The History Of Great Sampford and Little Sampford
Physical signs of the Anglo-Saxons are hard to come by, though a few artefacts have been found in the fields.Interestingly, however, the Freshwell Hundred (the local administrative district, which in some respects survived as such into the nineteenth century) which the Sampfords belong to is a late Anglo-Saxon creation. Domesday records two manors held in the reign of Edward by Wihtgar and Eadgifu the Fair, suggesting that there were already two settlements. One was named as Sanfort, the other Sanforda – both probably representing a French-speaking clerk’s attempt to render in Latin the Old English San Forda or sandy ford – one of which survives in Great Sampford, and is still sandy-bottomed.
Both villages are sited in Rackham’s “Ancient Countryside”. Despitethe loss of many hedges in the late 20th Century, many of those that survive are sinuous with relict plants of ancient woodland such as dog’s mercury and wood anemone amongst their roots, suggesting that they are many centuries old. In fact the late John Hunter’s study suggested that most of the medieval landscape survived into the 1950s! The boundaries of the two parishes entwine through this and, until they were “tidied” in the nineteenth century, each contained detached enclaves of the other. These entangled boundaries and detached portions suggest “intercommoning”, where residents of both settlements had rights to common land between them, and the boundaries of became fixed around these people’s plots when the parish boundaries coalesced, probably in the 12th century. At some time around this period, what is now Great Sampford appears to have been laid out according to a rectangular plan with the manor house at one corner, and the church across the road from the manor. This layout can still be seen today, despite one side of the rectangle never being developed, and despite later encroachments across the centre line of the plot. On the other hand, Little Sampford remained a series of straggling hamlets and the church and probable manor site, although adjacent to each other, at some distance from the nearest settlement.
In 1096 William Rufus granted the church of St Michael at Sampford Magna (now Great Sampford) to Battle Abbey, and it was to become the seat of a Rural Deanery, covering twenty-one parishes. This importance, and the wealth of the abbey, explains the enormous church in such a small village. Apart from the thirteenth-century south transept almost the entire structure dates to between 1320 and 1350. Almost no addition was made to the church after this date. Battle Abbey had long since stopped maintaining it by the Dissolution and the neglect continued so long that, even after Victorian refurbishments in the 1840s and 1870s, the parish was unable to roof the nave in anything better than corrugated iron. St Mary’s at Little Sampford, on the other hand, appears to have evolved piecemeal over the centuries. One notable break in construction can be seen in the mid-fourteenth century tower, which is popularly attributed to the Black Death. Here the living was attached to the manor, rather than a distant abbey, which may explain the continued development of the building.
There are other medieval relics as well.A number of farms retain the names of their owners, with Free Roberts bearing a name recorded in 1258, whilst the record-holder in Little Sampford is Hawkes, first recorded in 1280. There are also a number of moats, sites of moats, within the two parishes. Some of these, such as at Howses, still enclose a house whilst others do not. Most are thought to be of 13th or 14th century date, and would probably have been dug for display, and to supply fresh fish, rather than for defence.They suggest prosperous settlers, able to expend money on building status symbols. A second wave of moat digging occurred in Tudor times as arrivistes sought to give their new homes a respectable air of antiquity by surrounding them in medieval fashion. At around this time a deer park was created at Little Sampford and a mansion built in brick. The park has reverted to arable land and the house was pulled down in the 1920s but the outline of the park can still be traced and many features of the ornamental garden survive in the grounds of the “new” Little Sampford Hall.
Several houses survive that predate the Tudor hall, in both parishes. A sprinkling of sixteenth century houses and a plethora of seventeenth and eighteenth century ones demonstrate the relative prosperity of these centuries, when the Sampfords were weaving villages. Ironically they also show the poverty of later times, when there was not the money available to pull down and replace with the latest style.
A number of “personalities” passed through the 17th and 18th century Sampfords. Colonel Jonas Watson, Chief Bombardier of England, is commemorated by an obelisk in Great Sampford churchyard, killed on active service aged 77, whilst James MacAdam, son of the inventor of tarmac, and Arthur Young, famed writer on agricultural matters and multiple failure as a farmer, both lived at Little Sampford Hall. The most lasting legacy of these landlords are the churchyard wall and lime trees at Great Sampford, planted by General Eustace who, having carried a silver plate in his skull since the Peninsular War, in later years insisted on riding his horse up the stairs to bed each evening! Elsewhere, Henry Hebblethwaite inoculated parish children against the pox, and may well have spent time in the West Indies for his brother’s children (by a slave mother) sued for a share in his estate.
If the population is anything to go by, the Sampfords were relatively prosperous in the early nineteenth century. In 1801 Great and Little Sampford had 597 and 346 inhabitants respectively. By 1851 the figures were 906 and 471. In the centre of Great Sampford, the Red Lion Inn was built around 1830, and suggests that someone had plenty of money to erect such a fine brick building. However the figures oscillated through the later nineteenth century as agricultural depression bit and in 1901 the population was 496 and 296, with many people leaving for the towns, especially London, as the ease of travel increased. In 1875 the School Board had to defend themselves against an accusation that they had over-estimated the number of pupils they had to provide for by pointing out that a mass exodus had left twenty cottages uninhabited. Here was no rustic idyll. The 1871 census recorded 9 people living in sheds, and disease was rife with cholera striking in 1866 and typhoid several times in the 1870s. Improvements were being made, however. A school was built in 1870 and, for reasons of politics, was replaced by the current building in 1878. At long last Sampford children were to experience the benefits of universal education.A fine new Baptist Chapel was also built at much the same time, in the midst of the depression and exodus.
It was two denuded villages that greeted the 20th century. Of 285 houses in the Sampfords in 1851, only 184 were inhabited seventy years later. On the other hand, despite general depression agricultural labourers were doing well. So many had left for employment in the cities that those who were left could name their wage, and many were able to take up small farms as a result. However 1914 bought war on an unprecedented scale. The two parishes record 26 names on their war memorials and many more must have served. Sidney Gowlett returned home with a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Walter Schwier with the Military Cross, the latter having taken part in a cavalry charge in 1917. The schoolmaster Harold Blayney, feared and respected in equal parts by the pupils he thrashed, inspired similar fear in recruits before making his way to Palestine in time to witness the collapse of the Turkish army, while brothers Jim and Bill Gray tired of waiting to be liberated from POW camp whilst Germany crumbled round them and simply made their own way home.
Although some new houses were built along the Thaxted road in the 1920s, they did not return home to a land fit for heroes. Agriculture had prospered during the war, with cheap grain from North America restricted by U-boats. But prices crashed in 1921 and farming entered a deep slump that it would not recover from for nearly twenty years. The 1920s and ‘30s were characterised by poverty and struggle, with peopling leaving the village. In 1936 Jim Gray was offered £100 or a cottage in his uncle’s will, and took the money because he would not have to pay for its upkeep! Tithe was seen as an iniquitous tax, and at least three Sampford farmers took extreme measures, having to be prosecuted before they would pay. It was also at this time that the middle-class “invasion” of the countryside began. Gerald Miller became the first commuter, writing a column on rural matters for the Times, and artists and intellectuals such as Olga Lehmann and Alan Rawsthorne moved in. Holidays in Great Sampford even inspired the Reverend Graves to found the legendary Dagenham Girl Pipers!Agricultural subsidies began to effect a recovery in the late 1930s, and much work was done to shore up the crumbling fabric of Great Sampford church in 1937.At this point the Tudor stair that English Heritage insist to this day is still there was removed from the tower.
However war once again reared its ugly head. On September 2nd 1939, 150 women and children were evacuated to the Sampfords from London. Many soon returned, but a number of city children spent several years there.Given that the children were supposedly evacuated to “safety”, it is sobering to think that farmers were given instructions on how to destroy anything of value to the enemy, and at least one family kept their suitcases packed in the hallway. In fact, one of the “Stop Lines” – rows of fortifications that were supposed to delay the progress of the Nazi invaders - defending London passed right through the Sampfords! This was manned by the local Home Guard – eventually, for the building chosen for their command post could not be used until the shopkeeper’s hen had hatched the brood it was incubating there!Some 200 bombs fell in the villages, including at least two huge parachute mines, and on August 26th two German airmen, parachuting from their burning bomber after a raid on RAF Debden, landed at Great Sampford where they were captured. They fared better than a squadron-mate who, landing at nearby Finchingfield, broke his leg when he hit the war memorial! Later that year, construction began on an airfield called RAF Great Sampford, but in fact lying almost entirely within the parish of Radwinter.Perhaps the oddest legacy of the war was, for many years, a hymn in “Ancient and Modern” to the tune “Sampford”, the work of John Ireland who spent the war years at Little Sampford rectory.
Thankfully the invasion never came.After the war agriculture remained profitable, and the village seemed to be thriving.However, as economics became more and more important, and as mechanisation progressed, the number of men employed on the land became fewer and fewer. Larger and larger machinery came in to try to speed harvest, and to have grain to sell before the market was glutted and the price collapsed as it does each harvest.As a result fields were amalgamated and hedges grubbed out, making a substantially more open landscape than had been the case previously.There was also less employment in the village, so people moved away into towns.
Meanwhile the population of Britain was becoming increasingly middle-class, and affluent enough to afford the urban ideal of a house in the country.As a result of this cross-traffic, the Sampfords have increasingly become dormitory villages for commuters.The rise of supermarkets has meant that shops, pubs, and a village garage have closed, leaving a single pub and a garage in Great Sampford as the only local “necessities”.There is little employment in the village itself and, ironically, the airport that threatens the area is probably the biggest employer of Sampford people.House prices continue to reinforce the middle-class nature – remember the £100 cottage in 1936? They have increased by thousands of percent since! – and few young people growing up in the Sampfords are likely to be able to afford to buy a house there.However, the picture is not all doom-and-gloom. The two village cricket clubs merged in the 1970s and Sampfords Cricket Club have recently purchased the ground they have played on since then.There is also a Sampfords Society who have been very active in Local History, and who were involved in Heritage Sampford, an ambitiousproject to map the archaeology of both parishes. This has provided much of the historical information here.