Mysteries Are Piled On Mysteries (15 October 1974)
I like a good mystery. Especially do I like a good mystery of history, such is why a Gretna Green situation seems to have arisen at Great Woolstone during the six years 1664 to 1669 inclusive.
This mystery, with its suggestion of runaway marriages, was brought to light in 1947 by Mr. Warren Dawson. Mr. Dawson was a professional historian with an international reputation. He was reputed to be one of the few men who could translate the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt. For the last period of his life he lived at Simpson.
During that period, apart from other work, he spent a good deal of time patiently copying the parish registers of many local towns and villages. This was a labour of love such as very few men, if any other man at all, would be likely to undertake. He was absorbed in it.
During the last war he was a captain in the Home Guard and I have heard it said that he spent the many boring hours of stand-by duty on work connected with the registers.
I like to think of him in that situation. There he was: an aloof shy character patiently and meticulously carrying on with his peaceful, self-imposed task when it must have seemed to him that all the world had gone mad. A few years later he was awarded the OBE. Dawson Road, on the Mount Farm Industrial Estate, is named after him.
But to return to the mystery: Mr. Dawson revealed this almost casually at the end of a general article on the two Woolstones which he wrote for the Gazette.
“Marriages in the two parishes are generally fewer than one a year on average,” says the article. “Little Woolstone’s records are complete and the number of marriages during the first three centuries was: from 1601 to 1700, 81 marriages; 1701 to 1800, 110 marriages; 1801 to 1900, 87 marriages.
“In the case of Great Woolstone, the marriage registers from 1751 to 1812 are missing, but the remaining figures are interesting. From 1561, when the record begins, to 1663 the total number of marriages over the 103 years was 63. But for the next six years the number suddenly jumps to 86 (15 in 1664, 23 in 1665, 7 in 1666, 10 in 1667, 20 in 1668 and 11 in 1669). Thereafter the average number falls again to about 60 a century.
“How did it happen that in the brief period of six years far more marriages were solemnised at Great Woolstone than for the 100 years before or after?
“It seems that Great Woolstone became for the time being a kind of Gretna Green and that many couples to whose matrimony objections might have been declared elsewhere were married at Great Woolstone ‘with no questions asked.’
“Most of the surnames are quite common in the neighbourhood and there is, therefore, no evidence that the parties were strangers from a distance.
“They could not all have been natives of Great Woolstone, however, as the figures show too high a percentage of the very small population, which was probably under 100 all told.
“It can only be surmised that the parties came from Newport and neighbouring villages when it became known that clandestine or irregular marriages could be arranged.
There was no change in the incumbency of the parish in those six years, but they fell towards the end of the ministry of the Rev. Edward Puttman, who was instituted in 1634 and was buried at Great Woolstone in 1671.
“Possibly, during his last years, the rector, being old and infirm, may have handed over the care of the parish to a curate who was not too scrupulous. We can only guess.
“Whatever the cause, it was entirely local, for the registers of all the neighbouring parishes show no increase in the normal number of marriages.”
Mr. Dawson does not say whether there was any falling off in the number of marriages in the neighbouring villages during those years, but I think he would have said so if it had been possible.
The fore part – the major part – of the article is concerned with what Mr. Dawson apparently thought a more important mystery – though ordinary folk would hardly regard it as such.
He pointed out that of all the “Great” and “Little” twin villages in Bucks, including Great and Little Brickhill and Great and Little Linford, it is at the Woolstones alone that the “Little” has more acres than the “Great,” Little Woolstone having 631 and Great Woolstone only 514. He wonders at what he calls “this altogether anomalous state of affairs.”
Moreover, he goes on to say that the population figures also tell a curious story. The parish registers show that in the two centuries to 1800, the total numbers of baptisms were: 1601 to 1700, Great Woolstone 190, Little Woolstone 260; 1701 to 1800, Great 200, Little 294. And total burials were: 1601 to 1700, Great 170, Little 150; 1701 to 1800, Great 171, Little 216.
The national census figures beginning in 1801 start with Great 113 and Little 103. The 1811 figures ae Great 116 and Little 88.
But from 1821 to 1901 Little first gains on Great and then surpasses it, though the figures for both parishes go down in accordance with the general decline of villages last century.
Mr. Dawson’s conclusion is: So except for the 20 years at the beginning of the last century Little Woolstone considerably exceeded Great Woolstone in population for three centuries.
But did it? From reliable sources other than the parish registers, Sir Frank Markham, in his History of Milton Keynes and District, gives 25 households at Great and only 11 at Little in 1563, and about 150 people at Great and only 100 at Little in 1676. So mystery is piled on mystery at the Woolstones and it will take a better man than I to sort it all out – if it ever can be.