A Warrener constructed and maintained Rabbit Warrens; rabbits, or conies as they used to be called, live in family groups in underground burrows or holes interconnected by tunnels and a group of burrows is called a Warren. A domestic Warren is an artificial establishment of animal husbandry dedicated to the raising of rabbits for meat and fur both of which were once considered luxury items - one rabbit being worth more than a workman’s daily wage. A Warrener usually worked on the estate of the Lord of the Manor for whom the ownership of a Warren was a status symbol equal to that of fishponds or a dovecot. However, some did work independently, like farmers, leasing land for a period of twenty one years.
Warreners constructed linear, rectangular, square and round warrens known as pillow mounds with tunnels and internal dry stone walls. The roof would be made of turves and topped with reeds and branches for extra protection in Winter. The warren was usually surrounded by a ditch with an earth bank, often filled with water, or a dry stone wall to prevent the rabbits from escaping and causing damage to surrounding farmland. Beyond this was a pale or fence to keep out predators, such as foxes, weasels, rats and stoats, and special traps for catching such vermin. On some Warrens there were even watch towers. The breeding does needed a separate protected accommodation area to raise their young.
Another task was the provision of extra fodder for the rabbits such as: root crops, hay and bracken, dandelions and groundsel were considered a delicacy, and hazel, elder and ash were also used as leafy hay. All of this had to be cultivated and coppiced.
Warreners kept dogs, in particular lurchers, and ferrets to drive the rabbits out of the Warren into purse nets – one means of trapping; another was the Tip Trap, a circular, stone lined pit covered by a net into which the rabbits were lured with food. The rabbits were usually killed in the Spring but if food for over wintering was scarce they would be culled in the Autumn.
My three times Great Grandfather, George ATWELL, and his sons were Warreners. George was born in the village of Churchill, North Somerset, in 1787 to Henry ATWELL and his wife Ann REEDMAN. We know little of his childhood; it is, however, likely that his Father was either an Agricultural Labourer or a Miner, or was he too a Warrener? In 1789, when George was only two, William Wilberforce visited Chedder and observed the poor circumstances in which the local people were living. He mentioned this to a fellow philanthropist, Hannah More - Teacher and Evangelical Christian - then living in Somerset, and she set about building schools where the local children would learn to read and study religion – no writing at this time. If George did not benefit from this his children and grandchildren most certainly would have.
George married Sarah COX on 26 August 1810 at Bedminster. The couple had six children: George, Elizabeth, John, James, Henry and Joseph. On the 1841 Census for the Parish of Rowberrow George is described as a Warrener. Ten years later in 1851, having become a Widower, he is still described as a Warrener looking after an area of 520 acres, together with his son Joseph. Joseph had married Ellen ADAMS in 1849 and they have the first two of their ten children at this time. The family were all living at Warren House, Rowberrow, so we know that a house went with the job and that therefore George and Joseph were in the employ of the local Lord of the Manor or, perhaps, leasing the Warren. Also in 1851, George’s son, Henry, who was living at Upper Langford with his wife Mary and family is also listed as being a Warrener. Henry had married Mary VENN in 1844 and they had two of their eleven children by this time.
By 1861 George’s son, Joseph, had taken over as Warrener and was still living at Warren House, Rowberrow. George was now living with his eldest son, also named George and his wife, Jane BURDGE, who he had married in 1839, and their family at Dolebury in the Parish of Churchill and both Father and Son are listed as Agricultural Labourers. Although the term Agricultural Labourer is used on these Census Returns, I am more than sure that George and his sons were all involved in the business of Warrening. George died in the Summer of 1861 age 73.
On the larger Warrens the Warrener and his family would live in the Lodge or Warren House, a sturdy, two storied structure, built as both a home and a working base for the drying of skins and the storage of both skins and carcasses and all the equipment, nets, traps, etc, necessary for the job.
Situated on the chalky grassland of the Mendip Hills between the villages of Churchill and Rowberrow is Dolebury Warren, a medieval and post medieval warren. Dolebury Warren, which lies on the North scarp of the Mendips, was located in what was an Iron Age Hill Fort known as Dolebury Camp; hill forts were ideal locations for warrens due to their construction using ditches and ramparts. Between 1770-1813 18,000 acres of land on the Mendip Hills were enclosed using either earth banks or dry stone walls – ideal for rabbit husbandry. The preferred orientation for a Warren was on a gentle slope for drainage and the soil needed to be soft for burrowing.
George ATWELL’S second child, Elizabeth, married Thomas RAYNER on the 16 February 1841 at the Parish Church of St Thomas, Bristol. They had three children: Louisa, Thomas and Ellen. Louisa married Alfred Charles RIDDIFORD on the 26 February 1878 at St Philips, Birmingham and they were the parents of my Grandmother, Edith Mary RIDDIFORD. Edith Mary married Bernard COURT on the 3 September 1900 at the Parish Church, Harborne. They had three daughters: Beryl Irene, Edith Rita and Audrey Joyce. Edith Rita married Charles Alfred DICKIN on 18 March 1937 in Birmingham and they were my parents.
If anyone is interested in any of the foregoing and can add to it I shall be very pleased to hear from you.
(The image included with this article is from the English Heritage website)