County, Parish, Church and Council Records
Horticultural History of Meppershall
Gone, but not quite forgotten – with thanks to John Parsons
Horticulture, or market gardening has been of feature in Meppershall for a long time. There were nurserymen working during the eighteenth century. Records show Elizabeth Millard had a nursery garden in the Shillington Road area in 1845. At this time these growers would have been producing vegetables, fruit and flowers grown seasonally in their open fields and mostly for local sale in Meppershall and neighbouring villages until the construction of the railway through Shefford which would have enabled delivery to Bedford, Hitchin and beyond.
The first glasshouse, numbers of which became such a feature of Meppershall, was built in 1913 for the growing of cucumbers and was situated on land now occupied by Brookside and Brookmead. After the First World War the nursery was sold to the former Head Gardener of Chicksands Priory who began producing ferns, lilies and flowers. He employed young local men who in due course thought they could do the job just as well and set up further nurseries around the village. This growth continued through the decades until at the peak of the local industry there were 22 nurseries in production within the parish. Initially both flowers and salad crops would have been produced, at least until the Second World War, when the government required flower production to be replaced by food crops, more specifically cucumber growing. By the 1950’s produce was being sold locally and in the London wholesale markets as well as further afield. For a period, cucumber production was sufficient to cause twice weekly deliveries of a full railway wagon from the Goods Yard at Shefford to Manchester. Produce harvested in Meppershall would have been available in shops in Manchester the next day!
Over the years many different crops would have been produced; tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, celery, chrysanthemums, carnations and more recently roses and bedding plants as well as young plants for other growers in the county but most nurseries grew tomatoes in the summer and lettuce through the autumn, winter and spring.
Most of these businesses were small, family based enterprises and this is probably the first of many factors that ultimately led to the disappearance of the industry from the village. It was not an easy way to earn a living even at the height with the success of the business being dependent on the weather, the level of demand from customers and freedom from pest and diseases to name a few issues. As the years passed the sons and daughters of the growers chose in many cases not to join the business. Also, many of greenhouses, built as each nursery was founded, became unsuitable for the modern ways of growing and many of the small firms could not invest the large amounts needed to modernise. The small scale operations were at a further disadvantage as the way we shopped for fresh produce changed with the growth of the supermarkets.
The majority of Meppershall’s production ultimately was sold through the vast number of greengrocers shops found on every High Street. As the supermarkets increased their market share the small shops disappeared. Nationally some growers set up cooperatives to supply the new customers but it could be suggested that the nurserymen of Meppershall were too independent and set in their ways to change. So the industry declined. Further damage was done by the increases in energy costs as oil prices rose and, in an early manifestation of globalisation, it became advantageous to import fresh food in ever increasing amounts.
In fairness to the growers of Meppershall this decline was reflected nationally and a multitude of small enterprises vanished laving a small number of very large scale producers to successfully continue to grow British fruit, vegetables and flowers. In our village, as the demand for new housing grew, the old nurseries were redeveloped and many have now disappeared literally. There is now no commercial production taking place here, a chapter of the village history has closed.
PEOPLE IN MEPPERSHALL
With thanks to Sandra Read. – Manor Farm
Meppershall is a linear village of approximately 1.25 km in length, in Mid Bedfordshire. The village is on a spur and rises to 85m OD at the church and Motte and Bailey castle remains.
From pottery evidence, the centre of Meppershall has been in continuous occupation since the Iron Age and the recently excavated site in the centre of the village [now completely buried under the new development] was stated to be a Romano-British ‘farmstead’. Further excavation indicated that at one time in this
period the spring on the site had a religious purpose and high quality pottery was recovered from there. At this time Meppershall would have been known for its skilled craftsmen as very delicate bone working and evidence for a kiln was found on the site. These people did not have the parish boundary we now
know and the Roman villa and cemetery nearer Campton would have been part of their everyday life.
By the time of the Domesday Book, Meppershall was an agricultural village, though not always a peaceful one. In the fourteenth century King Stephen stayed long enough to write several historical charters here. Unfortunately, one of the de Meppershall family was considered to be a problem and the King
was here to besiege the Motte and Bailey. After this, Meppershall seems to have settled down to its quiet agricultural life again.
Records show that it was a virtually crime free place, the workers being well looked after by their employers. Some prospered well and were able to have their own flocks of sheep in their employer’s fields.
Life went on well until John Leventhorpe inherited the manor in the sixteenth century. On a quiet Sunday after the church service, the parishioners and the Rector left the church and found nine men, led by John Leventhorpe, in Church Lane with swords and hooks “arrayed as men of war” who attacked them.
The villagers fought and fled protecting the Rector from John and for weeks they were not allowed near the church and the fields around the manor were not tended. Even the men with leases from the manor dared not enter their land.
The only craftsman known from this time, because he had to pay tax, was a carpenter and it wasn’t until 1603 that the village had a forge that was independent of the farms. This blacksmith’s son, John Robinson, went to America as a teenager and became one of the founders of Exeter, New Hampshire. He prospered until he was shot by Indians, and some of Robinson’s New World descendants have visited the village recently.
Meppershall was a parliamentary village during the Civil War. Life went on much the same although there was dissent because the Rector, Timothy Archer, was put in the Fleet Prison for the duration simply because he met King Charles when he graduated from university. His family fled to Maulden, except for
one daughter, Rebecca, who went to live with her uncle in London. Rebecca married a Mr. Vaughn and became the first woman alchemist in the country. When she died her body was brought back to Meppershall for burial.
Meppershall has had some exceptional Rectors. Thomas Salmon, who succeeded Timothy Archer, published many works on music and his two sons Nathaniel and Thomas were also authors whose books are still quoted today. James Webster, who built the present day rectory in the nineteenth century, was a highly respected, fair and considerate magistrate though he did refuse to enter into the register the births of the girls born to the Lord of the Manor by his housekeeper and the clerk had to do it. He became their guardian a few years later and was well loved by them. This was fortunate as their other guardian was John Field of Polehanger. He was always being brought before the magistrate, Samuel Whitbread, for cruelty to his workers and even caused one to die for which he was imprisoned. When he complained to the magistrate about someone he was sent home each time. He was the only bad master in the village to be found
in all the records, though it seems to have been due to a quick temper as, for each case, he gave more in compensation than he was ordered.
Life was easier in the eighteenth century for the villagers than in the nineteenth century, though the farmers went to extraordinary lengths to help the local poor. In the middle of the nineteenth century Meppershall was enclosed, all the open field systems changed and each farm was given land in a block as we know it today. This meant that the workers lost all their rights to wood, fruit and herbs from the hedgerows and had nowhere to graze their animals as even rough land was included. Like many good villages Meppershall did provide some allotments in Hoo Road to help alleviate the difficulties. Even gleaning, the way most people in the village got their supply of grain, was technically illegal. The farmers in Meppershall decided to allow it — but regulate it to be fair to all — and gleaning could not start until the school bell rang. This was not indicating that the children were in school though; all hands were needed to get a supply for the family.
Throughout the nineteenth century, even after schooling became compulsory, the school records show children absent because they were working in the fields or kept at home plaiting. Straw plaiting was the only way the villagers had to increase their income and the smallest child knew “Over one and under two, pull it through and that will do”. Some tiny children are listed in the early censuses as straw-plaiters. The beginning of compulsory education later in the century led to children being listed as scholars but that didn’t reflect the reality of their lives as families could not manage without the extra money. When the
weather was bad the school was even known to shut because the children were unable to get there, as they had no shoes.
On the whole, Meppershall was quite a healthy place to live but the division of some old cottages, to cope with the growing families, led to overcrowding. In 1875, a housing report was undertaken. One cottage in Sand Lane [Fildyke Road] had six adults and four children in two small rooms. Many cottages were
overcrowded and the newly built houses were considered to have privies too close to the wells. Inevitably, the school records start showing cases of infectious diseases caused by these contaminated wells.
There were 42 wells in Meppershall, some houses having to get water from nearby homes. The bakery, started in the late 1840’s by James Roberts, then followed by his son Ephraim, had a 100 foot deep well. In 1902 Ephraim noticed that his well cover was off and looking down saw his wife a long way down, stuck by her
petticoats. One of the bakers, James Bluffield, with the aid of a rope managed to get her out and later received a Royal Humane Society Award for his bravery having “so gallantly rescued her’.
In the twentieth century Meppershall was known for its fourteen glasshouse enterprises. Acres and acres of glass produced cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce to send to London. As fewer farm workers were needed on the land, this became the major industry and employment in the village. In 1917, a glove factory
was started in Hoo Road making gloves for the armed forces with eight machine workers. This moved to the building beside the Chapel and was soon employing sixty girls. This factory closed in 1963.
Today few villagers work on the land. Farms now use sophisticated machinery and the cheaper imported vegetables made the glasshouses unprofitable. The majority of villagers work elsewhere.
Parish Records on CD
Are you interested in family history genealogy information for Meppershall? Or simply interested in the history of Meppershall.
A CD of Meppershall Parish Records, from the Meppershall Parish Register, is now available, published in January 2011.
Enquiries: [email protected] ordering information is given below.
St Mary’s church, Meppershall, could be a way to find your ancestors, through its extensive Baptism Records, Marriage Banns and Marriage Records and Burial records, maintained over centuries. Alongside census records, parish records are a way to “find my past”.
At almost 600 pages, the Meppershall Parish Records CD covers the period from 1602 until 1950. It lists the available public records of many thousands of baptisms, marriages (plus marriage banns) and burials at St Mary, Meppershall. With easy-to-use links, menus and index, the CD also offers 18 new high-quality photos and a three-page history of the church – telling the story of St Mary’s since 1100 AD.
The CD is published by the Parochial Church Council (PCC) at just £20.00. All proceeds go to the PCC’s fundraising for essential works to the historic church building.
Or send your cheque for £20.00 with your name and address clearly stated to:
Meppershall Parish Records CD
PCC St Mary Meppershall
C/O St Brides, 33 Coneygate
Meppershall, Bedfordshire, UK. SG17 5GB
We make no charge for postal delivery of a single CD.
The PCC owe a great debt of thanks to Sue Chapman whose painstaking work, transcribing original handwritten records, enabled this publication to happen.
Timeline of Significant Events
- Newspaper cuttings in Bedford Central Library
- The Virtual Library
- Old Meppershall a parish history by V.H. Chambers
1086: The Domesday Book records that Meppershall (Malpertesselle) Manor was held by Gilbert, son of Solomon, and included 480 acres of arable or plough land in Bedfordshire as well as holdings in other areas.
1175: Meppershall Chapel built and dedicated to Thomas a Becket. It became an important place of pilgrimage for those too ill to make the journey to Canterbury. A papal letter of 1291 promised penitence to those who made the pilgrimage with “remission of one year and forty days penance.” (Bedfordshire Times article, undated).
1698: A school is founded by the Misses Sarah and Elizabeth Emery, daughters of Squire Richard. The school originally housed six boys and six girls.
1801: The population of the village is 309 persons in 55 houses.
1806: Lysons’ Magna Britannia reports that “The dining parlour of the old parsonage house, which stood within an old moated site, and has lately been removed, was on the boundary of the two counties. The beam had the following inscription, alluding to this circumstance: “If you wish to go into Hertfordshire, Hitch a little nearer to the fire.”
1839: A National School building is erected at a cost of 140. This took over from the Emery School. A teacher’s house was added in 1867.
1841: The population is 486 persons in 97 houses.
1870: Six people die from scarlet fever due to the unsanitary living conditions in the village.
1871: Six coprolite diggers are listed in the parish.
1875: Dr C.E. Prior of Bedford draws up a special report for the Sanitary Authority on the sanitary condition of Meppershall. This drew attention to overcrowding, cesspits near homes, the lack of a water supply and the generally bad living conditions.
1881: The population is 778 persons.
1883: A drum and fife band is formed in the village and a fete held at which there is sports, cricket and dance.
1891: The population is 650 persons.
1899: A great fire destroys Bury Farm and many cottages. The fire was dealt with by a horse drawn fire engine from Shefford. The fire had started from a steam threshing machine and made more than thirty people homeless. A relief fund was set up to help (Post Echo, 20th April 1982).
1913: The first glass house is erected in the village by William C. Cakebread for cucumbers. This starts a history of market gardening in the area.
1917: Mr Hanscombe starts a glove manufacturing factory in Hoo Road called the Overhand Glove Co.
1939: Taylor’s Reliance Coaches moves to Meppershall from Shillington. The family firm closed in 2001.
1959: Meppershall Manor severely damaged by fire (Bedfordshire Times, 20th March, 1959).
1960: Fire destroys the Village Institute. It had been built to commemorate the lives of the 17 village men who had lost their lives in the 1914-18 war.
1964: Nulectrohms, a temperature sensing equipment manufacturer moves to Meppershall. The company closed in 1977 with a loss of thirty local jobs.
1970: The Barley Mow public house closes in Hoo Road.
2001: An appeal is launched to raise money to refurbish St. Mary’s Church (Biggleswade Chronicle, 29th June 2001).
2007: Ministers take the decision to close Methodist Chapel after the congregation dwindled to just two the three members and repairs to the building would cost between 40,000-50,000. A final service will be held early nest year. (Biggleswade Chronicle, 2nd November)