Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter


For their Autumn Excursion in 1902, the members of the Thoroton Society visited the Nottinghamshire Village of Laxton. By then the village was nationally known as the only surviving complete instance of the Common or Open Field system of farming. It was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1068, when the village was worth six pounds, down from nine in the time of Edward I. At that time, as in large areas of the Midlands, Eastern and Southern England, subsistence farming was based, not on enclosed, individually-worked fields, but on the division of the village land into several, usually three, very large fields, all subdivided into many strips. Tenants inhabiting the nucleated village at the centre of these fields were assigned a number of the strips scattered across them so as to ensure an equitable division of good and bad land. The fields were subject to a strict rotation, one being winter-sown wheat, another spring-sown crops, and the third left fallow. Outside these strips lay meadowland too damp for grain farming, and undeveloped heaths, both held in common for grazing oxen, sheep, and cows. The overall system, the farming year, and especially each tenant’s observance of the edges of his strips, were administered by a Manorial Court Leet, empowered to impose fines to punish infractions.

Beginning in the 13th century and rapidly accelerating in Tudor times, and again during and after the Industrial Revolution, an accompanying Agricultural Revolution saw all other villages enclosed. Between 1770 and 1830, six million acres of common land were divided up among large local landowners. By 1862, according to a report made for the 3rd Earl of Manvers, only Laxton and neighbouring Eakring ‘were left subject to rights and usages so ancient and barbarous that their origin is lost in antiquity.’

In the twentieth century, the survival of the Common Field system at Laxton has been of increasing interest to historians. Their academic analyses have been supplemented by vernacular accounts of the village and its culture, particularly by the memoirs of long-time residents: Frank Moody’s My Lifetime Memories of Laxton and Edith Hickson’s Life at Laxton: The Memories of Edith Hickson. With the formation in 2008 of the Laxton History Group, this popular self-representation became newly sophisticated, and oral histories were compiled with some dozen villagers that preserved recollections of life in Laxton going back before World War II. In January 2014, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced an award of £31,400 to support the Group’s research for a project called A Snapshot in Time - Laxton in Peace and War (1900  1920).

Present or former inhabitants of the village produced four books: Living In Laxton by Cynthia Bartle, The Village Schoolmaster by Joan Cottee, Laxton In Wartime by Roger Cottee, and Open Field Farming in Laxton by Mary Haigh, all published by Nottinghamshire Local History Association. Between 100 and 135 pages long, lavishly illustrated in both black and white and colour with a wealth of recently discovered photographs (digitized by Dik and Joy Allison), the four are informed by academic historiography, by Moody and Hickson’s memoirs, by present villagers’ own accounts, and especially by the immense amount of work invested in the project by the Group’s research at multiple archives, manuscript collections, and contemporary newspapers. Roger Cottee has estimated that over fifty volunteers had spent in excess of 5,500 hours - or 685 working days - on the project.

Mary Haigh’s Open Field Farming in Laxton opens with the Thoroton Society’s visit to the village and an account of the Common Field system prepared for them by Mr. R.W. Wordsworth, then the resident land agent to the Fourth Earl Manvers’ Thoresby Estate. Manvers inherited the estate in 1900, and held it until he died in 1926. By 1906 he had bought out all other owners of land in the Open Fields and, with Wordsworth as his architect, he completed a substantial reorganization of them by 1913. Haigh begins with Wordsworth’s successful enclosure of the small fourth East Field, after which he turned to South Field, enclosing almost a third of the 398 strips and consolidating the remainder into 78. By 1907 both West and Mill Fields had also been partially enclosed, reducing the open fields’ 899 acres divided into 1162 strips to 509 acres comprised of 162 strips, with the mean size of the strips enlarged from three-quarters to three acres. Wordsworth’s reorganization had almost halved the open fields’ size, but the system itself remained intact. Haigh provides a detailed analysis of its operation over the next decade: the activities of the Manorial Court Leet; the three dozen farms along with a complete record of their tenants; the agricultural year with the various tasks of each month; the livestock; the collapse of the mill that for several centuries had ground the village’s corn; and finally the introduction of new oil-and steam-powered machinery that soon after WWII would end the thousand year dependence on oxen and horses.

Haigh’s sensitive attention to the details of everyday life is continued in Cynthia Bartle’s book. She begins with a tour of the village, noting the details of each farm and the other houses and introducing us to the people who live there. Next to the Little School, is one ‘with the crew yard (cattle yard) just a pathway’s width from the kitchen door. Imagine the smells from that “muck yard” on a hot summer’s day.’ Bartle follows her lively inventory with the more formal statistics preserved in the 1901 census that named the twenty-six farmers and the labourers, horsemen, shoemakers, wheelwrights and members of fifty other trades that sustained the community. She describes the women’s work in the domestic sphere, the Monday washdays with the wood-fired copper; butter churning and beer making; and the daily resort to the village’s water pumps. But not all of life was so arduous. Sundays were pre-occupied with church, and the year was punctuated with other social events: Feast Week, when the special Harvest Festival services were accompanied by dancing at the inn; ploughing matches and maypole dancing; the cricket club and weddings. All these were of course shaped by the village agricultural system, but their human richness was not reducible to it.

Where these two books are synoptic, the other two are more specifically focused. Roger Cottee’s investigation of World War I’s effect on the village assembles all that can be known of the men from Laxton who fought on the Western Front in France and Flanders, and also as far away as Egypt and Mesopotamia. He begins with the memorial cross in the churchyard commemorating the nine who were killed and the plaque in the church that lists the further twenty-two who served. Since the service records of many of these were destroyed in WWII, Cottee concentrates on providing detailed biographies of a dozen of the soldiers, alternating these with more general topics including “The Home Front” (the sustained production of food); “Employment of Women” (who replaced soldiers in agricultural work); and “Life at the Front” (the horrors of trench warfare, illustrated by accounts in letters published in the Newark Advertiser). Cottee discovered quite astonishing accounts of the villagers whom war sent far from the open fields. One of the vicar’s sons, Gerard Tunbridge, for example, was killed on the Balkan Front and buried in a military cemetery in Greece. And Charles Whitworth, born in 1901 in what is now Bottom Farm, joined the Sherwood Rangers and was killed at Gallipoli; his death and burial were witnessed by another Laxtoner, Elmer Jack Rose, and described in a note written by his son Reginald, and preserved in a brass case now owned by his son, Stuart.

Joan Cottee devotes her book to a single figure and the institution he managed: Frank Willis, Head Teacher of Laxton Parochial School from 1886 to 1922, who was born in a Hertfordshire labourer’s cottage. Cottee reconstructs his ascent of the social ladder to the point where Edith Hickson remembered him as “infinitely the most influential character in the whole village.” Starting as a Pupil Teacher in his own local school, he became a Certified Teacher, married another teacher, and found for them both positions at Laxton school, which at the turn of the century had thirty-three junior and twenty infant students. Since the villagers had no high regard for what they called “Eddication” and in any case the youngsters were needed to work on the farms, he struggled with endemic absenteeism, but eventually brought great improvements to the school. Through her account of his personal achievements, Joan Cottee weaves a rich tapestry of both village life in the period and developments in governmental educational innovations. Eventually her account closes in on Roger Cottee’s account of the village during WWI, when the students collected eggs for wounded soldiers in France and the girls knitted socks and scarves for them.

Many other topics could have been covered in similar volumes: the church and developments in religion; the village animals, domestic and wild; the public houses; and, of course, the Court Leet itself. Where that last institution has for more than a millennium marked the village’s utopian self-governance, A Snapshot in Time instances a similarly utopian undertaking in the area of self-representation. With copies given free to every household, Laxton has at last achieved its own historiography: of the villagers, by the villagers, and for the villagers - along with the many others who will find the project revelatory.

See especially C.S. and C.S. Orwin, The Open Fields, Third Edition with Preface by Joan Thirsk (Oxford; The Clarendon Press, 1967); and J.V. Beckett, A History of Laxton: England’s Last Open-Field Village (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

David E. James, Professor School of Cinematic Arts University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA