|Craven Country: the story of Hamstead Marshall|
The village in Stuart and Georgian times
Life under the later Stuart monarchies was rather less comfortable than it had been in the preceding century. A vastly expanded population faced increasing poverty. Malnutrition was rife, and life expectancy was a mere 32 years, although this was an average distorted by the high proportion of children who failed to reach their fifth birthdays. Education and health care in rural parishes was non-existent. The Hamstead parish registers from this period still exist, although not in complete form, and indicate a birth rate in the village of around eight or nine a year from 1650 to 1700, quite an uplift on the previous half-century during which the (admittedly patchy) records show more like four or five births a year to village families. A list of wills identifies some local occupations, including several yeomen and brick-burners, a gardener, a blacksmith, a carpenter, an upholsterer, a keeper and a feltmaker.
In James II's reign (1685-88) a labourer earned five shillings a week, from which he fed his family on bread and cheese. Paupers constituted one fifth of the population, and they depended upon the support of their parish. They were obliged to wear a distinguishing P on the shoulders, and those who strayed in search of work or alms were likely to be whipped and turfed out of other communities.
Some labourers supplemented their meagre diet by poaching, a risky activity which still carried severe penalties. Even tenant farmers were not allowed to take their own rabbits. However temptation must have been strong in a village such as Hamstead with its own game park and a largely absent landowner. Nationally, the deer population had been on the wane for some years following the trend for sheep-farming in parks, and fox-hunting grew up as an alternative sport. Hunting was deemed by James I to be far too pleasant for the working classes, and was suppressed altogether by Cromwell during the years of the Commonwealth. The sport resumed at the time of the Restoration with much vigour. The availability of guns was beginning to change the habits of both hunters and poachers, but the use of the shotgun was restricted by law to the upper classes. During the next century guns were to become commonplace in the hands of gamekeepers.
Church appointments were still usually in the gift of the local landowner, who saw nothing wrong in appointing his own relatives. Pluralism by clergymen -- the holding down of more than one job -- was rife, and parsons had to hold only one or two services a year in a parish to qualify for its income. In the early seventeenth century Hamstead (a separate benefice from Enborne) had its own small parsonage with barn, stable and garden just north of the millpond. The incumbent also held some glebe land around the millpond, a meadow in Marsh Benham and a 19-acre field known as the Parson's Lump. The churchyard at that time was measured at half an acre. From 1637 until 1661 Hamstead's souls were nominally in the care of one rector John Carse, chosen by Lord Craven, but Carse may well have resided elsewhere. When Parliament issued a protestation renouncing popery in 1641, and required all able-bodied men to sign, John Carse's representative in Hamstead was Samuel Paine, a curate. (Still, not every absent parson even bothered to appoint a curate.) John Carse was lucky to hold on to his benefice from 1637 right through to 1661; during the Commonwealth (1649-1660) many Anglican parsons were ousted by Cromwell, and replaced by Puritan ministers.
The male villagers of Hamstead signed the 1641 Anglican protestation unanimously (women were not required to do so) just as they no doubt renounced the Book of Common Prayer when the Commonwealth replaced it with a Puritan prayer book in 1649. They would have watched their church being stripped of its altar and idolatrous ornament by the storm-troopers of the new morality. Statues would have been smashed, frescos whitewashed. Traditional festivals such as Christmas and Easter were banned. In many parishes across England the church-going habit began to decline at this point. The looting and despoliation of churches by those in power must have taken its toll on simple faith over the years, and there must have been many whose witness of the arbitrary changes in worship gave rise to a certain cynicism.
The pendulum swung back in 1660, with Anglicanism returned to the ascendant. Penal laws came in to oppress Catholics and so-called "separatists", which included all brands of non-conformism. A religious census was carried out in Berkshire in 1676 to determine the level of non-Anglican worship; in Hamstead, out of a population of 151, there were no Catholics and just one "separatist". Enborne, which by this time shared the same rector William Barron (although still a separate benefice) had two of each.
This, then was the social background to William Craven's lavish expenditure upon a mansion which may have been largely unoccupied for its short life of 50 years. It is doubtful whether the villagers of Hamstead saw this as cause for resentment; more likely they welcomed the opportunity for employment that arose with any local interest taken by the ruling classes. Estate management as a social occupation was still in its infancy.
The second Baron Craven inherited all of his grandfather's cousin's estate, although not the earldom, which expired without direct succession. Aged 29, this William Craven lived at Combe Abbey in Warwickshire. Not much is know about him, except that a contemporary commentator described him in 1708 as "fat and fair, fond of field sports and the bottle". An ardent Tory, he married Elizabeth Skipwith who bore him two sons, William (1700) and Fulwar (1702). A third confinement in 1704 caused her death. The unusual Christian name of Fulwar came from the Skipwith family, and endures in the Craven family today. William the second baron assumed the traditional offices of the lord of the manor of Hamstead Marshall, High Steward of Newbury (1697), Lord-Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of Berkshire. He took enough interest in his estates at Hamstead to commission a survey in 1702, listing tenants and their leases. The yearly value of these various tenancies ranged from 10 shillings to £46 for one Bridg'tt Smith. Twenty-nine tenancies were listed, which placed Hamstead third of 26 such Craven estates surveyed at the time. Only Uffington and Stokesay (in Shropshire) had more.
This William Craven died at Combe Abbey in 1711, aged 43, and was buried at nearby Binley. He was succeeded by his 11-year-old son William, the third baron. Fulwar Skipwith, the late baron's brother-in-law, was appointed guardian to the lad, who duly attended Rugby School and Cambridge. In 1718, the teenage third baron's mansion at Hamstead burned to the ground, supposedly from an untended brazier left on the roof by workmen. Sadly, no details were recorded of what must have been a spectacular blaze. The parish register notes no exceptional death toll in that year, so either the house was largely empty at the time, or there were some lucky escapes. When he reached adulthood, the third baron planned to rebuild on the charred remains of the so-called Heidelberg mansion. Work started under the architect James Gibbs, but ground to a halt when the third baron died in 1739. William the third baron had been married to one Anne Tynley, but had no heir. His titles and estates passed to his younger brother Fulwar.
Fulwar Craven was, in the best traditions of the family, a field sportsman par excellence. Educated at Rugby and Magdalen College Oxford, he duly became High Steward of Newbury and, at the time of his brother's death, was about to stand for election to Westminster as Berkshire's MP. He was the landlord of some 70,000 acres over four counties.
Whatever may have remained of the burned and then partly rebuilt mansion, there was certainly at this time a hunting lodge of some sort in the centre of Hamstead Park. Recent renovations to the present-day building (which has the look of a Regency country house) uncovered some masonry and roundels that put its origins back to the seventeenth century. This lodge was probably extended by Fulwar Craven to accommodate his hunting parties in the mid-eighteenth century. Certainly he stayed at Hamstead often enough to develop a fondness for the estate, choosing its churchyard as his final resting place.
Fulwar Craven owned and bred racehorses, and founded a racecourse at Lambourn, which was marked on Rocque's map of Berkshire in 1761, and thrived until 1804. With his brother William he also founded the Craven Hunt (now the Vine and Craven). His love of the chase was legendary, and was commemorated in a famous oil painting entitled "The Kill at Ashdown Park" by James Seymour in 1743. This painting is considered to be important as it is the first depiction of foxhunting. It hung on various Craven house walls for over two hundred years before being sold at auction in 1968. (It now hangs in Tate Britain.) The Craven hunted over a vast area, ranging from the soggy, bosky valleys around Woodhay up to the high chalklands of the Berkshire Downs, although this latter territory eventually became the Old Berkshires'. Fulwar Craven kept his hounds at Benham, and hunted right up to the year of his death, 1764, despite a long and painful illness. He died unmarried and childless, and was the first of the Craven family to be buried in the churchyard of St Mary in Hamstead. The parish register notes his interment, but no headstone marks his grave today.
Fulwar Craven was succeeded by his cousin, yet another William, living at Combe Abbey. On inheriting the estate he gave up being the MP for Warwickshire and became instead High Steward of Newbury. The longest lived (64 years) but shortest serving (five years) baron of Hamstead Marshall, he maintained the family interest in the Craven Hunt, and continued support of racing at Lambourn. He died in 1769, married but childless, and was buried in the family vault at Binley. The family tree developed another dog-leg as the succession passed to his nephew, William the sixth baron.
Landed estates were changing in character during the eighteenth century. New crops and technical advances in farming were improving yields, and landowners became more conscious of their land as a source of income that could and should be developed. The rapidly expanding population also required a more commercial attitude to food production, and pamphlets publicised good agricultural practice as a moral duty. The introduction of turnpikes (1724 for the Speen to Marlborough stretch of the Bath Road) brought systematic road maintenance for the first time since the Romans. Travel became a good deal easier, and the landed gentry became more mobile, attending not only to their own estates but also keeping a competitive eye on each other's.
Interest in the management of land inevitably focused on the quality of the tenants who were working it. Many landowners began tightening up the terms of their leases to enable them to oust bad tenants. Leases which had once been almost hereditary within families now tended to be replaced by rackrent agreements, whereby the landlord could evict a tenant for arrears of rent or mistreatment of the land. By the same token there was also investment in farming. Many of Hamstead's present-day farms have sturdy houses and barns dating back to this period. The big barn at Elm Farm is early eighteenth-century as is the stabling at Morewood House, and Hamstead Holt Farmhouse is thought to date from the later part of the century. The Home Farm and Holtwood Farmhouse both had substantial eighteenth-century enlargements. Many estates, Hamstead included, were mapped and surveyed for the first time. In 1702 the second baron had listed his tenants and noted their terms of tenure. In 1727 his successor carried out a tree census in the manor, listing oak, ash, elm, coppices, pollarding, and an account of timber-felling. This inventory, incidentally, shows the place names White Hill and Warwick Hill to have been in use by then.
Fulwar Craven's steward was one Francis Postlethwaite of Hungerford Park, an address which suggest that he himself was a man of substance. Stewardship was not at that time a job for a mere promoted tenant, however trusty. On an estate such as Hamstead the steward was of paramount importance; he represented the absent landowner's interest, and worked largely unsupervised. Postlethwaite was succeeded by William Lloyd in 1758 and, 10 years later, Joseph Hill.
The first formal survey of Hamstead was instigated by the sixth baron, yet another William Craven, in 1775, six years after his accession. It was carried out by Matthias Baker, and consisted of a map numbering each plot, and a schedule describing the tenancy. The map described itself as being "A Map of the Manor of Hamstead Marshall, Holt etc", and included land beyond the parish boundary to the south-west. Craven land in this corner of Berkshire spread across Hamstead, Enborne, Inkpen, Kintbury and West Woodhay, and these south-western additions to the manor probably represented transfers from Kintbury Holt manor, bought by the first earl.
The 1775 survey map shows a substantial house still on the site of the first earl's mansion. By way of contrast no building of any significance is marked in the centre of the park where now is Hamstead Lodge. It seems unlikely that Lord Craven's own surveyor would have mislaid the manor house of the day, and the notion that it was still on the "Heidelberg" site is confirmed by an entry in the 1796 Berkshire Directory for Hamstead, which refers to the 1660s mansion as having been abandoned "...but his recent lordship has rebuilt this house; though not in so grand a manner as the former, it is very commodious." Seemingly, the sixth baron completed the restoration which had been abandoned in 1739, and re-occupied the so-called Heidelberg site. This evidence suggests that the first earl's mansion site was inhabited for nearly a century longer than has generally been assumed by historians.
The 1775 survey map shows details of buildings which can be directly related to today's layout of the village:
North Lodge is not shown, although the bothy in its garden is marked. Morewood House appears to be small and relatively insignificant.
A house known as Frog Hall, down by the river between the mill and More Wood, is clearly marked. Frog Hall also occurs in Victorian records but no trace of it exists today.
On Irish Hill there are several small buildings. Pear Tree Cottage appears with another larger building across the road; this latter building no longer exists.
Ash Tree Corner has buildings on three corners; only the north-east is open. A few hundred yards up Holtwood Road there is marked a cottage on the west side.
Roadways include what is now the Kintbury Road, then called Hamstead Street. From Mason's Farm this takes the line of Hankins Lane (now a little-used footpath) cutting off the corner now called the Three Cornered Hat. The footpath which strikes west across Barr's Farm from the Nursery Copse also appears to be more substantial than it is today.
Opposite the White Hart (where a building is marked, but not identified) a major roadway runs south to Smith's Bridge. This too is now just a footpath beyond Plumb's Farm.
The main areas of woodland are much as they are today: Irish Hill Wood, More Wood, Briff's Copse and its adjoining woodland, Red Hill Wood and Russ' Copse.
Eight acres of osier beds (owned by the church) suggest a basket-making or related industry within the village.
Most significant, the map shows the extent of Hamstead's common land. Hamstead or Holt Common covered 71 acres between the road south to Gore End and the present-day byway from Red Hill south to Yew Tree Farm in Ball Hill. There was also common land opposite the White Hart, two acres known as Lower Green, and at Chapel Corner, three acres then known as Upper Green. Irish Hill also had two acres of common land, and there was yet more near the church. The field on the north east corner of Upper Green at that time had several cottages, some of which were apparently allocated to the churchwardens.
The list of nearly 30 tenants included the surnames Culley, Heath, Mariner, Tubb and Crocker, all still well-known locally. Amongst those with the largest holdings was Francis Shephard with 213 acres of what very roughly relates to Barr's Farm today. He also had the buildings at the White Hart (although the inn itself is not identified), and 116 acres in Holt manor next-door to Hamstead. James Crocker held 134 acres, and Eliza Hamlin held 70 acres of what is now part of Elm Farm. William Lovelock held 67 acres on Plumb's Farm.
None of the farms or even the houses had names at this time, but were described simply by their location in or beside a named field. Tenancies changed hands fairly frequently, and the size of holdings within any one family were too fluid to acquire names as settled farms at this time. Leases were constantly on the move. However every field had a name, which might describe its shape, such as the Piked Meadow (around what is now Craven Keep) or its purpose, such as the Fattening Meadow (east of Morewood House) or a one-time tenant, such as Baker's Ground (on Warwick Hill). The field above Craven Keep was at this time called the Lamps, a name commonly given to glebe land (which this was) whose income was dedicated to funding the church lighting. Other names, such as Boombury Meadow have origins which can only be guessed at.
William Craven the sixth baron conducted another less comprehensive survey ten years later. No map survives for this, but the steward who carried out the survey made various illuminating annotations. Of James Roberts at the Home Farm (i.e. up at Craven Hill) he writes: "This tenant has done more damage to this farm than can be made good in some years." The tenant was, fortunately, about to leave. Of Charles Nock, occupant of Sunnyside in 1775, and now in residence on Hamstead Common where it was noted the "..cottage almost fallen down - an action should be commenced against Nock in order to make him repair it and then let it be granted out again." The acreage of tenancies on rackrent now exceeded those on the more secure copyhold, so actions such as that planned against Nock were much easier than they might have been a century earlier.
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Page last updated 9th February 2005.
Copyright Penelope Stokes.