The history of British villages

Helen Allingham, Village Street, Kent c.1900Villages are rooted in the soil. Open field agriculture in late Saxon England went hand in hand with the development of villages clustered around a nucleus of church and manor house. Why? A village creates a community. Across the world we see people living in villages when it is helpful to farm or work communally for one reason or another. Open field agriculture is just one example. In this system large fields were cultivated communally by allotting strips in each field to each villager. Common land was used for grazing.

This settlement pattern gradually spread over a swathe of England from Dorset to Northumberland. Outlying farmhouses were abandoned as their land was incorporated into the great communal fields. Open-field farming never completely took over England though. Devon, Cornwall and parts of Essex, Kent and the Welsh borders largely retained the earlier pattern of scattered farms and hamlets. Nonetheless the development of villages dramatically changed the English countryside.

This was not the first time villages had sprung up in the British Isles. We can see how Neolithic villagers huddled together at Skara Brae, perhaps partly for mutual defense and partly because many hands were needed for heavy haulage before the days of wagons. Romano-British villages supported the villa economy. But these earlier manifestations of the village had vanished with the societies that created them.

Some villages grew organically, but others show evidence of planning, perhaps in a ladder pattern of evenly sized plots either side of a road. Some, especially in Durham and the Home Counties, were created around a village green. Similar villages in south-east Scotland were perhaps the work of Anglian settlers.

In Wales royal estate centres had a similar nucleus of hall and church, with the houses of estate workers nearby. (See medieval land-holding in Wales). After the Norman conquest many villages in the Welsh borders grew up around a Norman castle. Similarly in Ireland, after the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century, villages were planted in eastern Ireland, often close to a castle.

Throughout the Middle Ages the basic administrative unit was the manor. It was run from the manor house, while the workers lived in cottages nearby and a mill ground their corn. Since manors could be divided up, or lands sold off, the picture of land ownership frequently grew complex. However entire manors could still be in a single pair of hands long after the Middle Ages.

Manorial lords might seek royal grants to hold markets and fairs, which would bring in revenue, butfew village markets really prospered and many died out before the end of the Middle Ages. They have sometimes left their mark in the form of a simple market cross.

Estate and model villages

The Georgian period saw many villages appear in the Scottish Lowlands. They were planned by landowners as part of the agricultural revolution. Before that Scotland had few villages outside the south-east.

Cottages in Blaise Hamlet, near BristolIn the 18th and 19th centuries some English landowners completely rebuilt villages. Some wanted to resite the village outside a landscaped park. (For example the 1st Earl of Dorchester moved the Dorset village of Milton Abbas). In other cases aesthetics were paramount, or desire to improve. Model villages were created. They were often built in vernacular styles, using traditional materials, just as the older cottages had been. Some were plain and functional. The Georgian admiration for the picturesque turned others into idealised cottages; the most famous example is Blaise Hamlet near Bristol, designed by John Nash (see image left).

Some architects produced pattern books of suitable designs, for example John Wood the Younger of Bath (see below.) Even if a landowner did not remodel a village in one fell swoop, he might rebuild several houses in the same style at the same time. A pub named after a particular family or their coat of arms is generally a clue to their landlord status. The family's estate records could yield information on the whole village.

A few model villages were created to house factory workers. Saltaire in Yorkshire was begun in 1851 by Sir Titus Salt for the workers at his woollen mill. He was anxious to provide healthy housing and amenities. Similar desires drove soap manufacturer William Hesketh Lever to create the picturesque Port Sunlight across the Mersey from Liverpool, and Quaker industrialist George Cadbury to found Bournville near Birmingham.

Loss and survival

Sometimes all that is left of a once thriving villageis a few bumps in the ground. Since there are no buildings left, archaeologists can spread themselves on such sites. So we can learn a lot about the pattern and growth of villages from these ghosts of settlement. They could have been deserted at any time from Saxon to modern. Upland settlements created during the warm period from around 900-1300 AD were abandoned as the climate cooled. Many others were abandoned in the 15th century, when a lot of open fields were converted into pasture for sheep. A few villages have been lost to coastal erosionor the creation of reservoirs, which makes the remains less accessible to archaeologists. Wikipedia has a list of lost settlements in the UK.

By the 19th century the open field agriculture that had supported so many villages had almost disappeared. Farmhouses were being built outside villages, as open fields were broken up into individual farms. Yet comparatively few villages completely vanished. Those around expanding towns could find themselves turned into suburbs. Those that remained rural could still provide a local centre. By this time a village might boast not only the parish church, but a pub, a smithy, a school, and a post office, perhaps combined with a shop. After the First World War it might also have a war memorial. Some had a church house or parish hall.

The rise of the car in the 20th century turned many a picturesque village into a tourist trap, while those within commuter range of London and other conurbations have become dormitory villages, housing city workers. The manor house may have been converted into a hotel or a tourist attraction. The village's agricultural roots may be buried deep.

Research guides


Primary sources