Brafield on the Green, Northamptonshire

Some historical notes.
Kevin Ward April 2020

The long and thin parish of Brafield extends from the River Nene to the north to the settled part of today's village in the centre of the parish and then stretches some way south towards Horton.

This large flat area of land south of the A428 (Bedford Road) would probably have included the Brafield Wood referred to in 1458 and, when cleared of trees, became the great common heath of furze until the 19th century (and then a wartime aerodrome for a short time).

Human settlement in the parish goes back a long time. Plentiful archaeological remains from the Iron Age through to considerable evidence of Roman settlement have been found in the fields all around the village. In terms of written evidence, a Saxon Charter of 967 refers to Bragenfelda and the village is, of course, documented in the 1086 Domesday book, as Brachesfeld.

The fields between Home Farm and Lower End include many earthworks perhaps indicating former houses and gardens. In the 16th century Brafield is recorded as a manor of 90 houses and 15 cottages and in 1720, probably more reliably, as having a population of 303 and 70 houses. The population in 1801 was 284, which rose throughout the course of the next two centuries to its present figure of about 650.

Settlement has shifted in the village in the last thousand years. Today the hamlet of Lower End is fairly separate from the housing clustered around the Green and extending west and south across the Bedford Road.

In the medieval period the footpath from the Church to the back of the present Red Lion was a village street with housing on both sides, now only surviving as earthworks.

The structural layout of the fields today owes much to the enclosure of most of the village in 1829. This created the network of footpaths, bridleways and roads (some simply continuing in existing ancient routes) and most of the present hawthorn hedged field boundaries. The present Green is a minute fraction of what once existed.

Before 1829 there had been a huge irregular area of open Green (both sides of the Bedford Road including an area much greater than all of the estate housing to the south of the road and even beyond the present water tower), the furzen heath and, thirdly, between 3 and 5 massively large "open" fields divided into hundreds of unhedged strips and furlongs.

St. Laurence's Church is the building with the most ancient architectural evidence. Although subject to an extensive restoration between 1848 and 1858, it includes some interesting early medieval (12th and 13th century) detail, in its south arcade columns in particular. The Monk's House in Church Lane is a stone house of medieval origin, although much restored, and there are several stone cottages, both near the Green and in Lower End, with 17th and 18th century features and, in some instance, likely earlier roots. Many "rows" of cottages of this date were demolished as slums and/or rebuilt in the 20th century, especially after the Second World War. A Public House called the Red Lion has been licensed since at least 1737 perhaps on the same location as the presently largely 19th century building. The former School is a fine ironstone Victorian building built in 1842 and extended in 1885.

Associated with Little Houghton through joint lordship and ownership since at least 1086, the cultivation and grazing of large areas of the open fields used to be jointly organised (so called "intercommoning") and the villages were inclosed together in 1829. Brafield has come to be characterised as an "open" village with a somewhat proud deal of "independence"; hence the "poor but industrious" title of Steven Hollowell's history of the village and the common, but perhaps somewhat unfair, tendency to contrast its character with that of Little Houghton, the 'posh' place with the long established seat and homestead of the owner of the manorial lordship. It's certainly fair to say that, up until the last few decades, local villagers have lived out the annual seasons here in a rural and agricultural cycle probably for thousands of years and certainly for at least a millennium in and around the present built area of Brafield and Lower End.

Alley Gardens allotments

Formed from two earlier charities created to raise income to help local residents who had fallen into "need, hardship or distress" and, secondly, to fund the repair and maintenance of the parish Church, the Church and Poors Land Charity today owns and manages a small landed estate of just over six acres of land in Brafield which includes the Alley Gardens land in Church Lane now let as village allotments./td>

Writing in about 1720 the county historian Bridges refers to the existence of a Trust in Brafield which he describes as an annual benefaction 'amounting to the sum of about 3 13s. by the gift of several persons'. This Trust's origins can be traced back to gifts of money left in wills by villagers in the early 18th century and before. Its accrued capital money was largely converted into a landed estate in 1731 when, for 65, the Trustees purchased several pieces or strip "parcels" of land in the open and common (meaning then unenclosed) fields of Brafield and (a little in) Little Houghton.

As owners of land following the 1731 sale, in 1829 the Trustees took part in the legal process of Parliamentary Inclosure when a large amount of land in the parish was redistributed amongst the several landowners in the parish at that time. Following the Inclosure Award they received two new pieces of land, one of which (almost an acre in area and part of the ancient Green, which was once massively larger than the small area of Village Green today) is that used mainly today as allotment gardens let for domestic cultivation. This is how that land was shown in 1829 on the Award plan, the green parcels numbered '86' being small 'tenements' and gardens already enclosed and owned by the Trustees, perhaps following the 1731 purchase.

For much of the 18th and 19th centuries this land was managed and let as one piece by Parish Officers, the Overseers of the Poor and the Churchwardens, acting as the Trustees. Today, the Charity is linked to both the Church and Civil Parish (through association with the Parish Council since 1894). In the later 19th century, probably c.1870, the land was divided into individual allotments (then let as at least 44 plots in whose administration the vicar at the time was closely involved), first mentioned as Al[le]y Gardens in 1895, each let (as today) with annual tenancy agreements.

Historical Notes produced by Kevin Ward

A Poor but Industrious People: Memories of Brafield on the Green
by Richard Hollowell.