Little Brickhill is the middle of the three Brickhill villages which stand on the edge of a ridge of Lower Greensand. The villages lie along the spring line where water which has filtered through the porous sand is forced to flow out sideways by the underlying Oxford clay.
Flints from the middle and late Stone Age show that people were living here then, but the earliest substantial sign of habitation in the area dates from the Iron Age. This is the large earthwork called Danesborough, situated in the Brickhill Woods. As so often happens, its name is misleading. It dates from 500 BC and was built to fortify the homes of a British tribe which lived here before the Roman occupation - nearly 1000 years before any Danes came near.
During the years 43 - 47 AD the Romans occupied South East Britain as far as a line from the Severn to the Humber. Essential to the occupation was a good network of roads and the road running through Little Brickhill was one of the most important. This road was to exercise a decisive influence on Little Brickhill throughout its history to the present day. The Romans called the road Stratum Vitelianus. The name Watling Street, by which we now know it, must have been given by the British population as it has obvious connections with Sarn Gwydellin, the name, meaning Foreigner's Road, given by the Welsh to some Roman roads. There were also minor Roman roads through Little Brickhill. One came from Woburn, through Pinfold, past Job's Farm and Buttermilk Farm and into the village across Two Ponds Field. This road which was still used as the road to Woburn until the 18th Century may have continued roughly along the line of Great Brickhill Lane to Soulbury and beyond. In spite of the cross roads, it was believed that the Romans had no settlement where we now live but recently a substantial amount of Roman pottery was found in the garden of the Grange. This may be no more than the debris from a crashed cart on the road, but it may indicate a settlement of some kind. It is certain, however, that there was a fort by Galley Lane corner for the protection of passing legions.
It did not take long for the commercially minded Britons of the South East to appreciate the benefits of membership of the first century European Community. Apart from occasional trouble, as when the Iron Lady, Queen Boudicca, objected that too much British property was finding its way to the Imperial coffers, resistance ceased. The legions moved on to subdue the Celtic fringes. By the late 60s AD, the huge ditches round the fort were filled in and a thriving town called Magiovinium started to grow up between Galley Lane and the River Ousel. It must have been a fabulous sight for the British, with many substantial buildings of sandstone from Brickhill and limestone from Northamptonshire.
THE MIDDLE AGES
The departure of the Romans at the beginning of the fifth century left Britain open for other invaders, Angles, Saxons and Danes. The dividing line between the Danes in the east and the English in the south and west ran through the area, in places defined precisely by Watling Street.
At this time there was still no Little Brickhill as we know it; with so much fighting going on a main road was no place to live. It took an invasion in 1066 as thorough as the Romans' to bring peace and order again. Before the conquest the lands where Little Brickhill now is belonged to Earl Tostig, King Harold's half brother. Tostig having been outlawed by the King, joined with Harold Hardrada in the invasion of the north of England. King Harold defeated Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge (in Yorkshire, not Chelsea) but had only 19 days to march down to Hastings and oppose the invading William of Normandy.
After William's victory at Hastings he made his way through a wide arc from Canterbury, crossing the Thames at Wallingford and approaching London via Buckingham, Wolverton and the Brickhills before taking London. The Doomsday Book of 1086, William's mammoth survey of who owned what, showed that there were 4 manors of sorts in 'Bryhulle' but no evidence of a separate Little Brickhill. The name Bryhulle is probably a corruption of the Celtic word 'Bry' or 'Bryk ' meaning hilltop and the Saxon word for hill, 'hella'. Tostig's manors had been redistributed to William's supporters and Little Brickhill had passed to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux who was William's half brother. Odo was not what one expects of a bishop today. Although forbidden by his holy orders to wield a sword, he played a full part in the Battle of Hastings wielding a mace instead.
By the end of the 12th Century, relative peace reigned and the road became an attraction rather than a threat. There were travellers to minister to and a living to be had doing so. People settled here and in 1154 the Church was founded. The manor of Little Brickhill was owned by Robert de Turnham who held it directly from the King in return for providing the guard of Dover Castle. The parish boundaries suggest that Great and Bow Brickhill were established as parishes first and Little Brickhill was carved out of them at a later date.
The travellers on the road included the great and the humble. One of the greatest was Edward I with the procession bringing his dead Queen Eleanor from Harby in Lincolnshire to London. The procession spent consecutive nights at Stony Stratford and Woburn Abbey and although the famous Eleanor crosses do not survive at either place, the account recording payment for the Woburn Cross does. One cannot be sure of the route taken between Stony and Woburn, but through Fenny Stratford and Little Brickhill seems most likely.
BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY
Little Brickhill prospered and became a busy market town with an annual fair at the feast of St Mary Magdalene. From 1443 to 1638 the Assizes were held here. It must be admitted that it was less a reflection of Little Brickhill's intrinsic importance than the fact that Buckinghamshire was on the Norfolk circuit and Watling Street made it the easiest part of the county for the itinerant judges to reach. The results of the trials show themselves in the Parish Registers which exist back to 1559. In several entries criminals were hanged or, in the usual discreet words, 'suffered death and were buried'. The traditional site for the assize court is Warren Farm and though the farm was rebuilt in 1902 to look just as it had before, the original cellars remain and show evidence of where prisoners may have been shackled.
Little Brickhill was not entirely dependent on the travellers. Agriculture was important of course, but in this respect Little Brickhill suffered from a disadvantage. Although the parish stretches right down to the River Ousel, it does not seem to have had a suitable site for a water mill to grind the corn produced in the large open fields belonging to the manor and divided into strips for cultivation by the inhabitants. The village would have been well placed for a windmill, but these only came into general use in the late middle ages and in the 16th Century, there was still a horse mill operating in Little Brickhill. The horses walked round in a circle harnessed to gearing which drove the millstones. This was an expensive way of grinding corn.
Tile making was another village industry in the late middle ages. About 50 years ago a kiln was found in the gardens of 'The Grange'. The glazed tiles it produced, which were about 10 cm square and 2.5 cm thick, bore patterns mainly in green and brown. Tiles made in Little Brickhill were used over a wide area; they have been found in Bradwell Abbey chapel and in Great Linford church.
Another small scale medieval industry was iron working. A few years ago a small smelting furnace called a bloomery was found in a garden in Great Brickhill Lane. Significantly, the site was known in the late 18th Century as 'Smithy Croft'.
A halfpenny token still exists to bear witness to the commercial life of the village in the 17th Century. Genuine halfpennies were small silver coins which were easily lost and in any case in short supply. People were therefore happy to use pseudo-halfpennies issued by established traders to keep trade moving. The Little Brickhill token was issued by one Charles Lord in 1669 and, as it shows a man making candles, Lord was presumably a chandler.
ST MARY MAGDALENE'S CHURCH
The Church was founded in 1154 by Richard de Turnham who made Combwell Priory in Kent, the rector. This gave the Priory the right to the parish tithes and they appointed a vicar to look after the parish. The first recorded vicar was John of Daventry, presented in 1227. The next but one was Philip of Staunton who was presented in 1257 and became bishop of Llandaff in 1287. Combwell Priory continued to present the clergy until it was dissolved by Henry VIll in 1535.
After the dissolution, the rectors were the lay people to whom the Combwell Priory assets were granted. The first was Thomas Culpepper but he was attainted and the rectorship re-granted to Sir John Gage, Comptroller of the Household. They took a large part of the tithes and appointed the vicars with only a fraction of the tithes and a little glebe land to support them. By the time of the 1797 enclosure, the great tithes (which were then held by the Archbishop of Canterbury) were worth over 90 acres of land whereas the vicar's had less than 30 acres in respect of tithes together with 10 acres of glebe.
The church building is a typical example of an ordinary English parish church. None of the original 12th Century church remains. The oldest surviving parts, dating from the 13th Century, are the Chancel Arch and the blocked up doorway in the north wall which once led to a side chapel. The chapel roof, together with that of the chancel was blown off by a gale in 1706. Although the chapel was never rebuilt, the chancel roof was replaced and the remainder of the church rebuilt largely by the efforts of Browne Willis, the slightly eccentric lord of the manor of Bletchley. Comfortably endowed, he not only spent much of his own money on local churches, he also had the gift of persuading others to spend theirs as well. He was responsible for repairing a largely ruined Bow Brickhill church and he built and endowed St Martin's, Fenny Stratford from scratch.
THE CIVIL WAR
Little Brickhill was at the centre of much activity in the Civil War chiefly because of its strategic significance as the point at which the main road crosses the commanding Brickhill ridge. In July 1643, the Earl of Essex moved his Parliamentary forces here from Aylesbury, setting up his headquarters at Great Brickhill - reputedly in the old barn opposite the Red Lion. Lord Essex reported to parliament that he had done this so 'that our army might the better secure the Parliament and the City of London and the counties adjacent and be more safely supplied with money from London'.
In the same letter, dated 9 July, he told of the poor state of his army, lacking horses, arms and saddles and even suggested that Parliament sue for peace. No help arrived and on 23 July, the War Council sent an altogether more forthright letter from Brickhill to Parliament saying…. 'the army is much decayed ... by mortality and sickness ... and for want of pay and clothing'.
If the royalist armies had chosen to attack during this period, the constitutional history of Britain could have been quite different. Everyone might have known the Battle of Brickhill Ridge as the battle which turned the war and saved Charles I as an absolute monarch. In the event, the royalists chose to lay siege to Gloucester instead and Parliament responded to the War Council letter by sending six trained bands and supplies financed by the City of London; the King's opportunity was lost.
The road continued to be important in supplying the armies. In 1644 a royalist force ambushed at Little Brickhill a convoy of 16 carts carrying wine, grocery and tobacco to the parliamentary troops at Coventry and Warwick. It was not all one way, though, for on 27 August the parish register mentions 'Mr Williams, souldyer of the King's Army, was slayne by the Parlimant souldyers and buried the same day'. Three centuries later, when part of the Churchyard was being taken to widen the road, a cavalier in full rig was unearthed. Was this, perhaps, Mr Williams?
In the middle ages, agriculture in Little Brickhill, in common with all of the midlands -indeed most of England - was based on the open field system. The arable land of each manor was in a few large open fields and the land owners in the village held one or more plots in each field. Because of the difficulty of turning a heavy plough, the half acre plots were long strips usually l/2 a chain wide (11 yards) and 10 chains (220 yards) long. 10 chains was thus known as a furlong (furrow-length). The strips were ploughed up one side and down the other, tending to hump the soil up in the middle of the strip. The resulting ‘ridge and furrow' which helped to drain the soil can still be seen in many local fields now down to grass.
The open field system shared out the different qualities of land but in other respects it was very inefficient. Larger farmers might have a hundred or more strips scattered through the fields. It was difficult to work one strip without interfering with its neighbours and the more go-ahead farmers could not experiment with new crops and growing methods.
By the 1790s, most of the land at the south east end of the parish had been enclosed into the neat squarish fields we are used to today but there remained some 670 acres unenclosed. This included the two main open fields, North Field roughly where Glebe Farm now is and West Field on the opposite side of Watling Street. There was also the main pasture area between Galley Lane and the River Ouzel, the land which now comprises Battlehills Farm and the Common between the present Woburn Road and the road to the golf course.
In 1796 a private Act of Parliament was passed authorising the enclosure of these lands. An expert surveyor came from Lewknor in Oxfordshire to lay out the new land holdings. Everyone who owned land in the open fields or had rights of grazing on the pastures or the common received proportionate amounts of land in the new arrangement. As part of the arrangement, the land in the parish was relieved of the burden of paying tithes to the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the vicar received 90 acres and 30 acres respectively in compensation. The inclosure award also had the effect of extinguishing the lord's manorial rights. These had become nominal by this time they only merited five acres of poor land on the common in compensation.
Some land owners took the opportunity to exchange odd enclosed plots they already had so as to rationalise their holdings. Upkeep of the roads was a parish responsibility and to provide the materials the parish surveyor of highways was given two plots to use as stone pits. One of these is now Roundacre children's playground.
Of the 670 acres enclosed, the lord of the manor had rather more than 200. The next largest apart from the Archbishop was Mrs Ashwell of Leighton Buzzard had 66 acres. Strung out along the right hand side of Great Brickhill Lane as you go towards Great Brickhill was a series of 1/2 to 1 acre plots awarded to cottagers in lieu of grazing rights. These scarcely viable units were soon sold and absorbed in larger holdings.
THE QUARTER SESSIONS AND CONSTABLES
Each parish had at least one 'petty constable’ appointed by the County Quarter Sessions to bring criminals before the Justices of the Peace, police the beer and bread trades to prevent short measure and generally keep everyone on the straight and narrow. Watling Street made the office of constable in Stony Stratford and Little Brickhill highly attractive. All parishes were expected to pay to support any poor people who had been born in them. As a consequence the constables were paid by the county to transport poor vagrants to their parish of birth or to the nearest county border on the way. The road provided a steady supply of vagrants and at 3d a mile or 6d by the constables were assured of a good income.
The only trouble was that a Roman road is just about the best definition there is of the shortest distance between two points and that was bad for business. So the constables took to transporting their vagrants via Woughton to increase their income. The magistrates ordered an accurate survey which proved that the Woughton route from Fenny to Loughton was a mile and a half longer than Watling Street. The constables were ordered to take the shorter route.
The resourceful constables must have other tricks up their sleeves as the cost of conveying vagrants continued to increase. As a result, at the May 1709 Quarter Sessions, the magistrates resolved that 'in view of the great abuses which the justices believe to have taken place ... ' especially by the constables of Little Brickhill, who had received more than £140 for one year in office, it was agreed that in future only persons who could be properly vouched for were to hold office as constables. In spite of their efforts, the Little Brickhill constable's income remained at about £100.
Not all the vagrants completed their journeys. The parish register for 1658 records that Ann Duxburye, who had been taken as a vagrant at Paddington in the county of Middlesex was sent with her two children by pass to Berington in the county of Chester, died here and was buried.
About the same time, the Quarter Sessions were called into action in response to the Great Fire of Little Brickhill in 1708. Damage to buildings was estimated at £454 10s and to chattels, £127. At the insistence of the local Justices, the Quarter Sessions petitioned the Lord Chancellor to recommend the grant of letters patent 'to collect the charitable benevolence of well disposed persons to help eight persons, all of Little Brickhill for the serious losses they had sustained'. The resulting appeal was read out in the local churches.
"SPORTS" AND PASTIMES
In the 17th Century, horse races were held on Wavendon Heath but the relaxations within the Village were of a less wholesome character. In the 19th Century Little Brickhill was a popular venue prize fighting because it was near the county boundary. This made it simple to move over the border if the magistrates, whose authority was confined to a particular county stepped in to stop a fight. On one occasion Lord Althorp and Lord Byron stayed at the George at Little Brickhill before going to a fight at the Leather Bottle at Wavendon. That fight stopped by the curate who literally read the Riot Act. The fight was moved to Hertfordshire presumably because the Bucks magistrates already had wind of it.
Cockfighting was common in ale houses and inns, so Little Brickhill had more than its fair share.
LORDS OF THE MANOR
Little Brickhill has rarely had a resident lord of the manor. In medieval times, the manor was usually a small part of a larger estate. It belonged at different times to the Earls of Gloucester and the Dukes of Buckingham. In later years the manor was held by families elsewhere such as the Duncombes of Great Brickhill and by Londoners who wanted to set the seal on a successful career in commerce or government by buying themselves a part of England. As a result, the village never had a proper manor house, merely somewhere for the bailiff to live and the lord to stay on his rare visits.
The one lord of the manor who did, at least in name, live here was not the most edifying of characters. If asked he would describe himself as 'of Little Brickhill' but in reality he spent as much time as he could in London. His name was Pexall Brocas, a strange name, resulting from a marriage between the Pexalls and the Brocases and a legal settlement designed to preserve the Pexall name.
After being brought up in Ickenham, Middlesex, he went as a student to Grays Inn, where he seems to have acquired a taste for excitement. During the closing years of Queen Elizabeth's reign he became mixed up in the Earl of Essex's rising and found himself before the court for forgery and riot. However, when James I came to the throne things changed and Pexall Brocas not only received a royal pardon, but a knighthood as well.
He was reputed to have 70 - 100 illegitimate children and while this may have been magnified in the telling, there was more than a little truth in it; at least one of the children finds a place in the Parish Registers. On Sunday, 24 October 1613, Sir Pexall Brocas did open pennance at St Pauls Cross. He stood in a white sheet and held a stick in his hand having been convicted before the High Commissioners for secret and notorious adulteries with diverse women. The sincerity of his penitential spirit is rather doubtful since, as soon as he had finished, he went, accompanied by thirty scarlet clad attendants, to the Lord Mayor to demand a dinner. Presumably he got his dinner. He was not one to take lying down anything which infringed his dignity. In 1624, when a rate was levied to pay for church repairs, he refused to pay his share of 6s. 41/4d. because the south aisle was not appropriated for his sole use.
Quite uncharacteristically, Sir Pexall Brocas made a large settlement of several estates, including Little Brickhill, to raise funds to found a college at Oxford. More typically, perhaps, nothing ever came of the project.
Sir Pexall Brocas died on 13 August 1630 and was buried the following day in Little Brickhill churchyard. But even in death there is some doubt about his commitment to the village. There is a theory that only part of his body was buried here and the remainder at Ivinghoe Aston where he also had property.
The manorial rights of the lord of the manor ceased in 1798, so Alexander Finlay, the builder of 'The Manor' which was recently demolished to make way for Manor Court was not really a lord of the manor. But Col. Finlay was certainly the epitome of the hunting shooting and fishing squire. He it was who dammed the stream to form a boating and fishing lake in the 'Manor' grounds. In the 'Gospeller', the parish magazine, for December 1877, the vicar, the Rev William Banting, reports that Maj. Finlay, as he then was, had killed 1000 head of game the previous month. He enjoins his parishioners not to spoil his sport since it is the game which brings him to the village and he is so good to the village. He clearly had the vicar in his pocket. Nearly 100 years after Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin would have been able to find Rev. Collins alive and well in the person of Rev William Banting.