Remembering Eric Freeman MBE

Eric Freeman lived on his family farm, on the northern edge of the Forest of Dean, keeping the Newent herd of rare Gloucester cattle (a dual-purpose milk and beef breed), Ryeland Sheep (native to the rye-lands between Herefordshire and Gloucestershire), and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs originally bought from Gordon Cullimore’s Walgaston herd and assorted rare breed fowl. He also had a life-long passion for heavy horses, and in the past worked a team of Shires. Eric had a major dispersal sale of his GOS herd in 2005 but could not give them up buying an in-pig gilt just 10 days after it! At 86 he was made a Life Vice President by the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs and is still the GOSPBC’s number one publicity man with his frequent appearances in the local newspapers and on radio and television. He was made President of the Club in 2019 until his death in 2023. He is also an Honorary Life Governor of the Royal Three Counties Show. Adam Henson’s dad Joe Henson (right)worked with Eric and others to form the RBST and Eric is fondly remembered by him. “Eric Freeman is almost like an Uncle to me; I’ve known him all my life, he’s a man of sage advice and we share the same passion for conserving Britain’s traditional farm livestock.”,

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of meeting Eric, we can only sympathise and by way of description, say that he was truly, one of only a very few of nature’s real gentlemen. There follows part of an interview he did with Richard Lutwyche which first appeared in the Ark in 1996.

He opened our discussion by apologising that his knowledge of pigs was limited as his father had hated them – “their faces take too much washing”, Freeman senior would say, meaning that their feed was too much trouble and expense – and thus Eric did not have any until he was married. His father always had a pithy turn of phrase and Eric is recording many of his homespun proverbs and sayings for posterity such as ‘Better never rise at all than rise too high and have to fall’. Eric’s first pig came from his newly acquired father-in-law and was a large sow of a white colour. As time drew towards farrowing, so she grew until the day arrived… and she had one solitary piglet. His father, George, looked over the sty door and thoughtfully announced, “Arrr, money-spinners! Aye.” Yet Eric’s grandfather had kept pigs on his small farm in Newent, although farming was not his main livelihood as he was the local undertaker and draper and did a little dealing in livestock to boot. He had some buildings adjoining the old Newent cattle market with a special rail in the perimeter fence which could be slid aside so that he could drive his pigs or sheep straight into their market pens. That fence still stands although the market is long gone, and cast-iron fence posts stand sentry to the memories of countless sales with stock brought in from the small farms in the many surrounding villages.

His grandfather had started farming and in 1911 employed ‘Old Cecil’ to look after the pigs, which were all housed in buildings. Originally, they were supplied to local pork butchers but by the 1930s they were being sent up to G.H. Monk & Co Ltd in Birmingham whose local agent was Charlie Clissold “from Stroud way” who was, by all accounts, quite a character, always attired in a battered old green trilby hat. In fact, Eric’s grandfather was killed when he was hit by a car whilst leaving his lorry to open a gate to load stock for Monks around Christmas 1934.

Eric remembers the strange policy of not feeding the pigs on Sundays, or a least not with their usual swill diet. On the Sabbath, they got instead a bran mash followed by a shovelful of slack coal – a purification diet to help rid them of any excesses in the swill during the week.

The swill was collected in a large square slate tank, which would be full to the brim. It was not considered ready until is started ‘to ferment’ and bubble when it would be mixed with barley meal and then with ‘sharps’, a form of flour, and fed to the appreciative pigs.

In 1972, when Eric acquired his first Gloucestershire Old Spots, another retainer of the family, ‘Old Joe’, ‘Old Cecil’s ‘ son and heir, muttered darkly that they “ouldn’t be druv” and explained that, in the early 1930s, Eric’s grandfather had bought some at a local farm sale and had left Joe to herd them back along the road to Newent, a walk of just a few miles. To those who know their Spots, these were typical of the breed, being well laid back and fancying a lie down on the road rather than a tiresome walk. Thus he had wended his way behind them with a bucket of pebbles, tossing a stone ahead for them to pursue. That drive took up most of the day.

Eric was to discover some of the truth in this with his first batch bought from Chris Whittal who had lots of pigs and decided to sell off his Spots. Eric arrived to collect them and found them sunning themselves in a large wallow. Eventually, they were loaded onto the trailer but back at home, with the trailer reversed up to the straw-filled chicken house prepared for them, they would not budge. He tried lifting their rumps and wheelbarrowing them off and pushing and shoving but to no avail and in desperation, gave up and went in for his dinner. On his return, they were in a heap in the straw in the shed, having moved at their own pace – another example, Eric says, of why there is usually no need to hurry stock.

These were Princesses and Muriels, originally from Gordon Cullimore’s Walgaston herd and he also had what was probably the last Prince boar although he did not discover this until it was too late. It has been sold on to Charles Martell, who also keeps Gloucester cattle and makes traditional Gloucester cheese at Dymock, when Viki Mills contacted Eric in a bid to save the line but by the time she had caught up with him, Prince had gone the way of most old boars and that line was extinct.

Talking of old boars reminds Eric of the sights at the old Gloucester market where there would be special high pens to house huge boars, each frothing prolifically with the white sputum all over the floor of their pens as they vied with each other for dominance. Gordon Cullimore at Berkeley was then about the only Spots breeder in the area and in the years before the RBST, they must have come perilously close to extinction had the few breeders left not stuck with them. Cuthbert Dobbs, at nearby Upleadon, used Spots crossed with a white boar to produce his own strain of white hybrid which had much improved mothering and handling qualities as a result of the GOS blood. Every few generations, he would buy in another Spots sow to boost the genes. Cuthbert’s brother Gilbert was a well known character to local pig breeders since, as well as his job as postman, he would drive a wagon round to local farms with about six boars on board in different compartments. Once you chose your boar, he would tiptoe down a narrow plank to perform his duty before returning to his box. Eric’s main recollection of this early threat to AI was the fact that both the wagon and the individual boars made their presence known from some distance by the rank smell that accompanied them.

As well as the Spots, two British Lops from Geoffrey Cloke joined the Cugley herd at about the same time, one a Harmony, the other an Actress. No two pigs could have been more different, the Harmony being long, lean and white with 16 teats (Eric uses the local term, “dails”, while for a runt of the litter, the local dialect word is “nisco”), who produced a first litter of 14, and the Actress being the shape of the old Lop, short and much rounder and fatter with much more hair which had a sandy tinge to it. Her litter was smaller. Neither stayed very long as the buildings they occupied had to be knocked down to make way for the chicken processing plant he and his brother built to develop their main business.”

Eric Freeman’s interests did not stop at livestock but included almost every aspect of rural life and his part of Gloucestershire, bordering the Forest of Dean, is truly rural to this day. Most of the older cottages would have had a pig cote, (sty), and in many instances these were built on to the house itself, making the feeding of scraps easy. Eric recalls one where the front of the cottage faced the road with just a narrow strip of grass separating the two. Onto the front was built an equally narrow pig cote and from driving past, one could observe the on-going development of the pig inside.

As late as the 1970s, Eric was asked by a local dealer, ‘Bomber’ (pronounced ‘Bummer’) Dee, to collect a pig from a cottage in a nearby village, belonging to ‘Busy’ Benson (surname changed). (Said Mr Benson was not known to work hard but had a large family despite being slight in build and being married to a large and formidable wife.) Two of the sons of ‘Busy’ worked at the flour mills at Gloucester Docks and had access to the sweepings off the lorries and other perks and decided to make good use of these by fattening a pig at home. The cote was built from match board with a small hole cut for the weaner to enter, and there he stayed, growing and developing much as pigs do. Very few cottagers in the old days bothered to muck out until the pig was gone and the sons of ‘Busy’ Benson maintained the old traditions. Eric reversed his Land Rover up to the cote and dropped the tailboard over the ditch to act as a ramp. The only way to get piggy out was to dismantle his prison from around him, since he filled all available space by this time. As the roof was lifted off, the pig blinked at his first sight of daylight since he entered as a scrawny weaner and he was soon loaded up and away with his home de-constructed until next time.

The chances are we shall never experience these things again and certainly things in many ways are much better but in improving things, we lose so much and must now rely on the memories of countrymen like Eric Freeman to recall them as we sit in our centrally heated houses, with our entertainment centres and fast cars and prepacked food from the supermarket.

The establishment of the RBST by forward thinking people like Eric Freeman helped create the opportunity for many people to revert to keeping pigs in the way of old-time cottagers, but with the added bonus of pedigree registration and improvements in husbandry. This did not happen in the post-war period until the Trust was established and it is good that people should come back to having that close understanding of animals by living with them once more.

Eric will be much missed by those who knew him but he leaves a legacy of knowledge which we thankfully have recorded for posterity.

Thanks for the memories Eric RIP.