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North Mymms - Parish and People
by Dorothy Colville

Chapter 1 - The Parish

Until the revision of the county boundaries in 1965 the neighbouring parishes of North Mymms and South Mimms were in the counties of Hertfordshire and Middlesex respectively. They are still in different dioceses, the one being in that of St. Albans and the other in that of London. The two parishes are separated by a bank running along the south side of a pleasant walk starting from the A1 at Warrengate and following the parish boundary until reaching South Lodge in Mymms Woods. This clearly defined bank probably dates from Roman times, when it would no doubt have marked the boundary between British tribes, and it almost certainly dates back to 790 when Offa, king of the Mercians, ruled over the central plain of England. In that year the great king founded the abbey of St. Albans. High on a wall in the north presbytery aisle of the abbey is a painting of him in his robes of state. If at South Lodge during July and a breeze ripples over the ripening corn just "stand and stare" at one of the loveliest sights in Hertfordshire.

With the Danish invasion of England, Mercia vanished and the territory came under the control of the Danes. Alfred the Great, chief of the non-Danish kings, consolidated his kingdom of Wessex only after bitter struggles, but by about 960, Hertford had become a fortified post with a well-organised community living around it. Our parish, though almost a "frontier post," seems to have come through these internecine troubles with some degree of prosperity, and by the time the Normans came was already in existence, to be recorded as Mimmine in Domesday Book of 1086.

For the next half-century or more it would appear that things were quiet, but in 1135 the conflicting claims of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda brought near-anarchy to the land. Mimmine was under the control of Geoffrey de Mandeville, an able man who sided first with the king and then with the empress but a "ruffian of the worst order" according to Professor Trevelyan. This duke had a castle of sorts just over the border of our parish, in South Mimms. It has been scheduled as an ancient monument despite its unimpressive appearance and its being used as a quarry for chalk as a dressing for the fields.

Geoffrey de Mandeville was killed in battle in 1144 and gradually order was restored, only to be again disorganised by the crusades of the later decades of the century. Magna Carta, 1215, brought back law and order, and fifty years later government by Parliament was established. Meanwhile Mimmine’s first recorded rector, Thomas de St. Albans, had been appointed in 1237.

London Wealth

In 1316 Simon de Swanland came on the scene and, to quote from a lecture given by the late Lord Clauson in 1935 to a group of the Young People’s Fellowship, "He was a London citizen and merchant and he is the first example of that which became in a great part of our county an almost invariable rule. Ever since that time each family that has settled in this parish has sooner or later, sometimes after two generations, sometimes after several generations, left the parish and handed on its property to a new owner; and almost without exception the new owner has been a Londoner, who has made in London, usually as a merchant or banker and sometimes as a lawyer, a large or modest fortune which has enabled him to come to our parish and settle in it as a country gentleman. This process has been practically continuous for about 650 years, over twenty generations, not only in our parish but in practically the whole of Hertfordshire. The pleasant scenery and prosperous look of our parish are in truth due to Londoners’ money, which generation after generation has been spent on draining, filling, planting and building in our parish, and without it our parish would have reverted to the condition of being swampy unreclaimed forest land as it must have been in early times."

It is probable that in de Swanland’s time the little parish community was concentrated between the church and the manor house. Although the plague known as the Black Death was sweeping the country and reducing the population of many villages, Mimmine seems to have escaped. Here the population was evidently increasing; clearings or "greens" were being made to accommodate the extra people and the manor of Brokemans came into being, as did Gubbins and Potterells. The battles of St. Albans (1455 and 1461) and of Barnet (1471) were uncomfortably near, and perhaps the kindly folk of North Mymms succoured the wounded who fled thus far or gathered up the bodies of those who could go no farther and gave them decent burial. It is said that the mounds to be seen in Church Field are the final resting places of some who died fleeing from Barnet. The mass of the people was indifferent to the war that was waged between rival factions of noblemen, and thankful to be spared its horrors as far as was possible. By August 1485, when the Wars of the Roses ended on Bosworth Field, our parish church had been enlarged and beautified by the Knolles family, who had followed the de Swanlands. It is to the Knolles family that we owe, among other things, the corbels - carved stone faces - built into the arcades over the arches in church. That of the man with both hands to his mouth, evidently suffering from tooth-ache, the head-dresses of the women and the mask of a fox on the north wall of the tower, all beautifully carved, deserve more than a passing glance.

Open Spaces

North Mymms parish has no village green or common land, but is fortunate in that open spaces have been provided in the hamlets of Welham Green, Brookmans Park and Little Heath. Two hundred years ago the position was quite different, for the parishioners enjoyed rights on a common which even then measured over 700 acres despite the fact that from Tudor times landowners and farmers had bitten into this common land, stopping footpaths and roads whenever possible. Because of, to use a modern phrase, the "population explosion" more corn was needed to feed the growing nation and the old method of land utilisation was seen to be extremely wasteful, so many private Acts for the "inclosing of open fields and common wastes" were introduced during the reign of George III. From the sessions rolls we can learn a little of how the enclosure movement affected our parish.

In 1751 a writ, duly enrolled at Hertford, was obtained by "The Most Noble Thomas, Duke of Leeds, in respect of his enclosure of part of the horse-way or bridleway in Northmims leading from Water End, through five closes belonging to him called Nearer Lodge Field and Hookfield which leads to the road on Coney Heath Common leading from London Coney to Hatfield." The part to be enclosed measured 266 poles in length and five feet in breadth. In substitution the noble lord proposed a bridleway from Nearer Lodge Field through Further Lodge Field, Spooners Mead, Nearer Meadow and Great Warren Field to Coney Heath Common, a distance of 142 poles.

The inquiry was held at North Mymms Place before the sheriff, Thomas Wittewronge, and a large number of jurors drawn from the parish and from Hatfield, Shenley and Northaw, who "held that this inclosure was not to the damage of the King or of others."

By an Act passed in 1778 the common or waste land of North Mymms was enclosed and one can imagine the dismay with which the parishioners viewed the lengthy and involved award "fairly and distinctly wrote on Paper without Stamps lodged in the vestry room of the said Parish for all persons to have recourse to for information."

The preamble to the Act gave a list of those landowners and proprietors of manors with rights of common and stated that it would be of great advantage to all concerned if the common were to be enclosed and divided fairly among them all. It gave the names of the commissioners - John Bocket of South Mimms, George Maxwell of Graveley and Robert Weston of Brackley in the county of Northampton - who were to be appointed for dividing the common and it safeguarded the interests of those who had enclosed any part of the common before the twenty-fourth day of June 1777.

Public Roads

Having measured the common the commissioners were first to set out the public roads, which would, it was estimated, require fifteen acres of the total of 735 acres comprising the common. Ditches and fences, banks and bridges were to be arranged "so as all such Public Roads shall be and remain Forty Feet in breadth between the ditches or fences and shall be made, kept in repair and preserved in good order by the said Parish in the manner in which all public parish roads are directed to be repaired by the Laws of this Kingdom." The ruling on the width of the roads is interesting, for it indicates that wide green verges for the use of drovers were provided. Depending upon the state of the surface of the road wheeled vehicles used the part most suitable, leaving rutted grassland to the drovers. When, with improved methods of transport, cattle were no longer brought by road from Scotland or from Herefordshire to the London markets much of the waste was enclosed, leaving the delightful narrow lanes of Dellsome and Bradmore. As late as 1879 the vestry "considered the application of a local farmer to enclose a small portion of the waste land near his farm." It is worth recording that the school house at Water End was actually built upon the waste bordering the public road.

The commissioners were then to allot thirty acres to the Rev. Anthony Webster, vicar of the parish, forty-two to the Duke of Leeds and five to the trustees for the poor of the parish before allotting any land to the cottagers whose dwellings were scattered on and around the common. Of the eighty-four cottages only nineteen were owner-occupied. Of the others the Duke of Leeds owned fourteen, Charles de Laet owned a like number, Sir Charles Cocks owned three and, surprisingly, one was owned by Lord Melbourne of Brocket. The remaining thirty-three were the property of a dozen or more people who each owned one or two cottages. The parcels of common allotted to the houses were to be as near to them as convenient. The conditions were arbitrary, as for instance.

"In case any person shall refuse or neglect to accept his, hers, theirs within three calendar months, such shall be totally excluded from having or receiving any benefit, or advantage from any Estate, Interest, or Right of Common whatsoever," and "Every dwelling house, cottage or building under one roof, though occupied or divided into two or more dwellings and being the property of one owner, shall be deemed and considered only as one dwelling," and "Every person to whom any part of the Common is allotted shall inclose and well and sufficiently fence and ditch it within such time and in such manner as the Commissioners shall order and direct." As though these regulations were not enough the cottagers then read "And be it further enacted that no sheep or lambs shall be kept in the said new inclosures during the space of seven years from the execution of the said Award unless the persons keeping such sheep or lambs fence their neighbours’ quicksets at their own expense, so as to prevent any damage being done to such quicksets."

Loss of Common Rights

The labourers in husbandry were not so well off after the passing of the Act of 1778. There may have been compensations for those who lived in cottages owned by others, but all had lost their common rights—the pasture for cattle, the pannage for hogs which had been theirs since Domesday, the right to gather fuel and the wild fruits, and the right to walk at will on the common, for "after such public Roads or Ways shall be set out and made it shall not be lawful for any person or persons to use any other Roads or Ways, either public or private, in, over, through, or upon the said Common or Waste Ground, or any part or parts thereof, either on foot or with any horse, cattle or carriages."

Nowadays we turn a tap and water flows for our use. We take this for granted and tend to forget that piped water is a compatively modern development. At the beginning of the century some of the larger houses had their own private sources of water, but the cottagers had to depend on wells or springs. During a drought in the early 1920s water carts were a daily sight in parts of the parish. The Enclosure Act of 1778 made special provision for some, declaring "That nothing in this Act contained shall prejudice, lessen or defeat the Right, Title or Interest of the said Thomas, Duke of Leeds, in respect of his separate right to a certain pond called Myms Pond; and also to the said Sir Charles Cocks, his right to a certain Pond used by him as a Reservoir to his House: and also reserving the Right of the Inhabitants of Bell Barr to the use of the Common Well there."

Petty Crime - Heavy Punishment

Arthur Young was an advocate for the enclosure of land but was greatly disappointed at the results, for, said he, "By nineteen out of twenty Inclosure Acts the poor are injured and most grossly." Of the 1778 Act which affected our parish he reported that "the soil was so miserably poor - much has been laid down to grass. "Poor rates at North Mymms ten years ago," he observed, "were 1s 6d to 2s. 0d. and are now 5s. 0d. It has the advantage of being the residence of people of fortune whose charitable attention to the poor in the past … keeping down the Poor Tax."

He may have been right in thinking that the kindness of the people of fortune kept the poor rate at a low level compared with that in other districts, but it is significant that for nearly half a century after the Enclosure Act became law poaching and petty thieving occurred among our ancestors.

The following entries culled from the sessions rolls at County Hall record some of the misdeeds and their punishments.

1789. Thomas Rumbold and Thomas Pateman, labourers of North Mymms, stripped 5cwt. of lead, value £3, from the roof of the church porch. Both were found guilty and transported for seven years.

1790. John Halsey and John Day stole a piece of bacon, value 7d. Both were found guilty and ordered to be privately whipped and passed home.

1805. Daniel Larman, for stealing a slab of timber value 1/6 from Henry Browne, sentenced to one month in jail.

James Williams, labourer, was an incorrigible poacher and during 1817 he received two sentences each of three months. The first was for poaching with nets in Fox’s Wood and a few weeks after being released he received his next sentence for "poaching at night and killing three pheasants in the same wood" belonging to Samuel Oaussen.

1808. James March, labourer, found guilty of stealing barley, value 6d. the property of Samuel Robert Gaussen, was sentenced to one year in the bridewell.

1825. James Warner stole six sheepskins from Thomas Nash Kemble, value 7/-. He was sentenced to one month’s hard labour in the bridewell.

1831. John Pedder, for stealing a smock frock value 2/-, was sentenced to three months hard labour and to be whipped.

But when at Michaelmas 1822 Joseph Shambrook, William Finch, James Webb and William Evans were charged with having stolen ten gallons of beer, value 5/-,from William Woodward of St. Stephens they were acquitted.

On the whole the people of North Mymms were, as now, a law-abiding, hard-working, God-fearing group of citizens. If they transgressed their punishment was harsh. The Rev. Horace Meyer tells of a "dear old couple" who were members of his flock when he first came to North Mymms. Many years before the wife and a grown-up son had been transported to Australia for seven years. The young man had stolen a watch, which he had brought home. The theft had been traced to him and he had been convicted. His mother was sentenced for receiving stolen property. The story, unlike many, had a happy ending, for having served her sentence the mother returned to England and the old couple had many years together living happily among their friends and neighbours.

Dorothy Colville, 1971

Chapter 2 - Names and Numbers
Index - North Mymms Parish and People

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