Some Oswestry field names – focussing on the lord’s upper and lower parks
John Pryce- Jones
As historians of Shropshire, we are very fortunate to have at our disposal a set of around 500 hand drawn maps of the county, parish by parish, township by township, prepared by George Foxall, showing in minute detail the field boundaries and field names taken from the tithe apportionments of 1836-50. As Mr Foxall said in his Shropshire field names (1980), the study of field names can tell us a great deal about our past – about land ownership, land use, soil quality, and agricultural practice, and about many other aspects of our local history. That said, compared to place names, or street names, written records of our field names are scarce, and the names themselves more ephemeral, more subject to change: as Mr Foxall said, “they tend to change from generation to generation, or as farm tenancies change, or even with the rotation of crops”.
In this context, students of Oswestry’s local history are lucky to have a set of surveys, from 1761, c.1790, and 1816, each predating the tithe apportionment, each survey giving the ownership, acreage and name of fields within the liberties of the town and in the rural townships. Two of these were made for the earl of Powis; the 1761 survey, made by Isaac Messeder, and limited to lands still belonging to the estate, is preserved at Powis Castle, with a photocopy available at the National Library of Wales; that of 1816 forms part of the NLW holdings1. The third survey, of c.1790, including a set of detailed maps, township by township, was prepared by Arthur Davies; this forms part of the Oswestry Town Council archive2.
In recent months, I have been undertaking some research on the lord’s demesne estates in Oswestry, and in particular on the lord’s two parks – the upper park, or parc ucha, which lies to the west of the town on land that rises up towards Cyrn y Bwch (the later Racecourse Common); and the smaller lower park, or parc issa, which lies to the south-east of the town, largely between Middleton Road and the lower part of Salop Road, including College Road, the Walford & North Shropshire College campus, and the site of the new leisure centre, currently under construction. These two demesne parks are described in earlier surveys and rentals of 1577, 1602, and 16073 but, to fully understand the details within those surveys, I have been focussing on the field names and acreages contained in the three surveys from 1761 onwards, and in the tithe apportionment. This research has shown just how right Mr Foxall was to offer caution, and to stress how field names are subject to change. Also, whilst change is common to the county as a whole, it is the case that, in Oswestry and other border areas, field names are also subject to linguistic change – from English to Welsh, and vice versa – and from the vagaries caused when Welsh field names were written down by surveyors unaccustomed to the Welsh language.
By Tudor times, most field names in the Oswestry area were Welsh. In the town, there is some evidence of names becoming ‘cymricised’ from previous English names – for example, from caldewellmor to goldwell croft to Ffynnon goulden – but it is likely that many of the fields in the lower park and most of those in the upper park, had been Welsh throughout mediaeval times. In the lower park, the 1602 survey mentions five fields by name – ‘Parke y Fynnon or the Well Parke’, ‘Park y Llydiard or the gate close’, gwerglodd y bechan, gwerglodd deito, and the Park Lodge. The latter is a particularly interesting example of how names change over the years. In 1602, the surveyor John Norden noted as an aside that within the field there was “a little hill whereon the lodge is sayde sometyme to stand”– possibly a former hunting lodge. The 1761 survey includes the field names Lodger Onnen and Lodger Ithen which, if seen entirely on their own, would present a puzzle; the 1816 survey gives clearer spellings, Lodge yr onnen and Lodge yr eithen, signifying the presence of ash trees and broom respectively. However, in Mr Foxall’s map, based on the 1838 tithe apportionment, the former has become Barton’s Field, the latter Perkins Lodge – and in neither case does the apparent surname appear to relate to either landowner or farmer.
Turning to the 400 acre upper park, a comparison of the patterns of fields described in the four surveys from 1761 to 1838 reveals a complex picture. In the westernmost fields, and also the fields closest to the town, this analyis reveals a gradual change from smaller fields to larger ones. In the area between, the reverse has occurred: many of the fields have been subdivided, probably as a result of small scale industrial activity, reflected in field names such as Brick Kiln Meadow and Coalpit Field. Sizeable areas of woodland shown on the earlier surveys have disappeared by the time of the tithe maps, as have field names in the upper park such as Cae Coediog (‘wooded field’). One other name to have fallen from use in the years leading up the tithe apportionment was Cae Stanny, a field name which seems to relate the Stanneys, a prominent family in civic and commercial life in Oswestry and district from the late 15th century through to the late 17th century. The 1761 survey noted two adjacent fields, taken together, around 25 acres in size, both with this name. The name survived to the c.1790 and 1816 surveys but not to the tithe map, which shows instead six smaller fields, with the names Middle Field, Upper Field, Little Wheat Field, Big Lowsy Meadow, and Plantation, and the less prosaic Pwll y Flownog (probably pwll y fawnog, the word mawnog signifying a peat-bog).
In places such as Oswestry, as elsewhere along the Welsh border, the process of change from Welsh to English often occurred (where it did at all) in comparatively recent times. Some of the English field names shown in Mr Foxall’s maps of Oswestry and district may have been only of every recent usage. Field names in the upper park such as Banky Field, Thorn Field, Thistly Field and the Meadow, may tell us something of those fields from the perspective of the farm worker of the 1830s, but they are ‘new’ names, replacing names like Cae Mawr, Cae Berllan, Cae Itha and Cae Nessa4. Meanwhile, two apparently Welsh names that are included on the tithe map, in the far south western corner of the park, Cae Withy Tyn and Cae Buck, serve only to confuse us by encouraging thought of withy beds and deer – when, in reality, the names hark back to the former cae wrth y ty (simply, ‘field by the house’) and cae bach (‘small field’).
Not everywhere will be as fortunate as Oswestry, with its four major surveys from 1761 to 1838, but most parishes will have a number of deeds and documents, recording transfers of ownership of land and property, from mediaeval times and later. Whilst these may not provide a comprehensive picture, providing details for only a small number of fields, nevertheless, once stitched together with other information, it may nevertheless be possible to sketch out the pattern of fields, and their names, over many years, and perhaps from Tudor times. Some years ago, when researching the background to the 17th century historian John Davies of Middleton, a township to the east of Oswestry, I was surprised at the number of deeds relating to land in Middleton that survive in the collections at Shrewsbury and the National Library5. These earlier documents cast clear light on a field name shown on the Middleton tithe map, the unusual name Godferydd. In this case, an earlier estate survey, of 1763, had failed to help, giving the equally puzzling Gadfar Hays, but documents from 1547-51 and 1675 provided the names Goedva Here and Goedfa Hir, explaining the field name as ‘the long wood’.
The lower park and upper park belonged to the lord, and remained part of the manorial estate through to modern times. As a result, for the fields in those two parks, we cannot expect to find other deeds and documents to supplement the information that we have gleaned from estate surveys. However, this is not the case with other parts of the demesne as these lands had been sold off in 1570 as fee farms by the earl of Arundel, Henry FitzAlan. The lands sold included a number of fields (including Glovers Meadow and the Rod Meadows) just south of the lower park, and 100 acres of land known as the ‘over hayes’ next to the upper park. Records surviving at the John Rylands Library in Manchester provide a detailed description of the Over Hayes (in later years known simply as the Hayes), in 1570, including the field names cae kodoge, cae eskob, croked close, kai’r ffynnon, foxeburye close, bromley close, and longe meadowe. Only three of these names survived to the surveys of c.1790 and 1816, where they are listed as Cae Coediog6, Foxberry and Well Field, and only one (Well Field) lasted to the tithe apportionment. On the tithe map, Foxberry had been replaced by Gravel Hole Piece, whilst Cae Coediog had changed to yet another Banky Field.
It is an ever changing picture, with changes to names, to spelling and pronunciation, and, particularly in the border areas, in language. Fields can ‘disappear’, being merged to form larger units; fields can be split up; and they can expand or contract, as boundary markers are moved. Moreso than with place names, river names or street names, field names present us with a challenge, being hard to tie down, and difficult to map out. This being so, Mr Foxall’s work, undertaken over many years, is an immense achievement, valuable both as a stand alone ‘snapshot’ of the county in about 1840, and as a solid foundation or starting point for historians seeking to reconstruct field patterns from previous centuries.