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