Weston's hidden history
PUBLISHED: 11:12 30 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:54 10 June 2016
Religious Romans, a thieving giant, children bunking school to bring in crops and hangings by the roadside are all part of the history and folklore of Weston. Emily Walter looks through the archives of the desirable North Herts village
The earliest evidence of dwellers in Weston is flint tools and a stone axe from the Neolithic period, 8,000-4,000 BC. Over the past 30 years, local detectorist Paul Hing has dedicated his searches to Weston, working when the farming calendar allows and visiting the same fields over and over again. His discoveries have revealed the site of a fair south of Holy Trinity church that saw much trade from Celtic to medieval times; the site of a Roman villa or temple, which had a spring with votive offerings (now a protected site) and what he believes to be a Romano-British farm site east of the church where nine Roman bronze coins were found.
The Black Death.
The church sits on the eastern edge of Weston and, but for the Black Death of 1348, would probably mark the heart of the village today. The plague, which killed around half the population of England, hit the village with such severity that buildings were burnt and pulled down to prevent its spread. The new village grew up around what is now Fore Street.
The village giant.
Weston has it’s own legend, celebrated in the Weston sign – that of a Robin Hood- like figure named Jack O’Legs who once lived in the village. He was so tall he could talk to people through the windows of their upstairs rooms, resting his arms on the windowsills. The earliest mention of Jack historians have found dates from 1728, in a quote from Salmon’s History of Hertfordshire: ‘This Giant, called Jack O’Legs, as Fame goes, lived in a wood here, was a great Robber, but a generous one, for he plundered the Rich to feed the Poor. He took bread from the Baldock Bakers frequently, who taking him at an advantage, put out his Eyes and after hanged him upon a Knoll in Baldock Field. He made them at his Exit but one single Request, which they granted: that he might have his Bow put into his Hand, and wherever his Arrow fell he should be buried, which happened to be in Weston churchyard.’
The head- and footstones of Jack’s grave were moved about by village children (including my grandfather and his friend Lance Abbott, the vicar’s son) from time to time but eventually cemented down by two church wardens many years ago, at a distance apart of 15 size-10 shoes.
Crime and punishment.
Other stories of crime and punishment are evident in the graveyard. There’s the grave of a Mrs Williamson, from whom a goose and a gander were stolen in 1834. The 21-year-old John Gundrill was charged with the crime and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and transportation to Australia. Gundrill sailed on the John Berry in April 1834 and arrived at Hobart, Tasmania, in August. He became a farmer and was never to return to England.
The burial of William Moles, who was sentenced to hang, is recorded on August 7, 1817. Moles, aged 19, set fire to a house, four barns, four outhouses, one stack of corn and two stacks of hay. The fire was started on the property of John Farr and spread to a neighbouring property. Unusually, the hanging took place close to the scene of the crime, near the road to Halls Green. Much was made of the event, which drew huge crowds and was reported in The Times.
Living off the land.
For any visitor to Weston, centuries of farming and all its associated trades will not seem much in evidence. But delve through Weston’s photo archive and it reveals a farming community alive with such characters as ‘Bang’ Ives, a shepherd known for rearing prize-winning Suffolk sheep and for the catchy song he would sing at any suitable occasion. He is pictured in the 1920s with his dogs, a crook in his right hand and a bottle in the left. It is noted, by one who knew him, that the bottle is ‘possibly sheep medicine or could it be some “medicine” for himself?’.
There’s keeper Jack Reeves, known as ‘Luffenhall Jack’, photographed in about 1930, who is remembered saying of springtime: ‘I’m as happy as all the birds in the wood this time of year.’ And Frank Wallis, one of the first tractor drivers in the village, pictured winding up a tractor in about 1940.
For Weston’s children, schooling would often come second to the demands of living off the land. In October 1883, the headmistress wrote in her logbook ‘Very small attendance. Elder children away picking up acorns.’ The crop would have been used to feed local pigs.
School attendance was also poor during 1899; headmaster Mr Bradbeer reported that farm labour was scarce and so farmers ‘employed school lads all through the winter and spring’. . Acknowledgment: Some information in this article draws on research carried out by Judith Evans and Richard Clements.