A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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From the late 13th century Ashley and Silverley shared open fields and common pastures and had unified lordship. Many tenants held land in both parishes. (fn. 1)
In 1086 there were only twelve ploughteams, eight in Silverley and four in Ashley, implying no more than 1,500 a. of arable and up to half as much pasture, heath, and woodland. (fn. 2) By 1279 the arable covered 1,815 a. (fn. 3) Expansion took place both before and after 1086 by assarting heath and woodland, giving rise to 13thcentury field-names such as the Breach (from Old English brec, meaning 'land newly broken for cultivation'), north of the village, and Stubbing and Hawk Stubbing fields (stubbing implying the felling of trees), to the east. Thirteenth-century assarts included 'Heystubbing', 'Hawysheg', and the old and upper assarts. (fn. 4)
The open fields were small and numerous, typical of East Anglia rather than of Cambridgeshire. In 1793 they numbered thirteen, (fn. 5) but earlier there had been many more: in the 13th century at least 27 fields (some also called furlongs), besides 41 or more other named divisions, (fn. 6) and in the 17th century perhaps 18 fields. (fn. 7) The main areas (using their 18th- and 19th-century names) were Heath field northwest of the village, Spaithwaine and Church fields north-east, Borough and Hawk fields south-west and south-east, and Mill field in the south end of the parish. (fn. 8)
The abundant pasture of the 11th century (fn. 9) was much reduced by the 13th. In 1279 Silverley and Ashley had 60 a. of common pasture on the heath and 10 a. elsewhere. (fn. 10) Private pastureland included 'Ley', 'Overley', 'Eldeappelton', and pasture near Silverley Hall. (fn. 11) Spinney priory had only 5 a. pasture against 240 a. arable in 1279; (fn. 12) the Hospitallers 40 a. against 820 a. in 1338. (fn. 13) In 1542 Ashley manor included 760 a. arable and 21½ a. pasture and meadow, Canhams manor 156½ a. and 15 a. (fn. 14) Some of the richer farmers were inclosing small blocks of open-field strips for pasture by licence of the manor court in the 1570s. (fn. 15) By the end of the century much of the arable was farmed in 'pieces', blocks of adjoining strips covering up to 5 a. or sometimes more: in 1591 the glebe of Silverley rectory and Canham's farm (on the Kirtling estate) each had about half of its openfield arable in strips of less than 1 a. and half in such larger pieces. (fn. 16)
About 1800 most of Ashley was under tillage with a three-course rotation, long enforced by the terms of leases from the Kirtling estate, which had nine tenths of its farmland in the parish under the plough. The heath covered an estimated 100 a. of sheepwalk, and pasture closes accounted for 150 a. (fn. 17) around the village, at Great Lees and St. John's pasture on the Cheveley boundary, and at Silverley and Cropley park in the south. (fn. 18)
In 1086 the manorial farms were large, employing six of the twelve ploughteams, and the peasantry few: twelve villani and two bordars at Silverley and about half as many at Ashley. (fn. 19) About 1230 an Ashley neif with 17½ a. was given to the Hospitallers, and c. 1240 the lord of Silverley similarly gave one neif with 12 a. and two with 8½ a. each. The last two had neighbouring crofts at Wood green and 13 of their 19 or 20 arable strips lay side-by-side, hinting at an earlier more regular arrangement of villein holdings. (fn. 20) In 1279 all the land recorded was held freely. (fn. 21) The only copyholds in the early 19th century were a farmhouse and a few cottages in Church Street, and the smithy and poorhouse, built on manorial waste. (fn. 22) Others may have been enfranchised earlier. (fn. 23)
The largest landowners in 1279 were William Randolf of Silverley (409 a.), Roger of Pridington (340 a.), the Hospitallers (340 a.), and Spinney priory (240 a.). Silverley manor had only 22 a. in hand and Ashley 30 a. Apart from the glebes, there were four other freeholds between 30 a. and 90 a., and fourteen under 30 a. (fn. 24)
The Hospitallers built up their estate between c. 1230 and c. 1310, initially from gifts of villein tenements, later by large benefactions from lords and freeholders, and finally by buying scraps of land. (fn. 25) The main acquisitions were 220 a. from Geoffrey Arsic in Silverley and 100 a. from John de Guînes in Ashley, both before 1279. (fn. 26) William Randolf gave 50 a. arable and the reversion of 15¾ a. pasture in or before 1277 and another 146 a. and the reversion of 8 a. in 1287. (fn. 27) Richard the Marvellous gave 62½ a. in three separate transactions later confirmed by his nephew and heir Thomas the Marvellous, who himself sold 66¾ a. to the Hospital and gave it first refusal of his remaining 90 a. shortly before 1279. The Hospitallers acquired at least another 100 a. from 33 other families. By 1338 they owned over 850 a.; their income that year included no customary rents or services, but 36s. rent from free tenants and £19 2s. 8d. from the leased demesne arable and pasture, supervised by a keeper (custos) living at Ashley. (fn. 28)
There was thus an active land market and a rapid turnover in landowning families between 1250 and 1350. (fn. 29) Of the families which had owned the manors in 1250, the Arsics were still the largest lay taxpayers in 1327, (fn. 30) but gave up their remaining land to the Hospital in the same year, (fn. 31) and the Guîneses disappeared from Ashley after 1358. (fn. 32) Other important families which vanished were the Broyers of Newmarket before 1279, the Pridingtons not long afterwards, (fn. 33) and the Marvellous family by 1303. (fn. 34) Others rose in their place, notably the Honemans, who went from two members owning only 24 a. in 1279 to five paying a quarter of the tax burden in 1327. (fn. 35)
Much of the parish became part of the neighbouring Kirtling estate in the early 1540s, when Edward North secured all the land which had belonged to the Hospital and to Spinney and Hatfield Regis priories. (fn. 36) His son Roger, 2nd Lord North, added almost 200 a. in the early 1590s; (fn. 37) and Roger's grandson Dudley North (later 4th Lord North) spent £1,200 on land in the parish between 1636 and 1648. (fn. 38) The Cheveley estate had owned a little land as part of Cheveley manor from the 14th century, (fn. 39) and added Cropley park, astride the Lidgate-Ashley boundary, before 1615. (fn. 40) The duke of Somerset, who greatly enlarged the estate, (fn. 41) bought Gayneshall and Silverleyhall manor with c. 400 a. in 1737. (fn. 42) After inclosure in 1814 the Kirtling estate had 1,078 a. mainly south of the Newmarket-Dalham road, and the Cheveley estate 562 a. mainly in the north-western arm of the parish, respectively half and a quarter of the total area. The rector had 274 a. and no-one else more than 90 a. (fn. 43) The ascendancy of the estates lasted until Cheveley was broken up in 1920 and some of the Kirtling farms were sold c. 1940. (fn. 44)
Farming was thus dominated by the estates' tenants, often substantial men, from the 16th century to the 20th. Thomas Smith of Wickhambrook (Suff.) took a lease of the Hospitaller manor in 1511, (fn. 45) lived at Ashley Hall, and left his lands there to his son John, (fn. 46) the highest taxpayer in the hundred in 1522. (fn. 47) John (d. 1528) was followed by his son Thomas, (fn. 48) a prominent figure in the village until the 1570s, (fn. 49) who bought 80 a. in 1570-1. (fn. 50) He or a namesake owned land worth at least £80 a year in the parish in 1597, (fn. 51) and Henry Smith was the highest taxpayer in 1645. (fn. 52) The Smiths were related by marriage to Henry and Stephen Norwich, (fn. 53) who took over the Hospitaller lease in 1533 (fn. 54) and retained it under Edward North (fn. 55) together with the lease of Silverley rectory glebe. (fn. 56)
The Norths' property in Ashley was divided into three, or occasionally four, farms from the 1540s to the 1760s, based originally on Ashley manor, Canhams manor, and the Silverley rectory land. (fn. 57) By 1781 they had been rearranged as four farms which survived inclosure in 1814: Ashley Hall or Hall farm across the centre of the parish (530 a. in 1814), Silverley farm (earlier Canhams) in the south (430 a. in 1861), and two smaller units run from farmhouses in the village, called the Upper and Lower farms in the late 18th century and Elms and Wavier farms after 1814. (fn. 58) In 1775 the duke of Rutland was letting his land, part of the Cheveley estate, as three farms, (fn. 59) but from inclosure to 1920 it comprised a single large farm of over 500 a. called Ashley Lodge or Duke's farm. (fn. 60) The only other farms of any size were Rectory and Rayner's farms, the latter named from its owner 1801-34, William Rayner. (fn. 61) Between 1950 and 1986 the number of farms fell from eleven to four. (fn. 62)
Corn and sheep were the mainstay from the 11th century to the 20th. The two manorial flocks numbered 110 and 30 in 1086. (fn. 63) In the 13th century there were several sheepfolds, (fn. 64) and rights of pasture were attached to freeholds, neif holdings, and pieces of demesne given to the Hospital, (fn. 65) while in the 15th century the right to fold between 60 and 180 animals was sold with some holdings of less than 3 a. (fn. 66) The larger farms of the 16th century included ones of 108 a. and 210 a. with fold for 300 and 600 sheep, (fn. 67) but as more farmers came to keep flocks, so grazing rights were more narrowly restricted. In 1552 the manor court decided that the common sheep pasture could take only three sheep for every 2 a. of arable land, and began fining those tenants and farmers who grazed more. John Raye, for example, claimed liberty of fold for 490 beasts under 13th- and 14th-century charters granting his predecessors only 8 a., while in 1561 Richard and Thomas Raye kept 440 sheep but occupied less than 200 a. of cultivated land. (fn. 68) The manorial sheepwalks over the open fields and heath accommodated 480 beasts from Ashley Hall farm, 360 from Canham's farm, and an unknown number from the Cheveley estate in the 1790s, (fn. 69) when the entire parish flock numbered 1,300. (fn. 70) Between 1870 and 1910 there were over 2,000 sheep, a large number for the size of the parish, but sheep rearing tailed off in the mid 20th century and had ceased by 1970. (fn. 71)
The usual cereal crops were grown before 1800. A well-to-do farmer in 1494 left his wife four times as much threshed barley as wheat, (fn. 72) and a smaller farmer c. 1559 was believed to have sown roughly equal quantities of wheat and rye, barley, and oats. (fn. 73) Probably in 1546 Edward North's farm at Ashley Hall produced 36 bu. wheat, 80 bu. barley, 106 bu. oats, and 22 bu. peas. The barley, half the wheat, and some of the peas were sold to London corn merchants, the rest of the wheat, some peas, and the oats (as oatmeal) were consumed by the household at Kirtling Hall, and some peas were sold locally to the poor. (fn. 74) Wheat and barley were the main crops in the 19th and 20th centuries, with roughly equal acreages sown from 1870 until 1945. By 1970 wheat predominated. Crops for sheep fodder-notably turnips, vetches, and mangolds-were replaced after 1945 by more cereals and a steadily increasing acreage of sugar beet. (fn. 75)
Racehorse breeding spread from Cheveley after the sale of the Cheveley Park estate in 1920, when Duke's farm was divided into three. Sir George Bullough, Bt., established Ashley Heath stud in the far north in 1928; under Marcos Lemos (1974-88) it was joined with the neighbouring Warren Hill stud in Moulton. Hascombe stud on the Cheveley-Moulton road was founded in 1937 by Sir John Jarvis, Bt. The remaining 125 a. was turned into Duke's stud in 1961. (fn. 76)
In the 17th century the parish was involved in the woollen industry: a weaver's will was proved in 1639 and a clothier's in 1662. (fn. 77)
Ashley was the least populous parish in Cheveley hundred in the 19th century and the most dependent on agriculture. It had its own blacksmith, carpenter, and shoemaker but other rural crafts were not well represented apart from thatching, a trade followed by several generations of the Wade family. (fn. 78) Agriculture still employed 68 people in 1950 but barely a dozen in the 1970s and 1980s (fn. 79) and there was little other employment in the parish by 1961. (fn. 80) From the 1960s most people living in the parish commuted to work elsewhere or were retired.
A windmill at Silverley before 1194 was one of the earliest recorded in England. (fn. 81) In the later 13th century Silverley windmill in the far south belonged to the freeholder Roger de Pridington, and Ashley mill was leased by the Hospitallers to Geoffrey Arsic. (fn. 82) By 1699 there was only one mill, rebuilt shortly before 1735, but a second was built between 1761 and 1777 and two were in use in the late 18th and 19th century. One at the north end of Mill Road went out of use in the 1890s and was demolished. The other, east of the village and called the Upper mill to distinguish it from the surviving windmill a few hundred yards away in Dalham, was in use c. 1930 but had been pulled down by 1970. (fn. 83)