After all the quiet, peaceful English villages we’ve visited so far on our tour of Britain, you won’t be surprised to learn that we’re getting another today. Abbotts Ann dates back before the Romans came to Britain. It is situated just south-west of the town of Andover, in the county of Hampshire. This isn’t too far away from Abbots Worthy, last week’s location.
Because it isn’t on my map as a separate place, we’ll also be having a look at Little Ann, the hamlet next door. Despite their proximity, for a long time the two settlements were in different administrative districts and followed different paths until the eighteenth century.
A number of locations in the area share the similar name ‘Ann’ or ‘Anna’, thanks to the river that flows through there. Today it is called the Pillhill Brook, but several centuries ago it was called the River Anna. ‘Anna’ is a Celtic word that means ‘Ash tree stream’, hinting at the Celts who settled in the area thousands of years ago.
Even before the Celtic Britons arrived, Neolithic man was hunting in the area, and evidence of their flint tools has been found in the north of the village. Later, men would construct hill forts such as Bury Hill to the east, and Danebury to the south.
The particular Celtic tribe whose kingdom included Hampshire was the Atrebates (A-treb-a-tees). They were not just British, but also spread out across the European continent. When Julius Caesar planned his invasion of Britain in 55 BCE, he used a European Atrebates chieftain, Commius, to liaise with the Atrebates and other Celts in Britain.
But then Commius switched sides. He supported the Gallic and British tribes against the Roman invaders. When the Romans conquered Gaul, he fled to Britain and became king of the Atrebates from their home base in Silchester (which is north-east of Abbotts Ann).
One of Commius’s descendants was Verica, and he had lost the northern part of the Atrebates kingdom to another tribe. It’s believed that Verica may have asked Rome for help in getting his land back, and that is what led to the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE. The Atrebates did not fight against Rome this time, but submitted to its rule.
In the mid-1800s, the local priest Rev. Samuel Best discovered the remains of a Roman Villa in the south-west, dating to the third century CE. Several mosaics were found there, and these are now in the British Museum in London. The settlement was prospering.
But the Romans did not remain in Britain. Trouble at home caused them to retreat from their frontiers, and the Romanised Celts were left to fend for themselves. They requested help from Germanic tribes against the attacks they were facing, and so the Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed into Britain around the early 400s. And stayed.
It was the Saxons who moved in to the south of what we now call England. Winchester would become the capital for the kingdom of Wessex, and the ‘Anns’ fell into their lands. The descendants of the Wessex royal line eventually became rulers of England, and still are today.
It is during the Saxon times that we see the differing destinies for Abbotts Ann and Little Ann emerging.
Abbotts Ann to 1710
As we saw last time, King Alfred the Great commissioned an abbey to be set up at Winchester. This would be arranged by his son, King Edward. Abbotts Ann and its church would be amongst those original lands given to Hyde Abbey in 903, with an area of fifteen hides (a hide was what one team of oxen could manage in a day).
By the Domesday survey, Abbotts Ann held thirty households of which fourteen were free, twelve were the more-subservient smallholders, and four were slaves. It was a bustling place, and paid well in tax.
During the next several centuries, Abbotts Ann flourished despite a setback in 1349 when the Black Death epidemic swept across the country. The parish priest died along with many of the villagers.
A later rector also had a brush with death, but in a different fashion. It is recorded in 1390 that he killed a man and squandered church property.
By the time of the dissolution of the monasteries Abbotts Ann was worth around £33 annually (£28,000 today). In 1542 the church, manor and lands were granted to William Paulet Lord St. John. And like so many of the lords who got land from Henry VIII, Abbotts Ann was a tiny portion of what he actually owned. That being said, two locations in the village were named after him – St. John’s Cross and St. John’s House.
William had been born in 1483, so he had lived a long life by this point. Trained as a lawyer at the Inner Temple (you’ll recall they are one of four institutions able to create barristers in England), he was often appointed as a sheriff and also represented Hampshire in parliament.
One interesting role William held from 1540 was master of the brand new Court of Wards. The Tudors were making great use of the wardship system to their own benefit. This was where if a land-owning parent died and their child was under the age of inheritance, they and their estates would be cared for by an older person (normally a noble) until they came of age. The crown got one-third of revenues from the estate until that date. The role of the Court of Wards was to centrally administer these lands and ensure that the revenue was collected and paid – not into the treasury, but into the king’s private funds.
In 1549 he helped the Earl of Warwick in overthrowing the Duke of Somerset’s dictatorial regency over Edward VI, and was made Earl of Wiltshire and Lord Treasurer (See William Paget at Abbots Bromley for more information on this event). In 1551 he was then advanced to become Marquess (mar-kwiss) of Winchester. He would continue to hold the role of Lord Treasurer up to his death in 1572, when he was nearly ninety.
As Treasurer, he wanted to streamline the Exchequer (the English government’s accounting system) and remove corruption. But a series of scandals in the late 1560s showed his approach wasn’t the best, and instead another man’s ideas took charge.
William’s heir was John Paulet. When John inherited the manor he immediately mortgaged it, since his father had owed some debts to Queen Elizabeth. But John was already an older man by this point and died just four years later in 1576.
In 1574 a man called Thomas Marshall was born in Abbotts Ann. His father had married Mary Cotton, a widower whose husband Henry had come from the village. The Cottons had some property, and Thomas was given freedom of the borough. This meant he was able to become a member of parliament, and he did so in 1604 for Lymington, which is on the south coast.
Thomas was only involved with a couple of committees in parliament. He later moved to Downton, which is much closed to Lymington. In his will, he gave his property in Abbotts Ann to his widow, but she died before him and so it went to his son Thomas instead.
The succession of Abbotts Ann’s manor continued through the Marquesses of Winchester right up to the end of the 17th Century. For much of that time they leased out the manor to other tenants. In 1630 Lord Edward Paulet the son of the fourth Marquess brought charges against Sir Francis Neale for breaking the terms of the tenancy.
By the end of the seventeenth century the Paulet’s manor at Abbotts Ann had fallen under new ownership, and in about 1710 it was purchased by Thomas Pitt, the recent governor of Madras, India.
Little Ann to 1710
Little Ann was given to Wherwell Abbey, a Benedictine nunnery, some time in the late tenth century. The abbess and her nuns would use the settlement as farmland for growing crops, and at the time of the Domesday survey there were fourteen families working the land. They also had the use of two mills.
Little Ann, worth about £9 at the dissolution, was granted to Thomas West, ninth Lord De La Warr (which is pronounced ‘Delaware’), who had specifically requested this land from Thomas Cromwell.
Thomas had no children, and his nearest heirs were his half-brother Owen’s daughters. Technically they would take on his title, but… well, they were women. Instead a new barony was created for the next male heir, William West. William was Thomas’s nephew through his half-brother George.
Around 1548, William tried to gain control of the family estates early by poisoning his uncle, but the attempt failed and the young man was sent to the Tower of London. Thomas had an Act of Parliament issued to get his nephew disinherited, which went into force in 1550 but was rescinded by the time he died in 1554.
Once Thomas died William received his inheritance and was made Baron De La Warr. William’s son and heir was also called Thomas. Thomas and his wife would have six sons and eight daughters. Thomas’s second son, Thomas, was born in 1577 and was the eldest son still alive when the first Thomas died in 1602.
It is this Thomas who was appointed governor-for-life and captain-general of the colony of Virginia in 1609, and arrived in 1610 just after Native Americans had attacked the colony. He took revenge in the same manner as the Powhatans attacked: burning crops and houses, and stealing provisions.
He returned to England in 1611 due to illness, before making his way back to Virginia in 1618 when the deputy governor Samuel Argall was accused of tyranny. Sadly he died while en-route, and it’s thought his body is buried in Jamestown, Virginia.
Delaware bay, river and state are named after him, and the Native American tribe the Lenapi Delaware Indians get their name from the area.
Thomas De La Warr had been granted license to sell Little Ann in 1615, but this was not taken up until 1695 and his descendant John De La Warr.
In 1710 Thomas Pitt purchased the hamlet. It was at this time that the history of the two settlements came together.
Abbotts Ann and Little Ann after 1710
Thomas Pitt had been born in 1653 in Blandford, Dorset. He was a merchant by trade, and in 1674 began working out of Balasore, India. But the East India Company – who had a monopoly on British trade from India – had not authorised this.
The way they acted in India was far beyond what we’d expect a normal trading company to do today. They had their own law and their own army. For about a decade, Thomas managed to avoid being captured and tried for his illegal trading by heading off to Persia to trade in sugar and horses.
But in 1683 the Company managed to catch up with him when he returned to England. He was arrested and fined £40,000. The subsequent legal battle kept him at home for some time, during which he purchased land in Dorset.
He had enough land, wealth and status to become an MP, and in both 1689 and 1690 he was elected MP for New Sarum (which is now Salisbury).
In 1693 Thomas made one last illegal trading trip to India. This time the East India Company realised that they really couldn’t do much about him. Instead they offered to make him an employee of the company, and he accepted.
In 1698 he became Governor of Fort St. George, in Madras, India, for a five-year appointment. There was a lot of trouble caused by a rival East India Company being set up. Thomas would not recognise it. He would not even deal with his cousin, John Pitt, an agent for the new company, instead calling him crack-brained and inexperienced!
The two rival companies merged in 1702, and Thomas was kept on as Governor of Madras. He extended his appointment by another five years, and was involved with an attempt to resolve a feud between some castes there. (The Hindu ‘caste’ system is a hierarchical ranking, determined by birth. Classes are distinguished by perceived levels of purity, and can determine what jobs a person is allowed to perform)
While in India, he acquired a magnificent rough diamond, which he paid £20,400 for – over £4 million today. The story behind the jewel is that it had been stolen from a slave and then sold to an Indian merchant called Jamchund. Jamchund then sold it on to Thomas.
His son Robert brought this diamond back to England where it was cut. The cost of cutting was £6,000 – over £1 million now – and this was about the same cost as all the diamond dust and cuttings that were removed to turn it into a beautiful gem.
Thomas Pitt returned to England in 1709 when his term ended, and he purchased Abbotts Ann the next year. Thomas would demolish the old church of St Mary’s and replace it with a new one in 1716.
During this time, many quiet negotiations were going on for the sale of the diamond, and in 1717 it was traded to the regent of France for £135,000 – nearly £30 million. Thomas Pitt’s diamond was placed in the French crown, and even today is still part of the French crown jewels that survived the revolution and have not been sold.
From 1710, Thomas resumed his position as an MP, for the constituency of Old Sarum. He also bought a lot of properties in the south of England besides Abbotts Ann. His particular favourite was Swallowfield, in Berkshire, which is where he died in 1726.
For all his buying and selling of diamonds, Thomas Pitt had been a cautious merchant. As he said to one of his sons, “Let it ever be a rule never to lend any money but where you have unquestionable security, for generally by asking for it you lose your friend and that too.”
Robert, the eldest Pitt son, would inherit his father’s lands and also his seat as MP for Old Sarum. This was because Old Sarum was a ‘rotten borough’ – the electorate was relatively small, and the Pitts could ‘persuade’ the voters whom they should choose as their representative.
Robert had several children, the most notable being William. William Pitt would one day become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and is known as ‘William Pitt the Elder’. But William was not the eldest son, and therefore does not have a connection to Abbotts Ann.
Instead, we look to Robert’s eldest, Thomas Pitt, for the continuation of the Abbotts Ann story. Thomas used his influence to be able to stand and be elected for multiple seats in parliament. Between 1727 and 1754 he was MP for Okehampton, Devon.
Thomas’s son Thomas sold the two Anns to Sir Brian Broughton-Delves in 1763. He died childless in 1766, leaving a substantial amount of Hampshire property including the two Anns to his wife Mary.
But Brian’s brother and legal heir Thomas Broughton got annoyed about this. When Mary had married Brian, this entitled her to an annuity of £1000. Thomas should have continued to pay his sister-in-law’s annuity when his brother died, but believed the property inheritance voided out the payment so he stopped making it. Mary, who had remarried, took up a lawsuit against her brother-in-law and won.
Mary died in 1812, and her new husband Henry Errington followed her in 1819. The property was passed on to her nephews William and Richard Hill.
Robert Tasker – Industrialist and Philanthropist
February 1806. In Stanton-St-Bernard, Wiltshire, Robert and William Tasker are the two sons of the local blacksmith. But they have ambitions for more. So Robert moves to Abbotts Ann, becoming assistant to blacksmith Thomas Maslen.
Robert, a non-conformist Christian (that is, Protestant but not Church of England), would use his cottage in the village for prayer meetings. The local landowners were very much conformist, however, and so he didn’t get much work from them. Instead he had to travel a lot to find work.
By now the Industrial Revolution was getting under way. Thanks to technological advancements such as steam power, mass-production enabled factories to be set up. People moved in their thousands from the country to the city. It was hard work, and dangerous, but it was better than subsistence farming.
At Abbotts Ann, the blacksmith’s forge became the hub for an ironworks, with a foundry and horse-driven bellows. They quickly moved locations to be close to the canal; before railways, canals were the country’s highways. Raw materials came in, and finished products were sent out to market.
A waterwheel on the Pillhill Brook (formerly the Anna River) was installed and powered the bellows much better than a horse. The Abbotts Ann forge made agricultural wares such as ploughs, seed drills and food troughs. Later it would take on the name Waterloo Ironworks, after a famous British military victory in 1815.
The poor farmers of the area were not happy about the Waterloo Ironworks. The industrialisation of agriculture and the enclosure of land was putting them out of work. Wars with France had also sent the price of grain soaring, and the Corn Laws mentioned last time kept the prices up. What money they had could buy them little to eat.
All this anger culminated in November 1830 when a mob of about 300 attacked the ironworks. This caused a lot of damage. 30 men were initially arrested, of whom 14 were charged. 4 were let off, while 10 were sentenced to death. The death sentence was later exchanged for a one-way ticket to the Australian penal colonies.
In 1831, Robert Tasker bought land for a school at Abbotts Ann, and leased it to Rev. Samuel Best, the church rector. That’s the man who discovered the Roman villa we mentioned earlier. It was 39 years before education would become compulsory in England. Possibly thanks to Robert’s non-conformism, this would be one of the first schools in England to take children of all denominations of Christianity. Before then, most schools were Church of England only.
Samuel Best’s cousin Rev. Thomas Best took ownership of the Abbotts Ann estate in the 1840s, and both are commemorated in St Mary’s church.
Robert Tasker backed away from the business in 1836, but his brother William continued to run it. It passed to his sons William and Robert in 1858, and the company re-named to Tasker and Sons. William Tasker was an innovator, and patented designs for various agricultural products.
Their much younger brother, Henry, was apprenticed to a steam engineer in Lincoln in 1864. When he returned to the family firm, he brought the knowledge back with him and soon portable steam engines were being produced in Abbotts Ann.
They found savings in new mass-production techniques, and also switched to using steel for the steam engine’s boiler rather than wrought iron.
The company continued to produce steam engines into the 1920s. The First World War had been good for business, but afterwards they went into a slump. Their last steam engine was made in 1927.
The Land Settlement Association
In the early decades of the twentieth century, a lot of the Abbotts Ann land was sold off. Some of it was purchased by the government, which in 1934 created the ‘Land Settlement Association’ that would build houses and bring a large number of new families to the village.
In the 1930s the Great Depression caused a lot of unemployment in the North of England and Wales. The government wanted to tackle this, and the Land Settlement Association was one of the attempts to help resolve the issue.
New cottages with a few acres of land and some livestock were constructed in eighteen rural areas across England. Abbotts Ann’s Little Park Estate was the first to be purchased, though not the first to go into action. Further expansion of the project was halted due to the Second World War.
Private charities raised funds, which were matched by the government, and in July 1935 the first settlers showed up in the village. They would be helping build the new cottages, and meanwhile they lived in a cleaned-out old poultry house. Soon, construction was under way.
One the cottages had been built, the settlers moved in and were joined by their families. A lot of the new residents came from Durham, and I’m sure both they and the existing residents were quite wary of each other. This added on a quarter to the village’s size!
As time went by and the children grew up alongside each other the divisions faded. These children got jobs locally, and married others from Abbotts Ann and the surrounding area. Today you’d probably be hard-pressed to tell who was who.
The cost of managing the Land Settlement Association schemes spiralled throughout the 1960s, and eventually support was taken away from Little Park in 1974. Some tenants moved out, but others bought their homes. Some land was purchased for the Hampshire College of Agriculture.
There was an ancient medieval tradition of awarding Virgin’s Crowns for children and women who died before they were married. They would have been born and grown up in the parish, known to everyone, and with an unsullied reputation.
For the funeral of the deceased, a crown would be carved of fresh-cut hazel wood. Black and white paper rosettes would decorate it, and five parchments hung from its frame. On one parchment was the name, age and year of death of the deceased, and on the other four were verses of a hymn. During the funeral procession, two young girls dressed in white would carry the crown on a white rod, and hang it at the front of the church. There it would stay for three weeks, inviting the villagers to challenge the purity of the deceased. Should there be no challenge, the crown would be hung near the church ceiling, with a sign bearing the name and date.
Abbotts Ann has a remarkable collection of forty-nine crowns, all dating from after Thomas Pitt rebuilt the church of St Mary’s in 1716. Indeed, it is one of the last places in Britain to maintain this tradition; the most recent crown dates to 1973, marking the death of Lily Myra Annetts. Lily lived her whole life in Abbotts Ann since she was born in 1900. Her younger brother, William, died in 1918 and his crown also hangs in the church.
Next time, no more Abbots! We’re visiting Abdon in Shropshire, a remote, quiet village in the West Midlands. I do hope you’ll continue to join me as our tour of the British Isles continues.
- Atrebates, David Ross, Britain Express
- History, Abbotts Ann
- Place: [Abbotts] Ann, Open Domesday
- Place: [Little] Ann, Open Domesday
- Parishes: Abbotts Ann, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 4, ed. William Page (London, 1911), pp. 334-336. British History Online
- Abbotts Ann Village Design Statement, Abbotts Ann Parish Council
- PAULET, Sir William (by 1488-1572), of Basing and Netley, Hants, Chelsea, Mdx. and London. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982. History of Parliament Online
- MARSHALL, Thomas (1574-1616), of Abbotts Ann, Hants; later of Downton, Wilts. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010. History of Parliament Online
- Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt (1653-1726), David Nash Ford’s Royal Berkshire History, 2003
- PITT, Thomas (c.1705-61), of Boconnoc, Cornw. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970. History of Parliament Online
- PITT, Thomas (c.1705-61), of Boconnoc, Cornw. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964. History of Parliament Online
- History of St Mary’s, Abbotts Ann
- Taskers of Andover History The first 30 years of an Engineering Goliath and one of two hut builders from Andover
- The Land Settlement Association and Little Park, Abbotts Ann
- The Virgin Crowns of Abbotts Ann, Hampshire History