On The Trail of Mr Woodley: Skeps and Skeppists

I have handled bees nearly all my life, I hived my first swarm in June, 1856, and kept bees in straw skeps till some twenty-seven years ago, and till then did not know foul brood even by name.  I must say that had I kept bees in frame-hires instead of skeps, I should have increased my income from, the pursuit at least tenfold.

[William Woodley, Notes By The Way’, BBJ 1905]


Beekeeping in Beedon during the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Hackle with a skep inside.
Hackle with a skep inside.


In the middle of the 19th century, Beedon consisted of cottage-dwellings dispersed throughout the village. The inhabitants of Beedon were by and large agricultural workers or people who had occupations which supported agriculture.  Their cottages would typically lie within a plot of land and it is this land the cottager would work for their own benefit.  In some cases the cottage came with the job and so the labourers tenure in the cottage would be as long as their job.  In other cases the cottage or more precisely the plot of land would be in control of a family.  Nonetheless, back then beekeeping was an integral agricultural life, William Woodley describes the situation:

…nearly every cottager in the neighbourhood kept bees, and when five to a dozen stocks with their straw hackles graced the farmers’ gardens.  In one or two of these gardens I knew when a boy, twenty-five stocks were always left to stand the winter.  The cottagers used to winter five or seven as a rule, but some kept more for winter stock.  In those days the farmers’ seed fields were fertilized, and the fruit trees were laden with fruit, as the old folks said, “They hung like onion ropes”. [‘Notes By The Way’, BBJ 1913]


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Move to the Frame Hive

The period of the mid-1850’s was a time of discovery and 3 important discoveries/inventions occurred:  Reverend Langstroth had discovered the ‘bee space’; the queen excluder was invented; wired wax foundation frame was invented.  This led to opportunities for entreprenneurs to get into the beekeeping business and invent new hives and other paraphernalia for beekeepers.  It was hoped that beekeepers would discard the skep and adopt the frame-hive.  To do this hive-manufacturers would evangelise this new way of doing things to the farmers and cottagers a like.   One such way was to attend shows.  The  ‘Abbott Brothers’, a hive-manufacturer, came to Wantage in 1881.  William Woodley recalls:

If I remember aright, the main object of the B.B.K.A. was to help the cottage bee-keeper to a more humane and profitable system of bee-keeping, and after more than thirty years’ teaching I am afraid with that particular class we have failed, and one of the principal causes of our failure (I believe) has been the lectures of experts with vans and tents expatiating on the methods of the cottager in straining his honey from his mashed-up combs, which in many cases spoiled the sale of his produce.   [Notes By The Way’, BBJ 1910]

I would like to speculate that Mr Woodley encountered ‘Abbotts Bros’ at Wantage in 1881, and this convinced him to adopt the ‘Combination Hive’.

BBJ 1881 p92 - Wantage Horticultural Society - Wantage - glass super as referred by WW 1910

Anent the straw skep as a honey producer, I may say that the finest and heaviest bell-glass of comb honey I ever saw was exhibited at a flower and honey show at Wantage, Berks (the birthplace of King Alfred), under the auspices of the Berks B.K. Association, in 1880 or 1881.  It weighed 94 or 96 lbs. net.  Since that time I myself have worked some extra fine bell-glass supers of between 80 to 90 lb. each, but I never reached the weight of the one stored on the now despised straw skep. [Mr Woodley, Notes By The Way’, BBJ 1911]

I find I did not mention that that heavy bell glass (8042) was worked on the top of a straw skep, and that my bell glasses have always been worked (at least, my large ones were) on bar-framed hives. [Mr Woodley, Notes By The Way’, BBJ 1911]


The Decline of the Cottager

From the end of the 19 century the prospects of both cottager and the skep were poor.  For the cottager agriculture needed less men because of mechanisation and typically the cottager did not adopt the frame-hive and because cottagers were too poor to buy the hives and equipment.  Many cottagers ceased beekeeping as they believed their tenure in their cottage would short.

In these days of “small holdings” I have no doubt that bee-keeping will make a great advance as a help to pay the rent of the “holding”.  The latter, with security of tenure, will come as a “settler” of the occupier of such.  During the past twenty or thirty years the agricultural labourer has been in the habit of changing his employer yearly, if not oftener, with the result that he has ceased to be a bee-keeper.  The new condition will, I hope, find him taking to bees for his own profit and the well-being of the community at large, for a bee-keeper confers a general benefit on farmers, fruit-growers, and market-gardeners by increasing their respective crops through fertilisation of fruit and seed.  I hope our county associations will not neglect the small-holders, but gather them into fellowship and membership and induce them to keep bees. [William Woodley, Notes By the Way, BBJ 1908]

Fifty years ago nearly every cottager and every farmer kept bees in this district.  Now I know of two farmers only who keep bees, and one of these apiaries is catalogued for sale this month.  The cottager beekeepers can be counted on the fingers of one hand in two or three villages.  In saying this I am not disparaging the modern frame hive system, as I have proved its benefits myself, but I know the cottagers’ capabilities, and except in a few instances the frame hive is beyond his management, whereas in the times gone by four or five skeps in a good season would produce enough to pay the rent. [William Woodley – Notes By The Way’, BBJ 1911]

And finally Mr Woodley writing in 1913 also adds this:

Now the country side is bereft of bees, the modern farmer (at least in this neighbourhood) does not trouble to keep them, the cottager, “like master, like man,” follows suit, and has practically given up bee-keeping.  We have one agricultural labourer only who keeps bees in Beedon, and it is much the same in the surrounding parishes.  The frame-hive is out of their reach.  How can a cottager on 11s. or 12s. per week invest in hives and other necessary appliances for modern bee-keeping?  And what with the introduction and spread of bee diseases by misapplied modern methods, the minor industry of apiculture is in a parlous condition indeed in Wessex. [ Notes By The Way, BBJ, 1 May 1913]

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2 thoughts on “On The Trail of Mr Woodley: Skeps and Skeppists

  1. I never realised bee keeping was so common. I have seen the old keps but never the hackles, so interesting. Amelia

  2. “And what with the introduction and spread of bee diseases by misapplied modern methods, the minor industry of apiculture is in a parlous condition” – he could be talking about the 1990s there. Starting out in beekeeping is still relatively expensive too.

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