Old Warden Social History

Old Warden: Tales of Tenants & Squires

book Old Warden: Tales of Tenants & Squires traces the fascinating history of the village of Old Warden, its inhabitants and their relationship with the Ongley and Shuttleworth landowner families from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. With many amusing tales, this book shows how community life was inextricably linked to the Old Warden estate and the development of its Regency-style Swiss Garden, which was designed by obsessive visionary Lord Ongley. To visit Old Warden is to step back in time. This book guides readers through the village’s unique and intriguing features and explores its rich history. Old Warden: Tales of Tenants & Squires retails at £14.99 and is available to buy from the Shuttleworth Visitor centre shop.

Author biography

Born and raised in Old Warden, Christine Hill is proud to be descended from a long line of village ‘peasantry’. With a lifelong passion for the past in general and Old Warden in particular early retirement from a career in the Civil Service at last provided the time for her to immerse herself in historical research. Her first venture into writing has been supported by the Heritage Lottery funding of the recent restoration of the Swiss Garden, Old Warden.

Excerpts from Old Warden: Tales of Tenants & Squires….

Towards the end of the 1820s, Ongley was also remodelling Old Warden village described variously as in the Picturesque, Rustic or Cottage Orné style popular in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Using woodland and shrubbery as a picturesque backdrop Old Warden, already a pretty village in its gentle valley sheltered by the wooded warren, was an ideal subject for this treatment. A local newspaper from February 1830 reported: We have sincere pleasure in being able to record the munificent acts of a young nobleman, Lord Ongley… The cottages in the village have all been repaired at his Lordship’s expense, both internally and externally; clothing of every description has been liberally distributed under his Lordship’s direction… Improvements are still in progress, and great part of his Lordship’s time, most of which is spent at his country mansion, is occupied in the laudable process of ameliorating the conditions of the poor. Ongley was as obsessive about detailing in the village as he was in his Swiss Garden. The clothing he gave to the villagers is surely a direct reference to the red cloaks and tall hats he wanted them to wear, so that they themselves would become part of the picturesque scene which would greet him, and his visitors, when passing through. Real-life scarecrows kept birds off the fields around Old Warden, using rattles, banging buckets or shouting. The 1861 census records three scarecrows, Joseph Stokes and George Scott, both aged eight, and John Wiltshire, aged nine. George Spring, aged ten, was a twitch gatherer – ‘twitch’ the common name for couch grass, the bane of today’s gardeners. In 1871, George Burrage, aged nine, was a field keeper, Charles Nottingham, also nine, a farm boy and James Scott, thirteen, a kitchen boy. In 1898, Harold Samuels, aged ten, was absent from school for fifty-five hours because of field keeping, for which he was paid 3s. A field keeper kept birds, pests and other animals off the crops. The 1851 census shows the extent of child labour in Old Warden parish. Seventy-seven children between the ages of four to fourteen were engaged either in agriculture (boys), or the country craft of straw plaiting (girls and some younger boys). The children of the better off, such as tenant farmers and tradesmen, could attend a school, their parents paying a subscription for their lessons. The poorer and larger families, the real peasantry, needed their children to earn some income from an early age simply to survive. The attempted murder of John Stonebridge, Lord Ongley’s gamekeeper, received much coverage in the press in 1836. Gamekeeping was a risky occupation, with many instances of attacks by poachers. In 1815, the ‘old and faithful’ Whitbread head gamekeeper, Charles Dines, had been brutally murdered by a gang of around seven poachers near Southill Lake, with one of his assistants left severely injured. Stonebridge lived in Queen Anne’s summerhouse, and was checking nearby Hassocks Wood with his assistant, Samuel Butcher, one night in January. Three men were seen in the wood with a gun. When Stonebridge tried to apprehend one of them, he was bludgeoned and knocked to the ground by two of the men, while the third prevented Butcher from helping. Stonebridge was beaten where he lay on the ground, and again when he recovered his senses and tried to stand. Butcher eventually helped Stonebridge to get home and a surgeon from Biggleswade attended. Luckily Stonebridge was not badly injured and, having taken to his bed for three days, later recovered. Frank Shuttleworth gave a magical Christmas treat to village schoolchildren in January 1901, just one example of many over the years. It was, as with most events at this time, held at the school. The room was most tastefully decorated with ivy wreaths and flags and a beautiful Christmas tree on which the presents were hung, stood in one corner, the object of supreme interest throughout the evening. Tea was at 5, eighty-eight children of the Sunday and Day schools, with ten other guests, teachers, etc. sat down. After tea a selection of songs, recitations and readings was given by the children. At 7 o’clock the tree was lit up and the presents distributed. At 8 o’clock the evening closed with ‘God Save the Queen’. Each young guest departed armed with present, an orange and a bun.

The Social History Project

In addition to restoring the garden, the Heritage Lottery fund has been used to support a variety of projects within the local and wider communities. This publication is the result of the Old Warden Social History Project.

The aim of the Project was to research and collate the social history of the villagers of Old Warden, explore their relationship with the Ongley and Shuttleworth families and their links to ‘the big house’ and gardens. A variety of methods and sources were used such as local archives, newspaper articles, photographs and drawings and also sourcing living memories of villagers and their families. Public events displaying the results of the research have also been organised to give locals the opportunity to see first-hand their village’s rich history.

Can you help with this project?

Are you or your ancestors from the village or parish of Old Warden? Did you or your family live or work on the estate? Do you have any photographs, documents or stories that you would be willing to share? The Social History group welcome any information you might have, any facts – however small – could provide the missing link in their existing research. Please contact rosie.straughair@shuttleworth.org