Sex, booze and wife-selling: the everyday story of an English village

Cambridge News, 6 June 2011

Forget the lofty goings-on of kings and politicians - social history is far more exciting, says the author of a new book about a Cambridgeshire village.
EMMA HIGGINBOTHAM meets him.

FORNICATION, feuds and fights? It’s all part of daily life in your average English village, says Jim Brown.
  And he should know: he’s spent the last 35 years researching Gamlingay, the west Cambridgeshire village where he grew up.
  Now he’s revealing 750 years of its history in a new book, and anyone expecting a list of dry facts about important people is likely to be disappointed - it’s the earthy side of life that interests Jim.
  “One of the great joys of doing the research was that it was fun! There are some incredible nuggets to be found, especially in the church court records: reading those was a bit like reading the News of the World,” grins Jim, 57.
  “The church used to be very concerned with people’s morals: they accepted village gossip as evidence, and all sorts of people were hauled up there, like Mary Garret, who was ‘publicly caught in the act of fornication’ in 1772. Publicly - and not with her husband either! He confessed to being ‘often overcomed with liquor’, so he was too drunk to notice what was going on.”
  Mrs Garret was by no means Gamlingay’s only fornicator, nor was Mr Garret the only boozer: “One of the funny ones was Thomas Careless, who was reproved in 1724, 1725, 1726 and 1728 for repeatedly being drunk -and he was the deacon of the church.”
  It gets worse: Jim even came across a spot of wife-selling: “One man sold his wife to another chap for 16 shillings, which is 80p, which in those days would’ve got you a second-rate horse,” he says with a laugh. “So you can see why I had fun doing it.”
  For Jim it all began - rather bizarrely - in Newcastle, where he was at art college back in the early 70s. Spending an idle afternoon in the library, he stumbled across a reference to Gamlingay: “and I thought this was amazing! So I took a photocopy, bought a file, and that was the start of it.”
  The file gradually began to bulge, and by 1989 he’d compiled enough to publish a book: “which I called Gamlingay, with great originality,” he grins.”And I thought that was it.
  “But then people kept writing to me with little snippets of information. Then the internet arrived, and the amount of stuff that’s come through that is astonishing.”
  Deciding to republish, Jim tried to slot the new information with the old, “but it didn’t work, so I thought ‘ah, I’ve just got to rewrite this’.”
  It has been a labour of love: Jim has sifted through thousands of documents over the decades, of which only 1 or 2 per cent has made it into print. But, he insists, that was

How a resident founded a college

ALTHOUGH Jim prefers writing about ordinary folk, he admits that the Downings (of Downing Street fame) were a colourful lot.
  In the book he describes how Sir George Downing built a beautiful stately home in the village for himself and his lover, and endowed it to the university, only for it to be flattened after his death, brick by brick, by his cousin’s wife - the formidable Lady Downing- who refused to hand it over (“If you look at her portrait you can see what sort of woman she was,” says Jim).
  Fortunately there was still enough cash in the family coffers to pay for the construction of the magnificent Downing College at the beginning of the 19th century.

Gamlingay’s Dick Whittington

“I’d love to have met William Purchase,” says Jim. “He was born in Gamlingay in the 1430s, and his mother was fined for being an ‘ale wife’, which means she was selling beer from a room in her house, so it indicates he was from a pretty poor background.
  “He pops up in London in the 1450s: he was a tailor, then married a rich widow and took over her late husband’s business and made an absolute fortune.
  “He was a multimillionaire in our terms, but he wasn’t satisfied just making money. You can see him go through the levels: alderman, sheriff, and in 1497 he becomes Mayor of London.
  “So it’s more of a Dick Whittington story than the real Dick Whittington! He came from a family of knights in Gloucestershire, whereas Purchase really was a poor boy but a very, very clever businessman.”

Villagers: 750 Years of Life in an English Village by James Brown is published by Amberley and is available now, priced £16.99.

part of the fun, particularly trawling through the wills.
  “They’re all fascinating, and they give you a very good insight into people’s character; whether they’re mean and crabby or whether they’re generous and easy-going,” he says.
  The result of it all is Villagers: 750 Years of Life in an English Village and it is, he says, a very different book from his first. It’s certainly not your average historical tome. Chatty and full of asides, it is also genuinely funny.
  Take his description of Sir John Jacob, a wealthy Gamlingay landowner: “In his portrait he looks really glum, and he’s got a very jowly face,” says Jim. “Twenty years ago I would never have dared to describe him as I did in Villagers, as having a face ‘like a eunuch's scrotum.’ But he has! That’s the kind of thing you can get away with now: people laugh, whereas before there’d have been lots of tut-tutting and letters from disgruntled readers.”
  Jim’s cheerfully candid approach will certainly come as a shock to those used to the gentle fact-by-fact style of your average local historian: “I don’t think local history’s been served very well over the years,” he shrugs.
  “I’ve got a booklet that was published in 1902, and it purports to be ‘the history of Gamlingay and neighbourhood’ - in about 20 pages - and states that the history of Gamlingay ‘is largely the history of its great families’, which I think is absolute b******s. History is just as much about ordinary people and their lives.”
  There’s certainly no denying that the residents bring history to life, like John Russell in the 16th century: “I’d like to have met him,” says Jim. “He married a widow who had about eight children and brought them up as his own, he owned the windmill and the pub, The Cock, which is still there, and was rumoured to have had liaisons with one or two of the village prostitutes! In his will he left money for booze-ups for the whole village; he was just that kind of bloke.”
  Edward Slade, on the other hand, was one of Gamlingay’s less-loved sons: “I’m sure he was an absolute bastard,” chuckles Jim. “He was feuding with virtually everybody; he seemed to really enjoy it.”
  In 1532 Slade was even involved in a brawl in the church. “The village constable tried to arrest him during a service, and they ended up fighting; one thumped one on the ear, the other drew his knife . . .” The upshot was a full-scale riot in the village, and a court case in London.
  “That’s an extreme example, but every village has feuds; people are still feuding in Gamlingay today. And that’s what appeals to me about local history - it’s ordinary life.”
  These days Jim, a copywriter and artist, lives near Bury St Edmunds, “but my parents and sister still live there, so it’s still home.” Even though the book is about Gamlingay, he’s adamant that it tells the tale of everyone’s ancestors.
  “If you go back a couple of hundred years most people lived in villages, so these people that you read about in Gamlingay, that kind of person was more likely to be your ancestor than the duke of so-and-so or some politician,” he explains.
  “This is social history through one village - but it’s everybody’s history.”

Cambridge News spread