On the west coast of England between Preston and Blackburn are a number of villages, and one of those is Abbey Village. This quiet English village was named ‘abbey’ due to its location close to Whalley Abbey – there is a track which goes between Whalley Abbey and the nearby Brinscall Hall.
Until the nineteenth century, this was a small rural community where nothing much of importance ever happened, except to those who lived there. But then the cotton industry arrived.
As the textile industry blossomed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, new inventions made it easier to produce cotton fabric in Britain rather than importing the finished fabric. The price of cotton fabric plummeted and it became more easily accessible to the ordinary person.
One of the chief import locations for raw cotton was Liverpool, and the north-west became home to hundreds and hundreds of cotton mills. Victorian entrepreneurs everywhere were starting up their own cotton companies, and Abbey Village found itself no exception to this rule. In 1840 John Park and Son built a Cotton Mill on Bolton Road, along with a warehouse and several rows of terraced houses for the workers to live in. The working conditions were tough, especially for the children, but people still rushed to work in the mills. Ultimately it was still better than subsistence farming.
The warehouse was destroyed in a fire in 1847, and later in 1882 there was a fire that caused a lot of damage but the mill was rebuilt. In 1891 there were 22,500 spindles and 400 looms. The mill continued operation for well over a century, and in 1961 there were still 15,280 spindles and 240 looms. The steam engine that powered it was replaced by an electrical engine in the 1950s.
Today, the mill is no longer operational and has been converted into industrial units.
Also in the area are a series of three reservoirs – Upper Roddlesworth, Lower Roddlesworth and Rake Brook. They were constructed by the Liverpool Corporation (which is a past incarnation of today’s Liverpool City Council) who also planted a lot of woodland there.
Abbey Wood is one of the many districts of London. It is situated east of London City Airport, just south of the Thames as it meanders about on its way to the sea. Not so long ago it was a hamlet, not considered part of London at all.
The name comes from Lesnes Abbey, which was founded in the area in 1178. You’ll be glad to hear this is not a Cistercian monastery. It is, in fact, Augustinian. Augustinian monks – or ‘canons’ – follow the “Rule of St. Augustine”, who was a fourth and fifth century theologian. They form independent communitarian houses primarily for the purpose of giving pastoral care to the nearby towns and villages. It was not only a monastery (for men) but also a convent (for women).
Lesnes Abbey Founding
The full name of Lesnes Abbey was the ‘Abbey of St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr’, and the founder was Richard de Luci. Richard had been born about 1089, but does not make much appearance in English history before the 1130s when he supported King Stephen in the civil war. Stephen made him county justiciar and sheriff of Essex in 1143.
In 1154 Stephen died, and his son Henry became Henry II of England. Henry appointed Richard de Luci and Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester, as the country’s chief justiciars. Richard helped to form a lot of legislation particularly around property law and legal procedures. One of Henry’s close friends Thomas Becket was appointed king’s chancellor, and he worked alongside Richard in getting reforms through.
Now, while the laws generally improved justice for the people of England, there was one area where justice remained a problem – the church. Clergy were not subject to the common law that protected the English people, which meant they could get away with anything. Henry thought that the best way to resolve this was to get Thomas Becket to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
But as Archbishop, Thomas was a different man. He now handed out excommunications rather than organising justice. Excommunication meant more than just kicking someone out of the church – it blocked their access to the holy sacraments that were required for access to heaven. Henry organised the creation of the Constitutions of Clarendon, with Richard de Luci being the main author, in 1164. This much reduced the church’s power, but primarily it meant any member of the clergy could be tried in a secular court of law.
Thomas and his bishops reluctantly agreed to follow the Constitutions, but within a year had broken their oath. Thomas fled to France for six years, and on top of that excommunicated Richard in 1166 and 1169. In 1170 he returned to England, to Canterbury cathedral, and excommunicated all the bishops. Henry, enraged, demanded that Becket be killed, and so the archbishop became a martyr. Henry, realising what he had done, toned down the application of the law in future years.
As for Richard, he felt incredibly guilty for what had happened. As penance, he commissioned the founding of Lesnes Abbey in 1178, and retired there the next year, aged an incredible 90 years old. In June 1179 he came down with a fever and died. He was buried at the abbey.
The local geography at the abbey was mainly marshland, which over time would be drained by the abbots of Lesnes. The marshland may have been part of the reason why the church ended up on the south side of the cloister rather than the more usual north. The abbots would also be responsible for the maintenance of the riverside embankments, and this would cause the abbey some financial difficulty in the future.
Richard and his brother both granted land to the abbey in Kent and Essex. King Henry II also granted them a church at Rainham, Essex, and gave them a charter of confirmation. Kings Richard I and John would also give them charters of confirmation in 1190 and 1206 respectively.
Roesia of Dover
Richard de Luci’s great-great-granddaughter was Roesia (or Rose) of Dover, through the line of descent of his son Geoffrey. Geoffrey had died before Richard (which is not so surprising considering how long the justiciar lived), and of Geoffrey’s four children the two sons died young leaving Rose and Maud as Richard de Luci’s heirs. This would have made them powerful women.
Rose married John of Dover, and they had a son Fulbert. When John died, Rose and Fulbert became wards of William Brewer, a nasty man and one of King John’s advisers. When Fulbert married William’s daughter Isabel, he helped himself to some of the de Luci inheritance.
Fulbert and Isabel had just one daughter – Roesia. By line of descent from both John of Dover and Richard de Luci, she ended up with a large inheritance of land, though it was in the custody of William Brewer at the time. Roesia was married to Richard, one of King John’s illegitimate sons, in 1214 – and the king was perfectly open about this parentage. Richard’s coat of arms was a combination of his mother’s husband’s, and his real father’s.
On marriage, King John gave all of Roesia’s hereditary lands to her husband. Well, as the king he could do that. Richard was knighted the next year. But as time went by, Richard turned out not to be so trustworthy, ending up in debt to the new king – his half-brother Henry II.
In 1227 King Henry stepped in to protect Roesia and the Sheriff of Kent was to make sure she had the manor of Northwood for her maintenance. Richard was not allowed to touch it in any way. Such an order was normally written to protect property from a guardian or a woman who inherited it as a dowry. There don’t seem to be any other such cases where it was directed at a husband!
In the meantime, Roesia and Richard were involved in a lawsuit to prove her right to the manor of Lesnes. This was settled after eight years of wrangling in court in 1227 with a duel, which the couple apparently won. Not that either fought themselves – both sides hired a ‘champion’ (or really the biggest, toughest man they could find) to fight it out. The losers had to acknowledge Roesia’s right over Lesnes, and the couple paid the losers £40. But as we’ve already seen they were in great debt so this just added to their burden.
By 1229, their debt had got so bad that most of Roesia’s lands had been taken off them, except for Lesnes. There were more protections put over the lands and woods she owned to keep them from her husband.
Richard and their eldest son Richard both died in 1247, fighting the Welsh. Now Roesia had charge of her lands again, even if they were mortgaged to the hilt. She re-married in 1250 (having had to pay a fine of 100 marks to do so) to William of Wilton, and they were given permission to have a weekly market and annual fair at Lesnes.
Roesia died in 1263, and her husband William the year after. Her heart was buried at Lesnes Abbey. Hers is the tragic story of a Middle Ages heiress, whose property would end up the responsibility of her husband. Ultimately she might be the legal owner, but she had very little control.
Visitors to Lesnes Abbey Woods today can find a sign marking her heart burial. It had been discovered in 1939, and then re-interred in 1952.
The Abbey Goes Bad
In 1283, Archbishop Peckham visited Lesnes Abbey. He was not happy with what he found, and wrote a letter to the Bishop of Rochester complaining about the abbot’s behaviour. Apparently he did not take care with the abbey’s things, and also they were not eating meat within the refectory but instead in their chambers. The archbishop imposed his authority on the abbey to try and resolve these issues.
In 1299 when Archbishop Winchelsey came to the abbey, however, he found more problems about their eating habits, the distribution of alms (money for the poor), and appointing unqualified canons to various offices of the abbey.
When the Taxatio Ecclesiastica was taken in 1291, the abbey property was found to be worth about thirty-four and a half pounds annually – nowhere near as much as the Cistercian abbeys we have looked at previously.
Over the next half-century, abbots came and went. The charters of Lesnes Abbey were confirmed by Edward II in 1317, and Edward III in 1331. In 1327 John de Hodisdon was appointed as abbot.
But the bad behaviour of before wasn’t over. The Bishop of Rochester visited Lesnes in both 1336 and 1340, and on both occasions had issue with Abbot John for immorality and gross misconduct. On the second occasion, the crown had to be called upon to arrest him as a vagabond and apostate!
In 1344 and 1349 the crown again had to be brought in, with two more canons arrested for their behaviour. In 1349 the abbey was in such a state of disrepair that “it seemed it could hardly be repaired by the day of judgement”!
But the abbey itself doesn’t seem yet to have lost all credibility. The Bishop of Rochester paid them over £106 to celebrate divine service on his behalf, which would continue after his death. The idea was that the more masses said for someone’s soul, the faster they would get through purgatory and into heaven. You’ll find that kings were especially good at getting lots of masses said. The abbey got rent of around 6 shillings and 8 pence from the manors of Lesnes and Acol to employ a chaplain specifically to do this service.
Finally in 1371 there was a response to the terrible state of the abbey. Pope Gregory granted a relaxation of penance (i.e. an outwardly-visible punishment for sinful behaviour) to any penitent (i.e. the sinner) who visited Lesnes Abbey and gave alms to help repair the chapel of St. Mary. But we’ll find that this didn’t help enough, and in 1402 the abbey was given into the custody of the priors of Christchurch and Canterbury.
The Peasant’s Revolt
In June 1381 there was trouble in England. The peasants had gained a lot more freedom following the Black Death, a terrible pandemic that swept across Europe and killed one in five of the British population. There was a great shortage of labour, and the peasants were worried about losing their newfound freedoms to the lords again. They were also made to work for free on church land, which meant they didn’t have time to support themselves. And on top of this free work, the king had introduced a Poll Tax making everyone pay 5 pence, which he ended up charging three times in the space of five years.
5 pence isn’t a lot today, but in 1381 it was enormous. Today it would be around £17.60 by absolute value, but wages were much lower so it would feel like paying the equivalent of £325 today. And you can imagine the peasants did not earn average wages. Many villagers in Essex revolted at the thought, and they banded together and marched on London.
On their way to London, they broke into Lesnes Abbey and demanded that the abbot swear an oath that he supported their cause. This oath gained, they continued on to London where they managed to capture the Tower of London.
The peasants had honourable intentions, but their discipline fell apart quickly. Having been given everything they demanded by King Richard II, most of them were fine to leave but others remained and murdered the archbishop and treasurer. Those who did this were beheaded. Richard met the remaining rebels outside the walls, and the mayor of London killed their leader Wat Tyler.
Once the rebels were out of the way, Richard went back on his promises since – as he claimed – they were made under duress. But the effect of the Black Death still meant the peasants were able to charge more for their labour and they didn’t lose as many freedoms as they feared.
The Abbey’s End
Over the next century or so, we don’t have much more information on Lesnes Abbey until we reach the period of reformation. Yet Lesnes didn’t even make it until Henry VIII’s great dissolution of 1536.
In 1524, Cardinal Wolsey had decided to set up a new school in Ipswich, and also to found a college at Oxford. Pope Clement VII issued a papal bull (basically an order with God’s authority behind it) stating that a number of ‘lesser monasteries’ could be dissolved to raise money. These were monasteries with less than 12 people, and at Lesnes there was only the abbot and five canons.
At the time of the dissolution, Lesnes Abbey was valued at £75 for its spiritual holdings, and £111 for its temporal holdings. The remaining canons were dispersed to various other places, although as we know this won’t be for very long.
The abbot’s lodging became the mansion for Lesnes manor, and the rest was robbed for building materials. Some became a farmhouse.
Following the reformation, Abbey Wood became a secluded rural hamlet on the edge of the county of Kent for several hundred years. But the Victorians would begin to change that.
In the 1840s, a railway line was built through Abbey Wood which would lead through Dartford and on to Gravesend and the east. At the time, every entrepreneur wanted their own line, and railways were much better to get around in than a horse and carriage. One of the many stations along the line was at Abbey Wood. William Morris the famous textile designer (particularly famous for his wallpaper) used to meet his friends from the station at Abbey Wood.
Another Victorian with connections to Abbey Wood was Sir Charles Tilston Bright. Charles was an engineer, born in Wansted, Essex in 1832, and died in 1888 at Abbey Wood, just 55 years old.
When he was twenty, Charles joined the Magnetic Telegraph Company. They laid thousands of miles of telegraph cable across the United Kingdom, and also the first undersea cable between Scotland and Ireland in 1853.
In 1856, he partnered with Cyrus Field and John Watkins Brett to form the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Their ambitious goal was to lay a telegraph cable all the way from Ireland to Newfoundland. Even today, that seems like an incredible feat. Of course, we have satellites today which take away the whole need for a cable.
It took three attempts to get the cable laid, but eventually Charles got the Irish end of the line completed at Valentia, County Kerry. For his efforts he was given a knighthood, which he received while he was in Dublin a few days later. But a few months after that the cable broke down when the insulation failed.
Undaunted, they tried again, this time promoting Charles to engineer-in-chief. Charles and another engineer Joseph Latimer Clark invented an asphalt-composition insulation for the cables that would work much better. This time they were successful, and two cables were completed in 1866. He went on to supervise further cable laying in other areas.
Charles and Joseph Clark read a paper on electrical standards before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1861, which led to the foundation of the British Association Committee on Electrical Standards. The committee set out the system of ohms (to measure resistance), amps (to measure current) and volts (to measure power) which are still in use today.
In 1865, Charles became a member of parliament for Greenwich, representing the Liberal Party, but in 1868 he moved his focus back to engineering. The next Liberal MP in the constituency was the new Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone (he had previously been an MP in a different constituency but that had been broken up by boundary changes).
Along with telegraph cables, he and his brother also ran a mining operation, first in France and later in Somerset. In 1871, Charles was out in the West Indies when the effects of malaria became too much for him. He returned to England and became a founding member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers. In 1876, he patented a telegraphic fire alarm system.
In 1886 he became president of the Society, which was about to change its name to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Today, it still exists as part of the Institute of Engineering and Technology.
Charles’s brother lived in Abbey Wood, and in 1888 the engineer was visiting when he came down with apoplexy (a haemorrhage or stroke) and died. He was buried in Chiswick in May 1888.
Stuff You Missed In History Class has a great episode on the First Transatlantic Telegraph Cable.
The 20th Century
In the 20th Century Abbey Wood grew from a small hamlet to a busy town, thanks to the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS). The RACS wanted to provide better housing for the ‘industrial classes’, and so they began to build the Bostall Estate in 1900. They originally intended to build around 3,500 houses with more affordable prices on a 99 year lease.
So from 1900 they built around 200 houses a year, with the workers paid over the trade union rates. The best road and the school were named after the RACS president. By 1914, when the first world war started, around 1000 homes had been constructed. The RACS also provided employment in the form of a piggery, abattoir and jam factory. Because of this growth Abbey Wood was not longer a rural hamlet, but became part of Greater London.
Around this time, St Michael’s church was also built. Originally Abbey Wood had been part of St Nicholas’ parish, Plumstead, but with the population growing there was a need for a new church at Abbey Wood.
In the 1950s more land was converted into housing, but there is still a lot of green land around. Lesnes Abbey Woods remains a beautiful park with bluebell woods, ornamental and formal gardens and nature trails, and you can also find the ruins of the abbey itself.
Next time, we’re done with towns beginning with ‘Abbey’, but never fear, we’re not done with abbeys, as we return to Scotland and the Roxburghshire hamlet of Abbotrule.
Towns and Villages around Blackburn – Abbey Village, Visitor UK.com
Pastscape – Detailed result: Abbey Mill, PastScape, Historic England
Walk: Abbey Village, Lancashire Telegraph, 21 July 2014
Richard de Lucy – English Justiciar, Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998
Lesnes Abbey History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation, David Ross, Britain Express
Rose of Dover (d.1261), Richard of Chilham and an inheritance in Kent, Richard Cassidy, Archaeologia Cantiana – Vol 131, 2011
‘Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of Lesnes or Westwood’, in A History of the County of Kent: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1926), pp. 165-167. British History Online
Measuring Worth.com – 5d Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, 2017
Devon’s Torre Abbey: Faith, Politics and Grand Designs, Michael Rhodes, The History Press, 4 May 2015
History of St. Michaels, St. Michael’s Church, Abbey Wood, 16 March 2015
Abbey Wood, Hidden London
Sir Charles Tilston Bright – British Engineer, Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998
Charles Tilston Bright, Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History