Changing land usage in Essex

Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen reflects on the changing pattern of land usage and the historic value of meadows to the Essex landscape.

There is currently much in the media about climate change and environmental degradation. We hear on almost a daily basis about the threat to different ecosystems and landscapes, as well as about worldwide species loss. We in the UK are not immune, and subjects such as the loss of meadows and the threat to bees are now quite common topics of discussion. Recently the BBC reported that, ‘over 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s, that’s a startling 7.5 million acres (3 million hectares). Species-rich grassland now only covers a mere 1% of the UK’s land area’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20150702-why-meadows-are-worth-saving).

What have bees and meadows got to do with the Essex Record Office (ERO), we hear you ask? Well, working among our wonderful archives we are used to seeing lost landscapes of the past as depicted in maps or described in documents – a land before industrial agriculture and large-scale urbanisation.

One important, almost universal feature of any parish’s landscape would have been that ‘species-rich grassland’ mentioned by the BBC. They were generally described as meadows, which the ERO’s trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (1933) defines as, ‘a piece of land covered with grass that is mown for use as hay. In later use often extended to include any piece of grass land’ (pasture, on the other hand, was used for general grazing of livestock). Look at any tithe, enclosure or estate map and there the meadows will be, often listed and somewhere along the way appraised as well.

Part of 1609 map of White Roding showing meadowland
Extract from John Walker junior’s 1609 ‘trewe and perfect’ plan of the ‘landes belonging to the Mannor of Mascalls Bury … within the parish of White Roodinge’ (D/DC 27/1118). It depicts the ‘Longe’ and ‘Shorte’ meadows adjacent to the moated house. Another important aspect of the farm and household economy, the orchard, can also be seen close by the house. Do note the spelling of arable as ‘Eareable’ – one can almost hear the Essex accent across the centuries!

— An image of the same location from Google Satellite, 2019.

The importance of meadows to people in the past was immense, particularly before the introduction of fodder crops, such as turnips, through the 17th and 18th centuries. Meadows were mown for hay in summer which was then used to feed overwintering livestock. Therefore the amount of hay harvested determined the number of cattle that could be kept over-winter. So a good hay crop was an essential product of the agricultural year, with the whole community coming together to ensure it was harvested and stored successfully.

The high regard that meadows were held in can be seen by how they were valued. When the Escheator compiled the Inquisition Post Mortem (TNA, C 134/74/19) on the death of Nicholas Dengayne in 1322/3, his manors of Colne Engaine and Prested Hall (Feering) were valued. The 240 acres of arable land in the former was valued at 4 pence per acre, while 140 acres in the latter was 3 pence per acre. By comparison the 6 acres of mowing meadow at Colne Engaine and 5 acres at Prested Hall were all valued at 2 shillings per acre –  the equivalent of 24 pence per acre, or six to eight times the value of the arable land.

Quite what types of grasses and flowers these ‘traditional’ meadows were made up of is unknown, but we have to assume in an age before widespread use of agricultural chemicals they were very species rich with lots of insects as well. Not all ‘grassland’ was equal to a well-established meadow. By the 1930s 302,803 acres of ‘permanent grass’ was recorded in Essex (The Land of Britain: the Report of The Land Utilisation Survey of Britain part 82 Essex, copy  in ERO Library, Box 95), of which 92,300 was for hay – possibly this was mainly ancient meadows. The remaining 210,503 acres might not have been of the highest quality but rather a result of the agricultural depressions of pre and post First World War. This would have been the case with the 38,977 acres of ‘rough grazing’ – not all grassland was equal!

A local meadow in glorious technicolour! Along with various grasses there is knapweed, scabious and lady’s bedstraw. The honeyed aroma of the latter is intoxicating on a sunny day!

Now, we are beginning to appreciate our meadows once more and recognise their value as habitats to vital wildlife. While there has been a great loss of meadows, more are being planted, for example by conservation charity Plantlife. Perhaps our maps and documents will guide where new meadows could be sown?

What can you find out about your local landscape history? Check our introduction to the main sources for starting a place history, then come and explore what we have in our Searchroom.

Where there’s a will: major update to Essex Ancestors

We love wills here at ERO. These fascinating and incredibly useful documents can tell us all sorts of things about the lives of people in the past, and are a brilliant resource for genealogists and social and economic historians alike.

The majority of the population did not leave a will, but where these documents exist, they can be of great help in establishing family connections (particularly before census returns begin in 1841) and for researching the amount of personal property people owned.

It can be surprising to see what testators valued; in 1641 Elizabeth Fuller of Chigwell left her eldest son Henry my longe carte and dunge carte, my ponderinge crose my furnace, my mault quarne. We think the crose must be for religious contemplation and the quarne for grinding grain but it seems an odd mix of bequests. Her second son Robert received my best chest and my best brace [brass] pot which to modern eyes would seem to be the better bequest (D/AEW 21/71).

It can be surprising to see what testators valued; in 1641 Elizabeth Fuller of Chigwell left her eldest son Henry ‘my longe carte and dunge carte, my ponderinge crose my furnace, my mault quarne’. We think the crose must be for religious contemplation and the quarne for grinding grain but it seems an odd mix of bequests. Her second son Robert received ‘my best chest and my best brace [brass] pot’ which to modern eyes might seem to be the better bequest (D/AEW 21/71).

Our collections include about 70,000 wills which date from the 1400s to 1858. Digital images of about 20,000 of these wills have been available on our online subscription service Essex Ancestors for some time, and we have just uploaded a further 22,500.

This is a project we have been working on for many months, with our digitisers spending about 375 hours photographing the wills, our conservators spending about 44 hours conserving them, and our archivists spending about 752 hours checking all the images against their catalogue entries to get ready for the upload.

It can be surprising to see what testators valued; in 1641 Elizabeth Fuller of Chigwell left her eldest son Henry my longe carte and dunge carte, my ponderinge crose my furnace, my mault quarne.  We think the crose must be for religious contemplation and the quarne for grinding grain but it seems an odd mix of bequests.  Her second son Robert received my best chest and my best brace [brass] pot which to modern eyes would seem to be the better bequest (D/AEW 21/71).

A portion of our wills collection in storage

This upload will mean that digital images of all of our wills dating to c.1720 will be available on Essex Ancestors. We will now press on with working on the rest of the wills, which date from c.1720-1858, for upload in the next few months.

To celebrate the upload, our archivists will be choosing some of their favourite wills to share on the blog over the next few days and weeks.

You can access Essex Ancestors from home as a subscriber, or for free in the Searchroom at the ERO in Chelmsford or at our Archive Access Points in Saffron Walden and Harlow.  It will shortly be provided at Waltham Forest Archives.  Opening hours vary, so please check before you visit.

Before you subscribe please check that the documents you need exist and have been digitised at http://seax.essexcc.gov.uk/

You can view a handy video guide to using Essex Ancestors here.