Shepherds huts: tiny houses on wheels commonly used by British shepherds since the 18th century

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Milica Sterjova
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The small mobile home known as the shepherds hut or shepherds wagon dates from the 15th century but it became more widely used in the late 18th and early 19th century. They were still being produced and used in the 20th century. The earliest illustration of the hut is a painting from the 15th century by the French painter Simon Marmion which depicts a shepherds style wagon.

Shepherds huts were mostly used in Great Britain and France as a shelter for the shepherd as he moved his flock to wherever there was suitable pasture. The original huts were made at the farms with whatever material was available. They started being manufactured commercially in the 18th century. Sheep farming was practiced in Great Britain for centuries but the huts were mostly seen in lowland fields because they were easier to handle. In muddy or hilly terrains, more permanent type of dwellings were built because the shepherds hut was difficult to move.

The crops were fertilized with organic fertilizer (manure) but often the fields would be too far from the farm so transportation would be a problem. The usual wagons that were used were unable to reach all the fields. The problem was solved by taking the animals, usually sheep, to the crops. The animals were crucial for planting crops, because they would eat the grass on the fields, fertilize the soil and leave it ready for planting crops. After it had finished, the flock would be moved to another field.

The shepherd was considered one of the most important workers on the farm. He had to be around the flock at all times so he needed a place to stay and rest. The solution was the shepherds hut, a small hut on wheels which would allow the flocks to be on the fields all year long supervised by the shepherd, especially during the lambing season.

A shepherds hut in Hampshire. Author: Glen Bowman. CC BY 2.0

The huts varied in design but their purpose was the same – to provide a reliable and practical dwelling for the shepherd. The original hut were about 12 foot long and 6 foot wide because they had to fit through the farm gates. Small wooden steps led to the hinged hut door. The early examples included two windows on each side on the hut, so that the shepherd could look out over the sheep.

A view of the interior. Author: Glen Bowman. CC BY 2.0

The hut served as a kitchen, bedroom, dining and sitting room, all of this in a single space. There was a small stove in one of the corners which would keep him warm and where he would cook his meals. The bed was placed over a cage, called a lamb rack, where lambs were kept if they were injured. The hut also included a small medicine cabinet with the necessary medication for the flock.

A hut in the Rural Life Centre in Tilford, Surrey, UK. Author: Simon Burchell. CC BY-SA 3.0

The wheels had to be strong enough because the hut often moved so they were made of cast iron. The roof was made of wood and waterproofed with tar or other material up until mid 18th century when corrugated steel roofs were introduced. The shepherd’s hut was quite expensive, sometimes the same as six months salary of a shepherd, so it was the landowners who bought them for their workers.

Restored shepherds hut at Petworth House, West Sussex. Author: Martinvl. CC BY-SA 4.0

Around World War I there were some major changes in the existing farming methods. After artificial fertilizers and mechanization were introduced in agriculture and lamb was being imported, the need for huge flocks decreased. This led to the inevitable decline in usage of the shepherd’s huts. By the 1950s they stopped being used, and many of them could be seen abandoned in the fields or destroyed.

Shepherd wagons at the Great Dorset Steam Fayre. Author: Michael Trolove. CC BY-SA 2.0

In more recent years shepherds huts are being rediscovered. They have found new roles, from storage spaces to garden offices or extra bedrooms. Some manufacturers build new huts or restore old ones. The new huts are well furnished and some of them have kitchens, bathrooms, and showers.

The shepherds hut at Stockbridge Open Gardens. Author: Herry Lawford. CC BY 2.0

In order to put all the necessary elements inside, many of them are bigger then the original huts. They are a perfect choice if someone is looking for a truly private spot. Whatever the purpose of the shepherds hut, it can be, without a doubt, a great addition to the yard or the garden.