Tom Sampson

A Dedicated Horseman

Tom Sampson aged 76

Tom Sampson died in November 1999 aged 77 after a lifetime devoted to working horses – Percherons in particular.

Born at Harbridge Farm, Hampshire, Tom was the fourth generation of his family to live and farm there – they had first established themselves at Harbridge in 1882. When he was growing up during the 1920s and 1930s, horses were an integral part of rural life. Even at the tender age of eleven, Tom had his responsibilities.

Every morning he took the farm’s milk by pony and cart to the railway station, where he unloaded the churns and stabled the pony at a nearby public house before going to school. During his lunch break he went back to feed his pony, which he drove home again after lessons had finished for the day.

Tom’s upbringing on the farm as the eldest in the family prepared him well for further responsibility. In 1941 his father died, leaving him to run the farm at only 19 years of age. Although he had aspirations to join the RAF, since farming was deemed an essential industry he had to spend the war years working hard to produce food, using a mixture of horses, mostly Shire crossbreds. He wasn’t entirely happy with them, wishing they moved faster and were less hairy legged so, not surprisingly, when Tom first came across Percheron horses at the Royal Show, he decided that they suited his needs perfectly.

Some of the Sampson Percherons at work

A clean-legged French breed, invariably grey (Tom’s favourite colour) or black, the horses he saw belonged to the Chivers family from Cambridge. They had been using these horses for some time to cultivate their large acreage of fruit and vegetables that were used for the production of their renowned jams and preserves, proving their hardiness and suitability for a variety of jobs around the farm.

Tom found that he could perform some tasks on the farm better with his gelding Gilbert than with a tractor. Apart from being an extremely hard worker, the horse was intelligent and when feeding his cattle, Tom could leave his horse to select the best route across the field whilst he threw out the fodder – yet a tractor required two men to perform this function. Not only that but a tractor is unable to think for itself!

Despite this, the working horse did seem doomed to become an extinct species after the Second World War when it was discarded in huge numbers in favour of mechanisation. Within a decade there were very few to be seen working on English farms. However, not only did Tom Sampson work with horses, but in the 1969s he trained to become a farrier, qualifying for admission to the Farriers’ Register. Running his own forge he was able to use his skills to convert equipment, designed for use with tractors, to use with horses.

Tom and his Percherons at the Ploughing Championships

Tom Sampson never gave up his horses; in fact, he began increasing his stock of Percherons and started to breed from them. Brockett Victory, who won first prize at the Royal Show, bred many fine foals for him. He also stood the stallion Tuddenham Major at the farm for several years. Another horse that really played a major role in the farm’s breeding programme was Three Holes Limdon (who was known as Sailor). This was a superbly bred horse, the great grandson of the French bred Limon, who had been breed champion seven times in the face of serious competition when the fortunes of the breed were at a peak. Over the years Sailor sired many foals, some of which are still on the farm nowadays.

Sailor had another invaluable role to play – that of teaching young horses. His strength and sensible nature enabled him to command young horses that were yoked beside him, which must have been a great boon to Tom, who had undertaken the breaking-in and the training of the black Shire belonging to Young’s Brewery of London. To this day the brewery is renowned for its superb teams of black Shires with white legs, all impeccably behaved, pulling drays on the streets of London or in the show ring.

St Giles Steam Fire Engine in full flow.....
For some years these horses learned their skills on the Hampshire farm, thanks to the knowledgeable handling of Tom Sampson and his family. Many visitors to shows in England and abroad in recent years will have enjoyed the remarkable sight of the St Giles steam fire engine charging into the ring at a furious pace, pulled by Tom’s Percheron horses. The ‘fire’ is quickly extinguished and the crew and engine exit the arena as speedily as they arrive! The family first ‘horsed’ the engine in 1957 and eventually it was purchased by the family and is now kept permanently at Harbridge.

Tom was a great supporter of the British Percheron Horse Society, of which he eventually became President in 1983. He was also one of the founder members of the Southern Counties Heavy Horse Association – the oldest of the UK’s working horse associations, formed in 1970 to prevent further decline in the number of working horses and the skills associated with them. Tom and other members of his family have always been stalwart supporters of the Association and he always looked forward to taking part in the annual ploughing championships, until last year when, sadly, he was not well enough to attend.

Fittingly, Tom’s final journey to Harbridge Church took place on his family’s Hampshire boat wagon, which is used each year in the Ringwood Carnival. Tom Sampson was very active in such local affairs and served as a Parish Councillor for 33 years. Fortunately Tom passed on his passion for working horses to his family and his skills live on through them. His son Robert is the fifth generation of his family to work Harbridge Farm. Robert initiated the first Progress Day in the UK at the farm a few years ago (now an annual event on the SCHHA’s Calendar) and he can easily be spotted at any ploughing match he attends by his multiple-hitch teams. Robert’s children are all involved with horses in some way or other and his sister Rowena and her husband John McDermott have been the prime movers behind the Heavy Horse Driving Trials and the participation of a British team in the Boulogne-Paris Fish Race.

Tom Sampson lived the life of a truly dedicated horseman. Thankfully, his legacy will live on.

A new 90 minute video is available which follows the Sampson Percherons through the year. Entitled "Working Horses in My Blood with Robert Sampson", it promises to be a fascinating film, portraying the lives of working horses at the beginning of a new century.

Cost £20 plus £2.50 postage and packing (UK).

Full details and overseas postage rates from Heavy Horse World

Visit the book review section for this superb photographic record of Shire horses from nearly a century ago

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