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ASHWELL, the village of the WALDOCK Family

Click here to view the WALDOCK Family Tree,
Thomas Waldock

The connection between the WALDOCK family and the NEWMAN family was made when my grandmother, Eliza WALDOCK, married James GOVAN and their daughter, my mother, Davina Jane GOVAN married Sydney William NEWMAN.
ASHWELL, Hertfordshire & the Waldock Family

Ashwell is the village where seven generations of my Waldock ancestors lived. They are the only family who, in my family history research, stayed in one place for any appreciable length of time. They were first recorded there in 1703 when Roger and Sarah Waldock had their six children baptised on the 11th September of that year. Where they were before that and why the children were all baptised together I do not know. The family lived and multiplied in Ashwell until the second half of the 19th century. My great-grandfather, Thomas Waldock, left there to take up an apprenticeship in tailoring in the nearby village of Great Chiswell, (at that time in Essex, now in Cambridgeshire) in 1841. From there he emigrated to Australia in 1853 on the "Truro". However his father, another Thomas (agricultural labourer, 48), and grandfather, William (pauper, 70) are still listed in the census of 1851. Other descendants of Roger and Sarah stayed much longer but today, I understand, there are only two Waldocks in the village.

The village of Ashwell is on the northern edge of Hertfordshire, bordering Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. To the south are the Chilterns and to the north the Anglian Plain. Although never large, it was once a thriving market centre until its population was decimated by the Black Death in the mid 14th century. At that time it was called Escewelle.
St Mary's Church, Ashwell from an old engraving         The interior of St Mary's Church, Ashwell today

A magnificent monument to Ashwell's medieval prosperity is its 176 ft church tower which was begun early in the fourteen century and is built entirely of clunch, a local material midway between chalk and stone. In the church tower there are two pieces of graffiti, the first of which is reputed to have been put there at the time of the Black Death when villagers sought shelter there. The inscription has been translated to mean `1350, miserable, wild, distracted, the dregs of a people alone survive to witness'. The second inscription is another graffiti which says `and in the end a tempest, full mighty. This year 1361 St Maur thunders in the world'. This is about a terrible storm in 1361 when the villagers' flimsy houses were in danger of being blown down and once again they sought the shelter of the church tower. The village had grown up around an area of nine springs which form an open pond (or well) of good water surrounded by Ash trees and from which it gets its name. These springs are still there and form a series of attractive open ponds. They are the source of the Cam River.

The main street, the High Street, still meanders from east to west for about three quarters of a mile. Originally it had in it the most important houses, about ten large farmhouses, a couple of shops and some inns. The substantial farmhouses were mostly Elizabethan or 18th century and so would have been familiar to the very earliest of our Waldock ancestors in Ashwell. Each farmhouse had behind it a farm homestead with barns and other buildings facing into a central rectangular yard. Behind the yard there was often a `home close' of pasture land. The main part of the farmlands surrounded the village. About a hundred yards south of the High Street and running parallel to it was Back Street, probably a busier and noisier place as this was where the workshops and homes of the craftsmen and tradesmen were to be found: the carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors and all other tradesmen who supplied the needs of the people of Ashwell. It was a very self contained and self sustaining community. The village was largely cut off from the rest of the country by a range of hills and because of the very poor roads which served it. Three dirt tracks, approximately 3 miles long meandered south over the Downs and eventually lead to the main Royston to Hitchin road. To reach either of these towns was another four or seven miles respectively. The only other road, to the north, was more for reaching the farmland than for reaching other communities.

Half way along the High Street is a wider open area where there had once been the prosperous Medieval market square (most of it has now been built over). In this area is the lath and plaster 16th century building which is now a museum in which is a display of artefacts showing life in Ashwell from pre-historic times to the present day. There are artefacts there that give a good idea of life as it was in the time of our ancestors. The museum originated from an idea of an inspired head teacher at Ashwell Merchant Taylors School in 1920. The building was a part of the old market place and was probably also the office where the Abbot of Westminster collected the Ashwell Tithes. Later it was known as the Town House. The churchwardens, parish constables, overseers of the poor and the non-conformists held meetings there. It has also been a plait school, where some of our ancestors would have worked, a tailor's shop and lastly a dwelling house. It became derelict and was saved from demolition when it was bought for £25 by the young curators, Albert Sheldrick and John Bray. Sir William Gentle was so moved by the project that he offered to pay for the entire restoration which was opened in 1930.

Looking towards the High Street, Ashwell.
The building in the centre of the picture, now a museum, was once the Guild Hall.

The exhibition contains records of the village tradesmen, i.e. the thatcher, butcher, builder, baker and the wheelwright. There are the tools of the farmers and the blacksmith and also signs and bottles from the two breweries in the village with the tools of the masters and coopers who worked there. There are also toys that were played with by the children of the village, a child's smock-suit that was rescued from the school's dressing-up box, samplers and many other items of interest. There is a photo of a William Waldock, born 1843, who although undoubtedly a connection of ours is not a direct ancestor. He was a fossil digger and agricultural labourer and maybe Thomas Waldock, my great-great-grandfather, who was in his 60s at that time, may have done the same two jobs.

The fossils they would have dug were coprolite which were the fossilised remains of droppings and animals from the dinosaur era. There were at one time very large deposits of this and a few seams ran through the northern half of the Ashwell parish. They were mined here extensively from the early 1860s for about 20 years when the seam ran out. This had formed a valuable source of income for the village. Many agricultural labourers were attracted to this more lucrative and labour intensive work. The coprolite was crushed and used as a crop fertiliser.

The old Merchant Taylors School as it is today..

From this area and running north there is Mill Street. Here we find the surprisingly large Early English church, St Mary's (a relic of the importance of the village in Mediaeval times) with its 176 ft. spire. Also in Mill Street is the seventeenth century Merchant Taylors School which was founded by the Guild of Merchant Taylors to educate the sons of poor men in 1681. It served in this capacity for well over two hundred years. It is now a Field Study and Further Education Centre. (It is thanks to David Short, manager of this centre, that I obtained much of the material that I have used in my story ofw the Waldock family.) It is possible that my great-grandfather, Thomas Waldock, received his education at this school although there were other schools. Unfortunately no records of pupils have been kept but, although Thomas was only the son of an agricultural labourer, we know from the ships register when he emigrated to Australia that he could read and write. This may also have been a requirement for him to be able to be apprenticed as a tailor.

The whole basis for the economy of Ashwell was based on farming. There were 4000 acres of farmland. To the south, in the downland the soil was chalk, poor and thin. It was deeper and richer in the north. The crops grown were mainly barley and wheat. Surprisingly, farming was still being done by the open-field strip method in Ashwell well into the 19th century. In the rest of England landlords had begun enclosing the common land and open-strip fields from the 12th century; the enclosures proceeding rapidly between 1450 and 1640 and again between 1750 to 1860. This delay in Ashwell was possibly due to the fact that a number of the largest landholders in Ashwell were absentee landlords and to the isolation of the parish. The farmlands of Ashwell were divided up into about 3000 strips consisting of three quarters of an acre each - called "lands". In very early times every villager would have worked up to eight strips in different fields for their own use - the amount depending on the status of the villager. Then the land was paid for by service to the lord of the manor and by produce. The strips were separated from each other by a mound of turf. The original reason for the strips being in different fields was to give every man the opportunity of having a variety of quality of soils. Gradually most of the land was owned by a few wealthy men and tenanted by farmers. Instead of working their own land the villagers became agricultural labourers on the land of the wealthy owners. Over time the farms became bigger as the land fell into the hands of fewer people. For a long while villagers were still able to keep animals and graze them on the common land but under the Enclosure Acts even this right was largely taken away from them. In Ashwell until the second half of the 19th century even the large farms consisted of many strips scattered over many fields. This must have made the management of a farm very difficult.

Although the economy of Ashwell was based on farming it was by no means the only occupation. The farmers and their labourers required housing, clothes, furniture, transport, tools and perhaps the occasional luxury. This remote community had to rely on its own resources to supply these services. In the 1841 census (the year my great-grandfather,Thomas Waldock, went away to be apprenticed) there were recorded in Ashwell 14 carpenters, 9 bricklayers, 9 wheelwrights, 5 blacksmiths, 7 shoemakers, 4 millers, 2 bakers, 6 publicans, 4 tailors, 3 thatchers, 3 saddlers, 2 carriers, 3 grocers, a brewer, a barber, a ropemaker, a painter and glazier and a rat catcher. Even though there were many other occupations in the village all were ultimately bound up with agriculture as when times were hard for the farming community new buildings were not erected, new tools, clothes, shoes etc. were not bought and so the whole community suffered. On the 1841 census there are listed 19 Waldock families. All of the heads of the Waldock households except one were agricultural labourers and he was a hoe maker.

The women of the village also contributed to the family income by the cottage industries. There was some weaving, bonnet making and a little lace making but by far the biggest cottage industry was straw-plaiting. Ashwell's wheat produced good straw. The women plaited this into 7 or 14 strand lengths and sold it at the Hitchin market on Saturday mornings. From there it found it's way to Luton which was a major hat making town. Girls learnt to plait straw at school. The 1851 census shows that almost all of the Waldock women were engaged in straw plaiting. Of the three who were not, one was a governess, one a midwife and one a dressmaker. Children, both boys and girls, were sent to school to learn the basic skills for life in the village and often as soon as these skills were learnt they left. It is difficult to say what else they learned but probably some reading and writing was taught and perhaps some simple arithmetic. Although schooling was not compulsory most children attended school between the ages of five and nine and 50% of them went on until they were twelve.

Housing for the majority of the villagers was very poor. Less than a third of the labourers owned their own houses and most were rented from absentee landlords who seemed to care very little about the state of the houses which they owned. These houses, scattered among the alley-ways and by-roads of the village, were mostly built of rough clunch, a local material half way between chalk and stone, with an outer coating of lath and plaster and a thatched roof. As can be seen in the description of the house in which the Waldocks lived, (see Waldock Family) in 1829 from a survey of `Farm Homestead, Private Dwelling Houses, Shops, Cottages, etc.', families lived in very crowded conditions. Bad housing was aggravated by poor sanitation. Cesspits were used throughout the village with very little overall control and also there was no one in control of keeping the streets clean. The houses were infested with vermin living in the thatched roofs and loose clunch walls. Thatched roofs were also a fire hazard and houses were burnt down more frequently than we can imagine today.

One of the worst problems of all was a clean water supply. This is ironic in view of the fact that the springs at the eastern end of the village had originally given a continual supply of good, pure water. Over the years, however, with the discharging of various drains into it and the fact that part of it was used for washing clothes, it had become severely polluted. Because of this most water had to be obtained from various wells in the village. By no means did everyone have their own. Often the water had to be collected (mostly by the women and children) and carried some distance back to the house for use. This water too was not always safe to drink as the proximity of cesspits was a hazard.

These living conditions created health problems and frequently infections of scarlet fever, diphtheria and even smallpox raged through the village e.g. the parish registers show many deaths from small pox in 1854. In the early part of the 19th century, with the appointment of a village surgeon, better medical facilities and the availability of vaccinations, general health did improve. There was a very large increase in population. In 1801 the population had been 715. By 1851 it had doubled to 1425. This was not due to immigration but to natural increase. The Waldock family were very much part of this increase. In 1703 there was just one family of Waldocks in Ashwell consisting of 8 people. The 1841 census shows 19 families of Waldocks, some with as many as eleven in the family. By 1851 there were 22 families of Waldocks in the village and of the 1425 inhabitants of the village 112 of them were Waldocks. This is only counting those who carried the name of Waldock. All the married women Waldocks and their descendants would have brought the number much higher.

Ashwell was very much a self governing community. There was no squire as no one resident landowner had sufficient land to warrant such a position, so the burden of government fell on the Vestry. This body officially included all ratepayers and owners in the parish but in practice the vicar and between 10 and 20 farmers attended meetings. The Vestry had a very wide range of duties which included administering some local charities, controlling parish land and property, maintaining roads and bridges, ensuring that there was water for the mill, apprenticing boys (such as Thomas Waldock) and settling open field disputes. One of their most important duties was appointing two Overseers of the Poor who were responsible for looking after and supporting the poor of the village. They did this by building a workhouse for the destitute and homeless and giving out money in cases of need. Accounts were kept of all moneys given out and as mentioned previously the Waldock family are mentioned in various capacities in these accounts. The funding for all expenses of the Overseers of the Poor and other Vestry expenses mostly came from a rate levied on the landowners.

In February 1850 a disastrous fire broke out in the Village. It destroyed seven of the largest farms, half a dozen craftsmen's houses and premises, some large public buildings, including the Bull's Head Inn, a school and two independent chapels and thirty labourers' cottages. The fire was confined to the south side of the High Street and to part of Back Street but although our Waldock ancestors lived on the north side of the street and did not lose their home, they may have been effected for not only were 200 people made homeless but 70 men were workless. In time with the rebuilding of the houses etc. more work was created but it must have been a very difficult time for many of the villagers.

One of the farmhouses in Ashwell, 1995.

In the early 1850s a branch line of the main London to York railway way was built to Cambridge. A station called "Ashwell & Morden" was built 2 miles away from Ashwell. The people of Ashwell did not take advantage of the opportunities it created to exploit new markets for their farm produce or crafts and journeys to Royston and Hitchen were, on the whole, still done by carriers. The railway brought in bricks which were used to build the new houses after the fire and gradually more and more goods, including finished articles, were brought in by the railway. A good postal service was brought by rail. Newspapers arrived advertising goods which could be ordered and delivered. A visit to London became a possibility and the attractions of a wider world became known about. Ashwell traditional crafts and trades were the victims and the village went into a gradual decline. The problems of the high population and lack of jobs was exacerbated by the 1890 depression. Villagers moved away to London and other towns to find work. People were not only encouraged, but paid, to emigrate to Canada and to Australia. The Ashwell our ancestors knew virtually died and over the years gradually became what it is today - a lovely little rural village, chiefly inhabited by immigrants from the cities as a haven from the bustle of city life. !-- Start of StatCounter Code -->

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