James Holliday

Ashlyns Hall
Ashlyns Hall (commons.wikimedia.org)

I am seventy-nine years old and in three months shall be eighty. I have lived in Northchurch and Berkhamsted parishes all my life and have lived on one as much as the other. I am now in the employment of Mr Augustus Smith. I am still his bailiff and have been his bailiff more than thirty years. I have been in the employment of Mr Augustus Smith and his father fifty years.1

Mr Smith’s father was living in Ashlyns Hall when I first went into his service. When I first went into Mr Smith’s service I was carpenter and sawyer and used to work in the house and on the fences. I used to send the men for fern and furze to Berkhamsted Common and wherever they could find it best. The fern was used for whatever they wanted it. It was used for the bottom of ricks and in the farm yard and the fruit house for packing apples and other fruits.

We used to brew our own beer and bake our own bread and we used to burn furze and wood and anything we could get. We used to run for a lot of furze for lighting the fires. Mr Longman had some furze last year.2 I was with them when they got it. It was got off Berkhamsted Common near Broom Field and Bow Field corner. During the whole thirty years I have been bailiff I have sent for furze and fern from the common and never had an interruption.

Before I was bailiff to the late Mr Smith I lived at Berkhamsted and cut and used in my own cottage many loads of furze from the common. I baked my own bread with it and also I used to sell it to my neighbours, sometimes as much as two loads of week. I could get nothing at that time to bake with as coal was then very dear. I never was interrupted by anyone.

Before I was bailiff I was carpenter and used to make the trays for the fruit houses and I have seen the gardeners use the fern for the apples. They used to bring a load down and stack it in the shed and used it when they wanted it. I cannot say that I saw this done more than once but I had to get the trays ready every year and I never knew anything used except fern. Fern was reckoned better than anything else. I helped to pack the apples scores of times.

Mr Parsons lives at Lower Bottom Farm.3 I have known this farm all my life. I have known Mr Parsons used furze and fern since he came to the farm. He has been on the farm twenty-five years. I have seen many loads come to the farm. Before Mr Parsons had the farm, Mr Smith had it in his own hands and before that, Mr Turner had it. It is more than sixty years ago that Mr Turner had it. I know nothing about Mr Turner’s using fern and furze and I cannot say what they used in this farm in Mr Smith’s time. I only know what was done since Mr Parson’s had it.

I have known the Cottage where The Anchor now is all my life. William Moorcroft lived in it before it was pulled down. William Davies lived in it after Moorcroft. All the Cottages from the George to The Bell belonged to my grandfather.4 I think all the cottages had ovens in them and I know that most of them had. I lived when I was a boy within one hundred yards of these cottages. The people in those cottages used to bring furze from Berkhamsted to Common to use in their ovens. Many of them used to bring it on their backs. Many old men used to get their living by cutting the fern and selling it to their neighbours. I never knew people from these cottages interrupted.

I have been a furze cutter myself. I have known the Earl of Bridgewater come and ask what I was going to do with the furze. I told him it was for myself. There were then many people cutting furze for the Earl for his own kilns. I never knew anybody belonging to Berkhamsted or Northchurch parishes interrupted.

When I was a bailiff to Mr Smith we used to send sheep on the common whenever we wanted pasture. We did this all the time I was bailiff from the commencement. Mr Smith was never interrupted in doing this. Mr Parson’s has also sent his sheep on the common and nobody ever interrupted them. I have myself given directions to the shepherd to do this. I am not the bailiff to Mr Longman. Last year I asked Mr Longman’s bailiff to send sheep on the common to keep up the right, and he did so.

I know Coldharbour Farm. There always was a furze field on that farm, ever since I knew it.5 I do not know if it is there now. I have not been there for some time.

There is a Broad Green Drive that goes right across the common. It comes straight up from the Rail Copse from Aldbury. I cannot be deceived about the roads on the common as I knew them well from having been a shepherd on the common for several years when about twelve years of age. I was Shepherd to Mr Smart of Norcott Court in Northchurch.6 In coming from Aldbury, you come past Coldharbour Farm on to the common. When you got up to Coldharbour, you could go any way you pleased.

There used to be a track leading from Coldharbour, down Frithsden Valley, to Water End. That was the way we used to go to London out of the Duke’s woods, with planks cut in the woods.7 The Duke used to sell the timber to people who came from London who bought it and sawed it into planks. I used in early times to go over the common when I was a boy whenever I wanted, but I have not been there much of late years. The best way of going from Aldbury to Potten End was over the middle of the common. I have known hundreds go that way, and I never knew anyone interrupted.

In going to Gaddesden from Northchurch and Berkhamsted, there are two ways coming up to the common at one point. Starting from this point you might go under the hedge by the two farms to Bow Field corner. At Bow Field corner you could break to the right by Coldharbour Farm. By this way, you could go to Dunstable before the new road was made. From Coldharbour Farm, you could go to the left through Woodyard gate and so to Little Gaddesden. I have gone this way myself often with a horse and cart. Instead of turning to the left by Coldharbour Farm, you might go straight on leaving Coldharbour to the right and that would take you to Hemel Hempstead. This would not go by Potten End, but to the bottom of Hempstead at Bury Mill End. If you break away to the left, it would take you to Frithsden. I have been along these ways whenever I had occasion and never was interrupted.

I have met people on the common but I did not know where they were going. The two roads I spoke of from Northchurch and Berkhamsted would go to Dunstable. I remember Lord Bridgewater making the new road to Dunstable. I do not know the date. It would be about forty years ago. After the new road was made, it was the road people took as it was the best road. When I first remember the common, there were several tracks leading in many directions according as you wanted to go. I remember that Lady Bridgewater used to ride a good deal and Duke Bridgewater used to make many new ways over his estate and also over the common. The road over the corner of the common was the principal way. Lord Bridgewater made some green rides over the common. They were there before, and he made them better. I do not remember his making new roads but only the old tracks. In the old times, people went where they pleased, of course. They took the best road they pleased. The green drive, I believe, is in one part wide and in another rather narrow.

The cottages of my grandfather which I spoke of, were in the parish of Northchurch.

There were no coals in this county in my boyhood or until the canal came and then they were very dear.

Northchurch has a small common, but not many acres. It is the same sort of common as Berkhamsted Common. These commons join together. I believe Northchurch Common is not more than twelve to twenty acres. There is a tuft of furze and fern it – not much, very little. Northchurch Common is not so near the cottages as Berkhamsted Common. The corner of Berkhamsted where the two roads meet is only half a mile from the cottages. Northchurch Common is two miles away.

Some of my grandfather’s cottages were freehold, but I’m not sure as to all of them. I think they were all freehold, no, copyhold. They were in the castle manor. I do not remember that any quit rent was paid, and I do not believe there was any.

I used to know Lord Bridgewater very well. I believe he was a good landlord and a kind-hearted popular man. I remember his building his house near sixty years ago. The bricks were burnt on the estate. The furze was nearly cleared from the common for these kilns. He had a wonderful site of men cutting it, and it did not get very long there. This went on for many years – six or seven years, perhaps. Before I became the bailiff at Ashlyns, I had nothing to do with cutting the fern and furze. Mr Smith has a good deal of pasture land, and generally he has pasture enough, but when we wanted to send sheep on the common we always did it. We sent them many times in a year. We did so from 1843 down to the present time. I recollect Lord Bridgewater draining the common. We had no sheep on the common at that time. Lord Bridgewater prosecuted some persons who had cattle on the common who had no land.

  1. Smith, Augustus John (1804–1872), landowner and philanthropist. His father, James, built Ashlyns Hall. James Smith (1768-1843), landowner and scion of a Nottingham banking family (DNB). He was High Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1808. Ashlyns Hall was built c1800.
  2. William Longman (1813-1877) lived at Ashlyns Hall and at 36 Hyde Park Square. He was a member of the famous publishing family.
  3. Bottom Farm is at the southern end of Swingate Lane where the farm track fords the Bourne Gutter (which marks the boundary with Buckinghamshire) and becomes a public footpath. In the 1851 census William Parsons (d.1882) is recorded as a farmer of 230 acres employing nine labourers.
  4. Email from Robb Gorr, June 2020
    ‘When James Holliday refers to cottages owned by his grandfather, I think he is referring to property owned by his grandfather John Holliday (1713-1793). John was a substantial property owner, having acquired many properties in his own right, and those he held for his wives. His first wife Mary Royce was the only child and heiress of Stephen Royce, a cordwainer from Northchurch, and his second wife, my ancestor Anne Cox, was the granddaughter and co-heiress of Jeremiah Peacock of Hemel Hempstead. At the time of his death in 1793 John was able to make substantial bequests to the nine surviving of his eighteen children including James’ and William’s mother Frances (Fanny) Saunders.’
  5. Furze was so valuable as a fuel source that it was sometimes grown as a crop in the nineteenth century. Today there is a small wood on Coldharbour Farm called Furzefield Wood. A look at the 1840 tithe map shows that at one time a very large field on the farm was given over to this purpose.
  6. William Smart d. 1837
  7. Presumably, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (21 May 1736 – 8 March 1803) – the ‘canal duke’.