Market Lavington Museum

How to make a dewpond

Some of our recent blogs have featured the Smith family of pond diggers from Market Lavington. (See Mr Stowe on pond making and Sybil Perry on pond digging for more information and links to related pages.)

Sybil Perry, a former school teacher, descended from the Smith family and has provided Market Lavington with a lot of information about pond digging and other aspects of local life. (See Sybil Perry’s Memories.) Edgar Stowe’s book on Crafts of the Countryside outlines the procedure for making ponds. Sybil’s tape recording gives further detail, which we will look at now.

She spoke of all the family members who were pond diggers in generations past, and provided a family tree, showing the pond makers marked in green.

The pond making process was lengthy – taking a couple of months – and involved a lot of manual labour, provided by the Smiths’ team, augmented by employing workers who lived close to the digging site. The tools were basic, comprising only spades, rakes, tape measures, spirit levels, wheelbarrows and beaters, also known as bitels or boitles. (See A Boitle and Mr Stowe on bitels.)

Ponds could be made in various sizes, according to need. A large pond made by the Smiths in Basingstoke measured 20 yards by 30 yards and was 12 feet deep.

Sybil told us that the first job was to dig the hole, making sure to rescue any worms. The slope of the sides had to be made at a specific angle and then consolidated. This was done by leading a horse around the edges and it would take a month before it was hard enough.

Then 4 or 5 inches of soft clay was used to cover the sides and bottom of the pond hole. This was kept soft by covering it with damp straw. The clay was beaten down with beaters made in Market Lavington by Joseph Gye. These had a steel plate on the bottom as they were put to hard work, beating the clay down to half its original depth. Then the surface was slaked with lime and water and beaten again, until it was as smooth as glass. This process was called puddling.

The next layer was burnt lime, two and a half inches deep. This was beaten before adding 5 inches of fresh wheat straw. Then, soft soil was added, up to a foot in depth and finally a layer of chalk rubble was used to protect the pond lining being damaged by animal hooves.

The pond was started off by putting in some water or letting it fill with rain. During the filling process, and afterwards, it was important not to let the sides dry out as cracking could cause leaks to form. The pond normally kept itself filled with rain and condensing fog and mist.

At the museum, we have a photograph of the trade plate from earlier days of the Smith’s pond making business.

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Sybil was thrilled to find out that, in 1930-1, her Uncle Tom had used the dewpond method to make the first thirty animal drinking ponds at Whipsnade Zoo.