Open fields in the Chalfonts

The Open Fields of Chalfont St Giles and Chalfont St Peter.

Few people realize that Chalfont St Giles had open fields until late into the 19thC. It is just still possible to see across the Misbourne from the A413 the remnants of some of the baulks between the strips of "Out field".

Many people are aware of the open field system that was the predominant agricultural system over much of the country from late saxon to quite modern times. However in hill country such as the Chilterns this did not operate as it did in the lowland areas such as the Vale of Aylesbury nor did it last so long. Parishes in the vale tended to operate on a three field system with most of the land in the parish being in one of the three open fields made up of many strips and the farmsteads being concentrated within the nucleated village. Each farmer had many separate strips spread in each of the three fields. In the Chilterns in contrast, for various reasons but particularly because of topography, much of the land was enclosed into small fields, owned and farmed by an individual farmer living in a farmstead outside the village. There were open fields in the Chilterns but by the late mediaeval times these were a small proportion of the total land and were often quite numerous and small.

The open field system disappeared as land was enclosed to achieve more efficient agriculture. In the Vale this inclosure was predominantly achieved through Acts of Parliament and not until the late 1700s and into the 1800s, but in the Chilterns it occurred much earlier on a piecemeal basis and mainly through private negotiation. The exception to this in the Chilterns was the inclosure of common land. The inclosure of Amersham Common and of Wycombe Heath both required Acts of Parliament.

Turning now to the specific case of the Chalfonts. The most comprehensive source of information to the situation in the Chilterns is the Tithe Survey for each parish of 1837-40. Chalfont St Giles and Chalfont St Peter stand out as two parishes that still have significant open fields although as a percentage of the total land area of the parishes they are small. The dates of the surveys are comparatively late but evidence of title deeds to various properties in the two parishes tends to indicate that these open fields had not changed in size for some hundreds of years

Consider the situation in Chalfont St Giles at this time. There were two open arable fields and a common meadow. The smaller arable field was called "Chalfont Redding". It had approx 35 acres with 18 quite regular strips split between 6 owners. It was located just to the north of Three Households. The larger arable field was "Outfield" located essentially at the far end of Narcot Lane and between that Lane and the Misbourne. It had 140 acres in 86 strips but the size of the strips varied widely from 1/3rd of an acre to almost 7 acres. 14 people owned strips in the field, some just one or two strips others had large holdings. The common meadow was called "Old Mead" and essentially took up the whole of the flood plain of the Misbourne on its west bank from Chalfont St Giles to Chalfont St Peter. There were a multitude of holdings in Old Mead; some were minute being just a few square yards.

Between 1840 and 1900 the fields were gradually enclosed and disappeared. Unfortunately this seems to have been achieved by many separate transactions between the various owners.

There is no evidence that the strips in the open fields were managed as a block as one would expect for an open field. This is not to say they were not but as there are no surviving manorial records for either of the two manors in Chalfont Giles and no other documentary evidence or local tradition which would show open field management.

There is earlier evidence of other common fields. Peggs Common Field appears in a 1660 deed (D/X 292) which was probably in the Jordans area . Much earlier in1368 there is reference to "le Welfeld" an to "le Longfeld" (Hist. Man. Com. Report 15 Appx.VII page 129) but their location within the parish cannot be determined.

The situation in Chalfont St Peter was somewhat different. At the time of the tithe there were nine open arable fields and the one open meadow. Dealing with the latter first, it was also called "Old Mead" and ran up the east side of the flood plain of the Misbourne opposite Old Mead in Chalfont St Giles. Although they both have the same name and are so close there is no indication they were ever treated as one. The arable fields comprised five very small ones called Kinney Hill, Little Common, Oldfield, Schoolbury Common, and Zackers Dean. Each of less than 10 acres and divided into very few strips. Then there were the four larger fields, Chalfont Common, Common Downs, Dewlands and Latchmore Field. These were around 50 acres in size and each divided into around 20 strips. From the relationship of all the nine open fields to their surrounding inclosed fields it seems highly probable that these are just remnants and each was much larger in relatively recent times. The process continued and they were all inclosed by private arrangement with the exception of Latchmore field which was inclosed in 1846/7 under the General Enclosure Act of 1

REFERENCES. Unless otherwise specified, all references given above refer to catalogue references at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies at Aylesbury. (County Record Office)

This print is a section of the Chalfont History website.

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John Dodd ©2012