Brief History of Willersey
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There are records of the village of Willersey being in existence since at least the 8th century so it has a long history. This has to be an abridged record.
“The secret of being boring is to say everything. - Voltaire.”
The Domesday Book, completed in 1086, records 16 villagers, 4 smallholders, 2 slaves and 1 priest.
On a map, the parish of Willersey has a curious elongated shape and extends to 1,177 acres.
It runs up the Cotswold escarpment to the Roman road Buckle Street, which in turn runs over the top of the hills and divides the ancient parish quarries of Willersey and Saintbury. Willersey has been inhabited and farmed for thousands of years. Iron Age works can still be seen adjacent to the Broadway Golf Club car park. Many fields in Willersey still retain their Saxon field names.
History has only been recorded for the last two hundred generations. For the two thousand or so generations before that our ancestors were too busy surviving to record anything much at all.
There is a curious feature in the parish boundary of Willersey, Saintbury,Campden and Broadway where they all nearly meet near Gypsy Springs on the A44 road. There is a curious triangular excrescence at the southernmost tip of Willersey parish that looks as if it had been stolen from Saintbury. lt is bounded on the northwest by Saintbury, on the east by Campden and on the south by Broadway. Until very recently this could be identified from the road by the old hedges that surrounded this area, but modern farming practice has more or less extinguished the old field and parish boundary markers just here. This feature has been part of the parish boundary for at least 1,150 years - it is described in a charter granting Willersey to Evesham Abbey, dated betwcen 840 and 852, and is called Eadulfing Gore. (Was perhaps Eadulf thc first man hanged there?}
In 1893 Willersey had a population of 353. By 1901 it was 385 and as of the census of March 2011 this had increased to 816 people.
It has an area: 0.445 sq.km which gives a current population density of 1,834 inhabitants per square km. Most of the soil is clay and gravel and the subsoil is also clay and gravel but where Willersey goes up the Cotswold escarpment there is stone in the ground. Willersey soil is a lias soil which is a mix of chiefly calcareous clay mixed with sand. On limestone it is a rich clay loam which produces good crops. The chief crops in 1897 were wheat, pasture and beans. Willersey has benefited greatly from its geographical position with stone for building which was more easy to deliver down from the hill quarry. Historically very profitable sheep on the hills and good growing soil in the Vale at the bottom of the hill contributed to its affluence. If you travel up Campden Lane and turn right towards the Golf Club then you pass through the now disused Willersey Quarry mostly on the right hand side of the road. For more census data see our family history page. Here and here are some official figures. Also see this brief snapshot from the past .
The Cotswold limestone is called oolite as it is composed of small rounded egg-like grains packed together. Cotswold stone is an ideal building material as it is soft when freshly quarried, making it easy to work and allowing for fine detail where wanted, but hardens on exposure to air, thus increasing its durability. The stone is used for house walls, field walls and house roofs. It is particularly suitable for all forms of Gothic masonry. Limestones are stratified rocks which have been formed by the building up of layers over long periods of time. In a wall the stone is best laid with its grain horizontal rather than vertical to make it more resistant to weathering. For setting limestones a mixture of finely crushed stome of the same variety and hydrated lime in the proportions of 4 parts stone dust to 1 part hydrated lime produces a good effective mortar. In a quarry the most valuable stone is that used for roof tiles. It is typically in layers at the top of the stone in the quarry. Large sheets are cut to size and then a hole drilled in the tile for an oak peg to keep the tile on the roof battern.
Oak timber is similar to Cotswold stone in that it is easy to work in the green state when cut down but hardens as it slowly dries out and then oxidises over time. As it dries it usually splits and curves. In most construction one would install an oak beam as an arch once its direction of curvature is known. (Just leave it to dry after cutting for six months and note which way it is curving. It never changes its mind.) Elm is another wood commonly found in older Willersey buildings. It was valued for its interlocking grain, and consequent resistance to splitting, with significant uses as floorboards, beams, water pipes and chair seats. Sadly most of the 60 million UK elm trees were lost to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s onwards. (There is a chance that disastrously our ash trees will in future be lost to Chalara dieback.)
Here is an example of an elm beam supporting an inglenook.
Gas was piped to houses in Willersey in about 1870. The world's first public electricity supply was provided in late 1881, when the streets of the Surrey town of Godalming in the UK were lit with electric light. This revolution did not reach Willersey till about 1935. Soon after Britain was at war and blackout regulations were imposed on 1st September 1939, before the declaration of war.
The Vale soil at the lower end of Willersey is in one of Britain's most fertile growing areas. This quite large Chusan Palm growing in a Willersey Garden shows not only that the soil is fertile to produce a strong tree but also that the weather is relatively mild. The streams flowing through WIllersey from the Cotswold escarpment also serve to maintain good soil moisture.
The Vale of Evesham is still a centre for fruit growing and market gardening. Asparagus in particular has long been an important crop. From medieval times mostly apples and pears were grown with much of the crop made into cider or perry. This helped preserve the fruit for later (happy) consumption. Water was not always wholesome. By the 19th century, plums were added as a major crop. The Benedictine Evesham Abbey was one of England's greatest abbeys. The Abbots of Evesham kept a summer residence at the Manor House in Willersey.
An asparagus seller and his wife outside their home, number five, Church Street.
This picture shows Charles Andrews and his wife around 1900. The rush basket around his neck known as a frail, carried his food for the day. Charles married his wife when he was thirty and she was sixty. In earlier years, Charles had lodgings in Alcester where his landlady lived with a man who was not her husband. The “husband” frequently got drunk and beat her. One day Charles found her very distressed so he asked her to come home to Willersey and marry him. When his wife died at the age of 90, Charles was very sad “She's been like a mother to me” he said. This photograph was taken by the village rector at the time, Rev C O Bartlett.
The willow trees growing by the brook near the church were there to tie up the asparagus into the bundles. Asparagus was in the past widely cultivated in Willersey.
Cotswold sheep have a particularly appealing look.
Historically the fleece on the sheep backs built the wealth of the Cotswolds. The landscape was formed and shaped by sheep over millennia from the Celts, through the time of monasteries to 150 years ago. Not only were the fleeces valuable but sheep provided dung to improve soil fertility, sheepskin, tallow, milk and meat for eating. Tallow can help preserve food, keeps for a long period, can be eaten, makes candles and soap, softens leather, can be used as a soldering flux and act as a lubricant. Most of the Cotswold churches were built on the profits of wool. At its height, the wool trade dominated the English economy and the Cotswolds represented about half of this wealth. Wool prices reached their highest level in 1480. The profits from wool reduced over the years because of competition from other countries such as New Zealand, growing popularity of cotton and other fibres and in time, synthetic fibres such as viscose, nylon and terylene. Those Cotswold churches and other buildings are now part of the attractions of the tourist trade.
Willersey straddles the Broadway to Stratford-upon-Avon minor road B4632 and will hold the attention of all who love old houses. Its manor house was home to the Roper family, William Roper becoming son-in-law to Sir Thomas More. In 1577, Queen Elizabeth I granted tithe land in the village to composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.
The Vestry in the Church and an exploded myth. On the floor just inside the vestry (to the south of the chancel) is a monument to Anthony Roper. A local tradition is preserved in the 1960 guide book (extracts from which form the leaflet about the church, still available by the north door). This tradition states that he was a descendant of an Anthony Roper who was a landowner in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Sir Thomas More, who was involved in the religious difficulties of the time and was beheaded in the Tower of London, married a daughter of that Anthony Roper? Wrong. Sir Thomas More's daughter Margaret married a William Roper. There may still have been a lineage connection between More's son-in-law Will Roper and the Anthony in Willersey vestry.
The Church of St.Peter is famous for its peal of six bells, cast in 1712 by Abraham Rudhall. An inscription on the tenor bell reads 'ring for peace merily' to celebrate the signing of the Peace of Utrecht.
Our War Memorial stands at the entrance to St. Peter's. It was designed by F. L. Griggs of Chipping Campden and was erected in 1920 by Jewson and Berkeley of South Cerney. The panels bear the names of the fallen in both the 1914-18 and 1939-45 World Wars. Although famous names are part of our history, it is also about the lives of ordinary folk who worked in the fields of Willersey and were baptised, then married in St Peter's and were finally buried in the churchyard. For villages with an historical centre and conservation area such as Willersey, you can still see many of the sights and houses which were seen by our predecessors in the past.
The First English Civil War from 1642 to 1646, was a series of armed conflicts and political disagreements between Parliamentarians and Royalists in the Kingdom of England over principally, the manner of its government. Chipping Campden declared for the King whilst the Vale of Evesham supported Cromwell's Parliamentarians. The Cotswold escarpment acted as a natural dividing line between the two groups. As a result, clashes between both groups took place both on Dover's Hill and on Willersey Hill. The last Royalist army was defeated by Sir William Brereton at Donnington near Stow-on-the-Wold in 1646. Dover's Hill later became the site of the Cotswold Games which included competitions such as horse riding, skittles, quintain, wrestling, cudgel-playing, coursing, cock fighting and more painfully, shin kicking.
The principal landowners in 1897 were Robert Newton Chadwick esq., the Right Hon. the Earl of Harrowby P.C. and Sir Francis Salwey Winnington bart. of Stanford Court, Worcester, who was Lord of the Manor.
Willersey Methodist Church was founded in the 19th century, and belongs to the Stratford & Evesham Methodist Church Circuit. Its building is part of a row of five 17th century cottages. The three cottages on the right were substantially altered during the 19th century to create the Chapel. The whole is Grade II Listed.
Currently Willersey has two pubs, The New Inn and The Bell Inn but like many UK villages it had other pubs in the past. The Unicorn was based in the house on the left as you enter the Churchyard opposite the Old Rectory. (Many pubs used be near to or owned by the Church.)
There was an off-license at number 6 Church Street. There was also an Inn known at the Rampant Leopard or Rampant Cat down in some fields off Badsey Lane.
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In 1930, H J Brassingham wrote: “Willersey is proper Cotswold. Bell Inn, duckpond, barn church with its nice square dump of a four-pinnacled tower and true old barn-houses are grouped about the green like casual knots of worthies delivering crop-gossip or weather-lore through the procession of the years.” The Jubilee Tree was planted in 1935 to celebrate the May 6th Silver Jubilee of King George V. It is on the site of what was a blacksmith's shop.
The tree is opposite the duckpond and is a natural meeting point. It is a red horse chestnut (Aesculus × carnea) which fortunately does not suffer from the leaf miner caterpillar which is attacking the usual horse chestnut trees in the UK. The seat around the tree is the third one to be placed there and was put up to celebrate the 1981 marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The village buses stop at the tree. Once a year at Christmas the tree becomes a tree of light.
Willersey had a halt station on the Great Western Railway which was opened in 1st August 1904.
It was situated about half a mile from the village centre which was closer to its community than many stations on the route. It had two 152-foot wooden platforms, each with a corrugated iron pagoda style shelter. No sidings or facilities were provided. The initial service consisted of 9 Down and 8 Up services a day. The line was closed by British Railways to passenger traffic on 7th March 1960 and completely in August 1976 whem a derailed coal train badly damaged the track at Winchcombe. Later in August 1976 at a meeting in Willersey Village Hall the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway Society (GWSR) was formed to persuade British Railways (BR) to reopen the line. This failed but after much dithering and having lifted the track, BR offered the land for sale in 1980. Passenger train services began again in 1984 and since then a team of enthusiasts have reopened the line as a heritage steam service, connecting from Toddington to to Cheltenham. It is currently being extended to Broadway and they have future plans to eventually reconnect to Honeybourne and the main line which could in time give Willersey its halt back.
On this map from the 1930s it is possible to see the route of the train line from Cheltenham to Stratford-upon-Avon via Honeybourne. There were stations at Broadway (being rebuilt), Willersey, Weston sub edge, Littleton & Badsey, Blockley and Chipping Campden. The Broadway bypass on the A44 did not exist so all traffic went through Broadway High Street. There were no motorways. As Evesham did not have the A46 bypass, the A46 went through Willersey, but traffic was much lighter in those days. The original A46 is now the A4632. This change was caused by the opening of the Evesham bypass in 1987 which in time took on the function and name of the A46 and also the Broadway bypass in 1998. (Here is a larger version of the map with more detail).
Before the coming of the inclosure act in 1773 and the consequent establishment of turnpike roads, one of the major local routes went from Ebrington to Chipping Campden and then down Campden Lane to Willersey. The turnpike route down Broadway Hill was then considerably improved with extra bends so that over time it became the route of choice to the Vale of Evesham and beyond.
Here is a sample of ideas from the past and examples from modern technology which have tranformed our way of life. Not all are agreeable. Take a selection of them away however and the world, and a number of countries, including the UK would be very different.
During construction work in 1968 at Hill Farm, Romano-British artefacts were found. Near a stone-lined grave containing two skeletons were 56 silver coins of the 4th century and a silver ring. The ring and two coins are now in the British Museum and the other coins are in Cheltenham Museum.
Willersey is on the walk known as the Donnington Way. A short section of this from St Peter's leads to Saintbury, a small hillside village with a beautifully sited church of great interest and several wonderful stone cottages. Sadly the church of St Nicholas is not in regular use so it is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. In the porch there is a contact number to ring if you wish to arrange an internal visit.
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The Gissing Journal of October 2002 gives a useful snapshot of life in Willersey during the years near 1900.
In his 1904 book about Broadway, Algernon Gissing notes that although the Cotswolds are pastoral they had a notoriety for occasionally rearing a ferocious type on inhabitant. The outlet for this ferocity were the Cotswold Games on Dover's Hill when quarrelsome natives harboured their grudges where a certain muscular satisfaction was required to settle old scores which they would scorn to bring to the Courts of Law.
Algernon Gissing also wrote The Footpath-Way on Gloucestershire , published in 1924 by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. It was reprinted in 2009 so it is still available. It contains many historical details about Willersey and Saintbury as well as painting many pictures of life in both villages. Here is a short example:-
On St Thomas's Day, December 21st, bells were rung in the early morning (and still are) and it was the custom to give alms in money or kind to the poor of a parish.
Please to remember St. Thomas's Day,
St Thomas's Day is the shortest day,
Up the stocking and down the shoe.
If you an't got no apples money'll do,
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A peck o'apples 'll serve us all.
Historically Town Criers were the original newsmen. Before people could read, Town Criers brought the news to the people, and served as spokesmen for the King. The Town Crier would read a proclamation, usually at the door of the local inn, then nail it to the doorpost of the inn. The tradition has resulted in the expression “posting a notice” and the naming of newspapers as “The Post”. Announcements are always preceded by the traditional “Oyez Oyez Oyez" (which is “listen" in French) and conclude with “God save the Queen”. Until the first world war, in the early hours of Christmas morning, the town crier called out to Willersey's villagers,
“Arise, arise, ye good people arise. Make your plum puddings and your mince pies.” There was then a weather report, a time reminder and another reminder about thw crier when he can round for his Christmas box. Parish meetings, local events and "Master Tom's Tater-griner be lost.” could also be announced. Such were the days before the internet!
In October 2003 the Bledisloe Plate, recently awarded to Willersey, was presented to the then parish council chairman, the late Maurice Andrews MBE by the Council for the Protection of Rural England chairman, Judge Gabriel Hutton. The village has now won the Best Kept Village Cup nine times and the Plate twice and those villagers assembled for the event were congratulated by Judge Hutton. Maurice Andrews replied and thanked all the residents for making the success possible.
In 2005 Willersey celebrated its success as the first Cotswold Life village of the year winner with a spectacular village fete held on August the 20th. The day featured all the activities you expect from a traditional fete with Morris dancers, live music, games and sideshows. Willersey societies and organisations as well as the local village church and school took part by giving demonstrations and displays to show why Willersey is one of the best in the Cotswolds.
On Friday July 20th 2007 Gloucestershire's schools broke up for the summer holidays. It was no real surprise when the county woke that morning to heavy rain and warnings of more torrential downpours on the way. No one dreamed that morning that Gloucestershire was on a brink of a truly devastating natural disaster or that this July deluge would make history by triggering the county's biggest ever peacetime emergency. In Willersey 36 houses were flooded with 2ft of Water. All roads into the village became impassable causing people to abandon cars and stay in outlying village halls or scout huts. The Bell Inn put 38 people up overnight. Work has now been done on the village drains so a repetition should be unlikely.
Over the years there can quite dramatic changes in a village.
The left hand picture shows two houses about two hundred years ago while
the right hand picture shows the same scene now but with just one house!
Here is another example where a house to the left of the New Inn no longer exists. (It is now the entrance to the car park.)
The brick wall in front of this house was removed and reconstucted as a stone wall closer to the road thus making the front garden larger.
The same house has now been extended, the roof is tiled, and television aerials added!
In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Willersey like this:-
Willersey, a parish, with a village, in the district of Evesham and-county of Gloucester; 3½ miles W of Chipping-Campden railway station. Post town, Broadway. Acres, 1,344. Real property, £2,522. Pop., 373. Houses, 88. The property is much subdivided. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Gloucester. Value, £180.* Patron, the Rev. J. H. Worgan. The church is good.
The 1843 Great Fire of Willersey reached the national headlines of the time. In the early hours of Wednesday 29th November 1843, seven people lost their lives in a house fire. It is almost certain that this appalling loss of life, in a single fire, has not been equalled in the area since. A fund was set up to help Thomas Rimell, who had lost almost everything. His house was insured, but not his furniture and stock.
Another fire occurred nearly 150 years later in October 1992 at Autosleepers on the Industrial Estate. The all night blaze destroyed 14 luxury motors caravans and caused about £1m of damage. More than 100 firefighters were in attendance. Although a main production area was destroyed, other buildings were untouched.
Willersey National School (mixed), was built with a residence for the mistress, in 1844, by the Earl of Harrowby, and enlarged in 1896 to accommodate 59 children.
Nutgrove on the Broadway Road used to be a silk mill powered by water. Silk was mostly processed in the Cotswolds from 1790 to 1842. Nearby Blockley had five or six small mills along a stream. The silk mills closed from the mid 19th century onwards after the duty on French silk was abolished in an 1860 treaty with France. Silk moths eat the leaves of the white Mulberry almost exclusively. There is a 200 year old mulberry tree of majestic dimensions in Willersey but it is a black mulberry. not much good for silk production but the mulberries make excellent eating! Mulberry juice is bright red so those who stole mulberries gained stained hands, hence being "caught red handed". Rumour has it that this tree was planted to celebrate the Battle of Waterloo.
Two streams come from springs on the Cotswold escarpment and pass through Willersey. One which starts on Campden Hill can be heard passing under the Broadway Road, then crossing the path from the Village Hall to Hays Close and then Collin Lane. The other passes behind the gardens of houses in Field Lane and Collin Close. Both ultimately join together before the disused railway line and eventually end up in the Badsey Brook. A third stream starts in the field next to the cemetery and passes under the B4632 to the east of the village.
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Parts of Willersey Manor House in Main Street were built in the 14th Century though it has many later extensions.
It is built like many local buildings from coursed squared and dressed limestone. There is a secret stone altar with small incised crosses hidden below a window sill in an upper room. The garden features a former dovecote. The house was originally associated with Evesham Abbey. The earliest part of the house is reputed to have been built to be the summer residence of the Abbots of Evesham. They also enlarged the church to its current cruciform shape by adding the chancel, transept and the central tower. In the 16th and 17th centuries the manor house belonged to the Roper family who were staunch Catholics, probably explaining the secret stone altar. The house also has traditional associations with the Elizabethan composer, William Byrd. When we are looking at historic buildings, we can be the closest we can come to seeing our own history.
In this panorama from Willersey Hill you can see Willersey first and then the spire of Saintbury Church.
Mist in the hollow, a fine day will follow.
Mist on the hill, it always rains and it always will.
These are early parish records. There is evidence of very early settlements in Willersey
To avoid confusion, Willersley is a village in Herefordshire. Here is an intriguing story about it. Willersley Castle is in Derbyshire and Willersley Park is in Kent. Do note however that there is definitely only one Willersey.
On this 16th-century Sheldon Tapestry Map of Worcestershire and surrounding counties, Willersey is spelt Welosay. The churches in each town or village are quite accurately represented. Until the dictionary, an invention of only the last few hundred years, the English language lacked any comprehensive system of spelling rules. Consequently, spelling variations in names are frequently found in early Anglo-Saxon and later Anglo-Norman documents. This applied to people's names and also to place names. Between about 1280 to 1350 the following spellings of Willersey could be found :-
Wylardesey, Wylardsey, Willesleye, Willerseye, Willersei, Willarseye, Wylardseye, Wyllardeseye, Wyllarseye and Wylareseye.
One possible meaning of the name is thought to be “Island of a man called Willhere or Willheard.” another is that it is after a salt boilers pit or salt boilers island; an explanation of the existence of an island could be that the three streams which go through Willersey might in the past have spread out and isolated some of the land.
There was a young farmer of Willersey,
Who's sheep were incredibly fleecy,
When they asked him why,
He said because I
Teach them Latin, videbo, will I see!
It is difficult to do justice to this long history in a few pages but we will from time to time add more. Should you wish to add or correct anything do please email us. There are several residents of Willersey who have lived all their lives here so we will be able to occasionally add stories and other information which will not be found in the Gloucestershire archives and published books.
Here is another brief history by prominent resident Maurice Andrews MBE.
All new residents are given a copy of the Welcome to Willersey booklet and this history is included in it.
Sometimes Willersey is misspelt Willersley - this is somewhere completely different in Derbyshire (see above).
If you wish to know more about the history of other local villages then this is a very good starting point.
A project group in nearby Badsey is researching and recording local farmsteads and the nearby village of Badsey has a local history group which does good research.
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