Wednesday 11 October 2023

The 18th Century Village of Eton Wick – Part One - Why Eton Wick is surrounded by open fields

The Village landscape was like the majority of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire in years leading up to the 18th century one of open fields, commons and other waste land with small tenant farmers, cottagers and squatters utilizing a rented un-enclosed strip of land from the Lord of the Manor or exercising a common right to graze their pigs, geese or maybe a cow upon the common land. During the late 17th and early 18th century improvements in animal husbandry and the harvest of arable crops gave impetus to enclosure of land by landlords and the Government. These changes in farming practice at that time could have led to later developments that would have made Eton Wick Urban in the late 20th century, an urban sprawl but for the opposition of the villagers and the influence of Eton College in the Houses of Parliament. 

For at least 700 years Eton Wick was administered through the Vestry of Eton but in 1894 this came to an end through the Civil Parishes Act. Eton Town became an urban District and Eton Wick became a Civil Parish in the Eton Rural District. The decision by Henry VI to build Eton College whose presence over the last six centuries has influenced the lives of those living in Eton and Eton Wick immensely, whether through the purchase of property or the employment of services and labour. 

Queen Anne, King George 1st, King George 2nd and King George 3rd
The first four monarchs of Great Britain after the Union of England and Scotland in 1707

The 18th Century had commenced and closed with England at war with France. Queen Anne succeeded to the throne in 1702 to be followed by George 1st in 1714, George 2nd in 1727 and George 3rd in 1760. Technical innovation during the century brought vast changes to the way of life. The introduction of the flying shuttle to speed the pace of handloom weaving, followed by the efficiency in the use of steam power but some of the main advancement during the century was in agriculture. One Historian calculated that in the early 1700's each person engaged in farming fed 1.7 persons and by the end of the century one agricultural worker fed 2.5 persons. The late 1600's and early 1700's saw improvements in use of the soil which gave increased cereal and root crops leading to better fed cattle to produce more dung thereby increasing more yield from the land, also the improved yield of grain and the introduction of the turnip root crop allowed cattle to be winter rather than slaughtered for lack of winter feed. 

This together with new agricultural tools, like Jethro Tull's development of his seed drill, were

publicized in books such as the Annals of Agriculture by one Arthur Young in 1784 to be read by the progressive farmer and landowner. It also led to the birth of the agricultural engineering industry which also spawned the industry's catalogues for seeds, plants, and machinery. Similar books were published by Eton Printer and Bookseller, Joseph Pote, one title being 'Gentleman's Farriery, (or, a practical treatise, on the diseases of horses). The book was written by J. Bartlet and first published in 1753.

Landowners realised that to achieve higher output and returns from the land, enclosure of the open fields and the abandonment of the strip as the fundamental unit of tenancy, together with the common lands would be a necessary part of these improvements. No doubt news of these technical developments and the expanding international and local trade were talked of and marvelled at here about as like today, but for the village tenant farmer and cottager it was still the sweat of his brow that tilled the ground, sowed the crops and husband the animals for much of the century, but the threat of enclosure must have been an increasing worry, probably being the main talking point for the tenant farmer and commoner of Eton Wick. The implications for those who leased their land from an absence landlord, would see it as having a disastrous effect for their livelihood with no redress and no-one to stand up for them. 

Creeping enclosure of pasture had been practised since Tudor times with the widespread enclosure of Sheep ranges and with the penning of flocks to manure the land to sustain fertility. By rationalization of scattered inefficient holdings and their transfer as compact commercially viable units to farmers with expertise and a forward outlook on the market economy, enclosure of holdings gathered pace during the century either with the connivances of the Landlord or perhaps strong-arm influence. 

At first legal enclosure was obtained by a Chancery Degree but this was superseded by the introduction of acts of Parliament in the eighteenth century. 

The procedure for an Enclosure Act did not require the agreement of tenants but did require enough money to pay lawyers' and surveyors' fees, and for the planting of hedges and fences, roads etc. after the bill was passed. 

This was generally a formality as the Enclosure Commissioners surveying the land generally favoured those wishing to enclose and Parliament followed their recommendations. A general Enclosure Act was passed by Parliament in 1801 but by then more than 1,300 enclosure acts had been passed since 1760. 

The Parish plan showing field names.

The common fields, meadows and The Commons.

The strips on common fields.

The Hamlet of Eton Wick 1797 showing strips, ownership, tenants and acreage.

How and Why did this play an important role in the history of Eton Wick? 

Apart from the two commons, Eton Little and Eton Great there are Lammas lands which influence what can and cannot be done with the land within Eton and Eton Wick. The Lammas rights over much of the meadow and cultivated land in Eton and Eton Wick are a legacy from the Saxons and are a rare survival in this age. It was the right of those entitled householders to graze so many head of cattle in the fields once the corn had been gathered thereby fertilizing the land in the most natural way possible , from August 1st to October 31st. 

How many Commoners with these rights and residing in the village at the time is not known.

Lammas Day was the first day of August (the Gule of August) until 1752.  With the change to the Gregorian Calendar in September 1752 Lammas day 1753 fell on the 13th of August on which it was customary to consecrate bread made from the first ripe corn of harvest. (In Scotland it is one of the QUARTER DAYS.). Lammas Land (also Half Year Land) was common meadow on which manorial tenants were allowed to graze their livestock from Lammas Day until the next sowing.

Lammas Day: August 1st until 1752

 Lammas Day: August 13th from 1753

The strip was the fundamental unit of cultivation and tenancy in the open field system. Information from Collier's map of 1743 shows that Lord of the Manor, Abraham Wessell was the largest landowner in the parish with College, second. There were four open fields, the Hyde, North Field, South Field and West Field, the latter so named apparently because It lay west of Eton rather than on the west side of the parish; in later centuries it appears to have been renamed Stonebridge Field. Each field was divided into strips, and these grouped Into furlongs or pieces with distinctive names such as Long Furlong, Middle Furlong, Stone hul (hill), Long Wythebedde, Broken Furlong and Rossey piece. There was also land known simply as Village land'. No hedges or fences divided these strips and furlongs but, although each open field was planted with the same crops like cereal, beans etc. The different alignment of the furlongs gave the fields a patchwork appearance. The holdings of each man or woman, either owned or rented, were scattered throughout the fields and meadows. It is thought that originally each strip could be ploughed in one day and that the strips of land had been shared between the fields and its furlongs. Within the parish of Eton/ Eton Wick but mostly in Eton Wick there were six small holdings of only one strip each and two holdings of three strips possibly by cottagers, who are named as Oakley and Widow Griffin.

The rights of pasturage and to subsistence farm the land was crucial to the village householder and his family, therefore an ever a watchful eye was kept for any encroachment by those wishing to increase the small land holding around their farmstead or home. A complaint was brought against Henry Bell of Bell Farm in 1605 for enclosing several pieces of the King's waste including so pieces of Lammas Land. He also built eight cottages that did not go well with the parishioners. They claimed that the buildings took away privileges and benefits of the common. It appears that Bell got away with his transgression. 

There were some wooded areas especially around Saddocks Farm with fully grown trees and coppice. The use of the timber seems to have been controlled by the crown as a later tenant of Saddocks Farm was given the right to take timber for the repair of farm carts and buildings. An elm tree was supplied from Eton Wick in the mid 1400's for the refurbishment of the Eton church tower. 

The large open expanse of land without fences except where necessary, on the outer edges was divided into many strips. Exchanging ones worked strips with others so as to make one’s parcel of land larger and more convenient to work did take place as is shown by a detailed description of eighteen scattered acres owned by Sir William Stratton, exchanged for sixteen acres with John Jourdelay thus giving both more compact and manageable units. In the closing years of the eighteenth-century Crown Commissioners overseeing the enclosure of land showed interest in the enclosure of Eton's common and Lammas lands. estimated to cover three quarters of the parish. They did not consider it of any urgency taking no action until John Penn, Lord of the Manor of Stoke Poges bought the Manor of Eton in 1793. 

He, having succeeded against heavy opposition over the enclosure of Stoke Common then denied many poor families their right by custom of using the Common to gather wood for fuel which provoked more resentment against him. Bearing this in mind and wishing calm the situation Penn sought a compromise, in his planned bill to Parliament for enclosure at Eton, he specifically excluded the Eton Great Common from his proposed Bill. However, his Bill presented to Parliament did not take account of his oversight of not having consulted with the Crown or giving them an opportunity to appoint their own Enclosure Surveyor. Problems arose when trying to fairly rearrange and adjust strips and plots of land to formed compact blocks, such a difficulty occurred with the rearrangement of the land bordering Manor and Saddocks Farms. 

This hic-cup in the proceedings may have delayed Penn's plans a little because Officers of the Crown belatedly became aware of Penn's plans and realized it was too late to do any-thing except oppose the Bill. 

Enclosure not only drew battle lines between landowners; but also, townsfolk and villagers took up the fight as they became worried at the prospect of losing their rights of pasturage, eventually therefore they took the only course open them, they presented a petition to Parliament. They protested that the Bill would diminish the livelihood of the inhabitants by depriving them the use of the Lammas lands, thereby increasing the burden on the Poor Rate.

Over one hundred and eighty people signed the petition or made their mark if they could not write, and among who were Joseph and Phillip Tarrant, John Atkins and Thomas Goddard and others from Eton Wick.

Other parishes had presented petitions, often in vain, as Parliament was made up of powerful land-owning families together with the new industrial magnates and Ecclesiastical gentry who tended to think in terms of protecting their own interests. As tithe- owners the Provost and Fellows of Eton College had shown interest in John Penn's proposed Bill, but it is possible that at the last moment they had considered the fact that being considerable leaseholders from the Crown their loyalty maybe called into question. As many old Etonians were Members of Parliament there is the possibility that College had some influence in managing the vote, but this is speculation, and cannot be proven as the records were lost when the Houses of Parliament were burnt down. 

The opposition by parishioners to Penn's plan for enclosure led to a standoff that lasted until the Bill was defeated on 1st May, 1826: With much rejoicing the town and village celebrated with bonfires and feasting no doubt helped along with beer and homemade wines of the day. A blue silk banner emblazoned with the words ' May Eton flourish free and ever protect her rights’ was paraded triumphantly through Eton proclaiming the feelings of farmer and cottager. No other Bill for the enclosure of Eton was ever presented to Parliament. The people of the parish continued to be vigilant in preserving their rights, even to the extent of taking a man to court around the year 1840 for building two houses on part of South Field near the village. 

It was his own land: yet when the case was tried at Aylesbury, he was ordered to pull them down because they were built on laminas land. When in the middle of the nineteenth century the Crown once more became interested in enclosure, the College was opposed to it and the Penn estates were 'in circumstances that rendered it difficult’. 

in 1902 seventy-six years after the rejection of John Penn’s Enclosure Bill the Crown negotiated with the Lord of the Manor to overcome the inconvenience of the scattered strips and holdings. Lammas and pasturage were also exchanged, but rights were untouched. Some householders still exercised their rights to graze a horse or cow on the common or on other peoples' field into the 1920's from August 1st to October 31st. 

The Hayward— 1930's 

The cattle would have been in the charge of the village Hayward. It is recalled that the Hayward would lead one cow across the South Field each Lammas Day to lay claim to the Lammas rights. as they existed right up to the second half of the 20th century. Today there is no longer a Hayward as each farmer now looks after his own cattle.

The rights still exist though most people lost theirs through the Commons Registration Act of 1965. To some people the rights have become an inconvenient anachronism, while to the majority it is just something that has nothing to do with them but the lammas lands and the two commons were registered under the Commons Registration Act of 1965. This should mean that only by another Act of Parliament can this land be released for building thus protecting the village from speculative property developers and urban sprawl. 

This was part of the script for a talk given by John Denham at a meet of the Windsor & District University of the Third Age in 2003.

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