From Davenport to Industrialization: Congleton People in Power

Congleton Family History Society, Congleton Library, 17 February 2004


I am new to Congleton; I cannot claim any links at all with Cheshire. My family comes from the Soke of Peterborough, now in Northamptonshire. Yes, I am an authentic sokeman! Tracing our origins has been made considerably easier by an Exodus story. According to Roffe tradition, our ancestors were Huguenot cobblers from Brittany who were forced to flee France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They settled in Wittering; the family has lived there ever since. Family memory of this kind is, I have come to find, quite common and it can be remarkably accurate when put to the test. It is, however, almost invariably an exclusively oral tradition: families of modest standing like my own rarely commit their collective memories to writing. If this is true of the present, it is the more so of the past. To reconstruct families in former times, their relatives,  social milieu, and interactions we have to employ evidence where we find it.

One important place is in the field. In finding out what has made Congleton tick in the past we must first go out of the town to Davenport some three miles to the west. According to Simeon of Durham, in 920 Sihtric, the Viking king of Dublin and then York, broke into a place called Devennport. The name Devennport is Old English meaning‘ market on the Dane’ and it indicates that there was something like a town at Davenport in the early tenth century. As yet I have been unable to identify any explicit evidence for a site - there are no suggestive field names such as Portmeadow or the like that have come to my notice. However, I am going to put my money on an area in the vicinity of Davenport Hall on the site of the medieval manor house. Here there is an undulating plateau about 20 metres above the River Dane atop a steep bank. It is adjacent to an early crossing of the river and is a dry and defensible site. I am awaiting with anticipation to see whether the County Sites and Monuments Record has any record of significant finds from this site, but there is nowhere else in the township which fits the bill so well.

All very interesting. This must be an area of major interest for archaeological investigation. But what has it got to do with Congleton? Well, if Davenport was the market on the Dane in the tenth century, it was no more than a hamlet in the thirteenth century and Congleton had taken its place. Functionally, Davenport is the predecessor of Congleton. How did the change of market site happen? Unfortunately, there is no Exodus story to explain how and when the move took place. But there are some clues in yet other sources. And here we come closer to home.

Any one passing through Astbury must be surprised by the size of the church. It is enormous for such a small village. It is big because it was rich. And it was rich because it had a large parish. In the Middle Ages tithes were paid from Astbury itself, and the chapelries of Congleton, Brereton, Swettenham, Eaton, Old Rode, and Church Lawton. All of these settlements, and many of the hamlets that belonged to them, first appear in the historical record in the late eleventh-century Domesday Book where they are all represented as more or less independent estates. But such large parishes are usually the vestiges of ancient estates. Groups of villages like these were brought together to provide a food rent for a local lord or king. If this was the reality of the parish of Astbury – and there are all sorts of snippets of evidence to suggest that it was – then sometime before the Norman Conquest Davenport shared a tenurial context with Congleton. The move of the market was apparently a family matter.

We may, indeed, see something of this in the Domesday accounts of the two settlements. In 1086 Davenport was held by Gilbert de Venables, a huntsman of Earl Hugh the Fat of Chester. The entry reads as follows:

The same Gilbert holds DAVENPORT. Godwine held it. There is half a hide paying geld. There is land for 1 plough. There is [1 plough], with 1 radman and 2 oxmen and 3 bordars, and 1 acre of woodland. It is worth 3s. He found it waste.

There is nothing special about the settlement, certainly no sign that it was a town. But the identity of its pre-Conquest holder gives pause for thought. He was a certain Goduinus, or Godwine. We know nothing for certain about him apart from his name, although we might guess that he had only just come up in the world. Large estates like that of Astbury fed a lord, but day-to-day administration of individual settlements was in the hands of a variety of bailiffs called drengs. In the course of time these drengs extended their control over the land they administered. We can see the process in action with one of Godwine’s neighbours at Newbold. Newbold means ‘new building’ and it seems to me that the name indicates that its lord Wulfgeat, or one of his predecessors, had celebrated his acquisition of real estate by building his own manor house.

Equally, there was nothing urban about Congleton in 1086. The Domesday entry reads:

The same Bigod holds CONGLETON. Godwine held it. There is 1 hide paying geld. There is land for 4 ploughs. There are 2 [ploughs], with 2 villans and 4 bordars. There is woodland 1 league long and 1 wide, and 2 enclosures there. It was waste and he found it so; now it is worth 4s.

Like Davenport, it has every appearance of a run-of-the-mill village. But is it significant that its pre-Conquest holder was also a Godwine? I am inclined to believe that he was one and the same man as the Davenport Godwine. If so, then perhaps we can just perceive that the transfer of the market from Davenport to Congleton had just taken place at the Norman Conquest.

Bigot, the lord of Congleton in 1086, was also a tenant of Earl Hugh. His name means what is says, but the connotations were evidently not to be sneezed at – Bigot was probably kinsman of Roger Bigot, sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk. Congleton was not Bigot’s principal estate. His main residence appears to have been in Farndon. The history of the Congleton fee in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries is, at least to me, a mystery at the moment. By the reign of Henry III it had come into the hands of the Arden family, but how I do not know. From them, it passed to Henry de Lacy in about 1272. It is in the charter that he gave to his townsmen in the same year that we have the first clear picture of the dynamics of power and social relations in Congleton.

This document deserves a close reading, for its import has been misunderstood by historians of Congleton. To all appearances, it is a charter of liberties, and it has been regularly hailed as the source of the freedom of the ancient community of the Borough of Congleton. First, it granted a free borough and a guild merchant. Haybote, housebote, turbary, and pannage, rights to hay, wood for household use, peat, and pasture for pigs, are then conceded (although it is difficult to believe that they were not already enjoyed by the inhabitants of the town being the normal rights of manorial tenants). Henry de Lacy went on to decree that the burgesses of Congleton were to be free of tolls and assizes outside the town (rights that were easy to grant since not in his gift) and  were to have the right to elect a mayor, catchpole, and ale-taster. Finally, they were thereafter to enjoy burgage tenure, that is to hold land in the town for a money rent instead of agricultural services.

This looks all very dandy. The townspeople got their own leader, free tenure, and the control of brewing. There are numerous medieval charters in the Town Hall that attest these rights. But what else did they get? A pig in a poke. They had to see to the upkeep of the two chapels of Congleton and maintain the bridge in good repair, both a constant drain on the communal purse into sixteenth century. What was of any real value in Congleton remained to the lord. His were the regulation and profits of the market, and his the monopoly on corn milling. Most importantly of all, he retained control of policing, and in consequence the mayor and burgesses had to pay suit to the lord’s court, that is, they remained subject to his jurisdiction. The burgesses’ liberty was effectively confined to the minor manorial privilege of assize of ale. What we have, in effect, is a borough in the pocket of the lord of the manor.

            And we might expect little more. The previous decade had seen political uncertainty and civil war that had left local communities at the mercy of over-mighty lords. It was not a time of heroic liberation from feudal tyranny. Congleton was a seigneurial borough. Like many another such foundation, the fact is written in the topography of the town. Physically, the settlement is bisected by the narrow valley of the Byflete, the ‘town stream’ known today as the Howty. The watercourse is now culverted, but the bridge that formerly crossed it presumably gave its name to the present-day Bridge Street. To the west is a triangular space defined by Duke Street, Little Street and Swan Bank. Situated at the junction of Bridge Street, Wagg Street, West Street, and Mill Street, it looks very much like an infilled market place, the names of its three sides, although continuations of the approach routes, being those of ‘rows’. To the east is a further nucleus at the junction of High Street, Canal Street, and Coleshill. This elongated space was close to the lord’s park, marked by Lower Park Street and Park Lane and the manor house was situated somewhere in its vicinity (its site has not been positively identified, but was hereabouts). It may well have been a village green. I would suggest that we have the new borough on the one hand and the manor on the other.

            It would be neat to say that the distribution of burgage tenure reflects the polarity. From an early period there was a significant concentration in the Mill Street and West Street areas. But by 1500 burgages are found throughout the town. And, of course, the present Town Hall is situated in what we would identify as the manor. These peculiarities, I would suggest, are a function of later developments in the governance of the town. In the late thirteenth century the lord remained very much in the driving seat and he continued to be so into the fifteenth, holding regular courts in the town. But imperceptively, the burgess community encroached upon his rights. Fixed rents and the renders from the market and mill diminished in value with inflation and the lord  increasingly farmed them out for a fixed sum to the mayor. He in turn sub-leased them at advantageous terms to townsmen. Burgage tenure became the norm within the manor by default. The mayor also took over policing through extraordinary peace commissions and the like. By the early sixteenth century effective power had passed to him, although it was not until the charter of Elizabeth of 1584 and more fully by that of James I of 1625 that full liberties were formally vested in him. Only then did Congleton become a truly free borough.

            I have talked so far of the lord of Congleton on the one hand and the community on the other. I must qualify what I mean by the latter. Congleton was no great democracy. If you look at the mayors between 1300 and 1800 overall thirteen families provided 41% of all office holders! Congleton was ruled by an oligarchy, an urban patriciate. But this is a broad generalization. More detailed examination adds dimension to the statistic. The period 1300-1700 shows an even greater stranglehold with eleven families providing 56% of mayors. By about 1700, however, a change is noticeable – no one family dominated and it would seem the town becomes less closed. It cannot be coincidental that the next fifty years saw the start of industrialization in Congleton.

How this happened is one of the more pressing problems that has to be sorted out in the history of Congleton. There has been no prosopographical study of the movers and shakers of the town in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The sources are there: the town books and freemen rolls survive. They only have to be read with the problem in mind. May I suggest that this is a project that your society might adopt?

On that note I shall bring my talk to an end. In asking an historian to examine the dynamics of power in a small market town you might have expected some answers. But I make no apologies for instead asking so many questions. The business of history is not just in marshalling the facts; it is also in interrogating them in the right way. Our sources are often sullen and uncommunicative, but they can be cajoled into talking if handled with sensitivity, respect, and care. At times we may only hear indistinctly, at times not at all, but the dialogue is all the more worthwhile for that.


©David Roffe, February 2004