Tharston, The Village

by Paul Cattermole

Chapter 1: Introduction

Tharston was a thriving village long before the Normans came; and the earliest organised settlement was probably in Low Tharston, near the now grass-covered mound which was once the site of the manor house of Welholmes. Light, easily tilled ground would be the first to come into cultivation; and it was not until technology was sufficiently advanced that the heavier land further south could be ploughed. Some authorities suggest that individual parishes may first have originated in estates which were parcelled out in Roman times; and in a heavily populated and civilised area such as South Norfolk this is not unlikely. The boundaries were drawn in a way which gave each estate a share of various types of terrain: such as woodland for fuel and building materials, low-lying land suitable for meadow and pasture, and a good water supply. Thus Tharston was an oblong parish, stretching up from the river valleys which form its north and west boundaries, with very light soils and gravels in the north-east corner, and an area of dense woodland on the clay, which forms the southwest part of the parish.

Almost all the inhabitants of mediaeval Tharston relied on agriculture for their livelihood; and there is strong evidence that most of the available land was under cultivation relatively early. Each estate had its own system of open fields, with associated pasture and woodland, so that it was self-sufficient; and much of the original open field system can be reconstructed from the Tithe and Inclosure maps, with a little help from the Court Books, although the pattern is complicated where estates overflow into adjoining parishes.

King William divided Norfolk into a total of 1,392 estates or manors, thus imposing on the resident population an organisation of the kind which had long been in force in Normandy. The manorial system ensured that wealth generated in the villages made its way up the social hierarchy, with each level exacting its dues and demands. The king was at the top of the feudal tree; and each manor was supposed to provide sufficient income to support a knight and his household; who was obliged to attend fully armed with his retinue for a period of forty days service in any one year, at the kings pleasure. Most of Tharston was granted to Roger Bigot along with 186 other manors, making him by far the richest tenant-in-chief in the county; and he in turn put the manor into the hands of Robert de Vaux, a very substantial under-tenant. Parts of the village were rather untidily attached to other manors, reflecting Anglo-Saxon divisions of land; and the Domesday survey shows that some rationalisation had taken place before 1086.

The oldest recorded name for the village was Sterestuna, suggesting that cattle were important in the local economy; and the Normans found an estate where arable farming was well developed. The Domesday survey compares the state of affairs "now" (1086) and in the time of Edward the Confessor, from which it can be discovered that the tax due from the chief manor had doubled, while the number of plough teams had decreased from eight to four. The increased value may have been caused by a change to stock rearing; and Domesday records 80 sheep and 20 pigs on the manor, together with one hive of bees. One of the mills recorded in 1086 must have been on the site of the present watermill, and it is interesting to notice how the parish boundary follows the old course of the river west of the millstream.

Tharston is not a compact village like Hempnall; nor do the houses surround a great common like that at Fritton, although a small settlement eventually grew up around the edges of the High Common. Most of the houses are situated in small hamlets, whose ancient names can be discovered from the manor court books. The area which was settled earliest (certainly before The Street, in view of the need to sink deep wells for water) was along the river valley which forms the northern boundary of the parish. A settlement known as "Welholme Street" in the 14th century, grew up around the site of the old manor house below the Furze Hills; and "Millgate", further west, was the name of a small cluster of houses built along the edge of a small green close to the watermill. There is also a record of "Ulsonnes Street", which probably stretched west of Welholmes Manor; and there were a few houses on the edge of the common at Horsenford Watering.

The first church in Tharston was probably close to the Welholmes manor house, where a parochial chapel dedicated to St Giles remained in use until the 16th century; and it seems most likely that St Mary's church was built in a more central position as the result of Anglo-Saxon expansion of the village economy. The present church occupies the highest ground in the parish; and the rectory and chief manor house were eventually sited a hundred yards south, in the sheltered valley of a stream which ran down from the Great Wood. The important people in mediaeval Tharston lived near the church; and in time a string of reasonably substantial houses grew up along a narrow strip of well-drained soil to form "Westgate Street" (The Street). This was a good arrangement for tenants who had strips of land scattered through the common fields, with grazing for cattle on remote commons at the edges of the parish. Travelling between distant parts of the village was tedious, however; and by the 15th century tenants were exchanging pieces of land to produce more manageable holdings; and some moved from their houses in Westgate Street to new ones nearer their farmland. Between c.1400 and c.1700 over half of the recorded houses in the Street ceased to be lived in, either abandoned completely, or turned over for use as barns and outhouses. Some of the small crofts attached to the original houses survive as well-tilled gardens where modern houses now stand, while others are occupied by substantial timber framed houses such as The Laurels, Chestnut Farm house and Willow Farm house, which are perhaps 16th century buildings. The neat rectangular "home meadows" behind these houses were probably carved out of the top ends of earlier strip fields at about the same time. The Walnuts is a smaller house, owned by Archbishop Tenison in the 18th century; and Ivy Farm house has a 19th-century slated roof replacing much older thatch. The scatter of mediaeval pottery in gardens along The Street, is evidence of long occupation, as is the old name, "Westgate". The names of some of the earliest tenements have an amazing capacity for survival. The messuage called "Coxlands", for example, which was laid waste c.1600, is still named in the deeds for 20th-century houses at the east end of the Street; and tenements such as "Glices" and "Cousins" linger on as ghosts in 19th-century Court Books.

Chapter 2 : The Parish Boundaries >

(c) Barbara Cattermole and family, first published in 1993 by Paul Cattermole. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior consent of the author's family.

Page last updated: 11 February 2019