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History of Helmdon Lay Hidden in Farmer's Home

It seems inconceivable that waste paper could be of interest in local history.

But back at the end of the 19th century when W.P Ellis of Helmdon was turning out the lumber room of an old farmhouse, he found parish accounts as recorded by the Churchwardens in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Sadly many generations of rats and mice had used this paper to line their nests!

The writing on those sheets which had not suffered too badly, varied between good and "the less elegant scrawl of the village farmer".

Overall his discoveries founded a wonderful insight into what amounted to the everyday life of a village some 200 years ago. Helmdon was a village of farms, each one with unfenced land in scattered lots. Churchowned flats were distributed here and there, a legacy of legacies.

Roads were little better than cart tracks, barely passable in wet weather when it was necessary for wagons to seek out the firmest ground of the fields.

A brook was a feature of the middle part of the village but there was no crossing for vehicles, only a timber foot bridge on some pillars.

Further down the stream, a plank had been thrown across, known as Scholars' plank, probably because it was the best route for children going to the village school.

An important feature of the Parish of Helmdon was the existence of paid officers.

Apart from the local constable, there was a mole catcher and crow keeper. A work force was also needed to clean out brooks which separated Helmdon from adjacent parishes.

Disputes about responsibility for maintenance of the waterways were not uncommon however. An entry for 1659 notes items paid to the workmen for scouring of Radmore Brook in March last - 1.6s.0d.

Children were catchers of sparrows. In 1700, as many as 1,500 of these funds secured financial reward for the youth of the village.

Rogation Monday was a notable date in the Parish calendar. It was the one day in the year when crops of grass on the 'towne meadows' were sold to the highest bidders.

Those successful in 1699 included Richard Steevens of Brackley Way and William Cowley of Banbury Way.

This day was also an occasion for making merry. The main feature was a procession and much ale was consumed all at Cross's although there were three public houses in Helmdon.

Parish records impart a comfortable feel to the events of the day by using phrases such as "spent with ye naybours at Croses on Cross Monday."

The pub was indeed the central feature of the village for it was here that vestry and magistrates meetings were held and town disputes settled.

One wet afternoon, three neighbours met to consult with each other about the pound gate, which had a damaged hinge. It seems the opportunity was always seized to consume ale, whatever the business.

The Parish Constable was a highly significant figure, as evidence by the case of a damaged bridge. He would oversee the repair, buying materials and getting them delivered, than supervise the work and even pay the wages.

All strangers to the village were seen by him and he also accompanied the taking of taxes to Brackley, to ensure their safe delivery.

The Churchwardens rivalled the constable in importance.

Control over parish money was paramount. They held the key of the chest which could not be unlocked without both present. Payments from it were made to all parish servants.

Once, their duties extended to brewing of the Whitsun ales, an early example of caring of the welfare of the villagers.

The hundred or so pages of "Village Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries" contain much more fascinating recollections of Helmdon life, amazingly gleaned from scraps of paper so nearly destroyed by local vermin.

Brian Little

The Banbury Guardian
- 10th September 1998

NOTE: The W.P Ellis book "Village Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries" can been seen at the Northamptonshire Record Office.
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