A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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In 1066 two thegns held c. 3½ hides, while 15 sokemen shared another 3½ hides. By 1086, when the total yield of the vill had recovered only to three quarters of its pre-Conquest value of £8 10s., only eight sokemen remained. The two manors with demesnes had 11 villaniand 12 bordars and cottars, besides 4 servi. The peasantry between them furnished six of the nine ploughteams needed for 9½ ploughlands, Ramsey abbey's land being cultivated perhaps from Elsworth. (fn. 1) In 1185 the Picots' demesne had two teams. (fn. 2)
In 1279 (fn. 3) the 6 yardlands on the Segrave fee were entirely held freely for rent by the sokemen's successors, except that the head tenants owed two ploughing works and one boonwork, presumably on the Fen Stanton demesne. In the early 1270s Sir Nicholas de Segrave's steward had sought to force tenants to pay entry fines higher than the amount, twice their rent, that they admitted to be due. (fn. 4) On the small demesne of the Richmond fee, 2 yardlands in 1279, the lord of Swavesey had alleged in 1229 that his men at Boxworth had been obliged under his predecessors before 1200 to plough, harrow, thresh, and make hay on the demesne at Swavesey and to pay merchet. The tenants, who claimed to hold freely by rent alone, (fn. 5) apparently bought out his claims by conceding a rise in the rents of their six 10-a. holdings from 6s. 4d. to the £1 or 2 marks each due in 1279. Huntingfields, whose demesne supposedly comprised 60 a. of arable in 1297 but 144 a. by 1303 and 180 a. in the 1370s, (fn. 6) had 50 a. of freehold but only 30 a. held in villeinage. Overhall manor, however, in 1279 had 13 or 15 yardlands of demesne, and, besides 100 a. of freehold, much customary land. Its villeins included 13 holding probably 10 a. each, and six with 5 a. each, all owing three works every week, and 13 cottagers with 7½ a. between them. On Huntingfields two villeins with 10 a. each owed in 1303 two weekworks (three during harvest), five harvest boons, and six days' ploughing, those with 1-2 a. one weekwork fewer. Huntingfields demesne was presumably in hand in 1318 when the stock included 6 horses and 18 oxen, probably three ploughteams. (fn. 7) Its customary tenants' works had probably been commuted for rent by 1372. (fn. 8) Among the free peasantry, occupying c. 395 a. of the village's arable in 1279, there was much inequality. (fn. 9) In 1279 two men had c. 55 a. each, two others 42 a. and 29 a., while fifteen each with 5-20 a. occupied c. 155 a., but c. 36 others with 4 a. or less, mostly only 1 or 2 roods, shared barely 45 a.
A few independent freeholds probably survived into the 16th century. In 1524, when one man, perhaps Thomas Hutton's demesne farmer, was taxed on £46, three others paid on £10-15, and eleven on £2-7 of goods, only three merely on their wages. (fn. 10) The demesne, reckoned in 1552 as 500 a. of arable and 350 a. of grass, (fn. 11) after 1600 included most of the parish except in the far south. The prosperous farmers, who in the 17th century sometimes left several hundreds of pounds among their children, owned land, if at all, only in other parishes. (fn. 12)
The rotation of crops, possibly biennial c. 1300, (fn. 13) was certainly triennial by 1380. (fn. 14) By the 17th century (fn. 15) there were three open fields, called in 1632 Broadway field, Smith Meadow field, and Down field. The first two had by 1650 been renamed High field and Bottom Brook field respectively. High field, south of the village, was reckoned as 324 a. c. 1694, probably excluding baulks and field ways, and as 373 a. in 1840. Bottom Brook field to the west and Down field to the north-west were each similarly reckoned c. 1694 as c. 288 a. Some strips in all three were leys by the 1690s. The open fields were reckoned to contain c. 996 a. altogether in 1800. (fn. 16) Leys were also recorded in 1436 north-east of the village in Boxworth meadow, (fn. 17) which extended to 223 a. c. 1694 and to 236 a. c. 1840. The Down pasture in the north angle of the parish was c. 125 a. in 1840. Conington pasture, 97 a. c. 1694 as in 1840, lay by the western brook, probably including what was called Long meadow in 1632, when the rector owned the several Smith meadow, later c. 15 a., (fn. 18) a little to the south.
To the south-west (fn. 19) the lords of Overhall had long held extensive pasture closes, presumably created by assarting, around Overhall grove. In 1615 (fn. 20) they included Overhall Great close to the north and Long close to the east, covering respectively 25 a. and 40 a. c. 1694. (fn. 21) Further south much land probably remained open pasture until after 1552, when the manor supposedly included 500 a. of heath. (fn. 22) By 1596 John Hutton owned Knapwell pasture south of the wood; its three closes comprised 200 a. in 1615. (fn. 23) He had also sold much pasture, which he had perhaps newly inclosed: 160 a. in 1588 to Thomas Marsh, lord of Knapwell, (fn. 24) and 240 a. in 1591 to John Killingworth. (fn. 25) That land probably went to form the large enclosed farm occupying the south part of Boxworth by 1650, mostly pasture, although some fields adjoining Knapwell were then under the plough. It was called Bird's Pastures farm by 1800, (fn. 26) presumably after Henry Bird (fl. 1665). (fn. 27)
After Dame Anne Cutts had purchased from the Glasscocks, probably c. 1648, the last substantial independent freehold, (fn. 28) the manorial estate comprised all the northern four fifths of the parish, save for the glebe, and the farmland there could be reorganized. Whereas in 1615 the Cutts estate had been let to ten men, it was by 1650 divided into six large farms. (fn. 29) Their tenants, instead of possessing strips scattered through the fields, as in 1632, (fn. 30) were assigned whole furlongs including the glebe strips within them. (fn. 31) The four smaller farms then established had 105-120 a. of arable each, two larger 'double' ones 215 a. and 233 a., (fn. 32) all equally divided between the three fields. Boxworth meadow and Conington pasture were probably at the same time inclosed and divided into grass fields of 25- 55 a., shared out among the new farms, along with c. 55 a. of closes north and east of Overhall wood, though somewhat unequally: one farm was allotted only 12 a. of pasture, two 50-60 a. each, one 83 a., and one with little arable 136 a. The more distant manorial pastures, including the Great pasture, c. 75 a. south-east of the wood, and the Thorowfare pasture, 83 a. beyond the way to Knapwell, were let separately in the 1690s. By then the Cutts estate comprised c. 585 a. of inclosed pasture, including c. 105 a. of ancient closes around the village, and c. 900 a. of arable, besides 62 a. of woodland. It was mostly divided among five farms, two of 299 a. each and three of 250 a., 180 a., and 173 a.
That division of the manorial farmland persisted (fn. 33) into the early 1780s, when all but 100 a. of it was occupied by Robert Underwood, his two sons, and his son-in-law William Cole; Cole in 1786 farmed c. 685 a. (fn. 34) Until after 1800 the arable was still mainly cultivated on the accustomed triennial rotation. The farmers met occasionally as a manor court jury, to regulate its management and perhaps to appoint field reeves. (fn. 35) In 1791 High field was partly under wheat, Down field fallow, and Bottom Brook field under a break crop. (fn. 36) There were, however, some innovations. In 1752 the farmers agreed to sow clover as a break crop instead of oats, on 40 a. of each 'double farm'. (fn. 37) The stubble fields were left unploughed in winter to feed sheep, and were then sown with peas. (fn. 38)
A common swineherd was recorded in 1343. (fn. 39) Common rights were regularly exercised until after 1800, the Down, with Gallow Leys (20 a.), having been left since the 1650s as permanent common pasture, which in 1786 comprised c. 245 a. That probably included 102 a. of baulks in the open fields, formerly reserved for draught cattle. (fn. 40) of 1,100 a. of pasture reported in 1794, 700 a. was coarse and rough, poorly drained and full of ant hills. (fn. 41) From the 1690s the double farms had common rights for 32 cattle and 120 sheep, increased by 1777 to 36 and 200, the single ones for half as many. The 4-6 independent cottagers could keep 2 cows and 8 sheep. Another 12 had no common rights. (fn. 42) About 1800 each farmer was keeping 120-180 mature sheep. (fn. 43) The total flock of c. 1,500 suffered greatly in 1794 from rot. (fn. 44)
Ploughing up grassland was considered in the 1760s, (fn. 45) and the amount of arable on the manorial estate probably increased by 1800 (fn. 46) to 954 a., including 108 a. in closes, besides the 123 a. of glebe, leaving 493 a. of grass for grazing and mowing. On the entirely inclosed farms in the south the area of arable apparently rose from 247 a. in 1800 to c. 350 a. by 1840, that under grass falling from 147 a. to c. 90 a. Similar changes occurred on the manorial estate, where four farms were let in pairs to new tenants shortly after 1800. (fn. 47) Probably 100 a. of the closes around Overhall grove had been ploughed up by 1800, and 44 a. more by 1840, when also all but 11 a. of Conington pasture and all but 108 a. of Boxworth meadow had recently been converted to arable, leaving 37 a. under grass. About 1800 c. 100 a. of the Down were mown for hay. Thorowfare pasture, 98 a., was used in its place as sheep common, and so was erroneously included in the 1,369 a. involved in the inclosure award.
That award, finally and formally terminating open-field practices in the parish, was executed in 1840 under the General Inclosure Act. Of the open fields and commons, comprising c. 394 a. south and c. 855 a. north and west of the village, 129 a. to the west were allotted to the rector, the rest to George Thornhill, who also owned 804 a. of closes. (fn. 48) The parish then included 1,707 a. of arable and 743 a. of grass. (fn. 49) The newly inclosed land, including the glebe, was at once rearranged into four large farms, barely 65 a. being let to two small tenants. (fn. 50) Manor farm (590 a.) and Church farm (600 a.) occupied the north half of the parish. Each included c. 175 a. south of the wood, for which dependent farmsteads were established at Extra Farm and High Barns. The area between was divided into Page's farm (c. 315 a.) and Upper End farm (c. 412 a., by 1881 475 a.). The far south was mostly included in Bird's Pastures farm (213 a.) and Two Pot House farm (104 a.), although 104 a. in its western part were still farmed from Knapwell in 1869. (fn. 51)
No labourer was unemployed in 1830. (fn. 52) The farmers, who had work for c. 90 people in 1851 and for c. 60 men and 20-25 boys in the 1860s, could easily employ the available adult labourers, 55 in 1851, c. 40 later, besides up to 20 youths. (fn. 53) Even so, there were several large fires at the farms in the 1840s, sometimes ascribed to arson; one in 1843 followed rumours of planned wage cuts. (fn. 54) One farm had a threshing machine in 1859. (fn. 55) Several farms changed hands c. 1870, when the 350 a. south of the wood were detached to form a separate farm. (fn. 56) By the 1890s most farms had been left in the Thornhills' hands, as three out of five, 1,080 a. in all, still were in 1910. (fn. 57) By then A. J. Thornhill was letting 7 a. as allotments. (fn. 58)
The total area under corn crops fell from almost 1,000 a. in the 1860s and 1870s to 740 a. after 1885, though it recovered after 1900. Meanwhile despite a fall in the number of mature sheep kept from 1,700 before 1880 to 450-500 until the 1910s, the permanent grassland doubled to 410 a. by 1885 and 835 a. in 1895, and was almost 700 a. in 1925. (fn. 59) Much high ground (fn. 60) south of the village was half-derelict by the 1930s. (fn. 61) The 849 a. there, requisitioned and ploughed up again c. 1940, were occupied from 1948 as one of the Ministry of Agriculture's experimental husbandry research farms. It was devoted c. 1980 mostly to the study of arable farming on clay soils, in particular winter wheat and barley growing, and continuous cropping. It had also from 1952 a herd of dairy cattle, totalling 160 by 1977. Its permanent grassland was much reduced from the original 300 a. to 135 a., including leys, in 1970, as it ceased to stock sheep in 1964, pigs c. 1966, and beef cattle in 1980. It employed 25 people in 1961, 33 in 1983, half living in Boxworth.
In 1229 Tilty abbey had perhaps two windmills and Henry of Boxworth and the rector one each. (fn. 62) The rector's presumably occupied the small plot of glebe in Down field called Mill hill in 1632. (fn. 63) There was probably still one mill near the village in 1436, (fn. 64) but none survived in 1650. (fn. 65) Boxworth's few 19th-century craftsmen included c. 1861 two shoemakers, and c. 1875 three carpenters and a wheelwright. All had gone by the 1890s, except for the series of blacksmiths, who also kept a shop from the 1850s to c. 1910 and worked until the 1930s. (fn. 66) The derelict forge survived in 1983 near the north-east end of the street. (fn. 67) By 1840 the Thornhills had a brickyard on 5 a. in a field north of the village, (fn. 68) which employed eight people in 1841 and five in 1861. (fn. 69) Brickmaking continued in the 1890s (fn. 70) but had ceased by 1910. (fn. 71)