The Industries, Customs and Superstitions of Pirton
The principal industry of Pirton, in common with most villages of its size and situation, is agriculture. The village, which is low lying, being at the foot of a spur of the Chilterns, possesses heavy but fertile soil the majority being chalk on clay although gravel is found in isolated spots all over the parish.
The boundaries of the parish roughly follow the line of the river Oughton and the boundary of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. It is bounded on the north by the parish of Shillington, by the east by Holwell and Ickleford, on the south by Hitchin and on the west by Pegsdon. The industries of the rural parts of the neighbouring parishes are mainly agricultural although in south Beds market gardening, especially the growing of onions, is seen more than corn growing.
The methods of agriculture are both old fashioned and modern on the same farm. The cornfield will be moved around or ‘opened’ by a man with a scythe and the corn he cuts will be hand bound by his assistant, the field will then be cut by a binder drawn by either horses or a tractor. The corn is shocked and carted in the old-fashioned way the “Hertfordshire cart” complete with ladder and “copse” being used. The travelling steam tackle is much used for ploughing and cultivating as these heavy implements plough the heavy ground much deeper and better than a horse or tractor plough can. The steam tackle moves from farm to farm, the men in attendance living in a caravan and working from sunrise to sunset while the season lasts.
Some of the agricultural labourers hold wonderful records for work on the same farm, Edwin Smith has worked on one farm for nearly sixty-five years of nine, and still does turnip hoeing occasionally although he has retired. George Lake can show nearly sixty years’ service and several others boast of over fifty years. The people generally live to a great age, the oldest inhabitant being about ninety-five.
A few of the older women still pursue the ancient industry of straw plaiting. Fifty years ago all the women and girls plaited for the straw hat manufacturers of Luton and Dunstable, the work was pleasant and well paid and the women used to stand and plait as they gossiped. The manufacture of machine-made plait and the importation of plait from China killed this industry but in the homes of a few old women you still see the straw mills and the women plaiting. Very few of the older men and women can read or write, they attended a dame school on Great Green where they were taught their letters, numbers and catechism and also to plait, this was called a plaiting school and was all the education available.
At Pegsdon lives an old man known as Jimmy Burr. He is a maker of the old-fashioned bee skeps fashioned of straw, although he is not a Pirton man he is very well known in the village where the skep making industry has died out. Jimmy Burr buys his wheat in the ar from neighbouring farmers, he threshes it with a flail and combs the long straight stalks before weaving them into a hive. The hives are ???? to manufacturers of beehives and are still greatly in demand by cottagers and similar people who dislike the modern beehives.
The young girls of the parish are generally employed at the village glove factory. This is a new industry and employs about thirty girls, the gloves, which are woollen, are knitted on machines and the finished articles sent to Leicester where they are distributed.
One industry which is generally forgotten in villages is practised to a large extent in Pirton, namely thatching or “thecking” as it is called locally. Many of the old cottages are beautifully thatched and the barns and farm building generally have thatched roofs. His art is confined to a few families and comes down from father to son like the art of scything and sickling.
Lastly comes the industry without which no village is complete, the village blacksmith. The forge is situated on the village green and within the blacksmith and his assistant can be seen by the light of the forge fire and of the glowing horseshoes they are beating. The blacksmith is an important person in the village, a churchwarden and a parish councillor.
These are the home industries of the village they are the common industries to be found in every rural village in England where the hand of the improver has not reached
Every village has its own customs which, alas, are now dying out. In Pirton, however, the old customs still survive aong the old and young.
The chief custom that is now dying out is that of gleaning, in North Herts this custom still survives among the villagers. When the corn has been carted, one shock is left in the field until the people may glean, the whole families, mothers, children, unemployed men and everybody spend whole days in the fields gleaning. The corn gleaned is either ground into flour or given to the hens, the beans which have shelled out are also collected for their pigs. The amount of corn collected in this manner is amazing, one old woman of seventy used to consider it a poor year that she did not obtain half a sack of ground flour.
The other harvest custom is that of ‘largeing’. This consists of a largeing party of the men of the farms visiting Hitchin the Tuesday or Saturday after they have been ‘paid up’ for harvest. They purchase their new clothes and presents for their wives, families or sweethearts and an unlimited amount of beer to celebrate the end of harvest overtime work.
The next three customs are only practised by the young or foolish as the case may be. The first is Valentining, the children go from house to house singing the old rhyme:
“Today, today is Valentine
There are no grapes upon the vine
There will be some in summertime
So please will you give us a Valentine?”
They generally received some small coin for their pains, after which they sing the national anthem and depart.
On Guy Fawkes night the children march about the village with horrible turnip lanterns cut like faces and with a candle inside. Several uncomplimentary songs about Guy Fawkes are sung and sometimes a Guy is paraded round on a chair.
The third custom is connected with the rites of Halloween. The love-sick and the foolish run round hayricks, peel apples in one long strip and throw it over their left shoulder or go outdoors and listen for the first name called to ascertain their future partner in the married state. The last-named custom is not extensively practised owing to the fact that a certain loud voiced woman invariably shrieks out of her door for ‘Our Sloper’.
The last custom is the sad one connected with the people killed by a road accident. A cross with four equal arms at right angles and about a foot in length, is cut in the turf on either side of the road where the person was killed. These crosses are cut and cleared by the roadmen and many can be seen near dangerous corners and crowded roads.
In the minds of all villagers, especially among the older men and women, superstition is firmly rooted. Tales are handed down from generation to generation and are all believed and remembered for the benefit of posterity. There is hardly a child in the village who does not know and dread these legends and their attendant ghosts.
Near the church is a mound of Saxon origin with a moat on two sides of it. In the 12th century a castle stood on this mound and was surrounded by a moat bridged by a drawbridge, one night the lady of the castle was returning in her coach and the draw-bridge was not down, the coach and occupant were engulfed in the moat and her wailing ghost still haunts the moat.
The church stands at the foot of Toot Hill to the north east side. When the church was built it was supposed to have been started on Toot Hill, during the day he builders worked but during the night the devil carried the stones down to the present site of the church. After three days they abandoned the idea of ever building a church on Toot Hill and built it on the devil’s own site.
High Down is a charming 16th century manor house and possesses two ghosts. During the Civil War a cavalier, hotly pursued by the Roundheads, took refuge in the secret room at High Down, driven from this place he climbed into a huge wych elm tree which still grows outside the courtyard gate, he was found there and beheaded at the foot of the tree. His ghost still haunts that tree although the read ghost is a family of white owls who live in the tree.
On St John’s Eve the last Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who lived at High Down, rides to Clerkenwell to the headquarters of his order. He rides a snow-white horse and carries his head in front of his saddle. Several people claim to have heard the sound of the horse bearing the ‘Headless Horseman’ but so far no one has seen him.
Pegsdon Hills possess two tumuli with which legends are connected. The first is Money Knoll in this mound a man was buried with his money chest, the deeper you dig the deeper it sinks so no one can ever reach it. The other is Knocking Knoll, here a man is buried but at certain times of the year he wakes up and knocks three times because he wishes to be let out. So far no one has let him out although people say that the knocks have been heard.
Another little point on which some people are superstitious is the first foot. On no account should a fair person be the first to cross your threshold on New Year’s Day or bad luck will attend you throughout the year.
Thus in the village it may be seen that industry, custom, and superstition are interwoven and intermingled with the lives of the inhabitants far more than in those of their town neighbours.