I’m toying with an idea for a historical romance and haven’t quite decided on what era or area my characters and their situation might fit into. The idea requires a rather large manor house or even a sprawling aristocratic estate. I’m rather fond of houses, so the more house, the merrier for me. If it’s deteriorating, even better—so much story material there!
I’d like the house to be relatively isolated, but it’s not a self-supporting estate, so I need some sort of small village nearby. People need to get out of the house occasionally! So I started by digging around in English villages to see where such a place might have existed in the 18th or 19th centuries. I don’t want to go further back than that.
I’ve learned that the typical English village so beloved by murder mysteries and romances began in Saxon times with the consolidation of land ownership under one owner. Local farming families were allotted strips to cultivate, part of the proceeds to be paid as rent to the landowner. As this type of open field agriculture became the norm, people no longer had a need to live isolated on distant farms. They abandoned their rural cottages to build communities near the church and manor house. (One wonders how much the women influenced this move. It had to be lonely talking to one’s self while the men were out working!)
This type of farming spread from Dorset to Northumberland over the ensuing decades. There were even a few scattered Anglican communities in Scotland that adapted to the village model. Devon, Cornwall, and other outliers resisted, so I guess I won’t put my characters there.
As time went on, of course, the villages grew. They might have started with a church and a manor house, but then they needed a smithy and a mill and the ever popular inn if there was a main thoroughfare nearby. Growing towns were allowed markets and fairs as a place to hire employees and for peddlers to
hawk goods the villagers couldn’t normally buy. New hires needed housing. Adult children needed jobs. Peddlers might choose to settle and open shops. Those towns often grew into the cities we see today.
For a writer, the fun part comes later, when some aristocrats decided to make their villages picturesque. They moved entire towns off their landscaped parks to enhance their views. They built “model” villages of pretty thatched cottages for their tenants. Architects created entire pattern books of suitable designs. Nothing modern here, nosirree. We want nostalgia.
And then, of course, after unwisely flinging fortunes about, and inheritance taxes and laws intervened, impoverished landowners began to sell off their lands, and the villages slowly moved back to independent farms.
So my job is to find an area and time period where the lands were sold off but the village didn’t develop, leaving my manor estate in relative isolation. Census polls weren’t developed until the 1800s, so all I can tell about the 1700s is that today’s industrial towns were population centers in the 1750s. But there’s a whole lot of space between London and Manchester.
Looking at the population results in 1800, it looks like I need to research such places as Blackburn and Oldham, but the charts are so erratic that in 1861, York was on the bottom of the list and Oldham had twice the population. This is Not Helpful. And a quick search shows both towns are mill towns near Manchester and not what I’m after. So presumably my tiny rural village wouldn’t have been on the census.
I can find tons of material on English Village life but I’ll have to come up with a new search to find areas of isolation. I’m thinking of researching areas where peddlers were prolific. Small villages wouldn’t have knife sharpeners, tinsmiths, booksellers, dry goods stores. . .
Or I could just make it up and quit procrastinating. Better yet, I’d love to go back to England and explore to find just the right area. . . I’d better have an actual book planned instead of idle dreams before I try that one.
Do you enjoy “living” in small towns and villages when we write about them? How much do you enjoy reading about—all the various people and houses and shops or just a picturesque mention?