Agriculture and society in Ashow were transformed in the seventeenth century with the enclosure of the common fields and meadows. After several centuries of operation, the medieval practice of strip farming was finally abandoned, probably around 1647, with the division of the land into individual units. The new fields were bounded by hedges and each was rented and worked separately by the tenant farmers. Rights in common to the woods and meadows were withdrawn. With the ending of strip farming, a system of community endeavour and co-operation was replaced by one of individual enterprise. Enclosure represents the biggest single change in the history of agriculture in the parish. As well as its effects upon the landscape it overturned the old, and established new social patterns in the village.
The enormity of the changes that were involved is captured by an inventory of the lands of the Leigh family in the parish compiled by John Fowler in 1649. The most likely reason for the survey was to set out the revised holdings following enclosure. A related consideration may have been the need to review the worth of the estate after the payment of a fine ordered by the Commonwealth for supporting the Royalist cause in the Civil War. Specifically this involved entertaining Charles I for three days at Stoneleigh in 1642 when the gates of Coventry were closed against him, and for which Sir Thomas Leigh was made a baron a year later. Like John Goodwin’s valuation fifty years before, the 1649 survey identifies each tenant by name and lists the properties and lands which they rented. It is accompanied by a detailed plan,which shows the post-enclosure division of land in the parish.
The maps show a very different Ashow in 1649 from that in 1597. All of the parish was enclosed and no trace remained of the open field system. The ‘towne fields’ had disappeared and in their place was a set of enclosures or ‘closes’. Their names, presumably, were those used previously to denote areas or groups of strips in the open fields. Most of the new units were comparatively large, and were to be divided further, but such was the value of Chesford and, especially, Rugwell meadows that they were split into numerous small holdings.
Outside the meadows the basic pattern of boundaries remains today although, sadly, the use of the seventeenth century field names has fallen into abeyance. A further change concerns access to the parish for by 1649 Ashow was connected by road to Chesford. The line, especially to the north of the village, is not however that of the present B4115. (The track of the old road is still clearly visible in Wheatcroft field). The north-south link through the village, over the ford and through the Bericote area of the parish probably remained the main axis of movement.
The social position of residents in 1649 depended upon the area farmed rather than on rights of access to land. Everyone who rented land from Lord Leigh in 1649 was classified as a ‘tenant at will’ but the size and value of holdings varied widely. Over half the land was farmed by just four tenants.
Additional insights into the wealth and ways of life of the villagers is provided by wills and probate inventories. These documents show the nature and range of possessions of an individual and the total worth of the estate. In valuing a deceased’s assets, the executors invariably specified the contents on a room by room basis, so providing clues as to the design and use of the house Two testaments are of particular interest because they are of former occupants of properties which still stand in the village. Thomas Cox who died 1638 was a farmer and carpenter and lived in what is now Trinity Cottage. He is probably the son of Robert Cox who lived there in 1597. His land holding of 16 acres is recorded under the name of Thomas Gibbes, his kinsman and heir, in 1649. The occupant of the front part of what is now Grovewood was farmer and cooper Thomas Bryan. He farmed nearly six acres and died in 1650.
The probate inventories emphasise the importance of farming to the people of mid-seventeenth century Ashow. Individuals may have engaged in trades or professions but the land was the basis of income and wealth. The primary assets of Thomas Cox and Thomas Bryan were their crops and stock. Both were comfortably off but their cattle, sheep, pigs, corn and hay amounted to over half of the value of their estates. Their activities as craftsmen were very much a sideline. The tools and partly finished barrels in Thomas Bryan’s shop were valued at a mere 10 shillings. Similarly, although Thomas Cox described himself as a carpenter he left only 6 shillings worth of hardwood and tools. The fact that he also had a quantity of tiles and bricks suggests that he might more accurately be described, in today’s terms, as a jobbing builder.
Many of the products of agriculture were processed by farmers for their own use. Dairying was an important activity as is shown by the churns, cheese presses, vats and ladders, and butter weights listed in the inventories. Wool was also spun and woven in the house. The assets of Thomas Cox include a tod of wool (about 28 lbs.), winding blades, yarn, cloth and other implements. The number of tubs, loomes (open vessels) and sieves (including a malting sieve) in the kitchen of Trinity Cottage suggests that he could well have brewed his own beer. Thomas Bryan and Thomas Cox exemplify the characteristics and aptitudes of ‘tenants at will’ in seventeenth century Ashow. The picture painted by the probate inventories is of agricultural smallholding in which subsistence is dependent on farming and the exploitation of a range of rural craft skills.