Thornton village is within the civil parish of Bagworth and Thornton in Leicestershire. It is a linear village lying along a scarp overlooking Thornton Reservoir to the east and Bagworth Heath to the west.
How old is Thornton – by Peter Leadbetter
Thornton is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Bagworth and Stanton under Bardon, the two villages with the closest links to Thornton, do both get a mention in the Domesday Book as ‘Bageworde’ and ‘Stantone’ respectively, which dates them to pre-1086. Whatever settlement was then on the site of the current Thornton was, according to
John Nichols (see Bibliography below), probably under the jurisdiction of Bagworth and so didn’t get a mention in its own right. In a number of books it is stated that the name of Thornton came about because of an abundance of thorns in the vicinity of the settlement. This is a theme repeated in various publications. Thornton could be either a Saxon or a Viking village. The suffix of –ton / – tun was used by both peoples. The village name of Thornton is very common in Yorkshire, an area under the domination of the Vikings. Ratby, a neighbouring village was a Viking settlement as seen by its name (ending –‘by’). However, Bagworth, another neighbouring village, was a Saxon settlement (ending –‘worth’). The first printed reference to Thornton is in 1162 (in the reign of King Henry II), when the village’s church was listed as belonging to St Mary in the Fields, Leicester (also called St Mary de Pratis or St Mary de Pre). So, to answer the question in the title, the village is not quite 900 years old, a mere baby compared to our neighbours.
Morris, J. (Ed) (1979) Domesday Book Leicestershire, Phillimore & Co Ltd,
Bourne, J. (1981) Place-names of Leicestershire & Rutland, Leicestershire County
Nichols, J. The Histories and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, SR Publishers
A Short History of Thornton – by Iris Gleeson
The history of the village of Thornton goes back to well over a thousand years when the first settlement was made on the ridge between the two streams which still run on either side.
Although exposed to strong winds from every direction, primarily the south west, the village is safe from flooding standing as it does 460 to 480 feet above sea level.
The village name is generally thought to be Saxon meaning the ‘tun’ (a landed property) in a thorny district.
The whole area around Thornton was covered with a thick deposit of boulder clay at the end of the Ice-age and this subsequently made an ideal bed for the construction of the reservoir in the mid 1850’s since water does not easily seep through it.
How long a church has been present in the village is unknown; although written evidence
dates back to 1220. St Peter’s Church, Thornton, is unrecorded in the Domesday Book which describes only the ‘Manor of Bageworde’. Doubtless this includes Thornton as the two have always been in the same parish.
(The above taken from the Church of St Peter’s, Thornton – A short guide & history).
In the 19th century the village was mainly agricultural, there being about 12-16 farms, few of which now exist.
Most dwellings in the village were owned by the Countess of Warwick and these were sold at a Grand Auction in about 1919, catalogues of which are still in existence.
Thornton Reservoir was built in the mid 1850’s to take the first fresh piped water to Leicester, but at that time water was supplied to the village via the Water Tower which stood at the bottom end of the village near the Wheelwright’s Cottage.
There were several areas of the village where water had to be collected from taps sited at the ends of rows of houses etc. and well within living memory; as are ‘pan’ toilets which
were emptied at night by the ‘night soil’ men.
Old kitchens were demolished and replaced with new kitchens and bathrooms containing toilets in the 1960s in the 2 rows of cottages belonging to Desford Colliery.
Other cottages were owned by Bagworth colliery and were rented out to their employees at both pits.
At about the turn of the 19th into the 20th century the advent of collieries in the area
meant that more men were needed to provide labour for the mines and therefore houses were built, and men, and sometimes their families, moved from other parts of the country for this purpose. This changed the balance of employment into agricultural workers and
miners and this was the case for many years until some of the farms were turned into
family homes and the many pits in the area were finally closed in the 1980’s.
Many more privately owned houses were built and colliery houses and council houses were sold to sitting tenants.
The village gradually changed as most people had to travel well beyond the boundaries
of the village to find employment.
Thornton had its own Post Office for many years although it changed position within the village over the years. It was finally closed after several robberies forced the Sub-postmistress to move.
This caused a great loss to the village as the office was used for so many purposes.
In 2019 the Post Office reopened in the Corner Shop.
Thornton School has been in existence for over 100 years and has had a reputation of being a good school and I am sure that most teachers’ names can be remembered by the previous pupils.
Thornton Community Centre came into existence in the 1970’s mainly because there was not an existing building which could be used for community use at all times. A committee was formed to explore the possibilities and finally a Charity was formed in order that grants could be obtained from local authorities etc. Fund raising was started in the village at the beginning of 1970 and the first building was opened on 8th September 1973; extensions were added in 1978 and 1988. The hall is in use most of the time from Monday to Friday and the activities cover all ages from Mums & Tots to Senior Citizens via Brownies, Youth Club, Yoga, Playgroup, W.I., Markfield & Thornton Theatre Group, Keep Fit, Kick Boxing etc.
The Hall can be hired for parties, weddings, and other private functions.
The Bricklayers Arms has been in existence for many years and is reputed to have been ‘kept’ by members of the Dilks family for almost 500 years. The last Dilks landlord was Arthur Dilks, who was born at the pub and retired soon after his 65th birthday in 1982. The pub was given its name because the Dilks family carried on the trade as builders. It is understood that employees were paid their wages in the pub.
The Bulls Head pub was a feature in the village for over 100 years and was enlarged over recent years and the name changed to ‘The Tipsy Fisherman’, then the Steam Trumpet, and more recently the Reservoir Inn until it closed down after a small fire in the kitchen in 2018.
Fishing licences for the reservoir had to be obtained from the pub until the new fishing lodge was built.
A public house named the ‘Stag & Castle’ existed in The Hollow near to the railway bridge and this property was also used as a ticket office for the Swannington line into Leicester as there was a ‘halt’ for passengers from the village in order that they did not have to travel to Bagworth Station.
Thornton Working Men’s Club, I believe, was convened in the afore-mentioned property before moving to its present property in Main Street. The present building was previously a farm. Many types of entertainment take place there on a regular basis.
There were several shops in the village, some being carried out from front rooms of houses and sheds but the main two belonged to Alf & Irene Orme, which sold all types of merchandise and was situated opposite the vicarage, and the corner shop at the top of Church Lane run by the Seal family for many years. In 1980 it became Lloyd & Sue’s Corner Shop. The shop still exists today.
This store, along with Thornton Nursery and Thornton Service Station, has served the local community for many years.
Iris Gleeson – 2008
The first historical notice of Thornton, otherwise called “Torinton” is that in the Domesday Book completed in 1085 AD. In it Thornton, or Torentum, comes under the manor of Bagworde (Bagworth).
Railway – The Leicester and Swannington railway line was one of the first in the country and was laid down by Robert Stephenson.
From 1832 until 1871, Thornton was served partly by Merry Lees railway station, and the Stag and Castle Inn built in 1832 served as a station in Thornton Hollow, part way between Thornton and Bagworth until 1865.
On 4 May 1833 an accident occurred at Thornton Lane level crossing (now a bridge). The gates had been left open and a train ran into a horse and cart, the driver of which had not heard the engine driver’s bugle.
The Company had to pay for a new horse and cart along with fifty pounds of butter and eighty dozen eggs.
As a result of this accident George Stephenson, devised the steam whistle.
It was constructed by a musical instrument maker in King Street, Leicester and it became standard equipment on most steam trains thereafter.
Thornton was originally a farming village but, with the coming of the collieries in Bagworth and the Coalville area, many miners lived in Thornton too. There was no colliery or mine workings in Thornton and it is understood that underground faults made any coal under Thornton unworkable.
What is the link between Thornton Reservoir and Leicester? The answer is clean, running water. Following three major cholera epidemics in 1831, 1832 and 1847 the British Government passed the 1848 Public Health Act. Among other provisions this made local authorities responsible for the supply of clean drinking water to the local populace. Leicester, like many other cities in this country had no centralised system of water distribution and the majority of the population relied on the wells, springs and the River Soar for all their water.
In 1847 the Leicester Waterworks Company (LWC) obtained an Act of Parliament which allowed it to build a reservoir at Thornton to supply water to Leicester. Due to a lack of interest on the part of investors nothing happened until 1850, the year after a cholera epidemic struck Leicester. In that year the LWC reached an agreement with the Leicester Borough Council, of the required sum of £80,000; of which £17,000 was to be provided by the Borough Council and £63,000 by public subscription. In exchange for this financial support the Borough Council guaranteed a dividend of 4% until 1883 and was entitled to all the profits over 4.5% generated by the reservoir ad infinitum.
A local Act was obtained to confirm this agreement in 1851 and work then commenced. The dam built to create it (i.e. Reservoir Road), was an earth-fill embankment with a puddle clay core; it’s about 12 yards high and 500 yards long. The reservoir has a perimeter of approximately 2½ miles.
When finished, the reservoir had a capacity of 330 million gallons of water – it is fed by 2 streams and this is very noticeable when viewed on a map. In December 1853 the first piped water arrived in Leicester: the reservoir, situated some 200 feet above Leicester did not need any pumping stations, gravity alone moving the water to the city. By 1863 it was realised that Thornton Reservoir alone could not supply Leicester’s needs and so the reservoirs at Cropston and Swithland were subsequently built in 1866 and 1896
The reservoir has not been used to supply water to Leicester directly since 1982. This was for two main reasons:
The cost of treating the water to bring it up to current standards and secondly a serious pollution incident involving a road traffic accident some years ago on the M1 motorway when insecticides found their way into some of the reservoir’s sources. The reservoir could be used again to supply water thanks to modifications made in 1996, which permit water to flow into Rothley Brook and on into Cropston Reservoir.
The main purpose of the reservoir was its most important, but most people now know the reservoir for its recreational uses. There are a great many fish and this has drawn fishermen to it, birds came here and were duly followed by the ornithologists and photographers, and finally the naturalists came to study the life in and around the water. And this year especially (2011), probably the driest in Leicestershire since 1976, we have witnessed the reservoir shrink before our eyes, and we realise just how important this ‘basic’ resource is to all of us.
Our Daisy – Countess of Warwick
Frances (‘Daisy’) Evelyn Maynard was born on 10th December 1861 at Easton Lodge, Great Dunmow, Essex, the daughter of the Honourable Colonel Charles Maynard and his wife the Honourable Blanche Fitzroy. Frances’ father was an extremely wealthy man, owning large tracts of land including Bagworth and Thornton. Her mother was doubly descended from Charles II through 2 of his most notorious (and beautiful) mistresses, Nell Gwyn and Lady Barbara Villiers. Her father died in 1865 and Frances (or ‘Daisy’ as she was known in the family) and her younger sister ‘Blanchie’ inherited his estates. In 1867 her mother remarried, to a senior courtier Lord Rosslyn, a favourite of Queen Victoria. As a result of the marriage, Daisy gained 3 half-sisters who in time became the Duchess of Sutherland, the Countess of Westmoreland and The Lady Angela Forbes.
Daisy was beautiful as well as wealthy and well-connected: quite something on the marriage market. Indeed, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Leopold, Duke of Albany, wanted to marry her, a wish that Victoria strongly supported. Daisy however was already in love with someone else and in 1881 Daisy married Francis Greville, Lord Brooke: ironically Prince Leopold’s equerry. The wedding was the social event of the year of royal proportions. Daisy was soon a great society hostess whose parties were legendary. She loved luxury and her motto seems to have been “spend, spend, spend”.
By 1885 the Brookes had three children, including the required son and heir (born 1882 and christened Leopold); so Daisy felt free to throw off the shackles of Victorian matrimony to join the “Marlborough House Set”, an infamous upper-class ‘social club’! Queen Victoria’s final, damning comment on Daisy was “she is fast, very fast”. Daisy soon began affairs with a number of influential men including politicians, fellow aristocrats and the future Edward VII. She is reputed to be the inspiration for the music hall song, “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do”.
In 1893 Lord Brooke became the 5th Earl of Warwick and ‘Countess Daisy’s’ new home was Warwick Castle.
While she was a mistress of Prince Edward, Daisy was also having a clandestine affair with his close friend Lord Charles Beresford. When Edward found out, he was not pleased and ended his acquaintance with her for a time, taking up with Mrs Keppel. Daisy’s problems really began at this point when she was supplanted in the royal favour: she was not the sort of woman to be quiet about things, and she was known for telling everyone her secrets, her nickname in high society being “the Babbling Brooke”. Lady Beresford had somehow managed to get hold of a letter that Daisy had written to her husband Lord Beresford, in which Daisy berated him for deciding to stay with his wife! Prince Edward was furious and demanded to have the letter. It took the intervention of the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury to resolve the dispute. Yet despite this, Prince (later King) Edward, could not resist her charms for long, and they remained at least friends for the rest of his life.
Daisy went on to have two more children – a boy (called Maynard) in 1898 and a girl, Blanche, in 1903. These last 2 children were not fathered by her husband but by Joe Laycock, a Boer War Army Officer who had become a multi-millionaire through inheritance. Together they became the darlings of the hunting, shooting and fishing set. But, a known womaniser, Joe abandoned Daisy in 1903 for her best friend, which left her distraught and keen to find a new path. The next 35 years of her life were to be completely different.
‘Our Daisy’ – the Countess of Warwick – Part 2
In the second half of her incredible life, Daisy was to prove she had a social conscience. An early socialist, Robert Blatchford, wrote a scathing article about her in a left-wing paper called ‘The Clarion’ which annoyed her so much she decided to discuss it with him face to face. This attack followed a particularly extravagant social event at Warwick Castle called Le Bal Poudré. What was actually said, we do not know, but as a result Daisy joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1904. She gave the organisation large amounts of money and supported their campaign for free school meals for children. She founded a girls’ needlework school at Easton in Essex and Studley Agricultural College for Women. Daisy’s house-guests at this time included George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Holst, Ramsay McDonald and HG Wells and she started to write seriously.
Thanks to the fact that Daisy owned several parishes, she used her influence to appoint only left-wing clergymen. A declared pacifist, she opposed Britain’s participation in the 1st World War, but supported the Russian revolutionaries in the October revolution. After the end of the Great War she joined the Labour Party and became fascinated by the developing Trades Union movement, promoting the cause of coal-miners and railway-men, touring the Midlands in her smart red Wolsey car.
But Daisy was soft-hearted and sentimental and became too generous. With her commitments to good causes, by the end of the First World War her money had started to run out. She had to sell off many of her properties, the manor of Bagworth and Thornton in 1919 being one example. At one point it is alleged that she tried to blackmail King George V by threatening to publish love letters written to her by his father Edward VII. The Government lawyer apparently stopped her dead in her tracks by pointing out that since Edward had written them, then the copyright belong to King George V and so she had no right to publish.
As she got older, Daisy became more left-wing; she stood as a Labour candidate for Warwick and Leamington in the general election of 1923 but came third.
Daisy’s commitment to her causes was such that in 1923 and again in 1926 she tried to give away her country house in Essex – Easton Lodge – first to the Labour Party and then the Trade Union Congress (TUC). They both turned it down because she was a Countess and therefore a symbol of privilege (although they had accepted her previous financial donations). No-one seemed to appreciate all the good she had tried to do. She became very disillusioned with Socialism and from then on stayed at home at Easton Lodge, concerning herself primarily with animal welfare, her private zoo and gardening.
Countess of Warwick, Lafayette Studio 1899
Daisy died on 26th July 1938 aged 76.
A fitting epitaph would be her own words:
‘I was a beauty, and only those who were alive then know the magic that that word held for the period. I was physically fit, unspoilt, and I adored dancing.’
Bagworth Castle – or was it just a posh house?
1279 – 1436
Mention a castle and images spring to mind of tall stone walls, knights on horseback and beautiful ladies in tall hats. Unfortunately this image is almost certainly not true of Bagworth “Castle”.
We know Bagworth was a comparatively poor estate in the middle of the 13th century, because Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, gave it to one of his closest retainers, Thomas Meynell as a stop-gap measure until ‘something better’ became available for him. It was then worth considerably less than £30 a year.
We also know that there was a Park at Bagworth thanks to the ‘Hundred Rolls’ document produced in 1279/80. At that time Bagworth was held by the Bishop of Durham, Antony le Bek, a religious man but also a wealthy man (and a fearless warrior) who had a well-developed taste for the finer things in life. In the Rolls, Bagworth Park is noted as also being known as “The Manor of the Castle of Bagworth”. The Park was stocked for hunting, as proven by a court case in 1287. Bishop Antony le Bek took 4 local men to court for breaking into his Park at Bagworth and poaching the game in it. When Antony le Bek died in 1311, there was an inquest to establish his estate. The Manor of Bagworth and Thornton was valued at only 60 shillings per year, a figure that was considered to be low.
In 1324 there is a record of Bagworth having 80 acres of land: 27 acres lying fallow and 53 acres uncultivated. This could indicate that it was still being used as a Park for hunting. Ironically, listed on the same document, among the agricultural equipment are listed 14 crossbows and 200 bolts for them – no ploughs are listed.
Antony le Bek’s heir at Bagworth, Robert de Holland obviously thought that living there could be a little unsafe, and in 1318 was granted permission by the king, Edward II, a licence to ‘crenellate’ (fortify) Bagworth House. At the time this licence was granted, Edward II was struggling to keep his throne: his main opponent was the Duke of Lancaster, who also happened to be Robert de Holland’s overlord.
In medieval times, it was normal for kings to travel around the country so that they could see and be seen by the people. In January 1325, the ill-fated Edward II went on such a progress. The king was in Whitwick on 13 January and in Bagworth on 16 January. He was next noted at King’s Langley in Hertfordshire on 23 January, so he must have spent several days at Bagworth for some reason. Whatever Bagworth was – perhaps ‘just’ a hunting lodge – it was still definitely accommodation fit for a King. Later in 1325 Bagworth’s lord, Robert de Holland was murdered – in Essex. His royal guest Edward II was deposed and murdered shortly after, in 1327.
The last de Holland Lord of the Manor of Bagworth and Thornton died in 1374. At the inquest it was noted that he had held a “capital messuage in Bagworth, called the Castle”; this was valued at nothing. A park is listed separately, valued at 2 Marks but rented out at £12 per year. The heir of Robert de Holland was his 17-year old granddaughter Matilda, who was married to Sir John Lovell.
Sir John evidently kept the Park at Bagworth well stocked with game, because in 1399 he was in court with a case against a group of men whom he accused of breaking into his park and poaching. His son, William, had the same problem – in 1436 he took a local clergyman to court for breaking into the park and poaching his game, that errant clergyman was the Vicar of Market Bosworth!
1464 – 1645 – From one civil war to another
William Hastings, a very close friend and trusted councillor of King Edward IV, was the next owner of Bagworth Park. He bought the manor from the Lovells in 1464; well, actually he “encouraged” them to sell to him by some means or other.
In 1474 Hastings was given a licence by Edward IV to crenellate (fortify) his house at Bagworth. Bearing in mind that he already owned the castle at Ashby de la Zouch and was also planning a new castle at Kirby Muxloe, it is unlikely that he did very much at Bagworth. Of interest is the note that Bagworth Park comprised 2000 acres in Hasting’s time. Unfortunately William was summarily executed by Richard III (a friend of the Lovells), in 1484, which brought a very dramatic end to any plans for Bagworth.
The next indication of Bagworth House being of military value is its use in The Great Rebellion, better known to most people as the English Civil War. By this time, 1642, the house was owned by the well-connected Harrington family (in the previous century, John Harrington was a godson of Elizabeth I, and a great favourite of that ultimate property developer Bess of Hardwick). Bagworth was initially garrisoned by Royalist troops under the command of a Captain Devereux Wolseley. In May 1643 a Parliamentarian force from Leicester was despatched to take Bagworth House. Captain Wolseley reported to the Royalist commander Henry Hastings, that the attacking force consisted of no more than 400 men and 2 cannon. Wolseley intended to hold the house for the king but was short of munitions, so the house was lost to the Parliamentarians.
In June 1644, a Royalist force attempted to re-take Bagworth House, but failed. Finally, in June 1645, the Parliamentarian garrison abandoned the house as the Royalist army advanced on Leicester. The house was destroyed at this point. It would have been fortified by the Royalists at the start of the war; these fortifications would have been trenches and earthworks, not stone walls.
In 1270 Henry III granted his son, Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Leicester, permission to hold an annual market in Bagworth; not really conclusive, but it does indicate that Bagworth was not an insignificant village. And Bagworth Castle must have been quite large in the Middle Ages to house the retinue of King Edward II for several days in 1325, but the only weapons listed were crossbows, hardly the armoury of a ‘real’ castle. It may be that it was a fairly substantial manor house, fortified after the fashion of Stokesay Castle in Shropshire. The low value of the house in the 2 inquests indicate that the house was not worth fortifying; that would have been very expensive work.
So, was ‘Bagworth Castle’ just a name? I believe that it was just an honorary name, because it was the biggest building in the area known to the villagers. In conclusion, Bagworth Castle was probably just ‘a posh house’ that impressed the locals enough – for a while – to be called a castle.
A Royal Visit to Bagworth – 1325
England was in a very weak state with a reduced (and severely malnourished) population. We were just trying to get over the Great European Famine of 1316 – 1322, and the Cattle Plague of 1319 – 1321 when half the cattle in England died. We had suffered years of summer droughts followed by devastating autumn floods and long, bitter winters. This was followed by Civil War in 1322, (with Thornton at least choosing the wrong side!). The kingdom was being ruled by greedy, idle favourites. Then, in 1324, war broke out between England and France….. so things were not good.
National problems aside; from 16th – 23rd January 1325, we had in our midst the then King of England, Edward II and presumably also his adored ‘favourite’ Hugh Despenser. (Many of you will know about their grizzly fates). Edward had been touring the Midlands, staying previously at Tutbury Castle then at Melbourne. The night before he arrived at Bagworth, the King had slept in Whitwick.
The whole of Edward’s life could be described as somewhat ‘unusual’ (as we’re being polite), but 1324/1325 was a ‘make or break year’ for the King, so it makes you wonder why was he in our Parish for a week? Hunting perhaps? Grabbing more land to give to his abhorrent favourite? Or keeping an eye on the county that had provided so many willing traitors in the recent Civil War?
While the King was here, his counsellors were meeting in London. Although England was at war with France, Edward was still obliged to go there regularly to pay homage to the King of France for lands held by the English royal family. He did not want to go. As the two monarchs were at war, any meeting was going to be difficult. So on 13th January 1325, as Edward rode from Melbourne to Whitwick, the royal counsellors decreed that he should not go abroad at this time.
Also in autumn 1324 / winter 1325, Edward’s queen, Isabella, had finally had enough. After years of cruel treatment and insults from her husband (and from the evil Despenser), she had decided to try to escape to Paris. At about the same time he was in the Midlands, King Edward was trying to find a way to divorce his queen and to separate her for ever from her children, so diplomats were being sent to Rome to test the ground with the Pope. However, a miraculous escape route offered itself to the tormented Queen.
Isabella suggested that she should go to France in her husband’s place to pay homage to the French King for Edward’s French lands. And luckily for her, he agreed to let her go, on condition she came straight back. Isabella also suggested that as she would not be away for long, perhaps she could take their eldest son with her? The King agreed. Suffice to say that from this point, with at least one of her children with her, she had no intention of coming back – unless it was at the head of an army. Which she did, just over a year later, and the men of Leicester gladly joined her – stopping first to ‘collect’ for their Queen the
favourite Despenser’s gold and jewels, stored in Leicester Abbey.
The Thornton ‘Witch’ – and the West Indies link
Everyone loves a good story and in Throsby’s “Excursions in Leicestershire”, published in 1790, pages 476-7, he relates a tragic incident that took place in “Thornton Liberty” around the year 1707. The story goes that a Thornton man was suspected of having stolen some iron from the Bagworth blacksmith, Matthew Bott. A sheriff’s posse was sent to search the man’s home and they immediately discovered that a woman was living with the suspected thief, a man called Glass; she was in fact his sister. In the house the search party found the bodies of 2 babies sewn up in a basket, at this point the sister thrust a knife into her throat and threw herself into a horse pit outside their home. The search party immediately attempted to pull her out and save her but she was dead when she was pulled out of her watery grave. The search of the house continued: no stolen goods from the blacksmith’s were found but the hidden bodies of more babies were discovered.
The severity of the sister’s crimes, infanticide, concealment of bodies and then her own suicide, meant that not only was she denied a Christian burial but she would become known as a “witch”. She was buried at Merry Lees crossroads, the intersection of two major roads in those days. She would have had a stake driven through her body to “hold her in her grave”, the stake would have been visible above ground so that people knew that she was still there. If you believe in revenge from beyond the grave, the fate of the 2 men who were part of this unhappy episode could easily give you something to think about. Matthew Bott, the blacksmith was alleged to have been hanged for forgery in Leicester a few years afterwards, and her brother was arrested for stealing in Northampton and sentenced to transportation. In those days, this meant being sent to the West Indies to be sold as a slave to work on the sugar plantations. If he survived the sea voyage then he would almost certainly have ended his days dying from one of the many tropical diseases, malnutrition or from exhaustion under the lash of an overseer’s whip.
The fate of her brother was not as unusual as many people would think. Britain had possession of a number of islands in the West Indies at this time including Jamaica, which had been captured from the Spanish in 1655. These were important prizes for the Government of Oliver Cromwell but there was a problem: a lack of workers for the plantations and a high death rate. Some could be moved from one island to another but there were still not enough. I should point out that when I say ‘workers’ I do actually mean slaves, at this time predominantly white slaves.
One method used to get more workers was the Enactment of 1652 in the British Isles, this ordained that:
“it may be lawful for two or more justices of the peace within any county, citty or towne, corporate belonging to the Commonwealth to from tyme to tyme by warrant cause to be apprehended, seized on and detained all and every person or persons that shall be found begging and vagrant in any towne, parish or place to be conveyed into the Port of London, or unto any other port from where such person or persons may be shipped into a forraign collonie or plantation.”
Oliver Cromwell was a resourceful businessman, so labourers were procured from another source as well – from his wars in Ireland and the attempted uprisings against him in the rest of the country until 1659, meant that almost 50,000 people were shipped to the West Indies and Virginia as (white) slaves. These slaves included Scottish Presbyterians (who had fought for Charles II in 1651), Irish Catholics and English ‘rebels’ of all religions. Many descendants of these white slaves are still in Barbados and are referred to as ‘Redlegs’.
The next major source of British white slave labour came as a result of the Monmouth rebellion in 1685 in the reign of the Catholic James II, when many thousands of Protestants (mostly from the South West of England), were shipped to the West Indies as slaves, never to return. To give you an idea of how large scale the transportation of criminals and others was, in Barbados in 1701, out of a slave population of about 25,000, the vast majority 21,700 were white (The Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series of 1701).
The hamlet of Merry Lees lies between Thornton, Desford and Botcheston, nowadays a few houses and a small industrial estate with a hump-backed bridge over the railway line. Previously, there was even less there, prior to the railway line being built there were a few houses centred on what was the crossroads, one arm of which is now a footpath.
Documentary sources for Merry Lees are sparse, the majority come from the church records for baptisms, marriages and burials. The earliest of these records is that of Nicholas Geary of Merry Lees who was buried at Thornton in 1669. Pre-dating this however are a series of legal documents relating to the ownership of Merry Lees, these date from 1647 to 1666.
These legal documents are the best clue to the origins of the hamlet. The first document dated 1647 is for the sale of the field called Merry Lees, sold by Thomas Baker, a felt maker, to William Orton, a shoemaker and John Willson, a tailor, all of Leicester, for the sum of £84. The property came with a sitting tenant, one William Blithe and was noted as being part of Botcheston.
The document goes on to state “commonly called or knowne by the severall names of the pasture Merry Lee, those lately devided into three closes, Townend these al(ia)s Lindridge feilds, the Nether crofte the Lammas close and the over yard”. From this we know that the pasture was variously called Merry Lees, Townsend and Lindridge Field and that sometime prior to 1647 the field had been divided into 3 smaller enclosures, Nether Croft, Lammas Close and the Over Yard. So where are these enclosures or indeed the original field? For more clues we can look at the next document, this is dated 1652 and relates to another sale.
The name of the hamlet has been seen in various written forms, Merry Lees, Mary Lees and Maerlies. The question is do they mean anything? The first word Merry, I think could be a corruption of the old English word “mere” also spelt as “meere”, meaning a boundary, or in the early 17th century, a road serving as a boundary. It also has the old meaning of a lake or pond; there is an old lake just off Coley Lane and that area is prone to flooding. The other part of the name, Lees, an old English word “lease”, pronounced as lees, this means pasture or meadow land. A lee shore also means sheltered from the wind, it is not a flat piece of land. One other possibility for those with a macabre taste could be yet another variation of the spelling for Merry, another old English word, a corruption of the word “mere”, that is “mare” used in the late 17th century, the 3 legged mare, another name for the gallows. Gallows were often placed at a crossroads it also where suicides and those convicted of witch craft were buried, as happened in 1707, when a woman who took her own life was buried at the cross roads of Merry Lees.
Looking at old maps does help and the first appearance of Merry Lees on a map is one dated 1804, the map shows a number of houses on both sides of the road and a different layout to that of today. That layout remained the same after the railway was built.
To conclude, what is the history of the hamlet? Does its name mean the boundary between the parishes of Thornton and Desford, an old lake sheltered from the wind or less likely a more macabre meaning?
The list that I have for Merry Lees baptisms, marriages and burials is as follows;
1669, Nicholas Geary, of Merry Lees, buried at Thornton.
1720, John Geary, of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1720, James Payne, of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1721, the marriage of David Jee and Mary Gery, a widow, both of Merry Lees.
1726, Samuel Carter, of Merry Lees, son of George of Maerlies (sic), buried, aged 27.
1727, Samuel & Mary Shevyn, children of Mary Gee of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1727, Sarah Wilkins, of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1728, John Storer, of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1728, Thomas Renford, of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1728, John Storer, of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1729, John Wilkinson, of Mary Lees (sic), buried at Thornton.
1730, Sarah Wilkinson of Mary Lees (sic), married William Beavins at Thornton.
1732, William Usher, christened at Thornton, child of James & Sarah of Mary Lees (sic) of Bagworth Liberty.
1740, the marriage of John Walker of Merry Lees to Ann Bot of Ratby.
1750, Ann Carter, baptised in Ratby, daughter of Thomas and Ann of Merelees (sic).
1796, Thomas Thirlby of Merry Lees, buried in Ratby.
1824, Joseph Drakley, baptised, child of Thomas & Mary of Merry Lees, farmer.
1828, William Drackly, of Merry Lees, buried at Thornton, died aged 21.
1828, Joseph Drackly, of Merry Lees, buried at Thornton, died aged 5.
1831, Mary Marvin, of Merry Lees, buried at Thornton, died aged 83.
1835, David Drackley, of Merry Lees, christened at Thornton, child of Thomas, a farmer & Charlotte.
1846, Thomas Drackley, a farmer in Merry Lees.
1850, Sarah Anne Geary, of Merry Lees, daughter of John, a game-keeper and Anne.
Merry Lees 1.1
Some time ago I wrote about the origins of Merry Lees, mostly this was about the name of the hamlet with very knowledge of when Merry Lees came into being. Since then I have found several legal documents in the Nottinghamshire Records Office which have helped establish when Merry Lees came into being.
It transpires that in 1647 George Baker, a yeoman, and Humfrey Baker, a tailor, both from Earl Shilton, paid £84 to Thomas Baker, a feltmaker from Leicester, on behalf of William Orton, a shoemaker, and John Willson, a tailor, both from Leicester for a pasture, “Merry Lee those lately devided into three closes Townend alias Lindridge fields the Nether croft the Lammas close and the over yard”. Just to add to the list of names there was also a sitting tenant, one William Blithe. Mind you, transcribing legal documents is one thing, being sure about the English is another!!
So we know that there was a pasture called Merry Lees which had been divided into 3 smaller fields or closes, by 1647, in at least one of those smaller fields there was a building or buildings and that Merry Lees was part of the parish of Botcheston and not Thornton.
There is another legal document dated to 1652 which confirms that Merry Lees is still part of Botcheston and that William Blithe had bought the close that he had been a tenant on and was now selling it, along with another man, Richard Harrison to Humfrey Baker, now a resident in Botcheston.
The last legal document is dated to 1666 which repeats everything about Merry Lees being divided into 3 closes but now says that it is part of the Parish of Thornton. The buyers this time are Nathaniel Ash of Ayseleys, near Merry Lees, and Thomas Sykes of Bagworth.
So what have we learnt from these documents?
Firstly, I would like to say that if you ever want to lose the will to live, I still have some 17th century legal documents that need to be transcribed. Any volunteers, call me via the Samaritans!!
Secondly, there is another document which I have to obtain in the Lincolnshire Records Office cover which is connected to the 1666 document. There will be more information there.
Thirdly, Merry Lees being part of Botcheston until at least 1666 does explain why there is no mention of Merry Lees in the Thornton Parish records until 1669.
Fourthly, £84 was a lot of money in 1647 so either Merry Lees was a very large field or a very productive one.
And now to the questions raised.
Where is Ayseleys? This is near Merry Leys and is probably 2 words, Ayse Leys, mind you that doesn’t help a lot!
Does anyone know where Townsend Field alias Lindridge Field, Nether Croft and Lammas Close are? Added together these 3 were the original Merry Lees, and ideas, let me know.
The ‘Bird’s Nest’
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a strange time, with almost continuous warfare both abroad and at home, plague, riots and famine, but there was also unimaginable luxury for the wealthy, living in their moated castles and manor houses, surrounded by ancient parks, each with its own hunting lodge. And during those same years, there was a magnificent royal park near us, with a luxuriously appointed hunting lodge (perhaps a palace?) called The Bird’s Nest. The building itself, first mentioned in 1362, disappeared long ago, and the moat was filled in in the 1940’s, but the ghostly footprint that remains is still one of the key listed building sites in the Leicester area. It is now just a large rectangle of grass, surrounded by earthworks in Glenfield, half way between Dominion Road and the A50.
The Bird’s Nest was the centre of ‘Leicester Frith Deer-park’, itself located within Leicester Forest (or ‘Hereswode’ in the Domesday Book). The Forest would have been a mixture of woodland and open grassland for royalty to hunt, ride and play in, far away from the prying eyes of London. Leicester Forest extended eastwards from Bagworth, where Rothley Brook rises (previously known as ‘Heath Brook’), and would have included Thornton, Desford, Peckleton, Botcheston, Ratby and Kirby Muxloe, ending just west of the city of Leicester at the River Soar. To the north it would probably have reached as far as Anstey. It was about 65 square miles of prime land; so the Forest would have provided plenty of idyllic countryside for hunting, hawking, games and picnics. It was also the perfect retreat for members of the royal family staying at Leicester Castle, which was then an impressive ‘town within a town’ – its stables said to hold 1,000 horses.
The Bird’s Nest was the favourite royal hunting lodge of the hugely powerful Plantagenet prince John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Earl of Leicester, Derby and Richmond, (addressed as ‘Monseigneur’), a son of King Edward III and the father of Henry IV. John visited Leicestershire regularly, often staying at his beloved Leicester Castle from July to September. Thanks to his marrying a very well-chosen bride, his estates became so extensive (worth about £43 billion in today’s money) they were referred to as the “Lancastrian Countries”. John often brought his favourite mistress – Katherine Swynford – here, and he shocked our ancestors by holding her horse’s bridle in public! There is also a record of them in 1377 halting on their journey from Bosworth to Leicester Castle “by the village of Rathby, to join in merry sports and dancing” – with the villagers celebrating Meadow Mowing Day!
And there is no reason why John of Gaunt should not have stopped off at Bagworth Park for refreshments. Our Lords of the Manor were from a branch of the Holland family; and two ‘Hollands’ had married into the royal family. In fact, John of Gaunt’s second daughter, Elizabeth of Lancaster, married Sir John Holland in 1386 (they had fallen in love at court).
The Bird’s Nest was still in good repair through the Tudor period – in 1560 it still boasted a great hall and seven chimneys. But in 1628, Leicester Forest was sold off by King Charles I to raise money for a naval expedition in support of the French Huguenots, disposed of in lots for enclosures to be created. The villagers of the Forest rioted but they had no chance of success against the king. More than 100 families were thrown off the land without compensation for losing their cottages and livelihoods. And even the Earl of Huntingdon, a royal relative and Warden of Leicester Forest, had no say in the matter and received no compensation.
Biography: ‘Katherine Swynford’ by Alison Weir, Published by Vintage 2008 (Random House Group)
The Churches that have gone from our parish
Currently all 3 villages in our parish have at least one place of worship and all 3 villages have lost at least one place of worship.
STANTON: Stanton under Bardon currently has a church, St. Mary and All Saints, and a non-conformist place of worship, ‘Without Walls’. The original place of worship in Stanton was an early mediaeval Chapel at the bottom of Main Street, at the T junction. According to the information available to the Leicestershire Museums Archaeological Fieldwork Group 2008, the chapel was noted in records for 1120 and appears to have gone out of use in the late 17th century. From the later chapel records in Lincoln Cathedral, one Josephus Hulse was appointed as preacher to Stanton in 1634. In 1662 he is noted as being the Rector of
Stanton Chapel. In 1668 he was replaced by Samuel Freeman in the office of Vicar, who in turn was replaced by a Johannes Bold with the office of Deacon in 1701. According to Nichols, Thomas, son of a Mary Houson, was buried in Stanton Chapel on 28th April, 1682 – this seems to be the last entry. The fate of the chapel after that date is not recorded, but being a stone building it would almost certainly have been “recycled” by the locals and no trace of it was remaining at the time of Nichols’ visit in the early 19th century (although there was still a ‘Chapel Warden’ in the village who attended the church in Newtown Linford due to Stanton’s then being within the Earl of Stamford’s “Peculiar” of Groby). Again, quoting Nichols, the 2 bells from the old Stanton Chapel were bought by one Thomas Boothby, and given to the church in Peckleton. One possible reason for the chapel’s demise could have been the rise of non-conformity in our area (supported by local landowners) during the 17th and 18th centuries, and evidenced by the very well supported nonconformist Meeting House built at Bardon Hill in 1694 by John Hood Esq. of Bardon Park House – for architectural interest alone, this is well worth a visit.
BAGWORTH: Bagworth’s old chapel, dedicated to the Holy Rood (which is mediaeval English for The Cross),
was demolished due to subsidence in the 1960’s and was replaced by a modern, new building on the same site by the Coal Board. The early chapel had been of Norman construction with some rare surviving Saxon features, and described by Nichols as being “very old”. Diary Date – there is to be a talk and open meeting about Holy Rood and its future on Tuesday 13th July at 7.30pm in the Bagworth Working Men’s Club,
organised by the Bagworth Historical Society. The Archdeacon of Loughborough will be the key speaker.
THORNTON: Thornton currently has St Peter’s Church and the Baptist Chapel in the Hollow, but also used to have a late-Victorian Wesleyan Chapel (on Main Street, more or less opposite the school), which is now gone – demolished circa 1976 to make way for new housing. In October 1925 the Revd Gordon Poole, Vicar of Quinton near Stratford-on Avon, noted in his diary that he had “..just visited the Wesleyan Chapel at Thornton
in Leicestershire”. In the Chapel there was “… an organ which had originally been in Bow Church, Cheapside, from there it went to Market Bosworth, from there to the new church of St Hilda, Leicester, and now it is in the above-mentioned Wesleyan Church”. A well-travelled instrument indeed! I wonder what its ultimate fate was?
If anyone has any more information about Stanton Chapel, or the organ from the Wesleyan Chapel, please get in touch and let me know at: email@example.com
The Medieval Earthworks of South-West Leicestershire, Hinckley & Bosworth, Leicestershire Museums Archaeological
Fieldwork Group 2008 Monograph No. 2.
The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, Volume IV, part II, John Nichols
The British Institute of Organ Studies, Vol 4, No. 4, October 1980