An interesting lecture was given in the Wesleyan Schoolroom, Alston, on Saturday by Mr. William Thompson, of Alston his subject being, “Alston in the Seventeenth Century”.
Showing a map of the manor over a hundred years old, he said the names in the old Drift Roll of 1587 were practically the same as those given on the map. Newshield, Coatlith Hill, Loaning, Lowbyer, Nattrass, Annat Walls, Bleagate, Silly Hole, Flatt, Fair Hill, Craig, Snappergill, Jolly Beard House, Garrigill, Nentsbury, Nenthall, Wellgill, Gillgill, The Rake, Cocklake and Hudgill - all bore the same name in the time of Queen Elizabeth (the First) as now. (ffowlett is now known as Foulhard.)
Very little land was enclosed then, only the best by the side of the river. The Nenthead road from Alston ran on open fell to Hudgill, and then on enclosed lands to Crook Bank and again on the fell to Nenthead. Garrigill road was on the fell to How Hill and then through pastures and meadows to Low Houses. Hexham road as we know it, did not exist. The road went up by (north) Loaning to Limekilns on to the top road. There was no road through Coppice Wood. Land was mostly open fell. There was no fence between Nest Chapel and Hudgill, except Nattrass.
In a map of the town of 1775 the Grammar School (now the Fire Station) was shown as the last building on the east side of the street. There was a mill dam behind the school (in Back o’the Burn). The millrace was open to the front of Mr. Hugh Walton’s shop. The houses from Mr. Henderson’s shop to Mr. Scholick’s shop were not built till near the end of the century (1697). There were no houses at Back o’the Burn, nor at Chapel Terrace. Physic Hall was not in existence at the time. The Townfoot houses were not built until the middle of the 18th century. Church Croft Terrace was of still more modern growth. The Butts was an important place in the seventeenth century. The house now occupied by Mr. George Dickinson was then the place of Jackson the perriwig maker, and at Garden House the Cordwainer plied his trade, making top-boots, leather jerkins and breeches.
Much light as to the life of that period might be obtained by a study of old rolls and Manor Court Records. From them might be gathered some idea of the conditions of the life as it was 300 years ago. In those days the Lord of the Manor was practically king. His will was almost, if not altogether, law. Land in the 17th century was nearly all in his possession, and let for the most part to his tenants on leases for twenty one years, with a yearly Lord’s rent, and a further payment or fine, known as a twenty penny fine, payable by the tenant on the death of the Lord, or the death of the tenant, and in any case at the end of the term.
Tenants in those days had, beside paying rent and fines, a great many services to render to the lord, such as carting or carrying corn to and from the Lord’s mill, bringing coals and wood for his household use, giving so many days work in haytime, harvest, repairing the watercourse to his mill and the like. Under the regulations the leaseholders had always to keep a good horse in fighting fettle in case they were called upon to join a fray with the Scots, who raided the country, stealing their livestock, or defend their goods from the inhabitants of neighbouring places who were not much more honest than the Scots.
The old Paine (penalty) and Drift Rolls and another called the Pipe Roll contained the rules and regulations under which the parish lived and was governed. Some of the rules were incorporated from the laws of England at the period, others were purely local laws drawn up by the Manor Court. Some entries on the Paine Roll related to the conduct and general behaviour of the inhabitants one with another, such as the regulations as to fighting, drawing blood, interference in a quarrel, slander and the like. For example by verdict it was agreed that none may make an assault or fray upon another within the liberty upon pain of 6s.8d. for every affray or assault. A watch had always to be kept by some or other of the inhabitants. The penalty for default in the day watch was 4d., but the penalty for default in the night watch was 6s.8d., twenty times as great an offence.
With regard to the communal life of the people the following regulation in regard to the ‘Shields or Sheales’ may be of interest. It was decreed “that every tenant that have used to go to the Shields do go the same within one month after St. Helen’s Day and there to stay until St. Peter’s Day upon the pain of 12d.” Sheales were rough folds or shelters, adjoining an equally rough cabin on the fells, where the inhabitants went to summer there stocks during the time that the common fields were under the hay crop. In many places the lands that were mown for hay were undivided except by a ditch or at most a sod dyke, and except when closed for hay were stinted from about the end of August till the following May Day. So it was important the whole of the stint holders should “clear off” to the sheales on a fixed day. It would be understood that each man knew his own portion, so far as the hay crop was concerned. This system of common fields and the division of them explained the importance of each man keeping up his portion of the “head dyke”, which would be the substantial fence next to the fells.
A writer in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’, who visited Alston and Cross Fell, in describing the scenery, says, “There was not a vestige of a house except some old shields, where in former ages the people had resorted, like the Asiatic Tartars, to graze their cattle - a custom now disused (year 1774)”. In earlier times the similar shields gave the name to what are now the names of farms such as New Shield. Lovelady Shield, Fore Shield, Shield Hill, Craig Shield.
One curious regulation prevented the cutting of peats or turf within the Acre wall. The Acre was believed to have been the piece of land named on the map Crook burn Moor. This was somewhere in the vicinity of what is now known as the Raise. It was in all probability the old “muster ground”, and the place where the tournaments were held, and in later days for sports and races.
The Old Manor Court was exceedingly jealous for its honour, and prohibited the taking of any case to another court, and a fine of 40s. was imposed on any who went anywhere else to seek justice. A great deal of business was done at these courts. In 1698 at one court there were 45 cases, six relating to ‘rights of way’.
The records throw considerable light upon the value of money and the prices of stock. Just before the century began (1584) one Thomas Walton of Garrigill, whose will was proved at Durham in June 1584, left various legacies of stock and other things to his brother, Nicholas Walton and others. The valuation for probate was made by four honest men and was as follows:- Four kyne £3. 4s., a mare £1.11s.8d., four heifers £1.3s., ten ewes £1.6s.8d., two lambs 3s.4d., total £7.8s.8d.
Stephen Walton of the parish of Alston, died February or March, 1588. Valuation for probate of his will was made by four honest men as follows:- Three kyne and calves £3, one heifer 13s.4d., four stirks £1.6s., and 47 sheep £6.2s.8d., or 2s.7d. each. The same man left legacies of £1 to his brother-in-law John Teasdale, and to Mary Teasdale, a silver whistle and 8s., and to his brothers Henry Walton, £3, and his brother William 13s. 4d.
It might be supposed that as these were valuations made for probate, they were therefore low, but comparison of amounts sued for in courts showed that the valuations had been fair. For instance John Walton, of the Bailes, sued John Wallace, of Hill House, in 1634, for the price of three beasts £3.6s.8d. In 1636 Henry Teasdale sued Chris Walton, of Foul Loaning, for 6s. the price of a stirk. At the same Court, Rowland Watson, of Melmerby, sued Michael Walton, of Bridge End, for 30s., part of a nagg’s price, and John Dickinson, of Garrigill, sued Thomas Blackett, of Stanhope, and Robert Veopont, of Dodberry, for 24s. for a nagg. The jury found for the plaintiff 23s. John Lawson of West Allen sued John Stephenson of Nentsbury, for £4.10s.6d. for 39 shearlings, 2s.4d. each.
With regard to the Poor Law, the Court had control of the overseers, and had a novel method of providing for the poor. At a Court held 22nd October, 1683, they had the following entries: “(1) We do order that the overseers for the Poor of Alston and Garrigill shall at every head Court to be held for the Manor of Alston give a list of all such poor as are within the parish to the head jury, that they may present and order who shall go from house to house to be kept according to an order in this Court, and if the overseers shall neglect their duties to forfeit, everyone in whose default it is 6s. 8d. (2) We do order and confirm an ancient pain (fine) within this Manor, that is the inhabitants of Alston and Garrigill shall everyone, their night about harbour and keep such poor people within the parish as are either so aged or infirm or so young that they cannot go about to seek their alms, and he that refuses to keep them, shall pay them six pence to get their lodgings and maintenance with, otherwise to forfeit 6s.8d”.
Evidently there was some system of boarding out children for at one of the Courts held in 1662, Isabel Jackson brought an action against the following overseers:- William Walton, of Nattrass; William Dowson, of Aimshaugh; Nicholas Ritson, of Howburn; Arthur Lee, of the Craig; Ralph Vippond, of Foreshield; John Lee, of Wanwood; William Lee, of Ashgillside; and Ralph Hutchinson, of Redwing, by virtue of a power of attorney from her husband, Arthur Jackson, for £7 for keeping a child for two years which the defendant promised to maintain. The jury gave a verdict for 35s. against the first named overseers. In 1662, John Leyton was sued by Jane Vipond, spinster, for her year’s wages, amounting to 20s., the defendant having turned her out of his service (without fault) before her year was ended. The jury awarded 17s.6d. and costs.
Some in those days of the past did not like paying rates, and probably thought them heavy and said hard things about the overseers and collectors. In 1634, Richard Walton, Sheepriggs, was sued for 4d. cess (rates). Thomas Dawson of Spency Croft, and John Dickinson, of Gill House, collectors for Nentbridge, sued Matthew Vepoind for 6d., William Archer for 16d., Anthony Walton, Lionel Croser, John Robson and George Walton, for 6d. each, Margaret Vepound for 2d, Richard Fenwick for 8d., and others for sums of 2d. and 4d.
An interesting entry (1634) shows that gambling is not altogether a new thing, and that Thomas Vasey, who was the bailiff of the Court, sued Richard Wallas, of Wanwood, in an account of a bet or lay of 6s. and the sympathetic jury, who possibly had an occasional flutter when races were run upon the Acre, found a verdict in favour of the bailiff, and ordered the bet to be paid.
References to the Paine Roll showed that there were penalties for interfering in a fight. There appeared to have been some ‘bad blood’ between John Carrick and Thomas Lee, who had been fighting and who were fined 6s.8d. Then they found that John Carrick and Francis Tinniswood both attacked Thomas Lee, and the jury fined the first two £5, or about the price of three cows at that time. Undoubtedly they would learn to keep the peace after that.
Fighting was common, and at nearly all the Courts there were cases up for making an affray. In one Court held in 1634 there were no fewer than 13 cases before the jury for fighting and in each case the combatants were fined the full penalty of 6s.8d. Probably fighting was preceded by scolding, so the Court in such a case divided the fine, 3s.4d. for the fight and 3s.4d. for the scolding (Scoulding as it was called).
Drink scores were not unknown, and debts for drink could then be recovered. In 1662, Thomas Backhouse, gentleman, who was evidently landlord at the Low Byer, sued Thomas Nixon for 13s.4d. for ale, which the defendant and William Pearson had called for and had at the Low Byer. He recovered his debt.
Fines and penalties appear to have been much in fashion in the 17th century, but yet the Manor of Alston was better off in these matters than some others not far away. So far as he could learn by the records there was no fine for getting married. In the Manor of Featherstone, every man on his marriage had to pay to the Lord of the Manor 40s. if he intended to set up housekeeping on his own account, but if he was content to live with his father the fine was reduced to 20s.
Such was the brief history of a few extracts of how their forefathers lived in the 17th century.