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