Secondhand Rows 

Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.

The Common Stream

Gleebooks Bookshop - Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Rowland Parker begins his book, The Common Stream, by quoting Thomas Gray's famous lines: Let not Ambition mock their useful toil/  Their homely joys, and destiny obscure/ Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile/ The short and simple annals of the Poor.
This is a remarkable and unusual book. In it Rowland Parker (1912–1989), a retired schoolmaster and ex-soldier, narrates the 2,000 year history of the small village ofFoxton in South Cambridgeshire, England where he lived for over four decades. Not terribly exciting you might say—the history of an English village? You would be wrong. This is a wonderful work of history, which Parker wrote with sympathy, imagination, detail and scholarship. Having a growing interest in history, I read this book as a teenager in one go when it appeared in the late 1970s—in a not very durable Paladin paperback. I had never seen a hardcover copy until this one turned up a month ago.
The title has a double meaning. It is not just the history of Foxton, it is the history of  'the common stream' of humanity and also the brook that provided the village with water for cooking, drinking and washing for more than a millennium. The Celts first settled on its banks. With the arrival of the Romans came a military officer who was granted land in the village and built a villa. He had a taste for the finer things—fragments of a dozen wine flagons have been found along with seventy two oyster shells in the remains of a wooden bucket left outside the kitchen door. The villa was burnt down by the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca in her rebellion against Rome. The Roman and his wife were killed. The villagers used the remains of the villa  for building materials. The Romans returned and in revenge destroyed the village.
The Germanic tribe the Angles resettled the village that exists today. After the Norman invasion the advent of the feudal system saw the village divided into two classes as it remained ever since: Not just French and English, but Rich and Poor, Free and Bond, Powerful and Helpless. Those who Mattered and those who did not Matter. The former constituted well under 10 percent of the population, they had names; the latter were nameless; the former owned land; the latter owned nothing. Many of the poor and the nameless are reclaimed from obscurity by Parker's wealth of information discovered in manor rolls, land tax returns, church registers and village wills. Their work, food, clothes, housing and daily life are all described as well as their trials and tribulations. Here is an extract from the will of Margaret Matheson written in 1581. Her husband had died of the plague  and as she herself lay dying: In the Name of God, Amen, the 28th day of September...First she gave her soule to allmightie god and her bodye to the earthe...she having twoe of her children ded of the plague & lyeinge unburyed and haveinge two other children verye sicke & she herselfe sicke of the same decease, did give all her goodes unto Ralph wade and Margary his wife, sister of the sayd Margaret Matheson, to burye her and her said children.
The village was largely rebuilt during the Tudor period although it remained 'untidy, dilapidated and verminous'. Great historical events occasionally touch upon Foxton—the Reformation spoiled their church. In 1645, during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell's artillery stationed at the village bridge opened fire and drove off a group of King Charles' Royalist cavalry. Rowland Parker had two cannonballs dredged from the river, probably the only two that were fired. The 18th Century Land enclosures and the Industrial Revolution left the rich richer and the poor poorer. Small village holdings were broken up. The result? Within five years [1713–1718] the entire village will be owned by about two men and farmed by about 10. And the rest of the men? Labourers at seven shillings a week—or 'on the parish'.  
The penultimate chapter, titled Stagnation, sees the long, slow decline of the village life in Foxton up to 1914, exemplified by the decay and misuse of the Brook: ... now utterly neglected, slowly filed with soil... it became a convenient place for dumping rubbish... soon it was stagnant pools becoming ever shallower as weeds and nettles took control.
The final chapter, Revolution and Revival, chronicles the post-World War II regrowth of the village—increased population, improved services and a renewed 'sense of community'. Parker's  hopeful mid-70s estimation of Foxton's schoolchildren, the new generation, allows him to end his local history on an optimistic note: These children are healthier, better fed, better clothed, better educated and—did they but know it happier than any generation of children that ever before walked the village street. For us of the older generation the past is past, and we do not regret it. For them—the future.  
Nearly 40 years after he wrote that, Foxton's hoped for transformation took place. The village now boasts a learning centre, is home to the Burlington Press,  has a recreation ground, tennis courts, bowling green, a teenage football club—Dynamo Foxton—and a conservation area 'Foxton Dovecot and Meadow', established in 2006. I also like to think that some of those schoolchildren that Parker mentions, now well into middle age, make up Foxton's current estimated population of over 1,200 in their villages' continuing 'common stream'. Stephen Reid
(Collins, London, 1975). First Edition. Hardback. $25.00 (apologies, now sold)

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