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CROW CLOSE

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Introduction

Some 3000 sites of so-called deserted medieval villages (DMVs) have now been identified in England, but especially in the Midlands. They are the sites of former villages that have disappeared over the centuries for one reason or another. They can be recognised by features fossilized in the landscape in the form of house platforms, hollow ways, field boundaries and ridge-and-furrow cultivation.

It was originally thought that such desertions were the result of the devastating plague outbreak of 1348-49 – the Black Death - which carried off an estimated ¼ to 1/3 of the population of England. Certainly there is widespread contemporary evidence both of buildings described as ‘waste’ and arable land converted to pasture because of the absence of labour to till the soil, but it now seems unlikely that the plague would have wiped out whole villages. Some sites that have been excavated, (eg Wharram Percy in east Yorkshire, Goltho in Lincolnshire, Barton Blount in south Derbyshire, and Ulnaby in Durham, suggest that such settlements often shrunk slowly over time until reduced to a handful of houses and farms or even none altogether. It is now recognised that there were many factors that could contribute to shrinkage or desertion during both the mediaeval and modern periods, such as recurring out-breaks of plague prior to 1666, the enclosure of arable land for pasture or for parks, and natural events such as disappearing water supply.

Description of Crow Close

Archaeological Evidence

The earthworks in Crow Close, clearly depicted by the topographic survey (Figure 2), appear to represents small house platforms, a possible ‘village green’, foundations of larger houses, a field system marked out by ditched boundaries and hollow ways, one of which runs west to east across part of the site and follows the line of one of Bingham’s oldest main streets – Church St - continuing as East St (the churchyard appears to have encroached onto the street in the late 1600s) and then on a course still marked by footpaths through to Cogley Lane. This suggests that the settlement in Crow Close was originally joined to the main site of Bingham. The earthworks were mapped by Allcroft in 1907 and have since been investigated by air photography, but there has been no subsequent archaeological investigation of the site. There are several reasons for this:

(a) the site is old pasture and field walking is not possible.
(b) it is surrounded by housing estates of 20th C date, thus obscuring all further study of the neighbouring fields.
(c) as a scheduled ancient monument permission to excavate would be difficult to obtain.
(d) DMV sites notoriously reveal little from excavation, as medieval buildings were usually of timber and mud, leaving little traces other than post holes, and difficult to date unless a refuse pit or midden could be found containing stratified datable pottery, etc

Map Evidence

Crow Close first features as a 17-acre close on the Bingham tithe map and apportionment of 1842 (although the same outline boundaries are shown on Sanderson’s map of 1835). It was then owned and occupied by local farmer William Pacey, being part of the small proportion of freehold farmland not owned by the Stanhope family, Earls of Chesterfield, the principal owners of the Bingham estate.

It does not feature in the Earls of Chesterfield’s survey of their Bingham property in 1776, nor in a similar survey of 1586 compiled shortly before the Stanhope family acquired the estate, and so unfortunately cannot be located on either of the conjectural maps compiled from those surveys. However, this negative evidence indicates that for centuries it was independently owned freehold land, and this seems to be a significant feature in understanding its history.

Printed Evidence

The earliest contemporary description of the site is by Andrew Esdaile in 1851. He states that in Crow Close were ‘many lanes and sites of streets and buildings; a large square somewhat higher than the rest we think is the churchyard’. He noted that the Bingham Overseer of the Highways always repaired the road ‘up to the entrance of this close, the same as he does the streets, although it may be said to be out of the town’.

Adelaide Wortley in 1954 repeated local oral tradition that Crow Close and an adjacent field were ‘the site of old Bingham which was probably destroyed by a hurricane’, but this is no doubt a case of the popular rationalisation of unexplained phenomena and seems inherently unlikely.

Possible Reasons for Shrinkage or Desertion

Abandonment of a subsidiary manorial centre

A medieval ‘manor’ was both a physical estate and a legal and administrative entity owned by a baron or a knight who drew an income from its farm produce and other profits. It was peopled by peasant farmers and unfree labourers and regulated by the lord’s manorial court, which met in his ‘hall’ or manor house.

Domesday Book (1086) records that a large and two small, but combined, manorial estates had existed in Bingham in Anglo Saxon times. The larger manor had belonged to Earl Tosti and the smaller to Helgi and Hoga. After the Conquest all passed to Robert de Builli and successively to the Paynell, de Bingham, Rempstone, Stapleton, and Stanhope families between the 12th and the 20th centuries.

However, from at least the mid 15th century to the early 19th century there was a small independent freehold estate of about 100-150 acres owned by the yeoman Porter family, which subsequently descended to their Sherbrooke and Lowe descendants.

Stroud (2002) speculates that the five bovates ascribed to the secondary manors in Domesday might represent the five bovates of freehold land recorded as being owned by the Porter family in 1586, although she admits that no-one can be certain that a Domesday bovate was the same as a later one. Although this is a tempting hypothesis there are some 17 other bovates recorded in 1586 owned by some seven other freeholders to be accounted for.

It is thus just possible that the Porter estate may represent the smaller Domesday manorial estates, which would have as its administrative centre the Porters’ hall. However, against this theory the Porter holding is never referred to as a manor in 1586 or in earlier records, and as both had passed to the same Norman overlord by the time of Domesday it is presumed they were subsumed into one holding in the 11th century.

Migration resulting from the creation of a ‘new’ town and market

Crow Close may have been the site of the original Anglo-Saxon village of Bingham but was abandoned after the layout of a new, planned market town on a grid plan in the 12th/13th centuries mainly to the west of the church around a new market place, with the village inhabitants re-housed in the new development. The site is beyond the far eastern extremity of the medieval ‘town envelope’ as shown on the 1586 conjectural map. It is some 550 metres from the parish church, and 800 metres from the edge of the Market Place and the site of the Bingham manorial hall.

Shrinkage caused by plague or climatic changes

Crow Close may have been abandoned after the population was decimated by one of the recurring outbreaks of plague, e.g. those of 1349, 1592-3, 1605, 1637 or 1646; Bingham certainly suffered from the two latter, 46 people being recorded in the parish register as dying in 1646. Shortage of labour would leave the landowner no option but to amalgamate or abandon some arable holdings, resulting in the decay of some farms and cottages at the farthest end of the village.

It is also possible that Crow Close could have been abandoned as a result of deteriorating climatic conditions in the 14th or 15th centuries, when a rising water table might have caused flooding of the crofts and contamination of the water supply. In recent times the eastern end of Bingham has still been troubled by flooding.

Abandonment of a former outlying settlement following possible nucleation

Evidence collected by field walking the parish has been interpreted as indicating that several small outlying farms or hamlets may have existed in Bingham parish up to the later middle ages, but they disappeared – probably as a result of a direct policy of ‘nucleation’ of all houses into the village centre by the landowners – in the late 15th or early 16th centuries. It is possible that Crow Close was the site of one such settlement although traces of it can no longer be found for the reasons given above.

Abandonment resulting from Tudor piecemeal enclosures

In the late 15th and 16th centuries landlords were increasingly ‘enclosing’ tracts of common land in order to create more profitable private pasture or fashionable hunting parks around their houses. This practice was one of the main reasons for the shrinkage or desertion of villages, and the government became concerned about the detrimental effects of the ‘loss of tillage’ and the consequential increase in the numbers of people thrown off the land and reduced to pauperism.

In 1517 an official commission was set up to enquire into the extent of enclosure. Local records of this enquiry show instances in the neighbouring villages of Whatton, Aslockton and Car Colston. The most blatant case was in Wiverton, whose powerful owner George Chaworth had removed the entire hamlet from around his palatial Hall and created a park out of 120 acres of former common pasture, displacing some four farming families of 26 people in the process (Leadam, 1904).

The absence of any specific mention of enclosure in Bingham itself between c.1490 and 1517 implies that Crow Close was presumably not abandoned in that period. However it could have taken place at another time and for related reasons.

Piecemeal enclosure could take place gradually by consolidation of strips. The holders of strips might gradually acquire a group of adjacent strips either by exchange or purchase, and once they had amassed enough, fence it and treat it as a private close for most of the year, only leaving it open for common grazing for the third quarter of the year after harvest. By 1586 the lord of the manor, who had several demesne closes in the north of the parish, must have begun this process by acquiring large blocks of multiple strips.

In addition it was common for occasional strips or groups of arable strips within open fields to be converted to temporary pasture ‘leys’. Occasionally, by the consent of all the farmers, whole furlongs or large blocks of strips could be converted to permanent leys. The 1586 Survey describes at least four of these, e.g. Flatholm Leaze, to the east of the East Moor, which contained some 80 pasture strips.

Partial abandonment resulting from a general enclosure in c. 1680-90

By the 17th century enclosure was increasingly carried out with the consent of all the landowners in a parish and circumstantial evidence shows that Bingham’s four open fields were enclosed in this manner, probably in c.1680-90. During this process the Earl of Chesterfield and the Porter family – the largest freeholders – no doubt took the opportunity to exchange land to consolidate their holdings into more compact blocks, and the Porters could have extended their holdings around Crow Close and adjacent land. Any inhabitants of the old farmsteads and cottages who were Chesterfield estate tenants would have been re-housed in the main village and their old houses demolished, leaving only the Porters family mansion.

Abandonment of the Porters’ mansion house

Even if Crow Close were not a separate manor it could still represent the nucleus of the small freehold estate built up by the Porter family over the centuries. Domesday Book records the existence of 14 ‘sokemen’ in the main manor and one in the smaller manor as well as the tenant farmers and unfree men. Sokemen were the predecessors of freeholders, and it seems likely that out of this group of people and their descendants the Porters emerged pre-eminent by 1450 when a survey of Bingham lists William Porter as the largest freeholder in the township and John Porter having a smaller free holding (Extent of Bingham, 1450).

The 1586 Survey does not itemise freehold land in detail except in the survey of open field strips, but it lists Robert Porter as the largest freeholder, owning one ‘messuage’ (homestead) and five ‘bovates’ of (arable) land and another five of meadow. He had also recently purchased another farm comprising a messuage and three bovates of land and three of meadow formerly in the possession of John Sertaine (which seems to have been near the corner of Long Acre and Fisher Lane).

Although bovates were a notional rather than a fixed size and frequently varied in area, the average size in Bingham at this time was between 9 to 11 acres, therefore his eight bovates for both properties would suggest a total arable holding of approximately 70-90 acres. This figure is close to that estimated from the strips survey, which shows him owning 314 strips scattered throughout the open fields. Based on average tenanted strip acreages in each furlong this produces a figure of approximately 110 acres.

It is significant that, following the 17th C enclosure of the open fields, the 1776 Survey shows the holdings of his descendant Henry Sherbrooke as totalling 96acres in one compact block on the south side of the Grantham road. This almost certainly represents the enclosure allotment made in lieu of his former open field arable strips, i.e. the estimated 70-110 acres mentioned above. It is also reasonable to assume that in 1586 his pasture and meadow land had already been enclosed piecemeal in earlier times and was situated in and around Crow Close.

There is no indication in 1586 of the site of Porter’s main homestead but it does not appear to have been within the ‘town envelope’ and must have been at the east end of the parish (where his later enclosure allotment was located). The Hearth Tax returns of 1684 show that ‘Mr Porter’ had a house of six hearths, the second largest in Bingham. In 1851 Andrew Esdaile categorically stated that Crow Close ‘was the Porter Estate’ and ‘formed no part’ of the Chesterfield Estate.

The Porter family lasted for some 300 years as well-off ‘yeomen’ farmers, but never aspired to the status of gentlemen. Dr Thoroton in 1677 mentioned Richard Porter as ‘the only considerable freeholder in the lordship’ of Bingham. The family died out in the 18th century when Mary Porter of Bingham married Henry Sherbrooke of Oxton near Southwell (died 1779), the last male heir of a small landowning family. Their eldest daughter Margaret married her cousin Henry Porter of Bingham. On his father-in-law’s death in 1754 Henry Porter changed his name to Sherbrooke in order to inherit the Oxton property (Train, c.1980) and moved his seat to Oxton.

It was thus probably in 1754 or soon after that the owners became absentees and the old family seat may have been allowed slowly to decay. The whole estate passed by descent through related families until apparently broken up by the Lowes in c. 1800-20.

The presumed site of their family mansion may well have been in Crow Close. Wortley (1954) quotes several versions of often conflicting oral history, one of which stated that it was known as Bingham Hall and stood ‘very near to the site of the present Hall Farm, at the corner of Crow Field’. Another was that ‘the hall was a large gabled three-storeyed building with lancet windows, some single like the west lancet window in Church, but not in such thickness of masonry, some of two or three light with mullions’. Although these oral accounts are patently fanciful or muddled they may contain a grain of truth because the existence of such a mansion appears to be borne out by a statement of the county historian John Throsby in 1790 when referring of the former Porter estate:

‘This estate, and family mansion, which stands at the end of Bingham, are in the occupation of Mr Hutchinson, a respectable grazier. These possessions descended in a right line to Henry Sherbrooke, esq. of Oxton’

The mansion, reduced to farmhouse status, must have been demolished between 1790 and 1835, as it does not appear on Sanderson’s map of 1835. In the 1776 Chesterfield estate survey John Hutchinson was the tenant of the Chesterfield’s (?) Starnhill Farm, and the accompanying ‘thumbnail’ plans indicate the position of a large block of freehold closes of c 90 acres belonging to Henry Sherbrooke to the south of the Grantham Road adjacent to the Starnhill land. It is possible that he farmed both.

Esdaile wrote in 1851 that ‘there is a remnant of old houses near this Close, and many gone down since I knew it’, implying that some of properties had collapsed within his lifetime.

Conclusion

Although any of the above theories are possible, and even a combination of several, the most likely conclusion from an analysis of the historical data is that Crow Close was the nucleus of the Porter family’s estate and the site of their hall/mansion and possibly a few tenants’ cottages over several centuries. It seems to date back at least to 1586 and probably to medieval times. The house was abandoned either at the general enclosure of c.1680-90 or perhaps more likely following the Sherbrooke inheritance after 1754. The earthworks may therefore represent the foundations of their mansion – possibly of medieval or Tudor origin – outbuildings, and cottages of medieval to Georgian date.


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