Monday 30 November 2020

Lammas Land at Eton by Robert Weatherall

Lammas. The Name comes down to us from Saxon times about a thousand years ago, Originally, it meant a
special religious feast the hlof maesse, or loaf mass, to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest. Experts disagree as to which day in the year that would be; some say August 1st., others, the 12th. Both of these probably meant the same day before the calendar was reformed in 1752. For centuries now, with us, the date has been August 1st. It is a pity that religious observances connected with the occasion have not been maintained.

With us, too, Lammas day has now lost its connection with the harvest. It is not very often that crops are ripe by August 1st.; and the feast must have been associated with some crop suitable for making into bread or cakes. That now would mean wheat: in Times past it probably meant rye, a crop which in these parts might well ripen early enough to be cut and threshed' before the end of July. One rarely sees rye growing here in these days, and never for making into bread.

At Eton, every freeholder, tenant, householder and cottager, living within the old parish boundaries possesses rights of grazing cattle on the Lammas lands. At first these rights may have extended over the grassland alone. We have to realise that in times past more land here was under the plough. Apart from small enclosures round the houses, the "in-ground", reserved for private use, the only land for grazing during the Summer was the Great and Little Commons. There were, of course, not so many cattle -then, although there would be more sheep, since sheep were needed for wool, to be spun and woven at home. Cotton was almost unknown.

Other grassland had to be cut for hay. That was how South Meadow got its name. Besides it, the low-lying Meads and Slads were used as meadows, along with other smaller patches most liable to flood. This land reserved for hay was most probably divided into strips belonging to the separate villagers, marked only by pegs in the ground. The strips of grass would be cut with scythe or sickle. What more natural than that after the hay had been carried homer the cattle and sheep, which had been grazing on the commons, should now be allowed to eat the aftermath? They were looked after by the Hayward. Notice the name; he was there to guard the hay.

How Lammas rights came to include the arable land we do not know. At Eton the rights run from August 1st. to October 31st. During the first half of this period much of the plough land is covered with corn crops, either still standing or cut and waiting to be carted home. There has never been any suggestion that the animals should wander over the fields before they have been cleared. The only exception might have been land left in fallow In many parts of the country it was the custom to let sheep graze over the fallow fields. Curiously enough, however, at Eton there is very little mention of this type of farming practice.

Similarly, Lammas rights might well have been a hindrance to the introduction of new crops, such as roots and clover, which are still in the ground in the autumn. It seems as if it was the Court Baron of 1871 which first allowed the farmers to grow turnips, and there is nothing now to prevent them growing clover. More than that, in post-war years we have seen considerable areas used for growing market garden produce, and many fruit trees and bushes have been planted, There must be some people still alive who can remember when Lammas land was first allowed to be used for allotments, as well as for the recreation Grounds, both at Eton and Eton Wick. That shows how ancient institutions can be adapted so suit modern needs.

Nevertheless, down the centuries these Lammas rights have had a great influence on the development of the parish. Thanks to them, much of the land has been kept free from building. Otherwise, the river bank might now be covered with bungalows, while Eton and Eton Wick might have become joined into one big residential district.

For a long time the only building possible was on land not subject to Lammas, chiefly on the small enclosures around the houses. That explains the compact nature of the two village centres: It also explains how difficult it has been to find new sites for the natural growth of Eton town as well as of the College, Eton Wick has been fortunate in being able to expand on to land which once belonged to Boveney, and not subject to Lammas.

Thinking along these lines one wonders how some areas are now free from Lammas. The Brocas, apparently; was always free It has a history of its own, for in Norman times it was owned by people living in Clewer. Something similar may be true of the land at Clewer Point. Perhaps at one time it was an island in the river.

The cedar tree in the Sanatorium grounds shows how long the land there has been free from Lammas; and for many years there has been an orchard at Crown Farm, much as Mr. R. Tarrant has it to-day. Along with these we must include the land on which two Eton boarding houses now stand. We do not know how these areas became free. We can guess, however, that the line of buildings along the west side of the lower part of Keate's Lane, which were once in private ownership, and the houses near the "Willow Tree" first originated in the good old English way of "squatting".

Examples of how with time and ingenuity one can get round the strict letter of the law come from the Eton town allotments. When they were first begun it was laid down that no erection should be more than eighteen inches high. Since then we have seen full-sized sheds appear, along with chicken runs and pig styes, complete with concrete floors. One plot, builder J. Platt, a stonemason, dug downwards and constructed a store place underground made of old stones from Windsor Castle and Eton College. Another plot holder, A. Dore, a wheelwright, went even further, he dug out a workplace, and for quite a time pursued his trade of making wheelbarrows and even ladders, unmolested by ancient customs.

Yet while Lammas rights have hindered building development, they have not prevented it altogether, it can be seen from the changes which have taken place in recent decades. The Church, school and churchyard at Eton Wick exist on land which almost certainly at one time was subject to Lammas. On this point, however, the records are not precise. We have clearer facts about the Pumping Station and Village Hall, and in more recent years, about the council houses at Broken Furlong and along Somerville Road. In these cases, building took place after proposals had been discussed at public meetings and proper resolutions had been passed.

The case of Bell Farm is interesting. Just before his death Mr. Robert Nason told me that the land  was at one time subject to Lammas, but when it became a sewage farm the Lammas rights were abolished the understanding that for the future no such rights should be exercised on behalf of Bell Farm in other parts of the parish.

This indicates one way in which these rights might be completely abolished. That they have continued at Eton so long while disappearing in most other parts of the country is due chiefly to the fact that no Enclosure Act was ever carried through here. All the time they have been controlled by the Eton Court Baron, under the old manorial system what land was Laminas and what was not depended on custom and the living memory of the people at the time. No old map of these areas seems to exist.

About ten years ago there was an informal, meeting arranged by J. H. Sayner, the town-planning officer, at which H. Dunce, a farmer of Eton Wick, and G. Gosling, a road-sweeper of Eton, both members of the 1908 CourtBaron, went over the map field by field saying what was and what was not subject to Lammas. This information was then embodied in the town-planning proposals and formally adopted; so now we have official regulations reinforcing the ancient rights in influencing the development of the parish.

All this may make alterations of lammas rights somewhat more difficult, but it would be a pity if customs originating, centuries ago should stultify the present life of the people. Cases in point are the two Recreation Grounds, now subject to Lammas. The question of freeing them arose as far back as 1898, when separate meetings of the parishioners of Eton Wick, the Eton Wick Parish Council and the Eton Town Council all passed resolutions in favour of the change being made, Why these resolutions were not acted upon still remains a mystery. There is no reason why the Recreation Grounds should continue under Lammas in perpetuity; and, although the problem of freeing them may seem complicated and difficult, it might well become a useful object for communal aims and action in this Festival Year. The same result, however, would be achieved if, as during last summer, the farmers were to refrain from exercising their rights on these areas, That would redound to their good sense and public spirit while producing a solution both traditional and typically British. 

Robert Weatherall

Note. It is unknown where this article was first published or when. The mention of "this Festival Year" seems to suggest 1951 as a likely date. Robert Weatherall was an Air Raid Warden during WW2 and the 1939 Register recorded that he was live at  Sanatorium Cottage at beginning of the war. He was born in 1899.

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