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Field family papers

Field family papers - the diversity of one collection by Zena Grant Collier

This material came to us as bundles of folded parchment and worn, dirty pieces of paper marked in faded English or Latin. Some items ran to fifty or more pages while others were mere scraps with 17th century reminders scrawled on them - 'Memo to take my key'. Most items related to a family called Field who lived on the Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire border area round Barton and Hitchin, and the collection covered over four hundred years.

The three hundred and five documents which survived our weeding process are now sorted into thirty seven groups and catalogued under reference Z937. They're mainly deeds which contain an amazing amount of information about the family, its connections, and the area. This was a litigious family, not just with other people but also between themselves as there were frequent challenges to a will or a sibling's claim.
They seldom missed an opportunity to sue for money or property even if the chance of success was minimal, and it's the information in their statements which brings these documents to life. There are revealing and dramatic evidence statements, often just in draft form, which allow us a glimpse of the writer's thoughts and intentions as he (always he) poured out his version of events. There are also bills and accounts, a few letters and early plans, and a handful of well-preserved, eighteenth century printed documents on the duties of a parish officer.

I can only mention a few of the many subjects in the collection here to give an idea of its usefulness to researchers.

Family history

There are two main families in these papers: the Field family, mostly lawyers, who lived in Barton, Silsoe, Higham Gobion and Hitchin between 1641 and 1927; and Charles Nicholls senior and junior of Hitchin 1664-1746. Other families involved with the Fields and Nicholls, usually through land deals but sometimes through marriage, are, in the 17th century, Piggot and Hale of Pulloxhill and Lower Gravenhurst, Clerke and Haddock of Barton, and Greene, and in the 18th century, Wyles of Ampthill, and Flint and Abdy of Higham Gobion.

For generations the Field men tended to marry late and often to much younger women. In 1694 the age difference was about 15 years. In 1730, Thomas Field had his only son when he was 36. John Field died in 1759 aged 63 but his widow was still alive in 1787. Thomas Field married in 1840 when he was about 63 and his bride 27, and his brother Charles married when he was about 40. In the last direct generation, they left things a tad too long and none of them married at all.

Pulloxhill Manor

In the mid-1760s a young member of the Field family who'd recently inherited the estate drew up plans showing what he owned in Pulloxhill. It was all ex-manorial land which, though it didn't include the manor house itself, encompassed a large part of the parish, especially the area behind Fieldside and the Chequers down to Hill Foot known as Rushymeade. He noted everything from tenants to field names, acreage to use, and went so far as to mark field gates and stiles. He even drew in the buildings he owned. He worked in a very stylised way - no bends or rounded edges to the fields, and nothing beyond the estate. It gives the impression he was doing it to clarify things in his own mind, so it's lucky his drawings survived at all. These maps are now the earliest we have of Pulloxhill, and if you're interested in the village history you'll find them invaluable.[Z 937/4/28-30].

Pulloxhill early enclosure

Pulloxhill's nineteenth century enclosure award affects so little land it's clear the parish had been through a much earlier enclosure, but we held no record of it. A deed of 1678 refers to newly-created closes which had been named "since the enclosure" [Ref.Z937/4/6]. There is also a comment on one of the 1760s plans mentioned above that a Mr Sandall took land out of the common fields - enclosed it - when he was steward (of the manor). We don't know when he was steward, but the parish registers show only one candidate: William Sendall, whose children were baptised in Pulloxhill in the 1640s and 1650s. So the period around 1670 seems the most likely time for the early enclosure.

A Gentleman's education

A young gentleman in the mid-1700s needed to be taught how to run the family estate. The papers in Z937/30 include notes made by Carolus Nicholls Field and his younger brother John on the rules of inheritance, the definition of dower, and how to go about seizing the goods of a tenant who falls behind with the rent. A gentleman also needed skills in measuring and evaluating, and these young men made notes on how to build a sundial, how to measure timber 'by the slide' and guage a cask cooler 'by the rule'. But there is light relief too - the oldest item is dated 1694 and seems to have been kept by someone of an earlier generation purely for the novelty of its sparkly ink! [Ref.Z937/30/1].

If you're interested in the building and furnishing of everyday houses in the mid-18th century, the documents relating to the Brotherhood House in Hitchin are a good source [Ref.Z937/15]. Once a meeting house, it was sold to a private buyer after the dissolution of the monasteries and after a long and varied descent it came to Charles Nicholls in 1692. By 1764 it was badly in need of repair and his great-nephew Carolus Nicholls Field took it and its neighbouring houses in hand. Fortunately for us, Carolus kept meticulous records of everything that was done, how much it all cost, and who did what (his gentleman's education wasn't wasted). We know, to mention just a few details, the Brotherhood House was white-washed outside, had bow windows, a kitchen facing the street, sash pulleys, pigeon lockers, and a bed with castors and curtain rods. The new house next door had four bays; the house facing Pound Lane had a new front added; there was a malting attached, an oak mantelpiece, gravelled garden walks, a pond,we even know the colour of the doors (red).

If your interest runs to slightly earlier interiors, you'll enjoy the letter written in 1710 by joiner John Russell of St Mary's Bedford. In his own opinionated way he describes the fashionable wood panelling he's to fit in Mr Smith's house in Old Warden, with its latest design in mouldings and cornices in the Ionic and Corinthian style, and he encloses drawings to illustrate them. He criticises the carpenter already employed at Mr Smith's house who will 'commite a great Blunder, if I misunderstand him not'. But his deprecating comments seem to have gone a little too far when he inspected the house. The 'insolent prating self-conceited' workmen hooted, 'and stoned me as far as they could see and reach me.' [Ref.Z937/37/2].


The Field men participated in parish affairs, and some documents relating to this have survived. The most unusual item is a Quarter Sessions form of 1691 which lists the rules a parish surveyor had to enforce. There were penalties for using the wrong sized tyres, for damaging paths or allowing hedges or ditches to become a nuisance. The law was very precise. For example, the width of cartways and 'horse-causeys' was specified, all highways had to be mended before harvest time, and every inhabitant had to work six days a year on the highways [Ref.Z937/36].

There is also a copy of a complaint by Carolus Nicholls Field to Quarter Sessions in 1764 to raise the rates because of the bad condition of the highways and bridges in Hitchin. What's interesting about this is what it reveals of the practicalities of making such an order. [Ref.Z937/36/4]


Charles Nicholls junior accumulated land by lending money with property as security and foreclosing as soon as the borrower defaulted. This can't have made him popular, but that certainly didn't stop him. One defaulting borrower had a large estate in Kings Walden, Hertfordshire, and the seizing of it almost cost Nicholls his life. The debtor, John Cripps, invited Nicholls to a garret room in his house one November afternoon in 1709, ostensibly on business.
But he locked the door and drew out a loaded pistol and a dagger, calling Nicholls a villain and rogue for ruining him. After being forced to sign cheques to Cripps worth 14,000 and threatened with being shot in the head if he told anyone about it, Nicholls hurried off to London in fear of his life, and made a full statement to the Court of Chancery.
A draft version of his statement has survived almost wholly intact, rich in the manners and speech of the time as well as describing the heated events of that afternoon [Ref.Z937/18/9]. John Cripps' downfall is documented in detail, often in direct speech which makes it seem all the more immediate. Cripps' desperate efforts to borrow and repay money, his friends trying to help him, his death in debtors' prison, his widow's death soon after, and their two orphaned children's claims on the estate which Nicholls and his descendents opposed, all appear here.
However, what goes around comes around, as the saying goes. It took two generations to build up the Nicholls/Field estate, but only two years for the next generation to waste all the personal estate 'money, goods, and such. Thereafter, the land became more and more encumbered with mortgages so that parts of it had to be sold off regularly to maintain what was left. By 1927 members of the family were either insolvent or in 'indifferent circumstances' and much land had been sold, but not Fielden House in Higham Gobion where the last elderly Miss Field lived.

The female side

It's much harder to extract information about women from deeds, but with a little determination some details can be found. For instance, in 1748 Mary Atkinson captured the heart of eighteen year old Charles Field, but she was at the time in his father's service and his father was not at all pleased. In fact, he was so displeased he packed Charles off to Sussex and wrote a will stating firmly that if Charles married Mary he'd disinherit him. We don't know what might have happened because both Charles and his father died within the year.
Charles had not married Mary, and we don't know what became of her [Ref.Z 937/17/7].Some women wielded power, and used it. Mary Twydell rented out a well-appointed house in Hitchin in 1747. When her tenant, Oliver Bigg, fell behind with the rent she seized his household goods and stock in lieu of payment. And a very fine list of goods it was too [Ref.Z 937/15/2]. Mary Field a few years earlier clearly had more respect for her youngest son Charles than her oldest son Thomas.
When her husband died she saw Thomas fritter away the family inheritance, so she withheld some of the title deeds she should have passed to him and instead gave them to Charles [Ref.Z 937/10/7]. And Rose Eliza Field in 1880 decided to take over the running of the family farms in Silsoe, Higham Gobion, Pulloxhill and Gravenhurst herself after her husband's death [Ref.Z 937/31/8]. We don't know why Mrs Phillips needed to raise money, but in 1763 she held a sale of a large number of household items, ranging from mahogany dining tables and a kitchen dresser to a box of flints with gun screws, powder and 7lbs of shot [Ref.Z937/1/9].

Sometimes women were kept in the dark about the need to raise money. When Thomas Fallows asked his old friend John Cripps for the return of over 100 he'd lent him, he sent his servant to deliver the message verbally. He didn't want to write it down in case Cripps' wife should find out how much in debt Cripps was [Ref.Z937/18/5].

Women were remembered in wills, although they were seldom the main beneficiaries. Grace Clarke of Barton was given the parlour, a little room under the stairs and half the linen by her husband in 1651, provided she lived contentedly in the house with their son and took her meat and drink with him [Ref.Z937/29/1] Mary Field of Hitchin fared similarly in 1728, receiving from her husband all bedding and furniture in the Best Room over the kitchen, and the silver plate [Ref.Z 937/29/4].
When it was a woman making the will, however, things were slightly different. Deborah Field of Hitchin was only 35 and unmarried when she died in 1787. In her will, after nominating three men as trustees, she left most of her wealth to women. Her nieces' education took precedence over that of her nephews, her friend Ann Read received all her writing and working instruments, and her clothes and linen were left, after friends and family had taken their pick, to Elizabeth Adams, a servant [Ref.Z937/29/15].

Prudence Jeffrey of Tebworth was less than happy when she put her name to a document in 1678. John Field and his mother must have pressed her hard to withdraw some complaints against them, because she finally capitulated. Rather tersely, she released the pair from all actions and demands she'd made on them 'from the beginning of the world until the day of the date of these presents'. I think that probably covered everything [Ref.Z 937/31/1].

A full list of the contents of the Field collection (reference Z937) is available through our online catalogue.