Monday, May 14, 2012


When I was a schoolboy, we were expected to learn an assortment of curious old units of weights and measures. One of the strangest of these obsolete specimens—which came down to Australians as part of our British heritage—was the furlong: a distance of 1/8 of a mile, 220 yards. Initially, the furlong was a medieval term associated with the use of bullocks to plow a field.

The Anglo-Saxon legend is "God Spede ye Plough and send us Korne enow": an invocation to the plow to perform its function efficiently, so as to yield enough corn.

At Waterview in South Grafton, my Walker uncles used a pair of draft horses to plow their land. And their grandfather Charles Walker [1851-1918] was a so-called teamster, in charge of a bullock team that transported timber.

As the original expression "furrow long" suggests, a furlong was the length of a furrow in a plowed field. A wit suggested that, to please nostalgic rural Brits, automobile speeds might be indicated today in furlongs per fortnight. In my native land, the term "furlong" survived in the domain of horse racing, but Australia finally changed to metric distances in 1972.

Over the last week or so, I've been brought back in contact with ancient English units of measure through my work on Skeffington genealogy. Now that I've completed my book whose title is They Sought the Last of Lands [access], I've moved back to the challenge of assembling a greatly-revised version of a document whose new title is Skeffington One-Name Study [access].

It will start with the Norman Conquest and attempt to describe how the patriarchal family from Leicestershire flowed out into several corners of the British Isles, including (in the case of my recent ancestors) Dorset.

Details of the original manor in the settlement of Sceaftinga tûn are available through the Domesday Book, which can now be viewed freely on the web [access]. The settlement is described here on line #6:

The settlement referred to in Domesday (1086) as Sciftitone belonged entirely to King William. It included 12 carucates of plowed land (1440 acres, or some 583 hectares), a mill and 6 square furlongs (24 hectares) of woodland.

I now realize that, before being able to write correctly about the ancient origins of the Skeffington family, I'll need to broaden my technical knowledge, not only of land measures, but of feudalism in general and the old manorial system.

Talking about plowed land, I took this photo today of my neighbor's cousin, who brought his tractor across from Châtelus and spent an hour or so preparing the earth at Gamone for Jackie's vegetable garden.

Thinking back to my childhood in Australia—and my lessons about archaic furlongs, rods, carucates and so forth—I now realize that we were no doubt closer in spirit to the Anglo-Saxon fellow in the drawing at the top of this blog post than to the modern mechanized neighbor in the above photo. Hey, that's a great revelation: I grew up in medieval surroundings!

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