History of Gilston by John Clarke
Never has a village had a more simple and dramatic entry into the world. Let us go back to the year 1135. Here we encounter one Geoffrey de Mandeville, a typical product of his age: a Norman warlord, arrogant, aggressive and untrustworthy. If only our founder could have been a kindly soul whose qualities we could admire! Sadly, Geoffrey’s qualities (if he had any) were not those to be admired.
He desperately needed a horse, and what a horse . . . a great shire horse with dinner-plate feet. Such a fine creature cost money, a lot of money, and there was also the need to equip a motley band of drunken misfits and criminals who comprised his private army.
He searched around for ways of raising money and his eye fell upon the land which now constitutes Gilston. He was a big landowner, and this was his land, so he could do what he liked with it. Barren land, a developer’s delight!
Three farms were built: Overhall (Upper Hall), where Overhall Farm stands to this day; Netherhall (Lower Hall) where Gilston Park mansion house is; and Giffards (named after the family who lived in it),which was in the wood we now call The Chase, near the avenue leading to South Lodge on the Eastwick Road.
Geoffrey was no pig farmer, so the farms were rented out to farmers who were expected to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Not surprisingly, these individuals soon tired of this, and they were speedily replaced by gentleman farmers who employed others to do the work. Thus, around the three farms sprang up clusters of farm workers’ cottages to house the peasants who were employed (or conscripted) to look after the fields and the animals.
The farm labourers shared their accommodation with their livestock, which was demeaning to the pigs, whose habits were superior to those of their human masters. Add a blacksmith to do the jobs in metal, and a carpenter for woodwork, and the team was complete.
These were horrible times for the labourers, crushed under a burden of civil war, pestilence, heavy manual labour and crippling taxes. But it was at this time that St Mary’s Church was built, on the orders of a man who must have been the most ungodly person to walk this earth.
Initially a simple rectangular stone building (it was in fact the only stone building in Gilston for hundreds of years), it was erected next to the Overhall farmhouse on a nice hilltop site. Spiritual succour was the order of the day. The labourers were expected to go to church where they participated in a service, the routine of which they knew, but little else, unlettered as they were. Glaring down from the church walls were lurid paintings of a horrid black Devil thrusting naked little figures of men and women (the sinners) into fiery pits and boiling cauldrons.
It is very doubtful that our Geoffrey took much interest in this dramatic object lesson. In reality he now turned his back on us, leaving the village in the hands of a bailiff whose primary duty was to screw out of the peasants as much as could be achieved. And did Geoffrey enjoy his new horse? Well, he did for a while before he met a timely demise on the battlefield, mourned by none, including his long-suffering wife.
The village came to be called GEDELSTON. Gedel was one of our first farmers – ‘Ton’ means ‘farm’, thus Gedel’s Farm. What Gedel thought of Geoffrey is hard to fathom. Not much, I should imagine. Gedelston probably had a day of rejoicing when Geoffrey finally met his end. And as time went by, Gedelston became corrupted to Gelston, and later to Gilston. We were finally on the map.
Those of you who have wondered why Gilston is so spread out will understand from these notes why it is so. It has never altered in 870 years: isolated houses dotted around isolated lanes. Always small, it is doubtful whether the population has ever exceeded 300.
Time passes, and by the year 1260 the timber-framed thatched farmhouses are occupied by the nobility, and their pigs lived outside in pig-sties. They also had money which gradually, and with some reluctance on the nobles’ part, percolated into the village. The church was rebuilt in a much larger and grander style, with a sturdy bell-tower (no spire as yet) and fine interior fittings. But there were at this stage no pews for the congregation, and on the walls the Devil still prodded Gilston’s first streakers into the fiery pit.
But amongst the nobility were people who for the first time actually loved their village, and did not just treat it as a money-box. Lady Alys de Ros was a fine example of this new breed. A daughter of one of the great families of England, she lived at Overhall. Widowed, she devoted herself to the relief of the poor and needy, and the care of their children. When the villagers carried Lady Alys to her final resting place in the church in 1375 there was genuine grief for a much loved resident. In stark contrast to the late unlamented Geoffrey, Lady Alys lies in the church to this day in the left-hand side aisle under a simple stone inscribed ALYS ROS.
In 1348, when Gilston was barely two centuries old, its very existence was threatened by the Black Death. The village did survive, but only after a third to a half of all the residents had succumbed to this fearsome plague; and it took a long time to recover.
It has been said that the British are slow to learn an art, but, once learnt, they never forget it; and this was so in Gilston. The “old boys” born of the soil knew their agriculture well. Arable crops were to be the order of the day. Gilston sat on a gold mine – fertile soil. It was one of the most important decisions ever made in the village. There were to be many horrible years ahead, and many disastrous harvests, but the foundations were laid for the economy of Gilston for many centuries to come.
More land was cleared, crop yields improved, and those confounded pigs were finally pensioned off. The whiskery barley crops came rapidly to be grown in quantities in excess of the needs of the locals, and could now be sold in the commercial markets. In times to come barley came to be the staple crop for the vast London beer industry via the maltings situated in our neighbouring towns.
Wealth, and wealth there was in Gilston, was still very much in the hands of a few, but the overall lot of the villagers had improved. Uneducated they still were, but there were now free-thinkers; attitudes were being formulated that were to make themselves known in time to come.
Wealth attracts wealth. The knightly class, whose main ethos in life was to fight, had slaughtered themselves nearly to extinction in the bloody dynastic struggle known disparagingly as the Wars of the Roses. Oh . . . how Geoffrey would have approved! In their place rose a new merchant class, men of trade rather than war. And to Gilston they came, seeking country retreats or retirement homes.
Sir William Estfield of Netherhall was one of these: a fabulously rich mercer, Mayor of London, and generous benefactor of its citizens, a friend of kings. He officiated at the coronation of King Henry VI, a baby six months old, who was crowned with his mother’s bracelet, the crown being too big. Estfield lived at Gilston, and when he died in 1453 left £50 to the village – a fortune by today’s standards. Sir Peter Arderne of Overhall was another: Chief Baron of the Exchequer, an early-day Chancellor of the State Finances. His wealth was also enormous.
There is little now in Gilston to remember these people by, but the arms of Sir William Estfield are still to be seen in the west window of the church.
On the principle of big fish eating little fish, it was inevitable that the three farms would one day become one; and the first moves in this direction occurred in Tudor times when around the year 1550, Henry Chauncy arrived in the village. He was a Catholic, who had been kicked out of his home at nearby Pishiobury through political chicanery. He came to Gilston and acquired Netherhall. Chauncy was not a farmer but, like his predecessors, he had money and was prepared to spend it. Revolution, not reform, was the order of the day. Down came the farmstead, and in its place rose a fine Tudor mansion house of stone.
Large and imposing, it dominated the village, which previously had seen nothing grander than the church. The mansion rejoiced in the not very original title of New Place, and stood just below where the current Gilston Park manor house is today. It was well furnished, and required domestic staff to administer it. For the first time there were jobs in the village for women: menial tasks, but at least a start had been made to improve their lot.
Chauncy’s fortunes fluctuated violently between comfortable living, and facing legal charges and extremely dangerous ones of being a Papist. Despite everything, however, he survived to die in his bed, leaving as his legacy the fine manor house.
In due course the Chauncys departed, and New Place became a particularly attractive property, sought by many. One later owner, Elizabeth Williams, is notable in that she sent a letter to her brother – the oldest surviving letter that we have. It is dated 1616, and in it she states that she had never been happier since she had arrived to live in Gilston, and that she loved all the things she saw about her. Her most telling comment was that Gilston in the spring was ablaze, end to end, with wild flowers: primroses, violets and cowslips. If only it were so now!
In 1610 twin girls had been born in Gilston: Phebe and Tabitha. Mothers came from far around to coo over the infants.
The next important year in Gilston’s history was to be 1632. In that year the Gore family purchased New Place, an action that was destined to cause trouble. Sir John Gore was a Royalist sympathiser, but the villagers were staunchly Cromwellian in theirs. Civil war was imminent, and Gilston was about to be caught up in it.
Gilston did not trust Sir John, and their concern went up the ladder to the staff of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. The outcome was the unprecedented sight of a troop of Roundhead soldiers, led by the joyless Captain Willett, riding through the village to New Place. A tense confrontation ensued. Sir John was relieved of his bank balance in the form of an enforced loan which Sir John would get back at the end of the war if he did not join in on the side of the King. Oliver Cromwell subsequently had second thoughts on the matter, and sent the soldiers back to Gilston to relieve poor old Sir John of another “loan”, thinking presumably that the first had not been a sufficiently large deterrent.
Sir John, financially crippled, kept his head down, and a period of sternness pervaded Gilston. The infamous Devil-and-sinners wall paintings in the church were long gone. But after a while things went back to normal. Sir John was restored to favour, and we hope that his money was returned to him. He was smart enough to acquire a Cromwellian bride along the way, which did much to restore the unity of the village. And unity was to develop in another direction as well. Sir John was not always involved in politics; he was also a skilful administrator. Back in 1637 he had purchased the village of Eastwick in its entirety. This was an astute move, and one that brought much valuable agricultural land into his estate. So the two villages were united – a unity that remains to this day.
But there was sorrow as well. Sir John and the family lost a number of infant daughters, including their much loved four-year-old, Bridget. A touching memorial to her remains today in the chancel of Gilston Church.
The monarchy was restored in 1660; and one Sunday that year the Rector, Mr Mockett, was actually in the process of leading worship, standing at the altar of Gilston Church, when a Royalist officer entered, bearing a warrant for his expulsion from holy orders. A bizarre scene then took place which would not have disgraced a comic farce on the London theatre stage. As the officer endeavoured to read out the warrant in a loud voice, the Rector’s wife moved swiftly from her seat, approached the officer, and snatched the warrant from him. When he tried to wrest it from her hand, she thwarted him by the simple expedient of thrusting the warrant down her bosom. The officer recoiled in total confusion; the churchgoers started laughing; and Mrs Mockett stood her ground defiantly. Humphry Gore, Sir John’s son, was in the congregation, and found himself placed in a difficult position. He was, after all, a Justice of the Peace, and the law must be upheld. Alas for direct action, Humphry Gore had to bring the stand-off to an end. English law may be good, but it contains little room for humour. Humphry demanded that the warrant be issued. It was accordingly recited from memory, not read, the document remaining where Mrs Mockett had so successfully deposited it. The old order was restored.
As a reaction against the preceding years of austerity, Gilston entered a period of free and easy living. On the scene came the tavern, the Plume of Feathers, and it has had a continuous existence ever since. Socially it has played an important part in village affairs, finding many uses over the centuries.
It found immediate and popular acclaim amongst the menfolk, and it was not long before it was in trouble. In 1661 the landlady was brought before the courts for running a disorderly house, a not uncommon event in the history of the establishment. A later landlord was one of the villagers who adopted orphan children from London, and one of these was a tiny baby girl. He thought long and hard over what name he should give her, and it is on record that at last he came up with the delightful ‘Elizabeth Feathers’. No doubt Miss Feathers broke many hearts before she finally married.
Humphry Gore enclosed a large area of farmland around the manor house, New Place, and thus originated the title Gilston Park, in use to this day. He developed the gardens and planted many trees and shrubs there. Gradually the Gores purchased all the land in Gilston, and for the first time in its history the village was a unified entity. The Overhall and Giffards lands were incorporated into Gilston Park, and the buildings reverted to being pure farms once more, occupied by tenanted farmers. Two more farms came on the scene at this time: Channocks and Terlings.
The Gores left Gilston, and the eighteenth century saw the village owned by the Plumer family. They were typical Georgian squires, with little pretensions of importance, their lives revolving around the day-to-day running of their estate. A tightly-knit village system existed in Gilston under the Plumers, but it should not be forgotten that during this time one in five of the villagers was destitute and living on parish relief (a form of early-day social-security benefit), and life could be very harsh indeed.
John Plumer was a kindly old squire, and he tried hard to alleviate their distress. It was he who gave succour to the tragic Jane Wenham, the last woman in England to be convicted of witchcraft. (See note at the end of this article.) He intervened by bringing her to live in Gilston and ensured that she was not victimised in any way.
The Plumer family were to remain in Gilston for over a hundred years, and in their later days produced another of Gilston’s greats, the much admired Lady Jane Plumer – admired, that is, by her equals. She was not admired by her subordinates, to whom she could be very haughty and overbearing. Woe betide anyone who did not bow or curtsey as she came by. When riding in the village she insisted on using a large and sumptuous carriage, with finely caparisoned horses and uniformed flunkeys. The passing places cut for her coach in the narrow Gilston lanes were visible for many years.
A beautiful, educated society girl, Lady Jane Plumer carried all before her. Life at Gilston Park was a blaze of balls and parties. Having three husbands at quite an early age, she fell in and out of love with many, leaving a trail of tangled emotions and wreckage. She died young in 1831 and is buried in Eastwick churchyard.
Her third husband was Robert Ward who assumed the name Plumer Ward. He was a remarkable man, a national and local politician, who later held high office of state. He was also an author and an avid collector of fine arts. Under his authority Gilston Park became a treasure house of paintings, sculptures and furnishings. There was a magnificent library and a notable conservatory. On a romantic note, it is on record that Robert had flowering shrubs planted along the margins of paths in Home Wood where he would walk in peaceful solitude while composing his literary works. Remnants of these shrubs survive to this day.
It seemed as though life would go on for ever, but a thunderbolt was about to strike Gilston. By 1850 Robert Plumer Ward had abandoned Gilston, and Gilston Park was sold to one John Hodgson, a person who was to have more influence over village affairs than any other soul, past or present, even including the awful Geoffrey de Mandeville, our founder who, after all, soon forgot us.
John Hodgson was to be a presence in Gilston for 30 years or so, and he was to change every facet of village life. By profession a shipbroker, he had by varied means become an extremely wealthy man. A bachelor, a kindly man and an able businessman, his arrival in Gilston was dramatic.
On first inspection his utter distaste at what he found was apparent. Gilston Park manor house was decrepit and damp, being by then some 300 years old. The farms were worn out and in a state of disrepair, and the villagers’ houses were but peasants’ hovels – indescribably filthy, insanitary, cold and damp. In their defence it must be said that they didn’t keep the pigs in their homes any more – but they themselves were the pigs! Everything, but everything, must go. Every building must be destroyed and a new one take its place. Everything had to be planned to the tiniest detail, all needs and every service provided.
In about 30 years, this extraordinary man accomplished his extraordinary dream. The old Gilston Park manor house was demolished, and nearby arose the sumptuous baronial pile that replaced it, a chateau of imposing proportions that was to be his home. Some of the materials of the old house were incorporated into the new, but the quite magnificent furnishings were all sold.
New farmhouses were built, and all the new cottages; and what splendid houses they were in comparison to what had been there before. Built in rich red brick, they included black brick diaper work, tall ‘Tudor’ chimneys, decorative wooden gables, ornate porches, diamond-paned windows, and solid oak doors.
The occupants of the new red-brick houses, used to nothing more than a timber-framed shack, looked in awe upon these comparatively fine abodes. Most were semi-detached, comprising one up and one down, that is, bedroom upstairs and living-room downstairs, with possibly a small scullery/pantry: a stone-floored room used to store food, and with a sink, but no running water. There was no lighting, this being provided by portable oil lamps, but heating was available in most rooms in the form of open fireplaces. Cooking was done by means of a range in the living-room, a metal oven heated by a coal fire. The range was adored by the family cat which could roast its fur while sitting underneath. Outside was a coalplace to store fuel, a garden to grow fruit and vegetables and a wash-house with a copper, a cauldron into which went all the laundry. The copper was again heated by a fire. Drying was by the use of a mangle, a large pair of wooden rollers turned by hand, followed by drying at the fireside, or outside on a washing line.
Boiling water from the copper could also be ladled into a tin bath for bath-time, and shared by family members (the water, that is, not the bath!). The water supply was from a pump in the garden, an ornate metal item; none now survive. And finally, the most indispensable outside loo (the privy): bucket-style, it was emptied by the user. Even man’s best friend was not forgotten: most cottages had a dog kennel.
There was of course a debit side, even though, compared to what had gone before, the cottages were heaven. Most families consisted of husband and wife and anything up to a dozen children, maybe more. It was a tight fit, to say the least. And houses had no damp-courses, and could become chronically damp.
If the people were impressed with their homes, it was nothing to how they viewed their services. The new village was designed to be self-contained, in that it would not be necessary to leave it to obtain the basic needs of life. There was a dairy (what is now Nos 3 and 4 Dairy Cottages), where the cows were brought in to be milked. It was once a most ornate building, with metal storage and cooling devices, milk churns and the like, and even decorative floor tiles. Milkmaids did the milking by hand. A laundry was provided (now The Old Laundry, Eastwick Hall), in essence an early-day laundrette: a hot and steamy place, where if you didn’t want to do your own laundry it would be done for you – for a charge.
A nursery was provided (cucumbers, not babies) at what is now Goldenbrook. There was a magnificent walled garden with constant running water available from the brook. Here were grown the vegetables, fruit and flowers required by the manor house, all the surplus being made available for sale to the locals: for a long time it was a very active market garden.
When the school was built, that was probably the most important item in the entire master plan. The attractive classroom with the teacher’s house attached is now High Gilston. For the first time in Gilston’s history, there was elementary education for all the children, who could in turn teach their elders to read and write, if they were so mindful. Village documents began to appear with signatures rather than the never-ending X’s used hereforeto. Mass education spelled the beginning of the end of the village system, for educated people would seek more than the Gilston Park feudal system, however benevolent. But this was in the future: for now, the manor house, the rectory and the school underpinned Victorian society in Gilston. The squire, the Rector and the schoolteacher ruled omnipotent.
It is pleasant to record that before he died in 1882 John Hodgson saw the completion of his work. He left in his will three-quarters of a million pounds – a huge sum for the time – and the new village. He was buried in Eastwick churchyard under a surprisingly simple stone. His brother William survived him but a few years, and then the estate was transferred to a member of the Bowlby family, a relative of the deceased. Any of our readers who lives in a house as described and which bears the monogram IH or WH and the date on its wall lives in a Hodgson house, as many of the residents do.
The houses had been spread out in little clusters over a big area. The Bowlbys did little to alter this arrangement. But they did build one new house that had, surprisingly, been left out of the master plan: a new Rectory. The old one, west of the church, was demolished, and the new one was built down School Lane, near the school, quite a distance from the church. It was a typical Victorian rectory, large and dark with spacious grounds.
A gradual shift in population occurred, as most of the older houses round the church had been pulled down by John Hodgson, and people tended to move down to the main road (Pye Corner) where the action was. It was nearer the pub . . . and some infilling of houses took place here. The main road itself, known locally as the Causeway, was a disgusting mess of mud and stones, which was made infinitely worse by the countless streams of livestock and heavy horse-drawn drays that frequently passed by.
One loss was not mourned: the demolition of the workhouse, a much detested establishment. Its site was behind what is now Nos 22–25 Pye Corner.
Gilston entered the twentieth century in a relaxed manner, in the belief that nothing would ever change its established pattern. In 1908 the squire built the Village Hall (then known as the Club Room) for the use of the social activities of the village. This was an instant success and is still thriving. During its hundred-odd years it has seen diverse usages: a working men’s club; for parties, filmshows and the Women’s Institute; as a place of worship, an overflow for the school, a centre for infant welfare, where babies from both villages would be checked over by the district nurse; as a ballot station; for whist drives, dances, theatrical productions, youth clubs and so forth. It has greatly justified and fulfilled its original intent.
But this idyll was to be rudely shattered by the cataclysmic slaughter of the First World War, when a whole generation of village manhood was swept away. Hardly a house in the village did not lose a husband or son, some more than one. A simple white memorial cross was erected opposite the Plume of Feathers: it records 16 names of the fallen (and remember, these from such a tiny village as it was then); and there were countless others wounded in body or mind.
The costs of running estates and the lack of labour slowly changed the rhythm of life in Gilston. The farms were leased out to tenant farmers, and family names such as Neilson, May and Carter, which are familiar to us today, appeared on the scene. These farmers were able to run their own day-to-day affairs. Over the next decades farming practices would change dramatically, and machinery would ultimately replace men (and horses). Although the land of Gilston is still basically agricultural, and the growing of grain still predominates, there was finally to be no need for labour.
Formerly, practically everybody in Gilston (if they worked at all) worked in farming or in domestic service at Gilston Park manor house. The dairy had long since been closed, and the need for domestic service at the manor house was diminished on economic grounds. All is now gone, and little village work now remains.
The Second World War gave a small respite in that it brought employment, but did not materially change the village. The residents at the west end of the area came to know the roar of bombers from the adjacent Hunsdon RAF station, and enemy raids occurred spasmodically. The Bowlbys allowed Gilston Park to be taken over by the military as an officers’ billet and subsequently as a hospital for the Royal Air Force. There were two near-disasters, but fortunately no civilian deaths. A V1 flying bomb (a ‘doodlebug’) dived to earth at Channocks Farm, and a parachute mine fell near Nos 86/87 Gilston. This fearsome weapon left a gigantic crater resembling a volcano. If it had fallen just a few hundred yards eastwards in Pye Corner the devastation and loss of life would have been appalling.
After the war the old order died rapidly. The Bowlbys finally departed from Gilston Park in 1948, and the Estate was sold to Arthur Guinness (yes, of the black liquid – Guinness is Good for You). Gilston Park saw a few abortive schemes by its new occupants; for a time it was a country club, before it came ultimately into the ownership of Smith & Nephew, the multinational pharmaceutical group. They used the manor house as offices and built adjacent laboratories for research. They were to remain for many years, employing a large number of staff, but few locals.
Houses were gradually sold into private ownership, which accounts for most of them today; but not the farms. Many of the houses have been extended, and original Hodgson houses are hard to discern, but there are a few in their near-original form. Electricity came to most houses in 1948; piped water, as opposed to the pumps; flush lavatories and bathrooms indoors; and a huge increase in cars (on our still-narrow little lanes!). The laundry closed (the twin-tub had arrived) and, tragically, in 1959 so did the village school – a great loss, following which the children were sent to High Wych. From one point of view, the 1944 Education Act, providing secondary education for all from the age of 11, had sounded the first death-knell for the school because, instead of staying at one school until 14, and then moving straight into the adult world of work, children left their village primary schools and went on to grammar schools – round here in Hertford or Bishop’s Stortford – or the secondary modern school in Sawbridgeworth. Most children left school at 15, although the fortunate few at grammar schools stayed longer.
More recent village affairs have seen the sale of the Estate to the Pension Fund of British Petroleum (BP) , whose affairs are widely reported from time to time in the local press. Gilston Park was finally vacated by Smith & Nephew, and after remaining vacant for some years was redeveloped for housing needs. A similar situation prevailed in the grounds were the laboratories were demolished an replaced by a number of large houses.
At Terlings Park another research facility, Merck, Sharp & Dohme established itself for some years in spacious and well-guarded grounds. Terlings Park had once been a Tudor farm, and in later days a small manor house in an attractive setting. As I write, the facility has closed down and the future of the site is still under discussion.
Today we are in our 876th year, and amazingly the village is still what it always was: a series of little groups of houses spread out over a very wide area. The noble church still stands on the hilltop, and the great manor house still sits like a spider in the centre of the web. The farms continue golden with cereals, and now the infamous rape crops.
There are big problems: the road traffic; the burgeoning of Stansted Airport; and possible future housing developments. (Gilston could no longer survive as a rural entity any more than the villages around Harlow did when their New Town came.) I assume that most people who live here do so because they like our rural character. I cannot judge the future, but I know that if that old reprobate Geoffrey de Mandeville were to look down on us today (or should I say ‘up’ as I doubt whether he ever arrived at the promised land), he would be proud that the village he founded so speedily and so long ago has endured for so many centuries. And all for the sake of that lovely horse!
The Jane Wenham Witchcraft Trial
The event took place in the year 1712, when Jane Wenham, a widow from the village of Walkern (near Stevenage) was accused of witchcraft. The charge was farcical, the penalty dire. A fellow villager stated that Jane had bewitched his cows which then conveniently died. Perhaps he would have been better employed cutting down the toxic weeds in his fields.
I get the feeling that this character was a suitor whose desire for Jane gave way to hatred as his advances were rejected. Sadly, he then enlisted the support of his fellow villagers who vied with one another to improve on the tale by inventing even more fanciful falsehoods. Jane was now charged with procuring the death of her late husband, and communing with the Devil in the shape of a cat, of which she kept a number in the house. They couldn’t have been kept to kill the mice, could they?
In desperation she threw herself upon the mercy of Sir Henry Chauncy, a local magistrate. There is no excuse for this man in the affair: he was an educated man and an upholder of the law. He should have acted differently but, influenced by the opionions of the people, ignorant as they were, and consumed with superstition and dread, he went along with their accusations, and committed her to trial.
Jane Wenham was subsequently brought before Mr Justice Powell at Hertford Assizes. The trial was extraordinary. The prosecution produced witness after witness to condemn the wretched woman, including, it is sad to relate, a local clergyman, a noted witch-hunter, another who should have known better. And the intended final thrust was when a man entered the witness box and announced to the world that he had seen Jane fly through the air on her broomstick. Mr Justice Powell’s reply thundered through the realms of British justice: ‘I know of no law in this land that forbids a person to fly.’ At the end of the trial, the judge summed up in a manner that suggested an acquittal was appropriate; but the twelve good men and true who comprised the jury thought otherwise, and found her guilty. A death sentence was automatic.
But public opinion was outraged, and a nationwide and furious battle ensued between the supporters and detractors of the Witchcraft Act, while the tragic Jane Wenham lay in the condemned cell.
It was Mr Justice Powell who was to be the hero of the day. He sought and obtained a private audience with Queen Anne, where he outlined eloquently the case for leniency for the condemned woman. The Government machine was exercised, and justice finally came to Jane Wenham. A reprieve was issued and in due course the Witchcraft Act was repealed. Jane was to be the last woman in England condemned to death as a witch. Her release brought to an end centuries of injustice and judicial murder of countless unfortunate so-called witches.
Although now released, what to do with Jane Wenham was an exceedingly difficult problem. She may have been a free woman, but Walkern was not free of bigotry and fear, so it was not possible to return her to her home. Enter on the scene at this point the kindly squire of Gilston, Colonel John Plumer. He took pity on her and gave her a cottage to live in near the border of Gilston and Eastwick.
Here Jane Wenham lived for some time, a kindly and erudite person, entertaining a number of influential people and earning the admiration of all whom she met. There must have been villagers who were afraid of witches, but under the protection of her guardian she enjoyed her years here. When that protection finally ceased on the death of the Colonel in 1720, it was considered politic to move her to neutral ground, and she became a resident of Hertingfordbury. She died in 1730, and England’s last supposed witch was buried in the churchyard there.
May I conclude by recommending that this article is read in conjunction with ‘A Walk Around Gilston’, also on this website.