VIII  War and Poverty

In the early 17th century, Hurst village must have been a thriving bustling community with so many royal courtiers living in the parish. Not only were the Harrisons and the Windebanks faithful to King Charles, but so too were the Barker and the Hyde families. They were men of influence, power and wealth, who controlled the land and the people who worked it. Their large houses cannot have seen more prosperous days, they must have resembled palaces with spacious parks and gardens, and rooms full of splendid furniture.

When the Civil War broke out it must have had a devastating effect, not only on the gentry, but also on many of the villagers who relied on them for an income.

As the problems between King Charles and Parliament developed, so the fortunes of Archbishop Laud and Sir Francis Windebank declined. In 1640 they were both arrested and the Archbishop was impeached for high treason and executed in 1645. Windebank, his 'greatest friend for thirty years' managed to escape to France and in November 1641 from a bitterly cold Paris he sent a letter to his son at Haines Hill:

Cause £5 besides my usual alms at Christmas, to be bestowed upon the poor at Haines Hill and Cewer, and let special care be taken that it be distributed to the most aged and unable to get their living, and most honest.

He died five years later whilst he was still exiled in Paris, aged sixty-three. One of his sons, also called Francis, became a Colonel in the Royalist Army. He was arrested at Oxford, and after a trial was court-marshalled and condemned to death. The sentence was carried out in the castle gardens at Oxford by a firing squad on May 3rd 1645. Thomas Windebank, who inherited Haines Hill, was unable to hold on to his father's estate. In 1645 it was sequestered for the duration of the war.

The execution of Archbishop Laud on Tower Hill, London.
On December 17 1644 he had been found guilty of endeavouring to
subvert the laws, attempting to overthrow the Protestant
religion and acting as an enemy of Parliament.

Records only give us glimpses of what happened in the parish during the civil war. The Harrisons raised troops and were away fighting for much of the time. Reading was a strong Royalist garrison with over 3,000 soldiers camped in and around. This put a great deal of pressure on the population. Food was short and trade suffered. The King wrote a letter to his commanders telling them how the inhabitants of the hundreds and parishes in the vicinity were required to bring all fitting provisions for their daily support. The result was that cattle, horses, sheep and oxen were forcibly taken. All bridges, barge ferries and mills along the rivers Kennet, Loddon and Thames were either broken or burned. At Wokingham men of the Reading garrison ordered the townspeople to fill eight carts with firewood and bedding. When they failed to meet the demand, four houses were destroyed in reprisal and the occupiers told to take themselves to Windsor. The people of Twyford complained to Parliament that they were being pillaged almost daily by one side or the other.

The woods and commons around Hurst, together with the river system, made ideal countryside for a build up of troops. In January 1643 there were over 700 Parliamentarians quartered near Twyford. On Sunday the 8th of January Captains Fawcett and Ashton decided to make a sortie from their garrison in Reading. Armed with two small cannon they marched to Twyford Green and set up defences. 120 of the Parliamentarians at Twyford, under the command of Captain Turner, made an attempt to dislodge them and there was much hand to hand fighting. The Parliamentarians called in reserves, forced the Royalists out of their position, and they retreated back to their camp in Reading.

Ten days later the Royalists made another attack on the Parliamentarians, this time at Hurst. By 4 o'clock in the afternoon they had almost succeeded but were again forced back to their quarters in Reading. There was fighting near Henley too, and as a result 13 soldiers were killed and buried at Ruscombe.

English Pikemen

Richard Harrison did much to assist King Charles during the Civil War, and it cost him most of his family's wealth. He lived to see the execution of the King in 1648, and died seven years later. He was buried as his will directed:

in that place in the chancel in Hurst heretofore by me built, and neere to the sculpter of the Lady Saville, my wives mother who lyeht intered there as by me.

Lady Saville, daughter of George Darcers Esq. from the monument in Hurst Church

His son Richard inherited the estate and the declining fortunes. Like his father he had spent much of his personal wealth raising troops for the King. Prior to the war he had married Dorothy, the only daughter and heiress of William Dean Esq. of Weathercote in Oxfordshire. They had 13 sons and two daughters. After the war he witnessed the crowning of Charles II, but he had to mortgage the manor of Hurst together with some property in Finchampstead to raise funds. But by 1672 he regained possession of the manor. He died on the 23rd of August 1683 at the age of seventy-two. John Harrison, his son and heir, had taken holy orders and became the rector of Pulborough. Not wishing to take on the estate he assigned the inheritance to his younger brother, William Harrison.

Stables, Hurst House, where Royalist troops were billeted.

When the Civil War ended, Cromwell gave Haines Hill to one of his followers, Richard Bigg. Later, when the monarchy was restored, Richard Bigg was permitted to retain the property. A document bearing a portrait of Charles II is still preserved. It gave Richard Bigg a pardon for supporting the Parliamentarians. It was not unusual for the more noble families to be pardoned in this way, for as the King realised, they made better friends than enemies.

Charles II needed to raise money to keep his new realm intact and in 1662 a new tax, the Hearth tax, was introduced. Two shillings had to be paid by the owner of a house for each fireplace. It proved to be an unpopular tax and was repealed in 1687. The returns that have survived are not complete for the whole area, but they do provide a census of house owners for Woodley, Ruscombe, Winnersh, Whistley and part of Twyford. The number of hearths recorded varied from one year to another, suggesting that the returns were not always accurately kept rather than that fireplaces were continually being put in or taken out of houses at an alarming rate. Another reason for the variation in the numbers was that in order to avoid payment many fireplaces were bricked up, particularly in summer when they were not in use. Old hearths are still being discovered today as houses are modernised. Hearths hidden from view of the duty constables all those years ago. On the whole the assessor had to believe what the house owner told him, but there are cases where the constable called on help in order to search houses to find out the true number of hearths.

Hearth Tax Return for Whistley, January 1662 (© Public Record Office)

1723 map of Whistley Court Mansion with house and jetty

In January 1662 Robert Browning was duty constable for the Liberty of Whistley in Hurst, and was responsible for completing the first returns. He himself paid tax for two hearths but Richard Harrison heads the list with a total of 24. On a later return he paid for 22 hearths at his 'main house' (Hurst House) and nine at his Park House, (Whistley Court Mansion). He also paid for two at his working house, and for one at his dock house. There was a little jetty on the Loddon situated between Whistley Court Mansion and Whistley Mill where a small house may have been.

The remainder of the more affluent in Twyford and Whistley were Mr Thomas Bagley who paid for 10 hearths, Thomas Comos who paid for nine, Mr. Coles for eight, George Boldos, Mr. Button and Mr. William Clarke for six hearths. A total of £11. 5s. 0d. was collected and the document was signed by William Clarke the minister, William Button the church warden and John Collins overseer. There were 70 houses listed in the Liberty of Whistley, 18 of which were in Twyford. Other returns for Twyford and Hinton were recorded as being in the County of Wiltshire, but they have not survived the years very well and are in a poor state of preservation.

Francis Pigot was the duty constable for the Liberty of Winnersh. He listed Moses Mainard as having five hearths, William Edwards with six, William Boawde with five and Hugh Champion with ten. He shows 51 houses on his return, but he did not list the poor separately as was usual, simply accounting for them by saying: 'and for the rest there is nothing to be had'.

Apart from the poor, others were exempt from paying the tax and the reason was often entered on the returns. In the case of Christopher Chisman who had eight hearths, Mr Pigot wrote: 'and he is in prison for ... and there is no disstress to be made of'. Unfortunately, after telling us why this wealthy man was in prison he crossed the vital word out, so we may never know the reason.

Seveny-three names were listed at Woodley. Top of the list is George Blagrove of Bullmarsh paying for 12 hearths. Thomas Soual of Sandford paid for two as did John Round of Colemans Moor. Ralph Broadway, duty constable for Sonning, collected £18. 17s. 0d. William Rockall, duty constable for Ruscombe, dated his returns on the 13th of October 1663 and counted William Gent with seven hearths, in 'the house where Ralph Newland dwelt' five. Richard Foster and Widow Grove also had five. 24 names were listed, six of whom were receiving alms.

The forest near Windsor, 1804

By the end of the 17th century, large areas of forest had been cleared, not only to create arable land, but also to harvest trees for their timber. Timber was an essential commodity in everyday life. Ships, houses, furniture. ploughs, mills, bridges and carriages were all predominantly made of wood. In 1664 John Evelyn, concerned about the lack of management of the King's forest, wrote:

Since there is nothing which seems more fatally to threaten a weakening if not a dissolution of the strength of this famous and flourishing nation, then the sensible and notorious decay of her wooden-walls, when either through time, negligence, or other accident, the present Navy shall be worn out and impair'd; .....for it has not been the late increase of shipping alone, the multiplication of Glass-works, Iron-Furnaces, and the like, from whence this im-politick diminuation of our Timber has proceeded.

 He went on to write about those who:

were tempted, not only to fell and cut down, but utterly to grub up, demolish, and raze, as it were, all those goodly woods and forests, which our more prudent Ancestors left standing, for the ornament, and service of their country.

A piece of land well stocked with trees and animals, with a river full of fish running through it could support a community with employment, food and shelter, but proper management was essential if its produce was to be used in the most efficient way.


Left: pollarding willows, from H R Robertson's Life on the Upper Thames
Right: pollarded oak, note the bowl where the branches meet the trunk.

Trees were not only grown for their stout timbers, they were also needed for posts and poles. There are two ways of growing these. One is to 'pollard' the tree, that is to cut back the branches at a height several feet above the ground, well out of the reach of grazing animals. The other method is to 'coppice' the tree. Hazel, hornbeam, ash and sweet chestnut were cut just above the ground, then allowed to grow again into poles. This has been done since Roman times, and there are woods at Ashridge and Sindlesham still showing signs of this ancient practice.


  Above: coppiced alder at Sindlesham

  Left: coppiced hazel in Ashridge Wood

Willows are ideal for cropping while the growth is young. They have been grown as a crop in osier beds on both sides of the Loddon for centuries. The osiers were often grown on little islands in the river called 'eyots', and this kept the new growth out of the reach of rabbits, cows and horses. The willow shoots were cut in February and March, then placed in water till they started to bud.

Osier cutting, from H R Robertson's Life on the Upper Thames

Osier stripping, from H R Robertson's Life on the Upper Thames

Usually young girls and women were employed to remove the bark. This was done in a field adjoining the west side of the bridge on the Twyford-Hurst road. Several workers stood at the stands fitted with 'V' shaped knives through which the osiers were  drawn to peel off the bark. The resulting 'rods' were used mainly for basket making. Baskets were produced locally, but many bundles of rods were sent down the river, and later by rail, to the markets in London. The rods were also used for making wattle fences and for walls of buildings. The wattle was filled with a primitive plaster mix to form a relatively smooth surface. Rods were also woven into fishing equipment in the form of 'eel bucks' and gigwels.

Lowering eel bucks, from H R Robertson's Life on the Upper Thames

Eel bucks were large baskets which were open at one end and placed in the river facing upstream. They normally caught the eels when they were migrating into the sea from October to December. Another product was used to catch the young eels. Long, narrow wicker baskets made of willow rods called 'grig-weels' were baited and placed in the river, next morning the eels that fed in the basket were simply lifted out of the water.

Putting down grig-wheels, from H R Robertson's Life on the Upper Thames