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Article posted: June 12, 2000
Visiting The Ancestral Home
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
On my recent trip to England, I came face-to-face with some 16th century ancestors. Or so it seemed.
I visited Hartland in Devon, where various branches of my family lived four hundred years ago. I had been invited to stay with the local historian, Dennis Heard. His farm, which has been in his family for four generations, was also the home of my Burdon relations back then.
The large farmhouse has two sizable additions, one in the 17th century and another in the 1760s. The core of the house is earlier. My room had a window with an inscription cut into the glass. It said, "John Velle, June 7 1728."
In addition to Galsham, the Heards took me to Pitte, where bad dogs prevented us from looking around, and to the site of Edistone Mill. There were mills at 'Etson' (as it is pronounced) as far back as the twelfth century. My Hamlin and Jenkin ancestors ran the mills there in the 1570s. The mills are gone but Heard took me up a heavily overgrown path to show me where the leet ran.
The leet was a small stream or mini-canal diverted from the local river. The force of the water running in the leet was used to power the wheel which ran the mill. In the case of the Edistone mills, it was also used to wash the fleeces brought there. It was a 'gygging' or fulling mill, which took newly-shorn coats of sheep, washed them and prepared them for spinning into wool. The field above the mill was used for the racks on which the fleeces would be hung to dry. It is still known as the Drying Field.
I stood in the leet and had my photograph taken. It was amazing to me to think that William Hamlin, Hugh Jenkin and his flock of mostly short-lived children had walked and worked in this very place. They became more than merely names and dates on a page.
In a day crammed with experiences (including the thrill of a large tawny owl standing for a while on my head), I saw the heart of Hartland. As we left, we made a final ancestral stop at Natcott (or Nottycot as it used to be known). My ancestor Mary Hooper was born there in 1567. The stone house has small window and looks much as it would have centuries ago, at least from outside.
The following day I found a rent roll of 1301 which told me that Mary's forebear, William le Houpere, was already at Nottycot 250 years before she was born. It is unlikely I will ever find a relation so far back in time.
I also attended the Federation of Family History Societies conference in Bath. The English way of combining interests in local and family history agrees with my own philosphy. People cannot be separated from their environments and by understanding how they lived, we can know them more clearly.
One of the lectures talked about parish officials, among them churchwardens, overseers of the poor and constables. These offices usually operated on a rota, with parishioners each taking their turn. One necessity for constables was that they be literate, which cut the number who could perform the job down somewhat. The lecturer stated that women never held this office, but someone in the audience quickly said that some of her female relatives had.
My own ancestor, Margery Huddell, had been constable in her village in 1617. Her husband John, a baker, had held the office regularly in his turn, and after his death she took his place. She hired a young man to do the strong arm work for her.
John Huddell must be unusual. In one year that he was constable he reported himself to the court for selling underweight loaves of bread. I wonder how he punished himself?
Books By Ryan Taylor
Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.
Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997
More Family History Research Resources