Why did settlements become deserted? Part Two

Following on from last week and the natural forces and forced eviction that has seen the end to some settlements, we look at a further range of reasons for desertion.

Sudden events
As well as the whims of local landowners, there are occasions when sudden events have seen entire villages depopulated. One clear example of this is the village of Boarstall in Buckinghamshire. Here in 1645 the Royalist garrison housed in the local manor destroyed the village and church to avoid them being used by the besieging Parliamentary forces (Porter 1984). The houses were burnt within two days and the church had been demolished before 26 July giving us a rare example of a dated desertion to the actual day. However the population did not disappear, they were redistributed throughout the parish (Broad 2010).

Other sudden desertions may be a long time in the planning. One such example is Derwent in Derbyshire which was destroyed in the 1940s with the creation of Lady Bower Reservoir. In years of low rainfall remains of buildings can still be seen (Sidebottom 1993).

However some stories of rapid desertion may not be that clear cut. Rowley in the East Riding of Yorkshire is well known for the story surrounding the seventeenth-century incumbent Rev. Ezekiel Rogers (Cooper 1908). He went to America in 1638 and founded Rowley, Massachusetts, and some have claimed that the parish registers show that many of parishioners went with him and depopulated the village (Pevsner and Neave 1995, Beresford 1952). However it is now known that many of the people that went with Rev. Rogers were from further afield, and the size of settlement at Rowley was probably always small (Allison 1979).

Economic decline
On some occasions a once prosperous settlement witnesses a rapid economic decline, often at the benefit of a neighbouring settlement and this resulted in depopulation. At Linslade in Buckinghamshire, the settlement known as Old Linslade saw a decline after a ban was issued by the Bishop of Lincoln (Powell 1925). A holy well in the town had been attracting pilgrims, but the reporting of false miracles led to the ban being issued by 1299 and the pilgrims stopped coming and the town declined, being replaced by the neighbouring settlement at a new location. Prior to this an extensive settlement was present. At Domesday the manor included a minimum population of 33. It was a thriving settlement of borough status, and in the late thirteenth century it became a market town with a market and fair granted in 1251 (Letters 2003).

On some occasions the weakening of a settlement due to a number of factors will result in economic decline and desertion. At Seacourt in Berkshire, the vill’s 1334 Lay Subsidy assessment seems low, perhaps suggesting contraction before the Black Death. The estimated desertion of the site by c. 1400 is supported by a letter dated 1439 which notes that the church had collapsed and only two buildings remained occupied in the village. It has been suggested that Seacourt’s decline could be linked to the rising prosperity of nearby Oxford (Wilson and Hurst 1961).

Absent settlements
Sometimes a settlement may appear in the documentary records, but never really existed. This could be due to the nature of settlement in the area – a cluster of small farmsteads or buildings given a collected name in the taxations records, but no central, nucleated settlement existing. Henny in Cambridgeshire is mentioned in Domesday and papers of Pembroke College but it is unclear whether there was ever a settlement (Beresford 1954). Hughenden in Buckinghamshire was recorded in a range of taxation documents but there is no evidence of settlement at the manor site and it is suggested to have always been dispersed settlement (Ellis 1925).

Sometimes a settlement was planned but was never developed. One such example can be found in Dorset at Gotowre. No such settlement appears in the local area, and the only place-name evidence is to Goathorn Pier and Point suggesting an area of landscape rather than settlement. However it is mentioned in the plans of Edward I in 1286 (RCHME 1970, Good 1987). It is stated that the plan was ‘to lay out with sufficient streets and lanes, adequate sites for a market and church, plots for merchants and others in a new town with a harbour in a place called Gotowre’. It is not clear to what extent the order was ever carried out (Beresford and St Joseph 1958, Bowen and Taylor 1964). Four months later a charter was granted to the burgesses of Nova Villa (Newtown) for a weekly market. After this though, no further references are found to the Gotowre or Newton (Beresford and St Joseph 1958). It is suggested that this settlement was never established.

Long slow decline
Settlement desertion was all too often a long drawn-out process – resulting from many of the aspects discussed above. One example that illustrates this is Eske in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It seems to have been a settlement of just below average size based on the 1297 and 1334 subsidies (Brown 1894). A charter of c. 1280 notes at least 10 tofts, (Poulson 1840), whilst 63 tax payers were recorded in 1377 – again indicating a just below average, but certainly sustainable village. There is no evidence of tax relief during the fifteenth century. In 1458 at least seven holdings survived, but by the 1524/5 Lay Subsidies Eske was grouped with Routh in the taxation records, as it was again in the later seventeenth century. It has been suggested that depopulation accompanied the enclosure of Eske’s common fields in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, but the final decline of the settlement appears to have been a drawn out process (English and Miller 1991, Allison 1989). The present Manor House is thought to date from c. 1680, probably a re-build of the nine-hearth house present in the Hearth Tax of 1672. The year before five one-hearth dwellings survived in addition to the manor house (Allison 1989). In 1786 the manor contained just three farms, reduced to two by 1788, and the township had only three buildings in the 1841 Census.

Eske village: Google image from 2003
Eske village: Google image from 2003

However – not all deserted settlements may mean that population disappeared. Changing settlement patterns can also mask shifting populations. Many of the records used to plot the fortunes of a settlement such as lay subsides, poll taxes, hearth taxes and census records may be recording parishes and townships which may have included a multitude of settlements, not just a single village. Movement within this zone, which may see the complete desertion of one settlement, may result in no drop in recorded population as they are redistributed between other places. For example a single nucleated village may be replaced by a single farmstead, and many other smaller farmsteads in the area, with no real reduction in population. Also communities affected by the factors outlined above may not become completely deserted but shrink or migrate as population continues but in another settlement format.

As can be seen from the last two posts there are a variety of reasons for settlement desertion – and there are many more than have been described here.

Allison, K.J. 1979. ‘Rowley’, in K.J. Allison (ed.) A History of the County of York East Riding Volume 4: 140-154. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Allison, K.J. 1989. ‘Eske’, in K.J. Allison (ed.) A History of the County of York East Riding Volume 6: 278-81. London: Oxford University Press.

Beresford, M.W. 1952. ‘The Lost Villages of Yorkshire Part II’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 38: 44-70.

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Beresford, M. and J.K. St Joseph 1958. Medieval England: An Aerial Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bowen, H.C. and C.C Taylor 1964. ‘The Site of Newton (Nova Villa), Studland, Dorset’, Medieval Archaeology 8: 223-226.

Broad, J. 2010. ‘Understanding Village Desertion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, in C. Dyer and R. Jones (eds) Deserted Villages Revisited: 121-139. Hatfield: University of Hertford Press.

Brown, W. 1894. Yorkshire Lay Subsidy Being a Ninth Collected in 25 Edward I (1297) . Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 16.

Cooper, A.N. 1908. ‘How Rowley in Yorkshire Lost its Population in the 17th Century and How Rowley in Massachusetts was Founded’, Transactions of the East Riding Antiquarian Society 15: 85-100.

Ellis, G.A. 1925. ‘Hughenden’, in W. Page (ed.) A History of the County of Buckingham Volume 3: 57-62. London: The Catherine Press.

English, B. and K. Miller 1991. ‘The Deserted Village of Eske, East Yorkshire’, Landscape History 13: 5-32.

Good, R. 1987. The Lost Villages of Dorset. Wimborne: The Dovecote Press.

Letters, S. 2003. Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516: Part 1. London: List and Index Society Special Series Volume 32.

Pevsner, N. and D. Neave 1995. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding. London: Penguin.

Porter, S. 1984. ‘The Civil War Destruction of Boarstall’, Records of Buckinghamshire 26: 86-91.

Poulson, G. 1840. The History and Antiquities of the Seigniory of Holderness, Vol. 1. Hull: Brown and Sons.

Powell, D.L. 1925. ‘Linslade’, in W. Page (ed.) A History of the County of Buckingham Volume 3: 387-391. London: The Catherine Press.

RCHME 1970. An Inventory of Historical Monuments in the County of Dorset. Volume Two: South-East Part 2. London: RCHME.

Sidebottom, P. 1993. ‘The Derwent Cross Shaft: Discovery and Excavation 1991’, Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society 17: 9-18.

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