Mapping the local community

There are several ways of engaging students, and the public, in local history. One of the most successful for us as a history group, and one students love, is how the place where they live has changed over time.

Old maps feature quite heavily in our displays. Not only do they show how development has changed the place people live, but it also brings to life how people in the past lived. The National Library of Scotland is the most fantastic resource for old maps. You can track the development of places from the late Victorians to the mid-late twentieth century. I use them all the time, not just for written research, but also when planning or investigating archaeology. They also have some of the original maps of the country.

The other maps, which tell an interesting history, are those of the Enclosures of the late 18th and early 19th century. Local records offices will hold copies of Enclosure records, usually maps and a list of owners. Each one had to go through an Act of Parliament, which is also a major bonus because of the detail held within them.

FindMyPast have the 1939 register, which was taken just before the outbreak of war, and amended for about 20 to 30 years afterwards. This has the 1939 maps attached, and is fascianting for those researching bombed areas. I recently found more about my own London history using this, as my great-grandparents were bombed out of the area around the Welsh Harp. I was able to find the street they lived in, the school my grandma went to and the Welsh Harp pub my great-grandma worked in.

The Genealogist is another resource well worth investment in. They are adding in the Lloyd George 1910 Domesday Survey from across the country. This not only includes a map, but also information regarding each house, and piece of land, recorded on the map. Some of the information includes house plans, size of land and what it was used for. Also, on the site, are the 1841 and 1851 Tithe maps. Like the 1910 Domesday Survey, this also includes owners and tenants details, size of land and what it was used for. Through this I found the pub one of my ancestors owned, which was demolished in the late 1800s, after being taken over by the local Rothschild estate. I always knew roughly where it was, but the Tithe map showed the land that they owned, as well as where the pub was.

The Genealogist is expensive, and the Tithe records needs the full package to access it. Local records offices will hold the hard copies, so it is still possible to gain access to them, when Lockdown is eventually lifted. FindMyPast allows access to the 1939 register through an ordinary subscription. Don’t forget to ask local history groups if they have them. If they are anything like ours, we hold nearly all of those records for our area, and have access to the ones we don’t.

The final map I suggest, is not so much a historical map, but one that shows historical elements in the area. The LiDAR map shows archaeological features hidden from view. This is great if you are in a small town or village. Ridge and furrow can be seen, even in fields that have had the modern plough. Features such as Iron Age round houses and Roman buildings can be seen mixing together. This is a really useful tool if you are teaching about archaeology as it is non-destructive, unlike archaeological excavations.

Local history

I admit it, I am a local historian and a history addict. Always feels good to say it out loud! (I also teach, and I am a mum, but my two boys will tell you I am history obsessed!)

I never planned on being a local historian. I had always wanted to study history and do something with it, but was never quite sure what, teaching was always something I hoped to do. I grew up in a house surrounded by history books, antiques and discussions. The usual trips to castles, museums and stately homes, based on some battle or other. Military history was my passion, no particular era, battles and warfare was the way I thought I would go. My first website was about the Homefront in WWI wingatwar.  I had no idea I would end up doing what I do now.

It all began in a Parish Council meeting in 2011. The Neighbourhood Planning Policy Framework had just been published and we knew our village was at risk of major development. So, we took the decision to protect ourselves. I was in the middle of my history degree, so it fell to me to deal with the heritage and ecology side of things. I had two weeks to prepare a display. There was hardly anything. Old photos in a book published in the 1980s, and some interesting claims. I knew about the Saxon church, and the Saxon burials that had been on Meet the Ancestors, but that is sort of where it stopped. Would people actually be interested anyway? Luckily our Historic Environment Record (HER) were all online and that is where I started. I then had a huge map where I plotted all these wonderful finds and listed buildings, hoping it would grab people’s attention. It did. I spoke almost non-stop for two days. My mind was buzzing and racing all the way through. It seemed clear that people wanted to know about their house, the history, their identity. We needed a history group.

In 2012, with my, also history obsessed friend, Elaine, we decided to do a walk around the village, to find out what people actually knew! One of those walks turned out to be the start of another project, as a voice from behind called out ‘I’m an archaeologist and looking for a community project’ to which I replied ‘I’m training to be a historian and in need of a community archaeologist’. In 2013, our Archaeology Project started, with 46 test pits in the intervening 6 years. In 2014, I became the Project Director. Thousands of finds (sitting in my house), has given the village a true sense of history around it. We even managed to complete our original task and find the location of the elusive Saxon village.

By 2014, we had become so successful we set up a group. I have an amazing committee, a brilliant dig team, made new friends, and found family (but that is another story!).

In those 9 years, I have learnt so much, not just about history, but what local history really means. It is about building a community, giving people a chance to share family stories, encouraging an identity and relationship with where people live. I have lost track of the amount of pub nights, coffee mornings, conferences, displays, talks, walks, though my super secretary and friend, Sally, will have it all minuted!

This lockdown has made me re-evaluate what it really means to be a local historian, it is the people. Countless hours of research means nothing without being able to share it. My favourite part is sharing our material and finds, whether it be in the village or in the next towns and city. Local history isn’t just about one time period either, I find myself in one conversation talking about Saxon burials, turn around to discuss our local WWII RAF base. When I first started I thought I would end up being a ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’, I now know I have to be conversant in all time periods, people want detail. Local history fits into the national picture, and vice versa. Every conversation, display, each talk we have is teaching history, imparting knowledge and helping people understand each other, and themselves, better. I am a local historian, and proud of it.

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Straw Plaiting

In 2019, I wrote my Masters dissertation on the rural economy of two Buckinghamshire villages, Bierton and Wing. It was a mix of economic history and a microhistory of the area. Straw plaiting played a really important part within one of the villages and that was also discussed. I also looked at health and migration, which ties in with straw plaiting and the decline in agriculture. This is the straw plaiting part. I thoroughly enjoyed writing my dissertation!

Men and women of Bierton and Wing were involved in the straw plaiting industry. Straw plaiting could be carried out by children as young as two or three, and it was a popular occupation for women, replacing their work in the fields. Straw plaits were created by plaiting specially cut straw lengths, which were then sold to hatters and turned into straw hats and bonnets. In 1851 the main straw plaiting centres were between St. Albans and Leighton Buzzard. With Wing only three miles from Leighton Buzzard it created good opportunities for the plaiters.

During the eighteenth century straw plaiting had been a good financial supplement to agricultural wages, though this was only possible at certain times of the year due to the nature of the plait work. In Pamela Sharpe’s article on Essex plaiters, the 1834 Poor Law report claimed that it was mainly children and single women who plaited. In Wing, 1851, there were sixty-three plaiters who were married, with seventy-five under the age of ten. In Bierton there were thirteen who were married, with five being recorded as under the age of ten.

Straw Plaiting numbers for the villages of Bierton and Wing, 1851-1901.

Plait schools were recorded in both Bierton and Wing. Although there are no records of the conditions within them, David Thorburn’s study on Plaiting Schools suggests that they were unpleasant with the potential of ‘fifty children ranging from four to fourteen years of age’ being in one room. In 1867, an extension to the 1860 Factory Act was added which stopped children under the age of eight being used in factories. In 1868 Leah Taylor, of Wing, was charged with having children under 8 in her charge, in contravention of the Factory Act. She was reminded of the new rules and just charged costs, on the grounds of ignorance. In March 1869, Bierton was recorded as having two plaiting schools as well as a Dame School. The National Schoolmaster complained that there were less children in attendance in September, mainly due to the plait schools as children were plaiting after the harvest.

In 1870, the Education Act created compulsory education for those aged between five and thirteen years of age. Despite it being compulsory there were still some parents who kept their children at home plaiting, rather than sending them to schools. In 1873 Reuben Syratt and William Cuttler, both of Wing, were sent before the Magistrates for keeping their children at home, plaiting. Rueben claimed that it was too expensive to send his daughter, Emma, to school as well as losing her plait money. The magistrates advised him to send her to school and then plait in her spare time, he was also fined. William had already sent his daughter to school by the time of the hearing, and he was just made to pay costs.

The 1867 Factory and the 1870 Education Act were not the only laws to be broken over straw plaiting. Three Wing plaiters were accused of stealing ninety yards of plait, off the back of a cart belonging to a plait dealer. They had bribed a young girl, who had been left in charge of the cart. The police were notified and they set up a watch at a local dealers in Leighton Buzzard. Ruth and Fanny Bolton, along with Ruth Stevens, were caught and sent to trial. Ruth Bolton was sentenced to two months in Bedford Gaol, Fanny Bolton was given six weeks and Ruth Stevens sentenced to two months hard labour. The plait proved to be an expensive commodity

Most studies place the decline of the straw plait industry during the 1870s, due to cheaper imports and lack of diversity amongst the local plaiters. The decline shows in Bierton between the 1871 and 1881 census records, by 1891 there are no recorded plaiters. However, in Wing, this decline is not complete until the start of the twentieth century. Due to the drastic decline in Buckinghamshire, there was an attempt at a revival of the industry towards the end of the nineteenth century. The decline had been blamed on the depopulation of villages throughout the county, as women and children no longer helped to supplement the household income. Work had to be looked for elsewhere and most villages lost population due to this. However, Bierton and Wing seemed to have survived this drop in population numbers due to the plait decline.

In 1891 Buckinghamshire County Council had been petitioned by a number of notable people, including Leopold de Rothschild, of Wing, concerning the lack of adult education in the county, straw plaiting being one of those. The Technical Education Committee decided to invest £100 for a revival scheme to teach the ‘Brilliance’ plait design and encourage new designs for plaiters. It was decided that this would create a new interest in local plaiting and enable competition with Switzerland and Italy, two of England’s main rivals at the time. Wing was one of the main villages that held these classes as part of the Technical Education that had been set up.

There was some opposition to the teaching of plaiting in special classes, firstly it was argued that girls should be taught ironing and cooking and boys agriculture and horticulture. Secondly, that plaiting was something that could not be taught at a later stage, and the skill could only be taught whilst children were small. However, by the November of 1893 the County Council reported that the revival could be achieved and they considered their £100 well spent. The revival, however, was short-lived and the straw plait industry in Wing had completely died out by the 1911 census. There are village recollections of small straw plaiting groups right up until the mid-twentieth century in Wing, in the same cottage as Leah Taylor’s straw plait school was held in the previous century. The straw plait industry had been vital to the economy of these villages, as shown by the attempt to revive it.

Sharpe, Pamela ,’The Women’s Harvest: Straw-Plaiting and the Representation of Labouring Women’s Employment, c.1793-1885’, Rural History, 5(2)

Thorburn, David, ’Gender, work and schooling in the plait villages’. The Local Historian, Vol. 19 No. 3 (August 1989)

Horn, Pamela, ’Child workers in the pillow lace and straw plait trades of Victorian Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.’ The Historical Journal, Vol. XVII 1974

VE Day

V.E. Day is always thought of as a huge celebration for the end of the war in Europe. In some places it was just that. Street parties, bands, lots of flag waving. V.E. Day in Wing was slightly different.

On the 9th April 1945, R.A.F. Wing became one of the repatriation airfields for Prisoners of War, as part of Operation Exodus. These prisoners were being released as the Allies surged further towards their end goal. The 8th May fell 6 weeks into the Operation, by the end, 2 weeks later, Wing would have seen a total of 1,269 planes landed, carrying 32,822 men. Though British servicemen made up the bulk of those landing, there was also a large contingent from the Empire and beyond, showing just what a global war it was. The men were often cheered as they drove through the village.

Wing had been hard hit by the war in the Far East. Several men had died at the fall of Singapore and in PoW camps, held by the Japanese. One of these was John Horn, son of the Estate Manager, who worked in a bank in Leighton Buzzard. The feeling on the 8th was mixed. People were torn between celebrating victory in Europe, with a ‘feeling of deliverance from great danger’, and the continuing fight, some of which included Wing men.

There were signs of rejoicing. Houses were beflagged, the bells were rung within minutes of Churchill’s proclamation, and the 7.30pm Evensong service saw a full church. The Vicar had timed the service so everyone could get home to hear the King’s broadcast at 9pm. The street parties and true celebrations would wait until V.J. Day.

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Aylesbury Vale Industrial Exhibition

A few years ago, I went to a talk on the Industrial Exhibition of Aylesbury Vale. I was so fascinated by it that I decided to base my Master’s thesis around it. The chapter included the impact of the Rothschild family on Aylesbury Vale, didn’t make the final cut into my thesis. However, it is such an interesting aspect of Buckinghamshire history, I can’t quite let it fall by the wayside.

The 1851 Great Exhibiton of London, partly bank rolled by the Rothschild Bank, was a great success. What followed was countless Industrial Exhibitons across the country. All the major industrial cities held Exhibitions, mainly showcasing the industry and innovations that were a part of them. The Aylesbury Vale one was not much different, except in one regard, it showcased the talents of the home workers of the Vale. Though industry did feature, so did lace making, straw plaiting, carpentry, to name a few. It took weeks of research to build a picture of the Exhibition, looking at newspapers from across the country, as very little is known about it.

As I was researching, I got the sense of what the intention was behind it. The competition for lace making had moved up a gear by the introduction of machinery in places such as Nottingham. Straw plaiting from abroad was finer and more cost effective, Bucks was in the process of losing two of its main cottage industries. For a time, after the Exhibition, the two industries picked up and managed to survive after other areas had stopped. There was also the issue of Aylesbury, a large town with very little industry. It was only about two years after the Exhibtion that industries moved into Aylesbury, creating more jobs and opportunities for those from the town, and surrounding villages.

How much of this was down to the Exhibition is hard to say. Aylesbury Vale had not been seen as industry worthy before, though Hazell, Watson and Viney had moved out of London prior to the Exhibiton, and into Aylesbury. None of the cottage industries had taken off into factories, as they had done in other parts of the country. With excellent connections to London and Birmingham, it is hard to see why Aylesbury was left until the latter part of the nineteenth century to become an industrial area. It could be argued, that the Exhibition, making the front page of national papers, may have encouraged people to look at Aylesbury Vale with a different view. One thing that is sure, once industry moved in, Aylesbury would never be the same again.

Family History 1

As a break from researching history, I have started looking at my mum’s side of the family tree. This has always fascinated me as my parents trees have turned out to be very similar. Both were born on the outskirts of London (one north, the other south) but without realising, both sets of parents gravitated to the area their grandparents lived, and my parents even closer. I unwittiingly moved into the village my ancestors had lived for hundreds of years, and one of my friends turned out to be a cousin a couple of times removed. Researching local history has meant I have been able to get a closer look at their lives. At some point I would like to research all the places my ancestors lived.

John Horn – POW

Over the last few years some of my work has been on the First World War, but last year it turned to the Second.

I had been in our church for a heritage function and ended up flicking through the books on our village War Memorial. These were put together by the wonderful Vic Sirrett, who is sadly no longer with us. However, there were gaps in the knowledge of a couple of the names, John Horn was one of them. With the help of Find My Past I was anle to track down his records, and find out what happened to him and why he was on our memorial.

John lived with his parents at the Ascott Estate office as his father, Arthur, was the estate manager for Ascott House, Wing. John was a bank clerk, presumably in Leighton Buzzard. By the time his death was reported in 1944, his parents had moved to Bexhill-on-Sea which was why Vic struggled in finding John.

When John enlisted he was placed with the Bedfordshire Yeomanry as part of the Royal Artillery, as a gunner. John was part of the force that was sent out to Singapore in the winter of 1941/42. It was during this period that the Japanese were trying to gain control of the island, and despite desperate attempts by the British forces, Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. John was initially recorded as MIA (Missing in Action), then later this was recorded as POW (Prisoner of War). He was sent to Changi POW camp with most of the British Army. Life would have been quite good at the start as the Japanese were not bothered about the POWs, However, as the weeks went by life became harsher and stricter. The Japanese felt there was no honour in being captured and so became cruel in their treatment. According to the records, John ended up in the Roberts Barracks hospital. This was part of the original British barracks on the island, and was for the critically ill. He finally died on 7 October 1942 from dysentry and a weak heart. John was interred at the Changi graveyard originally, but was repatriated to the Krangi War Cemetery on 26 April 1946.

Now John can have his Commonwealth Grave certificate recorded in our church. If anyone has any other information on this subject, then please let me know.