It is difficult for us to realise that Hertfordshire was once mostly forest and villages like ours were formed in a clearing in the woods called a ‘lea’ or ‘ley’.  Names like Lilley, Offley and Stopsley indicate such clearings.  Farming, whereby each villager had a strip of land scattered about the whole area, was the ‘open field’ farming system by which each family was self-sustaining to a large extent.  Boundaries were marked by lengths of unploughed turf called ‘baulks’: hence the name of the path between Docklands and Shillington Road.  Agreement among the villagers as to which sections would grow wheat or barley or rye or oats and which left fallow had to be made at a village meeting – not always sweetness and light.

Over the centuries landowners had gradually realised that soil could be improved by growing crops such as clover or turnips but this was impossible while cattle roamed freely over the stubble in open fields after harvest.  In fact that system merely provided enough food for the village, with nothing left over for market.  It also tended to impoverish the land by the excessive growing of corn and insufficiency of fallow strips.

The growth of the cloth trade in Tudor times led to more and more land being acquired by those who could afford to purchase and enclose it; much of it being laid down to pasture for sheep.  This had a good effect on land in need of refreshment but a bad effect on ploughmen, who swelled the ranks of beggars roaming the country.

Enclosure heralded the beginning of the chessboard appearance of the British countryside as we know it today.  Contrary to popular opinion not all enclosures were by any means the work of greedy gentry or capitalist farmers.  Much of the gentle Tudor enclosure was on a modest scale by small yeomen farmers.  By hedging fields and forming farms they increased food production by improving the soil and gave paid employment to villagers freed from their slovenly or incompetent neighbours and the quarrels that ensued in the open field system.  However, change in rural communities is not something easily embraced.  In 1692, over two hundred years after enclosures began, the inhabitants of Pirton drew up an official agreement to defend themselves against the efforts of Thomas Docwra, lord of the manor, to enclose land here.  It was not until the harsher enclosures of the 18th and early 19th centuries that most of Pirton ceased to be open fields and common grazing.  Why did it take so long? Until the latter half of the 20th century this had always been a relatively poor village.  Perhaps nobody, not even the Docwras, the Handscombes, the Hammonds and the Warburtons could afford the capital outlay involved in planting numerous hedges and draining fields.

From the time of the accession of George III in 1760 industries, which had been conducted in villages such as spinning, weaving, basket making, cobbling, tailoring, tanning, brewing, milling and wagon building moved steadily to the towns.  This left the villages purely agricultural and the condition of the agricultural labourer, deprived of the industries previously conducted by his wife and children, was indeed most unhappy.  Pirton fared better than many villages because of the plaiting carried out for the straw hat industry in Luton.

The embryo Poor Laws instituted by Elizabeth had gone some way to relieve the plight of the poor but relief was left to local Justices of the Peace to administer.  Since they were composed of the landlord class they did not compel the farmers to pay a living wage but instead taxed the ratepayers by levying an extra rate to support the poor and needy.  This fatal policy simply encouraged farmers to keep down wages and turned the rural labourer into a pauper with a consequent loss of self respect.  It paid better to cringe to the authorities for the dole than to attempt any form of self-help.


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