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Villagers: 750 Years Of Life In An English Village





The anonymous author of a booklet called History of Gamlingay and Local Gazetteer for 1902 insisted that ‘the history of Gamlingay is largely the history of its great families’.

   When he wrote those words, what passed for local history then and for many decades after did indeed consist largely of stringing together ‘facts’ about the leading families in a parish.

   And what dull stuff it was! Page after page of turgid, indigestable prose about who owned this half-manor or that knight’s fee, or who held the moeity of the church. Sometimes an improbable village myth or a ghost story would be included to liven things up.

   I had to read a great deal of this kind of  antiquarian history when I began my own research into Gamlingay’s history in 1975. Eventually I asked myself why the only people deemed worthy of writing about were the upper echelons of society, many of whom scarcely knew where Gamlingay was.

   None of it bore any relation to village life as I knew it. Where were the villagers, the countless thousands of ordinary folk who had lived in Gamlingay over many centuries? Surely one or two of them must have done something worth noting - got drunk, run off with their neighbour’s wife or pinched a horse?

   As I delved deeper it slowly became clear that masses of information about the ordinary villagers had survived. It was merely that nobody had taken any interest in it before. When I got hold of copies of the manor court rolls, the wills and the parish records, the villagers and the village began to come to life.

   It was a revelation. Now I was reading about real people, who did get drunk, fight, fornicate and steal - though not all of them were like that, of course. The manor court

rolls and the bailiffs’ accounts illuminated the medieval village and the way it functioned. The early wills revealed as much about the characters of the people who made them as they did about their families and their possessions. The many village inventories allowed me to nose around the interiors of their homes.    

   I heard the voices of the villagers speaking for the first time in the records of a court case that followed a riot in 1532, where they described in their own words what had happened.

   Their voices also came to me through the scattering of ‘spoken’ wills from the early seventeenth century and in the churchwardens’, overseers’ and constables’ accounts they wrote themselves.

   Not everything I discovered was interesting - some of it was very boring indeed - but it all added to the enormous jigsaw I was building. Much of it was fascinating, since it concerned ordinary people and frequently their all too-human failings. Then it occurred to me that if I found all this utterly compelling, other people might too.

   I decided to write a book, and was determined it wouldn’t be dull like so many history books I had read. I wrote out my ‘History of Gamlingay’ in longhand, and then typed it out on a manual typewriter. When I read it I didn’t like it much, so I rewrote and retyped it. Then I gave it to a handful of friends to read, which predictably resulted in another rewrite and yet more typing.

   I sent the manuscript of Gamlingay to twenty publishers. Nineteen turned it down, but Cassell declared an interest, and before I knew it I was on my way to becoming a published author.

   The book appeared in 1989. There were some favourable reviews, and the first and only edition sold out after a year or two. I did signing sessions and was interviewed on Radio 4 and several local radio stations. I found myself on the local history society circuit as a speaker. It was all very exciting,

but when requests to give my talk started to come from places as far away as Slough I decided enough was enough. I had done with the subject.

   I was wrong. Many readers wrote to me, often with snippets of new information. One lady in Australia violently disagreed with my comments on transportation, then kindly sent me copies of the Australian records concerning ‘my’ Gamlingay transportees.

   The internet arrived, and more and more information I had been unable to get at or did not know existed began to surface. A batch of Tudor wills and seventeenth century inventories I had always known must exist became available when they were transferred to Cambridgeshire Archives. Among much else, I discovered the newspaper reports and court records when poor, muddle-headed Joseph Saville was accused of being the infamous ‘Captain Swing’.

   I found the delightful diary of young Emily Shore, who lived at Woodbury in the 1830s. I stumbled on Ann Robinson’s boast in 1611 that the churchwarden wanted her to be his whore (and I laughed when she claimed that he would have excused her husband paying the church rate if she had agreed). And so it went on, each new piece slotting into the jigsaw.

   Eventually I had so much new information that it dawned on me that I really ought to update Gamlingay. I thought it would be a simple task, but I couldn’t make it work. In the end I had to grasp the nettle and write what is basically a new book, one that covers a longer time span and takes a fresh look at the village and the people who lived in it.

   This spring, after many ups and downs and false starts with publishers and agents, Villagers: 750 years of life in an English village will be published by Amberley Publishing.

   Have I finished with the subject? I doubt it. There will always be more to discover, because there always is. I grew up in Gamlingay, left, and returned as an adult, but it is now 25 years since I lived there. If I’ve learned one lesson from a lifetime of research, it’s that I may have taken myself out of the village, but I can’t take the village out of me.

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of the Gamlingay Gazette and is reproduced by kind permission of Jackie Hough, the editor.