The settlement papers, from the 17th and 18th century, give us some clue to the movement of people in rural communities in those days
This being the day of a Royal wedding, I can reflect on Wolverton’s long association with coach building for the Royal Family. In the building of coaches of the highest quality Wolverton was pre-eminent and the workmen were able to meet the exacting standards expected for the monarch.
Coaches were built there for Royal use from the 1840s but the 1869 saloons built for Queen Victoria set new standards. Carriages were limited in length because of the need to negotiate curves on the track safely, but the royal entourage demanded more space than could be satisfactorily squeezed into a single carriage. Victoria, however, was very nervous about stepping from one carriage to the next, so the Wolverton engineers came up with the idea of a bellows unit that could connect two carriages without exposing passengers to the elements. Before long this feature became standard on all trains. I have discussed some of this here.
Here are some photos:
The first is an early royal carriage from the National Railway Museum.
The Watling Street, or the London to Chester road is well known and although bypasses have been engineered over the past 50 years the line of this ancient road can still be followed. It served in Saxons times to divide the manors of Calverton and Wolverton, as well as the manors of Loughton and Shenley further south and the river crossing was instrumental in the formation of Stony Stratford.
But there are two other roads of significance that allowed travellers to cross the country from Oxford to Cambridge and to make pilgrimages to Walsingham in East Anglia. Both are ridgeways, that is they follow a line high above the valley. The northern ridgeway more-or-less follows the A422 past Buckingham and on the ridge to Old Stratford. From there, rather than ford the river, it goes to Cosgrove and Castlethorpe and along the high northern ridge down to a ford at Haversham. The southern ridgeway takes its line through Beachampton, through Calverton and crossing the Watling Street at Gib Lane, where there used to be a hanging tree (gibbet).This is at a point almost exactly 52 miles from London. This old track continued eastwards across the fields to reach Green Lane in Wolverton, which is now the only surviving part of this ancient road. Before the railway this tack was able to continue its line eastwards through Great Linford to reach Newport Pagnell.
A third road appears in medieval times and was probably a consequence of the development of a market at Stony Stratford. This one could take you from Calverton to the south of Horsefair Green and crossing the road to Old Wolverton. This part of the road has now been lost, except for a few surviving footpaths. The original line was probably closer to Vicarage Road, across the meadows to the north of Wolverton House, closer to the Mill, across Wolverton Park where the old medieval village used to be, skirting to the north east of Holy Trinity and the old castle and joining the Old Wolverton road somewhere near the present location of the Galleon. The canal, of course, was not cut until 1800. The road was known as Portfield Way, indicating that it was a market road. The word port, from the Latin meaning a gate, was commonly used to describe a market – hence Newport, which in its day was a New Market.
The presence of these roads had no small bearing upon the development of Stony Stratford and Wolverton. Road communications, rudimentary as they were up to the 18th century, were nonetheless used and brought trade and commerce to conveniently located settlements. These roads, together with the canal, were a factor in the decision to bring the railway works to Wolverton in 1838.
The first official record of Stony Stratford comes as late as 1194. when it was given a charter (confirmed in 1199) to hold a market. See here. This alone would indicate that Stony Stratford had already reached a size of some importance, although the land on either side of the Watling Street was under the jurisdiction of the manors of Calverton and Wolverton. Dr Francis Hyde, in his History of Stony Stratford, is of the view that there was a settlement there in Domesday times. He infers this from the rather high assessment of Wolverton at £20 compared to much lower assessments for equally fertile land along the Ouse valley – Beachampton at £7, Thornton, Haversham and Stanton at £6. Calverton, even though heavily wooded in the Weald part of the manor is valued at £12. Hyde’s conclusion is that this relatively high valuation must include the economic life of inns and commerce along the old Roman road.
I can’t disagree with this so the core of Stony Stratford must go back at least 1,000 years.
The Romans believed in taking the direct route and they had sufficient confidence in their engineering ability to plan and build straight roads. The Ouse crossing at Stony Stratford is not the best fording point. It is at the centre of a loop in the river which is liable to flooding. The river can be much more easily forded at Calverton and Wolverton Mill. The only way the river can be successfully crossed at Stratford is by building a causeway. We know of a causeway in Medieval times but we can reasonably infer that such a causeway existed in the Roman period. The clue is surely in the name – stony, because stones were built up for a causeway and even laid on the river bed to allow a crossing.
It is during the reign of King John that specific documents make their appearance with references to Stony Stratford, the first surviving one being in 1202 when a grant of land is made to Richard the Clerk from John de Calverton. Other references to property grants occur in the reign of Henry III and by the mid century there are sveral surviving grants in the papers of the de Wolverton family. Certainly by the middle of the thirteenth century a separate manor has emerged, possibly on the land known as The Mallets, according to a charter of 1257, and from this time forth Stony Stratford comes to be thought of as an entity, although the lords of Calverton and Wolverton continued to maintain a strong and active interest.
I have never played bowls, although I should be at an age when I could enjoy it, but I always admired the manicured bowling green in that square at the top of Cambridge Street. It is still there and I think the club house has little changed. There was also a bowling green in the Park which I suppose was equally popular.
My grandfather was keen on the game in his later years and is pictured here in this photograph, the tall man standing on the left. He was secretary of the Bowls Club at the time. I do not know the other gentlemen in the picture nor the occasion. Presumably some important trophy had been won. I would date the picture at around 1930.
Around April the grass tennis courts would open for the season. Tennis rackets, locked in their presses for the winter would be pulled out of storage, the strings checked for tension and men, women and boys and girls would start to smash their Slazenger tennis balls across the net.
The photo above shows the courts between that square bounded by Osborne Street, western Road and Cambridge Street. Today there are hard courts but the courts for many years were grass. Because of the slope the lower courts were less well-drained and were not preferred. The slope of course gave the advantage to anybody serving from the south but this equalled out over the course of the match.
There were tennis courts apparently on Stacey Avenue. I never saw these nor could describe them. At Wolverton Park they had hard courts which could be used all year round in theory. The Osborne Street courts seemed to be the premier grass courts and I think it is true to say that the better tennis players preferred to play here. The back of the old cricket pavilion was used as a stand to watch games at the centre court and an old railway carriage with an addition was used as a bar and club room.
I started playing tennis on these courts in the mid-1950s. Rackets were made of laminated wood and were very heavy. I found my father’s racket too heavy and preferred to use my mother’s which was two ounces lighter. even so, they were very weighty by today’s standards. They also had a tendency to warp because of uneven string tension and had to be kept in a wooden press when not being used.
Here is a photo of some of the senior club players from the period. I think they won the Bucks Shield in 1952.
Front Row: l to r – Stan Norman, John Robinson, Bill Pacey, B Woolhead
Back Row: l to r – E Edmunds, Clary Watts, Reg Snowden
The acquisition of the Wolverton Estate from Sir Edward Longueville in 1713 by Dr John Radcliffe, a year before his death was a transformational event in the history of the Wolverton Manor. It was probably not intended to be. Radcliffe probably imagined that he had a few years left to play an active role in his new investment, but it was not to be. He died on 1 November 1714, possibly withgout ever having visited Wolverton. Radcliffe hadnever married and had no heirs, so he invested his fortune (which was considerable) in a trust which was to build a library and an infirmary at Oxford, amongst other projects. The income from the Wolverton estate – over £2,500 per annum and a significant income in those days – was to fund these projects.
The early death of Radcliffe meant that almost from the outset of his ownership the manor was run by a committee. Over the centuries many eminent men filled the positions of trustees and they met periodically while handing over the running of the trust to a secretary. All of these men were distant from Wolverton and the man on the ground, as it were, was the land agent, who had the stewardship of Wolverton.
Sir Edward Longueville had employed a man called Thomas Battison in this capacity, although Sir Edward, living in Wolverton, no doubt had a more hands on approach to control. Dr Radcliffe took on the services of Battison’s son John in this capacity.John Battison lived at Quinton. Battison was employed at a salary of £40 a year.
Although Battison had the local knowledge and was probably effective when dealing with tenants he seemd to be a little out of his depth in dealing with the requirements of the trustees. Whereas he was previously able to make a verbal report to the likes of Sir Edward, the trustees required him (and they themselves were legally liable) to produce annual accounts. battison appeared to have difficulty with this an it took him until 1718 before he produced his first set of accounts. It also became apparent that many of the rents were in arrears and by 1720 these arrears amounted to £2,438 – over a full year’s income for the estate. Under pressure from the trustees these arrears were reduced in succeeding years, but the practice continued in greater or lesser degree.
Nonetheless the trustees persisted with Battison for many years and it was only in 1739, when they became aware that Battison was letting some woodland and keeping it off the books, that they finally resolved to part company with him. He either resigned or was dismissed.
He was succeeded by George Gill for the next nine years. Gill was probably not any more efficient that Battison in producing accounts on time but he appears to have been honest. During his tenure the great fire of Stony Stratford laid waste to a number of trust properties. ( A description here.) And in 1746 there was an outbreak of cattle distemper which caused a great loss in cattle stock.
Gill died in 1749 and was succeeded by Joseph Stephenson who died four years later before he could make any impact on the estate.
On March 27th 1754 the trustees appointed Thomas Quartley from Wicken as land agent and it appears that for the first time they had a man who could be relied upon to keep meticulous accounts and make annual reports. The rent books from his tenure still survive and are kept in the Bodleian archive. During his tenure there was a serious crop failure in 1757 which left some families in Wolverton and Stony Stratford destitute and starving – a reminder that 18th century society still had no mechanism for dealing with such emergencies. It was left to the vicar, Edmund Smith, to make the case and acordingly the trustees instructed the land agent to make payments to the vicar to provide bread for 139 poor persons on the manor.
Quartley died in 1766 and was succeeded by Henry Smith of Bicester, somewhat remote from Wolverton. Nevertheless he seems to have managed the estate competently as his relatively short tenure appears to have passed without incident. Upon his death he was succeeded by Thomas Harrison in 1773. Harrison, as I have discussed elsewhere, brought an altogether higher standard of profesionalism to the task and, in fact, moved on to the estate, filling, in many personal respects, the ancient role of “Lord of the Manor”.
It was this role, a traditional one in most villages, that was lost to Wolverton in 1713. Whether or not this was a good or bad thing depends upon your point of view. The trustees were remote figures, unknown to any except perhaps the tenants. The land agent was almost as detached until the arrival of Thomas Harrison who took a more direct interest in the estate. The long term impact was that Wolverton had no “gentry”living on the estate. There was a handful of middle class people in Stony Stratford and the vicar at Old Wolverton, together with a few farmers.
This state of affairs continued into the 19th century with the creation of Wolverton Station. A host of artisans moved into the town to swell the populations of Wolverton and Stony Stratford and a few professional people came along with them. But entirely absent from Wolverton’s history after 1713 was the presence of any ancient privileged family.
After 173 years heavy train traffic still thunders across the Ouse viaduct. It’s another triumph of Victorian engineering. It is Wolverton’s most significant monument from the 19th century.
The viaduct is 660 feet in length and rises 57 feet above the river and comprises 6 arches, each with a 60 feet span. The course of the railway line took it along a bend in the river but on the advice of an experienced surveyor, Bryan Donkin, and in discussion with the Radcliffe Trust, the course of the river was straightened and the embankment extended over the old course of the river.
Thomas Harrison had two surviving sons – John (b 1757) and Richard (b c 1760). Of the two, Richard became well-known in the annals of Wolverton but John was unknown.
John and Richard were both executors to their father’s will, along with George, Earl Spencer. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that the Harrisons and the Spencers were close friends and it may be that the Spencer fortunes and those of the Harrisons were tied together.
Sarah, Ducchess of Marlborough, and the wife of John Spencer Churchill, was one of the richest women in the country after the death of her husband. She settled much of her fortune on her grandson John Spencer, who after her death in 1744 found himself the possessor of large estates across the country and Holywell House in St Albans. It is in St Albans that we pick up the Harrison connection. John Harrison was an alderman in St Albans, as was George, Earl Spencer , and he was twice Mayor of the city, in 1789 and 1796. John married Irene Pearce from Chapel Brampton (also part of the Spencer landed interest) although there were no children from the marriage. His sister Jane also died in St Albans and it is a good guess that she was staying with her brother at the time.
I don’t at this time know what John Harrison’s business was, but he was clearly one of St Alban’s leading citizens and therefore must have had good sources of income. He is one of the investors in the Buckingham Arm canal and also the Leighton Buzzard Brewery, where John Harrison is listed as a resident of Chelsea. John Harrison was also a director of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich. He may have been in the Navy at one time but it is likely that he got this appointment through his association with Earl Spencer, who was Chief Secretary to the Navy.
Richard Harrison is less shadowy because he remained at Wolverton and took over his father’s position with the Radcliffe Trust. He also continued to live at Wolverton House until his death in 1858. Apart from the business interests he shared with his brother he was also an investor in the ill-fated Stony Stratford Bank, which failed in 1820. Richard Harrison however had sufficient resources of his own to cover the considerable debts and was able to come out of the debacle without a stain on his character.
During the latter half of his 40 year tenure he had to manage the considerable transformation brought about by the railways, and although there were tensions between the Railway Company and the Trust, as I have discussed elsewhere, Harrison appears to have managed his responsibilities well enough.
At the time of his fathers will, Richard Harrison had been married to a woman called Agnes. This is all we know. Thomas Harrison had made a bequest to her, but she pre-deceased him by a few months and he amended his will. There appears to have been no issue to the marriage and this might have been the end of the Harrison line, but after 30 years as a widower Richard Harrison entered upon a second marriage to Grace Hall Nibbs, the daughter of a West Indian plantation owner. She was 30 years old.
The remarkable part of this story is that she began to bear children to Richard Harrison in the 1840s – Spencer Richard 1842, Juliana 1843, Edith 1844, Isabella 1846, and Thomas in 1849. Richard Harrison was in his eighties at the time.
Is this an error? Could this Richard Harrison be a son to the first Richard? Well that would be more plausible but Ivor Guest, historian of the Radcliffe Trust, gives Richard an age of 97 years.
Spencer Harrison returned to Wolverton House in the 1870 with his own family and lived there with his mother until her death. Isabella Harrison married a German Baron and lived at Belvedere House, just south of Fenny Stratford. She unfortunately died of septicemia after the birth of her only child at the age of 27. The two Harrisons, Thomas and Richard, were central to the Wolverton estate for a long period, from 1773 to 1858, and their stewardship encompassed the greatest changes to Wolverton since the Norman Conquest, namely the coming of the canals and then the railways.