In examining the origins of Rectory Cottages, the first consideration is its location at the boundaries of the parishes of Bletchley and Fenny Stratford (Fig. 1). The latter parish was almost certainly carved out of Water Eaton in Norman times and is unusually long and narrow for the area. Its boundary at the Bletchley end is furthest from Fenny Stratford township, and most of the parish boundaries follow water-courses or old roadways. Thus, the boundary would be expected to run down Rickley Lane, Church Green Road and Buckingham Road, but in the middle there is a sudden aberration: the boundary leaves Rickley Lane eastwards, skirts behind the Elmers estate, round the E side of Bletehley churchyard, abuts Bletchley Park and rejoins Church Green Road just below the Cottages, thus giving Bletchley a small enclave on the east side of the logical road boundary. In this area lie Bletchley parish church and rectory, Elmers and Rectory Cottages.
The clue to this lies in St Mary’s Church, built before 1155: it stands on the E side of a plateau giving a commanding view across the Ouzel valley. Two small mounds once stood on the green in front of the church: when Browne Willis demolished them in 1711 he found only arrow heads from their use as archery butts. It has been plausibly suggested that these were burial mounds and that the church continued the use of an already sacred site. The rectory has the natural association with the church, found in most local villages, whilst the Elmers land contained the remains of house platforms of a shrunken village. These must have existed before the boundary with Fenny Stratford was settled, and makes the site of Rectory Cottages even more anomalous, for not only is it in the ‘wrong’ parish but is also on land which would seem naturally to be part of the rectorial estate of Bletchley. Since to the best of our knowledge it formed no part of the rectory, this suggests that its origins are manorial and that the lord of the manor retained the site when he gave the rest of the land for ecclesiastical use. As the lord was not resident, was the house for his steward?
Bletchley was part of the manor of ‘Etone’ mentioned in Domesday, held by the Bishop of Coutances and granted to Walter Gifford after the bishop?s rebellion in 1088: Walter granted the tithes of Bletchley to Newton Longville priory2. By 1204 the manor had passed to Roger de Caux3 and thence to John de Grey before 12354. In 1243 John de Grey was granted free warren over his demesne lands in Water Eaton and Bletchley5, implying that the two were by then distinct territories. They passed in due course to his grandson John who died in 13236, at which time Bletchley was divided into two manors: West Bletchley, centred on Trees Square, was left to the younger son Roger, whilst Church Bletchley passed to the elder son Henry. The main seat of the de Grey family in North Buckinghamshire was at Water Hall in Fenny Stratford: they were involved in national politics and held other more important lands in England and in Wales. It is doubtful if they can have had a settled life here until l3967 when Richard Grey succeeded to the estate. He was only three years old when his father died, and was presumably brought up by his mother Elizabeth. He fought in the French wars but returned to Water Hall, where he died in 14428, and was buried in Bletchley church. He died heavily in debt and the property had been mortgaged9. His heir was his son Reynold who married well: his wife was Iacina the daughter of Owain Tudor and Katherine de Valois, the widow of Henry V. In 1446 Reynold entered into an agreement with his mother and her second husband to grant them a life interest in his manor of Bletchley in exchange for interests in their lands10. After the sale of other lands in 144811 he discharged these life interests 12 and by 1454 his manors were free of debt. In that year Reynold settled the entire estate on himself and Iacina and after their deaths to their children in tail13. It is against this background that the erection of the hammer-beam roof in Rectory Cottages took place about 1475.
There was no other large landowner in the parish at the time, and the land was not part of the rectory, so it is our view that the traditional ascription of Rectory Cottages to the Grey family may safely be accepted. The Grey family continued to hold Bletchley into the seventeenth century. It seems that we many now abandon the suggestion14 that the building was once part of Water Hall, as there is no architectural evidence that the hall has ever been moved.
It has been suggested that the Cottages may have been used as a hunting lodge by the Greys. Certainly a park is on record as early as 130815: William Lord Grey bought Whaddon in 1552 and was later Keeper of Whaddon Chase to Queen Elizabeth16; his son Arthur Grey enclosed the land at the rear of Rectory Cottages in 1563 and built a keeper’s house for his deer park17.
Presumably at any time between these dates the Greys may have needed a hunting lodge nearby, but we found no architectural evidence to support the theory. The position of the building is in favour of a manorial function; its indifferent quality and its propinquity to Water Hall are against it having been the residence of a magnate, and its proportions and the fact that it was unheated are against it having been domestic at less than manorial level. It has been plausibly suggested that it may have held the manorial court: this is also compatible with the steward having lived here.
Whatever its origins, there is clear documentary evidence for a building on the site prior to 163518.On 10 April of that year a terrier of the rectory of Bletchley was prepared by the rector and churchwardens. It begins with the rectory, and the boundaries are described in detail, starting on the west where they abutted ‘ye churchyard and part of the Green’ and continued along the south where it adjoined ‘ye pightle and tenement being the land of Mr Thomas Sparke now in the tenure of Widdow Parkins’. This was the rear fence of Rectory Cottages and Mr Sparke was also the rector: it is clear from this document that this building did not belong to the church but was owned or leased by Thomas Sparke in his private capacity. There are no other seventeenth-century terriers but on 11 October 1707 the same boundary was said to adjoin ‘the orchard of Thomas Stevens Yeoman’19.
During the next few years it seems that the property was downgraded, for the next terrier dated 16 October 1724 shows that the house had been divided and was shared between John Turpin, William King and John Emerson20. It is unclear whether the building had been altered to accommodate the multiple occupancy but evidently it was no longer suitable for a yeoman.
In 1765 the rector, the Revd Mr William Cole, drew a sketch of the rectory grounds with a written description. The plan contents itself with the words ‘William Woods Orchard’ in the top left hand corner21 but the text is more revealing. ‘On the N side of the Garden is a fence of Oak Pales which I put up new, the old ones being gone to Decay: but before them is planted a Hedge Row of Filberts which [I] planted there to screen the Garden from the 2 or 3 Houses on the other side of the Orchard: these Filberts I had from Mr Rigby of Cosgrove in Northamptonshire’22. Immediately to the north of this he built a brick wall twelve or fourteen feet long ‘joyning to the Wall of the Necessary House to enclose that part of the Garden from 2 or 3 Cottages & Orchard contiguous to it’. To complete the unneighbourliness there was also a Dove House and Hog Stye adjacent.
Other records are available: the Manor Court Book contains a schedule of the copyhold on 10 May 1806 and from this it appears that John and Thomas Billington had been admitted to this messuage and 32 acres 1 rood of land as copy-hold tenants of the Manors of Bletchley, Fenny Stratford and Water Eaton, on 2 December 176223. No copy of this admission is extant so it is impossible to indicate all this land: certainly little was attached to the Cottages. A portion seems to have been spread around the common fields of Bletchley whilst the rest were in enclosures at Fenny Stratford. The two brothers were only small landowners in Bletchley though they owned and farmed over 200 acres at Woughton. Nevertheless they or their tenants at Rectory Cottages were not averse from adding a little more, for on 5 July 1810 it was found and presented by the homage of the manorial court ‘that there was an incroachment in front of the house of Thomas Billington upon the Cottage Green at Bletchley and also a small angular piece next the barn of the said Thomas Billington which are ordered to be removed’.
No mention is made of John. He had died in 1806 and the property had passed to Thomas as surviving tenant in common. In 1810 the Bletchley Enclosure Act was passed and the award was made three years later24. This only marginally affected Rectory Cottages which gained 50 pole of land taken from the village green – probably the land given up after the encroachment earlier. A major change was due to the need to rid the land of tithes. Larger landowners did this by giving land to the rector to form his glebe, but this was not possible for smallholders. Thomas Billington was ordered to pay £76 l0s ld to redeem his tithes and to pay his share of the costs of the fencing etc.: as a large landowner he could have raised the money from his own resources but he decided to borrow instead. He did this by a mortgage on 29 September 181225, when he borrowed £82 from John Williams, a grazier of Willen. The deed, which had the written consent of the Enclosure Commissioners, still exists, as does a solicitor’s draft. Both describe the property as a ‘homestead garden orchard & ancient inclosure in Bletchley aforesaid now or late in the several occupations of the said Thomas Billington and[ ] Hogg containing by admeasurement two roods seventeen perches bounded by allot-ments [belonging] to the said Thomas Billington and the Rector respectively the rectory home-stead and an old inclosure of the late Thomas Harrison’. With this went two allotments ad-joining the homestead containing 29 perches between the house and the road and a further 21 perches being part of an old inclosed orchard late Edward Cooke’s bounded by an allotment [belonging] to the Rector the Rectory home-stead and the said orchard belonging to the said Thomas Billington’.
Thomas Billington died at Woughton on 22nd August 181526. He had made a will27 seven days earlier and left substantial legacies to his daughters. To pay these, his executors sold Rectory Cottages, finding a ready buyer in Philip Duncombe Pauncefort Duncombe, the lord of the manor, who bought the premises on 30 August 181728 and redeemed the mortgage on the same date. Rectory Cottages passed to his son Philip in 1849 and in 1861 Philip Duncombe and the rector of Bletchley agreed to exchange Rectory Cottages for a small field adjoining the Newfoundout and the Oxford branch railway. This was approved by the bishop and Joseph Bennitt the patron of the living and confirmed by the Tithe Commissioners on 27 June 186129. The rector William Rawson was granted the ‘House Barn Outbuildings with garden and orchard adjoining the Rectory premises now occupied by the said Rector or his undertenants containing 3 roods 27 perches’. William Rawson was succeeded by William Bennitt as rector the same year, and he was followed by his nephew Frederick Wilmot Bennitt in 1906.
In 1913 the building was examined by the RCHM30, and shortly afterwards it was noted by the compilers of the VCH. The Revd Mr F. W. Bennitt and Dr William Bradbrook seem to have been the first local people to have remarked on its merit: Bennitt wrote a short article for Records of Bucks in 192131 and followed this by a chapter in his history of Bletchley in 193214.
In 1964 the rector’s last tenant left the Cottages and the Bletchley Urban District Council placed a closure order on it, declaring it unfit for habitation. Previous experience with the UDC had shown this would soon lead to demolition: ‘this place wants a bloody bulldozer through it,’ declared one leading councillor. The ease for repair was argued by the Bletchley Archaeological & Historical Society, and a scheme for restoration was begun. A Trust was set up and the first trustees were Sir Frank Markham, a former President of the Museums Association and for many years Member of Parliament for the division; Mr Ken Embleton, a local solicitor and Clerk to the Justices; Mr Ken Fuller the local accountant; Mr Bernard Kettle the local optician and chairman of the BAHS, and Mr Bert Weatherhead who owned a chain of television shops. The architect, recommended by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, was Mrs Janet Locke who produced a most workable and conservative restoration proposal. Funds were raised from a public appeal and from grants made by the Pilgrim Trust, the Bucks County Council, the Historic Buildings Council for England and the UDC.
The roof was repaired in 1968-9 and the hall reclad. New foundations, a damp-proof course and new sill beams were inserted under the structure, but unhappily the £7,000 raised proved insufficient in a period of rapid inflation, so the building was secured and left among the brambles for three years. The problem was solved by the arrival on the scene of the new Milton Keynes Development Corporation who offered £5,000 if the UDC would do the same and, after intensive political discussion, this was agreed. From that time onwards, the helpfulness of the UDC knew no bounds. They agreed to maintain the grounds, to lay access paths in decent York stone flags which were redundant elsewhere, and gave us 80 chairs. ‘There’, said the same councillor, ‘I told you it would be all right, all along!’
The Cottages were reopened for their new purpose in March 1973 by Sir Frank Markham and since that time thay have been in constant use as a village hall. The Hall holds 60 people comfortably, and the two smaller rooms hold 20 and 25, so it is possible to have three meetings at a time, and there are between 400 and 500 meetings a year. The upper part of the house has been made into a comfortable if rather archaic apartment: wattle and daub walls are not as warm as modern ones. The income from the rents is sufficient to keep up the building and to whitewash it in traditional style triennially. Since the Trust purchased the freehold from the rector in 1978 the future seems reasonably assured, so long as there is a group of local enthusiasts who will undertake the day to day management.
by Martin Bridge, PhD
Three samples of the oak timbers were taken for analysis. These were an end grain slice from a previously truncated intermediate hammer and two cores from the main posts of different trusses32.
The samples were prepared and measured using standard techniques. The intermediate hammer yielded a 139 year ring-width sequence which included the first sapwood ring. The remaining sapwood was present but could not be measured because of its partial destruction by insects. There were 30 sapwood rings. The two cores gave series of 97 and 70 ring-widths respectively. The three series cross-matched visually and the positions of overlap were tested for their statistical agreement using program CROS, developed at Queen?s University, Belfast.
The following results were obtained:
BLFO2 (core, 97 years) v. BLEOI (intermediate hammer, 139 years): ‘t’=4.00 at 130 years overlap.)
BLEO3 (core, 70 years) v. BLEO1:’t’=4.95 at 141 years overlap.
BLEO3 v. BLEO2:’t’=4.79 at 108 years of overlap.
The three series were therefore combined into a single site chronology of 141 years which was compared with reference material from various places and periods. Good visual and statistical agreement was found between the site chronology and two other chronologies at the position corresponding to the first sapwood ring having been formed in AD 1446. At that time these were the only two chronologies available from England which entirely spanned the four-teenth century and hence gave a long period of overlap.
A few years later, more independent data sets became available which covered this period.
Nottingham University dendrochronology unit produced data from the East Midlands, and Dr F. Guibal of the City of London Polytechnic provided data from Brittany. These confirmed the dating of the site chronology to the period AD 1306 – 1446.
Allowing for the counted but unmeasureable sapwood, the trees used in the structure of Rectory Cottages must have been felled in or soon after AD 1475. The literature tells us that timber was used soon after felling in those times, so the date of construction is also of this period.33
We have had so much help from so many people over the years with the restoration and management of Rectory Cottages that it is impossible to mention them all by name. Our thanks to everyone involved.
In the preparation of this paper we express our gratitude to Dr Martin Bridge, for the dendrochronology; Mrs Susan Brown and Mr R. Lubbock for the photographs; Dr N. Alcock, Mrs Pauline Fenley, Mrs Janet Locke and especially Mr J. T. Smith for help and advice; the Trustees and Management Committee of the Rectory Cottages Trust and in particular Mrs Sue Jarvis.
For enquiries and reprints, apply to Dr P. N. Jarvis, 42 Church Road, BLETCHLEY, Milton Keynes, MK3 6BL
1. L. Williamson. MS Notebook 1923, in the possession of E. Legg.
2. Newington Longville Charters, Ox. Rec. Soc. (1921),6, 8.
3. V.C.H. Bucks IV. 277: Liberate R 3, m. 4.
4. Testa de Nevill, 244b.
5. Cal. Pat. 1232 – 47, 371.
6. V. C. H. Bucks IV. 278: Chan Inq p.m. Ed II.
7. V. C. H. Bucks IV. 278. For details of genealogy see Life of Lord Grey of Wilton,
Camden Soc. (1857) xxiii – iv
9. Cal. Pat. 1441 – 6, 553.
10. Cal. Close 1441 – 7, 409-12.
11. Cal. Pat. 1446 – 52, 163; V.C.H. Bucks .325.
12. V.C.H. Bucks IV. 270.
13. Cal. Pat. 1452 – 61, 153.
14. F. W. Bennitt, Bletchley (1932) 39-42.
15. V.C.H. Bucks IV. 279.
16. V.C.H. Bucks III .439.
17. V.C.H. Bucks IV. 279.
18. Lincoln Record Office.
19. Bucks Record Office PR 19.
20. BRO PR I9.
21. The Bletcheley Diary of the Rev. William Cole [1765 – 7], Constable (1931) 312.
22. Ibid., 319.
23. BRO Manor Court Book until recently BAS Muniment Room. In the absence of any manorial documents for the period, it is not possible to account for the change of tenure from freehold to copyhold, but only the lord of the manor could create the latter. During the 17th century adjacent lands in Fenny Stratford were enclosed and this may possibly have resulted in an exchange of land between the Billington family and the lord of the manor at the time. Certainly it would appear to rule out any connection with the rectory.
25. BRO D/DUI.369.
26. Register of English Monumental InscriptIons I, Eng. Mon. Inscrip. Soc. (1913).
27. BRO D/DUI.369.
29. Title deed in the possession of the trustees.
30. RCHM Bucks II, HMSO (1913) 65, and 349 Schedule B.
31. Recs. Bucks 11/3 (1921) 133-4.
32. For the context of these timbers see M. C. Bridge, ‘The Dendrochronological Dating of Buildings in Southern England’, Mediaeval Archaeology 32 (1988) 168-74.
33. See also Vernacular Architecture 18 (1987) 54.
Norman Lister, Building conservation in Milton Keynes, a photographic index, Milton Keynes Development Corporation [MKDC] (1971) 11, 15.
Sir Frank Markham, History of Milton Keynes and District, White Crescent Press (1973) 1. 184.
John Bailey, Timber Framed Buildings, Beds, Bucks & Cambs Hist. Bdg. Research Group (1979) 4.
Paul Woodfield et al., A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Milton Keynes, MKDC (1986), .5.
Niklaus Pevsner, revised Elizabeth Williamson et al, Buckinghamshire 2nd edition (1994), 508 -9 [This volume is a tremendous improvement on 1st edition].