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Derbyshire is a small county, landlocked in the middle of England.  For centuries it suffered economically because of its distance from London; the lack of a seaboard made it an isolated county.  This isolation has allowed many ancient customs to survive longer in Derbyshire than most other counties; indeed not until the building of the railways in the 19th century did prosperity really begin to improve.

Throughout the centuries therefore, advancement for the peasant classes has been dramatically slow.  To see how customs and habits have changed since the days of the early settlement, we have to look more closely at the Lords of the Manor and the gentry.  Following Domesday, we know of three manorial lords with an interest in Whitwell; Welbeck too, after the establishment of the Abbey had a marked influence on the social and economic life of the parish.

Change started with the Roman invasion.  Not only did they build straight roads and sturdy bridges but they also introduced exotic fruits like cherries, peaches, pears, figs, damsons and grapes, their eating habits being much too sophisticated for modest English produce to satisfy.  These trees were the forerunners of Orchard Close established by the side of Ratcliffe Lane and later still of Mr. Walker's vineyard here in Whitwell.  The Saxons arrived in strength about 450AD and established their distinctive communal homesteads bread, meat, cheese, honey, mead and ale formed their common diet, augmented by the occasional game poached from the surrounding woods.

Domesday brought a dramatic change.  The invading Norman Lords assumed ownership of the lands and built castles from which to administer their estates-all the Saxon classes were downgraded in status-order and discipline throughout the land was introduced.  Many French kitchen staff crossed the Channel with their masters bringing with them spices, cinnamon, cloves and peppers obtained from the Continental travelling merchants - the forerunner of the medieval herb garden had arrived.

The villeins, serfs and bordars were still essentially agricultural workers.  An idea of the value of land at the end of the reign of Henry II is given by a valuation for Anker de Frecheville: he held lands at Staveley, Woodthorpe and Whitwell where 10 bovates (1 bovate = 10 acres) of land were valued at 10s:sq. yd. per year; the services of freemen were valued at 23s:8d and of cottars at 13s:0d.

Two centuries of relative peace in England encouraged the Norman Castle to give way to the English country manor - the style which we see in the Old Hall.  In May, 1349 however, the Black Death reached Derbyshire and all parts of the county suffered from its ravages.  One interesting statistic shows that 77 clergy died and 22 resigned: normally about seven were appointed each year.  The presence of the plague was reported in Barlborough, Bolsover, Eckington and Langwith, and Whitwell would be similarly affected.  Indeed we have the story of Lawrence-le-Leche, Rector of Steetley 1347-1356, by way of confirmation.

A local writer states that before the plague struck Steetley there were 600 people living there compared to 700 in Whitwell; after the plague had abated, there were 76 in Steetley and 367 in Whitwell.  Lawrence earned the name of 'Leche' because of his healing powers, which he used continually in comforting the sick and the dying.  Lawrence was the last Rector of Steetley; a memorial stone in his honour now rests within the Chapel.  One of the clearest effects of the plague, following the decimation of the population, was an increase in wages paid to all labourers (because of the manpower shortage) and a reduction of services to the manor.

The 15th century proved equally ravaging with the aristocracy being torn apart by the Wars of the Roses.  In many of these civil wars, the Derbyshire yeoman, noted for their archery prowess, were called upon to fight for their masters.  In later years, Sir John Manners, Lord Lieutenant of the County, was regularly called upon to raise 100 bowmen to fight for one cause or another.

Meanwhile, the tenant farmers, their energies not diverted by the quarrels of the nobles, worked the land profitably and became a powerful new force in the countryside.  Similarly in the towns the merchants were amassing their fortunes - a new middle class emerging.  Coal fires, chimneys, glazed windows and carpets appeared in new buildings and kitchen gardens became common place.

Until the 17th century, the church had exerted a great influence (from Rome) over national affairs.  Usually village priests were married and their style of life was similar to that of the villagers.  They were entreated to ‘keep sober, so that they could administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and perform other duties with decency and reverence’.  They were expected to administer to the sick and dying, to hear confessions and to instruct parishioners in the faith.

In return for the priest's services, the villagers owed certain dues:

a tithe (tenth) of all his produce had to be paid by any holder of church land (glebe)

at Easter, the payment of 'Plough-alms' was based on the area of land held

'Light-scot' was a contribution of wax for making the church candies

'Soul's-scot' was paid by relatives after a family bereavement.

The condition of the poor became a problem in the 16th century; following the dissolution of the monasteries, they were no longer able to beg for alms.  One alternative was to attend the funerals of the gentry in the hope of receiving 'doles', which often led to disorder among the large crowds of vagrants.  At the funeral of the Earl of Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick's husband) in 1591, about twenty thousand poor persons turned up, seeking alms.  This led to the Justices of the Peace being instructed to withdraw all licences for begging.  Many local courts issued orders forbidding anyone to leave their native village without permission and the sheltering of vagrants became an offence.

The Vagrancy Act effectively divided the poor into three classes

the impotent poor, who were cared for with money collected by the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor in their own parish

the able bodied, unemployed poor for whom work was to be provided by the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor

the vagrants, who wandered from their own parish in search of work and for other purposes; all were to be returned to their own parishes for punishment in a house of correction or whipping, whichever the magistrate decreed.

Houses of correction were introduced by Queen Elizabeth I - the one in Chesterfield for offenders of Scarsdale Hundred was built about 1615.

Some of the most brutal forms of punishment survived in Derbyshire until the end of the 17th century.  In 1693, a female farm servant was burned to death for murdering her master; another woman was sentenced to death as a mute because she refused to plead at her trial.  Public hangings continued until the middle of the 18th century and the stocks remained after that; those at Killamarsh were reported to be in use in 1829.  Typical of the transgressions for which vagrants received punishment was: wandering outside the parish boundaries; failing to attend church; brewing without a licence; swearing; drunkenness.

While the poor suffered, the large country houses developed into miniature palaces, bedrooms were furnished with four-poster beds and there were rich embroidered hangings everywhere.  Wallpaper was used for the first time.  Flowers and herbs were still used to scent the rooms, which was just as well because there still was no soap - clothes were washed in cow dung (containing ammonia), hemlock and nettles, consequently they often smelled unpleasant.

Herbs were also in great demand as medical remedies.  In the middle ages, the survival of one child in two was an achievement and many people died in their youth.  Medical practice was largely a mixture of herb doctoring, superstition and quackery.  Many physicians cast horoscopes to determine the nature and outcome of an illness, while plague doctors repeated Psalm 22 whenever they approached a patient.  While doctors were comparatively few, apothecaries were to be found in most towns and villages.  They could supply the more exotic ingredients, which could not be grown in a herb garden, usually at extortionate prices, which only the rich could afford.  At the same time 'quacks' attended country fairs pretending to extract worms from teeth to 'cure' toothache.

The housewife was, however, the main user of herbal treatments, using knowledge passed down through generations of practice.  A wide range of herbs was available to her - some of them poisonous - and though many patients were cured, a considerable number were also poisoned.  Some illnesses treated then are still suffered today, while others have thankfully disappeared -pleurisy, gout, infectious fevers, plague, ricketts, melancholy and sleeplessness, while childbirth was always a great danger.  Not all treatments appealed to the palate, as the following example shows:

'for a sore throat that is very painefull and swelled

Take some hogs dung and put it in a skellit with as much Bores Greas as will serve to heat it with, set it on the fire, and make it very hot, stir it well together, and laye it upon a cloth, and applye it as hot as the party can suffer it, to the outside of the throat; this eased one within haft an hour after it was applied, when blood letting and other medicins could give noe ease.'

More exotic herbs and spices arrived as our ships established trade with the Far East; these were used for culinary purposes as well as herbal remedies.  The first bags of tea also arrived - initially there was some confusion over its preparation, some country ladies were known to drain off the water and sup the stewed leaves, dressed with a little butter.

The upsurge in Puritanism led to a more serious way of life and eventually to the Civil Wars in which Welbeck and other local families, including the De Rodes and the Frechevilles were involved.  After the wars, a happier and merrier social order developed.  Cakes and ale were back in fashion and all the previous pleasures and pastimes were reintroduced and many more besides.  There was a zest for gambling, while billiards made a first appearance indoors, just as the first game of cricket was played on the village green.

The merrymaking stopped dramatically in the hot summer of 1665, when on the doors of rich and poor alike appeared the words ‘Lord Have Mercy on Us’ beneath a red cross, which denoted the last and most deadly plague.  The death toll rose as the disease spread, fuelled by bad sanitation and lack of arrangements for rubbish collection (on which the rats, carrying plague infested fleas, fed).

Gradually a new age of machinery began to influence the way of life as England became an immensely wealthy nation.  The influx of money financed the employment of hordes of servants in the large country houses, where great feasting was the order of the day.  The humble villagers approved of the style of living of the gentry and they themselves turned to the new cheap drink of gin.  Shopkeepers left no doubt about the qualities of the new beverage as they advertised ‘Drunk for a penny; dead drunk for twopence; free straw to sleep it off’.

Inevitably, after such an indulgent age, the end of the 18th century saw a Puritan religious revival inspired by John Wesley and his Methodists.  His nearest approach to Whitwell, was the preaching of a sermon on the Castle Hill, Worksop.

The 19th century was a time of remarkable growth and change, with a rapid increase in the population as well.  The first census return of 1801 showed a population in Britain of nine million, which had risen to 14 million by 1820 (the total increase for the previous two centuries was estimated at two million).  By far the largest proportion of the working population was employed in domestic service.

Even at this period, the large country houses and manors made their own cleaning materials.  Floors were washed with various substances from strong lye water to a scrub with sand or brick dust.  Slate floors were polished 'to a raven's wing gloss' with mutton fat.  Carpets were brightened with a vinegar rub and cleaned with damp tea-leaves, scattered over the pile and then swept up.  Windows were washed with vinegar diluted with water and polished with a dab of paraffin on a soft cloth.  By 1810 the housemaid had a supply of Goddard's Silver Cleaner.

The young Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 and domestic and family life were the order of the day - as were large families; the Queen's being no exception, she had nine children.

Improved farming methods, begun earlier with the use of manure and other fertilisers, such as lime, led to increased harvests and better livestock: some of the new money from colonial trade was spent on farm buildings and machinery.  Surprisingly potatoes, which were welcomed in Ireland, when first brought back from the New World, were still treated with suspicion in England and for many years were considered as unfit for anything other than animal consumption.

The Victorian lady was confronted with a whole mass of innovations and inventions.  She wore a crinoline, the petticoat of which might take a whole day to iron.  After 1854, the first sewing machines appeared and four years later electricity was available in towns, while envelopes and stamps were available for correspondence.  By 1865 people could sign a cheque and send a telegram, ride a bicycle in 1867, use a typewriter in 1873 and a telephone in 1877.  The charcoal-fuelled ovens of country houses gave way to open ranges and, with the availability of coal and iron, to the big 'closed' kitchen range.

Most of the changes so far have been related to the gentry and middle classes but from the early 19th century, we now have newspaper reports to inform us of the lives of ordinary country folk.  The Doncaster Gazette for 27 November, 1827 reports that:

On Saturday evening about half-past six o'clock as Mr Binney, of Gainsboro', was passing from Chesterfield to Worksop, he was stopped near Whitwell Wood, by two villains, one of whom struck him a severe blow upon the head and dismounted him.  They searched his pockets and possessed themselves first of three sovereigns and some silver, and then of his pocket book and memoranda, and decamped, regretting, no doubt, that a prudent precaution had deprived them of a richer booty.'

The report on the death of a Barlborough sexton, aged 94, in 1927 states ‘'He was a grandson of Jeddediah Buxton, the remarkable mathematician of Elmton, and was born at Toll Bar House on Barlboro' Common.  He remembered the 'Tally Ho' and 'Hark Forward' stagecoaches travelling from Worksop to Chesterfield and Sheffield.  His mother worked at Bump Mill, Clowne and she recalled seeing the body of a man executed for murder, hanging in chains on a gibbet - she refused to go to work until the body had been taken down and given the ‘burial of a dog’ at Boughton Lane.

Miss Swift, who was born in 1837, daughter of John Swift, a Welbeck woodman, lived on Bakestone Moor and later on Whitwell Common.  She remembered the Dale Inn being built by Mr Ellis and the cottages on Whitwell Common.  She recalled the daily passing of the stagecoach from Worksop to Chesterfield and coachman Lockwood drawing up at the toll bar near the Rectory.  Every morning her mother kindled the fire with a flint and steel and an old tinderbox.  Lucifer matches had not reached Whitwell at that time – ‘they were nasty, dangerous, stinking things!’ She also recalled how awed she once was, when -'in the darkness of the night a solemn procession headed by torchlight bearers, passed by her father's house.  It was the funeral of Lord George Bentinck, who had died on his way to Thoresby.  It was the custom then to bury people of rank in this manner.' Miss Swift's mother could remember the Battle of Trafalgar, so their two lives spanned a period of almost 150 years.

Elizabeth Slaney was born in 1840 and came to work at Whitwell Rectory in 1863.  Her husband, Tom, was a charcoal burner and his father had been the Parish Constable.  She could remember when Whitwell consisted of a few score thatched. stone-built cottages.  She recalled the payment of lathes in the Rectory yard, the enclosure of Elmton Common, the stagecoach running between Retford and Sheffield, via Worksop and the building of the Cuckney to Worksop road.

Mr and Mrs Cromwell Hibberd celebrated their golden wedding in Coronation Street in 1921.  He was born in 1848 and spoke of the time when he was a boy.  'His father earned five shillings a week for the family (with several youngsters) to live on.  They had to pay between 3d and 6d to attend school and when there was insufficient money, they had to take a holiday.  Their food was extremely plain and generally consisted of bread and treacle.  Mrs Hibberd as a child survived on mostly bread and a drink of cold milk'.

Joseph Harrison was the village 'cobbler' for over 60 years.  He was born on Hillside, near the Mallet and Chisel, in 1840, and was taught the alphabet by Miss Shead at the Dame School.  His mother died when he was eight and he spent the next few years ‘tenting’ birds with a little schooling at the Old Boy's School, ‘where he learnt nowt’.  The horizon of his working life was bounded by the Longcroft and Sunnyside Hill.

Richard Clayton, born at Chesterfield in 1827, lived most of his life on High Street; his father had lived in a thatched cottage on the same site.  Richard had a distinct recollection of the accession of Queen Victoria: 'Tables were laid out in the two or three streets and all the inhabitants sat down to a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, washed down with plenty of ale, barrels being stacked and tapped on the side of the road.  Rural sports followed and a ‘bun and treacle’ eating competition'.

Queen Victoria's accession was not the only item of interest in 1837 - the Union Workhouse, a grim, grey stone building was opened in Eastgate, Worksop.  The institution catered for 28 parishes including Whitwell, was administered by a Board of Guardians and had for its first Chairman, Mr Sydney Smith of Burnt Leys.  The local Board was the only official means of assistance for the poor and needy.  The fundamental point of the Poor Law, 1834, was that poverty could only be relieved by admission to such an institution - people lived in fear of not having saved enough to eke out their days and of being admitted to the workhouse.

Although the institution was concerned chiefly with the inmates, an evening meal and a night's lodging were usually given to tramps, vagrants and beggars.  One frequent visitor to Worksop was a tramp called 'Stubby' Amos, who said that 'he was too clever to be taken for a soldier-he was so bow-legged a bullet would pass between his legs'.  He described the contents of his tramp's bag, which included: a 'drum' (large snuff tin) in which to mash tea, over a 'yog' (a roadside fire of sticks).  Strips of calico (toe rags) were easier to remove than socks and easier for wayside washing - the feet did not blister when the rags were wet.  Tin boxes held tea and sugar begged from housewives and 'curbstone mixture' (cigarette ends from the gutter).  Other items included a broken knife blade, a rusty spoon, pieces of old rubber and leather for repairing boots, and a sharpened piece of metal from a lady's corsets for shaving.  In the workhouse they slept on rugs on the floor; supper consisted of tea, bread, margarine and at 6.30 am there was a call of 'Work -'work is what makes fools sweat'.  After doing token work, they were released at 10.30 am with 8 oz bread and 2 oz cheese for a mid-day meal.

Though officially forbidden, outdoor relief was regularly given; a typical tender for this type of aid reads 'For supplying the best seconds of household bread in 4 lb loaves, the bread to be delivered tree of charge, one day old and to be weighed at the time of delivery'.  The Board of Guardians continued their work until 1930, when they were replaced by the New Public Assistance Committee, with power passing to the County Council.  None of the old officials were retained.  One of their last acts was to secure treatment for a crippled Hodthorpe boy in a Derbyshire sanatorium.

The industrial revolution and the growth in communications brought about dramatic changes in the parish; many of the developments are described in later chapters.  In line with this progress protection of the poor, the aged and infirm has been ensured by various Acts of Parliament including the Workmen's Compensation Act (1906), the National Insurance Act(1911), the Unemployment Act(l934) and another National Insurance Act (1946).

The introduction of the National Health Service in 1946 provided a medical service accessible to all, while the National Assistance Act (1948) still takes care of those in need.

This chapter has attempted to summarise social and economic change since the early Saxon settlement.  The more recent changes including the closure of the Colliery, the opening of the Community Centre and rationalisation of churches may well form the basis of the next ‘History of Whitwell’.


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