Pre-C20th  history

Fish weirs

Particularly in medieval times, obtaining a balanced diet was not easy. Even if the grain harvest held up, particularly in winter it was difficult to get enough protein. Most people get this from meat, but it was not easy to keep meat for any length of time. Consequently there was often a surplus of meat in early autumn, when excess animals were slaughtered, but then very little at other times of the year. One solution to this was to eat freshly caught fish, available all the year round. There is ample evidence from archaeology that fish formed an important part of the medieval diet. Sometimes fish were kept in ponds but they were also caught from rivers and streams. This was done with nets rather than the hook and line used by modern anglers. Whilst net fishing could be done from boats, the main method was by means of fish weirs.

The fish weir consisted of a series of wickerwork fences driven into the bed of the river. These were arranged to form a series of V-shapes across the width of the river channel. At the point of each V, there would a wooden frame from which a net would be hung. The fences would channel the water through these nets, so catching any fish that happened to be swimming along. There would be some kind of walkway built over the top of the fences, so a man could walk from the bank to haul the nets in and collect the fish. As might be imagined, this was a highly effective means of harvesting fish. There was however a problem. The best place to build a weir was across the Severn, but the Severn was also the main transport route linking Wales and central England with the sea. It was busy with boats and barges which would not be able to cross the wickerwork fences. The solution to this was to construct a by-pass channel to the one side of the weir, for use by boats. This was called a bylet. It was often a channel cut through the bank, leaving a small island in the river. The weir would then run from this island to the other bank. This compromise satisfied both fishermen and boatmen, at least for a while.

There are records of fish weirs across the Severn from Anglo Saxon times. A weir at Bewdley is mentioned in the Domesday book. Locally there were further weirs at Dowles, Trimpley, Arley, Alveley, Chelmarsh, Quatford and Bridgnorth. These were all built at some point in the Middle Ages. Many were constructed by monasteries and leased out to various proprietors. The weirs would be looked after by a man who often lived in a cottage next to the weir. They would catch eels, salmon and coarse fish. The relation between the weir owners and other river users was often strained and various orders were made to maintain the bylet channels or even to demolish unauthorised weirs. As the river became busier in Tudor and Stuart times, so the pressure on the weir owners increased. A very bad flood in 1635 is said to have damaged every weir on the river and it has been suggested that many were not rebuilt. By 1700, of the local weirs, only the weir at Alveley is still mentioned in documents and I am not convinced it was really still working at that time.

Several of the weirs have left visible remains. In some places, the island and bylet channel survive; the easiest local example to see is the Bylet at Bridgnorth. However, at both Arley and Trimpley islands and bylets are still to be found, often connected to the bank by dry land in the summer. Another sign is rows of stakes sticking up in the river or the bank; the remains of the wicker fences. At Alveley there are traces not only of the stakes but also the infill of woven hazel rods. At both Arley and Alveley it is possible to make out more substantial timbers in the river bank that were parts of the weirs. Whilst these have not been dated, they may be 500 or more years old.

Rabbit warrens

The rabbit is the most common British mammal (after ourselves!), with no less than 40 million munching their way through lettuce patches up and down the country. Regardless of whether this makes for a healthy and balanced eco-system, there is no doubt that they are extremely successful.  It may surprise some to learn that it was not always thus. For much of its history, the rabbit was regarded as a poor and helpless, albeit tasty and nutritious creature that needed to be carefully nursed from the cradle to the stew-pot.

Rabbits were present in England by the 12th century. The medieval rabbit had a lot of trouble adapting to English conditions and could only thrive if kept in special conditions. Consequently, artificial warrens had to be made. These were mounds of soft earth in some cases with pre-formed burrows. The warrens were usually enclosed to keep predators such as foxes or peasants at bay and were the responsibility of a special official called a warrener.

Needless to say, they were the preserve of the rich for only they could afford the warrens. Typically the sort of person who could afford to raise rabbits also had a private deer park; effectively an enclosed deer farm and so part of this was often used for the warren. Thus closeted the rabbits thrived until at some point, often in the 17th or 18th century, they jumped the bounds of their warrens and discovered the delights of life on the other side of the fence. By now they had adapted to their adopted country and so they thrived.

In Highley, the landowners were the Mortimer family, one of the most important families in medieval England. They created a deer park at Earnwood, that included parts of Kinlet and Highley. In addition to deer, they raised rabbits. Even in medieval times, rabbits were not without annoying habits. The Mortimer’s steward at Earnwood in 1378/9 was forced to buy tar to paint on the shoots of young apple trees in his orchard to stop the rabbits from eating them. The exact location of the Earnwood warrens is not known. The park went out of existence in about 1600 and probably the warrens were destroyed when the land was turned over to normal agriculture. However, there is a chance that there might be some remains in a corner of woodland.

Elsewhere there are more clues as to the presence of the rabbits. A warren appears to have survived as a functioning unit in Farlow until the late 18th century. At this time the “Rabbit House” was part of a farm of 47 acres, held by a Sam Jones. The Rabbit House, which still survives, would have been the home of the warrener. However, Jones was not keeping rabbits at this date, for he had swapped the warren itself for another patch of land on the slopes of the hill and commercial rabbit keeping had probably ceased. It lasted longest on the Brown Clee.

In the 17th century there was a warren on the west slopes of the hill in Clee St Margaret. However, in Cleobury North, in land called the Parks (a sign of an old medieval deer park), there is a field called the Warren. This is now the start of the nature trail through the Boyne estate woodlands on the hill. I do not know exactly where the warrens were. There is a large circular bank on the upper reaches of the hill; it is a mysterious structure but it may at least have been adapted as a warren even if it originally had another function. The warrens may alternatively have been nearer the road. Wherever they were, a writer on agriculture in Shropshire in 1813 noted that the only surviving warren in the county was on the Brown Clee.

Cleobury Castle

(In this map of the Childe estates, the motte of Cleobury Castle is clearly visible as the circle in the centre of the picture. Below it, in the blank space, is the churchyard.)

Although classed as a small town, Cleobury is smaller than many villages. It is however proud of its urban status and this has its origins in Anglo Saxon times when it was an important manor, belonging to the Crown. It had a “minster” church, which acted as a base for the local clergy who would then go to surrounding villages where there were no churches to take services. It was similar in status to Stottesdon. The reason why Cleobury is still a town and Stottesdon is now a village is down to the years immediately after the Norman conquest. Stottesdon became just a small part of a large estate run from elsewhere and lost its importance. By contrast, shortly after the conquest, Cleobury was given to one Ralf de Mortimer who made it into the headquarters of his estates in Shropshire and the Welsh borders. Consequently, Cleobury gained in importance, particularly as the Mortimer family rose to pre-eminence, first in the Welsh borders and then in the whole country.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the first thing any lord needed to do was to build himself a stronghold where he could live in safety: a castle. These could be built quickly; a steep earth mound would be thrown up (the motte), on top of which would be built a wooden wall or tower. These allowed the Normans to dominate the country. There can be little doubt that this is what Ralf did at Cleobury. The exact site of his castle is not clear. Just outside Cleobury is Castle Toot; a steep-sided hill. The name, the location and tradition all suggest that this was once a fortified site. However, the Normans usually integrated their castles in their towns. The towns provided the barons with part of their wealth; the castle in turn offered protection to the town. Whatever may have been at Castle Toot, it is clear that the main castle of Cleobury was located in the town, next to the church. The outline of this castle can still be seen in alleys and earthworks. Immediately behind the church is a steep mound. This would have been the motte. To the east of it, on the grounds formerly occupied by the Lacon Childe school would have been a large courtyard; the bailey. It is probable that the whole structure would have first been built of timber; it was probably rebuilt in stone later in the 12th century.

We know very little about the history of the castle. In 1155, Hugh de Mortimer rebelled against King Henry II. Henry marched against him and took his castles at Cleobury and Bridgnorth. Cleobury was demolished. However, Mortimer was pardoned and allowed to rebuild his castle in about 1179. The Mortimers eventually made Wigmore their main seat but Cleobury remained an important administrative centre. In 1246, Roger de Mortimer created a virtually independent state in Shropshire and the borders based on Cleobury and the town would have remained an important administrative centre until the end of the Middle Ages. It is likely that Cleobury Castle would have been the equivalent of the Council offices, where the Mortimer’s stewards and civil servants were based. However, it is also fair to assume that with the pacification of Wales at the end of the 13th century, it would have ceased to have any military significance and its fortifications would have been allowed to decay at the same time as the office space increased.

The Mortimer family became extinct at the end of the Middle Ages. Cleobury lost importance; the castle was allowed to fall down. By the mid 16th century it appears to have been in ruins. A house was built on the motte. In the 18th century the Lacon Childe school was built in the Courtyard. The house on the motte burnt down and was replaced by a bowling green and then, in the early 19th century, by cottages. However, recent archaeological work has discovered a stone bridge that once led from the motte to the courtyard, an oven and other traces of foundations. Pottery from the 12th to 14th century has been recovered. Most intriguing of all is the presence of Roman pottery, suggesting that the site has a much longer history than anyone previously imagined!

Labour services

Today we purchase property and goods with money. However, in early medieval times society was organised on the feudal system, in which ultimately all land belonged to the King. He granted large estates to his chief nobles and barons; they let smaller estates to lesser lords and knights and so on. At each level, the landlord usually let out the land in return for some service that was of use to him, rather than a monetary rent. These services give an important insight into life during the centuries immediately after the Norman conquest.

Perhaps the commonest service was the “Knight’s fee”. This was the going-rate for anyone who held a manor and was the obligation to provide a knight with his retinue for 40 days service in time of war. It should be noted that this went beyond finding a man in armour; a knight would need a horse, various servants and provisions. It was a sizeable undertaking but allowed either the king or his senior nobles to produce an army in time of war. A variant of this service was recorded for Overton in Stottesdon where two lightly armed horsemen (hobbelars) were substituted for a knight; the use of these light cavalrymen was popular in the 13th century.  In practice it was impossible for the holder of a small manor to afford this service and as manors were subdivided by inheritance, individuals could find themselves responsible for a fraction of a Knight’s Fee. Thus in the 13th century Robert de Woderton and Roger de Burwardsley jointly held Highley from its Mortimer overlords for a full Knight’s Fee; by contrast William de Ford and Thomas de Bardley were only responsible for half a Knight’s Fee for Catsley in Kinlet. The difficulty in finding a use for half a knight lead to the service being replaced by payment of money, used to pay a professional soldier.

The Middle Ages were violent times and there were other forms of military service payable for small estates. John Fiz Aer held Harcourt in Stottesdon in 1255 by service of finding an archer with three arrows for war in Wales. In 1349 this service was described as an archer with two arrows, one to be shot at the advance guard of the Welsh army. This was an anachronism; Wales had been under English rule for 70 years and English and Welsh archers were using the French for target practice on the fields of Crecy and Poitiers.  

There were also non-military services. These often originated in personal services to the first Norman lords; by the time they are recorded, many must have been replaced by money payments. In the time of Henry I, the Beysin family held Wrickton and Walkerslow in Stottesdon in return for holding a hawk for the king, presumably for hunting. In 1243 the service is described in more detail; Adam de Beysin had to carry the hawk at court between Michaelmas and the feast of the Purification (late September to the start of February) during which period he was allowed two robes and 5½d a day. In 1308 Richard de Bardley held Bardley in Stottesdon by service of carrying the King’s treasure from Shrewsbury to Wales once a year.

It was not just holders of manors and large farms who owed service; the small farmers on a manor were also expected to work on the Lord’s land for specific jobs such as ploughing or harvesting. In 1373/4 the tenants of Philippa de Mortimer at Earnwood in Kinlet paid 8d to avoid having to each do a day’s ploughing in the winter and spring but they were still expected to reap Phillippa’s corn and gather in her hay once it had been cut by paid labourers.

The saltpetre men

Gunpowder was first introduced into the west in medieval times. The early cannons were very unreliable; they were inaccurate and as likely to kill those using them by exploding as they were to harm the enemy. Gradually, however, techniques of gun manufacture improved and, by the 16th century, the cannon had become a feared weapon. There were also developments in small arms, so that by the end of that century, the musket had replaced the bow-and-arrow as weapon of choice in battle.

The triumph of firearms posed a problem; any country that wanted to keep its army as an effective fighting force needed to have large quantities of gunpowder. Gunpowder was made from three ingredients: sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate, also known as saltpetre. Most countries had little option but to import sulphur. Charcoal could be made almost everywhere. Saltpetre occupied an intermediate position. There are natural deposits of saltpetre, but in the 16th and 17th centuries these were largely unknown. Saltpetre is also formed naturally, through the decay of waste organic material. Nitrogen, found in all living creatures, can react with oxygen in the atmosphere to give nitrate; if this is treated appropriately, potassium nitrate crystallises out. Small quantities of saltpetre form naturally on the walls of places such as barns, where animal dung accumulates, and this was avidly collected for use in gunpowder manufacture. However, the amount that could be produced from this source was nowhere near enough to meet the demand for gunpowder and it was soon realised that saltpetre could be manufactured. The key raw material was earth soaked in animal “waste”: dung or urine. This was gathered into piles, regularly turned to allow air access to it and sprayed with water to leach out the newly formed nitrates. The solution was then boiled with wood ashes and the subsequent liquor allowed to evaporate to give saltpetre.

The saltpetre trade became highly lucrative by the end of the 16th century. In the 17th century, anxious to secure regular supplies, the government granted licences to favoured individuals, allowing them the sole rights to manufacture saltpetre over several counties. Shropshire was grouped with Worcestershire and Herefordshire. One of the centres of production appears to have been Bewdley; on the edge of the Wyre Forest, it had easy access to wood ashes and also fuel needed for the repeating boilings and evaporations in the processes. Thus it is very likely that the area around Highley and Cleobury would have been subject to particular scrutiny by the saltpetre men working in Bewdley. These men had extensive powers, to dig for earth wherever they wanted and to commandeer carts to take it to their works. They were meant to fill in the voids they created, but many were none-too-careful about this. Consequently, stories abounded of the saltpetre men digging out the floors of cattle sheds, dovecots and even houses in search of waste-impregnated earth and then leaving the buildings in a state of near-collapse. Despite their near universal unpopularity, they had the government on their side; a law was passed making it illegal to pave to prevent animal waste from seeping into the soil. When the richest sources in a locality were finished, the saltpetre men were prepared to turn their attention to more unusual sources. The floors of churches were one target; rich in nitrogen from old burials (and also, it was claimed, due to a combination of over-long services and weak bladders…).

There is little direct evidence for the work of the saltpetre men in the locality, but it would be very surprising if farmers were not on their guard against the unwelcome arrival of men with carts and spades in the early 17th century. The industry collapsed later in the century when the government decided to import saltpetre and floors were finally left in peace.

Medieval accounts

I have recently been given a copy of the accounts for the manor of Earnwood in Kinlet for 1373-4. Earnwood is really the eastern half of the modern parish of Kinlet; in medieval times it was separate from Kinlet and was owned by the powerful Mortimer family. Few written records have come down to us from medieval times, but one of the most useful for local historians are the annual accounts provided by the steward for the Lord of the Manor. Each year he would provide a list of all expenses and receipts that were due to or from the owner of the manor.

The Lord would have to spend money on such things as repairing boundaries or buildings and he would have to pay workmen for services. He would be due rents from his tenants, fines from the manor court as well as any profits from land that he farmed directly. All these should have been carefully recorded by the steward. For large landowners such as the Mortimers, the steward was a particularly important figure; with landholdings scattered over England, Wales and Ireland and frequent intrigues at court, it is unlikely that the lord would ever find time to set foot in places such as Earnwood. However, the Mortimers had their own civil servants to keep their domains working properly. In 1373-4, in Earnwood their man was Jevan de Chamber.

Much of the income of Earnwood came from rents; these are not listed but would be from the various farms and smallholdings scattered over the manor. Earnwood was an unusual manor in that much of it was formed by the Wyre Forest. This was reserved as a hunting forest and part was enclosed by a wooden fence for the deer. Jevan, in addition to acting as steward, was also parker with special responsibility for the deer. A considerable sum of money was spent on maintaining the fence around the park. At one point the park crossed the Borle Brook to enter into Highley and here 4/- was spent building a fence across the brook.

The deer themselves were well looked after. Hay was brought into the park for them to eat and two men were employed in the middle of winter cutting down ivy and other shrubs for the deer to eat. The hay was grown in meadows beside the brook and the Severn. One of the more interesting tasks was at Easter when seven deer were caught and transported to one of the King’s parks, presumably as a gift. A number of extra men had to be hired in for this job; two men with three horses took a week to move the deer.

A lot of work was done repairing a barn; William and Roger, the carpenters, made new sills and replaced the wattle walls. William also made a new door for the stable and two men were paid for carrying manure out of the stables and generally cleaning the home farm in the month of July.

The accounts include payments for ploughing and haymaking, although in these cases the work seems to have been done by the tenant farmers; such work would be considered to be part of their rent. In the course of the year there only appear to have been two cows on the farm. One was “paid… for the larder [of the Lord of the Manor] in the month of October”; it was common practice to slaughter unwanted stock before the start of winter. The farm had a dovecote, a fruit garden and a rabbit warren. It appears that the rabbits caused Jervan particular annoyance; “1 pot of tar bought for smearing the trees wickedly eaten by the rabbits, 8d”.

I would like to thank Dr Sheila Watts and her Medieval Latin Class for the transcript.


Today Cockshutt is the name of a street in Highley, by the Recreation Ground. However, it preserves the memory of very much older times.

Cockshutt is derived from the Old English cocc sciete, meaning the glade of cocks. However, the name does not indicate any great interest in bird-watching; rather, it refers to a place where birds were caught to be eaten. Medieval recipe books indicate that a wide range of birds were regularly eaten; crane, heron, wild goose, wild ducks, partridge, pheasants, woodcock, snipe, pigeon, thrush, lark and even finches are known to have been consumed. Indeed the bones of these birds are often recovered from archaeological digs alongside those of the normal domestic farm animals. It has been estimated that birds composed around 10% of a medieval feast. It is likely that they formed a larger part of the diet of medieval peasants, particularly during times of hardship.

Before they can be eaten, birds need to be caught. Most manors had a dove cote, where doves were reared, both to be eaten themselves and also for their eggs. The lord of the manor may well have employed a professional huntsman who would have kept hawks. These would have taken birds such as pheasants, which in turn may have been bred much as they are today. Some birds were taken either by a cross-bow or a long-bow. Doubtless many peasants set snares in hedges, with or without the approval of the lord. However, a major way of catching birds was with nets. This was particularly useful for the larger woodland birds, particularly woodcocks. Woodcocks normally spend most of the day on the ground; they typically fly in the early evening, taking off and landing in clearings in the woods. Periodically, the huntsman would set up a net across a particular glade. It is these glades which were called the cocc scietes; where the nets were set. The woodcocks would fly into it and become trapped. Whilst these birds may have been the principal target, it is unlikely that any other species that became entangled would have been rejected. The birds may have been killed immediately or kept in cages until required.

Cockshutt is a very common field name locally. I know of examples in Kinlet (where there are two), Cleobury Mortimer and Hopton Wafers. In 1412 in Hopton Wafers one William Sollay paid the annual rent of a hen for a cockshutt in the manor. The Highley cockshutt was probably in the woods alongside the Borle Brook; it may refer to a natural clearing or a corridor created by felling trees. What is particularly interesting is that by the 15th century, one of the large open fields of the village was called Cockshutt Field. The open fields were probably first established in the 10th or 11th centuries. We cannot be certain that the names that they subsequently had in the 1400s were what they were originally called, but Cockshutt is certainly Anglo-Saxon in origin. Thus there is a real possibility that the Cockshutt in Highley was established around the year 1000 and gave its name to the large open field that was created shortly after that. Whilst the current Cockshutt is firmly part of the 20th century history of Highley, the name may well have been familiar to some of the very first villagers.

David Poyner

A cockshutt

The war horses

If you ask most people what they associate with the term “Middle Ages” the chances are that they will quickly imagine a knight in armour mounted on a horse. This association is in some ways justified. Warfare was a fact of life in medieval times and it was largely conducted by mounted knights. Indeed, land was often let for a “knight’s fee”; the person who leased the land was expected to provide a fully equipped knight for service during time of war. Much of the cost of this would have been for the horse.

Horses were of course ridden in medieval times, but they were not particularly common on farms, where oxen were used instead. Thus there was more to providing a knight with a horse than selecting the nearest available cart horse. The knight wanted a large, strong horse; armour was heavy and was worn by both the rider and his mount. The horse had to quick and manoeuvrable; he had to be trained to respond to the knight’s commands even in the middle of the noise and chaos of a battle. As a consequence the horses were specially bred. They even had their own name; they were called Dexters or Destriers.

In the middle ages, Highley, Earnwood in Kinlet and Cleobury Mortimer were owned by the Mortimers, one of the foremost baronial families in the country. Their stud was based on the edge of the Wyre Forest variously in Earnwood or Cleobury. Several sets of accounts survive from the 14th century which give an insight into how these animals were raised.

Generally the stallions were kept separate from the mares and foals. The size of the stock was not great; two stallions, eight mares with six foals were present in 1327/8. The mares are described by their colours: grey, white and bay. The horses were fed in the winter chiefly on oats and hay, supplemented with some barley; in the summer the hay was not needed as there would be sufficient grass for grazing. One man was paid 1½d a day to watch over the mares and foals but the stallions each had their own groom. By the late 14th century, the Parker at Cleobury was responsible for the overall supervision of the horses. The accounts record the purchase of traces and harnesses for them, as well as grease and ointments for their coats and hooves. Candles were also purchased for their stables. Periodically the stallions were led to stud at a place called the “ring”. Interestingly, in the 16th century there was a “mare ring” at Netherton in Highley, perhaps suggesting that this was one of the sites used for the amorous encounters between the stallions and mares. The deed being done, the stallions were withdrawn, presumably to concentrate once more on the equine equivalent of manly pursuits whilst the mares were allowed to give birth.

Horses were moved between Cleobury and Kinlet and also the other main farms owned by the Mortimers, at Stanton Lacey and Wigmore. It was accepted that there would be losses through disease. The skins of the deceased animals were sold to tanners; the horse keepers were expected to have an unsentimental attitude to their charges. Nothing is recorded as to how the future war horses were selected from the foals or trained; quite possibly the latter activity took place at Wigmore Castle which was the main power base of the Mortimers.

By the mid-15th century the Mortimer family had become extinct and their lands had passed to the Crown. It was probably at this point that the stud was moved away. With changing technology in warfare, the war horse himself was soon to become extinct. It is often said that the war horses were used to breed the heavy horses which became common on farms from the 17th century onwards. There may be some truth in this, although as the war horses were considered to be fierce and hot-blooded, it would have needed a lot of cross-breeding to make them suitable for the plough. Nonetheless, the Shires of today give some idea of the animals that once roamed the edges of the Wyre Forest.

What the farmer wore

It wasn’t just women who left clothing in wills: men’s clothes were at least as valuable, and equally likely to be bequeathed.

We think of 16th century men wearing ‘doublet and hose’, and indeed the farmers of south Shropshire did. Several mention doublets, a sort of tight fitted jacket that could be made in the thick fabric fustian (a substitute for the velvet used by the really rich). But more often doublets were specified as being of leather. A ‘jerkin’ could be worn on top, which could be leather too. Some men had more than one, as they mention an old, or a best jerkin.

Hose were rather like stockings but thicker, and usually made of cloth. Indeed Francis Evans of Cleobury specified his ‘cloth hose’ in his will of 1636. One particularly smart owner had a buckskin pair. Testators often mentioned two pairs of hose, so it looks as if that was the standard. They were often patterned or multi-coloured.

By the early 17th century, men were wearing ‘upper hose’ or breeches, and ‘lower hose’ or stockings. Stockings were made of wool, and probably knitted. William Byrde of Stottesdon in 1589 left his cousin ‘my stockings being yellow’. John Hammond of Stottesdon left his buckskin breeches to his brother in 1595: these were quite a new fashion, and were to remain popular for a century and more.

Doublet and hose were beginning to be replaced by coat and breeches, often matching: two will-makers of the 1630s mention ‘suits of apparel’ in frieze, a coarse woollen cloth. Coats in blue and black frieze are also listed.

So leather and wool were the favoured fabrics for men – warm and strong for working in the fields, though perhaps the yellow stockings were for best!

Underneath, of course, men wore shirts. These were flaxen or hempen, and most men seem to have had two or three. They also wore ‘ruff bands’
(mentioned by for instance John Winwood of Kinlet in 1634). These were basically collars that tied round the neck with band-strings, and stood up around the throat in a ruffle. As a relatively small item, there could be several in the average wardrobe – ‘three or four of my worser bands’ were rather meanly bequeathed by John Butler of Stottesdon in 1633. Fashionable John Hammond of the buckskin breeches also had holland bands trimmed with lace.

Outfits were completed by a cloak, boots or shoes and a hat. Boots were especially for riding, and men often had two pairs of shoes. Hats were only occasionally mentioned: one was made of felt.

Did all men dress so elaborately, all the time? There are a few hints that they did not. Several men mention ‘gowns’ of frieze. Some of these were clergymen, and the gowns seem to have formed part of their clerical dress. But this wasn’t always the case, especially in the 16th century. Rafe Warrand of Cleobury in 1576 left ‘my gowne and my beste hatte’. Perhaps gowns – clearly a long woollen dress-like garment – were worn at home? Similarly, a ‘gaberdyne’ is mentioned in 1558, which was also a loose garment, perhaps something like a smock. This might have been worn either at home or working outdoors.

Finally, the better-off at least finished off their outfit with a belt and a sword. Thomas Pountney of the Rea, who died in 1635, certainly did. He also had a ‘best suit’ (implying that he owned more than one) and boots and shoes in the plural. We don’t know how widespread the wearing of swords was locally – but within a decade of Thomas’s death, civil war had broken out and swords were being worn for use, not just for show.

Gwyneth Nair

The wife’s wardrobe

In Tudor and Stuart Shropshire, clothes were valuable items, and as such were regularly left as bequests in wills. Often, best or second-best garments were specified, but ‘old’ or inferior ones were not ignored. From these mentions, we can get a good idea of what villagers in and around Highley were wearing.

Women had some items of clothing that we all recognise – hats, cloaks, aprons (sometimes called ‘pinnars’) and stockings. Others were less familiar. In the early part of the period, say from 1550 to 1600, many women wore a kyrtle. This was a kind of under-dress, worn underneath a gown but over a smock. All three are frequently mentioned, together with petticoats. These were not quite such an undergarment as they later became: often they were meant to be seen at least at the front of the gown.

This sounds like a lot of layers – and indeed it was, but all were needed, especially in winter, when a cloak was added for outdoor wear. Several of the layers were of quite substantial fabrics, too. Kyrtles are mentioned in worsted, and aprons and petticoats in fustian, a thick cotton and linen mix cloth. Petticoats could also be in wool – Thomas Hammond of Stottesdon in 1595 left ‘unto my owne mother, three poundes of wools, to make hir the skirt of a petticote.’ Quite a hefty petticoat! Aprons and hats could be of silk, if they were Sunday best wear, or as Margaret Wellyngs said in an early will, ‘my holy daye smock’.

Most women also wore a neck kerchief – basically a square scarf folded diagonally and crossing over at the front, which could be made in ‘holland’, a fine linen.  Similar was a partlet (Margery Oseland, mother of Highley’s parish priest, had one in 1560) which was a sort of square yoke that fitted over a low neckline. They also had separate sleeves, sometimes in hempen cloth, which were more easily taken off to wash.

Colours weren’t always drab. Petticoats were often white, but several will-makers mentioned red kyrtles. In addition, women often possessed silk ribbons and coloured stockings. Some also mentioned cassocks – now only seen on vicars! These were probably loose garments worn mainly in the home.

Better off women (and most will-makers were better off) expanded their wardrobes in the 17th century with a few new, fancy garments, especially the stomacher. This was a stiffened, triangular panel that sat in the opening at the front of a gown, and was often elaborately embroidered. Katheryn Dunne in 1620 had a velvet one.

In fact Katheryn, of Stottesdon, was a bit of a fashion plate. She listed every item in her wardrobe, and was particular about who was to get what. Her list shows us what the well-dressed woman was wearing in the early 17th century (I have modernised the spelling). She had two gowns, a best and a second-best. In fact there were often two, specified as a best and another – two hats, two petticoats, two waistcoats, two stomachers, two pairs of stockings. There were also a ‘best bodice’ and a ‘best bynder’, which suggest the existence of at least one other. So typically, it seems, a woman had two of the major items of clothing, an everyday set and a best set. But Katheryn also had several of the smaller items of dress – four kerchiefs, seven ‘bands’, and three ‘coyfes’, which shows women were still wearing coifs, a close-fitting cap that was about to go out of fashion. Finally, she had five smocks (one flaxen and one hempen) and no less than seven aprons, including a holland one, a hempen one, and a ‘best’ one. These were everyday items, easier and cheaper to make, and formed the staples of a woman’s wardrobe.

We can look at portraits of royal women in their amazing jewelled clothes: but it is rare to be able to recreate the ‘look’ of most women, in their red wool dresses, heavy white aprons and modest neck kerchiefs. Much more practical for country winters!

Gwyneth Nair

Fruit and nuts

It wasn’t just the major farms that grew crops in 17th and 18th century Highley. Nearly everyone produced something, even those who only had a cottage and a tiny bit of land. Both farmers and cottage dwellers could grow fruit and nuts.

Orchards were an accepted part of larger farms – Woodend had two in 1619, and in 1787 two fields at Hazelwells were called ‘Green Orchard’ and ‘The Orchard’. But smaller homes could have orchards too. In 1653 the cottages of Brian Penn, Edward Evans, Joan Hancox and John James all had orchards, as well as gardens.

Apples were of course chiefly what the orchards were producing. As with other produce, the vicar claimed a tithe of the crop, or its value, and so we have some records of apple growing. In 1683 Joan Palmer of Potters, the large farm by the river opposite Potters Load, owed ‘a strike of apples’ in tithe, so there must have been an orchard there too. A strike was 2 bushels, or 16 gallons, which if ten times that was grown, sounds like a lot of apples!

Successive vicars were keen to claim their due in tithe fruit. Samuel Burrows recorded in a memo of 1801 that he could claim on ‘any fruit sold whatever’. In 1791 he left a detailed list of 12 parishioners who owed him for ‘tithe fruit’, in amounts ranging from one bushel to 20. Unfortunately he failed to say if this was all apples or if there was a variety of fruit.

For other fruits were grown. In 1766 Thomas Pritchard, Edward Loughton and Benjamin Pountney were all growing cherries as well as apples. Towards the end of that century we get the first mention of the house and land called Cherry Orchard. By that time, Benjamin Pountney’s cherry crop yielded 4 shillings and 9 pence tithe, so was reasonably lucrative. Also mentioned in the 18th century were damsons and pears.

Some fruit was clearly sold; and some would have made jams and pies to be eaten at home. Bottled fruit and jam provided much-needed vitamins during the winter months and were an important part of the country diet. But much of the apple and pear crop went to make cider and perry. In 1680, Henry Davis of Borl Mill paid tithe of nearly five hogsheads of cider and perry. At that date, the hogshead wasn’t yet a standard measure, but it eventually settled at 52 gallons (or 238 litres). It seems to have been even larger earlier, so there was quite a quantity of cider being made! About half was perry, that is, made from pears. The ciders mentioned were ‘codling cider’ (a codling was a green, cooking apple) and pippin cider. There was also ‘mush cider’ which may have been in the process of being made.

Local farms had cider presses, and the circular stone troughs in which apples were crushed can still be seen at one or two. This method was superseded by a press which could be taken from farm to farm locally – and in the 1900s Highley wheelwright Mr Derricutt was doing just that every autumn.

Nuts were also a popular crop, especially for the cottage garden. Filberts (large hazelnuts) were grown in the late 18th century: William Allen paid tithe of 1 lb, so had presumably harvested ten pounds. Walnuts had two uses. Picked young, they could be pickled in their entirety. ‘Walnuts if any gathered for pickling’ featured on Rev Burrows list of titheable produce. William Allen, as well as his filberts, had in 1791 grown 340 walnuts ‘which was for pickling’, as well as three and a quarter pecks which had been left to ripen. Walnuts were locally known as bannuts, and important enough for Bannut Tree Farm in Arley to be named after them.

So everyone in the village who had a garden (and that was everyone in the 17th and 18th centuries) could supplement their diet at least a bit with fruit and nuts. Though perhaps cider-making was the most popular way of using the orchard crops!

Gwyneth Nair

And so to bed

William Shakespeare famously left his wife Anne his second-best bed. This may not have been as mean as it sounds, for beds were by far the most valuable piece of furniture in the 16th and 17th century home. In general, houses were fairly spartanly furnished – after all, in a rural village like Highley, most people spent a lot of time working outdoors. And after dark, houses were poorly lit (by smelly tallow candles). So a comfortable bed to retreat to was a blessing – though one probably enjoyed more by the better-off than the very poor.

The farmers and craftsmen who left wills tell us quite a bit about their beds. First was the bedstead – a ‘joined’ bedstead we are often told. Sometimes it was specified as a bed ‘with testers’ – what we know as a four-poster. So these were substantial wooden bed frames. Some houses also had truckle beds – a smaller frame that could be tucked away underneath a high four poster, and often used for children.

On the bedstead was a mattress, also confusingly called a bed. Feather mattresses were the best; flock mattresses, being somewhat cheaper and less comfortable, were for servants’ and youngsters’ beds. There was also a bolster – one long pillow that ran right across the bed. In 1670, George Cole (‘gentleman’) of  Highley had six feather beds and five flock ones – together with their bedding, they were worth a massive £30, while his eight bedsteads were valued at £2  13s  4d altogether.

Four-poster beds provided not just warmth but also privacy. They were often described as having ‘a set of curtains’ or a ‘fall’ of curtains, which of course could be drawn around the bed. This was helpful, as beds were not always situated in bedrooms: Francis Holloway in 1651 had a bedstead and feather bed in the parlour. Similarly in 1669 Richard Palmer’s parlour in his farm Potters contained ‘One bed with furniture thereunto belonging, one little side table with stools and cushions’.

This description of the bedding ‘belonging’ is vague, but often we have more detailed lists. As well as curtains, beds had a coverlet and a valance. The vicar Thomas Oseland had a green coverlet (or ‘hilling’) on his bed in 1577. In 1692, John Pountney’s best bed had ‘a set of curtains and valances’. Often bed hangings and coverlets were sumptuously embroidered. Certainly that was the case with the really rich, but farmers too had colourful fabrics and may well have had embroidery as well. So beds were probably the most decorative item of furniture in the home, as well as the most expensive.

Beneath the coverlet were blankets, or, surprisingly often, one blanket. The furnishings of a bed were often described – as they were in the 1628 will of Alice Harris – as One feather bed and bolster, one flock bed, one coverlet, one blanket’. This sounds rather chilly, but perhaps with coverlets and curtains one blanket was enough.

Sheets were quite substantial too. When people left one bed in their will, they routinely left one pair of sheets too. But better-off households did have more than one pair per bed. In 1651 Francis Holloway mentioned 14 pairs of sheets altogether! Alice Harris’s sheets were ‘hempen’. Margery Oseland in 1566 had flaxen ones. Anne Palmer in 1603 had both. Newer, or perhaps finer fabric, sheets were listed as ‘best’ ones.

Pillows are never mentioned in these early wills. There are a few mentions of pillows and pillow slips (or ‘pillowbeares’) towards 1700, but before that the bolster served in their place. Bedding was usually kept in a coffer or a trunk when not in use, together with other household linen. Probably lavender was dried and stored with the linens to sweeten them.

So to leave someone a bed (even a second-best one) was an important statement. Beds were handed down from parents to children, and were a key symbol of the family’s wealth as well as a very practical gift offering warmth, comfort and privacy to the recipient.

Gwyneth Nair

A mystery barn

Many people will be familiar with the footpath that runs down the side of the Malt in Garden Village. This is an ancient lane which leads to the site of Greenhall, an impressive timber-framed house that was demolished in the 1930s. From Greenhall, a path continues west across the fields to New England. Anyone who takes this will find themselves passing through an old quarry; however traces of walls and foundations indicate that this was once more than just a simple quarry. The oldest residents of the village can recall a stone building here, with what seemed to be a gate, steps and a garden. This article attempts to trace the history of this building.

In spite of the proximity of the site to the old farm of Greenhall, I do not think that the building here ever had any connection with it. It actually stood in a small estate of around 30 acres that also included the old cottages at New England. It is possible to trace this land back in documents to the 16th century, when it was a small farm called Jenkin Harries. Almost certainly it originated in the middle ages, when a man of that name cleared the woodland to carve out a new farm.

At seems that the farmhouse fell out of use by the mid 17th century; what remained were the fields. These passed though a number of owners until at the start of the 18th century they became attached to the Stonehouse. Most people will remember this as standing in Garden Village until a few years ago; it was originally a farm, but the Jenkin Harries estate was some distance from the house and so it seems that a barn was built to help manage the land.

Thus in 1841, the first large scale map of the village shows a barn roughly on the site of the current foundations and the field was called “Barn Field”. By this time, the estate had become separated from the Stonehouse and was probably worked as part of Hazelwells Farm.

At the start of the 1860s there were further changes, with the land now being leased by William Walford. William was a man of modest means, but he clearly had come into enough money at this period to set himself up as a farmer. However, it does not look as though he was able to take on one of the established farms in the village; instead he took over Jenkin Harries (now known by its current title, as New England). He also managed to either rent or purchase a similar detached block of land adjoining it known as Higley Wood; this sat either side of the road that leads to New England.

Whilst William had land, he had no farmyard. My guess is that he expanded the isolated barn on the Jenkin Harries/New England estate to turn it into his yard. A description of the buildings on this site in 1868 shows that there was a barn, a cowhouse and a stable. My guess is that the stone building was the barn. At right angles to this is a platform of similar size, which probably supported a wooden cowshed. At the end of this is a single gate post and another enclosure, partly formed by the walls of the quarry. There may have been a stable here, or it could have formed a small stock yard. I doubt that William lived here; a set of deeds drawn up in 1868 describe how some of the old cottages at New England had been demolished and a new one built in its place. This seems more likely to have been the house of William. There was also a stone barn on the Higley Wood estate, below Hag farm; I would guess this was also the work of William.

William’s career as a farmer did not last very long; by 1871 he was living at New England, working as a shoe maker. However, his impact on the landscape was considerable. I know of one photograph which shows the barn; it was taken around 1930 and was a snap of the late Frank Jones; the barn can clearly be seen in the background.

The carvings at Alveley

This month, I want to cross the Severn for a brief look at one aspect of the history of Alveley that has been attracting much recent attention. Close to Alveley Church is a house known as “The Bell”. This was at one time a pub although now it is a private house. It has a stone-built ground floor and a timber-framed first floor. There are a number of houses of similar design in Alveley and it seems that stone was used from an early stage as a building material in the history of the village. What marks the Bell out is the presence of a number of carved stone blocks that have been incorporated into both the walls of the house and the outbuildings. These include Samson and the Lion, a knight and St Michael, as well as more abstract designs. The carvings are of high quality and are also very old. They date from the middle of the 12th century and are examples of what is known as the “Hereford school” of carving, so called because the designs seem to have originated in Herefordshire. The best known examples are to be found at Kilpeck church. They were produced by skilled craftsmen who would not have come cheap; only a rich man could afford to commission such carvings.

The Bell is an old house, but it does not date from around 1150, when the carvings were made. However, one building in Alveley that was standing at this time was the Parish Church. It has been suggested that carvings were originally in the church, commissioned by the Lord of the Manor, Guy le Strange. The church has undergone many alterations and at some point, probably in the 13th century, much of the original building seems to have been replaced. It has been suggested that this included the parts where the carvings had once stood. This generated a pile of stone that could be reused for any subsequent building project. It seems unlikely that the Bell dates from the 13th century; it has recently been suggested that the stones were first used to build a priest’s house and when that was eventually demolished, they were again reused, this time for The Bell.

There is, however, an alternative explanation for the origins of the carvings. Alveley includes another settlement, Romsley, which lies to the south. This was a distinct manor in medieval times. It never developed into a separate ecclesiastical parish with its own church. However, there was a manor house and this had a chapel attached to it. Romsley Chapel is first recorded in 1291, but we do not know when it was built. By around 1660 the Chapel had become ruined; the inhabitants of Romsley who used to worship there had moved to the main church at Alveley.

Romsley Chapel is around a mile from The Bell and so would not be an obvious source of building material, although if it was pulled down around 1660, then that would fit the known history of The Bell much better. There is however one piece of evidence that strongly suggests that the chapel is the source of the stones. A Victorian historian, the Rev Eyton, visited Romsley around 1860. He reported how he saw a decorated tile floor on the site of the chapel; he also noted how a number of carved stones from the Chapel were to be found in various buildings on the nearest farm. These included what he described as “signs of the zodiac”. These sound similar to the carved stones found at The Bell, and suggested that they both have a common origin. As far as I know, this second set of carved stones still exist just as the Rev Eyton saw them; very recently I have seen photographs of them taken in 1976. To my untutored eye, they do seem very much like The Bell carvings. So there is certainly a case that The Bell stones came not from Alveley Church, commissioned by Guy le Strange, but from Romsley Chapel, commissioned by the le Poer family, who were Lords of Romsley. Now that photos of the Romsley stones are available, it will allow experts to decide on their origin.

A pillar capital showing two doves.


I seem to recall how in the 1970s there was something of a craze for home brewing, with kits being available from many shops. My impression is that this has largely passed, perhaps because there has been a revival in the commercial production of “real ale” by small companies and microbreweries attached to single pubs. Whatever the case, the small scale production of beer by pubs or individuals has a history going back centuries.

Beer was a staple in former times simply because it was the cheapest and most convenient way to obtain a drink that was safe to consume. When wells were all too easily polluted, the alcohol in beer kept it sterile and free from contamination. Before the advent of the railways, all beer was produced locally, either by pubs or very often by families for their own consumption.

Beer is, in principle, simple to make. The starting point is usually barley. This is allowed to germinate, to commence the production of sugar in the individual grains. The grains are then dried in a kiln to give malt. The malt is put into hot water, effectively to extract the sugar from the grain and this is boiled with dried hops which act as preservative and give further flavour. The liquor is then strained to remove the residue of the grains and hops and yeast is added, to start the fermenting. Over a period of several weeks, whilst the beer is kept in a barrel, the yeast will convert the sugar to alcohol, to give beer.

We have the first written evidence for local beer production from medieval accounts for Cleobury Mortimer from the 14th century, although beer had been produced for centuries before that time. The accounts record money spent by the Lord of the Manor on buying malt. Two types of malt are recorded; normal malt, made from barley, but also “dredge”, a mixture of oats and barley. Oats were much more widely grown than barley in the middle ages and could serve just as well for beer. Brewing was clearly an important industry in Cleobury in the 14th century, for there was also a specialised malt mill in the town. By grinding the malt after it had been dried, it was much easier to extract the sugar when it was put in water. Medieval beer probably did not include hops, as the commercial growing of these did not start until the 16th century.

We can see another side to brewing from the 16th century onwards, when detailed wills start to become available. These often list household possessions, and amongst these it is possible to identify vessels probably used for brewing in farms and cottages. There are frequent references to various tubs, in which the grain would be soaked to start the germination. Most householders had a large brass pot, which would be used, amongst other things, to heat the water to extract the sugar. Richard Dorsett, who lived in the Rea Farm and died in 1700, had his own malt mill, probably a small mill in a frame which was turned by hand.

It seems likely that by the 18th century, many local farms had a small patch of land on which hops would be grown. In 1756, the vicar of Highley received tithe payments on hops grown at Hazelwells, the Rea and the Manor Farm and his successor in 1806 claimed 40lbs of hops in tithe from the Rea. This suggests that hops were being grown commercially, and indeed in the 1780s, the Highley bargeman Samuel Wilcox included sacks of hops as part of the cargo on his boat to Worcester.

The drying of the malt needed some care. The germinated barley was spread on the floor of a heated kiln to be dried. This in itself was a specialised occupation; large kilns (malt houses or maltings) were found in towns. However, we have the occasional mention of a specialist maltster in Highley. Thomas Porter, who lived at what is now the Malt Shovel in the early 19th century was such a man and he was succeeded at the Malt by James Lawley, also a maltster. The Malt did not get its current name until the very end of the 19th century, but it may preserve a memory of its earlier use. It is possible that the stone building that used to stand at the back of the Malt (the Polly) may have started life as a malt house.

Brewing on a farm or a cottage was always considered part of the work for the lady of the house; details of the process would be passed from mother to daughter. Within my family, at the small holding on the slopes of the Clee Hill, the brewing was done by my great aunt. Sadly, the secret of the Poyner pint died with her!

Cider making

This year (2012) does not seem to have been a good one for apples or pears. The apple pressing day that has been held in Stottesdon over recent years has been cancelled due to a lack of crop; the trees in my own garden are hardly bursting. In years gone by in Highley, this would have been a very serious matter, for the many farms in the village made cider.

Cider is of course fermented apple juice. It was probably made locally in medieval times, but we have no direct records for this and beer was likely to have been the main drink. By the start of the 17th century it seems that over half of the village farms had orchards, but we do not know if they produced apples for eating or for cider. Nonetheless, orcharding remained important and, by the late 18th century, apples were amongst the crops for which the vicar of Highley collected tithes. When the first large scale map of Highley was made in 1839, 25 fields were called orchard or orchard meadow. Not all of these would necessarily have been orchards at the time of the survey and other fruit such as cherries or damsons were also grown. However, against that it is likely that many cottage gardens also had apple trees but these would not be recorded as orchards by the map maker.

To make cider, the apples first need to be crushed. The resulting pulp is then put into a press with layers of pulp wrapped in cloths called hairs. These are squeezed to drive out the juice. This is then put into barrels and allowed to ferment. After a certain period, the yeast driving the fermentation is scooped from the top and the casks sealed and allowed to mature. Various “extras” may be added at this point; I suspect the stories of dead rats are apocryphal, but meat can be used to give the drink “body”. Perry is made in the same way, but using pears.

Specialist cider making machinery first appears in the local historical record in the 18th century. In 1727 Richard Harris had a cider press; in 1729 John Pountney had a “cider shreen and kipe”. Both shreen and kipe are usually forms of basket or container. In 1730 William Rowley had a cider screw and trough to press apples. We get firm evidence for cider mills towards the end of the century. The mill consisted of a large stone disc (the runner) set vertically in a stone trough; it was typically driven round by a horse and it crushed the apples or pears beneath its weight. In the 1770s, adverts for local quarries showed that they all made stone runners for cider mills. In 1779 a cider mill was advertised as part of a sale at the vicarage; perhaps this was used to process the tithe apples that the vicar claimed. In 1783 a perry mill at Hazelwells was destroyed by fire. There are also mills at Dowsley Cottage and Coomby’s farm; documents indicate there are further examples at Borle Mill and Rose Cottage.

A directory of Highley in 1851 claimed that the village was noted for its cider. A significant technical development was the mechanical pulper or scrater, introduced in the late 19th century to replace the cider mill; this led to specialist contractors who would visit local orchards to crush apples. For most of the first half of the 20th century, John Derricutt had a portable scratcher powered by an oil engine and press, with which he toured local farms. I understand that Eddie Evans from Borle Mill was another cider maker. At Coomby’s Farm there was a mechanically driven mill and here several thousand gallons would be made well after the Second World War. The Working Men’s Club was a major customer. However, when Coomby’s stopped, it was the end of cider making in Highley on anything approaching a commercial scale.

Cider of course is made to be consumed. On the Clee Hill, my grandfather, visiting his sister on her smallholding, would still drink their own cider from a drinking horn. Also from this period, I can relate a story recently told to me of a young man’s first experience of rough cider. The individual was working with some older men as an apprentice engineer on a local farm. It was a hot day and the farmer invited them to have some cider; “Don’t forget the lad...” The lad found that the cider went down very easily despite it having the appearance of treacle. The men talked and made to move on. “Have another before you go, and don’t forget the lad...” They did, and the lad enjoyed the second pint as much as the first. Then he came to get up; his head was clear, but his legs no longer worked. Rough cider was, and is, a potent drink.

Home-made wine

Some aspects of the past are easier to find out about than others. Many would consider home wine making to be a traditional cottage craft, practised by yeomen for centuries. However, it is remarkably difficult to find much about this, at least locally, once past living memory. So when was the first bottle of elderflower wine brewed in and around Highley?

Imported wine was probably first drunk in this area in the Roman period and has been consumed in every succeeding age. Indeed, in the 16th century, when Robert Dudley, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth was given a grant of the Wyre Forest in Kinlet and Cleobury, one of his first schemes was to investigate the potential of producing barrel staves, to be sent to Spain for use in the sherry industry. In the end, turning trees into charcoal proved to be more lucrative, but the local gentry did not go short of their wines and spirits. In the 1820s, William Childe at Kinlet Hall obtained his wine from dealers in Bath. I imagine that the squires, upwardly mobile farmers and parsons of Highley were not able to afford this, but there were numerous grocers in Bridgnorth and Bewdley who stocked wine and who could have supplied them with their needs. However, I suspect that most farm labourers only ever tasted imported wine on the odd occasion that Holy Communion was celebrated at church. Consequently, it might be suspected that they would take a keen interest in home-made alternatives.

As far as I can see, recipes for home-made wines and cordials start to become common in the late 17th century. These all follow a similar pattern. Thus for cowslip wine, the flowers are allowed to soak in water with lemon peel and sugar, before yeast is scraped onto a piece of toast and thrown into the basin. The toast floats on top of the liquid and the yeast will rapidly grow, forming a white head to the mixture. After a few days, the yeast is removed and the liquid is stored in bottles or other containers, to finish the fermentation over a period of weeks. The key is that the recipes almost all require large quantities of sugar. Sugar did not become common until well in the 17th century when it started to be grown on plantations in the West Indies; it did not feature on the shopping lists of most labourers until well into the 18th century. So my guess is that home wine making was initially confined to the more prosperous farmers and would have taken a long time to filter down to the ordinary labourers, who would have brewed the cheaper beer.

With ingredients as diverse as elderflower, parsnips and cowslips, it is virtually impossible to find even the most indirect evidence for wine making in the historical record. However, we do know that significant quantities of damsons were being grown in orchards in Highley by the mid-18th century. Shropshire was noted for its damsons; the local variety still to be found in hedges was known as the “Shropshire Prune” and whilst most of the harvest may have been sold to jam-makers in towns, I suspect some was also being turned into wine at this period. There are also suggestions of wine making in Kinlet. By 1782 Kinlet Hall had a “still room” next to the kitchen and in 1810 a “still-room maid” was employed. The still room was where various ointments, potions and cordials were prepared; it is very likely that it was also used for wine making.

The only direct documentary evidence that I have ever found for wine making is not until 1882. On November 29th, Noah Lawton, the engine winding man at Highley Colliery, recorded how he “tapped [a] small jar of elderberry wine”. By this time, it can be assumed that many ordinary people would make small quantities of wine for their own consumption. Local agricultural shows, such as that at Burwarton which started in the last decade of the 19th century, had prizes for home-made wine, confirming that this was now commonly produced.

And so to living memory. On the Clee Hill, in the 1930s, my great aunt would send her children into one of the fields on her smallholding to collect armfuls of cowslips for her wine. Later in the year, there would be rhubarb wine and elderberry; the varieties followed the seasons. My grandmother used to make damson wine; on one occasion the jar exploded in the pantry when the fermentation got a little too vigorous! These of course are still commonly made by home-brewing enthusiasts. By contrast, nettle “pop” seems to have become extinct, although it is remembered by many (not all of a great age!) as a pleasant drink, made in many kitchens in the village up to the 1950s. As far as I can tell, it is essentially similar to drinks such as Dandelion and Burdock, but with a handful of nettle leaves thrown into the mix. It could be drunk either as a cordial, before fermentation, or after the yeast and toast has been added, to convert some of the sugar to alcohol.


Bread is one of the most basic ingredients of our diet; it has been important since the start of agriculture, when man first started to grow crops. It is of course made from flour, today normally produced from wheat. This is mixed with water to form a dough, then yeast is added to allow the bread to rise and finally the product is baked in an oven. I was once told by a friend that in the “country”, everyone baked their own bread. Needless to say, the truth has always been more complicated than this.

It is probably true that a lot of bread was made in homes throughout the middle ages and into the 16th and 17th centuries. In lists of possessions drawn up to accompany 17th century wills, we can sometimes see direct evidence for bread making. In 1700, John Pountney had a “kneading skep” amongst his possessions. A skep is normally considered to be a basket, but in this case it is probably best understood as some kind of container for kneading dough. In 1660, Richard Palmer’s will lists each room in his house; this included the bakehouse. This illustrates an important point. To bake bread, an oven was required. In most houses, cooking was done over an open fire. It was easy to boil items in pots or roast them on spits; however, there is no simple way an open fire can be adapted for an oven, where there can be no contact between the object to be cooked and the flames from a fire. In these circumstances, detached ovens were often built. These typically were long, brick or stone structures, with just a single chamber. A fire of sticks or other quick-burning material would be built inside this. It would be ignited and allowed to burn itself out. This would make the inside of the chamber red-hot. The embers would be raked out and the loaves, formed from dough, would be quickly put inside using a long-handled spatula called a peel. The door at the mouth of the oven would then be closed and there would be enough heat retained in the structure of the furnace to bake the bread. Needless to say, there was a significant fire risk associated with this method of heating the oven. The Great Fire of London was started by such an oven, and bread ovens were sometimes housed outdoors, or at least in a building well away from the main house. The alternative was to have the bread oven as an alcove, opening into a large inglenook fireplace, so the smoke from the fire inside the oven could escape up the chimney. It would be interesting to know how many houses in Highley have evidence for such ovens. From the late 18th century, cast iron cooking ranges with built-in ovens became widely available, and these must have made baking a much easier process.

There was of course an alternative to home baking, and that was to purchase bread from a baker. Bakers were well established in most towns by the middle ages. There is no evidence for a baker in Highley before the late 19th century, but the journey into Bridgnorth was not particularly difficult. An account of Highley in the 1870s described how one Thomas Billingsley of the White House, would once a week act as a carrier and drive his cart to Bridgnorth, transporting both people and goods. Significantly, the writer recalled that one of the most important items that he collected was bread “because, by that date, little was made in the village”.

As Highley grew in size with the opening of the mines, it became worthwhile for a bakery to open in the village. The first bakehouse was probably attached to the first shop in Highley, that of J.F. Lloyd on the corner of Silverdale Terrace. In the 1890s the bakehouse caught fire and the shop was only saved by the prompt action of a number of the inhabitants of Silverdale. This was probably followed by the opening of a bakery at the Ship Inn, owned by G.E. Bache. This was worked at first by Mr Bache but then was taken on by his stepson, Frank Aston. The Co-op, opening in 1905, soon had its own bakery but it seems to have been around 1913 that J.F. Swift opened the only specialised bakery in Highley, opposite to Lloyd’s shop at Silverdale. This had a degree of mechanisation, with dough-mixing and bread-making machines. The business passed from Swift to Noah Lawton. Subsequently it was taken over by Whitney’s and then around 1950, it was purchased by K.J. Ead. Of course, not only bread was made here, but cakes were also baked and sold; there was a machine for injecting the jam into the doughnuts and the baking was a far cry from that carried on in village kitchens a century before, with large, coke-fired ovens, which I think heated steam pipes to turn heat the oven.

All the village bakeries have of course now gone; modern transport means that it is much easier to bring fresh loaves into village shops each day rather than bake them on the premises. Any bread that is made is now once again done in people’s homes.


Around a year ago, a friend of mine told me that she had bought two hens. When I asked if she had got them for Christmas I received a glacial stare and was informed that as they each had names, it was not planned to dine off them soon. I fear it is unlikely I will now be offered eggs. However, poultry keeping has a long history.

 Fowl of some sorts have pecked round farm yards for centuries. We have references to rents being paid in poultry in the Middle Ages. Around Neen Savage, Kinlet and Cleobury, in the 14th century, each tenant had to supply a goose or a hen as rent for their holding; whilst records for this time in Highley are lacking, I suspect a similar custom existed here. From the 16th century, it is possible to get detailed information on the livestock kept on individual farms from inventories drawn up when individuals died. Poultry are not commonly recorded until the middle of the 17th century, which is surprising as other animals are noted in some detail. Nonetheless, we can see that in 1600, Edward Butler of Kinlet kept 4 hens and cock, valued at 1/6. More commonly the phrase “poultry of all sorts” is used, presumably to cover chickens, ducks and geese; in 1670 George Cole in Highley had such a collection valued at £1-10-0. Whilst this was small compared to his other livestock, it indicated a considerable collection of birds. Whilst the fowl are difficult to see directly at earlier times, their presence is clearly shown by the number of feather beds that people owned.

In the mid 18th century, John Flemming, the vicar of Highley, was keen to maximise his income and listed all the items he could claim tithe on. In his accounts, he wrote that this included “even eggs, viz; three for a cock, two for a hen and one for a pullet. For the next half century or so, careful records were kept by the local incumbents; thus in 1791 the Rev Samuel Burrows collected over 150 eggs from 15 individuals, ranging from the chief farmers to Widow Wilkes, a cottage holder with just two hens. William Jordin at Netherton farm had to pay tithe for 8 geese. In 1801 comes the first reference to a turkey on a village farm.

Poultry keeping was transformed in the 19th century by the introduction of new breeds. On most farms, the fowl remained the preserve of the farmer’s wife, frequently kept for their eggs and largely left to fend for themselves. However, whilst cottagers also kept a few birds, poultry keeping was also feasible for anyone with only a very modest garden. From the 1880s, these included the numerous workers at the local collieries who flooded into Highley. On July 21st 1881, Noah Lawton, one of the winding engine men at Highley, recorded 7 of his Cochin “Chinese” chicks hatching; they had come from Llandudno and I presume had arrived via mail order and the railway. The Cochin were one of the new breeds that came into the country during Victorian times; they are a large, golden bird that lays brown (as opposed to white) eggs. On May 19th 1882 he “let” a hen with 15 eggs (possibly the loan of a broody hen used to hatch surplus eggs), on July 24th of that year he sold two Cochin B hens and a cock to Thomas Brick of Woodend Farm and on November 11th he sold three more to Mr Lloyd at the Rhea for 12/-.

The backyard fowl run was very much part of village life well into the 1940s. Chickens were offered by rag and bone men in exchange for wool. The birds were of various breeds, although Light Suffolks are said to have been particularly common. There was a regular trade between farmers and householders for birds; one of my grandfathers walked to Button Oak to collect six Rhode Island Red chickens which he brought back on the bus. Whilst some were kept for eggs, many of the birds were cockerels, fed for the table. A fierce cockerel roaming in and out of its pen at the top of the garden could be a nightmare (especially for the essential visits to the outside toilet...); a broom offered a barely adequate defence. On the other hand, it was possible to get too close to what would one day appear on the table. This happened to the household of my other grandfather, who were given two ducks to fatten for Christmas. On the fateful day, the first of the birds was served. There was a solemn silence round the table, eventually broken by my grandfather declaring “Well, I’m not enjoying this one bit, it’s like eating your mate. I’d rather have bread and cheese.” The second duck was sent, alive, to relations at Billingsley. Here it was christened “Queenie” and promptly started laying eggs, thus ensuring its extended survival.


From the earliest times, pigs have been valued as farm animals; they have a remarkable capacity to turn the most unpromising food into meat. They are the one animal that is regularly mentioned in Domesday book. This arises from their ability to thrive in oak woods; every autumn the village pigs would be let loose into the local woods to live off the acorns. The right of villagers to turn their pigs into the manorial woods was known as panage and many woods were measured according to how many pigs they could support. Thus for Highley we know that in 1086 when the Domesday book was drawn up, the local wood would feed 30 swine over the winter.

As woods were cleared, the village swine became confined to the farm yard and the small fields surrounding it. However, their importance remained; lists of farms drawn up in the 17th century make it clear that they were found on almost every farm. Increasingly however, the pig was not just restricted to the farms; many cottagers in the village kept one in their garden. In previous times the favoured animal had been the cow, but pigs may have been easier to keep. Once killed, they were salted and the resulting ham or bacon was the only meat most would eat.

The role of the pig in the lives of ordinary people can be seen most clearly in the records from the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Noah Lawton, a winding engineman at Highley, kept a pig. On November 1st 1882 he whitewashed his pig sty inside and out and relaid the floor. This may have been a brick-built sty attached to an cottage. However, in late August 1883 he built a new sty from half a ton of railway sleepers which he cut with a circular saw, possibly at the colliery. He paid 35/- for a pig from Haselwells, less 6d “for luck”. The pig, once slaughtered, could be a source both of meat but also ready money. Before Lawton had his own pig, he bought half a pig from his brother, 4 score and 9lbs, paying 10/6 per score. His wife also had 1½ lbs of fat from the animal.

 Pig keeping may have peaked in the village in the Second World War when the Highley pig club counted 86 humans and 115 pigs as its members in 1944. After the war my grandfather kept a pig on his allotment by Haselwells Cottage. The sty had a concrete base but was otherwise built of wooden offcuts (“slobs” or “scantlings”) from a saw mill. The roof was formed from sticks cut from the coppy and was thatched. Inside the sty was lined with bracken to keep it warm and dry. The pig was fed mainly on potatoes and left-overs from the kitchen. These had to be boiled to sterilise them, to avoid the danger of swine fever. The job of feeding the pigs was invariably given to the children of the family; in this case, it was one of my uncles. Also, invariably, the job would be left to the last minute so the pig had to consume scalding hot food and making generations of children late for school. The excuse “feeding the pig, sir” was well-used. My uncle was more fortunate than one village boy who was caned for being repeatedly late due to his pig-feeding duties, with the headmaster solemnly intoning “Thou shalt not feed the swine after nine” with each stroke.

The day would eventually come when the pig was to be killed. A number of people in the village acted as pig killers; in 1905, a ledger records how the local wheelwright sharpened a meat saw for J. Jones, ‘pig butcher’ of Silverdale Terrace. James Jones was actually a respected deputy at the colliery, but pig butchery was a profitable sideline. The Poyner pig was killed at the Stonehouse by a local butcher. Amidst much squealing, it would be led from the allotment to the place of execution, where it would be quickly manhandled onto the pig bench and its throat cut. There were practical reasons for the job to be done as swiftly and humanely as possible; rough handling would bruise the animal and spoil the meat. The blood was drained from the dead animal and then the bristles would be scraped off with boiling water. The pig would be hung up to allow it to be butchered. The head and trotters were removed to be boiled and eaten. There were few internal organs that could not be cooked in some fashion or other. The intestines, collected in a tin bath, would be turned inside out and washed in the brook and then fried or boiled to be eaten as chitlins. The carcass would be cut into sides or flitches and then salt would be rubbed into it. After being left in the salt for a few days, the sides would then be hung up in the house to dry. It was then possible to cut off slices to eat. The meat was often very salty and might need to be soaked. To modern tastes, it was also often very fat. On one occasion, my grandfather was eating a sandwich with bacon that had more fat than meat. His workmate spoke to him; “Sir’ee Jack, I couldna’ eat that”. My grandfather’s response was short and to the point; “Tha’ bist no goin’ to, either”.


Sugar was once considered a luxury item. It did not become widely available until the development of commercial plantations using slave labour in the West Indies in the 18th century. Before then, the main way of sweetening food or drink was with honey. Indeed, in the early medieval period, the chief alcoholic drink was not beer or cider, but mead, made from fermented honey. Consequently bee-keeping was very important.

The earliest local records that I know of which refer to honey are the accounts of the keeper of Earnwood Park. This was an area of woodland between Highley and Kinlet, stretching into the Wyre Forest. The park keeper was chiefly concerned with looking after deer and providing venison for the lord’s table, but he was also charged with collecting any honey from swarms of bees that nested on trees within the park. This is of course a rather hit and miss way of collecting honey and it is likely that there were also hives where bees were kept. However, these do not feature in the historical record until the 16th century. At that point, there was a fashion for leaving hives of bees in wills; this shows the value attached to the bees. The best example that I have come across is in the will of John Wall, the vicar of Billingsley, who died around 1550. The will is torn, with words missing, but it is clear that the Rev. Wall owned, or had a share in, over 12 colonies of bees. It is interesting that he distinguishes between “stalls” and swarms of bees. The stalls were probably hives; the swarms are presumably where the bees escaped from the hive to form wild colonies; it seems that these were still considered to be the property of the Rev. Wall, even if they had landed on another person’s property. It is also clear that even his stalls were not all on his own land; he gave to one Rowland Ree “all the rest of the stalls and swarms of bees standing at his (i.e. Rowland’s) house”.

The “stalls” that the Rev Wall owned were not the modern wooden bee hives. Instead he would have kept his bees in what resembled an upside-down straw basket called a skep. This was the traditional bee hive, and became the symbol of the co-operative movement; there is a carving of a skep on the datestone at Highley Co-op. These structures provided shelter for the bees but they made it impossible for the hive to be inspected and difficult for the honey to be recovered without destroying the colony. They also allowed the queen bee to lay eggs to produce new queens. Once these developed, the old queen would then lead a swarm to form a new colony, leading to disruption to honey production.

There are fewer mentions of bees in 17th century wills, possibly because significant quantities of sugar were starting to arrive from the West Indies. It is probable that fewer people kept bees because cheap sugar was now available. Indeed, I can only find one mention of bees in the entire 18th century. In 1791, three cottagers, Paul Higgs, Widow Rowley and Edward Matthews paid tithe on their bees. Only one farmer, Thomas Loughton at Netherton, seemed to have bothered with hives.

In the 19th century there was a revival of beekeeping. More became known about the life cycle of the bee and consequently the modern form of wooden hive was introduced. This had wooden trays that could be removed to allow inspection of the bees and also removal of honey. In addition, the queen was not allowed free access to the entire hive, to reduce the occurrence of swarming. Bee-keeping became a fashionable hobby of the middle classes, as well as remaining a useful source of income for cottagers and farm labourers. Thus in 1890, at the Woodlands Hall Flower Show in Glazeley, the first prize for 1lb of run honey was won by Charles Morris of Eudon George but the second prize was won by the Rev. H. Morris, the vicar of Stottesdon. There were also prizes for honey in the comb at the same show. At this period the most prominent beekeeping enthusiast was Mr J. Edmund Roden of Oldbury, who won prizes at Shrewsbury show for his honey (he exhibited 48lbs in 1890) and also gave talks on bee-keeping.

In Highley, before the First World War, G.E. Bache, landlord of the Ship Inn, kept bees on his ground next to the pub and John Derricutt had hives at Borle Mill. In the 1940s and 1950s, Teddy Bradley of Ash Street was a bee-keeper of note. Mr Bradley kept his hives at a small patch of woodland known as Jinks’s First Coppy, the most northerly field in Highley, behind Newcastle Buildings. He kept Italian and Caucasian bees. He sold his honey locally from his house, but was able to send some of his jars to a purchaser in Wolverhampton. His son maintains the tradition of local bee-keeping.

In the dairy

Dairy farming has always been important around Highley; the heavy clay soils are better suited to the keeping of livestock than the growing of grain. Until well into the 18th century, it was common for anyone with even a small patch of land to own a cow and the village smallholders continued this tradition of dairying alongside the larger farms well into the 20th century. Dairy cattle of course produce milk and there was little problem in farmers selling this locally once the village was home to a large mining community; indeed, farmers from Billingsley and Chelmarsh also had milk rounds in the village in the 1930s.

However, milk rapidly spoils and before the development of this local market and also the arrival of the railway in Highley in 1863 (when farmers could send their milk in churns to nearby towns), milk would accumulate more rapidly than it could be sold. Farmers solved this problem by processing their milk into butter and cheese, items that could be kept and which could be taken to markets at Bridgnorth and elsewhere and sold. Consequently, the dairy was an important part of even the smallest farm. Where butter and cheese were made together, the milk was often used for one or other operation on alternate days. Butter is made from cream whereas whole milk is normally used for cheese; however, a low-fat cheese could be made from the skimmed milk left after removing the cream and this was often given to farm workers.

Once the milk has come from the cow, it needs to cool and, for butter making, to settle to allow the cream to separate out. Thus the most basic requirement was for a cool place with ample pails and dishes. From the 16th century onwards, many wills start to show what was involved. Up to around 1650, dairying seems to have taken place either in kitchens or cellars, but in 1692 there is a mention of a “milkhouse” and in 1700 there is the first mention of a dairy. There seems to have been little in the way of specialised equipment: the dairy utensils appear to have been restricted to normal bowls and dishes (made either of pottery or wood) and wooden barrels and buckets. However, there is no doubt that both cheese and butter were being made, as both are often recorded when individuals died and the executors needed to value their possessions. In 1700, both John Pountney and Robert Dorsett (who lived at the Rea) owned cheese presses; John also had four cheese vats and two coolers, although the latter may also have been used for brewing beer. Cheese making is a more serious business than butter making, involving treating the milk with rennet extracted from the stomachs of calves and careful heating and cooling of large volumes of milk to give curds. These operations would have taken place in the vats. The curds would have been compressed to form a block with the press. It is possible that the presses in these wills used screws to apply pressure; the simpler option was to wrap the curds in cloths and leave them under large stones to consolidate. The key step in butter making is to shake or stir the cream until it forms a solid. This was usually done in churns. The best known are the rotating barrel churns but these were not introduced until the late 18th century. Before this plunger churns were used. These were simply barrels with a plunger in, that was moved up and down. Such simple items would simply be noted in wills as “coopery ware”; a general term to describe any wooden barrel-like object built by a cooper.

We have further glimpses into the operations of butter and dairy making from house and farm sales in the 19th century, where auctioneers carefully listed every item that was for sale. Items at Green Hall in 1851 and the Stonehouse in 1882 include cheese presses, milk pails, butter mitts, milk pans (tin and pottery), cream pans, separators and churns. The churns are likely to be the rotating barrel churns; the mitts were hand-held wooden boards used to shape the butter into blocks for sale.

Cheese making seems largely to have died out around the start of the 20th century, as the operation moved to large dairies in towns. Butter making, being simpler, lasted longer. In the First World War, Thomas Brick from Hazelwells Farm claimed that his daughter made 75lbs of butter a week. The tradition of home-made butter continued until around the Second World War on the smallholdings around the Clee Hills, where wives would make butter and take it to Bridgnorth market to sell. There are still many who can recall as children being pressed into turning the churn at a steady, monotonous pace until the butter solidified and could be extracted and shaped by the mitts into blocks.


Recently, I wrote about home-brewing. In this article, I want to focus on one aspect of that, the making of malt. Malt is partially germinated barley. Barley seeds are packed full of starch. As they start to germinate, the starch is broken down to sugar. If the germination process were allowed to continue, this would be used to produce a new plant. In malting, the process is stopped at an early stage, when most of the starch has been turned into sugar, but before the sugar has been used up to make a new plant. The sugar filled grains are taken by brewers and thrown in hot water. This dissolves the sugar; yeast is then added to turn the sugar into alcohol and so brew the beer. So without malt, there can be no beer.

Barley is converted to malt in a special building called a malting. By the 19th century, the chief breweries had built very large maltings to process the huge amount of barley that they required, but in country areas, the maltings were much simpler structures. A typical rural malting was essentially a specialised barn. The barley would arrive as sacks of grain. When required, these would be emptied into a water-filled trough and left to soak for one or two days. This was the trigger to start the germination. The trough would then be drained and the barley grains heaped together within a wooden frame called a couch, where they would dry and start to sprout. At this point, they would start to produce significant amounts of heat. This was a signal to spread the grains more thinly across the malting floor. Here they would be left for around 12 days, during which times roots and a short stem would appear. During this time, the maltster would periodically turn the grain over, to ensure it got enough air and to prevent it from getting too hot. He would also open or close windows, to keep the temperature constant. Once the stem had started to appear, it was important to stop any further growth as this would deplete the precious sugar. The grains would now be gathered up and spread over the upper floor of a kiln, usually built into the one end of the malting. The floor of the kiln would be covered with special tiles, each one having many small holes in them. These were too small to allow the grains to fall through, but would allow heat to rise. A fire of charcoal or coke would be lit on the bottom floor and this would be allowed to slowly burn over a series of several days. This would typically give a temperature of around 160-180°F on the upper floor; enough to kill the germinating grain without destroying the sugar. For dark beers, a higher temperature would be used. Finally the grains would be gathered up and shaken in a riddle (or thrown with a shovel against a wire screen) to break off the roots and stems. The sugar filled grains would then be put in sacks until required by the brewer.

Malting is as old as beer making. At various times, it is likely that many farmers in Highley and surrounding villages would have tried their hand at malting. However, few would have grown enough barley by themselves to make this a particularly successful venture and so the trade became concentrated in the hands of a small number of specialists. In Highley, appropriately enough, malting was carried out in the 19th century at what is now the Malt Shovel, first by Thomas Porter and then by James Lawley. At this date (from c1830 to c1870), the Malt was simply a house known as Little Hill with a small amount of land attached. We do know that behind the house was a two-storey stone building which some will recall as “The Polly”. In the 1920s, Sam Brick, landlord of the Malt, held dances here on the top floor whilst keeping his pigs on the ground floor and prior to that I suspect it had been used as a barn. However, I suspect that this was the malting of Porter and Lawley. Before it was finally demolished around 1990, I was able to note that the bottom floor had two rooms; the smaller of these was next to the pub and had a number of arched entrances. My guess is that this was the kiln, with the upper floor being used to germinate and then dry the malt. It is possible to find fragments of kiln tiles in the lane next to where the building stood.

The end for malting at the Polly probably came around 1870, when James Lawley moved to Eardington. By this date, the small village maltings were clearly a thing of the past, as the trade became concentrated in towns. Bridgnorth had been an important centre for malting in the 18th century; by the late 19th century even here most malting had closed down but what remained were two large complexes, one in Mill Street owned by Ridleys and the other in Foundry Yard, owned by Hood and Wilson. This latter was the last to close, in the 1920s, although Hood and Wilson remained in business as grain merchants long after that. Both sets of buildings still survive. Ridley’s premises are now the Mill Street Antiques Centre and give a good idea of what a medium sized malting looked like. Even this is dwarfed by the maltings put up by brewers in towns such as Burton.

The Deuxhill Schools

In June (2013), Deuxhill village hall was sold into private hands, to be converted to a house. Changing patterns of life meant that it was no longer serving any useful function as a hall; the money raised from the sale will be used to support community facilities that meet the current needs of the communities which the hall once served. However, this is but the latest chapter in the history of the building, as it was originally a school.

The history of Deuxhill School ultimately has its origins in concerns in Victorian England over inadequate provision of schools. Where schools existed, they were usually provided by the Church of England or non-conformist congregations; however, in many areas there were no schools at all. Accordingly, in the 1870s an Act of Parliament was passed allowing communities to come together to elect school boards; these could then build and run schools independently of any religious body. In 1878, the parishes of Deuxhill, Billingsley, Chetton, Glazeley, Middleton Scriven, and Sidbury joined together to form the Chetton School Board. To provide education for children over these scattered parishes, two schools were built, the Down School in Chetton in the north and Deuxhill School in the south. This mainly served children in Deuxhill, Glazeley, Middleton Scriven and Billingsley. Work started on the school in 1879 and it was opened early in 1880. The school had two classrooms; one for infants and one for seniors and there was a house attached for the school master and his wife, who was typically expected to look after the infants as well as teach needlework to the older girls. The first teachers were George Heap and his wife; they were followed first by Thomas and Agnes Edwards and then William and Fanny Armstrong. Mr and Mrs Armstrong served for many years; in Glazeley church there is a memorial plaque to Mrs Armstrong.

Children would be expected to start school at 5; most would leave at 12. Until 1891, each child had to pay 4d a week to contribute to the revenue of the school. The school had a capacity of 66, but it soon exceeded this and in 1895 it was extended to accommodate 78 children. In 1907-8 more work was carried out to increase capacity to 100. There were also various extensions to the playground; an orchard at the back of the school was eventually included in this. As built, the school had earth closet toilets for the children which soon attracted unfavourable comments from the school inspectors of the time.

Teaching focused on basic numeracy and literacy, but subjects such as singing, drawing and geography were also taught. Although not a church school, religious knowledge was also taught and examined by an inspector appointed by the Diocese of Hereford, just as in the church schools. The school board include a number of the local clergy, who took a keen interest in proceedings.

Deuxhill School maintained its numbers until the 2nd World War. In 1939 there were 70 pupils, including 15 evacuees and their teacher from Liverpool. After the war, numbers declined as senior pupils were sent to Bridgnorth. Various arrangements were tried with Chetton to share infants and juniors, but in 1961, with just 14 pupils, it was closed, eventually becoming the village hall.

There is one interesting footnote to the school. On the wall there was a needlework sampler, entitled “The Names of Children who have learnt to mark March 1 1833” and records 60 pupils from 1834 to 1869. These clearly were pupils of a local school, but this could not have been the Deuxhill school that was built in 1879! It seems that they were taught at a school run by a Mrs Mary Jenkins at Horsford House, the brick house on the Billingsley side of the brook by Horsford Mill. This was maintained by public subscription. Mary Jenkins was still living at Horsford House in 1871, when she was 83, and described herself as a retired teacher. The sampler remained in Deuxhill School after it became the village hall and is now to be hung in Billingsley church, the parish in which some of the children named on it actually lived.

George Heap, schoolmaster of Deuxhill

In the previous article I gave a brief history of Deuxhill school. In this one I want to continue the theme by examining the colourful career of George Heap, the first master of that school.

George was appointed to be in charge of the new school with his wife, who was to be the head mistress and to assist him in his duties. George was born in Manchester and would have been 29 when the school opened in January 1880. He had qualified in 1875, so had only 5 years experience as a teacher. He kept the school log book. Normally, most head teachers recorded little beyond the weekly attendance and observations on the weather in their logs; George, for better or worse, was more forthcoming in his writings. His first entry was on January 19th 1880; “This new school opened for the first time; 27 children, 16 boys and 11 girls entered”. Numbers grew rapidly; either the school was popular or the attendance officer was zealous. However, other matters were not apparently so satisfactory. At the end of the first week, George recorded how there had been no regular lessons as the school had been without apparatus “the same not having come though ordered”. The “apparatus” finally arrived on February 10th and George went to the station to inspect it. On the 13th February, he recorded the first delivery of coal, adding “I may say that there have been fires in every room in the building drying the same”. The coal however proved of little use; 21st February “Defects with the chimneys – smoke has returned to the rooms... at times I have had to put the fires out”. These early entries are typical of many. George obviously considered that the school had a number of problems. He was particularly concerned to show that they were not his fault.

George’s perceived problems were not restricted to the school building and the lack of resources. He clearly found it frustrating to teach some of his charges. The results of examinations by government inspectors in 1880 and then again in 1882 were disappointing. After the latter, he wrote, “Results most disheartening and disappointing. Thrashed certain and sundry for stupidly failing, the same being well able to perform the same work”. He was certainly not helped by the fact that the school was overcrowded. The one attempt to provide him with assistance failed. An ex-pupil, Matilda Davies, joined as a student teacher in May 1882. Her attendance was erratic and she failed her examination. On Nov 7th George wrote “I am given to understand that I need not expect her appearance again”.

Discipline was a significant problem. George clearly was of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” school of thought. His methods brought him into conflict with a number of parents. Matters came to a head in July 1882, when he was summonsed for assaulting one of his pupils by the name of William Potts. He was alleged to have pulled Potts’s ear so hard as to cause a tear and also to have struck him across the face when Potts was unable to complete some arithmetic. On George’s first appearance before the magistrate, the local paper commented on how he created an unfavourable impression and was several times called to order. At the second appearance the local policeman confirmed that Potts had been injured and George was convicted and fined 10/-. This however was probably the least of George’s concerns. He had also got himself into serious debt and was unable to pay his creditors; by the time of his conviction for assault he had been made bankrupt and his goods sold at auction. He had already resigned as a teacher.

It is of course impossible to know the real circumstances under which George was having to work; was he a poor teacher, prone to violence and anxious to blame others for his shortcomings, or was he let down by the school board and a number of irresponsible parents? There is one further story from the log book that may show him in a more favourable light. He had persistent problems with Joseph Mullard, “warming his bottom” for playing truant, sending him home for not having washed and punishing him for stealing food from other children. The second time this happened, George made further enquiries. “For faults committed at home, [he] is habitually deprived of his food by the female put over him (the boy’s mother being non-est)”. A few weeks later there was more. “Night’s lodging given to Joseph Mullard, the boy having been turned from his home by the person in charge of him and found wandering in the road at 10 of the night by the master”.

As a footnote, Joseph Mullard was the uncle of my grandfather.

Fruit and Fruit Trees

This year (2013) has been exceptionally good for fruit; I am not alone in being overwhelmed by apples, pears and damsons. Highley is at the northern end of a district noted for fruit growing; whilst it could never match the orchards found around Bewdley and the River Teme, fruit growing provided a useful supplement to many farmers and small holders until well into the 20th century.

I have written previously about fruit growing in Highley. Many of the orchards specialised in apples for cider making and in the mid-19th century the village was noted for the amount of cider it made. However, cooking and eating apples were also grown, as well as pears. It is often very difficult to establish what varieties of fruit were found in village orchards. However, when Netherton House was sold in 1947, the trees found in its 7-acre orchard were listed in detail. The apples included Blenheim, Newtown, Russett and Wellington. The pears were Bergamot and Marie Louise. Elsewhere, John Derricutt at Rose Cottage grew mainly Longmore pears in his orchard. These varieties tell a story. Today the apples would most likely be Cox and Bramley with Conference pears but these have not always dominated. Blenheim and Newtown apples became common in the 18th century. The Wellington was an eating apple that became popular in the early 19th century. A number of apples can be described as Russett, but the variety that is most common today is the Egremont Russett, which was first described in 1872. Bergamot pears have been grown in this country for centuries, but the Marie Louise was introduced in the early 19th century. The trees in  orchard at Netherton would probably have been planted in the period 1900-1920 and so reflect the preferences of the gardener at that time. If anyone knows of other varieties of fruit that were grown locally, I would love to know!

Fruit trees for orchards would usually come from nurseries. The growing or cultivating of fruit trees for sale is not something that is usually associated with Highley. However, there was at least one  villager who specialised in this work; John James of the Stonehouse, in the 1720s. At this date, the village orchards were well established. Thus in 1726, the vicar recorded collecting tithes on six “strikes” of apples; roughly half a dozen wheelbarrow loads. John’s main trade was that of a wheelwright. However, the Stonehouse was associated with around 20 acres of ground including orchards and so this must have tempted him into nursery work as a sideline; he also kept a few cattle and pigs. He can be seen at work in a series of accounts kept by the vicar. In 1727, the vicar owed James 2/6 for a day spent grafting fruit trees onto existing plants as well as 1/3 for half a day’s work done the previous year. It looks like James used grafting as the main way in which he propagated his fruit trees, for these are also described as his “young trees”. It seems that James had prepared these specially for the vicar, but he also had other customers. The vicar noted how James “says he is about to sell some young trees out of his nursery”. This was of interest, because if this happened, the vicar noted that he was due extra payment of 6d for tithes!

It is not clear how long James carried on his nursery business; there are no more references to young trees. The following year he paid 4d tithe on fruit, but this is likely to have been the produce of his orchard.  There are no further surviving accounts until the 1730s, but these are less informative than the earlier ones and only confirm that James continued to keep cattle. I suspect that the nursery was a short-lived affair.

The only other indication that there might have been fruit tree nurseries in Highley is from the middle of the 19th century, when the tithe map was produced. This names every field in the village and includes a small number called “nursery”. There is little doubt that young trees of some type were grown here, but it is impossible to tell if these were for orchards or some other use such as stocking of hedges. There is a story that one such field, just north of Netherton Lane, was used to grow oak trees from acorns, but I do not know if this story is true.


Harvest is now but a memory; the crops were taken from both garden and field some months ago. However, until comparatively recent times, for many crops, the real work only started once they had been taken into the barn. For cereals, the valuable part of the plant is the grain, found in the ear at the top of the stalk; this has to be separated from the rest of the plant. This was done over the autumn and winter months, in the operations of threshing and winnowing.

Until the late 18th century, threshing and winnowing were carried out by hand, by groups of labourers. The corn would be laid on the floor of a barn, between two doors. Initially the men would beat the corn with flails, causing the ears to break open and release the grain. This was threshing. The barn doors would then be opened and the grain tossed into the air. Provided there was a breeze of some kind, this would blow away the broken bits of straw and chaff, allowing the clean grain to fall to the ground where it could be shovelled up into sacks. This was winnowing. The operations were slow and inefficient.

The first threshing machines were introduced in the late 18th century. They were usually built into barns. A drum with sticks attached to it took the place of the flails; as it rotated, the sticks beat the corn to free the grain. Winnowing machines were also introduced; they were essentially fans. The threshing machines were worked by horses; the horses would be attached to a drive shaft and made to walk round in a circle. A system of rods and gears transmitted the drive to the drum.

The first threshing machine in Highley was installed at the Rea Farm. It was driven by three horses. Threshing machines with their many moving parts were always a danger to life and limb and in 1817 a man got caught up in the machine and was killed. However, the technology was here to stay and by the 1850s, reliable steam engines known as “portables” were available to work the threshing boxes. With the extra power that came from steam, movable threshing boxes became popular. These combined threshing and winnowing, allowing the dressed corn to be discharged straight into sacks. As it was so easy to move the machines, specialist threshing contractors became established, who would move from farm to farm with their steam engine and threshing box. The whole apparatus would be pulled by a team of horses.

The earliest local man to work as a threshing contractor seems to have been Joseph Lawley of Button Bridge in Kinlet, although in the 1860s Henry Weaver of Eardington was also active in Highley. By the 1870s, steam traction engines that could both move the threshing tackle and also power the boxes started to become common, although the portables continued to be used for many years afterwards. As far as I know, the only threshing contractor to work in Highley was Tom Brick, who worked from the Rea Farm from the First World War until at least the early 1930s.

The final stage in the story of the threshing box came after the First World War with the replacement of steam engines by tractors. One of the last contractors to use steam was William Griffiths from Neen Savage; others such as Tom Paine from Cleobury switched to tractors. Threshing boxes continued to be common until the 1950s; at that date, one was still at Jinks’s farm at Hazelwells, but they eventually were replaced by the modern combine harvester that could cut and thresh the crop at the same time.

A member of the congregation at Highley has recently shared her memories of working on a threshing box, at Lower Northwood Farm in Stottesdon. Normally she worked on the ground to clear the chaff from beneath the machine; a safe, if dusty, job. However, on this occasion, she was told she had to work on top of the box. Beans were being threshed. Normally the crop to be processed had to be pitched onto the top of the box by a man with a pitchfork. However, on this occasion the beans were on the top floor of a barn, which meant that they could simply be pushed out to drop onto the top of the box. Here the operators had to frantically cut the bonds tying the bundles of beans together and feed them into the machine, taking care not to slip and fall into the open, rotating drum. They also had to look out for mice and rats that were caught up in the beans. Needless to say, my informant made sure she was never asked to do this job again!

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