Local History of Stansted Mountfitchet village in Essex
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With more than 4,000 acres Stansted Mountfitchet, or Stansted as it is more commonly known, is one of the largest parishes in Essex. At one point it touches the Hertfordshire boundary, and the Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford lies three miles to the south. The river Stort, no more than a stream at this stage, forms part of the parish’s south-western boundary. The landscape is quiet and varied, with little rises and falls on the chalk in the west and flat open land on the clay in the east. It is mainly rich agricultural land, but in earlier times farming was more mixed than it is today.
Cutting through the west of the parish is the B1383, formerly the A11. This was originally built, or improved, during the reign of Charles II as part of the construction of one of the finest highways in the country, the road that was to take the king between his palaces in London and his stables at Newmarket. Going north from Stansted the Great Newmarket Road, as it came to be known, ran close to Saffron Walden, with a branch leading off to Cambridge on the way. Going south it ran through Hockerill, which has since become part of Bishop’s Stortford. It was also one of the routes between London and Norwich. In 1744 it became a turnpike road, and thirty years later the diarist Parson Woodforde described it as ‘the best of roads’ he had ever travelled.
The settlement that grew up along the Great Newmarket Road became known as The Chapel, after a small chapel that stood at the crossroads on the site where the fountain now stands. A few hundred yards to the east, at the bottom of Chapel Hill, is the Street, the oldest settlement in the parish, overlooked by the remains of the Norman castle. And there are two other hamlets in the parish, Bentfield End in the west and Burton End in the east. The present Stansted Hall, which was built by the Fuller Maitlands in the Victorian period and is now the leading spiritualist college in the country, stands in its park on a hill by the road between the Street and Burton End, and close to the hall is the church of St. Mary the Virgin. Because St. Mary’s is so far from the main body of the village a second church, St. John’s, was built on Chapel Hill in 1889. There are several publications about Stansted, but no overall parish history. This, however, is now being prepared. Two questions arise. First, are there any themes that run through Stansted’s history that make it distinctive in any way? Second, are the sources good enough for a history of Stansted, and are any of these sources of outstanding interest?
We can take as our starting point three of the signs that greet you as you approach Stansted, either from the north or the south. The first is what we usually call the village sign, a cartoon-like effigy of a mediaeval knight, with a pointed helmet and nose-protector, a skirt of what appears to be grey chain-mail, and a large shield bearing the device of three white chevrons on a red background. Above the effigy are the words Magna Carta and the date 1215. The knight is Richard de Montfichet, and the Magna Carta makes its appearance because Richard was one of the great barons of the realm who confronted King John and compelled him to sign that historic document. As well as his domains at Stansted, he owned the island at Runnymede on which the great charter was signed.
The second sign, with a brown background, points you, with the aid of a battlemented keep, towards ‘Mountfitchet Castle 1066’, which is a misleading and rather grandiose title, since the castle could not possibly have been built in 1066, and since the original castle was destroyed by King John and all that remains of it are two mounds of earth and some flinty masonry sticking up like a last decaying tooth. But these remains have been transformed into a tourist attraction, where a ‘Norman village’ has been constructed inside a wooden palisade, and where we can actually see Richard de Montfichet seated with his guests in his hall and hear him tell us of his struggles with King John, where we can feed deer, sheep and goats as they roam over the mounds, and where we can buy slabs of Mountfitchet fudge and plastic swords and shields at a gift shop.All this is attractive and entertaining.
A third sign, with the symbol of a jet plane in flight, directs you to Stansted Airport, designated in the Government’s Air Transport White Paper of 2003 to become, by today’s standards, the largest airport in the country, a development that has been fiercely resisted locally for half a century and which is still being resisted today.
But in one important way the airport’s development is consistent with Stansted’s history, in that the village has always stood on important lines of communication. The Roman road of Stane Street ran eastwards and westwards, straight as an arrow, along its southern boundary (the old A120). Later, as already described, the Great Newmarket Road, later the A11, ran northwards and southwards through the heart of the parish. Then came the Great Eastern Railway, served by the station known at first as Stansted, in spite of pressure from the local historian, Joseph Green, to have it renamed as Stansted Mountfitchet - a change that at last came about in the 1990s to avoid confusion with the station at the airport. Then came the M11, relieving traffic on the old A11 but cutting a wide and noisy swathe through Alsa Wood and the fields towards the east.
Its situation on these lines of travel and communication made Stansted less isolated and more prosperous than many other rural communities. Inns sprang up along the Great Newmarket Road, and at the humblest level the traveller George Byng commented in 1781 how the turnpike roads in general had 'imported London manners' into the country, so that even the milkmaids had 'the dress and looks of Strand misses'. And we know that when the gentry used to travel through the villages on their way to the Newmarket races the villagers used to come out to stare at their finery. In the latter part of the 19th century, during the agricultural depression, while many of the villages around suffered a decline in population, Stansted's population went up from 1,719 in 1851 to 2,208 in 1901, an increase that was mainly due to its position on the railway. Today it stands at around 6,000.
There were other ways in which the people of Stansted were open to the winds of the wider world. Each week they might go to the market town of Bishop's Stortford, where their farmers could sell their wheat and barley and where, after 1769, they could purchase goods brought up the Stort Navigation; if they went to school they would be given at least some elementary understanding and knowledge of life beyond the parish boundaries (in the Victorian period Matthew Arnold was one of the school inspectors); and at church they were indoctrinated in the Christian religion and buffeted from time to time by the shocks of religious change. Thremhall Priory, the Augustinian foundation established by the Montfichets, survived for about 400 years before being abolished in the Reformation, and its lands have since been swallowed up by the airport. In 1660 the vicar, Robert Abbott, like many other clergymen round about, was ejected from his living after the restoration of King Charles II, and though the Anglicans maintained their leading position the parish became a powerful centre for the Quakers and the Independents. More recently the men of Stansted have gone to fight in the Anglo-Boer War and two World Wars.
The upper levels of Stansted society consistently moved in wider circles. The Gernons, the first Norman lords of Stansted, took part in William the Conqueror's invasion and were rewarded with vast landholdings throughout the southern part of the country. Their kinsmen and successors, the Montfichets, played a leading part in the counsels of the nation, helping to curb King John but being punished for this by the destruction of their castle. The Middletons, the manorial lords in the 17th century, had made their money in the Virginia Company and the East India Company - Sir Thomas Middleton was a close associate of Sir Walter Raleigh and is said to have sailed with him to the Spanish Main - and were prominent Parliamentarians in the Civil War. The Heaths, who took over from the Middletons in the eighteenth century, were also East India men. And then the Fuller Maitlands, who took over from the Heaths, helped to found a strong Liberal tradition - at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Stansted was known as 'radical Stansted' - an undertaking in which they were supported by the wealthy wine merchants of the area, the Gilbeys, the Golds and the Blyths. One of the Fuller Maitlands was a pioneering collector of early Italian art and his paintings now form an important part of the holdings of the National Gallery, while one of the Blyths was elevated to the peerage because of the help he gave to research into tuberculosis.
We must not overstate the case. Obviously for most people it was the local community that most engaged their energies and their loyalties. They might be aware of broader horizons, but the foreground was dominated by the manor and the parish. The lord of the manor and the vicar, even the churchwardens and the overseers of the poor, loomed much larger in the consciousness of most villagers than national leaders and politicians. In terms of their obligations to their neighbours the manor and the parish had much stronger and more immediate claims than either the county or the country. Until recently people paid more in manorial dues and parish rates than they did in national taxes. For most practical purposes the answer to the question 'Who is my neighbour?' was not the people of the parishes nearby, such as Manuden, Birchanger, Takeley, Ugley or Great Hallingbury, and certainly not the people of the town of Bishop's Stortford, but the people of Stansted. The supreme expression of this was the working of the old Poor Law, under which the parish conducted itself in much the same way as a nation state today, even to the extent of exercising its own immigration control, making sure that no newcomer was allowed to settle if he or she seemed likely to become a burden on the rates. The parishioners who paid the rates were determined that the only people who benefited should be their fellow parishioners.
It is impossible, of course, to contain the history of an entire community in a single analytical sweep, but for much of the recorded history of Stansted the overwhelming impression is not one of narrow parochialism, still less of rural somnolence and lethargy, but of lively engagement with the wider world, whether economically, socially, culturally, religiously or politically. And from time to time, arising partly from this, the underlying conflicts of interest and the overt disagreements of belief and conviction gave rise to fierce confrontations and disputes. The politics of the parish pump were important, and rightly so for people whose supply of water depended on it. But one of the strongest appeals in Stansted's history derives from the part which its people played, not just in their local community, but in the wider communities of the church, the county and the country, and from the ways in which wider developments and events influenced their actions and changed their lives. Even though Stansted was largely rural, it was one of the least parochial of parishes.
We now turn to the second question: what are our sources for Stansted’s history?
For the earliest years we have in one sense been fortunate – in the sense that it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. A few Roman remains, not very impressive, had been discovered in the nineteenth century, especially around St Mary’s Church, but in the 1980s and 1990s, with the development of the airport, the British Airports Authority was obliged to commission archaeological work in the fields, woods and lanes that it would soon be obliterating and covering with concrete. The results were surprisingly rich and varied and led to a substantial revision of our beliefs about Iron Age settlements in this part of the country.
But with the
manorial records we are less fortunate. There were three manors in the
Burnells (also known as Stansted Hall), Bentfieldbury and Thremhall
Burnells was by far the largest, and its records were kept by family
solicitors, Bird and Bird, who had offices in
The parish records, however, are wonderfully rich. The registers of baptisms, marriages and burials date from 1558 (when Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne), the vestry minutes from 1642, and the accounts of the Overseers of the Poor from 1744 (ending in 1834 with the enactment of the new Poor Law). There are some rate books dating from 1750, and some militia records from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. But the most remarkable of the parish records are the vicar’s tithe books, which begin in 1682 and end in 1818. They deal with the small tithes given to the vicar, not the great tithes given to the lord of the manor. So we have a detailed record for over a hundred years of the fruit and vegetables grown and the animals that were kept.
But there have been losses over time at the parish level too.
In the 1930s a series of articles appeared in the parish magazine entitled 'Churchwardens Accounts, 1700-1836', written by a certain F.H.R. According to his opening paragraph:
In the parish chest at the
These bundles have since been lost. The contents of the parish chest were handed over to the Essex Record Office, which has only two files relating to the churchwardens. One contains a few bills for 1798, and the other a small handful of receipts ranging over the period from 1718 to 1807. Perhaps the bundles will reappear, but in the meantime we are thrown back on the information given by F.H.R. in his articles.
Also at the
village level there are the records of the
Another great village treasure is the minutely detailed log book of St Mary's School, dating from 1860.
At the county level there are extensive records, the most important being those of the quarter sessions, including court judgements, poll books, and hearth tax and land tax assessments. So we can tell which way the people of Stansted voted in elections, how many hearths they had in their houses in the late 17th century, and how much land they occupied. And there are many other sources which Stansted shares with the rest of the country, above all, of course, the census records.
Stansted has also been well served by the press. There are occasional references to the parish in early newspapers, especially The Chelmsford Chronicle, and this trickle of evidence turns into a flood after 1861 with the founding of The Herts and Essex Observer, published in Bishop's Stortford. The affairs of Stansted, being the largest village close to Stortford, appear regularly and prominently and often in extraordinary detail. From this source we know a great deal, for example, about crime in Stansted.
All these sources are of the type, or types, that one might expect to find for any parish. But for Stansted there are three further collections of evidence gathered over the years by people who have taken an interest in the history of the parish - by Joseph Green, who died in 1921; by Irving Sanders, who died in 1984; and finally by the members of the Local History Society.
First, then, Joseph Joshua Green. He was born in Stansted in 1854, the second son of Joshua and Elizabeth Green. Joshua and his friend, James Marsh, were the owners of Stansted's largest shop, Green and Marsh, which became known as Joshua Green & Company after Marsh's death, and which was said to sell 'everything from an elephant to a pin'.
The Greens were Quakers,
and Joseph held firm to the Quaker tradition.
Educated at home, partly by his two elder sisters, and later at
Green made a study of Quaker history, and frequently wrote articles for Quaker publications. But for our purposes what is most important is that while at Stansted he amassed a large collection of papers about the parish, some of it previously kept by his father. These papers have been placed in the Essex Record Office, originally in 40 boxes, and they are described in ERO catalogue as
Notes, transcripts and newspaper cuttings relating to the history of Stansted Mountfitchet and to social activities and trade in that parish from about 1850 to 1893, collected by Joshua and Joseph J. Green, grocers and provision merchants.
They make up an extraordinary range of material - collections of photographs, engravings and drawings, detailed genealogies of the leading families in the parish, posters and handbills advertising missionary meetings and property sales, notes and correspondence about the church bells and (to take just the ‘p’s) the parish boundaries, the postal service, the pound, the pest-house, the police and the pump. As well as this material in the ERO a few of Green's papers may be found in the Saffron Walden Museum and the Friends' Meeting House in London, and some old deeds dating from the time of the Montfichets have been deposited in the British Library.
Green never wrote a history of Stansted, and he was generally referred to as an antiquarian and collector rather than a historian. Among his papers, however, there is the beginning, just nine pages, of what he called his autobiography, but what was turning out to be a lively and well written account of Stansted and its inhabitants, with just the sort of personal detail that is lacking in most of the other sources. It begins with a description of the village, and then gives some account of the gentry of the parish. On the final page Green writes
Before dismissing our account of the Fuller Maitlands, mention must be made of some of their retainers. Amongst ....
And that is the last word of Green's 'autobiography'. It is an enormous loss to Stansted's history that he did not go on.
The second substantial collection was made by Irving Sanders. On the day that Joseph Green died, in October 1921, Irving Sanders was born. Until his retirement in 1979 he worked as a surveyor draughtsman for British Rail, but he was also a parish councillor for many years, standing as an independent and serving from time to time as chairman. In the best Victorian tradition he entertained social gatherings with 'humorous songs and monologues'. He was much respected, and there are two memorials to him in the village: one, the restored fountain at the top of Chapel Hill, the other the new close named after him off Silver Street. Irving was also active in support of Stansted's windmill.
Like Joshua Green, Irving made a collection of documents about Stansted, in part overlapping with Green's, but for the most part adding to them and covering a later period. He took an interest in the same subjects, such as the genealogies of the leading families, sales of property and the Literary Institute, but also other topics such as the fire brigade, the railway, the Recreation Ground, the celebration of royal events, the schools, various kinds of sport, the Stansted Central Hall Company Limited and the Stansted Working Men's Club. This collection, now kept by his widow, Rene, is not as extensive as Green's, but is an invaluable addition to our evidence, particularly for the 20th century. Irving was only 62 when he died in 1984. Perhaps he had been hoping to write a history of the parish, but in the event his only publication was a brief ten-page historical account produced for the parish in the 1950s.
The third collection has been made by the members of the Stansted Mountfitchet Local History Society. It is unfortunate that neither Joshua Green nor Irving Sanders attached much importance to oral tradition. Green noted down the recollections of one old inhabitant in 1891, which, like his own autobiography, was a lively account of the village, full of the writer's insight and humour. In Irving Sanders' papers there are the boyhood reminiscences of a certain 'BWL' (the initials are not clearly legible), who appears to have been born around 1890, but nothing more. For the 20th century, however, this deficiency has been made up by the members of the Stansted Mountfitchet Local History Society, who, in the 1980s, recorded, either in notes or on tapes, about forty of the older inhabitants, sometimes at considerable length.
It is clear, then, that a very rich history can be
written of Stansted
Mountfitchet. It still remains, however, for that task to be undertaken.