The Picture Palace

On Monday 18th December 1911, Barber’s Electric Picture Palace opened for business with a French silent film called Zigomar. I don’t know anything about the film but I am sure the first audience found it very exciting. In those days the films were very short, initially “one-reel” films and the “two reel films”. In between films, or changing reels, the Palace used to offer live variety acts. The pianist accompanying the films was Oliver Thorneycroft.

The Palace could seat up to 650 and in the days before television was a great success. Even in the 1950s I can remember the house being packed for Rock Around the Clock with Bill Haley and the Comets, but shortly after that, as television became more popular and affordable, audiences fell sharply and the cinema closed on January  22nd 1961 – a fifty year life.

The photo above can be dated to 1928, because the two featured films, Palais de Danse and Tommy Atkins both came out in that year.

Since that time it has been a bingo hall, a dance hall, a night club and a church. The front canopy over the forecourt area, which was very useful when waiting for buses has long since disappeared.

Today the building looks like this.

The Black Death

The discovery this week of a mass grave pit in London is a reminder that the Wolverton area was just as badly affected as everywhere else. This bubonic plague, against which few had immunity, reached Europe in 1348 and England a year later. As much as 40% of the population was wiped out and only the remotest places were free from it. Once is reached English ports on the south coast in 1349 the disease spread rapidly.

There is no reason to suppose that Wolverton escaped the affliction. There is little of record but we can draw inferences from those records we do have. 

Bradwell  Priory lost high numbers of monks and was barely able to function for a number of years after after 1349. The Prior himself, William de Loughton, died and the fortunes of the Priory, never very well endowed, did not recover. Later they had to seek Papal dispensation to allow illegitimately born children to become monks, even Prior – something that would not have been countenanced before the plague.

Sir John de Wolverton, the last adult male in the de Wolverton line, died in 1349. His only surviving son died two years later at the age of 4. The dates invite us to make a connection with the great plague.

Medieval men and women were accustomed to living with disease and death and developed a fatalistic approach to life to arm themselves against the unexpected. Nobody however could have been quite prepared for the great plague that was to spread across Europe in the middle of the century. In 1347 the first outbreaks of this new pestilence reached the eastern Mediterranean causing symptoms that would become familiar to western Europeans two years later – black swelling bubes on the skin, coughing blood and pneumonic infection and inevitable death. It was also highly infectious.

By October 1347 a Genoese merchant ship pulled into Messina harbour full of sick and dying men. Other Italian ports were also vulnerable and nothing could be done to stop its spread. Wolverton would have been unaware of it at this stage, and even after it spread to France in 1348 most Englishmen, who were at war with France at the time, were complacent, seeing it as God’s vengeance on the French. Later that year, they could not avoid their fate because by the autumn the plague with all its awful symptoms and inevitable consequences had reached England’s shores. The ports and London were immediately vulnerable but nowhere was safe, and one must conclude that it hit Wolverton with equal force, particularly as the Watling Street was a well travelled road.

These plague years were economically significant. The high mortality rate left behind a considerably depleted workforce and the old rules could not apply. Wages had to increase; service was only given for pay, rather than for the right to till a few acres of the lord’s land. Goods and services therefore cost more and there was economic inflation. This may have impacted more upon the lord, who had more need for goods and services, than the average peasant but even so it brought about a sea change in society. Merchants were able to make more money. Artisans were able to charge more for their products and services and were able to improve their quality of life. The rulers were alarmed at this uppityness and Edward III felt compelled to pass laws to bar people of lower ranks from wearing fine clothes. It made no difference as it was a law that was unenforceable. It was a period of rising prosperity for those who had survived the plague and like many periods of rising prosperity there were those who began to notice that the very rich continued to enjoy their riches while the less well off were struggling. Only four years into the reign of the young Richard II there was a flash uprising.

As noted above, John de Wolverton died in 1349 and his son Ralph followed him. The daughters appear to have been survivors and possibly they were among those who had a strain of immunity to the disease. Quite possibly they did. At any rate it was probably the plague that brought the direct male line from Manno the Breton to an end and it was one of the female heirs marrying into the de Longueville family of Little Billing that was to shape the lordship of Wolverton for the next 300 years.

The plague was not a one-off; there were recurrences in the years immediately after 1349, and further devastating outbreaks in 1360-62, 1369 and 1375. The influence was profound.

We can begin to detect some of these changes in some of the deeds after 1349

1349 Stony Stratford

William Grik of Stony Stratford, chaplain grants and confirms to Roger Grocone of Calverton A MESSUAGE in Stony Stratford in the parish of Calverton between messuage of Henry Anketil and that once of Hugh Turnus & 10 acres arable at Calverton and 1 acre meadow in le Mulueholm. William’s brother Thomas had held all those properties.

We may deduce that Thomas Grik died in that year of the plague and possibly all of his direct heirs.

We find more women as heirs. For example:

1360 Wolverton

Alice, Elizabeth and Isabella Dikoun, daughters and heir of Elyas Dikoun release to John de Broughton and Eleanor his wife all their right and claim in lands, tenements and messuages in Wolverton next Stony Stratford which they had after the death of their father.

These are some examples of how society was changing. In earlier centuries there were a small number of transactions either between the lord and his tenants or with a certain amount of hands-on involvement by the lord. The services were often specific. Here, and in other documents of the period, the reference to services has become formulaic and unspecified. It is probable that the services were acquitted on the basis of some agreed payment.

Population estimates for Wolverton are complicated by the growth of Stony Stratford, which also had buildings on the Calverton side of the street. In the prime years of the coaching trade in the early 19th century the town had a population of about 1,500. The 14th century may have accommodated 3 to 400, although this is pure guesswork. But let us assume that, as discussed earlier, the manorial population doubled from 1086 to about 500 in 1349. A further 2 or 300 may have been making a living on the Wolverton side of Watling Street, giving a total population of about 800. A 40% reduction may have cut back the combined population to about 500. Only in 1700 had the country recovered its pre-plague population levels of about 5 million – a figure which must seem astonishing to us today, accustomed as we are to a very crowded island.

It is highly likely that there is a mass grave to be found in Wolverton and there may be two – one at Old Wolverton and another at Stony Stratford.

Early Railway Policemen

Jobs change over time. Today the British Transport Police hold a vital role in seeing to the safety and security of passengers and goods and are active in the prevention and solution of crime, which is what we would expect in a modern service. 175 years ago it was very different, although, as I will try to show in this post, the seeds of today’s transport police were there from the outset.

It was plain to most in the 1830s that these new locomotives, capable of unheard of speeds as much as 30 miles per hour, were potentially dangerous machines. Everyone already knew about the famous accident at the Rainhill trials in 1829 where the MP William Huskisson was killed by carelessly stepping in front of Stephenson’s Rocket. There was a duty then for the directors to try to ensure that the travelling public were kept clear of the trains and that the line itself was kept clear of animals, people and obstacles. The railway policeman was invented.

I don’t think many qualifications were required of these early policemen: they would have (as were all railway employees) to be literate and they would have to be of good character. In the case of policemen a height qualification may have been added, but I cannot be specific.

These men were also given signalling duties, which at first was a system of flags or lamps at night time.  Mechanical signals developed over the next decade and later the centralised signal box and the specialist trade of signalman, but in the early years this task was entirely in the hands of the policemen. As you can see from this LNWR Rulebook from the late 1840s the business of signalling was fairly primitive.

Policemen were ranked. At the head was a Superintendent, below him Inspectors and the rank and file were Constables. I haven’t discovered a Sergeant in the early records, and this role in larger stations like Euston was given to a man called the Foreman. As it happened, the Superintendent, a man called John Bedford, was based at Wolverton for the first 20 years. He administered the Police Department for the entire line and probably had to travel frequently to all points between London and Birmingham. When the villas were built in Wolverton in 1845 he moved into one of them, as befitted a man of his status.

If we take a look at the LNWR Salary Register from the late 1840s we can get some idea of the range of duties of the early railway policemen. The inspector, Samuel Watts, was in charge at a weekly wage of £1 15s. There were several men under his jurisdiction, although it is hard to be precise because there was considerable movement amongst policemen, either to another posting, or in some cases, discharged, suggesting that the job was demanding and that any dereliction of duty was dealt with summarily. At any rate there is a least one man at the Station, a man for the switches (points as they were later known), and several men who each covered a 2 1/2 mile section of the line. W. Gandern at “Bletchley Gates”, Charles Perry from mile 46 to mile 48 1/2, Arthur Edgoose from mile 48 1/2 to mile 51, Thomas Putt from mile 51 to mile 52 1/2, T. Warren from mile 52 1/2 to mile 54. There is also a “Lampman”.

On this basis we can construct a picture of two men at the station, one with general duties at the station who probably signalled train arrivals and departures. Another man with the job of switching the points at either end of the station and in addition taking care of the safe movement of engines from the engine shed on to the line. The remainder were out on the track, each covering a 2 1/2 mile section, and I presume holding responsibility for keeping the line clear, reporting any damage and giving signal warnings to trains. They all put in long hours and worked seven days a week. For this they were paid 19 shillings or £1 a week.

To put that figure in perspective, Porters were paid 16s to 19s per week, Ticket clerks from 25s to 30s a week, and Engine Fitters in the works were paid 25s to 30s per week. Engine Drivers were paid by the day at a rate of 7s 8d., which meant that they could in theory earn over £2 a week. What I take from this is that the job of a railway policeman was not in those early days seen as one which required special skills or training and therefore did not command an income higher than the average railway worker. It was, however, considerably better than the income of an agricultural labourer of the day who would be fortunate to take home 8 shillings a week.What seems to be a high turnover at Wolverton would suggest that it was a hard job.

Stony Stratford Inns on the Square

In many towns the square is often the centre of all commercial activity, so Stony Stratford is a bit of an oddity in this respect. The main street, the main thoroughfare was also the centre for almost all commerce. Anything off the main street was always in a secondary position, and I think that remains true today.
It is probable that no inns developed on the Market Square until the 17th century. Those on the High Street were sufficient and only when traffic increased did it become necessary to find new land. The actual market on the square was an occasional activity throughout the middle ages and there would be no commercial advantage in building there while high street lots were available. Compare, for example, Horse Fair, which has never been of commercial interest.
The earliest of record may be The White Hart  which gets a documentary record in 1625.  This building was a Working Men’s Club in the first half of the 20th Century.
The Crown is still functioning. It first appears in parish registers in 1666.
The King’s Head is also mid-17th century. It is the building at No 11 market Square.
Smaller places, possibly alehouses
The Barley Mow 10 Market Square. Functioned between 170 and 1790
The Bell             Early 18th century. May have been at 16 Market Square.
The Crooked Billet.  Makes its first appearance in 1684.  Between 1821-5 changed its name to The White Swan. Markham says the building was demolished in 1937 but he doesn’t give a precise location
The Green Dragon makes an appearance in the 18thcentury. It was probably an alehouse. Markham  suggests 5 or 6 Market Square.
The Fighting Cocks was at 14 Market Square in the 18thcentury. There is no 19th century record.
The Plough is  mentioned in 1770. It was the house at No. 2 Market Square.

The was one 19th century addition, just off the Square on Silver Street. This started off as a beer shop in the 1860s and later got a proper pub licence. It was known as The Red Lion. This is now a private house.