A Short Canter Through Letton's History with Don Maddox

Text and images by Don Maddox © 2004, Click on the images for a closer view

Walter de Lacy

Walter de Lacy had many good days. He was born at Lassy in Normandy, came over with the Conqueror and was very efficient in helping to quell the Welsh frontier. His reward was vast tracts of land throughout Herefordshire & Shropshire. He has left his name at Mansell Lacy, Holme Lacy etc.

But one day in 1085 was not so good for Walter. He was financing the building of (the original) St. Peter's Church, Hereford, when, inspecting the work, fell off a ladder and was killed..

His estates passed to his son, Roger, whose power base was Weobley. Roger was still holding these at the time of the Domesday Book. At Letton he had a steward, Tesselin, who was overseer of the land (maybe 450 acres), the seven settlers , two slaves (probably Welshmen and reflecting that slavery was an accepted part of Anglo Saxon economics), a mill and a priest.

Letton was doing well. At the time of the Conquest its 'rateable value' was 2/- (10p) but now it was 30/- (£1.50).

This contrasts with nearby villages which had suffered attacks by the Welsh who might well have been aggrieved at being pushed further west from the Offa's Dyke, which lies 4 miles towards Hereford from Letton. Winforton, Willersley, Whitney, Eardisley and Kinnersley had all been recorded as 'wasted' in 1066 though Kinnersley and Winforton were showing signs of recovery.

Letton is not described as 'waste' at any point. Perhaps it was flooded every time the Welsh invaded. Or it might have had a good defensive position. The Wye, at that time, used to curve around behind the church. It's entirely speculative that the well-defined (still existing) moat that would have connected the old Wye to Letton Brook was built at that time. If so, it would isolate the budding village from too much harassment.
It also had a priest - which implies a church that preceded the present one. The de Lacy's certainly built a stone one. The north wall of the nave remains of this structure.

The Pychards

Very few of the Letton owners, until recent times, lived in the parish. An exception was the Pychards (as in Ocle Pychard). In 1346 Thomas Pychard built a private chapel, tacked onto the church as the present south transept. (The tower was also built around this time). It had/has its own entrance, altar and piscina. The two recessed tombs could contain the remains of the Pychards. These, though heavily damaged in Elizabethan times as a result of Reformation policy, still have remnants of their original colouring. This private chapel also has two, bricked up, bell-cotes and a sundial.


The Bruges, the Baskervilles, the de la Beres & Smallman's

Basically Letton was passed around, through marriage, between the Bruges (of Bruge/Bridge Sollers), the Baskervilles of Eardisley, and the de la Beres & Smallman's of Kinnersley. Eventually widow Lucy Smallman married Col. John Booth, of Durham in 1643. He was an ardent Royalist and had ridden into Herefordshire in charge of a troop of cavalry. He and Lucy had one child, Mary. On his death he was buried in Hereford Cathedral, alongside Lucy. His inscription reads "John Booth, late of Letton, Esq., an old Royalist and a zealous lover of the Church of England."

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Lucy, heiress to Letton, married an even more zealous lover of the Church of England; John Dutton Colt. And there was trouble ahead. Real trouble.


The Dutton Colts

The Dutton Colts were Leominster based - and powerful. Charles 11 thought highly of John until John started slandering the King's brother, the Duke of York because of the latter's Roman Catholic 'tendencies'. Not only slandering but aiding and abetting civil disturbances against the Duke down at Monmouth. To add to John's difficulties he was thrown out of his position as MP for Leominster on the grounds that his election campaign was riddled with corruption and bribery. The constant drip of slander and sedition against the Duke became too much for Charles and he slapped a £100,000 fine on John Dutton Colt.

Not only was the writing on the wall, it was in bold type and heavily underlined. In next to no time all Dutton Colt estates and property, including Letton, were over-mortgaged.

Things were so desperate that John had to get a Private Act through the House of Lords so that his wife and children could be assured of a small income and a house in preference to inevitable destitution.

For the first time since the Conquest Letton was not passed over as part of a marriage settlement. It was up for sale.


John Freeman

Riding to its rescue, at a very reasonable price, came John Freeman, Merchant of Bristol. Originally, he was a local lad from Bishop's Frome - if that can be called local to Letton - and of 'good yeoman stock'. He'd made an excellent living out of Bristol's 'Triangular Trade' - brassware and trinkets to the Gambia, slaves to the Carolinas and rum and sugar back to Bristol. As was the fashion at the time, he wanted to settle his son, John Junior, with a good, country estate. In this case Letton.

The son had energy. He expanded the Estate by buying land as far down as Stowe farm. He improved agriculture by draining the area of Letton Lake and straightening and deepening the meandering Letton Brook. Not that it stopped flooding but it did remove all the marshland, scrub and swamp that characterised the area. As a result more workers were needed to farm it. Instead of 'ticking over' it became prosperous. There is a strong rumour that the present pulpit was moved here from a Bristol church.

One of his other civil engineering jobs was to divert the old road through Letton. This had run from the corner of the Bredwardine road, behind the present houses and the Swan Inn and just south of the graveyard. After all, how would you like it if, when you were munching your morning 'Wheatibangs' you had a group of toothless peasants grinning at you through the window ? In a spanking new house too that had replaced the black and white Elizabethan rubbish ? That road was too near and had to go. He replaced it with the present one. The bridge over Letton Brook has his initials and the date 1756.

He also built a new Rectory on the corner of Kinnersley Lane to replace the black and white Elizabethan one (the present Gardener's Cottage, next to the churchyard).

John Jnr. married twice. The first to the daughter of his cousin, another John Freeman, ended at the death of his wife and all three daughters. His second marriage was to Jane Hobhouse, a daughter of the foremost 'Triangular Trade' families in the country, let alone Bristol. Again there were three daughters. Two of them married into the church. Family relationships could be really complicated. One of his sons-in-law, The Revd. Lilly, was the son of the sister of his first wife and not only his son-in-law but also his cousin.

His daughter Elizabeth, and heiress, married Joseph Blisset. This was another family complication because Joseph's father had married John Freeman Senior's sister. Joseph was John Junior's first cousin. It was an advantageous marriage not only because Joseph had copper and brass foundries in the Swansea Valley and Bristol, which helped "The Trade', but because they do genuinely appear to have loved each other.

But again the writing was on the wall.


Henry Blisset

Out of their twelve children only four, two sons and two daughters, survived to ripe adulthood. Henry, the eldest, inherited the estate. He was in Holy Orders, Rector of Letton, County Magistrate etc. He and his wife, Jamima, had two children. His son, the heir to the estate, John Freeman Blisset, died, unmarried in 1880, aged 34. This must have been a bitter blow to Henry especially so since his own wife had died three years earlier. Expert opinion suggests, that in spite of their wealth the family was plagued by T.B.

All Henry's hopes rested on his daughter, Margaret Jane. These were dashed. She, in 1889, aged 43, the heiress to the Letton Court Estate, and large tracts of Winforton and Kinnersley high-tailed it to Micheldever, Hampshire to marry her father's farm bailiff, Tom Dew. Naturally there was no parental consent from Henry. He'd lost everything. Well, not all. His Will reduced the estate to the bear minimum by leaving a lot of it to the Hobhouses. He allowed Margaret to have use of the furniture in the new Letton Court he'd built (in preference to his grandfather's) until her death. He died in 1893 a sad and lonely man. He didn't want an elaborate funeral and didn't get one (see Times Past). In his Will he wrote "I direct my funeral be of the simplest kind and no mourning to be given. The coffin to be of plain, un-varnished, elm for which the boards have been already prepared and belong to me".

His daughter and son in law didn't attend the funeral, neither did many others. He is buried in the top corner of the churchyard with Jamima and his son. All his relatives, from John Freeman Junior onwards, are buried in a vault in the church. There are memorials to all of them inside the church but there isn't one to Henry. He did leave two solid legacies, the estate offices and a new Rectory up Kinnersley Lane. This is supposed to be a smaller version of the Letton Court that burned down in the 1920s.

Soon after her wedding Margaret Jane made a short Will leaving everything to Tom Dew. In 1901 she died of a dissecting aneurism. Tom Dew married again and managed to restore the Estate to most of it's old boundaries. The disastrous fire that razed Letton Court (and its archives) had a bad effect on him and he died in 1931. His widow, Alice Mary, ran the estate until her death in 1960. They had one child, Margaret Alice, who died aged four days. Tom Dew is buried with his first wife and very close to Henry Blisset's grave. Alice Mary is close by.

Letton was for sale again. The new owners, Duncan Cameron and Sons, still run it and have a genuine interest in the Church and village.


The Kyrewoods

It's relatively easy to pin-point the Freeman's, Blissets and Dew's. Their footprints are still here. There was another family that held sway, power and influence in the locality for 300 years. They have disappeared without trace. The Kyrewoods are first mentioned in Elizabethan times. By the 1790s they owned all of, the variously described Over Letton/Nether Letton/ Upper Letton ( Whatever name it was the area from the top of Tin Hill, down to the Brook and spreading out to Brobury on one side and, almost, Little London on the other) and their house was Old Letton Court. Although lower Letton is in the parish of Staunton on Wye it was, at one time a Manor in its own right and owed allegiance to Letton Church. In the early 1600s the Kyrewoods built the black & white houses, that characterise the area. They, as will have John Freeman, John Booth, Lucy Smallman and others, have performed one vital local function. They were the bankers, mortgagors and money lenders for the area at a time when there were no financial institutions. At death the possessions of the deceased were valued for taxation purposes. Excluded were his/her house and the land, but not crops. "Money about the house." was included but this rarely appears - it might be careless of relatives to leave coinage easily accessible. Nobody has ever loved taxation except the taxers. The Will of Thomas Kirwood, probably of Old Letton Court, shows the money lending facility very well, while that of his brother, John, shows some money lending but also that his possessions fitted very well into what could have been a boarding/farming establishment - perhaps the Swan Inn

There was one other direct parallel between the Freeman/Blissets and the Kyrewoods. Both families terminated with a son and a daughter. In both families the son died unmarried. Margaret Jane Blisset did marry but died soon afterwards. Anne Kyrewood lived to an old age but died a spinster. After her death the Kyrewood estate was sold and eventually dismembered.

The family is almost forgotten. There are two, decaying, table tombs outside the church porch but it's not much of a legacy for 300 years occupation and influence. But not untypical

At the final count it's better to be remembered than forgotten.

© Don Maddox (2004) 

Click here to view "A true and perfect inventory of all the goods, cattle andchattels of John Kirwood of Upper Letton in the parish of Staunton upon Wye inthe Countie of Hereford, Gent.,lately deceased, taken, apprised and valued byus whose names are subscribed, the two and twentieth day of August, A.D. 1667."

Click here to view: “Assessment of Thomas Kirwood the older,late of Upper Letton, Gent,21/10/1671”