The Eighteenth Century in Turvey


The eighteenth century saw enormous changes in Turvey. The old Lords of the Manor sold up and left the village, ending the link with the medieval feudal systems; the population grew rapidly; new farming methods were introduced and the appearance of the village changed beyond recognition.

William III was King in 1700

This reflected what was happening generally in England. In 1700, William III, a Stuart King, was still on the throne, with his sister-in-law and cousin, Anne, becoming Queen in 1702. Although England and Scotland had shared the same monarch since 1603, the Act of Union with Scotland was only passed in 1707, uniting England, Wales and Scotland and creating what was called the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’.  Ireland became a part of this ‘United Kingdom’ in 1801. By 1800 the Stuart Kings and Queens had given way to the German Hanoverians, George III was on the throne at the turn of the nineteenth century; he had already been king for forty years and was to reign for another twenty.  In history generally, the Stuarts are linked with the Tudors, the long ago past, the Georgian era is linked with change and innovation and looks forward to our modern era, this is evident in Turvey.

George III was King in 1800

Population changes

One of the markers of change is population growth. From about 1750 there was a huge explosion in the numbers of people in the whole country. This is reflected in Turvey. In the year 1700 – 1701 there were 35 births or baptisms recorded in the village; between 1750 – 1751, there were 39; but between 1700 and 1800 there are 197 recorded births or baptisms in Turvey.  Death rates are similarly changed. The first recorded burials I could find for Turvey in the 18th Century were between 1705 – 1706, then only 4 burials took place, between 1750 – 1751, there were 14, and between 1799 – 1800 there were 44.   This is very raw data, but it gives some idea of what was happening in the village. It is possible to analyse it much more scientifically but perhaps not relevant here! Of more interest is the names of those recorded both in the births and burial registers – Richardson and Wooding feature regularly, for example, both familiar village names in the twenty first century.

Why did the population increase?

Health, Hygiene and medical advances obviously play a part, although many of the most significant changes did not take place until the end of the century. Joseph Priestly discovered nitrous oxide in 1774, but it was not until 1799 that Humphrey Davey discovered its anaesthetic properties. Just a few years before, in 1796, Edward Jenner had tested his smallpox vaccination for the first time. These were both to play a significant role in transforming health care in the nineteenth century but did not contribute to the population boom of the eighteenth century.

Portrait of William Smellie. From the original painting in the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

However, between 1752 – 1764, William Smellie, a Scottish physician who had moved from his medical practice in Glasgow to work amongst impoverished women in London, published his three-volume work ‘Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery.’ His careful observation of patients and his scientific methods, including the use of obstetric forceps, saved many lives in childbirth.  John Hunter, 1728-1793, was another surgeon and anatomist who helped advance scientific medical study, hospitals were founded in the cities but travelling barber-surgeons still worked in the countryside and it is likely that Turvey, like other villages, had a local ‘herbalist’ who would use natural remedies to treat a variety of ailments, with greater or lesser success!

The great advantage of living in Turvey, however, would be the clean air. Cities were overcrowded and dirty – water supplies were polluted and all but the richest lived in close proximity to their neighbours so that disease spread rapidly.  There is evidence that the area round Turvey Church was little better than a slum with rat infested thatched cottages – and, of course, no proper sanitation or running water.  These cottages were not replaced until well into the nineteenth century; despite this, there is evidence that Turvey was a healthy place to live in the eighteenth century.  Gravestones in the church yard record the deaths of at least two people who lived to be over a hundred. James Smith died on May 10th 1822 aged 105 years; he was buried on 19th May. His birth is recorded in Turvey in 1717, although no month is given. Elizabeth Robinson died in 1830 also aged 105. I can find no record of her birth or her marriage so it is unlikely she was born in the village, but perhaps moved there on her marriage.

Gravestones of James Smith (left) and Elizabeth Robinson (right) in Turvey Churchyard

There were no major epidemics – like the Black Death in the fourteenth century or the plagues of 1666. Nor were there any major cholera epidemics, although cholera was endemic at that time, as was smallpox. This is one of the major factors contributing towards population growth.  There is evidence that smallpox, a great killer at that time, was present in the local area, however, although no cases are specifically mentioned in Turvey.  See Part 2 of the article on the History of Epidemics in Turvey.

Farming methods and food supply

The Eighteenth Century was a time of change and experimentation in farming methods and food production.  This was driven partly by a realisation that the old methods of farming were inefficient and partly by the necessity to produce more food for the increasing population – and for those moving away from the countryside into the towns to work in the increasingly mechanised factories.

King George III, known as Farmer George, was a great proponent of new machines, new methods of farming and new crops – the changes reached Turvey in the late Eighteenth Century.  The Enclosure Act for Turvey was passed in 1785.  This completely changed the look of the village – the mediaeval open fields were replaced by the smaller enclosed fields and the village began to look much as it does today.  The detail of the changes can be read on this site in the article ‘Turvey in Turmoil’

Pre-enclosure map – ref PE-2a-02

The Pre-enclosure maps of the mid eighteenth century show that most of the dwellings in Turvey had small gardens attached, these would have been used to grow basic foodstuffs, carrots, onions, potatoes and other root crops.  The improved farming methods and experimentation with new cereal crops would also have improved living standards for villagers but this is difficult to quantify. The water mill was leased from the Earl of Peterborough in 1733, by Thomas Davison, a baker from Turvey. At that time, the Mill must have been in some state of disrepair as the Earl provided £200 for the erection of a new mill together with the stone and timber required for its construction.  See the article on the Whitworths and Turvey Mill.  As a village mill was essential for producing all the flour for the village, this would have had an impact on the food supply.

Ensuring a supply of meat was always a problem for the poorest.  Many families kept a pig for slaughter at Michaelmas and some had a cow which would graze on common land before enclosure. Of course, poaching was another good source of food for those who had little else, but that brought serious consequences if offenders were caught!

Much has been written about the hardship that enclosing the common land had on the poorest; the quote ‘All I know is, I had a cow and Parliament has taken it from me’ is often cited as proof of this. There is no obvious evidence of this kind of hardship in Turvey after enclosure, however.  This is largely because the largest part of the village was owned by the Mordaunt family, Earls of Peterborough. The remaining landowners appear to have been happy to support the supplication to Parliament for a private enclosure award. In fact, many of the poorest villagers were better off as a result of enclosure as they found paid employment putting up fences round the new smaller fields and building new roads

Changes of land ownership

The Mordaunt family, had been Lords of the Manor of Turvey, from the early 13th Century (see the article Who were the Mordaunts?)  However, by the beginning of the 18th Century they were absentee landlords, having long preferred the luxury of Drayton House in Northamptonshire to their almost derelict home in Turvey Old Hall – roughly sited where Turvey Hall farm is now.

The site of Turvey Old Hall

After the Enclosure Act was passed in 1785, all the Mordaunt land was put on the market.  It was sold at auction in 1786 and bought by Charles Higgins, his half cousin, John Higgins and a Mr William Fuller, who was reputed to be the richest man in England at that time.  See Charles Higgins, the Grocer who purchased Turvey  The face of the village was also changed by the new ownership as well as by the Enclosures. The building of Turvey House, with its beautiful parkland, was begun in 1794. Sadly, no records or building plans of the House remain.  Money was given for alterations to the church, including the building of a new chancel, and for bridge repairs after a huge flood in 1795 damaged the structure of the existing bridge. The Higgins families also began a systematic clearance of the poorer housing in the centre of the village but much of this was not begun until well into the next century.

Possible reused stone from the Hall


The standard of housing is always a major factor in protecting the health of the population.  Living conditions for those who had moved into the new industrial towns were varied, but generally they were housed in traditional back to back terraces with shared water supply and sanitary facilities. These properties were to become the slums of the future where disease spread rapidly. Living conditions in Turvey, however, were very much better.   There are 41 properties still in use in the village today which were built before the end of the 18th Century – eight of these were built before the end of the 17th Century.

Turvey Abbey front

Turvey Abbey

The oldest house in the village is thought to be Turvey Abbey, built in 1603, though not as an abbatial foundation, Turvey House was begun in 1794 after the village had been bought by the Higgins family. Most of these properties, as could be expected by their survival, were substantial stone-built properties. However, there is evidence that many villagers lived in what was described as ‘hovels’.

Turvey Street Scene

Turvey street scene with dilapidated cottages

These properties, clustered near the church in the centre of the village, were very small and in poor repair, possibly built of wattle and daub.  Their thatched roofs are reported to have been damp and dilapidated and were attractive to vermin.  These houses were not replaced until the Higgins and Longuet Higgins families began a building programme in the village in the next century. However, living conditions in the village were still healthier than those in the large industrial towns.

For more detail, see the articles on this site ‘Turvey’s listed buildings’ and ‘A Brief Numerical Analysis of Turvey’s Residential properties‘.

Cross Oaks Cottage, Carlton Road


The Eighteenth Century saw a change in transport links through the village; Turvey was at the forefront of providing improved road systems by being part of the Bedford to Olney Turnpike Trust which was founded by Act of Parliament in 1754.

The Romans had built excellent roads with solid ‘paved’ surfaces, but by medieval times roads were generally just well-trodden routes with little surfacing other than loose stone; they often became impassable in poor weather.  The situation had not improved by the 18th Century.  Central government did not regard it as their responsibility to build or repair roads, so each parish was commanded to keep their roads in good order. A ‘Surveyor of the Highways’ was appointed each year from those on the Parish Council, it was his thankless task to make sure the roads were kept in good condition. Every man in the village who owned or occupied land worth £50 a year or more, was supposed to supply a cart and horses, tools and equipment for the repairs, and up to two men to work for six days a year.  Individuals who did not fit this description had to work on the roads themselves for six days a year.  The surveyor was responsible for getting any money needed for repairs from the chief landowner.

Turvey was a major route from London to the North, with a river crossing, so it was important that the roads were kept open. Since the Mordaunts owned almost all the land in Turvey, and they lived elsewhere, they had absolutely no interest in either providing money to repair the roads or making sure that repairs were carried out.  However, John, 1st Lord Mordaunt, had left money in his will in 1560 for ‘repairing and amending’ the bridge over the Ouse, and there is evidence that by 1630 there was a substantial and well-maintained bridge in Turvey.  John Higgins describes the bridge as it was in 1783, with ‘twenty-two planked and two stone arches’ and a separate stone walkway   See the article on this site Turvey Bridge – a brief history’   By the time John Higgins was describing the bridge, however, Turvey had been a part of the Bedford to Olney Turnpike Trust for almost thirty years.

Bridge over the Great Ouse

Bridge over the Great Ouse as seen from the mill.

The Turnpike Trusts made a huge difference to the work of ‘Surveyor of Highways’. Private companies and individuals were able to invest in Turnpike Companies and charge road users a toll for travelling along the road. The proceeds were shared between the investors and keeping the roads in good repair. The roads were blocked by a gate – or in the early years a barrier surmounted with spikes, or pikes, with a swivel mechanism that turned to let the travellers through.  This would only happen when a toll, a fee, was paid. The amounts varied according to the traffic passing through the Turnpike. Since the only other viable method of taking goods from one place to another was by navigable rivers or along the coast, everything travelled by road and it became expensive.  Even farm animals being driven to market had to pay tolls – on occasions disgruntled villages rebelled against the charges, resulting in ‘Turnpike Riots’. However, the improvement in roads and travel times was immense. By the early 19th Century, the stagecoach from Oxford to Cambridge was stopping at the Tinkers Inn on the High Street, three times a week in both directions.  Turvey was also on the main route from London to Warwick, Rugby and the north. In 1754, when Turvey became part of the Turnpike Trust, it was said to take four and a half days to travel by coach from London to Manchester, thirty years later the same journey took just over one day because of the improvement in the roads.

Toll House Board

Then, as now, Turvey’s roads were liable to flood. The floods in 1795 were so severe that John Higgins gave money to rebuild the bridge, which had been partly destroyed. Two years later the river flooded again – a plaque on the wall of the Three Fyshes Inn marks the depth of the water.

Flood marker on the Three Fyshes


Life and society in England underwent an enormous change between the beginning and the end of the eighteenth century. The Act of Union with Scotland was signed in 1706 and the uprisings in Ireland in 1798 concentrated the minds of politicians and Ireland was brought formally into the union creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was declared in 1801.

There were big changes in the system of government, with the growth of new political parties and a move towards the system of government we know today with a Prime Minister supported by a Cabinet.

The population living in towns had grown from approximately 5% at the beginning of the century to around 20% by the end of the century.  Industry was passing agriculture as the main driver of the economy. Wind and waterpower gave way to the new steam powered factories of the Midlands and the North.

There was huge interest in engineering and new inventions – and in science generally – which led to major medical advances, the building of canals, experimentation with steam driven vehicles and the start of horse drawn railways amongst other things.

There was an increase in crime and punishments remained harsh, with executions and transportations – there was also the beginnings of a police force, the Bow Street Runners, established in 1749.

There was also an increasingly humanitarian movement demanding reform.  People like John Howard who campaigned for penal reform, William Wilberforce and his anti-slavery movement, Robert Raikes, who established Sunday Schools, Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospitals, were all attempts at improving life for the poor in the eighteenth century. The Methodist Movement also began in the eighteenth century and became firmly fixed in Turvey, although not until the next century.

Wesleyan Chapel

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Carlton Road

It is difficult to estimate and assess how much these changes would have affected the day to day life of the villagers of Turvey – but the century as a whole had an enormous impact on the appearance of the village,  and its effects would be even more significant in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Roads in the Eighteenth Century – John Hearfield  (
Everyday Life in the 18th Century – Tim Lambert
The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structures
Treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery – William Smellie

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.