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 Helmdon Historical Articles

Helmdon Buildings - Continuity And Change

an article by Edward Parry


In March 2007 I gave a talk to the Helmdon Fellowship about some of the older buildings in the village. The slides I showed illustrated two main points: the village has retained a considerable number of houses dating from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in the past thirty years much has changed as new houses have been built and farm buildings have been converted into dwellings, often in styles which are very different to these earlier houses.

The Campiun Window
The Campiun Window.
In the medieval period Helmdon was fortunate to possess a source of high quality building stone; the irregular undulations in the fields on both sides of the road to Weston mark the site of the quarries. By the late seventeenth century there is documentary evidence for the working of the quarries and some great houses including Easton Neston, Blenheim and Stowe made use of the stone from the village. However there is one spectacular piece of evidence which takes the story back four hundred years earlier to the second decade of the fourteenth century. The small piece of stained glass at the apex of the east window in the north aisle of the church shows a named mason a work. This very rare survival commemorates William Campiun and is dated 1313, which is presumably when he did the work on the tracery of this window.

Shortlands Cottage
Shortlands Cottage.
The church was an exceptional building and most of the medieval houses would have been insubstantial structures of timber and have not survived. There is however one house – Shortlands - which has part of its medieval fabric, in the form of a cruck embedded in later stonework. It is significant that this house has long been considered the oldest in Helmdon. Otherwise the dating of Helmdon houses before the eighteenth century is a matter of debate and depends on the interpretation of architectural styles and details.

Two houses – Priory Farm and the Buckinghams’ house (now called the Old House) are clearly older than the other substantial farmhouses. Their proportions – longer and lower – and the details of the fenestration and doorheads, suggest dates from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. However I have not seen the interiors so cannot comment on other features which might indicated a more precise date.

Stone Gables, Station Road
Stone Gables, Station Road.

Long Acre, Wappenham Road
Long Acre, Wappenham Road.
There is a group of later houses which exhibit certain features which will be familiar to anyone who has taken care to look closely at the village. These substantial buildings of which Luke’s Farmhouse, Stone Gables, Long Acre and Field View House are examples, have steep pitched roofs, with raised edges to the gables and decorative kneeler stones at the base of the gable; some have drip-stone ledges above the windows. All built of local stone from the seventeenth century onwards they were the homes of the more prosperous villagers; is this the Helmdon evidence for the ‘Great Rebuilding’ identified by Hoskins in his pioneering works on local history in the 1950s? Another relevant question is what impact did the enclosure of the common fields in 1758 have on the prosperity of farmers which may be reflected by Helmdon’s older houses?

There are three houses which have remarkable decorated doorways – Long Acre, the Old Manor and the Old Cross (opposite). The stonework here is sophisticated, but also clearly does not fit in with the rest of the building. Is this surplus material rescued by local masons from unfinished commissions, or could it have come from nearby Astwell castle which was drastically reduced in size in the last quarter of the eighteenth century?

Long Acre, Wappenham Road
Long Acre,
Wappenham Road.
The Old Manor, Cross Lane
The Old Manor
Cross Lane.
The Old Cross, Cross Lane
The Old Cross,
Cross Lane.

The other method of trying to assign a date or period to a building is by using documentary evidence The enclosure map is a good starting point; it marks buildings in particular plots which can be identified today and the names of owners are given. There are a good series of Hearth tax returns from the 1670s onwards which give the names of occupiers of houses and the number of hearths in them which means one can identify the largest houses. At the County Record Office in Northampton there are many wills and inventories made by Helmdon residents from the sixteenth century onwards, some of which include topographical evidence; there are also various collections of deeds – there and at Oxford colleges which owned land in the village – which include information about specific houses.

A particularly informative source are the surviving fire insurance marks which were fixed to the exterior of buildings and these enable one to track down the original policy and this gives many details of the property. For example the insurance plaque on Stone Gables bears the Sun Fire Office number 184318; an enquiry to the Guildhall library in London produced a copy of the original policy. This is dated August 1761 and showed the house was occupied by the Revd E Harriott who insured his house and contents, stable, brewhouse and chaisehouse for £245. In addition the policy covered six small properties, described as tenements, for sums ranging from £40 to £15. All the buildings were of stone and thatched. One has to remember that the date of the policy does not necessarily imply that the house was built then, in fact it has features which suggest an earlier origin.

Weston Hill Cottages, now Weston Hill House.
Weston Hill Cottages,
now Weston Hill House.

Some buildings exhibit datestones which may indicate the date of construction but may also refer to an addition or improvement. The Weston Hill Cottages are interesting in this respect. On the south wall there was a sundial with the date 1732 inscribed above it; (this is now, I assume, hidden by the modern extension to the building). There is evidence to suggest that this building was originally the village school. In 1732 a former rector of Helmdon, George Jones AM, left £20 in his will for the building and running of a school. On the enclosure map there is no sign of a building on Weston hill but there is a south-facing building on the site of the present war memorial. At some date after 1758 the building was moved up the hill to where it stands today. The present school also bears a datestone, 1853, and the initials of the Rector and two churchwardens – the Revd Charles Milman Mount, James Pool and James Fairbrother. This rector was also responsible for the replacement of the old rectory with the Victorian house which is dated 1856.

Buildings which fulfilled some public or official purpose – churches and public houses for example – are more likely to leave records than ordinary houses. The Chequers inn in the village is a good example. Alehouse keepers were required to provide sureties from local people to support their applications for licences to the magistrates at the Quarter Sessions.

The earliest I have seen for Helmdon are dated 1692 and give the names of the ‘victuallers’ but do not include the names of the alehouses. However, one of the applicants was Eliza Crosse who may have given her name to the Cross inn which is so called a hundred years later. The Chequers was an alehouse since at least the 1720s though the name has changed. In the Churchwardens’ account for 1724 it is noted that 6 shillings (30p) was spent ‘att Timothy Bull’s on Rogation Monday’, this presumably refers to the beer drunk on that occasion. 
The old Chequers Inn.
The old Chequers Inn.

The Chequers, boarded up before demolition.
The Chequers, boarded up before demolition.
Bull was the owner of the property on this site and is shown to be so on the enclosure map. When enclosure was being discussed a meeting was held at ‘the House of Timothy Bull being the sign of the George in Helmdon.’ Fifty years later the Quarter Sessions record a licence granted to two alehouses in Helmdon, the Cross and the Chequers. By 1845 when the property was bought by Alfred Hopcroft of Halse ‘farmer and brewer’, it was described as a Public House called or known by the name or sign of ‘the Chequers’. It remained a pub until the early 1990s when the site was sold for development and the building was demolished.

Relatively few houses have been demolished in the village though some of the older, local residents will recall the cottages on the Green on the site of the modern houses and Prison Row, on the right hand side of Church Street – opposite the old pump. What has happened on an increasing scale in the past twenty years is the conversion of farm buildings into houses. The first such development occurred at Wrighton’s farm facing the war memorial. The old house and adjoining barn was made into three dwellings and the buildings in the yard at the rear were radically altered to make houses; one of these – an open hovel – was unusual in that the date 1777 was carved on one of the circular columns supporting the roof. Since then more barns and outbuildings – for instance at the Lilacs – have been converted into houses. Work has just finished on what was Sammy Walters’ bus garage for the same purpose.

Barn, now demolished, Wrightons Hill Farm, with a dated (1777) pillar.
Barn, now demolished, Wrightons
Hill Farm, with a dated (1777) pillar.

Field Way (now Field View House) before re-thatching.
Field Way (now Field View House)
before re-thatching.

Three hundred years ago the village produced its own building stone, since then – as is the case all over the country – ‘foreign’ materials have been introduced which have altered the appearance of Helmdon. Brick, both the familiar red and the more unusual railway blue-grey of the Great Central line, along with the more recent reconstituted stone have taken their places among the limestone. A major change which came about after the Second World War was the removal of thatch from many houses; the Bell Inn in 1946, the old Post Office (opposite the Green) in 1952, the Old Manor in 1957 are a few examples. In the last fifteen years two houses have been re-thatched – the cottage on the Knoll and Field View House.

The pace of change, and the increase in the population of Helmdon in the past thirty years have been considerable; all the more reason therefore to draw attention to some of the older buildings in the village. The thriving WEA classes, the publication of this series of booklets, and the proliferation of historical information on www.helmdon.com, indicate that an interest in Helmdon’s history is shared by many. Perhaps someone – or a group of people – may be encouraged by this essay to undertake the research necessary to put more precise dates to the older buildings which are such an important source of historical information.


(1) Crucks are arches made of two curved pieces of wood, usually oak, and they provide the framework on which the house is built; when – as is the case here – the timber frame is replaced or covered by stone, the crucks are sometimes to be found fossilised in the structure.

(2) Anyone wishing to pursue the subject of building styles, house plans and evidence for dating should look at the detailed survey of houses in the Banbury area by Raymond B Wood-Jones: Traditional Architecture in the Banbury Region, Manchester University Press, 1963. His book does not cover Helmdon but the similarities between his subject and the houses in the village are considerable and very illuminating.

Edward Parry

Editor’s note: Edward, sometime history teacher at Magdalen College School, Brackley, lived in the village thirty years ago before he moved to a teaching post in Powys, Wales. With relatives still living in the village, Edward has retained a keen interest in its local history.

Astwell Castle in its heyday (undated and unattributed picture from the Internet). As it was gradually demolished and fell down, stones were almost certainly robbed for buildings in Helmdon.
Astwell Castle in its heyday (undated and unattributed picture from the Internet). As it was gradually demolished and fell down, stones were almost certainly robbed for buildings in Helmdon.

First printed in Aspects of Helmdon No 6 (2008)

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