John West(s) at the Crown

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In 1740 John West got a fine for serving short measure and ‘breaking the assize of ale’ so he was already selling alcohol from the premises we now know as The Crown. But at the time he was also working as a shoemaker and he’d divided the house to make two cottages, with another shoemaker as a tenant next door. The building would have looked very different at that time.

Twenty years or so after the unfortunate episode of the short measure, John had become a pillar of the community and in 1763 he took his turn to serve as an Overseer of the Poor for the year. There were always two of them and his partner was John Underwood, ledgerthe leader of the opposition to Enclosure in the village. They had a busy year.

Smallpox struck the village and through the summer he had to stretch the Poor Rate to cover medical and nursing costs and pay for funerals for those families who were unable to meet the expense themselves. Widow Hall’s house was set up as an isolation unit for patients and John kept them supplied with beer. (It was safer to drink than well water and perhaps it offered them all a bit of cheer).

The following year was free of smallpox, but he still had a funeral to attend. His new daughter Frances was buried at barely a week old. He survived her by only six months.

His son John succeeded him as an energetic 25-year-old anCrownd it was his energy which turned that little pair of cottages into a thriving hub of the village, where as well as selling food and drink, he hosted auctions, hiring fairs, public meetings and even, in 1795, a performance of The Messiah.

…a hundred pounds of his own money…

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John Underwood was a grazier. In 1749 he married Hannah Kirtland, the daughter of another grazier and they had four children.

There was a tradition of public service in the family. John’s father (yes, another ledgerJohn – no imagination) twice took on the duty of Overseer of the Poor, in 1732 and 1742, along with William Robins (the shepherd, remember him?) and after his death, John jun. also served two terms in the same office – in 1754 with John Kilsby and in 1763 (the smallpox year) with John West as his partner.

In 1748 he owned sufficient land to entitle him to a vote in the general election. There was no secret ballot at that time and the way people voted was published in a poll book, from which we can see that John voted Whig (or liberal).

Dr Heygate didn’t vote at that election, because at that time he didn’t meet the property qualification. In the same year the proceeds of the village poor levy were recorded in the accounts of the Overseers of the Poor. These show that while John Underwood’s property value was rated at a guinea  [£1.05], Dr Heygate’s was only 1/2d [about 6p].

Their situations were reversed in the run-up to Enclosure as Dr Heygate bought up land while John Underwood continued to rent most of his. In the Pro and Con document, where the Heygate name was absent, John Underwood headed the list of objectors.

John Underwood who is the principal person that supports the opposition says he’ll spend a hundred pounds of his own money to stop it but owns that they are very beneficial fields to inclose and would improve as much by inclosing as any fields he knows. Note. he rents above 4 yardlands at a low price and has of his own land only 2 quarterns. His reason for not consenting was that he does very well now and that he does not know whether it would be any better for him in case they were inclosed therefore he would oppose it.

Since there was a general belief that rents would soar for enclosed land, he was probably worried about a big rent rise for his 4 yardlands, which would not be offset by the rising value of his two quarterns which he would have the expense of fencing etc.

So was he involved in the organisation of the riot? Did he spend his own money on that newspaper advertisement and free beer? His name was never mentioned as a suspect, but will we ever know for sure? (He was more likely to have been the man who paid the legal bills for the drawing up of the counter-petition, presented to Parliament on 31st January 1764 ‘by John Underwood and 32 others against the Bill.’)

He and Dr Heygate seemed to be on opposite sides of the enclosure fence – were the families on good terms otherwise?

Gravestone of John Underwood and his wife Hannah
Gravestone of John Underwood and his wife Hannah

Two years after Enclosure, John was dead, but in 1773 his daughter Elizabeth married Dr Heygate’s son, Robert, with her brother and sister apparently happy to sign as witnesses to the marriage.