsurpassed.

About the year 1831, cattle shows began at Exeter, which afforded an opportunity to promote the breed. John and James Quartly had an immense success in the show ring and, on one occasion, carried off all eleven classes at Exeter, thus maintaining the influence of the leading work of their uncles, Francis and William amd father Henry.

In the meantime, the Davy family at Rose Ash and Flitton maintained first rate herds of bloodlines long in their possession. John Davy was born in 1706 and died at Rose Ash in 1790 leaving his choice herd to his sons, John Tanner Davy who lived at Rose Ash and William Davy of Flitton Barton. John Davy died in 1852 and was succeeded by his son, Colonel Davy, who was the founder of the Devon Herd Book.

William Davy cultivated the dairy properties of the breed with much success and yet never lost sight of the distinctive characteristics of the North Devon type, nor the quality and wealth of fleshing. He died in 1840 and the herd in the hands of his son, James, rose to the height of fame producing Champions at the Royal and other leading shows. On the death of James, the Flitton herd passed to his sister Maria Langdon in 1873. Flitton Devons were widely dispersed into other herds by public and private sale. Flitton bulls in particular influenced the development of many herds.

Other early breeders whose herds attracted the attention of the agricultural writers of the day and were highly rated were Merson of Brinsworthy, Buckingham and Tapp of Twitchen, Halse and Mogridge of Molland, Micheal Thorne of North Molton, Earl Fortesque, George Turner, John Bldley of Stockley Pomeroy, Webber of Tiverton and Sir Thomas Acland of Hornicote. In Somerset the well known herds were Boucher of Greenway, Blake, Gatchell, Gibbs, Hancock of Halse, Joyce, Langlands, Ocock, Tatham, Reverend C Smith, Luttttrell, J Hole of Knowle, Morley of Cannington Park and the Farthing family. Walter Farthing for many years carried off principal honours at shows. Sir Alexander Hood’s herd was regarded as particularly fine and in the neighbourhood of Taunton, Messrs. Bult and Bond improved the larger, but plainer sort of Devon then common in the Vale of Taunton Deane by crossing with the best North Devon blood.

In Cornwall, Rodd and Tremayne were the foremost among the early pioneers of the extension westward of the breed. In counties farther afield, the Earl of Leister had a prominent herd in Norfolk. William Childe of Kinlet Hall in Shropshire took up the Devon cause and had a fine herd obtaining from Francis Quartly the noted bull Prize 108. Essex had Conyers of Copt Hall; Bedfordshire, the Duke of Bedford and Worcester, the Earl Beauchamp.

Dorsetshire breeders brought out the capabilities of the Devon as a dairy breed while the Old Somerset variety was developed to produce the highest weights. These had much success at Smithfield where one of the most perfect specimens of the time was Samuel Kidner’s champion ox, bred at Bickley but combining the best of the North Devon and Somerset bloodlines and weighing 19 cwts.

Midway through the nineteenth century, the Devon breed had become firmly established and, by the end of the century, were second only to the Shorthorn in numbers, as evidenced by these statistics produced by a Board of Agriculture census.

Aberdeen Angus193,960
Lincolnshire Red-Shorthorn168,790
Channel Islands101,233
Highland Kyloes98,804
South Devon96,991
Red Poll27,232