Episode 2 and 3 – Abberton, Essex and Worcestershire

Our alphabetical tour of Britain and Ireland continues today with a visit to two villages with the same name: Abberton, Essex, and Abberton, Worcestershire. So without further ado, let’s begin.

2 – Abberton, Essex

On the east coast of England, just south of Colchester, lies Abberton. It sits by Abberton Reservoir, constructed in the 1930s to supply water to Essex. It has since become a place of great natural beauty, and an internationally important site for wildfowl such as ducks, swans and geese. [1]

Abberton is a quintessential English village: quiet, peaceful, and nothing much happens. It has a 16th Century church, St Andrews, and an 18th Century manor that is now a care home.

In its pre-Norman Conquest history, it would have been on the Danelaw side of the treaty line, ruled over by the Vikings. The name, however, is Saxon: “Edburgh’s Town”. There aren’t a lot of Viking place names in the local area – maybe the locals were more resistant to their new overlords. [2]

From the Domesday book, we can see that there was a total population of nine households in 1086, and three different lords had land in the area: [3]

Count Eustace of Bologne, a man close to Edward the Confessor, but was already on-side with Duke William before 1066, and fought at the Battle of Hastings. A historian of the time, William of Poitiers, said of him at the battle: “With a harsh voice he (Duke William) called to Eustace of Boulogne, who with 50 knights was turning in flight and was about to give the signal for retreat. This man came up to the Duke and said in his ear that he ought to retire since he would court death if he went forward. But at the very moment when he uttered the words Eustace was struck between the shoulders with such force that blood gushed out from his mouth and nose and half dead he only made his escape with the aid of his followers.” [4]

A man called Ralph of Marcy held the land on behalf of Eustace. Like so many names in the Domesday Book, he has never been heard of before this date. I was unable to find anything else about him.

Ranulph Peverel’s mother Maud was a Saxon princess, and his father Ranulph a Norman. He was favoured with 64 manors after the Conquest, but these were later taken away by Henry II after the family sided with King Stephen against Matilda. Not much is known about him either.

Swein of Essex was the son of Robert fitzWimarc, a Breton who was a close companion of Edward the Confessor. Edward had granted Robert land in Essex, and made him Sheriff of Essex. A Sheriff, or ‘Shire reeve’, was responsible for keeping the peace in his region on behalf of the king. Robert’s closeness to Edward was also shown by his presence at the king’s side at his death, with four other men, the Queen, Harold Godwinson (who became the new king briefly), and Archbishop Sigand.

Robert played it safe during 1066, making sure to stay on both Harold and William’s good sides. When William landed in England, Robert met the Duke and advised him it would be safer to return to France. The English army had just defeated the Vikings further north, and would have good morale, so Robert thought William was likely to lose. William ignored this advice, and went on to win the battle. He clearly had no hard feelings towards Robert, who was one of the few lords to keep their lands after the Norman Conquest.

Swein, his son, maintained the lordship of Essex, and built a castle at Rayleigh, their primary town. A man called Odo was set to look after his landholdings around Abberton. [5]

In the quiet of the Essex countryside, Abberton’s people got on with their lives. They were born, lived, married, had children, and died. There was joy and sadness in each of their lives, but historically there was not much to note.

Until…

It was a sunny Tuesday morning in April 1884. Suddenly, without warning, the ground began to shake. It lasted around 20 seconds, and then stopped. Destruction was left in the earthquake’s wake. While not the strongest earthquake ever to strike Britain, it was the most damaging. [6] It measured 5.1 on the Richter scale, and the epicentre was very close to Abberton and the other nearby villages.

Incredibly, nobody was killed or severely injured, but the cost to the residents was huge. In one village, every house had some damage. The schoolhouse at Abberton was damaged so badly it could no longer be used. A fundraising effort brought in over £500,000 in today’s money for relief and rebuilding efforts. [7] [8]

Geographically, Britain is not a place much affected by earthquakes. It lies far from the plate boundaries, and quakes are normally caused by small movements along faults in the rock. The biggest earthquake ever recorded was 6.1, but this was 60 miles (96 kilometres) out in the North Sea so it only caused minor damage to buildings. Theoretically, the largest earthquake the UK could experience would be a 6.5. [6]


3 – Abberton, Worcestershire

Abberton, Worcestershire is a small village to the east of Worcester, just off the main road to Alcester. Its earliest mention is in 972, as part of the ‘Cartularium saxonicum’ – a collection of Saxon charters. The English king Edgar granted the land there to Pershore Abbey, which was a few miles to the south west. [9]

The name of the village was then Eadbrihyincgtun, possibly after St Eadburgh, who to this day gives his name to the local parish church.

The land grant was affirmed in the Domesday Book, which named the Abbey as the owner not only in 1066 but also in 1086. The Normans might have been willing to turf out Saxons for Normans, but they would not dare offend God. There were 24 villagers, 8 smallholders, and 7 slaves. [10]

Being an Abbey estate, Abberton would have been severely impacted by the English Reformation. Pershore Abbey, like every other monastic settlement, was forced to close. All of its lands were now crown property. The reformation may have been hard enough for the people of Britain, but harder still for those whose livelihoods relied on supplying these isolated religious communities.

The Crown, however, dealt smartly with this situation, and turned over lands to local residents. In Abberton, these were brothers William and Francis Sheldon, who were granted their land

in 1544. Their descendants constructed a Manor House – Abberton Hall – in the 17th Century, and many other buildings in the area date from the same time. These are considered to be of significant archaeological importance. [11]

Legal loopholes

In 1840, the Sheldons sold Abberton Hall to a lawyer and property magnate William Laslett, and it would become his home. William had been born in Worcester in 1799, and practised there as a solicitor. He was miserly on his own account, but incredibly generous in supporting charitable causes, like a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge at the start of A Christmas Carol, and Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol.

In 1841, William found a new charitable cause. The Right Rev. James Robert Carr, Bishop of Worcester, died, leaving an unmarried daughter in her forties, and a debt of around £100,000! That’s nearly £10 million today. The local Sheriff took possession of the body for a month holding it for ransom until the money was paid up.

And indeed it was William who paid the money. A few months later, in 1842, Maria Carr and William were married. It’s not clear what the motivations were for this – perhaps out of some sense of obligation, because it definitely wasn’t out of love. [12] Maria was contemptuous of William, and he in turn treated her badly. I do not think it was out of spite, but more out of his ascetic nature. One story tells that he refused her a fire when she was ill until the doctor insisted. When he did light the fire, he got his gardener to put a lump of turf over the top of her chimney. [13]

The pair separated after a few years, to the pleasure of both. It’s not clear exactly what happened to her, but family records suggest she was being cared for by fher amily when she eventually died in 1888, and William had instructed a regular payment to her in his will. [14]

1852 saw the beginning of William’s career as an MP. He was a Liberal (the party who emerged from the Whigs), and notably opposed his own party on the Opium Wars in China. He defended his position while seeking re-election in 1857, saying “I regard the violent course pursued by the British authorities in their quarrel with the Chinese as unwarranted by the laws of nations or treaty stipulations and inconsistent with due regard to the rights of humanity.” [12]

He was successfully re-elected, and continued there until 6 March 1860, when he was appointed as Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds. So what important job was this Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, that William was so urgently required to resign his position as an MP to take it up?

In fact, this position is often granted to MPs, as a result of an interesting quirk of British parliamentary law.

In 1624, an act of parliament was signed to prevent MPs from abandoning their seats. At this time, MPs were being elected who did not want to be in parliament, so they made excuses and did not show up. At the time, parliament only sat for a short period of time, unlike today where MPs are elected for four or five years at a time. The new law stated that the only way to stop being an MP was to die, be expelled, or be disqualified, and applies to this day.

But for a determined MP, they could quite easily find a way to be disqualified without breaking the law. The primary way was to take a Crown Office. This must have been a serious enough problem that by 1680 the legislation had been amended so that MPs could not take a Crown Office without parliament’s permission. I’m surprised it took them so long.

By Laslett’s time, there were two Crown Offices specifically used to allow an MP to resign their position. Enter the Crown Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, and the Crown Steward of the Manor of Northstead. These offices no longer have any duties that may once have existed. [15]

So by saying that William Laslett was made a Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, that means he resigned as an MP with permission of the parliament. The most recent MP to be appointed to this office was Tristram Hunt, an MP for the Labour party in Stoke-on-Trent. He resigned earlier this year (January 2017) to become Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. [16]

In 1868 Laslett became an MP again, but this time as a Conservative. He styled himself as a rebel in his election campaign, which worked well as he secured a 25% increase in the Conservative vote, and defeated the son of his rival in the process.

Laslett continued to live a miserly life, wearing clothes that were practically falling apart, and doing his own cooking and building work instead of paying someone else. But he remained a humanitarian, expressing this not only in his parliamentary voting record, but also in charitable work around Worcester.

As a few examples, he purchased Worcester Gaol and converted it into homes for older retired couples. These homes – Laslett’s Almshouses – are still available today. [17] He rebuilt the church at Abberton and also at nearby Flyford Flavel. He also donated land for a new cemetery in Worcester, which is where my grandmother was cremated a few years ago. I found it to be a beautiful and peaceful place, and therefore I extend my own personal gratitude to this MP for his generosity. [14]

Next time, we return to Essex, to the Saxon village of Abbess Roding.


References

[1] Abberton Reservoir Visitor Centre

[2] Discover Norse place names near you, British Museum

[3] Abberton in the Domesday Book, Open Domesday

[4] William of Poitiers: the Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English

[5] Rayleigh Feudal Lordship

[6] Earthquakes in the UK, British Geological Survey

[7] History of Essex, Colchester Earthquake, History House

[8] Survivor of the 1884 Earthquake, The Colchester Archaeologist

[9] Parishes: Abberton, British History Online

[10] Abberton in the Domesday Book, Open Domesday

[11] Abberton Conservation Area Appraisal, Wychavon District Council (PDF)

[12] William and Maria Laslett of Abberton Hall, Worcester, Laslett Family History

[13] William Laslett, Worcester People and Places

[14] Laslett Family History Emails

[15] The Chiltern Hundreds, House of Commons Information Office (PDF)

[16] Three Hundreds of Chiltern: Tristram Hunt, HM Treasury (23 Jan 2017)

[17] Laslett’s Almshouses, HousingCare.org

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