Times Remembered – 17th Century continued.
The population of Pirton in the first half of the 17th Century was probably about 250. A large village for those days. Awareness of any loyalty larger than the parish was still slight for most country folk. It was through the parish, the successor to the medieval institutions, that legislation was put into practice. The Vestry, a body of elected ratepayers, eventually succeeded by the Parish Council, took over the functions of the manorial courts. Its duties were mainly the maintenance of the poor, law and order and the repair of the roads.
It was the Vestry who appointed the Overseer in charge of payments to the poor and needy and also the Constable whose duties were wider-ranging. He was not just the keeper of the peace and punisher of transgressors but also the local trading standards officer and surveyor. He was expected to take before the Justices those whose activities took them abroad at night: those who frequented bawdy houses: those carrying weapons, those who used hot words, threatened to kill, made rumours or caused an assembly: those who made an affray; those not attending church; profane swearers, *popish recusants, fornicators and adulterers. At the same time he had to report on the state of the roads and bridges, weights and measures and those locals balloted for militia service. For all this he was officially unpaid but could claim expenses. However it appears that, until the Poor Law Act of 1835, many Constables received a salary taken out of the Poor Rate. This was a tax levied on well-to-do parishioners for the upkeep of their poorer neighbours. If the Constable asked too much of the parishioners, they sometimes re-elected him as a punishment. In 1629 the local Court ruled that “some fit person shall be chosen to be Constable of Pirton in place of Robert Samme, who was nominated by the inhabitants, as the Court is of the opinion that he is not fit, by reason that he liveth with his father there as a servant and noe otherwise.”
The practice had grown up over many years of moving on vagabonds or strangers who arrived in a village and might prove to be a burden on the taxpayers. Such a fate is apocryphally attributed to the instigator of the Rand Trust which benefits mainly the residents of Holwell and to a lesser extent Pirtonians. The infamous Act of Settlement and Removal of 1662 which required that newcomers who did not inhabit property of the annual rental of £10 (a sum quite beyond the resources of a labourer or even a craftsman) were to be returned to their place of origin within 40 days, gave a clear definition to a practice which had long existed.
By the 16th century poverty was seen as a national problem needing statutory action. Begging and the distribution of indiscriminate charity was prohibited but nothing was set up to alleviate the situation. Houses of correction were instituted to punish and set to work idle rogues and vagabonds but there seems to have been no clear distinction between workhouses, houses of correction, and poor houses prior to the Workhouse Act of 1723. Pinchgut Hall, a poor house and the ‘Dirt House’ for the disposal of night soil, were both situated on the Bedford Road between the Ickleford and Holwell turns.
Many diseases were unidentified at this time. By the late 17th century plague had died out and smallpox had replaced it as the main scourge. In addition typhus, gout, stones and ague were common. Surgery was rarely attempted except in the case of stones. Medical training was practically non-existent and doctors were few. In general the goodwife prescribed her own remedies, whether herbal or traditional. A remedy for consumption was ‘take 100 snails, bruise them and pick then from the shells; put them in 2 quarts of new milk, scalding hot and distil with mint and red fennel’. One recommended cure for palsy was to lie for 24 hours wrapped in the skin of a newly slaughtered sheep.
Before 1600 burials in our churchyard averaged little more than one a year. From 1600 to 1618 they had risen to about six a year. Pages are missing from the register for the next ten years but from 1629 to 1642 the average number of burials is about eight a year. Then come the usual chaotic entries in all the registers during the Civil War when priests were being ejected from their livings. They start again in 1653 with an average of ten burials a year but in 1657/8 there are twenty six and twenty one burials respectively, no doubt as the result of an epidemic.
The upkeep of roads proves to have been a great preoccupation of the parishes during that century. As people became more mobile and moved from travelling on foot or horseback to coaches and while goods moved more freely by wagon, good roads became more and more important. Each parish was responsible for the road that ran through it but this meant a patchy or totally neglected programme of upkeep, with little or no co-ordination. Chalk and stones were the main ingredients of road making in Hertfordshire and the resulting holes produced an uncomfortable surface, very far from the tar macadam to which we are used. The idea of charging tolls to turnpike (main road) users came into being in 1663 but was met with great opposition and was fairly unsuccessful. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that turnpike trusts were appointed by Parliament. These consisted of local gentry, clergy and businessmen empowered to take control of specific stretches of road. In return for bringing roads up to standard and maintaining them, the trustees could charge tolls, intended to pay for their upkeep and leave the trustees with a profit. As roads and designs of coaches improved, journey times were shortened and the number of travellers increased. However road surfaces did not improve until the beginning of the 19th century.
The population of Pirton in the second half of the century appears to have increased not at all. This can be gauged by the hearth tax. This was a half-yearly tax of a shilling levied on each hearth in a house worth more than 20 shillings a year. Thomas White Esq. at Rectory Manor had eleven hearths and Richard Stone seven. John Hammond and James Handscombe each had six. Mrs Roberts, John Field and Robert Collison had five each. Widow Sam and three others had four, while the rest had three, two or one. Altogether there were 53 houses and 141 hearths. The record was signed in 1663 by John Hammond and Michael Ansell Constables for that year.
After the death of Thomas White, Rectory Manor passed into the hands of Sir Anthony Deane, a carpenter who rose to be an eminent architect. In 1693 Thomas Docwra mortgaged Highdown. His daughter Martha married Sir Peter Warburton and their child George inherited the estate in 1700. In 1727 Sir George sold the estate to Ralph Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory.
*Recusant – one who refused to comply with Anglican rituals