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Villagers: 750 Years Of Life In An English Village



From History in Bedfordshire, Summer 2011, Bedfordshire Local History Association newsletter, Vol 5 No 8.


Book review

Villagers: 750 Years of Life in an English Village, by James

Brown. Amberley Publishing, Cirencester Road, Chalford,

Stroud, Glos, GL6 8PE. ISBN 978-1-4456-0347-6. 256pp, paperback, £16.99.


James Brown’s life’s hobby is researching the history of his

native village. His first book, Gamlingay, was published in

1989. After 20 years he thought he ‘hadn’t known the half of

it’ so rewrote the original book, adding new material.

   Gamlingay is the largest village in west Cambridgeshire

but seems never to have belonged to the county, ‘jutting

pugnaciously into Bedfordshire’ with a postal address ‘Near

Sandy, Bedfordshire’. It never had a resident local squire,

one of the largest landowners being Merton College,


   James Brown presents us with a history of the village

and its people from the middle ages to the present day. Any

rural idyll is relegated to Constable paintings and

Wordsworth and he tells of the poverty, back-breaking

labour and oppression of the rural population up to the

early nineteenth century, which time he declares to be

worse for them than the middle ages. Anyone who has read

E P Thompson’s book on the English working class will

agree with him.

   The chapters on the Manorial System and life on the

manor are excellent and informative reading. The author

also covers the role of the church, local disputes, the way of

death, wills, furnishings and the standard of homes,

dissenters in the village, rogues and paupers, ‘Captain

Swing’, the severity of punishment for minor offences (a

villager transported to Australia for stealing a duck worth

1s (5p)), enclosure of the fields, fires, agricultural reform


and the poor law. The story is brought up to date in the final chapters.

   Everyone will find something here of interest: the

Downings who gave their name to that street in London;

John Bunyan gave a lift to a young woman on his horse and

both got into trouble for it; how Bedfordshire’s riots against

the Militia Act spilled into Gamlingay in 1757; and the

stories of Emily Shore and Margaret Gardiner.

   But where are the photographs? Even the smallest

history publication is today replete with them to add to the

interpretation and enjoyment of the text. There are none

here, just some good maps.

   Production values are good: a nice typeface (Sabon),

quality paper (on which photos could have been printed),

good printing and a stout binding. The page margins are

too small at the foot and I spotted about four minor errors.

The index is split into subjects, persons and places, which is

not helpful to the reader. It is also spaced out to fill the

allotted pages but there are none of the usual continuation

lines at column and page breaks, which is also unhelpful.

   This book is an easy, interesting, informative and entertaining

read, and the author is to be congratulated on his industry and skill. Highly recommended.