Cleley Hundred

A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 5, the Hundred of Cleley. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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'Cleley Hundred', in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 5, the Hundred of Cleley, ed. Philip Riden, Charles Insley( London, 2002), British History Online [accessed 18 July 2024].

'Cleley Hundred', in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 5, the Hundred of Cleley. Edited by Philip Riden, Charles Insley( London, 2002), British History Online, accessed July 18, 2024,

"Cleley Hundred". A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 5, the Hundred of Cleley. Ed. Philip Riden, Charles Insley(London, 2002), , British History Online. Web. 18 July 2024.

In this section


Cleley hundred occupies some 25,000 acres (about 40 square miles) in the extreme south of Northamptonshire. Together with the adjoining parishes of Whittlebury and Silverstone (in Greens Norton hundred), it forms a projection of the county into Buckinghamshire, which flanks the area on three sides. To the north, Cleley abuts Wymersley hundred. On the south and east much of the county boundary is formed by the river Great Ouse or its tributary the Tove, which, together with numerous smaller streams that flow generally east or south-east into one of the two, drain the district. The southeastern corner of the hundred, near the confluence of the Tove and the Great Ouse, is about 200 ft. above sea level; in the north-west, on the watershed between the Tove and Nene valleys, the land reaches just over 400 ft.

Together with the rest of south Northamptonshire, Cleley forms part of a plateau which dips gently eastwards and is composed largely of Jurassic rocks. (fn. 1) Down-cutting by four rivers, including the Tove and Great Ouse, has produced a rolling landscape of open valleys and flat-topped ridges. Most of the higher land is covered by Boulder Clay and other glacial deposits, and the underlying Oolitic Limestone is exposed only in the valleys.

Landscape and early settlement

No major prehistoric sites are known within the hundred, although this may reflect a lack of research, rather than an absence of early settlement. (fn. 2) The outstanding Roman feature is Watling Street, the main road from London to the North West, which runs through the western side of the hundred in a straight line from a crossing of the Great Ouse at Stony Stratford to the town of Lactodorum, on the site of the modern Towcester, just outside Cleley. No secondary Roman roads branching from Watling Street have been satisfactorily identified within the hundred, although Lactodorum clearly stood at a junction of routes. (fn. 3) The greater incidence of Roman discoveries in Cleley, as compared with earlier periods, probably reflects the greater durability and ease of recognition of remains, rather than a real difference in density of settlement. Equally, variations in the number of known sites within the hundred probably reflect the intensity of research, rather than differences in patterns of settlement. (fn. 4) The parishes in the south of the hundred, for example, were closely studied in the 1950s and 1960s by the Wolverton & District Archaeological Society. (fn. 5)

The lack of early Saxon discoveries in the district again suggests limited fieldwork and the greater difficulty of recognising remains, rather than an absence of settlement. (fn. 6) Where a small area has been subjected to intensive fieldwalking, as at Grafton Regis, evidence of occupation from all periods from prehistoric times to the present has been found. (fn. 7) The only community within the hundred mentioned in preConquest historical sources is Passenham, which occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 921. (fn. 8)

It is possible, on the basis of later evidence, to make some, necessarily speculative, suggestions about pre-Conquest estates which extended beyond a single parish. Cosgrove and Furtho remained a single township until modern times and were presumably once one estate, which at an earlier date may have included the later parish of Potterspury. Roade, Ashton and Hartwell formed a single medieval parish and may originally have been one estate. The outer boundaries of Grafton Regis and Alderton follow natural features, which possibly suggests that they too were once a single unit.

Medieval Cleley

Like the other hundreds in the county, Cleley is first mentioned in the Northamptonshire geld roll of c. 1075. (fn. 9) In 1086 three Northamptonshire hundreds (apart from the eight held by Peterborough Abbey) were in private hands and it is possible that Cleley was also, since it may already have been held with Potterspury by Henry de Ferrers. (fn. 10) In the reign of John, William de Ferrers, Henry's descendant, granted the hundred to Hugh de Woodville at a fee farm rent of 20s. When John son of John de Woodville was summoned to substantiate his claim to the hundred in 1329, he cited the grant to his ancestor Hugh. The king's attorney claimed that William de Ferrers had no licence to make such a grant (fn. 11) and two years later the king recovered the hundred against John. (fn. 12) It evidently later reverted to the Woodville family and descended with their home manor of Grafton and the rest of their estates until the death of the last Earl Rivers in 1491, when it appears to have passed to his chosen heir, Thomas Grey marquess of Dorset. (fn. 13) Similarly, Cleley was presumably included in the sale to Henry VIII by Dorset's son in 1527 of the manors of Grafton and Hartwell, although it is not specified in the conveyance. (fn. 14) In 1542 Grafton and Hartwell became the nucleus of the honor of Grafton but the Act establishing the honor did not list Cleley among the Crown estates annexed to it (although two other Northamptonshire hundreds were included), nor did the later conveyances of the honor of 1665 and 1673. (fn. 15) Cleley thus remained in Crown hands when the honor passed to the 2nd duke of Grafton in 1706. (fn. 16)

The meeting place for the hundred has long been identified as a well in the parish of Potterspury, near the boundary with Furtho, at which several footpaths meet, whose name in modern times has become misspelt as 'Cheley'. (fn. 17) There appears never to have been a settlement at the spot. It lies within the manor held by Henry de Ferrers in 1086, which may support the idea that he also held the hundred. In the later Middle Ages the hundred court was held at the Woodvilles' manor of Grafton. (fn. 18) Baker took the view that after 1542 the court was merged in that of the honor of Grafton, (fn. 19) although there is no evidence for this in the handful of rolls for the honor court (as opposed to the court for the manor of Grafton), which appears only to have sat for a few years in the 1540s and 1550s. (fn. 20) There is also the objection that the hundred was not annexed to the honor. In the 1830s a hiring fair held at the New Inn in Roade was described as an annual statute for the hundred. (fn. 21)


Northamptonshire and the Victoria County History

All the places in Cleley which later emerge as ecclesiastical parishes (or, in the case of Ashton and Hartwell, as parochial chapelries in the parish of Roade) occur in Domesday Book, which conversely does not name either Yardley Gobion (in Potterspury) or Shutlanger (in Stoke Bruerne) which later became separate townships within their respective parishes, nor any of the smaller places which, although not townships, had their own open fields, such as Deanshanger in Passenham, Hulcote in Easton Neston, or Heathencote in Paulerspury. Field investigation has also identified in several parishes, notably Hartwell, yet smaller medieval hamlets, without fields of their own, which may not be named in any historical source. (fn. 22) There are no lost Domesday place-names in the hundred.

With these reservations, Cleley can be viewed as a district of nucleated settlement in the Middle Ages, with villages spaced two or three miles apart, most of them forming parishes in their own right. Assuming that the position of the church indicates the site of the earliest post-Roman settlement in each village, the majority appear to have been established on lighter soil, where a stream has exposed the Oolitic Limestone, rather than the Boulder Clay. Of the places mentioned in Domesday, only Easton Neston, Furtho and Passenham are on clay, and it may be significant that all three were later deserted, whereas Hulcote (in Easton Neston) and Deanshanger (in Passenham), which both stand on limestone, were not. Some villages, notably Grafton Regis, remained confined to an exposure of limestone, whereas others, for example Stoke Bruerne, appear to have expanded onto heavier clay soil during the Middle Ages. Also in Stoke, Shutlanger is entirely on Boulder Clay, perhaps indicating that it was settled later than Stoke itself; on the other hand, Yardley Gobion, another relatively large village that was not a parish in its own right, is on limestone. In Hartwell the site of the deserted settlement at Chapel Farm is on limestone, whereas the modern village at Hartwell Green is on clay. (fn. 23)

The villages vary somewhat in plan but all consist essentially of a mixture of through roads and smaller lanes running between them. The larger villages spread out along a main road (notably Paulerspury, and to a lesser extent Potterspury) divide into definite 'ends' with distinctive names in a way more commonly associated with Buckinghamshire. Fieldwork has shown that almost all the villages shrank somewhat in the later Middle Ages, leaving a legacy of abandoned tracks and house-sites on the edge of the community as it existed before recent expansion. (fn. 24) The secondary settlements also show signs of late medieval shrinkage, for example at Heathencote in Paulerspury or Dagnall in Passenham, and in several parishes the smaller, nameless medieval settlements were abandoned altogether.

All the parishes cultivated at least some of their land in common in the Middle Ages, and in those which contained more than one village each community had its own open fields. There is only one instance of two parishes sharing a field system, at Cosgrove and Furtho, where there was also intermixture with the fields of Potterspury. Although Cosgrove and Furtho were distinct parishes from at least the 13th century, they shared a constable throughout the Middle Ages (and were thus taxed as a single unit) and presumably once formed a single estate.

Cleley was flanked on its north-eastern edge by the royal forest of Salcey and in the south-west by the much larger forest of Whittlewood. All the parishes which adjoin either forest clearly assarted land in the early Middle Ages, either to add to their open fields (as at Potterspury) or to cultivate in severalty (as at Hartwell). Most of Salcey lay outside the hundred, whereas a significant portion of Whittlewood was in either Potterspury or Passenham, including what emerged in the later Middle Ages as the principal keeper's lodge (at Wakefield, on the boundary between the two parishes) as well as several other lodges occupied by underofficers. (fn. 25) Both on the edge of the forest and elsewhere in the hundred, a number of parks were created in the Middle Ages, and most of the townships in Cleley had rights of common in Whittlewood for a specified period each year.


None of the manors in Cleley became the home of a major medieval landholder and some lacked a resident lord for part or all of the Middle Ages. Of the families seated in the hundred, the most important in the later medieval period were the Woodvilles of Grafton, who gradually accumulated land in the district from the 13th century and rose dramatically to national prominence in the second half of the 15th century, only to suffer disastrously from the political upheavals of the period, their line ending with the death of the last Earl Rivers in 1491.

There was no large Crown presence in the hundred until the 16th century. In 1363 Edward III acquired a small castle at Moor End in Potterspury, which remained in royal hands thereafter, although it appears never to have been very important and was dismantled in the 16th century. An earlier ringwork at Alderton seems to have been built shortly after the Conquest and was last occupied in the 14th century. No medieval manor house has survived later changes, although at Ashton (where the oldest part of the existing house appears to date from the 16th century), much of the early layout, including an impressive moat, remained to be mapped in the 18th and 19th centuries. Smaller moated sites can be identified at Passenham and Yardley Gobion, which in both cases appear to mark the position of a medieval manor house, and at Hartwell and near Potterspury (within a detached portion of Cosgrove parish), of which the former certainly and the latter probably were built by medieval freeholders.

Most domestic building in Cleley in the Middle Ages was presumably in wood, which was readily available from the two forests, although good quality building stone could easily be obtained from the Oolitic Limestone. Only two substantially complete medieval domestic buildings have been identified in the hundred, both dating from the 14th century. At Shutlanger, which seems to have contained a number of free tenements in the Middle Ages, the house misleadingly known in recent times as 'The Monastery' was the home of a family named Parles; at Roade, Hyde Farm belonged to St. James's abbey, Northampton. A smaller house at Ashton incorporates the remains of a medieval cruck-frame.

Although both St. James and several other houses, both local and from further afield, had (mostly small) estates in Cleley, the only foundation within the hundred itself was a small Cistercian nunnery at Sewardsley, in Easton Neston, which had a modest estate there and in adjoining parishes. At Grafton Regis a 12th-century hermitage expanded to house several other monks, who later came under the protection of St. James. There was another hermitage on Watling Street at Old Stratford.

Apart from Old Stratford, which was a small roadside community of traders and innkeepers forming a suburb of Stony Stratford on the opposite bank of the Great Ouse, all the parishes in Cleley remained almost entirely rural in the Middle Ages. Other than the usual village crafts, the only industry which has left any real record, historical or archaeological, is pottery making at Potterspury, which can be traced from the 13th century and gives the parish its modern name. The Woodvilles obtained a market grant for Grafton in 1465 but there is no evidence that it ever took effect. The two nearest markets for the hundred were at Stony Stratford in the south and Towcester in the north, both well-established thoroughfare towns on Watling Street, although neither became a fully fledged borough. (fn. 26) The villages in the north-east of the hundred lay within easy travelling distance of the important regional market at Northampton, whose fairs probably attracted traders from the whole district. (fn. 27)

Cleley in the 16th and early 17th centuries

The major event in the history of the hundred in the early modern period was the creation of the honor of Grafton, a large royal estate centred on the former Woodville manors of Grafton and Hartwell, established by Act of Parliament in 1542, which included land in several other parishes in Cleley as well as further afield. (fn. 28) Thereafter, until the honor passed to the 2nd duke of Grafton in 1706, much of the hundred was managed as a single estate, initially through 21-year leases. Only in one case (Ashton) was a lordship leased (to a family of substantial yeomen, who rebuilt the manor house there) and thus there were few resident gentry in the villages within the honor, nor much scope for gentry families to build up an estate in the district. At Grafton itself, the Woodvilles' manor house was enormously enlarged into a great royal palace which Henry VIII visited frequently, in part to hunt in the network of parks which his officials created or extended throughout much of Cleley. Later sovereigns took less personal interest in the honor and allowed the mansion to fall into decay. At the same time their officials increasingly granted leases for longer than 21 years and for terms in reversion; under Charles I there were also some piecemeal sales of premises within the honor.

Because so much of the hundred formed a single royal estate after 1542, it is possible to discuss farming in some detail from the mid 16th century onwards. On the other hand, because Crown officials retained few, if any, of the estate muniments which they presumably acquired with the manors making up the honor, the medieval economic history of Cleley is poorly documented.

Apart from some loss of land to imparking, there does not appear to have been much disruption to communities within the honor, for example by depopulation or inclosure. The medieval village at Hartwell seems to have been reduced to a single farmstead before the manor came into Crown hands in 1527; similarly, the large acreage of consolidated demesne pasture at Grafton Regis to the north of the mansion was created before the honor was established.

If anything, there was more change on the private manors. At Easton Neston, Richard Empson's purchase of the manor in 1499 seems to have led to the depopulation of the village, whose site was absorbed into the park surrounding the mansion, leaving only the parish church standing alongside his house there. At Wicken both the marquess of Dorset and John Spencer were accused in the late 15th century and early 16th of inclosing land and demolishing houses, although only on a limited scale, as were the Greens at Puxley, on the edge of Whittlewood. Two generations later, in the 1570s, the Furtho family bought up the freeholds on their home manor, demolished the houses and inclosed the open fields, before turning to the rebuilding of their own house in the early 17th century.

A more ambitious building project was that undertaken by Sir Arthur Throckmorton at Paulerspury, who in the 1580s replaced the medieval manor house and laid out gardens on the adjoining closes. Throckmorton inherited Paulerspury (and Cosgrove) from his father, to whom the two manors were granted in 1551 in what proved to be the only significant disposal of lands from the honor of Grafton before Charles I's time. At Alderton William Gorges, although only a 21-year leaseholder, also built a new mansion, again with elaborate gardens, in 1582, which was used to accommodate James I or his queen on at least two visits to the honor.

Although James stayed at Grafton House on a few occasions, the mansion appears already to have been in decay during his reign, and the process continued in Charles I's time. The house was garrisoned for the king during the Civil War and, after a siege, sacked by Parliamentary forces in 1643. After the war a smaller house was built on the site and only one outbuilding survives which can be firmly ascribed to Henry VIII's mansion.

Two new gentry houses were erected in the hundred in the early 17th century, one at Passenham, where the Duchy of Lancaster sold the manor to Sir Robert Banastre, a London courtier who settled there in the 1620s, and the other at Stoke Bruerne, where the park was among the premises sold off from the honor during Charles I's time. The purchaser in this case was another courtier, Sir Francis Crane, who engaged Inigo Jones to rebuild the park lodge a few years before he bought the estate. At Passenham Banastre also inclosed the open fields and probably demolished the remaining houses near the church; elsewhere, both within the honor and on the private estates, common-field farming continued largely unchanged, apart from limited losses to imparking.

As well as the rebuilding of a number of large houses, the period between the late 16th century and the mid 17th saw the widespread renewal of the rest of the housing stock in the hundred, at any rate above the level of small cottages. Throughout the district, there is a marked absence of surviving medieval domestic buildings, apart from the two at Shutlanger and Roade, both of which were modernised in this period. Timber seems to have been completely superseded by local limestone, generally laid as coursed rubble, for both farmhouses and farm buildings, as is evident from the existing older housing stock in all the villages today. Rather fewer cottages survive from before the 18th century: this may point to a later phase of rebuilding, which again seems to have swept away all trace of timber-framed construction.

Judging by the widespread survival of thatch on older houses until at least the First World War, (fn. 29) this was clearly the main roofing material for farmhouses and cottages both before and after the Great Rebuilding. For higher status buildings, tile was an alternative, employed, for example, by Sir Robert Banastre at Passenham for both his manor house and the adjoining barns. There were also stocks of brick and tile on hand at Easton Neston in the early 16th century, and tile was used (perhaps replacing thatch) when the keeper's lodge in Hartwell park was rebuilt in 1586. On that occasion, the tiles were brought from kilns in north Buckinghamshire. Both brick and tile may also have been made locally, although the earliest references found within Cleley date from the second half of the 17th century. (fn. 30) The manor house at Ashton was roofed with 'slate', presumably meaning thin flags of limestone, the supply of which was the responsibility of the lessee.

Few probate inventories survive from before the Interregnum among the Peterborough diocesan records and the best evidence for the results of the Great Rebuilding in Cleley are the detailed parliamentary surveys of 1650, which itemise the rooms in farms on the honor estate.

Cleley from 1660 to the early 19th century

As in the period before the Civil War, changes on the Crown estate dominate the history of the hundred in the late 17th and 18th centuries. (fn. 31) In 1665 the honor was conveyed to the trustees of Catherine of Braganza's marriage settlement and remained in their hands throughout the queen's long widowhood. After her death at the end of 1705, instead of reverting to the Crown, the honor passed under a reversionary grant of 1673 to the 2nd duke of Grafton, the son of one of Charles II's illegitimate sons by Barbara Villiers, duchess of Cleveland. The duke, however, did not take full control of the estate until after his mother's death in 1723. Shortly afterwards he appointed a body of commissioners to advise him on its management, which he proceeded to reorganise for the first time since 1542. New leases at rack rents replaced the old customary rents and entry fines, the estate was thoroughly mapped and surveyed, and Grafton Regis itself (although none of the other manors) was inclosed. The duke did not make Grafton Manor his Northamptonshire home, which simply became a large farmhouse, preferring instead to live at Wakefield Lodge in Whittlewood, which he acquired by virtue of a grant (to him and his heirs male) of the office of ranger of the forest. Towards the end of his life the 2nd duke began to rebuild the lodge to a design by William Kent, a task completed by his grandson, the 3rd duke, who succeeded in 1757.

The 3rd duke, after retiring from his political career, devoted a good deal of time and energy to the improvement of what was now known as the Wakefield Lodge estate. As well as rebuilding the mansion, he made a number of opportunist purchases of additional land from local freeholders, inclosed several more manors, consolidated farms and raised rents. He was also active in the promotion of the Grand Junction Canal, several miles of which, between Cosgrove and Stoke Bruerne, passed through Cleley hundred, mostly on Grafton lands.

Of the smaller estates, the only one which saw comparable developments, although at an earlier date, was Easton Neston, where Sir William Fermor, who succeeded his father as second baronet and was created Lord Lempster in 1692, appears to have worked hard to make good the damage resulting from his family's support for Charles I during the Civil War, as well as an earlier wardship. Helped by three well-judged marriages, he was able build a new mansion, the main part of which was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and carried through other improvements, including an attempt to re-establish a market in Towcester, where he was the largest owner. His son and grandson, the 1st and 2nd earls of Pomfret, failed to build on his achievements, but in the late 18th century the 3rd earl resumed the work of improvement on similar lines to those of the 3rd duke of Grafton. He remodelled the mansion, extended the park into new inclosures in Paulerspury parish, and made purchases of additional land.

At the opposite end of the hundred, the Wicken estate was purchased in 1716 by a successful London merchant named Charles Hosier, who also acquired the Potterspury Park estate a few miles to the north. Hosier built a new mansion in the park at Wicken, replacing the Spencers' old house in the village, and inclosed the remaining open fields. His descendants continued to live there until the early 19th century, running a small estate, largely confined to one parish, as benevolent resident owners. At Stoke Park, Inigo Jones's house was partly rebuilt and the park remodelled in the 1790s, but the estate as a whole, consisting only of the mansion and park at Stoke and Hartwell Park, where the lodge was let as a farmhouse, seems not to have been developed very much in the 18th century.

Other gentry houses declined in status. On the Wakefield Lodge estate, besides Grafton Manor, both the Hesilriges' house (inherited by marriage from Gorges) at Alderton and the Marriotts' manor at Ashton were let as farmhouses. The house at Alderton was largely taken down and the gardens turned into pasture, although the farm buildings remained in use; at Ashton the house survived but the moat was filled in in the 1850s. A large early 17th-century house built by a Crown lessee on the edge of Ashton village (just inside Roade parish) was demolished barely a century later by the 2nd duke of Grafton. The Throckmortons' house at Paulerspury passed to descendants in Kent, who sold off much of the estate piecemeal in the 1670s and let the mansion as a farmhouse. It too gradually decayed, ending its days as a parish workhouse. The Furtho estate was purchased in the 1670s by a successful civil lawyer, Edmund Arnold, who at his death in 1676 established a charity to which he entrusted his entire estate. Initially let in several parcels, from the early 18th century the Furtho estate was leased to a single farmer who lived at the house there, until that too became ruinous in the late 19th century and was eventually replaced.

Of the two other small estates in the south of the hundred, Passenham passed from Sir Robert Banastre (d. 1649) to an Essex family (the Maynards) and the manor house was let as a farm, while Cosgrove remained the home of a resident gentry family (the Mansels) throughout the 18th century and for most of the 19th.

Early industrial development in Cleley was very limited. From the mid 17th century onwards it is possible to piece together references to brickmaking in Deanshanger and, to a smaller extent, in Paulerspury. Another kiln was built at Alderton in the mid 18th century. Pottery continued to be made at Potterspury until the end of the 17th century and at Yardley for most of the 18th century; Potterspury also had a tannery in the 16th century and a bell foundry in the later 17th century and early 18th. Stone quarrying must have gone on on a small scale in several parishes without leaving any historical record, and the owners of the Grafton Park estate were deluded into agreeing to trials for coal in the early 18th century.

Cleley in Victorian and Edwardian times

The spirit of improvement on the Wakefield Lodge estate continued under the 4th duke of Grafton, who in the early 1840s agreed to a large-scale programme of rebuilding existing farms and establishing new ones on land inclosed over the previous half-century. During the same period the last open-field parish in the hundred, Stoke Bruerne, where Grafton was one of the two major owners, was finally inclosed. A decade later the remaining portion of Whittlewood was disafforested and inclosed, which enabled the estate to acquire the freehold of Wakefield Lodge and a considerable adjoining acreage. After these changes, the estate was managed on more conservative lines for the rest of the 19th century; in particular, there was only limited building of new cottages.

The Easton Neston estate passed in 1867 from the last earl of Pomfret to one of his sisters, who had married a Lancashire landowner, Thomas George Hesketh of Rufford Hall. Perhaps drawing on his experience of industrial development by estates in that county, Fermor-Hesketh (as he became) tried to exploit the ironstone at Easton Neston and also to improve both the farms on the estate and the urban property in Towcester. None of the ventures was very successful and the estate probably benefited more from two marriages in successive generations to American heiresses.

Both the Wakefield Lodge and Easton Neston estates survived the agricultural depression of the late 19th century, although the former certainly (and the latter probably) suffered a fall in income. At Cosgrove, J. C. Mansel, whose estate was heavily encumbered with debt throughout the 19th century, did not weather the storm and sold up in 1881 to a relation in Lincolnshire. The Wicken Park estate, which passed by marriage to the Mordaunts, a Warwickshire family, in the early 19th century, was also sold, in this case in 1877 to the long-standing tenants, the Douglas-Pennants of Penrhyn Castle, who subsidised Wicken from the profits of their Caernarvonshire slate quarries. In 1896 Lord Penrhyn sold the outlying portion of the estate at Potterspury and (it appears) Grafton. Shortly afterwards Potterspury Lodge was rebuilt as a gentleman's residence, rather than a farmhouse. (fn. 32)

Over the hundred as a whole, apart from the new farms on the Wakefield Lodge and Easton Neston estates, there was only limited building in the 19th century. Neither the dukes of Grafton nor any of the smaller owners sold land for houses (as distinct from making sites available for churches, schools and other public buildings), and because of the structure of landownership there was a little freehold land in most parishes. At Potterspury and Yardley Gobion two large private houses in several acres of grounds were built on plots made available by the break-up of the last remnants of the manor of Yardley Gobion in the mid 19th century, and at Yardley a few other substantial new houses were built along the main street. The other open villages, such as Deanshanger, Roade and Paulerspury, also saw some new building of both cottages and middle-class villas.

All the parishes in the hundred (except Alderton and Furtho) had acquired National schools by 1870, of which only one (Roade) was later replaced by a board school. Elsewhere, the Church of England retained control of elementary education until after 1902, although over the following twenty years the schools at Cosgrove, Deanshanger and Potterspury passed to the county council, which also secured the closure of the small schools at Hulcote and Shutlanger.

Similarly, in almost every parish in the hundred, the second half of the 19th century saw extensive restoration of the parish churches, generally at the initiative of long-serving, reforming incumbents, aided by the dukes of Grafton and the other landowners. At Hartwell a completely new church was built in the heart of the village at Hartwell Green, replacing the medieval chapel at the deserted village near Chapel Farm. Two district churches were built, at Deanshanger and Yardley Gobion, and Shutlanger acquired a 'school church', an infant school with a reserved chancel.

Nonconformity enjoyed only limited support in the district, mainly in the larger, open villages. Independent congregations were established at Potterspury and Roade in the 17th century, of which the former later became Congregational and the latter Baptist. The Independents (later Congregationalists) also flourished in the 19th century at Paulerspury, where for a time in the 1860s and 1870s they ran a day school in competition with the Church foundation. The Wesleyan Methodists were strong in Roade, Hartwell and Stoke Bruerne; there were Primitive Methodist chapels in Deanshanger, Potterspury and Pury End (in Paulerspury); and the Baptists had a chapel for a short period at Ashton. As well as a dispute over education at Paulerspury, there are signs of tensions between Church and Chapel in Roade (which led to the creation of the school board) and Deanshanger (apparently over the control of the charities), although they do not appear to have led to lasting divisions in the community.

One possible focus for conflict in the larger villages was the parish council which each acquired in 1894. Although a good deal of interest was shown in the first elections in December that year, with a surplus of candidates over places in several villages, enthusiasm soon waned and none of the councils displayed any unusual energy before the First World War. Contested elections became the exception and no woman served as a parish councillor in this period.

Most of the parishes in the hundred belonged to Potterspury poor law union after 1834, which also contained four Buckinghamshire parishes. The union was very much the creation of the Wakfield Lodge estate, which built the workhouse at Yardley Gobion; two of the dukes attended regularly as ex-officio guardians. (fn. 33) After 1894 the Northamptonshire parishes of the union formed a small rural district council, which pursued an inactive career before the 1920s. Opposition from small ratepayers was sufficient to deter it from proceeding with drainage or water-supply schemes, even when pressed by the Local Government Board, although just before the First World War it did consider building a few cottages at Ashton. In the north of the hundred, Roade became part of Hardingstone union after 1834 and Easton Neston, Stoke Bruerne and Shutlanger were in Towcester union.

There was little industry in Cleley during the 19th century. The opening of the Grand Junction Canal in 1800, which followed the Tove valley from Cosgrove to Stoke Bruerne, where it entered a long tunnel beneath Blisworth Hill (not completed until 1805), led to the establishment of public wharfs at Old Stratford, Cosgrove, Yardley and Stoke Bruerne, but only at Stoke, where a steam cornmill, ropewalk and brickyard were built near the canal, was there much subsequent development. The opening of the London & Birmingham Railway in 1838, which followed much the same route through the district, led to some new building near the station at Roade, but no industry followed until the Simplex polish factory was built there just before the First World War. The Wakefield Lodge estate tried, with little success, to exploit the ironstone near the canal and railway at Blisworth, just outside the hundred; efforts by the Easton Neston estate to open ironstone quarries at Showsley and Shutlanger were hampered by the lack of railway facilities. From the 1860s to the 1890s a succession of under-capitalised and over-ambitious companies tried to build an east-west line through south Northamptonshire to enable ironstone to be sent to the blast furnaces of South Wales. (fn. 34) By the time the route was complete the South Wales iron industry had collapsed and the main market for Northamptonshire ironstone lay to the north in Derbyshire, which drew supplies mainly from the Kettering and Wellingborough districts. (fn. 35)

Small brickworks were established in several parishes in the hundred, some operated directly by the Wakefield Lodge estate, others by lessees of one of the estates. All appear to have served only local markets. Only one of the village smithies developed into anything bigger, that belonging to the Roberts family in Deanshanger. By the end of the 19th century E. & H. Roberts was a general ironfounding and engineering business, employing about a hundred men and boys, specialising in agricultural implements and pumping equipment for small waterworks. During the same period a few cycle 'manufacturers' appeared in the some of the villages, Deanshanger was briefly the home of the Royal Condor motor works, and Old Stratford had a coachbuilder and a small engineering works that may have assembled a few motor cars.

Lacemaking remained a ubiquitous by-employment for women throughout the Victorian period, although it declined towards the end of the 19th century in competition with cheaper, machine-made lace. There was an attempt to revive the craft on a semi-commercial basis in Paulerspury, led by Isabella Harrison, the wife of the rector. Lace-schools, in which girls were taught the skill from an early age and were supposed also to learn how to read and write, were common in the early 19th century before they were suppressed by the 1870 Elementary Education Act.

All the parishes showed a modest increase in population between 1801 and 1861, the total for the hundred rising from 6,200 to 9,300. (fn. 36) In some of the larger villages, particularly Paulerspury, the number of paupers seems to have been a constant concern of the vestry. Both there, and also at Stoke Bruerne and Potterspury, small-scale emigration schemes sent families to America. By contrast, between 1861 and 1911, when the population of the hundred was only 7,300, numbers in all the parishes either levelled off or fell slightly, with the beginning of the drift from the land which became more marked after the First World War.

Cleley in the 20th century

The first signs that a traditional way of life was about to change came just before the First World War, in a small way in the south of the hundred, where the Countess of Warwick sold the Passenham Manor estate in 1911, and on a larger scale to the north, where the 7th duke of Grafton auctioned about 2,000 acres, some of it outside Cleley, but also including farms in Hartwell and Ashton, two years later. Far more dramatic change swiftly followed the end of the war (and the death of the duke aged 97 in 1918), when most of the rest of the Grafton estate was included in two major sales in October 1919 and December 1920. Especially on the first occasion, many lots were bought in advance at the reserve prices by the tenants but, even allowing for this, the break-up of an estate of over 14,000 acres, which had been managed as a single unit since 1542, and since 1706 by an owner resident in Northamptonshire for at least part of each year, affected many aspects of life in the villages concerned. Wakefield Lodge remained a private house, the home of Lord and Lady Hillingdon, and the dukes themselves retained a substantial acreage in Northamptonshire until another sale in 1939, but the events of 1919- 20 undoubtedly represent a turning-point in the history of the district.

Of the smaller estates, only Cosgrove came onto the market immediately after the war, sold in small lots by an absentee owner. Wicken Park remained the home of the Penrhyns when they were not resident in North Wales, and Easton Neston, under the management of the 1st Lord Hesketh, appears to have enjoyed something of a renaissance between the two World Wars. The Stoke Park estate, which sold the outlying farm at Hartwell to the sitting tenant in 1912, also remained a private residence. Besides the Hillingdons, the Heskeths and the Penrhyns, smaller landowning families, such as the Atkinsons at Cosgrove Priory or E. B. Meade at Stoke Park, continued to support the communities in which they lived, serving as churchwardens, parish councillors, school managers and the like, but not on the same scale as the 19th-century dukes of Grafton.

The Hillingdons sold Wakefield Lodge just before the Second World War. It has since remained a private residential and agricultural estate, developing in recent years a successful retail and craft operation in the old home farm buildings. Wicken Park was acquired by a major Bristol charity, the Society of Merchant Venturers, in 1944, who have since sold all the cottages and some of the farms, although they retain a significant acreage of tenanted land and also the freehold of the mansion, which has been occupied by a succession of private schools. Potterspury Lodge, shorn of its land in the 1950s (some of which was used to create the only two county smallholdings in Cleley, themselves sold to sitting tenants in 1996), also became a private school. At Passenham, the post-war owners built up an agricultural estate comparable in size to that sold in 1911, which was itself broken up by sale in 1985. At Cosgrove, both the Hall and Priory estates have been dispersed and the houses converted to become corporate headquarters. The Furtho estate has remained the property of the Edmund Arnold Charity, let to a single farm tenant, although some redundant buildings have been converted to business use. Grafton Manor, which reverted from a farmhouse to a gentry residence just before the First World War, was last occupied as a family home in the 1960s and has since become a private clinic. The important remains of the Inigo Jones house at Stoke Park were saved from destruction by the present owner in the early 1950s, when the Victorian additions were demolished, although the adjoining park and woodland were sold off.

Amid all these changes, the outstanding example of a surviving traditional landed estate in the hundred remains Easton Neston, with its magnificent Hawksmoor mansion of the 1690s and later, its gardens laid out in their present form by the 1st Lord Hesketh in the early 20th century, its park and lodges still much as remodelled by the 3rd earl of Pomfret in the 1790s, and its model village at Hulcote, also dating from the 3rd earl's time. The major change in recent decades has been the development of the racecourse, both for racing and as a conference centre, together with the adaptation of the stables at the house for light industry and business. The estate's diversification away from relying purely on farming, whether kept in hand or let, began in the 1st Lord Hesketh's time and has been continued since, thus helping to ensure its long-term survival.

None of the parishes in Cleley saw any increase in population between the two World Wars and overall the decline which set in after 1861 continued. At the 1931 census the population of the district was only 200 more than the figure recorded in 1801. There was a much sharper drop in school rolls, indicating that it was younger people who were leaving the villages and not being replaced. The school at Grafton, serving that village and Alderton, closed for lack of pupils in 1934, and others had their staffing reducing. (fn. 37) Men moved with their families to work in Northampton, or further afield to the new factories in Coventry, Luton or elsewhere. (fn. 38) With two notable exceptions, there was little new employment in Cleley itself to compensate for the loss of jobs on the land. At Roade, the factory originally built by a polish manufacturer was taken over after the First World War by a light engineering company that concentrated very successfully on non-ferrous castings for motor vehicles and other new markets. By contrast, E. & H. Roberts's agricultural implement foundry at Deanshanger did not long survive the post-war slump. The site was quickly taken over for an oxide works established in 1931 by a Jewish émigré entrepreneur from Berlin, which likewise expanded considerably before and after the Second World War. The railway works at Wolverton also remained an important employer in the south of the district, as it had been before the First World War.

In the smaller, purely agricultural villages, the inter-war period was recalled by a later generation as one of widespread poverty, under-employment and very poor housing, a picture confirmed by the more discursive school log books and memories recorded in the 1950s. (fn. 39) In particular, the Wakefield Lodge estate had done little cottage-building in the 19th century, leaving a legacy after the sales of 1913-20 of a large stock of houses whose owners lacked the means to maintain them, not least because the tenants could afford little in rent.

In the bigger, open villages the problem was aggravated by the presence over a longer period of small owners reluctant to carry out improvements. The rural district council thus came under pressure from both the parish councils and the Ministry of Health to make full use of the early Housing Acts to remedy the situation. Initially they moved cautiously, unhappy at the enormous increase in the cost of labour and materials during the war, and dubious as to whether tenants could be found at the rents that would have to be charged. After a slow start, however, Potterspury R.D.C. became quite an enthusiastic house-builder and closer of unfit accommodation. When the council was abolished at the 1935 review and most of its parishes transferred to a much enlarged Towcester R.D.C., it had several housing and slum clearance schemes in hand. (fn. 40) Indeed, Potterspury was seen by the Ministry as one of the more competent authorities in a county where in general the rural districts were dismissed as hopelessly ineffectual. (fn. 41) The post-1935 Towcester R.D.C. seems to have inherited some of Potterspury's reputation, and escaped the severe censure meted out by the county medical officer in a damning survey of rural housing carried out shortly after the review. (fn. 42) Two former Potterspury parishes (Ashton and Hartwell) joined Roade in a new Northampton R.D.C., the successor of the Hardingstone authority.

At the end of the Second World War the local authorities planned ambitous programmes to rid the district of unfit houses, which included, in the case of Towcester R.D.C., the demolition of almost the whole of the village of Alderton. As with so many plans of that period, the reality was rather different, but after 1945 the two R.D.C.s built large numbers of houses in Roade and Deanshanger, where there was greatest need because of the presence of industry, and smaller estates in most of the other villages in Cleley.

Much of the housing that these new estates was intended to replace was not demolished as originally assumed. As working-class families moved to new council houses, their cottages were bought with equal enthusiasm by middle-class, carowning incomers, who wished to live a rural community even though they worked elsewhere. Thus began, slowly in the 1950s but more rapidly after 1960, the social transformation of all the villages in the hundred. With the departure from most parishes of both the gentry and the traditional upper middle class, the communities came to be dominated by professional families who modernised and extended the older housing stock to create their ideal of life in an unspoilt, supposedly unchanging, rural village, which was in fact changing out of all recognition. The process was helped by improvements to water-supply and drainage in the 1950s, and the wider domestic use of electricity, which had reached most of the villages in the 1930s. A final twist in the story came with the sale after 1980 of much of the local authority housing stock to sitting tenants, which, once sold on, rose sharply in price so as to contribute to the process by which the proportion of poorer people in the community, especially in the smaller villages, has fallen since the 1950s.

All the parishes saw some new building of private houses in the 1960s and later, ranging from quite large lower middle-class estates, as at Roade, Potterspury or Yardley Gobion, to imposing, individually designed detached houses for the new rich of the 1980s, perhaps most conspicuously at Alderton. The period since 1980 has also seen the widespread conversion of barns and other outbuildings into houses. The limits on the extent of new building were set in the mid 1960s, when the county council produced a plan for rural development in south Northamptonshire, defining an envelope around each village beyond which development would not normally be allowed. (fn. 43) Only occasionally, for example at Hartwell, was the barrier breached over the following thirty years. Other constraints on the growth of particular communities included the need to prevent the parishes in the south of the district becoming part of the Milton Keynes built-up area, or Roade in the north becoming joined to the expansion area on the south side of Northampton, both consequences of the revival of the new towns policy by the Labour government of 1964-70. The population of the hundred rose from 7,200 in 1951 to 13,400 in 1981.

Improvements to the trunk road system after the Second World War also affected the district. The M1 motorway, opened in 1959, runs through the eastern edge of Cleley hundred, removing much of the through traffic from both Watling Street and the road from London to Northampton, which branches from it at Old Stratford. Improvements to the latter route, and related changes to the road layout on the northern edge of Milton Keynes, brought relief to Deanshanger, Old Stratford and Yardley Gobion with the building of bypasses in the 1980s; the promise of a bypass for Roade remained unfulfilled at the turn of the century.

The development plan drawn up by the county council under the 1944 Education Act earmarked several of the smaller schools in Cleley for closure. In the event, only Wicken shut and some that were to have closed, such as Stoke Bruerne, expanded as the population of their catchment areas increased and many of the incomers proved to be keen supporters of small village primary schools. All the remaining Church schools opted for voluntary controlled status under the 1944 Act and no more were handed over entirely to the county council.

Before the Second World War, children from the village schools had been able to compete for places at Towcester Grammar School, although only a small number were successful and family circumstances often prevented a child taking up the place. Some boys from the south of the district had gone to the technical grammar school at Wolverton. (fn. 44) Under the development plan, two new secondary schools were built, one at Roade and the other (despite protests from Potterspury) at Deanshanger. Before the 1944 Act Roade and Potterspury had developed a rudimentary senior syllabus within the confines of the elementary code, offering gardening, woodwork and domestic science to the older children. The new schools at Roade and Deanshanger both got off to a slightly uncertain start, struggling to attract and retain an adequate staff. In the 1970s Roade, serving an area with a larger middle class than Deanshanger, began to acquire an academic and social cachet which served it well when secondary education was reorganised in the south of the county in 1976 and both schools became comprehensive. By the 1990s Roade had come to be regarded as a first class school, both academically and socially, whose reputation in turn helped to attract more middle-class families to the village.

Since the Second World War the economic, as well as social, structure of all the communities in Cleley hundred has changed drastically. Agricultural employment has become insignificant and a number of sets of farm buildings have been adapted for light industry or to become offices. Despite the creation of some local employment in this way, and the increase in the number of professional and business people who work from home, most of the employed population work outside the hundred, in Northampton, Milton Keynes or further afield, including London. The vast majority travel to work by car, although one result of the development of Milton Keynes has been an improvement in the rail service to London from the station there. The increase in population in most of the villages, while saving several schools from closure, has not arrested the decline in retail services, much less prevented the virtual disappearance of public transport. All but the poorest have access to a car, not merely for work but also for shopping and leisure.

Like the rest of Northamptonshire, Cleley, despite its pleasant countryside and attractive villages, has failed to develop as a tourist destination, except for day visitors, and there is little local employment in this sector. Unlike other parts of the county, the district lacks a mansion open to the public to attract people from any distance. Similarly, although Stoke Bruerne is regarded as one of the prettiest spots on the canal system, and the waterways museum there, opened in 1963, is wellestablished, there has been no development alongside the canal (apart from two very popular pubs), such as a marina, chandlery or boat-building business, or any additional retail facilities in the village. There is even less canal-related activity at Cosgrove.

The largest single influence on the local economy has undoubtedly been the creation of Milton Keynes. The town offers both a range of professional and commercial jobs that simply did not exist before it was built, and also light industrial and distributive work which has compensated for the decline in employment on the railways and in other older industries. South Northamptonshire has also benefited from the growth of Milton Keynes as a regional centre for retailing and leisure services, to the detriment of Northampton, which had previously been the main destination. In return, the villages have been able to offer a pleasant rural environment for those who work in Milton Keynes, with slightly less expensive housing than the adjoining parts of Buckinghamshire. As one observer commented when the last unmodernised house in Yardley Gobion came on the market in 1999, the district has a Cotswoldy feel, but on the cheap. (fn. 45)


  • 1. This description largely follows R.C.H.M. Northants., iv, p. xxiii; see also Geological Survey, 1:63/360 map, sheet 220 (1969).
  • 2. R.C.H.M. Northants., iv, p. xxiii.
  • 3. Ibid., 177-9.
  • 4. Ibid., pp. xxxv-xxxvii.
  • 5. See their Newsletter, 1956-70.
  • 6. R.C.H.M. Northants., iv, p. xxxvii.
  • 7. C. FitzRoy and K. Harry, Grafton Regis (2000), 8-13.
  • 8. Throughout this introduction, the authority for statements relating to particular parishes for which no reference is given here will be found in the account of the parish in question.
  • 9. V.C.H. Northants., i. 257-9.
  • 10. H. Cam, 'The Hundreds of Northamptonshire', Jnl. of the Northants. Nat. Hist. and Field Club, xxvii (1933-4), 102-3.
  • 11. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 549.
  • 12. Baker, Northants., ii. 116.
  • 13. Bridges, Northants., i. 280.
  • 14. Below, Grafton Regis, manors and other estates.
  • 15. Baker, Northants., ii. 167.
  • 16. Bridges, Northants., i. 280; Baker, Northants., ii. 116; below, Honor of Grafton; Grafton Regis.
  • 17. Bridges, Northants., i. 316; P.N. Northants., 96, 105.
  • 18. Cam, 'Hundreds of Northants.', 103.
  • 19. Baker, Northants., ii. 116.
  • 20. P.R.O., SC 2/195/25-33.
  • 21. Baker, Northants., i. 116; below, Roade.
  • 22. R.C.H.M. Northants., iv, under all the parishes in Cleley.
  • 23. Geological Survey map, 1/63,360, sheet 220.
  • 24. R.C.H.M. Northants., iv, passim.
  • 25. To simplify the narrative, Wakefield Lodge has been treated here entirely under Potterspury (q.v.), where a short general account of Whittlewood will also be found. The greater part of the forest lay within Whittlebury parish and its history will be considered in more detail in a later volume, as will that of Salcey forest, which also extended into several parishes.
  • 26. Baker, Northants., ii. 312-39; V.C.H. Bucks., iv. 476-82.
  • 27. V.C.H. Northants., iii. 1-67.
  • 28. Below, Honor of Grafton.
  • 29. See, for example, the photographs in the Grafton Estate sale catalogues of 1913-20.
  • 30. Below, Passenham; Paulerspury.
  • 31. Below, Honor of Grafton.
  • 32. Below, Grafton Regis; Potterspury.
  • 33. Below, Potterspury, local govt.
  • 34. J. M. Dunn, The Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway (1952).
  • 35. S. H. Beaver, 'The development of the Northamptonshire iron industry, 1851-1930', in London Essays in Geography, ed. L.D. Stamp and S.W. Wooldridge (1951), 33-58.
  • 36. Both here and in the chapters on individual parishes, all figures from the censuses of 1801 and later are taken from an unpublished table in the N.R.O., originally prepared by V.C.H. before the Second World War and continued by the N.R.O.
  • 37. See individual parishes for details.
  • 38. N.R.O., Village Memories (for several parishes in the hundred); A Scrapbook of Ashton (1954); FitzRoy and Harris, Grafton Regis.
  • 39. N.R.O., Village Memories; FitzRoy and Harry, Grafton Regis, 99-158.
  • 40. N.R.O., LG 31, passim; details under individual parishes.
  • 41. P.R.O., HLG 43/360-361.
  • 42. Rural Housing (Report by County Medical Officer of Health, 1936) (copy in N.R.S. library).
  • 43. N.R.O., County Planning Cttee. mins., 1965.
  • 44. The results of the annual schools examination were usually reported to the managers of each school; see their minutes and the headteachers' log books in the N.R.O.
  • 45. Daily Telegraph, 19 Feb. 2000, p. P3.