There has been a settlement on this site for many hundreds of years, if not thousands, as the evidence of Romano-British pottery at Hitchin Museum shows. In the Ninth Century during the Danish occupation, Pirton was a frontier village just inside the Danish land and was undoubtedly the scene of fighting. A row of skeletons all facing east found on Pegsdon date from this time.
In 994 Priests could teach children free of charge and since the Archbishop had a large house at Burge End it is likely that there was a school in Pirton 900 years before the first Board Schools.
The first references to the present Parish are found in the Domesday Book when it was known as Peritone (meaning Pear Tree). The Manor of Pirton was given by William the Conqueror to one of his closest Lieutenants, Ralph de Limesei along with 41 other manors throughout England.
It was the de Limeseis who built Pirton Castle which although only of wooden construction was probably a good defensive position as it was contained by two moats (inter connected), the inner enclosing the Church and Motte (Castle) and the outer probably encompassing most of the then small settlement. The Domesday Book shows the de Limosei’s land as worked by 20 villanes (villagers) with six ploughs, and containing 29 cottagers. Although small Pirton was then prosperous and is shown to be worth £20.
All that remains of Pirton Castle is the earth mound south of the Church known as Toot Hill, and in the adjoining field (The Bury) evidence of the route of the moats can be seen.
There are two legends linked to the Castle, one is that at the deep part of the inner moat by the drawbridge, treasure lays too deep to reach. Secondly that one of the de Limesei ladies drowned at almost the same point when the drawbridge was raised against her, her ghost is said to haunt the spot.
From the 11th Century, to the time the Church Registers commence, it is not easy to trace precise development in Pirton. We can be sure that the Manor of Pirton passed down the line of the de Limesei family to the de Oddingsells and was later split up into three manors known as Rectory Manor, Pirton Manor and D’Oddingsells Manor.
The Manor of Pirton was owned by Sir Thomas Docwra, Lord Grand Prior of the Knights of St. John the Baptist of Jerusalem in 1500. It was Sir Thomas who built the fine Tudor house HIGH DOWN which is one of the five old properties which the modern Parish contains. A legend attached to High Down is that a headless horseman rides from the house to Hitchin Priory once a year on 15 June. He is said to be a Cavalier captured and executed at High Down. Thomas Docwra the Great Grand nephew of Sir Thomas built the OLD MANOR on Great Green known as Docwra Manor. It is said that the two Docwra houses were once joined by a subterranean passage. Both are built, as is the Church, from local clunch and chalk quarried from a pit on the south side of High Down.
The Docwra family were at times in conflict with the villagers, as is shown by the very interesting document held at Herts County Record Office wherein the villagers agreed to defend each other against Thomas Docwra when he enclosed his land in 1692 well ahead of the Enclosure Act for Pirton passed in 1811. Jane Docwra his wife is commemorated in the Church, she died in 1645 four years before Charles I was beheaded.
At this time Pirton seems to have been a large village due perhaps to its connections with men of standing such as the Docwras. There is no record of population or houses in the village, but from the 1663 returns for the Hearth Tax introduced by Charles II the population would seem to be somewhere between 200 and 250.
Other notable old Houses in the Parish are:
Pirton Grange: a moated timber framed house of the 17th Century on the Border with Shillington, was the residence of the Hanscombe family (one of Pirton’s leading families for many centuries), although they kept closer links with Shillington.
Rectory Manor Farm House: The original Tudor farm house has been replaced but the farm still boasts the huge 135 ft tithe barn which has stood since Elizabethan times.
Hammonds Farm: Another fine Elizabethan house which has been little altered down the centuries. It takes its name from John Hammond who established on his death a charity which survives to this day, it was originally set up to assist the apprenticing of boys in the Parish from income obtained from the land at Punches Cross, and to provide two almshouses for the poor of the Parish. These are still in the High Street (although rebuilt).
These buildings are those with either a documented past or notable history, but the village contains many other fine old cottages, particularly those around Great Green and Yew Tree cottage by the Church. A walk around the village will find many houses of interest and character.
Up until 1800 the Doddingsells Manor was owned by the Provost of Eton College before being purchased by the Radcliffe family of Hitchin Priory, who were also owners of Hammonds Farm. The Radcliffes and Handscombes were the main land owners in Pirton’s recent past, as can be seen from the Church records such as family pews. The first mention of a connection between Pirton and Eton is in 1519 when the Sherriff of Hertford was ordered by Henry VIII to distrain the Provost for failing to pay homage to the King for the Manor of Pirton
However, our most direct link with Henry VIII is through Sir Anthony Denny the owner of Pirton Rectory Manor, who was Henry’s Lord of the Bedchamber. It is unlikely that he spent much time here as he is recorded as having ‘occupied his whole time and care with religion, learning and the affairs of state.’ He was present at Henry’s death and it was his duty to tell the King that he was dying. This was no easy task, because the King was unaware that he was going to die and to contradict the King was High Treason punishable by death, Denny carried out his task and there was time to send for Archbishop Cranmer before he King finally died.
The character of Pirton as a self-contained agricultural village was formed in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Pirton was, however, very slow in changing from the old open field system which had lasted for hundreds of years, to the enclosed fields, this being accomplished by Act of Parliament in 1811. In the early part of this period Hertford-shire was still heavily wooded.
Church records convey very well the circumstances of the times, and the village was undoubtedly poor. The churchwardens and overseers books give full accounts of the Poor Law rates levied and how they were spent. Also interesting are the inventories of the workhouse which show the paupers as being possessed of nothing but the rags they stood up in, and the furnishings of the poorhouse itself are bare in the extreme.
Pirton began to prosper again in the middle of the last century. The women were able to augment the family income by straw plaiting for the Luton Hat industry. This would involve plaiting the straw for hours on end throughout December to May to sell the skeins for the familiar straw boaters in Hitchin market. This could add 10s per week to the family income, and when the average wage was 7s 6d it made a considerable difference. The new village sign depicts this part of our past showing straw plait and the plaitters splitting tool.
Pirton Church built its own school in 1842 on Great Green, this was established as a charity and served until very recently as the Sunday School. It cost £242 12s 5 ½ d raised locally by appeal. It was of course later replaced by the Board School.
When George IV was Prince Regent he trained his horses on High Down and visited frequently accompanied by Beau Brummel.
Around the middle of the last century the last of the great families to live in Pirton arrived when Joseph Pollard moved to High Down. He and his daughters were good friends of the Church and Parish with Miss Maria Pollard carving much of the present woodwork in the Church.
Population in 1800’s rose from 481 in 1801 to around 1100 by 1861, and it has stayed at this level since, although the number of houses has more than doubled, a sign of our changing wealth.
Hertfordshire Directories show the wealth of variety of trades in the village at this time, 2 Blacksmiths, 2 Bakeries, a Butcher, numerous sellers of beer, an Undertaker, small builders, a Cobbler, as well as Farmers and Agricultural workers.
The village seems to have stayed that way until almost the middle of this century when improvements in mechanisation and communications made the small man financially unviable. However, what has remained is the rural village character and history which is due in no small part to the old Pirtonians who have stayed in the village. A comparison of the names of todays’ villagers shows a large number of old Pirton names such as: Hanscombe, Burton, Lake, Males, Russell and others too numerous to mention in a short history.
Prepared and written by David and Teresa Jamieson 1975