It is often assumed that until the invention of modern communications – in particular railways, local newspapers and later radio and television – country people lived in ignorance of anything beyond their immediate horizon. Before the appearance of ‘the Global village’ were the inhabitants of Helmdon cocooned in ignorance? How much did our predecessors in Helmdon know about the world beyond the parish in which they lived and worked? There is evidence in the records of parochial administration to suggest that their horizons were wider than might be first thought.
Like many English parishes Helmdon is fortunate that some of the accounts of the parish officers - the Constable, the Overseers of the Poor and the Churchwardens - survive.(1) These men were selected from among the more prosperous villagers to serve for a year at a time; they levied local taxes on the parishioners and had to account for their income and expenditure at the end of their year in office.(2) The duty of relieving travellers and for publishing national news was shared between the constables and the churchwardens and it is their accounts which provide the material for this essay. Only one book of the constable’s accounts survives but it is the earliest of the parish records (apart from the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials) and it covers the period from 1653 to 1718 which explains the dates given in the title of this article. A few later examples of relief are included but the bulk of the information comes from the constable’s accounts. These are supplemented from 1698 by the surviving volume of the churchwardens’ records.
Travellers who had legitimate reasons for their journey could claim relief from the parishes they passed through. Usually this meant they received small sums of money and a careful note of the transaction was entered in the accounts. No doubt from the parishioners’ viewpoint such travellers represented a drain on their limited resources but they also brought with them news of the wider world. While the village was not on a major route like Watling Street, the Welsh Lane passing through the south of the parish was then - as now - a busy link road connecting Banbury with Towcester and Northampton. The name of course is evidence of the cattle drovers who followed the lane to the fattening pastures of the Midlands. In 1687 John Beanee gave an unspecified amount to ‘a poor Welshman who fell sick on his journey driving beasts to London’. (3)
The first payment to travellers in the accounts was made by John Hawtayne at Michaelmas 1653 to ‘ill and maimed soldiers’. Later in the year the constable gave eleven ‘Irish people’ ten pence whereas a single Irishman got 2d ‘in the presence of Richard Shortland’, and finally two Irish women shared 4d.(4) There is now no way of knowing whether these payments were directly connected with the campaign waged by Cromwell in Ireland which was concluded by the surrender of Limerick in 1651 and followed by wholesale expropriation of catholics. ‘Maimed soldiers’ cost the parish two considerable payments – 13s. 11d. and 15s. 0d – in 1659. In 1672 two shillings was given to ‘a trumpeter and his brother and families that were passing into Sussex to settle their families’; this was dispensed by Richard Shortland, junior, presumably the son of the man mentioned above. Ten years later the constables were helping men who had endured perils and accidents many hundreds of miles from Helmdon.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seamen in the Mediterranean went in fear of pirates, particularly those operating from the ports of Tangier and Algiers. For the pirates or corsairs the capture of European sailors and merchants was part of the great religious struggle between Islam and Christianity which dominated Eastern Europe at the time; in 1683 for example Ottoman armies besieged Vienna. Some of the captives were sentenced to spells in the galleys. John Knox the leader of the Scottish Reformation was their most famous victim. However prisoners could be ransomed and collections were regularly made in Anglican churches for this purpose.(5) On November 22nd 1682 the Helmdon constable gave ninepence ‘to two soldiers that was ransomed out of Turkey’. A week later Pettefer was dealing with ‘a poor man that had been in Tangiers’ – he was allowed tuppence. Sometimes the money was paid to visitors who were collecting ransoms; in 1696 John Oldfield from Lincolnshire produced a certificate issued by magistrates ‘to redeem one Mr John Smith out of Turkey’. In the next year a shilling was ‘Given to Will. Gunter to redeem Mr Will. Barty out of Turkey from slavery’. In the next century these payments seem to have become the responsibility of the churchwardens. On October 16th 1722 the following entry occurs:
Given to seven poor distressed men that were very
great objects of charity who had been taken by the
Turks and had authentic letters (given by the
Justices In this neighbourhood) requiring parish
officers to relieve them.
Two more victims of the Turks appeared next year but the most harrowing such petitioners arrived in Helmdon in 1736 when the churchwardens gave one shilling to
three brothers that were Turkey slaves being very
muchdisabled and had theirtongues cut out.
Ten years later nine sailors who had been ‘taken by the Turk’ arrived with a pass signed by ‘Mr Cartwright’, presumably of the Aynho family, who was a JP.
In the 1690s French privateers operating out of Channel ports such as St Malo and Dunkirk also posed a threat to British nationals. In 1695 William Stockley the constable heard the sad story of ‘John White, his wife [and] four children that had been taken by the French pirates and had a pass’. They received one-and-sixpence. He was more generous than his successor in 1696 who gave one shilling to ‘Mary the widow of Jo(hn) Hern and her 6 children who lost her husband and all their substance by French privateers’. As well as the risk of pirates, sailors faced the danger of shipwreck. The churchwardens in 1698 gave four pence to Mary Jarman and Joanna Morley and four children ‘whose husbands suffered shipwreck and creditors seizing their goods amounting to 800 pounds to their ruin’. A year later two shipwrecked sailors on their way to Derby were treated more generously when they were given sixpence.
The renewal of the wars with France in 1690 which continued – with a short intermission – until 1713, brought more claims for help from distressed soldiers. There was fighting in Ireland in 1690 – 91 where the supporters of the deposed James II were assisted by French troops; in October 1691 the appropriately named John Bull, the constable, gave ls.6d. to ‘6 soldiers that came out of Ireland with a pass’. In 1694 a captain and ‘poor, decrepit soldiers’ were given 6d; the same amount was dispensed to ‘two poor lame soldiers’ in 1711 and at the end of the wars in 1713-14 Helmdon saw a total of twenty-five soldiers who claimed relief from the constables on ten different occasions. In addition the churchwardens’ accounts for 1713 include three separate payments to soldiers ‘going home’.
Not all the ‘maimed’ claimants were soldiers. In December 1661 the following entry occurs: ‘given to a company of cripples, nine of the company that were going home from Bath’. Next year a similar ‘company of cripples’ lodged with Margaret Cooke, presumably in the village, was granted one shilling. In 1668 another cripple presented a pass on his way ‘from Bath to the town of Leicester’. It is important to remember that medical knowledge in the seventeenth century was very limited: until 1714 it was believed that scrofula could be cured by the royal touch. Resort to holy or healing wells was common as these entries in the constables’ accounts indicate.
The last decade of the seventeenth century saw an unprecedented number of victims of fire and flood calling at Helmdon. On three occasions there are references to flooding in East Anglia; for example in 1696 ‘John Orcher his wife and 7 children who were driven from their habitation by the waters they being inhabitants in the Fens’. Fire was a formidable threat in the towns of the period where open fires, timber buildings and the lack of effective fire-fighting machines combined with devastating effects. Between 1696 and 1699 seventeen victims of fires were relieved by the constables. In some cases the sums of money lost by the claimants are recorded. For example William Harding from Buckinghamshire lost the ‘worth of £500’ to ‘the inexorable flames’. A natural hazard of a similar kind struck ‘a poor man that was burned by lightening’ in July 1700.
The travellers who claimed charity from the parish were of course not the only visitors to the village but they are those who visits are recorded. Other people came on business or to see friends and relatives and they too brought news of the wider world but they left no records. However there was a more official channel for news – the announcements made in church noted by the churchwardens as some small expense was often involved. The two greatest political anniversaries – both with religious overtones – celebrated in the seventeenth century were the accession of Queen Elizabeth I and the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. In 1698 Thomas Pomfrett and William Gilkes noted the disbursement of five shillings ‘on Gunpowder Treason on the Ringers’ when the church bells rang out to commemorate the country’s deliverance from ‘Popery’. Half a century later in 1753 the same event was remembered but this time the bellringers got only three shillings. Thanksgiving for Elizabeth I’s accession was celebrated in November 1693 as was George I’s birthday in 1721 and the coronation of his son in 1727.
The congregation in Helmdon church – and this meant the entire village – was told of military victories. The wars against France and her allies saw the rise to greatness of John Churchill later Duke of Marlborough and on two occasions the parish was informed officially of his successes. In 1704 the churchwardens paid a shilling for ‘a Proclamation and a form of prayer for the great victory over the French and Bavarians’ at Blenheim; four years later Marlborough was again victorious - at Oudenarde - and this was celebrated by the ringing of the church bells. The last battle fought on British soil was at Culloden in 1746 where the Jacobites under Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the king’s son the Duke of Cumberland; this news is recorded by the churchwardens who ‘gave the ringers at the time of the victory over the Rebels in Scotland’ three shillings.
The drain on the village’s resources during these years meant that the Constable’s book of accounts, which ends in 1718, concludes with a note stating that ‘Nothing is to be allowed or given in future by the constable to any vagrants or beggars whatsoever.’ This however coincides with the shift in such charitable giving from the constables to the churchwardens but their generosity towards strangers diminishes and there are relatively few references to such giving after 1720.
We have few means of knowing what the villagers felt about these strangers who appeared from time to time in their midst. The wording of some of the entries in the accounts suggests deep sympathy with the suffering endured by those whose lives had been devastated by fire or by cruel captivity. No doubt some villagers – and not just the officers who dispensed charity – were eager to speak to people who had experienced such dramas and who could tell of distant places in England and abroad. In 1711 the churchwardens’ generosity extended to giving two shillings and sixpence to a man ‘with an old story from New England’. We will never know what lies behind this cryptic – even sceptical – remark but it is a clue that even in Queen Anne’s reign Helmdon was not as distant from the wider world as we might expect.
(1) The Constables' and the Churchwardens' accounts are at the Bodleian library, Oxford where they were deposited in 1901 and 1909 by Mr W.P Ellis. The library catalogue references are: The accounts of the Constables, 1653-1718, Mss Top.Northants, d.8 The Churchwardens' accounts, 1698-1717, Mss Top.Northants, c.47. The Churchwardens Book, giving their receipts and expenditure, 1717-1836, Mss Top.Northants.d.9.
(2) The Wiggington Constables' Book 1691-1836, edited by F.D. Price published by the Banbury Historical Society (Volume 11), 1971, has a useful introduction explaining the duties of the constable and the text provides interesting parallels with the Helmdon accounts. A similar procession of cripples, soldiers and other distressed persons came to Wiggington but the entries lack the details included by some of the Helmdon constables.
(3) The spelling and punctuation of extracts from the original sources have been modernized in places to make them easier to understand.
(4) Before the introduction of decimal currency we counted in pounds, shillings and pence, represented as £.s.d.; there were 12 old pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. The two pence (2d) given to an Irishman in 1653 is the equivalent of just less than 1p today; a shilling then equals 5p now. However it is misleading to use such simple mathematical conversions because the true value of money depends on so many other factors. A better guide is to bear in mind that for much of the eighteenth century a farm worker earned about ten shilings (50p) a week, this provides some idea of the value of the sums given out by the parish officers.
(5) Shortly after I finished this article Professor Linda Colley's book Captives (2002) was published. This is the first modern academic work to tackle the subject of Britons who were captured and made prisoners by the native peoples of America, India and by the Barbary corsairs. Part One of the book is the best introduction to the historical background from which the 'Turkey slaves' emerged to plead for assistance from the Helmdon Constables.
(first published in Aspects of Helmdon no.5, 2004)