Read The Fields Beneath Online

Authors: Gillian Tindall

The Fields Beneath (8 page)

Depredations of one kind or another on the depleting store of common land in the district were a continual problem in an area adjacent to the town. When the fifteenth and sixteenth-century inhabitants of Kentish Town were not ‘leaving dung on the waste’, they were felling trees there (perhaps as beams for new houses) or else digging out cartloads of gravel from a gravelly oasis in the London clay on about the site of Highgate New Town. Fines hardly seemed to deter them. Nor did they always bother to turn up at meetings. The court held in November 1503 heard a particularly typical range of offences:

Joan Swyfte and the wife of John Drever are common tipplers.

Egidia Eustace is a brewer (widow).

The wife of John Watson snr. is a disturber and scold.

Reginald the servant of Hy Taylour is aged 12 and not sworn.

Thomas Walterlyn is obstructing the common way at Holt Green leading to the chapel of St Michael.

At this same meeting John Drever was made ale-taster, which should have suited his wife. The job of the ale-taster was to check that ale brewed for sale was as it should be and of specified strength: cases of brewing – and presumably selling – untested ale are so common, however, that it is hard to believe they were taken seriously, e.g. ‘The wife of Giles Eustace, Joan Kempe, Florence Bartram are brewers. Meg Watson, Joan Wyse and Joan Pecher are common tipplers.’ Joan Eustace, Joan Kempe and Meg Watson were still at it the following year, and Joan Eustace and Meg Watson the year after that, when Joan Eustace was also had up for gravel-digging on the much-pillaged Highgate Hill. The year after, though widowed by then, she was still continuing her brewing activities undaunted, and in subsequent years also.

Occasional fights are reported, but mostly these seem to have taken place between servants rather than among the more moneyed members of the community whose names constantly appear and reappear in small property transfers. For instance, in December 1508 there was reported an ‘Assault between Jas. Aschu and John a Barowe, and Thos. Croche servant of Master Kyrton, with club and dagger. The first two fined 40
d
. each.’ But a few years later Thos. Eustace, of the troublesome Eustace clan, assaulted his servant, and he too was fined 40
d
. The following year ‘Wm Marshall keeps loose women of evil conversation and conduct; he is ordered to expell them from his house [presumably an ale-house]. Robert Couper offends the same.’ Another entry, for a later year, is still more moralistic in tone: ‘Wm Alsoppe by day and night keeps Margaret the wife of Robert Kynge in his house, committing adultery, to the evil example of the king’s lieges.’ The previous year he also took boughs of trees from the common, but it is not clear which offence was the most badly regarded.

The court was just a local gathering intended for settling disputes peaceably between neighbours. More serious matters were taken to the Court of Assize. Most of the crime reported from the sixteenth century seems to have centred on horse and cattle rustling. Richard Holmes, an Essex man, was hanged for this in 1549, when he had broken into a close at Kentish Town and stolen a grey gelding worth 26
s
. 8
d
. Seven years later another man, accused of stealing eight black steers, made use of the time-honoured dodge of ‘pleading benefit of clergy’ – that he was of priestly status and that his case should therefore be heard in the ecclesiastical court, where the death penalty was not applied. To substantiate his claim he read out a few verses of the Bible ‘reading like a clerk’ i.e. fluently. (The fact that this alone could establish a man’s claim to be set apart from the common run of men gives one considerable insight into the degree of illiteracy, even among solid citizens who bought and sold property, carried on businesses and left wills. I doubt if any of the men and women who attended the manor courts at this time could read, except the steward who kept the notes, the vicar, and possibly the occasional ‘gent’ and his lady – though these showed a tendency to stay away and pay the absentees’ fine instead. Even in the early eighteenth century, by which time literacy had become the rule among the trading classes, the ordinary working people could not so much as sign their names. Most of those who made depositions before William Woodehouse in the early eighteenth century signed with a cross, or perhaps with a wavering initial letter only.)

By the mid-sixteenth century, when Kentish Town was securely established near the fork at the Castle Inn, the half-abandoned St Pancras church had become ‘St Pancras in the Fields’, and had inevitably become a spot for insalubrious activities. Norden wrote: ‘Although this place be as it were forsaken of old, and true men seldom frequent the same but upon devyne occasions; yet it is visited by thieves, who assemble not there to pray, but to wait for praye, and manie fall into their hands clothed, that are glad when they escape naked. Walk there not too late.’

At the same period, a letter to Queen Elizabeth on the subject of crimes of violence in the suburbs noted ‘The chief nurserys of all these evil people is fields of Pancrass and about the Churche, the Brick kylnes near Islyngton, and the Wells.’ This is the earliest mention of either brick kilns or wells in the area, and they – and the crime – were to remain a feature of the district well into the nineteenth century. Evidently by Elizabeth’s reign the area was already acquiring its character as urban-margin land – rustic in appearance but subtly deformed and socially affected by the town’s proximity: the land given over to pasture for the town’s milk and meat herd or the production of fodder for its coach-horses, the much-vaunted fresh air intermittently sullied by whiffs of industrial vapour, the inns developing fancy pleasure gardens and attracting riff-raff from the town, who trampled what crops remained, stole fruit and purses and made love in the fields.

There are gaps in the existing manor rolls. They come to an end in 1540, just at the time when, it is clear from them, a number of new, moneyed families were moving into the area. Old names – the Pechers, Eustaces and Warners – fade out. It may have been that the male line failed and their female descendants are disguised in later rolls under other names (the Pechers, for instance, were related to the Ives), but it may also have been that families simply moved out of the area as others came in. There has been a traditional tendency to underestimate the amount of social movement and change our ancestors experienced. It is clear that even very ordinary people in the pre-industrial world were not necessarily born, bred and buried in the same parish, though probably when they moved the distance could be measured in a few miles at most.

The rolls do not resume again till 1610, and cease in 1632 with the coming of the Civil War. During this twenty years the general picture they give is of a bigger and also more middle-class community than that of a hundred years earlier. The Ive family are still there; the Draper family have their property in Green Street. The Hewetts have arrived and another knightly family, by the name of Bonde; there are a fair sprinkling of Esquires among the manor’s tenants. The Earl of Arundel was living on Highgate Hill in a house previously occupied by the Cornwallises, and was even (1626) installing lead water pipes in it.

Events of great national importance make themselves felt in the rolls only in a negative sense: by omissions and breaks in the record. The rolls resume their seasonal tale in 1658, a Civil War, a regicide and most of the Commonwealth having silently supervened since the last surviving entry. It is known from other sources that, under the Commonwealth, the Cantelowes demesne lands, some 210 acres, were acquired by one Utber, a London draper, but at the Restoration were handed back to the Dean of St Paul’s. No whisper of this, however, appears in the rolls. At the court held on 10 May 1660, within a fortnight of Charles II’s triumphal return to the throne, the chief interest was provided by Mr Fishbourne, who was entertaining cripples or vagabonds in his barn and was fined 20
s
., and by Kellam Collins, who had put a diseased horse on the lord’s land. Evidently
which
or
what
lord was irrelevant to the business in hand. The sole reference to anything untoward having happened to ruffle the peace of the parish occurs the year before, when it was recorded that ‘Hannah Dixon, spinster, who claims to hold a parcel of waste, a cottage and stable and a quarter rood of land at Holts Green has lost her copy of the Court Roll. Due to the Wars the Court has also lost its copy. It is granted to her.’

The upheavals of the Commonwealth and the Restoration were presumably the reason why, in 1664, a formal review of land ownership in the manor was made, to clarify holdings. Some of the fields had retained the names they had had nearly two hundred years earlier, but some had new names. Deaconsfield, which in the intervening time had figured as ‘Dacond Field’, ‘Digglesfield’ or ‘Dykkyns field’, is recorded as Dicas Field, and holds that name from then on. The Ives no longer figured as prominent landowners, though a member of the family makes several brief appearances later in the rolls as an inn-keeper in Highgate and owner of a small piece of land there. It rather looks as if, while other families had been climbing the social ladder, the Ives were on their way down. (They were to fall further. In 1867 a dispossessed RC priest, the Rev. Hardinge Ivers, died in a small house in Kentish Town from ‘want of proper medical aid and nourishment’. He was said to have been a descendant of the Ive family.)

But individuals are always more ephemeral than habits, and in many ways daily life, judging by the rolls, had not changed very much. People were still failing to scour ditches and repair bridges and persisting in leaving dung on the waste land. The available waste for such activities must, however, have been rapidly diminishing, for by now there are numerous records of people enclosing parcels of it or building on it. It is a little hard to tell from the undramatic style of the entries whether the court was just noting what had come to pass or was registering disapproval of it. Some pieces of waste were expressly stated to be granted by the manor. Only sometimes is it clear, from the mention of a fine, that the copyholder had transgressed: for instance, in 1658 Thomas Howe was fined 3
s
. 4
d
. for setting willow trees on the common at Battle Bridge, which to a modern mind would seem to be a generous improvement to the amenity of that place. But presumably Howe’s intention was to cut the trees down later to sell them, so he was in effect using the common as a plantation. The same year he was also had up for allowing gaming in his yard, a reminder that the Puritans were then still – just – in power.

Sir Thomas Hewett died shortly after the Restoration, leaving his fine house and his substantial property-holdings in the parish to his son George, then aged eleven – he who was later to acquire an Irish barony. In May 1666 an unprecedented number of deaths were recorded since the previous court in August the year before – which was, in itself, an unusually long lapse of time between sessions. Richard Wright had died, presumably at no very advanced age since he left sons of 16, 13 and 7. William Holmes, similarly, had died leaving a son who was still an infant. Thos Howe – of the willow trees and the skittles – had died. John Briscoe, a substantial citizen despite brewing peccadilloes, had died, and so had one Ed Stith. The number of copyholders was not great, and this is a disproportionately large number of deaths. The reason was probably not far to seek – to be precise, about three miles distant, in London itself, where the Great Plague had raged all the previous year. It is known that families retreating from the infection to country houses nearby carried plague with them, and also that, as the situation in London grew worse, poorer families fled on foot, sometimes to expire in the fields by St Pancras church.

Indeed a story is told concerning such plague victims and a prominent citizen of the parish and manorial copyholder, Elisha Coish. This man, a physician, is first listed as a faithful attender at meetings in the late 1650s, and later served a term as collector of rents for the manor. Of him, Lloyd, the nineteenth-century Highgate historian, had this to say:

The High Dutch physician – newly come over from Holland, where he resided all the time of the Great Plague in Amsterdam, and cured multitudes of people that actually had the plague upon them … was indeed a charitable man to the diseased poor … There is a case told of his goodness to 13 poor people who were flying for their lives from London and Clerkenwell, and who intended to have gone north, away by Highgate, but were stopped at Holloway, as there the people would not let them pass, or not even suffer them to be in a barn for the night; so they crossed the field towards Hampstead, when Dr Coysh having heard of their distress, he had them brought to his barns, and there attended to and fed them for 2 days; he saw them got safe to Finchley Common, where they intended to wait until they were in hopes the cold weather would check the infection.

It would be pleasant to record this as an early instance of St Pancras parish’s long tradition of accepting immigrants into their community and profiting by their presence – 130 years later a large influx of French
émigrés
altered the social mix of the southern end of the parish, and since then successive waves of Germans, Welsh, Irish, Greeks, Africans, West Indians and Asians have come and been absorbed. Certainly this story traditionally told about Coish (or Coysh or Coise) bears all the marks of a Good Jew story – a variant of the Good Samaritan prototype – in which an outsider of a despised race performs some deed of charity which puts the indigenous population to shame. To get the full flavour of it, you have to remember that England was intermittently at war with Holland during this period. Unfortunately, however, the idea that Coish was a foreigner at all appears to be a myth. The land he held near Swain’s Lane was previously in the possession of the Blake family, who were relations of an Elizabethan Roger Coise, citizen and Grocer of London.

Living on the western side of the slopes leading to Highgate, Coish and his family were thus near to ‘Traitor’s Hill’: indeed their property is referred to at one point in the rolls by reference to this landmark. This was a tree-covered knoll, now absorbed in Highgate Cemetery but clearly marked with its name on the map of 1796. There are therefore no grounds for the frequent false identification of Traitor’s Hill with Parliament Hill further east – or indeed for the assertion that it got its name from being a meeting place for the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. Doubtless ‘Traitor’s Hill’ – like indeed ‘Parliament Hill’, which may have been the site of a Saxon folk-moot – dates back long before the squabbles and disruptions of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, before proceeding to the closing decades of the century, when many new names appear on the rolls, this is perhaps the moment to take a look back to the Civil War, that ‘disturbance’ which, once it was over, people were eager to forget.

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