HENHAM-ON-THE-HILL IN 1895

Notes by Mr W. T. Fairhall of Mitcham, Surrey in 1960

Henham-on-the-Hill is a scattered and spacious village 1½ miles N.E. from Elsenham Station, beautifully situated on high ground with wide views over the wooded countryside towards Widdington and Newport, and although it has no large green the village is given space and vista by the very wide verges that border the roads running through. The soil is sandy and the farmers had few drainage problems, the heaviest shower quickly disappearing from the roads and fields.

In 1895 it appeared to have changed little during the nineteenth century; the cottage architecture fell into three groups, a few of oak-frame construction with brick infilling g of seventeenth century date, a larger number of white-washed cottages with roofs of thatch, a few Victorian villas with slate roofs. The parish had at that time about seven hundred inhabitants, which included the neighbouring hamlets of Little Henham, Chickney, Cherry Green and Pledgdon Green. It subsisted entirely on agriculture and had five farms, Bird’s, Moat Farm, and Church Farm at the church end of the village, Wright’s Farm at the centre and Wood End Green Farm at the Debden End. The farm labourer’s wages was then thirteen shillings weekly (65 pence – RG), supplemented by extra money at hay and harvest time. In summer the women and elder children went hoeing, pea picking, and gleaning to gain a little extra money, whilst few cottages were without a pig, a few ducks or chickens, and of course garden produce.

There were few mechanical aids to farming; the two-horse plough was the rule, though some of the larger fields were steam-ploughed by contract; wheat and barley were drilled but in some of the smaller fields on heavy land, of which there were a few pockets in the parish, seed and fertiliser were distributed by hand broadcasting, or by the use of that curious implement now relegated to the museum, the fiddle. In summer the two-horse binder had become general, though some of the older men remembered reaping by sickle; horse-works were much used, either to work a stack elevator at harvest time, or more permanently on the farm with a horizontal shaft through the barn wall to work a chaff cutter or cake crusher. In autumn, steam thrashing by contract was general, though at Moat Farm I have seen the flail, or ‘frail’ as the men called it, in use; the largest barn was cleared, the floor and sides covered with stack cloth and then would commence the steady beat of the flail as the thrasher moved across the barn floor.

The village, as the local centre of the surrounding countryside, met most of the simple needs of Henham people and those of nearby hamlets; it had three grocer’s shops, one being the post office, a wheelwright’s, the blacksmith’s forge, and two inns. For water supply, the villagers relied on rain water for washing, and for drinking water on pumps, as the village well next to the forge had been out of use for years. The farms of the ...and better class houses had, of course, their own pumps, but the rest of the cottagers had to use the public pump next to the school, which was unlocked for an hour once a day. For those who were infirm or who did not wish to carry their own water, the pump-keeper would for a copper bring along a couple of pails slung from a pannier across her broad shoulders.

We lived in one of the last row of cottages at the Elsenham end of the village, with two rooms up and two down; almost the whole side of the living room was occupied by the large fireplace with baking oven at the side. Opposite was a cottage lived-in by the shepherd in which extra sleeping space had been contrived by a recess about three feet deep in the wall, which made a snug and draught-proof bedroom for two children. In the last house in our row dwelt the boot-maker who pursued his craft in a workshop adjoining; except for those of the gentry, hobnailed boots were the rule, little ones for the toddlers, larger for the women and elder children and heavy ones for field work in all weathers for the men; once a week the boot-maker would harness the pony to his Essex tub, that comfortable style of trap in which four people could sit in pairs facing each other, with entrance at the rear, and set off delivering and collecting work to the outlying cottages and hamlets. The village baker also delivered his bread in the neighbourhood; as well as loaves he made the three-cornered flat rolls known as ‘huffers’, excellent when eaten hot, split down the middle and buttered inside.

There were three working windmills within walking distance, a brick tower mill at Stansted, a post mill at Broxted, and the Henham mill, a fine post mill with round house well=placed on rising ground outside the village on the road to Elsenham.

Village life flowed placidly along with little need or wish to go further afield. Holidays were unknown, though once a year some of the younger people and most of the children had a day by the sea, generally at Hunstanton, a trip preceded and ended by the walk of 1½ miles to the station at Elsenham. Almost the only contact with the world outside was the local agricultural centre, Bishops Stortford, and on market day the village was unusually active, with the farmers driving through with livestock and produce for sale, the higgler’s cart laden with cages of poultry for sale on commission, and the carrier, who for a few coppers would deliver a parcel, transact a small piece of business, or make a purchase. This, with the arrival of the occasional travelling fair and the visit to Dunmow for the annual Bacon Day, was almost the sole interruption to a rhythm of life and work lived according to the seasons.

Looking back, in contrast to today, one remembers the profound silence that then reigned over the countryside. Over the wide landscape towards Widdington and beyond, with the exception of the sound of horses hooves on the road, and in summertime the distant rattle of the binder, nothing was heard save the birds in the hedgerow, and the rustle of the wind in the trees.

© Henham History