“Putting on the Local History Goggles,” or, in search of two lost cottages

One of the things I’ve learned from a lifelong fascination with local history, antique postcards and old maps is that the more you discover about an area, the easier it becomes to see it through ‘local history goggles’ – or, maybe, the more difficult it becomes to take those goggles off… Looking down a street, or across a field, or up at a building, you don’t just see what’s in front of you in the present moment, but a tapestry, sometimes faded, sometimes threadbare or reduced to scraps, but weaving together threads of all the lives that went before. One of the strangest feelings I’ve ever encountered is to stand in a place I know was once inhabited, a solid, lived-in, domestic space, that’s now… not.

When I finally took the plunge and formalised this One Place Study at the end of last year, my first field trip was to the local park. Before the park was established in the late 2000s as a green buffer between the existing village and a new housing development, the site had been fields, but long before, it had also been the location of two cottages with their adjacent crofts. The cottages are among only a handful of historic Oldnall End properties to have completely vanished from the contemporary map and ever since I learned of their existence I have been keen to find out more about them.

The cottages appear on enough old maps for us to have a fairly good idea of their location. Hard up against the Berkswell-Hampton parish boundary, they were surrounded by fields on three sides, with the common land of Balsall Slang to their west. Their main access was via a long track running north to today’s Lavender Hall Lane and turning sharply along their southern boundary, but they could also be reached by footpaths, one across the fields from Berkswell in the east and another from Green Lane in the south (the latter took approximately the line of the footpath in the photograph above). They sat in a yard, with a water pump on the west side and outbuildings on the east side, and the yard sat within a croft of almost an acre, with a pond on its northern boundary. A second, larger croft of just over an acre adjoined to the east.

The cottages stood in their two-acre croft on this site from 1795 and perhaps earlier. For more than a century they were owned by just two families: the Hickin family from Haseley (1795-c.1832) and the Page family from Shrewley (c.1832-1899). William Hickin and his Berkswell-born wife Mary (nee Barton) were Roman Catholics who lived in Haseley where William was a farmer and cordwainer, but worshipped at St Francis of Assisi in Baddesley Clinton. They passed the cottages and croft to their children and grandchildren, who in turn sold them to the Page family of Shrewley Mill. John Page, a miller and farmer, and his wife Mary (nee Bellamy) passed the cottages and croft to their son John Bellamy Page, who in turn passed them to his daughter Ann Handley. In March 1899 Ann sold everything to Walter Fawdry of the Manor House on Dockers Lane, whose land bordered the cottages to the south and east. After more than a century as a tiny independent smallholding, they were at last absorbed into a larger estate.

The cottages might have been an investment for the Hickins and Pages, but for the families who lived there they were home. The first residents we know about were an elderly couple, John and Alice Pratt who were there from 1795 until Alice’s death in 1817 at the age of 83; they may have underlet the second cottage to another family. Local farmer Thomas Bates was there in 1820 and 1825, followed in 1830 by William and Elizabeth Rymill and their four children, at least one of whom was born at the cottage. The 1839 Tithe Apportionment of Berkswell and the 1841 census show one cottage occupied by James and Charlotte Tidman with their son and daughter, and the other by Job and Mary Ann Bennett, with their two sons. Job also farmed the two-acre croft, now divided into two parts, both mown and grazed. Although the Tidmans moved on, the Bennetts, who converted to Catholicism in 1843 and worshipped like the Hickens at St Francis of Assisi, were still there in 1851. By now they likely occupied both properties with their four children, along with a 42-year-old lodger, farmer’s labourer George Hopkins, and a live-in servant, 26-year old Esther Arden. It must have been a busy household.

The site today

Visiting the site today is a strange experience if you’re aware of its history. I think about the little community captured on the 1841 census; two young couples, four children under five, the Tidmans part of a large Berkswell and Balsall family, the Bennetts newly arrived from Gloucestershire and exploring their religious identity. I imagine Job mowing the croft, bringing the sheep in and out, James tramping off to work for a nearby farmer, the two Marys pumping water, washing clothes, tending chickens and children, helping one another through childbirth and illnesses. I think about the children running around the yard, ‘helping’ with the chickens and sheep, and then, in time, making the long daily walk to Berkswell School. I imagine the sounds, sights, smells of this busy, dirty, difficult life … and then I open my eyes and it’s all gone.

Where the cottages and the croft once stood is now a tarmac footpath and a plantation of young beeches. The only thing to tie today’s landscape to the one familiar to the Pratts and Rymills, the Tidmans and Bennetts, is the big puddle behind the plantation that fills up when it’s raining and which I’m pretty sure was once the pond at the back of the croft. It’s calm and quiet, the trees are full of blackbirds and sparrows and the ground is a soft carpet of beech leaves and mud. Only with my local history goggles on can I sense the weight, the energy, of a century and a half – more than 50,000 days! – of daily lives lived out right on this spot.

What next?

I haven’t yet worked out who lived at the cottages after the Bennetts, since census records simply record households in ‘Green Lane’ with no further identifiers – so there’s more work to do there. I’d like to know whether the Hickens built the cottages or bought them, and whether they were there before 1795. The cottages appear on Ordnance Survey maps until 1950, but the 1960 map shows just an empty space, so I can look for records of demolition during the 1950s. More than anything I’d like to find a photograph of the cottages, to find out how closely they match the cottages of my imagination. If you can help me answer any of these questions I would love to hear from you!

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