What was Leigh like in 1840 – and what might you have been doing?

What was Leigh like in 1840?

Many people in the village were born before 1940 and have described their lives at that time.   A paper by John Parfitt, first chair of the Leigh Historical Society, paints a picture of the changes from 1840.  This article concerns land use; a follow-up article will look at people and work.

Parfitt observed that ‘in 1840, farming in Leigh was barely different from the Middle Ages’.  One hangover from earlier times was the system of tithes – payments for the upkeep of the church.  In 1836 the Commutation of Tithes Act formalised arrangements for tithes to be paid in cash rather than kind.  But to facilitate this a map was required to assess the acreage of estates and farms devoted to different types of produce to work out how much each landowner should pay.  Woodlands were exempt from tithes and orchards and hop fields paid more than arable and grasslands.  Initial reported acreages were checked by Commissioners against the tithe map and, perhaps unsurprisingly, woodlands had been over-estimated while arable, orchards and hop fields had been under-estimated.

The tithe map for 1841, a copy of which is held by the Society, compared with a 1982 land use survey,  shows that much more land at that time was under arable, wheat, barley, oats and hops, (47 per cent) than was the case more recently (arable and hops 26.5 per cent in 1982).  These reductions were partly balanced by a growth in woods from 11 to 18 per cent and grass up from 36.5 to 44.5 per cent but why did these changes happen?

Parfitt argued that most of the harvest would have been used locally until the railway – which reached Penshurst and Tonbridge in 1842 – effectively started a move to a national market.  Lord de Lisle in a letter to Ann Whitehouse observed ‘that subsistence farming in West Kent had quite disappeared by the 19th century’ and that the level of rents suggested that ‘farming then must have been mainly for the market’.  What is clear is that changes in transport and other factors including the repeal of the Corn Laws (1846) which would have stimulated competition from overseas, changed farming practices and influenced land use as the century moved on.

The size of fields grew as mechanisation increased; steam powered ploughs and threshing machines appeared in the latter part of the 19th century.  Field acreages increased and nearly doubled between 1841 and 1982.  The average size of arable fields grew from 6.2 to 12 acres and orchards grew from 1.4 to 4.4 acres.  However, hops had all but disappeared by 1982 and while larger individually, the total acreage of orchards had declined by a third by the 1980s.  While land use changed, it is however not impossible to imagine the horse-powered, small fields and much more arable-based landscape of the 1840s.


What might you have been doing in Leigh in 1840?

Last month’s article based on a paper by John Parfitt, first chair of the Leigh Historical Society used 1841 tithe map evidence to describe the changes in land use that took place up to 1980.  But what was life like in 1840?  The map and Lawrence Biddle’s book on Leigh provide some pointers.

In part the changes were driven by agricultural land use. Between 1841 and 1982 the area under woods and grass increased by two thirds while arable and hops nearly halved.  Taking this and the reduction in the number of farms and smallholdings (down from 35 to 15) and the growth in the size of fields and increasing mechanisation, it can be assumed that there would have been fewer people working on the land and that their work would have changed.  The loss of hop fields and larger orchards might have balanced out the demand for pickers at harvest time.

It can only be surmised but there were probably few people who walked or rode into Tunbridge to work.  No-one would have commuted to London on a daily basis; when the railway service started in 1842 it took 1 hr 45min from Penshurst to London.

So, most of those living in Leigh would have been in employment locally in agriculture or in service activities relating to the large houses around, or in industry at the powder mills, in brickmaking at Lower Green and the cricket ball factory at Chiddingstone Causeway.  The total population was 1036 in 1841 but 124 of these were temporary residents brought in to build or support the building of the railways.  The permanent population increased by 60 per cent between 1841 and 1971.

Living would also have been much more crowded. The number of dwellings increased from 193 in 1841 to 500 in 1971.  Domestic building, together with gardens, factories and railways resulted in the area taken up by non-agricultural uses. Buildings, etc increased from 4 to 11 per cent of the parish. Most dwellings were much smaller than they are now; often only two rooms up and two down.  The number of people per dwelling fell from 6 (excluding the railway workers) to just under 3.  In 1841 32 people were living in barns, tents and the open air: mainly railway workers.

What of young people?  Two schools are marked on the 1841 tithe map, a charity school on the Green and a national school along Powder Mill Lane.  It is probable that the national school simply replaced the charity school.  We do not know how many children attended school or how many worked as soon as they were old enough.  Some may have tramped in to attend Tonbridge School; we simply do not know.

The village has changed significantly and so have the activities and priorities of parishioners.  For most, the living has become more comfortable if not easier.

Parish Magazine Articles: Mar/Apr 2011:  by John Stevens