Sunday, April 24, 2011

The 18th Century Land Agents

The acquisition of the Wolverton Estate from Sir Edward Longueville in 1713 by Dr John Radcliffe, a year before his death was a transformational event in the history of the Wolverton Manor. It was probably not intended to be. Radcliffe probably imagined that he had a few years left to play an active role in his new investment, but it was not to be. He died on 1 November 1714, possibly withgout ever having visited Wolverton. Radcliffe hadnever married and had no heirs, so he invested his fortune (which was considerable) in a trust which was to build a library and an infirmary at Oxford, amongst other projects. The income from the Wolverton estate - over £2,500 per annum and a significant income in those days - was to fund these projects.

The early death of Radcliffe meant that almost from the outset of his ownership the manor was run by a committee. Over the centuries many eminent men filled the positions of trustees and they met periodically while handing over the running of the trust to a secretary. All of these men were distant from Wolverton and the man on the ground, as it were, was the land agent, who had the stewardship of Wolverton.

Sir Edward Longueville had employed a man called Thomas Battison in this capacity, although Sir Edward, living in Wolverton, no doubt had a more hands on approach to control. Dr Radcliffe took on the services of Battison's son John in this capacity.John Battison lived at Quinton. Battison was employed at a salary of £40 a year.

Although Battison had the local knowledge and was probably effective when dealing with tenants he seemd to be a little out of his depth in dealing with the requirements of the trustees. Whereas he was previously able to make a verbal report to the likes of Sir Edward, the trustees required him (and they themselves were legally liable) to produce annual accounts. battison appeared to have difficulty with this an it took him until 1718 before he produced his first set of accounts. It also became apparent that many of the rents were in arrears and by 1720 these arrears amounted to £2,438 - over a full year's income for the estate. Under pressure from the trustees these arrears were reduced in succeeding years, but the practice continued in greater or lesser degree.

Nonetheless the trustees persisted with Battison for many years and it was only in 1739, when they became aware that Battison was letting some woodland and keeping it off the books, that they finally resolved to part company with him. He either resigned or was dismissed.

He was succeeded by George Gill for the next nine years. Gill was probably not any more efficient that Battison in producing accounts on time but he appears to have been honest. During his tenure the great fire of Stony Stratford laid waste to a number of trust properties. ( A description here.) And in 1746 there was an outbreak of cattle distemper which caused a great loss in cattle stock.

Gill died in 1749 and was succeeded by Joseph Stephenson who died four years later before he could make any impact on the estate.

On March 27th 1754 the trustees appointed Thomas Quartley from Wicken as land agent and it appears that for the first time they had a man who could be relied upon to keep meticulous accounts and make annual reports. The rent books from his tenure still survive and are kept in the Bodleian archive. During his tenure there was a serious crop failure in 1757 which left some families in Wolverton and Stony Stratford destitute and starving - a reminder that 18th century society still had no mechanism for dealing with such emergencies. It was left to the vicar, Edmund Smith, to make the case and acordingly the trustees instructed the land agent to make payments to the vicar to provide bread for 139 poor persons on the manor.

Quartley died in 1766 and was succeeded by Henry Smith of Bicester, somewhat remote from Wolverton. Nevertheless he seems to have managed the estate competently as his relatively short tenure appears to have passed without incident. Upon his death he was succeeded by Thomas Harrison in 1773. Harrison, as I have discussed elsewhere, brought an altogether higher standard of profesionalism to the task and, in fact, moved on to the estate, filling, in many personal respects, the ancient role of "Lord of the Manor".

It was this role, a traditional one in most villages, that was lost to Wolverton in 1713. Whether or not this was a good or bad thing depends upon your point of view. The trustees were remote figures, unknown to any except perhaps the tenants. The land agent was almost as detached until the arrival of Thomas Harrison who took a more direct interest in the estate. The long term impact was that Wolverton had no "gentry"living on the estate. There was a handful of middle class people in Stony Stratford and the vicar at Old Wolverton, together with a few farmers.

This state of affairs continued into the 19th century with the creation of Wolverton Station. A host of artisans moved into the town to swell the populations of Wolverton and Stony Stratford and a few professional people came along with them. But entirely absent from Wolverton's history after 1713 was the presence of any ancient privileged family.

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