You might well wonder where Kirtling is and why I would not only visit it but spend six days there.
It’s the place where my great grandfather, William Crick, was born and worked until, at the age of nineteen, he and his brother, Thomas, aged 21, with their cousin, Charles, aged 19, emigrated to South Australia. It’s also where his parents and their parents lived, worked, died and were buried. I have written about them in Kirtling Cricks Part 1 and Kirtling Cricks Part 2.
While I took an interest in Kirtling once I started to look into my ancestry, it was only after I decided to try and write a story about William Crick that I felt the need to visit Kirtling and better understand what life would have been like.
Overview of Kirtling Today
Kirtling is a small farming hamlet in Cambridgeshire, near the border with Suffolk, a few miles south of the horse racing centre of Newmarket.
There’s no A or even B rated roads that go to or through Kirtling. There are only hedge-lined country lanes that wind around several small villages in the area, a few of which lead into Kirtling. But you would never come across Kirtling unless you deliberately set out to get there; and even then, you couldn’t be sure you would. You won’t get a signpost to Kirtling until you’re at one of the neighbouring villages two or three miles away. People who offered their postal addresses added ‘near Newmarket, Suffolk’ even though Kirtling is in Cambridgeshire – otherwise the mail might get delayed or lost!
In many ways, it’s probably not that much different to what it would have been like in the 1800s. Some of the people I met were probably not much different from their ancestors, who also lived and worked there as farm labourers – some living in the same houses. Their demeanour, work life, values, even accents are all probably similar to what you might have found amongst the farm people of the 1800s.
Kirtling today, in population terms, at around 300, is about one third the size it was in the 1850s, despite the fact that, by then, the agricultural sector was already undergoing significant changes that had reduced employment numbers amongst farm labourers. That means, amongst other things, that many of the farm labourers’ houses of the 1850s have disappeared. But what does remain are many of the original thatched-roof cottages that have stood in their place since those days and, in some cases, for up to 500 years. They have been renovated for modern life, but they remain part of the tapestry of Kirtling as so many generations have known and felt it.
Other essential parts of that tapestry also exude reminders of former eras. The public houses (pubs) are still there, although most have long ceased to be pubs and have become private houses. The former tenant farm houses are still there, although the tenant farms have either been sold or re-absorbed into the ‘Estate’. The population clusters that would have been so evident in the 1850s (and before) are still identifiable – and bear the same names – but have lost or have had to change their community focus with the decline in population numbers, employment loss and closure of pubs. The 1850-built school house still stands on ‘The Street’ as it did when William Crick’s younger siblings attended it, but it, like the pubs, it’s a private dwelling. The alms house – alone on the outskirts of the village – still provides public housing.
The ‘Estate’ still exists. Some of its former glory has been lost, but that started in 1801 with the demolition of the great Catledge (or Kirtling) Hall. It remains represented by the dominant landmark of Kirtling Tower, the gate house of the former Catledge Hall, and now the central feature of the manor house of the ‘Estate.’ The ‘Estate’ also remains a dominant factor in Kirtling life as owner and operator of most of the farm land – and a good deal of the housing – in and around Kirtling. The ‘Estate’ – or, more precisely, the Lord and Lady of the manor – inevitably became a subject with almost everyone I spoke with in Kirtling.
All Saints church, as much a centrepiece of Kirtling as Kirtling Tower and the ‘Estate’, has been resurrected by the community from a sad state of decline of some years ago and now proudly dominates its end of the wide-spread Kirtling settlement. It became for me, over six or seven visits, the epitome of the Kirtling I wanted to know and understand. After all, it was in this church – looking pretty much as it did in the 1800s (and long before that) – that my forebears were baptised, married and sent for burial in the surrounding churchyard, although their headstones, if ever they had them, were undiscoverable.
Description of Kirtling
Kirtling is unlike its neighbouring villages or, indeed, most villages. There’s no central area, as you might expect, where village houses, pub and shop are clustered; and become a focal point of village life. There’s no pub at all, but there are plans to re-open the Red Lion, the only one of Kirtling’s pubs that hasn’t been turned into a private house. There are no longer any shops or post office. There’s no school. The closest Kirtling has to a village centre is probably around the old Queen’s Head pub (now a private house) at one end of ‘The Street’, where there is a community hall, a string of 20th century public (council) housing, and several houses from times past. The community hall runs a bar for a couple of hours every Sunday. It also serves as a meeting place for an active community representative body that keeps a sharp look-out for any hint of development that might change the current look and feel of the Kirtling tapestry.
Kirtling is, in fact, three or four small pockets of settlement, mostly strung along a series of country lanes that link up to form, in effect, a ring road, which, you could say, starts and ends at the old Queen’s Head and adjacent Kirtling and Upend signpost. Most of the land inside the ring road and surrounding it is farm land – crops of barley, wheat and canola.
If you start at the old Queen’s Head in an anti-clockwise direction, you travel along ‘The Street’ or Kirtling Street (it gets called both). The old 1850 school house is on The Street, as is some terrace housing of the 1840s and 1860s, built by the ‘Estate’ and rented by the tenant farms to house their farm labourers. The former forge is there, together with a couple more of the old pubs, and Parsonage Farm, one of the former tenant farms. There are also a few clusters of 20th century housing. Strung along The Street are several old thatched-roof cottages from former eras, although not all still wearing their thatching.
The Street runs for about 2km, with a left turning elbow half way along it. At its far end it becomes Malting End, Malting Green, Kirtling Green or simply The Green. All these names crop up in different places, such as the 1800 censuses, and seem to be used to describe the same area along the ring road as it veers left and continues for a couple of kilometres past more thatched-roof cottages, an old stone and flint cottage, farm houses of the former tenant farms of Bachelor’s Hall and Whybrow’s Farm, the former The Chequers pub and ending at Pratt’s Green Farm.
At the melding of The Street and this eponymous road, there is a branch road to Wooditton. Modern signage marks the road as ‘The Green’, while marking the continuation of The Street as ‘Malting End’. You only get a half kilometre down ‘’The Green’ before another sign tells you it’s actually ‘Wooditton Rd’. When you’re coming out of Wooditton heading for Kirtling, a sign tells you the same road is called ‘Kirtling Rd’. I suspect ‘The Green’ might be part of the community’s understandable effort to accommodate traditional nomenclatures amongst contemporary names.
Having ‘The Green’ as their current address are a few old, renovated cottages, including a somewhat dilapidated duplex thatched-roof one that comes as close as any to how a typical farm labourer cottage might have looked in the 1800s. It inevitably became symbolic for me of how my great great grandparents, Thomas and Sarah, would have lived with their children, including William and Thomas (their sons) until they emigrated. I wondered what this street might have been called in the 1800 censuses, in which Thomas and Sarah were listed as living alternatively at ‘Malting Green’ and ‘The Green’, although I think these were one and the same place in the censuses; and likely refer to that part of the ring road running from The Street to Pratt’s Green Farm. The descriptions, however, could well have included that part of the Wooditton Road currently signposted ‘The Green’. They might have lived in this very cottage; or, at least, one similar to it.
Running beyond Pratt’s Green Farm, the ring road becomes Mill Road as it swings further to the left toward Mill End and the old Mill House. Again, more cottages appear scattered along the road. They would have provided farm labourer accommodation to the nearest farms, which might have been Parsonage Farm, clearly visible across the fields, Pratt’s Green Farm or Mill End Farm. Cottages close to the Mill House might have housed mill workers.
From Mill House, a sharper left hand turn picks up a road coming into Kirtling from Wickhambrook and brings you back to the Queen’s Head. There’s a high probability that the Original Kirtling Cricks came from Wickhambrook, but there’s more work to be done on that.
Coming from Mill End, there’s a right hand turn opposite the Queen’s head that takes you to Upend. That’s the fourth settlement that makes up Kirtling, but, in essence, it’s a settlement or village in its own right, although part of the Kirtling parish – both civil and ecclesiastical.
If you were to continue past the Queen’s Head, you’d end up, within a kilometre or two, at Kirtling Tower (the manor house of the ‘Estate’), All Saints church, the old vicarage and the alms house.
You can take a (rough and ready) drive around Kirtling through the video clips below. They follow the order of the description above. They didn’t come out all that well as I tried to manhandle the camera and cope with the unfamiliarity of a manual gear-change car!
Although Kirtling struggles to rate a mention on maps or road signs (just the way its denizens want it), it kept me occupied for six days as I wandered around it, pondered on its history and secrets, and talked to anyone and everyone who wasn’t locked inside their house – and a few who were.
There were several places which held memories of the relevant past or represented elements of the lives and fortunes of ancestors. I have tried here to capture what they meant and revealed.
The hub of the ‘Estate’. I should start by saying something about the ‘Estate’ and then I can stop putting it in inverted commas, which I have used out of deference to an assumption that many readers outside the UK would not intuitively relate to this medieval institution.
The concept of the estate probably had its origins in Roman times, but became an established institution in medieval times, when it became associated with the manor and the feudal system of agriculture. Essentially the term refers to the tracts of land, houses, tenant farms, even (at least, in the past) peasant serfs, and anything else over which the lord of the manor could claim ownership and, therefore, control, rent or allegiance. The manor, the stately home of the lord (and lady) of the manor, was the centrepiece of the estate. Mostly, everyone and everything in the village and surrounding land were beholden to some extent to the estate.
In the case of Kirtling, the estate had its origins in landholdings in the area of Kirtling and Upend owned by King Harold at the time of the Norman conquest. With William the Conqueror’s successful invasion and defeat of Harold in 1066, William was quick to take possession of Harold’s estates. Appointees of William gained control over the Kirtling estate and built some form of stockade there as a tangible symbol of ownership and a defence against Saxon raiders.
The impact of the Norman invasion of Kirtling and Upend is seen starkly in the clearance of woodland for farming. William’s Doomsday survey of 1086 revealed that the arable land had expanded considerably.
There are references to a Kirtling Castle existing by 1219, referred to as a ‘forcelet’, implying strong defences, probably of earth and timber rather than stone. Kirtling Castle was extended over the years and owned by a succession of lords of the manor. The castle was sold in 1533 to Edward North, who was to become Lord North and the first in a long line of lords North who owned, managed and expanded the estate. Edward North had become very rich in the service of Henry VIII, mainly closing the Catholic monasteries and, presumably, earning or awarding himself commissions for doing so. He bought up as much land as he could around the area and built a huge mansion to replace the medieval castle. His successors continued to buy up local farms and other tracts of land.
By 1564, Kirtling was the centre of a large landed estate and had a great mansion in Kirtling Hall as its headquarters. That pretty much remained the situation until Kirtling Hall was demolished in 1801. Even then, the estate continued with the Norths until the peerage died out in 1941.
A feature of estate management over the centuries was to rent out farms to tenant farmers. The farms came with a substantial farm house and probably a few hundred acres. This meant that the lord of the manor didn’t have to manage the farming as such; just collect the rent. The estate would build cottages and other living quarters for the farm labourers and rent them to the tenant farmers, who, in turn, would provide them to their labourers. The labourers could also rent small plots set aside by the estate for personal subsistence gardening by them. Once a year the estate agent (origin of a well-used contemporary term?) would come to the local public house and collect the year’s rent on behalf of the estate.
Kirtling Tower, the only extant remains of Kirtling Hall – in fact, the latter’s gate house – has been in the Fairhaven family since 1941. Under the current Lord Fairhaven, the tenant farms have disappeared and all the farm land has either been sold or brought under central management by the estate. In reality, however, the trend to consolidation of smaller farms had started around 1800 as part of the agricultural changes that heralded the demise of the farm labourer sector; and eventually lead to most leaving Kirtling, including emigrating to Australia and Canada.
The estate, even today, still owns and rents out several houses in the district, although most of its former holdings of dwellings have been sold with freehold titles. The estate still owns about 3000 acres around Kirtling Hall and throughout the Kirtling and Upend area. Its presence is still felt in daily Kirtling life; but not nearly to the extent it would have been in centuries past.
While there was probably a church in Kirtling in Saxon times, the present day All Saints church has its origins in Norman times. In fact, some parts of the church still date from early after the Norman Conquest. The highly decorated stone doorway, with a representation of ‘Christ in Glory’ (more characteristic of the Orthodox Church) is dated c 1170. A lancet window on the door side of the Norman nave is dated c 1090.
A major extension of the church took place in the 13th century. The nave was widened on each side. The Norman walls of the church were where the archways along the nave now are (see slide show to illustrate this). The roof was realigned. You can still see the original Norman roof line on the back wall of the church.
After the Norths became lords of the manor in 1533, the burial chapel and the side chapel were built in the second half of the 16th century.
The pews are Victorian as, it seems, is the octagonal font – but not its base, which is medieval.
Essentially, take away the pews and you have a church which looks pretty much exactly as it did when the Cricks first came to Kirtling in the 1780s; and throughout the 1800s, when their children, including Thomas and Sarah, my great great grandparents, were baptised, married, and buried. William Crick would also have been in the church.
I spent a lot of time over several visits being absorbed by the reality of being in the same nave, looking at the same walls and many of the same decorations, going through the same doorway, walking in the same churchyard etc as my great grandfather and my greatx2 and greatx3 grandparents.
The church yard has graves all around the church, mostly on the south side. There are some headstones from the 1700s and 1800s that are identifiable, but most of the old headstones have lost their imprints. They are now wordless headstones. It’s obvious that there are many burial sites with no headstones. Whether they had headstones originally or not is unknown.
I came across a document from the church records for Wickhambrook, while researching them in the Bury St Edmunds’ Records Office, that listed prices for different forms and sizes of headstones. (I think the Cricks came to Kirtling in the early 1780s from Wickhambrook, so I was looking through church records of that period. Incidentally, Bury St Edmunds is the name of a town.) I assume a similar situation would have applied in Kirtling. I didn’t write down the prices but the message I took away was that it might have been beyond the means of many if not most farm labourers’ families to purchase a headstone.
As a small tribute to the three sets of great grandparents buried at All Saints without, it would seem, any headstones or any readable ones, I arranged for a brass plaque to be made and attached to a wooden bench concreted into the path beside the church. Hopefully, other descendents of the Cricks of Kirtling who might visit Kirtling will feel a greater attachment to its hidden history.
As alluded to above, most of the surrounding farm land owned by the estate was farmed through a series of tenant farms. A ‘farmer’ would lease the farm, which would typically be about 200-300 acres, with a farm house. The tenant farmer would pay rent to the estate; and also pay rent for estate-owned houses on or near the farm. The tenant farmer would provide the houses to his farm labourers.
The system of tenant farms relieved the estate and its lord of the manor from the task of undertaking the farming – or getting their hands dirty. All they had to do was collect the rent, which the estate agent would have done on their behalf. The estate also employed bailiffs to deal with rent defaulters and game wardens to protect the wildlife from poachers.
The farm labourers were employed directly by the tenant farmers, who provided them with accommodation as part of their remuneration. The accommodation would typically have been thatched-roof cottages, although there are a few remnants of stone and flint cottages; and two sets of more substantial brick terrace housing were built by the estate – one in the 1840s and the other in the 1860s.
There was usually a Home Farm close to the manor. It usually got a bit more direct attention from the estate and served as a training farm for tenant farmers. In Kirtling, it’s thought that Hall Farm, next to All Saints and just across the moat from Kirtling Hall and later Kirting Tower, might have served this purpose.
Place Farm, however, is part of the manor, in effect, so might also have served this purpose.
Around the ‘ring road’ are Parsonage Farm, Bachelor’s Hall, Whybrow’s Farm and Pratt’s Green Farm. Close by are other former tenant farms such as Hill Farm, Crabtree Farm and Mill End Farm.
Public houses – pubs – have been part of village life forever. They provided food and drink to all, as well as accommodation to travellers. Kirtling’s original pubs were located around the stretch of the settlement pockets.
At the bottom end of The Street was the Queen’s Head, Kirtling’s longest-established pub until its closure in 1999. Folklore has it that part of Queen Elizabeth I’s entourage stayed there during a visit by her to Kirtling Hall in 1578 because it was the only place that could provide housing for the numbers involved and their horses and coaches. Hence the name. What is certain, however, is that she visited Kirtling Hall.
In the 1841 census, William Crick’s eldest sister, Rhoda, is listed as living at Queen’s Head as a ‘female servant’. I had the opportunity of looking through Queen’s Head, which is a private house now. On the top floor, high up into the thatched-roof line, reachable by a narrow and steep staircase, there are a couple of tiny rooms. The narrow hallways leading to them have limited head-height because of the slope of the roof line; and their ceilings follow the roof line down to meet dwarfed walls. I presumed that these might have been the servants’ quarters, leaving the first upstairs floor for travellers’ rooms; and the downstairs for bars and eating areas.
Out the back of the main building, there was clear evidence of stables and, probably, quarters for the coach drivers or horse handlers.
Further up The Street was the former Beehive pub, also now a private house.
At the top end of The Street is the Red Lion. It closed only a couple of years ago and still stands exactly as it was when an active pub. It’s been sold and its current owners are exploring the prospects of re-opening it as a pub. (This subsequently happened. You can read about it here.)
In the Malting End/Malting Green/Kirtling Green area, there was the Chequers pub and, probably, accompanying brewery. Hence the name ‘malting’. However, it seems that Chequers might have ceased its pub business as long ago as 1847. That might explain why the Street ended up with three pubs, one of which, the Red Lion, is on the edge of this area.
Upend had its own pub in the North Arms by 1858. There was a small alehouse there by 1686, but it’s not certain if it was the North Arms. The North Arms closed in 1972.
I’ve probably said enough about housing. Briefly recapping, you might say there were four levels – loosely speaking.
At the top was the manor: the lord and lady, their family and even their house servants, who probably fared better than others of their social class.
Then there were the tenant farmers, whose houses were a deal larger and presumably better equipped than their workers’.
Below them were the tradesmen, merchants and farm labourers. Maybe they shouldn’t be grouped together as, I would imagine, the tradesmen and merchants would have been decidedly better off than the farm labourers. However, they would likely all have lived in a similar style of housing spread throughout the settlements. Their houses would have been the thatched-roof cottages, the stone and flint cottages and, later, some brick buildings.
Finally, there were the paupers. The alms houses were built to accommodate some of them. Sadly the workhouse at Newmarket also provided a place of last resort.
I mentioned earlier that one empty and dilapidated duplex thatched-roof cottage on the street currently named ‘The Green’ (in fact, the Wooditton Road) seemed to capture what typical housing might have been like for the Cricks in the 1800s.
Some Kirtling Folk
I found all the people I met – and there were several – very friendly and hospitable. Many I simply started a conversation by greeting them in their gardens or knocking on their doors.
Helen, who ran the B and B at which I stayed (Oakwell House), is a member of the local representative group and so was knowledgeable about current local issues, often relating to development proposals. She was also a great host. We enjoyed a few good wines over dinners!
Helen introduced me to Ruby Bell, who lives along The Street. She’s about 90 and was born in Kirtling and has lived there most of her life. She had some great memories, like walking long distances into the fields before school to take her father some breakfast. He was a farm labourer on one of the tenant farms and set out before daybreak each morning to harness the horses and get the ploughing under way for the day. I video’d part of our conversation (see below).
Derrick and Veronica Aspland are key movers behind activities related to All Saints. There is a pastor attached to the parish, but Derrick, as an accredited lay preacher, took the prayer service I attended on the Sunday I was in Kirtling. Derrick and Veronica organise church activities and care for the church and the churchyard. They are stalwarts of the parish and had a lot of knowledge about the church, its history and the significance of various features in it.
Edward and Eva Johnson live at Hall Farm. They have owned it for several years and extensively renovated it while keeping much of its original structure and charm. Edward, an academic from Cambridge University, provided lots of interesting insights into the history and politics of the estate from its origins and throughout the Norths’ ownership. I later noticed multiple entries in the All Saints visitors’ book by “Oscar Johnson, Hall Farm” ranging over several years, obviously from his first ability to write. I wondered how old he is now; and how embarrassed he might be at reading them today.
Col. Tony Tavener owns and lives in the old vicarage. He’s had a full life and was a guiding force in the restoration of All Saints. He had an amazing handle on the many subtleties entwined in the history of the estate and the church. I’d called on him unannounced. He was pretty much chair-bound, so there was a bit of shouting through the back door before I realised he was inviting me in. We had a great yarn for about an hour.
Denis Howe and Dick Daines were former farm labourers. Denis and his wife still live in one of the terrace houses built by the estate in the 1840s. He still tends his vegetable garden on a plot rented from the estate in a field over the road, just as he has done for years and his father before him. Dick lives in a retirement complex in a neighbouring village, so I had to track him down after Denis suggested I should speak with him. He was delighted to have a visitor and tell me about old times.
Dick pointed me up the street from his house where Roy Crick lived. Roy pulled out a letter he had received from Margaret McKay (a newly found cousin of mine from Sydney) but to which he had not replied. I discovered that it was his grandfather whose name is on the war memorial in Kirtling (and the All Saints roll of honour). He had a group photo of people outside the old Baptist church in Upend. He could identify his great grandfather and several members of his family. Interestingly, the same photo appears in a booklet on the history of Kirtling produced for a recent anniversary, but gives no indication of who is in the photo. It turned out that I had his great grandfather in my notes and could then trace Roy’s lineage to Edward and Catherine – my greatx3 grandparents, who are his greatx4 grandparents. He was chuffed at that! I thought it interesting that some branches of the Crick tree became non-conformists, while others stayed true to the Church of England. (As an aside, William, my great grandfather, on marrying the Irish Margaret Mungoven in South Australia, became a Catholic, whereas, his brother Thomas, who died relatively young and unmarried, is buried in the Church of England section of Wentworth (NSW) cemetery.)
Penny Close was recommended as a good source of historical knowledge; and she was. She’s suffered from MS for years but manages it bravely and stoically, with much dedicated support from her husband. She had lots of records and documents that she accessed with assurance. She also had several insights into farm labourer life.
Kay Wadey lives at Mill House with daughters and grandson who seem to come and go. I think Daisey, having recently graduated from Uni, has moved back home with partner and their son Jack. There are signs around the house admonishing the reader to ‘stay calm!’ I don’t think Kay reads them, but she was engaging.
Barbara Renwick at Upend was an interesting meet. She’s 87, I think she told me. She’s quite a character. We first talked at her gate for ages; and a couple of days later I called back and had a cup of tea in her dolls-house cottage. She was full of stories. As a 14-16 year old, she went to boarding college in Switzerland on Lake Geneva. A close friend, at a near-by boys’ college, was a similarly aged Ninian Stephen, much later to become Australia’s 20th Governor General and a judge of the High Court of Australia. She had stories about their time together skiing and bobsledding; and about his early years at the time. This was on the eve of and at the start of World War II. Barbara went on to join the WRAF and was active through the early years of the war in the groups that monitored the incoming German bombers as well as keeping track of Britain’s bombers over Germany. She then got her commission and went into the Intelligence arm of the WRAF. She had a special romance she still fondly remembers that abruptly ended when her boyfriend was killed in North Africa during the war. She spent many years as a caring aunt for her sister’s children after her sister died in childbirth. She never married.
There were others that I enjoyed and valued speaking with, such as the owners of the Queen’s Head and the Beehive, occupants of cottages on the The Street, Kirtling Green (aka Malting End),Mill Road and at Upend, but whose names I did not record. I hope they might read this and send me an email.
A Drive around Kirtling
Here are the video clips referred to above. There are seven short videos showing a drive around Kirtling and Upend. The quality is a bit iffy, managing camera and a manual-shift car on narrow country lanes. But they are intended to provide an idea of what Kirtling is like today, which in some ways is probably not all that different to what it was like in the 1800s.
Part 1/7: Queen’s Head and along Kirtling Street or, as it is mostly known, The Street.
Part 2/7: Malting End /Kirtling Green/The Green (all the same place)
Part 3/7: Mill End Rd and Mill End
Part 4/7: Mill End to Queen’s Head
Part 5/7: Queen’s Head to All Saints
Part 6/7: Vicarage and Alms Houses
Part 7/7: Upend
Ruby Bell Talking about Life in Kirtling
This is a small part of my conversation with Ruby Bell. She’s about 90 years old, was born in Kirtling and has lived most of her life to date in Kirtling. She’s one of the stalwarts of Kirtling.
Some neighbours of Helen, the owner of the B and B where I stayed, picked up quickly on having a visitor from Australia. Check out their thoughts and accents.
In the censuses of the 1800s, offspring of the original Kirtling Cricks turn up in Wooditton and Great Bradley (as well as other places). That’s why I visited those villages and have included them in the slide show.