Concealed beneath the beauty and tranquillity of Astley lies an unexpectedly eventful past. Told here are the deeds and misdeeds of Astley's people from the days of Stonehenge, through the Civil War and on to the early part of this century.
Nearby and some hundreds of years later, another community was in occupation. This was in a field below a tree-covered hillock just south of Redstone Lane, where they built a substantial 27-metre diameter earthen "Barrow" or burial mound. It was reinforced with several vertical posts and its entrance was sealed with a large flagstone. Inside was the remains of a funeral pyre and five oval pits, which had been capped with clay and contained the remains of their leaders.
Much later in 600 BC, and a little nearer Larford lived some Iron Age Celts. A fireplace from one of their houses was discovered there, in the form of an oval pit 1.75 metres by 1.0 metre by 0.7 metres deep with a chimney at one end. At the foot of this, a cooking pot was found resting on two stones underneath which, was a bed of coal ash. Two more fireplaces from nearby homes were also found with the remains of their pots.
Although near the river, they arranged for their own water supply by building a well one metre in diameter and 22 metres deep. The first 6 metres, cut through the gravel surface was lined with sandstone blocks and backed by river mud to avoid leakage. The last 16 metres was cut through the underlying sandstone. When excavated, the water level was 1.8 metres from the surface and flowed at over 900 litres per hour.
An aisled building some 5.5 metres long and also dating from Roman times once stood at Dunley. Remains were found there of domestic pottery including, storage jars, cooking pots, bowls, colanders, a tankard, dishes and mortuary receptacles.
The later and more ruthless Danes were the next to reach the area. There was great joy and thanksgiving when in 892AD King Alfred's son Edward, pursued their army along the Severn, through Astley, up to Shrewsbury. Then the ancient forest, called Weogorena leag, still covered the west of the Severn from Shropshire to Worcester. Alfred's success was brief, the Danish King Cnut triumphed and in 1020 AD gave Astley to one of his men called Ocea.
Ancient British Christianity continued in Wales and beyond to that old boundary of the Severn. But the English, now in control of the area and with Roman beliefs, put Astley's church and others in the area under the protection of their Benedictine monasteries. By then religion had lost its influence. But Astley, together with just four other churches in Worcestershire, was an exception in still having both a church and priest.
Astley was then about half its present size and Glasshampton, the Burf and Wordley were separate manors.
Part of the ancient forest, three miles long half a mile wide and covering 900 acres still covered most of the original manor of Astley. Six hundred acres of land were under cultivation, of which four hundred were in the hands of the Priory. Eighteen families were living there, including three slaves and a Radman, who amongst other things, organised the defence against the Welsh. The manor also had two burgesses at Worcester and owned one salt house in Droitwich, paying eighteen measures of salt. Its manor farm had two plough teams and the villagers between them had eleven. Astley had two mills and its total value was £5.
One of Ralph's other manors of 100-acres was Berrow, probably today's Burf. It was more densely populated than Astley with twenty-four families, including two freemen and four slaves. Urso was its tenant and his manor farm had three plough teams with the villagers having seven. It also had two mills on Dick Brook and was worth ten shillings.
Wordley called Wermeslai, on the other side of the Great Witley road, had been two separate manors under Eadwig and Aethelnoth - before Ralph took control. Its 200 acres supported sixteen families including two Radmen and fourteen villagers. Its manor farm had three plough teams, the villagers having seven between them. It was worth four pounds.
The100-acre manor of Glasshampton was held, not by Ralph, but by Baron Drogo Fitz Pons. It had been called "Glese"(meaning bright or clear) and probably took its name from Glasen Brook, now Dick Brook. Its manor farm had just half a plough and its four villagers had between them one plough, although there was scope for another. It had one mill and in total was worth ten shillings.
In the same year Astley's Constable reported that the roads and bridges in Astley "are sufficient that all men can travel without danger". The Constable was poorly rewarded and in 1619 the Petty Constable of Abberley and John Giles Gentleman of Astley (more of him later) summoned the Constable of Astley, John Joyner, for neglecting his duty.
In 1620 Thomas Blount sold Astley for £700 to John Winford whose family had earlier married into the Blounts. The last of a number of Johns who inherited the manor also acquired the manor of Berrow, described also as the Berff and Borough.
Dancing and sports on Sundays were becoming too popular and so certificates of church attendance were introduced. At nearby Bayton "two alehouse keepers were famed for "selling extraordinarily strong ale at a penny a pint, whereby many assaults and misdemeanours have been committed by loose characters from the surrounding districts." Dice, cards and other unlawful games were also played in Astley's eight licensed Alehouses. In 1627 a John Higgley of Astley was indicted for keeping a common tippling house without a license and in 1634 was at it again.
In 1631 John Foxall, carpenter of Astley, was indicted for breaking and entering the house near the church belonging to Humphrey Pinner (now called Pinners) and stealing five pairs of hose to the value of ten shillings.
By 1635 a John Highlie had become Constable of Astley. He recorded that he had to report: - what taverners, vintners and cooks there are, at what rate do bakers sell bread, who keeps ordinaries or victualling tables in their houses, what rates are charged at inns for men and servants and for their horses and their food, are any unlawful games practised in taverns or victualling houses, is any tobacco grown, do any people lodge rogues vagabonds or suspected persons, are watch and ward duly kept, are rogues found wandering, are the highways and bridges in good repair, are their any non church goers seminaries or Jesuits in the parish, are there any inordinate tipplers drunkards common swearers or other idle and disorderly persons in the parish.
Queen Elizabeth had decreed that parishes had to pay for their poor, which they saw as a burden that was not to be abused. So if any such unfortunates entered another parish without a pass they were arrested, whipped and passed back home. John faithfully reported "I punished some wandering persons and sent them back towards their counties." He goes on "we have and do maintain a bridle for the suppression of rogues vagabonds and sturdy beggars, besides I have of late set warding forward for the same purpose". He also reported that "our highways they are in good repair, that there are no ale sellers and our poor are well provided for"- later he reports that "John Highley the younger sells ale without a license."
In 1642 a Daniel Higley, was presented as a man of evil life who had spoken evil of his curate and of his pastor John Wood. One wonders if all these Highlies and Higleys were related.
In 1660, 51 people paid the Hearth Tax. Sir John Winford had sixteen hearths, Higgen James ten, Samuel Bowater the Rector eight and Andrew Yarranton seven and most, just one.
At that time there was apparently still something of a problem with witches. Martha Farmer had accused Margaret Hill of Shrawley of "plucking her eight year old daughter's finger till it bled, because she had refused to sell her some oaten meal, whereupon the child fell ill. Later a strange woman came and told her that her child was bewitched. When Ann Farmer went to fetch Margaret to heal the child she apparently called her a Judas B*** and said she should not be well whilst she lived, whereupon Ann then fell lame and continues to be so. Pressure was put on Margaret Hill to pray over the child but it had little effect. Martha Farmer then threatened to "have life for life". Not surprisingly Margaret's next attempt met with greater success.
Those who stayed at home suffered numerous privations. Their incomes were decimated by the rival armies living on their produce and ravaging all else. At the same time they were taxed twice over by the opposing sides for the cost of the war. Things got so bad that a thousand local farmers banded together to protest at nearby Woodbury Hill. A proclamation was issued saying "we having long groaned under many taxations and unjust pressures and finding no redress against the utter ruin to which we have been exposed by the outrages and violence of the soldiers threatening to fire our houses, to ravish our wives and daughters, and menacing our persons, we are now forced to associate ourselves in a mutual league for each others defence.
The leaders of the opposing communities in Astley were: -
Sir John Winford, its Royalist squire. He was one of the King's commissioners for raising money and enlisting troops. On the Parliamentary side was one of his relations John James, whose family in Astley had married into the Winfords and were Lords of Martley. Next was Andrew Yarranton, a Presbyterian whose family was one of Astley's oldest and widespread. From another family of note was John Gyles, a Lawyer in Worcester and Justice of the Peace for Worcestershire.
John James and Andrew Yarranton were the two most important soldiers in the Worcestershire militia. James was in overall charge, was the garrison commander of the city, became its Governor and was made its M.P. by Cromwell. Together they lead the local forces in attacks for the parliamentary cause and finally when Cromwell's national army arrived, they merged with it in the defeat of the Royalists. Andrew, the man of action, was active in almost all of the recorded skirmishes. He firstly discovered and helped defeat a Royalist uprising as far away as Madeley near Telford and was summoned to Parliament to give then a full account. They then thanked him, placed it on record in their journal and rewarded him with £500 out of the fines on local royalists.
One of these was Sir John Winford, whose contribution was £703, more than enough to pay Andrew. He was not the most prominent or influential, but did much work for the King's cause. On the surrender of the city to the Parliamentarians, Sir John was found to be there with many other "Gentlemen of the County". What humiliation, to have to appear before John Gyles who was receiving the city's surrender for Parliament.
Worse was to follow! A troop of soldiers lead by John Gyles later arrested him at his house, took the opportunity of clearing out his fishponds, ransacked his house and stole his "writings". These deeds showed the rents that were owed. His prominent villagers then challenged his rights to these rents. Andrew Yarranton was chosen to negotiate with him and in the process they lead him a merry dance. When Sir John complained about his fishponds being robbed, a tenant replied that he hoped Sir John had not hidden his writings in the fishponds! Later, Sir John's son Henry said to Andrew Yarranton "you know the reason we cannot enforce payment" to which Andrew said that he didn't. Henry Winford then replied, "I will tell you, because we have not the deeds. Andrew said, "I know where they are". Henry's response was "I wish I did also know".
Finally Sir John had to take them to court at the Great Witley's Hundred House and then to the King's Exchequer Commission. The outcome is unknown.
Meanwhile, Sir John's adversaries prospered. Colonel James, as well as being the M.P. for Worcestershire, was appointed to the High Court of Justice, to the Ordnance committee, the committee for Lunatics and was also a commissioner for ejecting scandalous Ministers and Schoolmasters. However, he also had his problems. A warrant was taken out for him to be taken into custody for duelling with Charles Rich. Sureties of £1000 were required from each of them to not repeat the offence, but it seems they didn't comply. As a result they were committed to the Tower and in 1667 brought to trial for High Treason. Whilst the outcome isn't known, a license was later issued "for John James to remain in and about London and Westminster, although an officer in the army of the late usurped powers". (King Charles the second was of course now on the throne.)
The last that is heard of him is when he writes saying he "fears nothing as much as being sheriff of Worcestershire, as his estates are not above £300 per year, that he owes above £1000 to a barrister at law, is almost 70 years old and has already served his King and country. He begs to be excused for a younger and fitter man."
He was born in 1616 at Larford into a reasonably prosperous Yeoman family, was left fatherless at the age of eleven and was left a legacy of £1500 in today's money. He became an apprentice linen draper, found it not to his liking and returned to Astley "to live a country life for some years" as he put it.
· He became an iron founder, building a furnace near to Dick Brook that was only discovered in 1924. The forge he used with the Foley's was at Shelsley Beauchamp.
· He introduced Germany's tinplate manufacturing technology to England after a visit to Saxony.
· He promoted and sold clover to increase agricultural yields and was one of the first to advertise for business.
· He made rivers navigable and was an early canal builder.
· He promoted the Dutch land registry system for mortgaging land to raise money. It was only introduced this century!
· He published the book "England's Improvement".
· He proposed the building of workshops to finish linen and so reduce imports and provide work for the unemployed.
· He was arrested on charge of being a Presbyterian plotter and it was said he "has spoken treasonable words against the King and was as violent a villain against the King as any". He was imprisoned at Worcester and in his words: - "I took two bed staffs in my hands and broke all the windows in the chamber where I was confined and which looked towards the street. The town was in an uproar and people crowded before the chamber to know what the matter was. I then told them how I and others were wrongfully imprisoned. Later he was released.
· He made enemies easily, tortured his opponents, bribed where necessary and was involved in brawls.
· He died in London in 1684 in a not unsurprising manner. It was reported he was "beaten and thrown in a tub of water."
Thomas now Winford's daughter and heir Sarah, married Sambrooke Freeman and moved with him to his Wren house, Fawley Court in Buckinghamshire. Sarah survived her husband and left Astley to the Rev. D. J. J. Cookes. He had earlier inherited the house and estates at Bentley and Norgrove that had earlier reverted to the Cookes, but here the story ended in disaster. Around 1800, from his new found fortune, he acquired Wordsley, demolished Glasshampton Manor House and built an even more imposing house. On the very day of its completion it burnt to the ground. By 1815 he had sold the Cookes estates and lived in the more modest house of Woodhampton.
The manor was finally sold in 1888 to John Joseph Jones of Abberley Hall and in 1900 what was left passed to the Rev. Cecil R Jones.
There are two surviving buildings from the Reverend Cookes's estate. The first is the stables and courtyard, now the monastery. The second is the nearby redbrick walled garden for providing large quantities of vegetables and fruit. Young lads, day and night, had to stoke fireplaces built on the outside walls and the heat was conducted through the walls to the lean-to greenhouses on the inside. Only the soot covered brickwork of the fireplaces remains to tell the story. Out of season ice was a luxury enjoyed by the Reverend Cookes. His brick built ice-house, built into a steep hillside off Dick Brook, still survives. Lumps of ice were collected in the winter and thrown in, with smaller pieces crushed on top to form a dense compact mass. The Ice-House is entered through a brick and sandstone tunnel 2.5 metres long and less than two metres high. The ice chamber is like an upside down egg three metres deep with a maximum diameter of a little less than two metres. Melting of the ice is delayed as the humidity is kept down by allowing the first melt water to drain from the bottom.
The fire that consumed the Manor house deprived Samuel Lee, one of the carpenters, of all his tools and thereby the means to earn a living. He was a man of exceptional ability who took this opportunity to exploit his talents in other directions. He taught himself Greek, Hebrew, Persian and other oriental languages and entered Cambridge University in 1813. He became Professor of Arabic and then Professor of Hebrew. Amongst other works he edited the New Testament in Syriac - the ancient Semitic language of Syria.
Inside the hermitage there were rooms, a chapel with an altar and at least one chimney rising to the top of the high rock outcrop. A priest called Simonis was in residence in 1160 and with a Gillebertus Piscator (fisherman) owed the King £5. In 1260 royal protection was granted to the religious community established there at "The House of Redstone".
The arms of the families of Mortimer and Beauchamp were at one time inscribed on the front of the caves, probably in the 1300's when Astley was in the hands of the Beauchamp family. In 1431 Richard Spetchley, having made a vow of perpetual chastity, was licensed by the Bishop of Worcester as a hermit.
In 1538 in the days of King Henry the eighth, Worcester's Bishop Latimer wrote to Cardinal Wolsley's secretary that "hereby is an hermitage in a rock by the Severn able to lodge 500 men, and as ready for thieves or traitors as true men". The Yarrantons were then the owners and continued to have responsibility for both the ferry and the ford for generations.
In 1685 an eighteen-bedroom inn was built there by the wealthy ferry operator James Yarranton. It was said to be "empty one day and crowded another. Animals, carts, and wagons filled the enclosure outside waiting for the waters to subside."
The construction of the Stourport Bridge in 1773 helped to bring about the demise of Redstone. The mail continued to use Redstone until 1775 but finally, its place as the major fordable crossing of The Severn came to an end in the 1800's, when the water level was raised by the construction of Lincombe weir. In 1848 six cottages were established in the caves and it was reported that they were "wretched abodes without doors or windows, hemmed in by winter floods".
Milling, as we have seen, was an important business from well before the first millennium. From the five mills in operation at Domesday, the whereabouts of four mills have been identified. Priors Well still exists. In the 1700's two adjacent fields, between Bynts Farm and Glasshampton Monastery, were marked "mill pool". The 1840 Tithe Map of Astley shows the probable site of another mill in a field by Dick Brook, between the Dunley Road and Wordley.
Mills required a healthy flow of water and were therefore vulnerable to flash flooding. On the 7th July 1728 it was reported that: - " On Saturday night two corn mills, a paper mill, a house, part of a Hop Yard and great trees were swept down Astley Brook into the Severn by means of a most violent thunder storm and bursting of the clouds from which the water descended as if it had been poured out of Hogsheads. Some persons are missing supposed drowned. The following day goods and provisions came swimming down by the city."
The Forge Mill, on Dick Brook between Glazen Bridge and the Severn, had been in operation before1652 and might have been Andrew Yarranton's. Between 1713-1720 the mill was used as a fulling mill for the pressing and cleaning of cloth. Bromwich Pope and his wife Mercy were the owners with three fulling mills under one roof. By 1739 it was in use as a paper mill. Between 1750 and 1760 it had reverted to a forge for making blades and scythes. For a short period it was in use as a cider mill and later in 1763 it was used for making china and porcelain. In 1803 it was again being used as a forge. Finally in 1820 it was in use as a bobbin mill, presumably as a supplier to the carpet trade.
Beyond the site of the mill, thirty yards above the point at which Dick Brook meets the Severn, there are the sandstone remains of two locks used for transporting materials to the mill, some five hundred yards upstream. The remaining length of the downstream lock is seventy-one feet by fourteen feet, with walls four feet high. Eighteen feet from its lower end recesses ten feet long and one foot deep housed the two wooden gates. The upstream lock is seventy-six feet long by eleven feet wide with twelve feet long gate recesses situated twelve feet from its lower end. It has been suggested that they were the work of Andrew Yarranton and that he used the forge to convert the pig iron from his furnace. There is no firm evidence of this.
Just above Glazen Bridge, in the valley of a tributary that feeds into Dick Brook, is the site of a blast furnace designated by English Heritage as a site of National Importance. In use between 1653 and 1668, it is the earliest surviving example of an English blast furnace with a round hearth. (The square section, used earlier, made it difficult to extract the iron.) It is very likely that this was Andrew Yarranton's furnace.
To give some idea as to the size of the furnace, the stack was 20 feet square, 20 feet high and with a wall thickness of 8 feet. The inside of the furnace had been lined with a heat resisting sandstone from Gornal in Dudley. To provide the necessary blast of air, bellows were used and powered by a water driven wheel 25 feet in diameter. The well for this wheel was 9 feet deep 17 feet wide and 3 feet wide, all cut out of the solid sandstone. 500 loads per year of charcoal were used, which by then was in short supply. So Andrew Yarranton resorted to bribing some of the people of Bayton to let him take the wood from the common land.
Mercy Pytts was its founder. From a well to do family she married John James's son Higgen. On his death she then married Bromwich Pope. Her will of 1717 stipulated that from her estate of Wood End and its mills "the yearly sum of £20 to be paid for ever towards the keeping and maintaining of a free school for the education and tuition of poor children". The school, where the master and his wife also lived, was finally built from the accumulated proceeds of £300 in 1743. The original building, now a house is situated in fields between Solhampton Farm and Pound Farm.
By 1829 the school was in need of repair costing £50. As this was more than could be afforded it was agreed that the schoolmaster should have his salary reduced by £2 per year to £16 until such times as the bills could be met. In 1893 the original school was sold for £260 and the new one erected on the present site.
He became leader of the Tory party in the 1930's and was three times Prime Minister. He shared with Cromwell the duty of ousting a King (Edward the Eighth). He was widely criticised for failing to prepare the country for the eventual war with Germany, thus giving Neville Chamberlain a most difficult task in his later negotiations with Hitler. In fact he rightly judged that, at the time, the people of Britain had no stomach for a Second World War.
After Baldwin's death a national appeal for a memorial failed to raise enough money. Sir Winston Churchill saw this as unfair, personally paid the remainder of the cost and attended its dedication on the main road below the Hall.
Spencer Comely carried out much research into Astley's history and had a particular interest in Andrew Yarranton. He wrote the admirable booklet entitled "Notes on the history of Astley".
Astley's history society has produced a comprehensive register on Astley. One copy can be borrowed from the Parish Council and another is in Stourport Library.
I also wish to thank others who have helped me, including the Astley History Society, the Libraries, Worcestershire's Archaeological Department and the Worcestershire Record Office.
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Worcestershire History Encyclopaedia