TIMES REMEMBERED – 19th Century
This was the century that accelerated the pace of change in city and town but in the villages like ours it was hardly noticeable until the last quarter of the century. Changes usually involve money and there was very little of that about among country folk. What little they had was spent on keeping body and soul together. Mortality was still very high and medical care was scanty. Twenty-five members of one family in our village died under the age of 40 and in 1864 scarlet fever killed 43 children under five years of age. Life was hard for the families of farm labourers who accounted for eighty per cent of the male population. A labourer’s low wage was often supplemented by the strawplaiting carried on by his wife at home and even young children were kept away from school to assist in that labour.
Of course, there was no school in Pirton until Revd. Thomas Thirwall, vicar from 1835 to 1847, started one on Great Green in 1842 and maintained it at his own expense and efforts, to the detriment of his health. The same man found it necessary to install a gallery at the west end of the church in order to accommodate his large congregation.
The church itself was in a shocking state of disrepair and Revd. Ralph Lindsay Loughborough arrived in 1851, to commence his tenure as vicar for the next 44 years, to find a building decayed, poorly furnished and sadly neglected. In the first year of his incumbency Loughborough persuaded one of his relations, the distinguished Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson, to draw up plans for restoring the building. There was no hope of raising the money for such a venture in the village and so the Vicar set about advertising his plight up and down the country with insertions in newspapers and periodicals and by writing hundreds of begging letters to the rich and famous. It took twenty-five years to raise sufficient money to start the restoration but in 1876 work begun.
By that time the interior of the church was divided into three parts by folding doors. The nave was used for the services of Matins and Evensong, the Crossing, under the tower, for bellringing and the chancel for Sunday School and the celebration of Holy Communion three times a year. It had been planned to start the restoration by replacing the nave roof but by the time funds were available to begin, the architect was more concerned about the safety of the tower where the mortar, having perished, was running out from between the clunch stones like sand.
It is hard to believe from the present appearance of the tower and the way it blends with the rest of the church that it was dismantled to ground level by a Stevenage firm of builders using only shear-legs and pulley blocks, stone by stone, and rebuilt using the same materials, all within a period of eighteen months. The entrance to the tower was from outside instead of from the Crossing, inside, as previously.
The restoration of the nave commenced in December 1882 and included a new roof and ashlar parapet, a woodblock floor and replastered walls. By 1910 the whole church had been refurnished in good English oak.
At the start of the century the population of Pirton was 480 but by the middle of the century it had risen to 800. Poverty did not affect the rate of childbearing and seven or eight children in a family was not unusual. In the last quarter of the century, the population reached a peak of 1125 and then began to decline until 1921, since when it has risen again. The Industrial Revolution brought increased employment to our towns and cities but it had the opposite effect on our villages. As farming became more mechanised there was rising unemployment among agricultural workers. Young couples were moving away as employment in factories and on the railway brought higher wages. Emigration also beckoned and not a few young men, including the Vicar’s sons, sought a new life in Canada, New Zealand or the USA.
Revd. Thirlwall’s school was superseded by the Pirton Board School in1877 and until 1891 was a fee paying school. Although it only amounted to a few pence a week children were often absent because their parents could not afford the fee. The irregularity of attendance was further exacerbated by sickness and child labour. Violent coughs and colds and regular outbreaks of scarlet fever and diphtheria were a constant problem, sometimes closing the school altogether. The main cause of absence was children working. Harvest and potato picking times were the worst, apart from the strawplaiting mentioned above.
By the end of the century life for most people in Pirton had not changed a great deal from what it was like at the beginning. It was going to take a war to do that.