The survival of documentary evidence throughout Hertfordshire is rather uneven. Many of the records of county wide events such as visitations or collections survive, as do the records of some of the larger families, but the survival of the uniquely local often depends on nothing less than chance. Much of this information is held by Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies, but there must be many more documents in private hands. Historical documents relating to Pirton have recently been purchased by the history group on Ebay. This is a concern, not only because these are not available for research, but because they are not being stored in ideal conditions and are liable to be lost.
Where documents have survived they often describe one incident, or events in the life of one family. They fail to give us a wider picture of the whole village or show how things changed over time. To map out the lives of the ordinary villagers who have shaped and formed the community requires using many sources.
There were four manors that held land in Pirton: the Manor of Pirton, Manor of Pirton Rectory, Manor of Pirton D’Oddingselles and the Manor of Ramerick. The manorial records cover the period 1376 to 1926 although there are many gaps. The surviving records for the first three of these manors are held by HALS and the last is held by St John’s College Cambridge. The rolls and court books contain information about the Court Baron which records property transactions. The rolls and books are written in Medieval Latin until the mid 18th century.
These records offer a mass of useful information, but they do have certain limitations. Property is rarely named, it is described by the court in relation to the surrounding properties, and these change over time. Simply identifying a property and building up a sequence of owners can be difficult. There is a lack of consistency in the record. Some records use the names of neighbouring land owners; others use the names of neighbouring tenants, or a combination of the two. Some properties are always identified by the original pattern of neighbours in the 1700s, in others the pattern changes as the neighbours change, and yet others do not include any information to identify the property at all. The manorial record refers to a plot of land. The fact that houses have been demolished and rebuilt is very rarely recorded.
The scarcity of labour following the Black Death in the 14th century meant that the feudal obligation of villein tenure to provide certain services to the lord of the manor had to be commuted to money payments. This led to the creation of tenancies in which land was held by right of title entered into the manor court roll, and tenants were provided with a copy of that entry – hence copyhold. When transferring property the copyhold tenant surrendered it to the lord of the manor who then granted it to the new tenant who paid an admission fine, usually one year’s manorial rent. Copyhold was abolished in 1922.
Using the names of the vendor and purchaser and details of surrounding properties it has been possible to reconstruct the history of many properties.
Freehold Title Deeds
Copyhold was one form of property holding, the other was freehold. This is the holding of property in absolute possession, and it was not subject to manorial custom. There are several properties in the village which have historically been freehold. and some of them have sets of deeds, and these deeds created by a transfer of ownership often ‘recite’ previous transfers. In a few cases there are abstracts of title which record earlier owners and tenants. Freehold properties are more difficult to trace.
The first census of population in England and Wales was held in 1801 to provide population statistics. Most of the records between 1801 and 1831 did not record details of individuals. However from 1841 more information has been gathered. The census is made every 10 years, and individual details are available for public inspection after 100 years, so the latest available at present is 1911.
Using the census for research is not without problems. Although larger houses are usually identified, all the enumerators in Pirton have been very reluctant to identify properties. This is understandable perhaps where, as today, property was identified by the name of is owner. It has been possible to identify the residents in each house by cross referencing with other records.
The census records rely on the honesty, or the memory, of individuals. There are several examples of names, ages and places of birth changing between censuses. Where residents were illiterate the enumerator often wrote down what he heard, or thought he heard, on the form. This can lead to some interesting spelling and variation in names, to describe the same family. This problem also occurs within the parish register. Throughout we have retained the original spelling or details found in the sources.
No early maps specifically of the parish exist. The first plan of the parish is the pre enclosure plan circa 1800 and this is of very poor quality. The enclosure plan of 1818 shows the ownership, tenancy and acreage of land and property after the “great land exchange” when 2,000 acres out of 2,500 acres were exchanged and tithes commuted. The enclosure plan together with the award book are held at HALS .
The Ordnance Survey mapped the village at one inch to the mile in 1833, more detailed map of 25 inches to the mile was not available until 1881.
Photographs and old postcards provide details of the ownership of shops and businesses and the appearance of the village. A large collection of photographs collected by Helen Hofton has been lodged in the Hitchin Museum.
The register records all the births, marriages and deaths in Pirton from 1633.
Wills and Inventories
Wills and inventories are public documents, and are therefore readily available. However relatively few people made wills, and there seem to be many property owners in the village who did not.
The tax was levied twice a year –at Lady Day and Michaelmas –between 1662 and 1688.During this time it was the government’s major source of revenue. The tax was introduced because it was “easy to tell the number of hearths, which remove not as heads or polls do”. Each hearth was taxed at the rate of two shillings a year payable in two instalments. Those people who were too poor to be rated to church and poor rates, or who occupied premises worth less than twenty shillings a year, or who possessed property worth not above £10 were exempt. Only the return for Pirton 1663 is included in this database. Although two more survive they are difficult to read. The returns are held in the National Archives at Kew [E179] but HALS has the Hertfordshire records on microfilm.
During the 18th century this tax evolved and was assessed on land, buildings, and various forms of rents. Relatively few records survive before 1780, but from that date until the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832, annual copies of the assessments owed by owners or their tenants were lodged at the quarter sessions in order to establish qualifications for the vote at county elections. These records are a source of evidence of landholding during the period of parliamentary enclosure. Also they can be used by family historians to locate an ancestor in the period before civil registration or census returns.
The returns for Pirton cover the period 1780 to 1830 with one early return for 1753. The records give the names of owners and occupiers, the type of property they held and the amount of tax to be paid. Hertfordshire land tax returns are deposited at HALS Hertford.
The overseer’s account books name householders and the rate paid but do not indicate the property. After the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 the names of both owners and occupiers were recorded but properties were still not identified.
Pirton has two surviving rates records – the 1863 which was held in the Parish Chest in St Marys and a copy of the 1936 rate book which was given to the history group by the Walker family. Arthur Walker of Hill Farm was the rates collector.
The 1910 Inland Revenue Valuation.
The Valuation Office carried out a survey between 1910 and 1915. Valuation books (known also as ‘Domesday books’) were the first major record created by the Valuation Office at the start of the survey. A plan based on the 1881 Ordnance Survey map was annotated by hand with plot numbers which act as a means of reference to the field books. The final record of the Valuation Office survey, compiled after the survey was completed, was written in small bound volumes called field books. The field books give much more detailed information about property. Unfortunately the field books for Pirton have not survived. If you are researching the value, use or ownership of a property which existed around 1910, these are useful documents. The originals are at The National Archives but copies are held by HALS
Local estate agents held auctions of houses, pubs and farms which were often held in public houses in Hitchin. such as the Cock or the Sun.