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Down on the Farm

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

From those contributors to the Denham Community History website over the past few years, the one who was the most enthusiastic about her family’s connection to farming was Jessie (Fleming) Simms, who died in 2021. She wisely left significant memories for her family to enjoy and share.

As a child, Jessie lived with her mother Winifred, her father Alexander, her brother Jim and her sister Jean at 3 Nursery Cottages, New Denham across the street from the allotments on Oxford Road. Having a large garden was a privilege then as now and the Fleming family “never went hungry”. They grew, harvested and preserved their vegetables. Alexander shot rabbits (very plentiful), hares, wild ducks, partridges and wood pigeons. The family kept chickens too, so they always had eggs as well.

Alexander's speciality was his ploughing.

Jessie’s dad Alexander had worked on the farm in Scotland (where her paternal grandfather William Fleming was the Farm Manager for the Duke of Marlborough) during the First World War. Jessie wrote: “When my dad, Alexander Fleming came down from Scotland, in about 1920, he lodged with a family in Uxbridge and his first job down here was for a Scotsman named Alex Provan at Mansfield Farm at Iver Heath”.

“Some years later Alexander worked for Fred Powell, who had acquired the Lea Farm. Fred Powell bought a Ransomes - a long board match plough and had it refurbished to Alexander’s specifications. A coulter is a blade on the front of the plough that makes a preliminary cut through the soil. In the 1934 South Bucks 97th ploughing match, Fred entered Alexander. Dad won First Prize in Class I, Section 2 and he was rewarded with Two Pounds! Dad could never hope to get prizes for the best turn-out, with his ill matched pair of horses. There was Prince, a large reddish-brown horse and Dick, a much lighter built horse, black with white fetlocks, and a white star on his forehead. He used to plait their tails and manes with wool or raffia and paint the trace chains with silver paint and put polish on their harnesses.

The best turn-out was always won by Colonel Clifton Brown’s men. Brown was Speaker of the House of Commons at that time. He generally entered two or three teams all well matched pairs of horses, with patent leather finish to their harnesses, chromium plated buckles and stainless steel traces, very smart they were, but I do not think that they came anywhere in the ploughing…they could not beat our Dad Alexander. In order to plough a single acre in a 9-inch furrow a Ploughman had to walk 11 miles. A good ploughman could plough one and a half acres in a day, thus walking 16 miles. This was not straightforward walking but staggering along uneven ground, steering the plough and controlling the pair of horses.”

The history of agriculture

"Primitive" (a word we'll use without debate on when our species first acquired sophistication) humans were not farmers. They were "hunter gatherers" who sustained themselves on what they could hunt, fish and scavenge as wild food. But around 15,000 years ago it began to occur to people in different parts of the world that things could be made a great deal easier by trapping the previously hunted animals and planting the previously foraged seeds close by the villages and homesteads to be harvested when needed.

The scene of course was set. People needed to eat and whoever controlled the land had the power of life and death over the populations that depended on that land. Land could be acquired by settlement followed by aggressive protection of what had been acquired or by forceful acquisition of the settlements of others. Then in the natural way of things it was the chieftain or village head who made and enforced the rules for the use of the land. Possession turned into ownership and rules were then made by or with the authority of the owners of the land to protect their interests. The rules evolved into the now highly complex law of property.

This is why until as late as 1832, the right to vote for the lawmakers in Parliament was bound firmly to the substantial ownership of land - by men, and it was not until 1918, only just over a century ago, that the link with some form of property ownership was finally broken - for men. When, also in 1918 women finally achieved the right to vote in Parliamentary elections in the UK still for them that right was tied to substantial land ownership. Women had to wait another ten years before the link for them was finally broken.

However, back to the Romans. The commonly held view taught to children until relatively recently was that when the soldiers of the empire of Rome invaded Britain in the 43rd year of the Christian era, they encountered only wild savage bands of disorganised marauders. More up to date analysis has shown this to be false, but we don't have the written records to show how organised things were before the Romans arrived. That's where the Romans have the advantage in recorded history. They wrote quite a lot and indeed had a detailed structure of laws which still forms the basis of law in many European countries and is still taught at Oxford and Cambridge and other UK universities.

The Romans left Britain in the year 410 and again it used to be thought that on their departure Britain returned to an age of ignorance and disorder - the Dark Ages. Again not true, but since recording the history was left to the church and since so much of the written record was destroyed in Henry VIII's reformation in the 16th century, only recently has it been possible to reconstruct some of the record using more modern methods of research.

Denham was probably an open field parish between 613 and 1017 when it was a tiny settlement surrounded by woodlands, open land and separated from Middlesex by the Misbourne and Colne Rivers. Such records of ownership as may have existed are lost but it may well have been that the land was what came to be known as "common land", that is land which notionally has an owner but which local communities – commoners – had the right to use freely to obtain food and fuel. Depending on the local custom, commoners might have the benefit of different rights relating to this land, for example a right of pasturage (the right to graze livestock), or a right to estovers (firewood), piscary (fish) or turbary (a right to cut peat for burning). Medieval peasants had to till their own fields for crops and pay feudal dues to the lord of the manor, but common land provided a social safety net they could rely on in the event of lean harvests and cold winters. As such, some have seen the commons as a sort of medieval welfare state.

The institution of common land has survived and still exists. It has been estimated that about 27-30 percent of England consisted of common land around the year 1600. The percentage has now dwindled to around 3%. Nearly 800 years after the rights attaching to common land were first legally acknowledged by an act of Parliament in 1235, villagers and townspeople throughout England and Wales still enjoy walks and playtimes on "the common".

Farming after 1066

Land ownership did begin to become rather clearer after the Normans landed near Hastings in 1066.

The Norman Duke, William the Conqueror, actually invaded a country that had only been unified for just over a century. Though the departure of the Romans did not leave the chaos once thought to be the case, England was broken up into several different kingdoms with most of the eastern side down as far as East Anglia being occupied and run by Danish and Viking peoples. It was King William I, the conqueror and his successors who set about the confirmation of England as a national entity governed by a centralised well documented legal system.

But this would not be so easily achieved because England had its own land ownership traditions and William had a lot of powerful people around him who had supported his invasion with the hope of acquiring large slices of valuable land for themselves. The Romans had had a simple formula. Under Roman law people owned land absolutely. When Julius claimed "That land is mine", indeed it was his, he owned it totally and absolutely. But England in the middles ages wasn't like that. The King had to keep a grip on things even if only notionally.

So legally the idea was invented that the King (or Queen) is the absolute owner of all the land in the kingdom - my house, your house, your garden and, significantly, your farm. But then you might have an interest in that land which cannot be interfered with by anybody - including the King. You possess that interest, you "hold" that land free of interference. You own the "freehold". This is the legal position even today Technically though we commonly use the word "landowner", in fact it could be said there is only one owner of land in England and Wales, the Queen. What the rest of us who are freeholders own is an interest in her property with which she cannot interfere

Neat !

It was valuable land given to those Norman barons. Some of it could be used for something upon which the long gone ancestors used to depend but which has become by the middle ages more of a sport for the lords and the barons and their friends - for hunting and chasing the small game into hiding under cover of the wild growth, the "coverts" such as Priory Covert on the east side of Old Mill Road or the St, John's Flagmoor and Widows Cruise Coverts along the path through the Country Park beside the Grand Union Canal.

But most of it was for keeping livestock and growing crops, in Denham's case particularly the latter - but rather too much land for the local landowner to look after himself. So where there was "freehold", there could be "leasehold", an interest in the land subordinate to the freehold which enabled the leaseholder to use the land under the freeholder's conditions for a period of years - anything up to 999 years - on the basis that the land will revert to the freeholder when the lease expires.

That of course is an obvious fiction. In 999 years no-one, except perhaps someone researching back over 1000 years of village history will have a clue what it was all about. It's just a device for putting conditions on the use of land - though there are quite few young property buyers who have been dismayed to discover that it can be near impossible to get a mortgage on a leasehold apartment that has 60 years left on the lease.

But that's got little or nothing to do with farming.

What does have to do with farming is that out of the leasehold, there could be created "tenancies". Until Henry VIII's reformation a lot of freeholds were held by the Catholic Church. So it was in Denham. The right to benefit from the rents and other income from 1200 acres of land in Denham had been acquired by the Abbey of Westminster shortly before William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey Bay in 1066. The grant of the leasehold interests in the manor of Denham fell to the Abbot who from 1176 to 1191 was Walter of Winchester, mischievously depicted on the plaque beside the doorway of the house named after him in Denham Village, Walter the Abbot.

The manorial lord then granted from his leasehold interest a number of tenancies in exchange for a regular rent, known in the Norman French language of the nobility of the time as a "ferme". It was from this that we get the word "farm".

Shires and hundreds

Agricultural output also influenced how land was measured. Long before J.R.R. Tolkein settled his Hobbits in the idyllic "shire", this was the Anglo Saxon (pre 1066) word for an area of local government. Each shire was made up of "Hundreds" these being considered to contain enough land suitable for agricultures to satisfy the needs of 100 households. Denham village was part of the Hundred of Stoke, which was centred on the village which later became Stoke Poges. In the 13th century the Stoke Hundred became one of three hundreds that together formed the "Chiltern Hundreds". The Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds has survived as part pof a curious tradition. As an appointee of the House of Commons, the Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds is disqualified from sitting as a Member of Parliament. So MP's who wish to give up their seats technically do not resign. They apply to become Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds (or for one of the other few offices that has similar disquak#lifying effect) and so make themselves ineligible to continue as MPs.

Each shire incidentally had an official administrator and judge known as the "reeve". The term "shire reeve" became abbreviated to Sheriff, a title obviously exported to the United State

Hundreds were then further divided into tithings, which contained ten households. Below that, the basic unit of land was called the hide, which was enough land to support one family and varied in size from 60 to 120 old acres, or 15 to 30 modern acres (6 to 12 hectares) depending on the quality and fertility of the land.

Burgage plots and mills

Another feature of medieval agriculture was the burgage. Most residents in farming communities worked on the local farms for the lord of the manor landowner or his leaseholder farmers. Initially in the feudal middle ages they worked as indentured labourers and later as paid labour after the decline of the feudal system. The lord of the manor would normally also have owned their dwellings for which the occupants were charged a rent either in money or in kind. It was the common practice, certainly in the better off farming communities, for the farm workers to have the benefit of a long narrow strip of land at the rear of their properties on which to grow their own vegetables to feed themselves and their families. The oldest part of Denham Village shows the characteristics of burgage plots the houses fronting directly onto Village Road but with long narrow gardens extending towards what was until the late 1980s the still tenant-farmed Court Farm. The detail of a map here from around 1590 is inverted from the original which was drawn to show the south of the village at the top. St. Mary's church can be identified just right of centre and to the left are the village properties with their long strips of land behind.

The medieval economy of Denham was based on a mixture of uses from the arable land, grazing pastures, meadows, woods, fisheries and mills included in the manor. Corn-milling was an important activity in Denham parish, thanks to the two rivers, the Colne and Misbourne. The two mills attached to Denham manor in 1086 were referred to as ‘Town Mill’ and Denham Mill. Town Mill was on the site where Mill House and Wellers Mead now stand.


It has been called "the biggest ever single factor in changing the national landscape".

People farmed to live. The population grew. Farm produce which had once been the village's sustenance had become a very valuable commodity.

Landowners voted and their representatives made the laws and ran the country. It was the mid 18th century. There was talk of new machines both for industry and for farming production. The landowners wanted their valuable landed assets protected. Surely the old method of open field strip farming was out of date.

Oh, and there was all that common land, over 25% of the land suitable for farming the use of which was still restricted. Surely the village communities would be very happy to have their common rights bought out.

It was not entirely new for the government to allowed common lands - heathland, woodland and rough grazing fields – to be divided up and fenced in. In her as yet unpublished dissertation “The Social Structure of a Buckinghamshire Village: Denham, 1749-1800" Carolynne Hearmon writes that by the early sixteenth century nearly the whole of Denham had been enclosed.

Enclosure or "Inclosure" as it was first known meant defining land ownership, fencing it and treating people on the land without the owner's permission as trespassers. It was an assertion of the rights of ownership and with that the sole right of the owner whether freeholder, leaseholder or tenant, to take the benefit of the profits from its husbandry. It enabled the landowner more easily to introduce/impose new farming methods and practices, increasing output and profit. With legislation to support the process the tide of enclosure became a flood.

Small or very large fields enclosed by hedgerows and ditches as part of the enclosure process are still visible even today even though many fields and pastures have again been opened up to mechanised farming. Early hedgerows were designed and planted to cater for different animals: strong enough to support a leaning bullock; lower, denser hedges to keep sheep back; tall, thick hedges to separate beef cattle from neighbouring livestock; and spinneys with thick undergrowth for fresh supplies of game birds - helpful in allowing the development of aristocratic pursuits.

It's not just in the country that the hedge controls the lie of the land. In towns and cities, older garden walls still run along the hedge line of the old fields. Some urban hedges may even be protected by being Grade II listed. “The hedge, particularly the crooked hedge, remains idiosyncratically English.” writes one commentator. And enclosures didn’t necessarily mean hedges. The fenlands (low-lying or marshy areas) are bordered by narrow, straight drainage ditches rather than hedges. This pioneering farming project using field management techniques dating back to the 13th century is now being used to transform some wetlands into a haven for endangered animals, birds, insects and wildflowers.

Field enclosures might also have been drystone walls – some 70,000 miles of these walls are in Yorkshire, Cornwall, Derbyshire and Cumbria. These drystone walls take the place of hedges wherever there is good building stone beneath the turf – particularly along the ribbon of limestone running north-east to south-west across England.

Inherited property that was divided among several heirs, required new, and sometimes straighter enclosure boundaries, often resulting in wire and timber fences and gates. This kind of enclosure was much less land-hungry and was one way to increase yields from the now-privatised lands. Landlords’ fortunes improved enormously.

Consequences of Enclosure

Enclosure had a disastrous effect on the landless as landlords only took on a relatively small number of regularly employed labourers. Thousands of farmworkers were made destitute. Poorhouses spread across the country.

A few were more fortunate in that they ended up with an allotment of land. One of the few positive effects of enclosure for village labourers was that it stimulated the large-scale creation of allotments which had first appeared in the late sixteenth century. As common land was gradually gobbled up, legislation eventually set aside allotted land next to the tenanted cottages as part of the wages for the labouring poor. Later, railways increased demand for allotments by renting excess land on either side of the tracks to their workers. Denham of course still has its allotments though those which were tilled on the south side of Ashmead Lane behind the Methodist Church are long gone.

One historian of the period, writing in 1908 W. Hasbach calculated that the profit from an allotment was “equal to an addition of 2s a week to a labourer’s wages; which he ascribed to spade husbandry for the vegetables."

Then in a remarkable attempt to find something positive in disaster and revealing a somewhat patronising Victorian reformer's attitude to the poor, Hasbach continued: “Nor was the income from an allotment the only thing to be considered: there was also the expenditure which it prevented. Labourers frequented the public-house less; they stayed at home, and man, wife and children worked together. The thriftless were reformed: his position was raised in his own eyes; he acquired a sense of independence and self-respect, and the allotment to some extent compensated for that lack of harmless pleasures and recreations which fell so hard upon the working classes of England and was to be reckoned among the causes of crime. Moreover, they counteracted that separation of the people from the soil which had taken from them all direct and personal interest in its productiveness."

Indeed, the Enclosure Acts were behind the large-scale creation of allotments which first appeared in the late sixteenth century. As common land was gradually gobbled up, legislation eventually set aside allotted land next to the tenanted cottages as part of the wages for the labouring poor. Later, railways increased demand for allotments by renting excess land on either side of the tracks to their workers. Even today in England, there are nearly 300,000 allotments - rental plots held mostly by a local authority.

Overall, between 1604 and 1914 over 5,200 enclosure Private Bills were enacted by Parliament which related to just over a fifth of the total area of England, amounting to some 6.8 million acres. Of those, in 1660 the “Crown Estates” under Queen Victoria held 220,000 acres.

Enclosure in Denham

Carolynne Hearmon's work gives us a remarkable insight into the profound effects of enclosure on the social structure and the agricultural system in Denham. She has a snapshot of the statistics from 1749.

“In 1749 the farmers and gentry, not including women, comprised just 3% of the total population. 97% of the land was owned by only 1.6% of the population. Only 4.6 % of the population owned any land at all."

There were then 13 major landowners, in the parish. Six of them were long established landlords of the parish. There is evidence that Denham's farm labourers were driven into poverty alongside others in the country's farming communities because it was in 1789 that a new poor house was built financed by Sir William Bowyer of Denham Court. Sir William gifted the land and loaned £500 for the construction of the poor house. It was a gift which clearly caused some domestic upset as Sir William sought to retreat from his initial promise at the insistence of Lady Bowyer who pleaded their own poverty. A heated argument ensued and the Bowyers were forced to give way and the building we know now as The Priory was built to house the village poor and their overseer.

Denham Farms 1801

Carolynne Hearmon has also accessed the 1801 census, the first official census of modern times. That revealed a remarkable total of 19 different farms in Denham parish. The largest at 445 acres was Savay Farm. This had formerly, since the 11th century, been the manor of Denham Durdent, second in size as a local manor after Denham Place. Denham Court Farm now the Buckinghamshire Golf Course comprised 300 acres in 1801.

There was also the 366 acre Glebe Lands Farm. The old English word "glebe" describes church land, which was used to pay for the parish priest enhancing the Rector’s income from tithes. The glebe lands appear to have been that part of the Buckinghamshire golf course which extends behind the north side of the village from St. Mary's church to The Pyghtle

The remaining 16 farms surrounding Denham Village as listed by Carolynne Hearmon were:

· Bailey Hill Farm – 215 acres

· Ivy House Farm – 168 acres

· Southlands – 163 acres

· Hollybush Farm – 160 acres

· Doggetts Farm – 122 acres

· Moor House Farm – 119 acres

· Rusholts/Rush Green – 106 acres

· Thurlstons Farm – 82 acres

· Red Hill Farm – 78 acres

· Walters – 77 acres

· Tilehouse – 71 acres

· Lee Farm Place – 67 acres

· Wheelers Farm – 38 acres

· Denham Marsh, Denham Place and Juniper Wood – no acreages noted

Carolynne Hearmon wrote: “the majority of the farms were not owner-occupied but were farmed by tenants, although the fields of each farm may have belonged to different people. For example, the fields of Rush Green Farm and Rusholts Farm were both occupied by Mr. Morten but owned by Benjamin Way, Sir William Bowyer, George Shergold, Joshua Iremonger, Nicholas Bayley and Ann Stanburough.”

Missing from Carolynne Hearmon's list is Andrew's Farm about which there is something of a mystery. Andrew's Farm buildings stood directly opposite the junction of Old Mill Road/Village Road and Ashmead Lane until in 1894 they were replaced by the four Blackbarn Cottages. These buildings seem to have been present on maps dating back to the 16th century and are almost certainly identifiable as Andrew's Farm buildings on a map of 1783. In the 19th century they constituted four separate dwellings for agricultural labourer families, tiny in comparison with the Blackbarn Cottages into which some of the families were rehoused. We have not (yet) been able to establish the acreage of Andrew's Farm but one old map shows a very large farm extending north to border the Court Farm estate and east up to what we know now as the A40 Oxford Road - though oddly there is no indication of any substantial estate farmhouse named for Andrew's Farm.

Corn Laws

Barely had the farm labouring communities readjusted to life after enclosure, they were hit by another piece of landowner dominated legislation. The readjustment had actually been assisted by Britain's involvement in the wars against Napoleon from 1803 to 1815. Farming actually expanded as Britain aimed for greater self sufficiency. Grain prices that had, as evidenced by Lady Bowyer's plea of poverty in 1789, brought little profit rose to new levels high. The reputation of King George III, the king who lost America quickly recovered as he earned himself the nickname of Farmer George.

However when the wars ended the country faced the prospect of an incoming flood of cheap foreign grown corn and grain. Parliament, dominated by the land owning class, resorted to protectionism. Corn Laws were enacted between 1815 and 1846 to protect the profits of landowners and British farmers by artificially pushing up the price of corn and grains. Again it was the farm labourers who suffered the hit. Whereas 50 years previously the price of grain had been so low as to depress their wages the Corn Laws drove the price of bread so high that it became too expensive for many labouring families.

The landowners found themselves besieged by protest and found it hard to justify themselves. The Bucks Herald of the time was considered the newspaper champion of the cause of the landed gentry of England. In the defence of its favoured readers the Herald found a different culprit for the distress of the labouring classes. Reporting on a speech made to the Buckinghamshire Conservative Association by the Marquis of Chandos (widely known as the Farmers' Friend), the Herald of Saturday 12 January 1839 blamed the industrialists of Manchester. The articles described how the Marquis of Chandos, on proposing the toast of 'The Farmers of Buckinghamshire' "expressed determination to resist to the utmost in parliament, under any circumstances, the repeal of the Corn Laws which are alone the means of preserving England from the frightful necessity of being dependent for its daily bread upon the Polish granaries of Russia—of that Russia which is at this moment, and has been for years, exercising most dishonest and treacherous activity break in upon the sources of England's greatness, and which would not fail to take ample advantage of that position that certain Manchester Whig-Radical factory lords wish to assign her, by starving us into surrender.”

The writer's essaying soared: "The wealth the factory lords of Manchester -- that wealth which has been wrung out of the bones and sinews of the white slaves of cotton districts. That wealth is no doubt very great, and, if the patriotism of the factory lords were only commensurate with their wealth, they would not commence their operation of getting rid of the corn-laws at the wrong end—they would begin the cause, and not with the effect. They would begin with the national debt, the source of the oppressive taxation which falls upon English agriculture, and, having generously applied their “immense wealth" to the discharge of that debt, they would find it very easy to get rid of the corn-laws, which are the consequence of the taxation which the debt imposes upon the British landowner and farmer. "

W. Hasbach, the socialist author of the History of the English Agricultural Labourer writing in 1908 reflected on a rather different report which laid blame firm on the landowners: “We have a class of farmers directing agricultural operations as capitalistic profit-making ventures, having no proprietary or permanent interest in the soil, and no community of interest between landlord or labourer, rather the profitableness of the farmer’s venture. Labourers possess no more claim or attachment to the land than the factory operative has to the mill in which he works, nor are farmers who are nothing but capitalist entrepreneurs.

The patchwork of legislation which made up the Corn Laws lasted until 1846 when it was all repealed. All the turmoil of economic distortion of the markets and the effects of the industrial revolution resulting in a huge migration of workers into the towns and cities change the agricultural landscape. By the time the Corn Laws were repealed, the newspapers were filled with advertisements of local farms and land for sale in Buckinghamshire; some as a result of bankruptcies. It was the beginning of the end for a system of land management that had prevailed for nigh on 1000 years

An agricultural depression in the 1870s further hastened the decline of the landed gentry. Cheaper foreign imports, and increasingly heavy levels of taxation on inherited wealth, put an end to agricultural land as the primary source of wealth for the upper classes. The cheapest corn prices in a century led to the poorer lands reverting to grazing. By 1900, the acreage under wheat was just 50% of the 1872 acreage. Even beef and sheep farmers were struggling as overseas producers were able to feed stock at lower cost. Only the most tenacious farmers succeeded.

In 1883, just 4,000 (out of 30,000 predicted) families had owned over half the country. 95 percent of the population owned no land at all. But increasingly the wealthy and landed gentry could no longer boast about their vast acres of productive agriculture. Some who managed to maintain their estates turned to "sport" as the fallow lands presented wild game with abundant cover, but many estates were sold or broken up. The decline was prolonged as the wealthier landowners clung tenaciously to their estates. In Denham it was not until 1920 that the Ways finally conceded to the inevitable and placed large parts of their Denham estates in the hands of the auctioneers.

A Government Board of Agriculture had been established in 1889. Its President in 1914 was the Rt. Hon. Walter Runciman M.P. The Uxbridge & W. Drayton Gazette of reported favourably on speech he gave in August 1914:

"If the agricultural labourer is to be enabled himself to raise his remuneration, he must in any case be put on a fair bargaining level with the employer. Now, how far is the agricultural labourer on a fair bargaining level ? I pointed out that he has no alternative livelihood in the purely agricultural counties. I would go further, and say. that in nine out of ten districts he has no alternative residence. He has to live in the cottage tied to the farm, or under the control of those who manage the estate, and he has no choice. If he leaves his work he leaves his cottage. There is nothing that an agricultural labourer dreads more than to find himself after a week's notice without house and home.

Tied cottages are owned by the landlord and let with the farm to the farmer. The farmer in turn lets them to his labourers. It has been estimated that from one-third to one-half of the agricultural labourers in England and Wales live in cottages let direct by the farmer. These cottages are usually let on short tenancies. In some cases they are held on a monthly or even a weekly tenancy. The evil of the system is that if the labourer offend his employer, he may be turned out of his home. Under present conditions this often means being turned out of his native village as well. The cottage and the work go together. If a labourer is dismissed from his work, he is also at the same time dismissed from his cottage.

The system is open to very grave abuse. It often prevents the labourer with a family from being independent. For instance, the labourer who is employed by a man who has bigoted religious or political opinions, is not in a position either to vote as he likes or pray as he likes for fear of losing his job and his cottage. Moreover, the cottages are often unsatisfactory as dwelling-places. Yet the labourer is afraid to ask for repairs, lest he should be turned out. Nor is he free to ask for higher wages. He often fears to apply for an allotment or a small holding, in case his employer may object.

The evil of the tied cottage system is aggravated by the fact that in many villages there is a great scarcity of other cottages. So that if a man is dismissed by one master and offered work by another, he may have to refuse the offer because there is not another cottage vacant in the villages. Liberals propose, first of all, to build cottages in villages where there is a scarcity. When this is done, the worst evils of the tied cottage system will disappear, because then a labourer will not necessarily have to leave the village when he changes jobs. But the Government propose also to deal direct with the problem of the tied cottage.

It is not right that a man should be turned out of his home at a week's notice. He should be given a chance to look round for work and for another home. He cannot do this if he is liable to have his furniture put into the road. Liberals propose that the period of notice to quit with regard to tied cottages should be substantially lengthened. Of course, with regard to certain men, such as cattlemen, horsemen, and shepherds, it is sometimes necessary to have them living near or on the farm. It will probably he found necessary to make an exception to the above rule with regard to lengthened notice in such cases where it can be shown to be necessary for the proper working of the farm that a man should live in a tied cottage. In such cases, fair arrangements will be made and where a labourer gets a cottage rent free, that will be taken into account when fixing a minimum living wage. Thus the Liberal proposals will inflict no injustice upon the farmer. But they will greatly strengthen the labourer's position, and make him more independent. Liberal Land and Housing Reform will make the labourer free and give him security in his home."

Walter Runciman was speaking at the outbreak of a war which many thought would be over by Christmas 1914 enabling his government to get on with their reforms. Of course it lasted over four dreadful years and became known as The Great War. The impact both on agriculture and social hierarchies in village communities was little short of revolutionary. By 1917 the war effort had spurred one million acres of soil in Britain back under tillage. Large amounts of skill and muscle and of the horses which drew the ploughs were lost to the front line forcing the rapid development of mechanised farming. In these and many other ways the war changed fundamentally the management of land and its use and with it the social status and aspirations of those who in 1918 would return from battle to resume their lives on the land.


One of the little realised effects of the war was in the way it accustomised people more to the idea of Government running things or at least guiding and steering change. Also the demand for food during the war years had stimulated the smallholding movement, the acquisition in rural communities of small farm plots from which those communities could make a significant contribution to feeding themselves. It was a trend that was to be further developed in the post war years and so far as the landowners were concerned the sale of lands for smallholdings would help them to restore their finances.

In June 1919 the Middlesex County Council purchased land from the Way family, the owners of the Denham Place Estate, at a cost of £50,000 to establish smallholdings for servicemen of the Middlesex Regiments returning from the war. The land stretched from New Denham to Red Hill, but included a lot of land which lay back from the main road - such as Field Road. The land was split into three categories, 15 acre plots 10 acres and 1.5 acres for disabled ex‑servicemen. The rent on the smaller parcels was £37 per year. There was no electricity, water or sanitation.

Most of the tenants grew soft fruit and vegetables to sell to local greengrocers. Likewise animals such as pigs and turkeys kept the local butchers supplied. Produce was also taken to local markets and also to London. Initially 20 of the smallholdings were milk producers and there are also very few pig farmers left. There was not much direct selling at the gate because the main road was single track and the traffic very light. Some of the tenants also worked elsewhere as the income from the farm was not enough to sustain a living and then it was left to the women of the household to keep the smallholdings going. Indeed when once again from 1939 to 1945 Europe was plunged into war male labour became increasingly scarce.

For the 200 or so children at Denham school in Cheapside Lane, Gus Bronsdon could often be seen milking his cows by hand before taking them down Cheapside Lane to the fields and no doubt their attention was taken away from their studies big when the machine arrived on the smallholding to thresh the corn.

In 1927 electricity was installed in some of the Denham smallholdings, though some of the outlying farms were not supplied until 1950. Joyce Franks, who farmed Mount Farm, remembered having the television all ready for Christmas and being connected on Christmas Eve. The smallholdings actually had telephones connected in 1930 before they had electricity. The tenants initially pumped their water from wells until water was laid on in 1934 following a drought in 1933 which forced the smallholders to take their animals down into the village to drink from the stream.

The small holdings are of course still with us very much part of the Denham community. The requirement that the smallholdings be limited to ex-servicemen tenants is long gone and much of their trade includes bought in produce, but they are still with us and very much part of the Denham community.

Land use today

The National Trust was founded in 1895 "promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the Nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest". In 1907 it acquired the backing of legislation. As large estate owners their lands sought to liquidate their properties for cash the National Trust was there to purchase. The National Trust now owns 2,500 square kilometers (970 square miles) of land and 780 miles of coast.

As of 2009 there were 218,000 farm holdings in the UK, covering 43 million acres – 72 percent of the land area. The majority of English soil is farmed by a much smaller set of large farms: 25,638 farm holdings cover 16.5 million acres or 52 percent of England’s land area; farms today are a lot fewer but bigger than sixty years ago.

Central government, councils, and the Oxbridge colleges together own 2.7 million acres of England, or 8.5 % of the country. The Church Commissioners and Anglican dioceses together own around 175,000 acres, or 0.5 percent of the land of England

Crown land amounts to 456,482 acres, or 1.4 percent of England

Private limited companies and limited liability partnerships – both those registered in the UK and those based overseas or offshore own 6.6 million acres, or 18 percent of England and Wales.

It is still the case that the bulk of the UK's population in owns very little land – or none at all. While the majority of people now own a home, homeowners’ share of England only amounts to about 5 percent of the land. Compulsory land registration which began almost 100 years ago in 1925 was gradually introduced throughout England and Wales until it covered the whole of the two nations in 1990. Land transactions other than inheritance transactions are the trigger to compulsory registration.

Registration is still only around 86 percent complete. 14 percent of the land of England and Wales remains unregistered.

In England, roughly speaking, we devote 10 percent of our land to towns and cities; 70 percent to farming, with 20 percent left over for nature.

A Buckinghamshire Agricultural Study in 2002 found agriculture to be a declining financial contributor to the county's economy. Less than 2% of the county's residents were then employed in the agricultural sector.

Denham still has much farmland, though of course the greater part of Court Farm which had provided income for village labourers for centuries was converted into the Buckinghamshire Golf Club in the early 1990s and the farmhouse and barns first provided space for film industry support technologies and are now in private residential ownership. Nearly all of the village homes are in freehold ownership and most are occupied by the freehold owners.

Still, the village still continues to celebrate features of its agricultural history.

Alexander Fleming - the ploughman champion

Little wonder that Jessie Simms was so proud of her father Alexander’s prestigious position among his fellow farmers. A ploughman was recognised as having a very special rank among farmers, and among her memories, Jessie wrote: “In early 2008, the Royal South Bucks Agricultural Association 1833 - invited me to attend the 175th Anniversary Ploughing Match held at Hall Barn, Beaconsfield. The Association had requested that our father Alexander Fleming’s 1935 certificate be put in the Show Tent. Following a magnificent lunch for 400 in a marquee, certificates and horse brasses were presented. No doubt our father would have been proud…as I certainly was even after all these years”


Portrait head of Julius Caesar by George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Enclosure - Trewern Round by Malcolm Kewn, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Satire on the Corn Laws - British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Fleming with horses - Collection of Jessie Simms

Ploughing Certificates - Collection of Jessie Simms

Walter Runciman M.P. - Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Carolynne M. Hearmon, “The Social Structure of a Buckinghamshire Village: Denham, 1749-1800 (unpublished MA Dissertation, University of Leicester, 1978).

Hasbach, W. 1908, A History of the English Labourer, Translated by Ruth Kenyon with a Preface by Sidney Webb. First English Edition was first published in 1908 by P.S.King & Sons, Great Britain.

Denham Conservation Area Character Appraisal by South Bucks District Council September 2008

The Royal South Bucks Agricultural Association

Harry Mount, Harry, How England Made the English (Penguin Books, 2012) 340.

British Newspaper Archive


The National Trust -

History of Denham by Terry Skelton unpublished


Interview with Jessie (Fleming) Simms 2019

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