Project Purley

The Local History Society for Purley on Thames

The Georgians (1714-1830)


The eighteenth century was a time of great change and contrast in England. Commerce was beginning to lay the foundations of Empire, the power of the old order was beginning to wane to be replaced by men more concerned with money than people. It was a time of great wealth and great poverty of lives of ease and of grinding exploitation. Men like Charles Wesley were trying to stir the conscience of the nation to what was going on and having little success. It took a century or more before the fruits of their labours began to be seen.

  Religion sank to its lowest point ever. The established church was full of complacent clerics, mainly pluralists who paid curates derisory wages to do their job for them. In the towns furtive groups of non-conformists were trying to keep their ideals flourishing in the face of official disapproval and Roman Catholics were meeting in each other’s house to keep their faith alive. There was great intolerance of all groups to each other and great indifference to the plight of others.

  Great houses were being planned and built all over the country while the poor lived in indescribably poor conditions, cold and overcrowded and deprived of many of the ancient privileges which had heretofore enabled them to survive. There was a flight from the country to the towns to seek new jobs created by the industrial revolution. When the century opened William of Orange was on the Throne to be succeeded by Anne, the last Stuart. By the time the century closed the Hanoverians represented by George III had triumphed over the Jacobites but had lost the American colonies. The next thirty years saw the rise of the power of parliamentarians against a background of fairly ineffective kings and the Napoleonic wars.


The Manors

Two of the three manors of Purley were to change hands. In the case of Purley La Hyde it was purchased by the Wilders, who were a well established family in neighbouring Sulham, although technically manorial rights had ceased. Purley Magna went out of the hands of the St Johns who had been Lord for four hundred years and eventually formed the seat of the Storers who had made their money from sugar in the West Indies. Purley Parva remained in the hands of the Lybbes although the succession in 1722 passed via the female line to the Lybbe-Powyses.


The Church

This is the first century for which a continuous copy of the Parish Register is available. In it various rectors recorded items of interest, about disputes, about floods and other snippets.

There was a national development in 1703 which was to profoundly affect the finances of the Church of England. This was the establishment of Queen Anne's Bounty as a fund to augment the livings of the poorer clergy. A central fund was established into which the payments of First Fruits and Tithes were paid. These were payments originally made by the clergy to the Papal Exchequer consisting of all the profits of the living in the first year of an incumbency and one tenth thereafter. They were not the same as the tithes paid by the laity to the clergy. Since the Reformation these had been paid into the royal coffers but Queen Anne decreed that the proceeds should be used to augment the pitiful incomes of many of the clergy. Purley was not overmuch affected as its living was worth more than the minimum for augmentation and the livings changed hands only on six occasions. It was assessed in 1707 with the First Fuits assessed at £12/17/3½ and the tenth at £1/5/8¾.

  In the early part of the century there were a number of disputes involving the rector. The first in 1707 was when George Blagrave sued the rector for not keeping a bull for the use of parishioners. The second was in 1711 when the rector sued George's mother Mary on the grounds that she had refused to pay the tithe on a second cut of clover. In 1723 the dispute centered around who had ownership of the pew next to the pulpit and it was determined that it belonged to Westbury farm.

  During the century much of the church plate was replaced. It is presumed that the earlier plate had been lost in the Civil War.

  Some time in the middle of the century there seems to have been work on the tower of the church but there was little if any other major developments. For the most part Purley was served by curates standing in for absentee rectors. There was a pre-occupation with identifying Roman Catholics, probably as a result of the several Jacobite rebellions that occurred from 1715 to 1745. The ancient rectory was replaced between 1724 and 1728



Two main transport arteries passed through Purley. The most important was the river Thames down which were carried both people and freight. The other was the main highway from Wallingford to Reading which ran from Pangbourne to the Roebuck in an almost straight line. There were also many side roads and paths but the distinction between any one road and another was a matter of usage not purpose. Foot passengers, coaches, farm carts, horseback riders would travel the paths at will, diverting and broadening the carriageway when the way became obstructed. Responsibility for the roads was technically with the adjacent land owners and each year the parish vestry appointed a Surveyor of the Roads to make sure that the work was done. In practice of course it was one of the Sherwoods or another principal land holder who was almost always appointed and they were not as assiduous in their duties as they might have been.

  It was down the main highway that most of the heavy and foreign traffic passed. Foreign in 18th century terms tended to mean traffic not originating or destined for the parish. The road was used for the embryonic coach services providing a  rudimentary public transport system. It was also used by the long waggon trains which carried goods around the country. These would consist of a large wooden wheeled waggon drawn by up to ten horses working in pairs. These would plod very long distances hauling quite large loads.  Lighter traffic was handled by the carriers who worked from their home village to Reading once or twice a week, taking produce for local farmers who had not the time to travel themselves and fulfilling shopping orders for which they charged a small premium. By the middle of the century the road was reported as being 'in a ruinous condition and incommodious to passengers' As a result the first act for the Shillingford, Wallingford and Reading Road Company was passed in 1763 and the Turnpike came to Purley. The trustees of the turnpike included representatives from each of the parishes en route and great efforts were made to improve the surface of the road and widen it where needed. Charges were levied on vehicles passing along and any profits were shared between the parishes on the basis of the proportion of the mileage in each parish.

The River

The river carried huge amounts of bulk cargoes as well as passengers. Generally freight was carried on barges towed by horses and these needed to be winched though the flash lock going upstream and flushed through going downstream. This was a very difficult and hazardous procedure and the flashes could be opened only according to a strict timetable which ensured that generally water levels in the river were high enough to sustain navigation. One of these barges 'The King's Arms' sank by Purley on 3rd March 1727 carrying malt from Abingdon to London.  In order to control affairs on the river the Thames Commissioners were created in 1751. They set about surveying the river and increased many of the charges. By 1777 the charges had been raised so many times that the bargemasters held a protest meeting in Reading. In the same year the Commissioners opened the first pound lock in Purley. This was cut through a headland on the Purley side and should have resulted in the lock being renamed Purley Lock but the old name for the flash lock was too deeply ingrained and Mapledurham Lock it remained.  The old flash lock was closed in July and a toll was levied on all barges going upstream of 3d per ton which included a free return  passage.

  The commissioners wanted to extend the towpath from Purley to near the Roebuck but Philip Worlidge,  the then lord of the manor refused to allow passage past the manor house. As a result in 1794  they had to install a horse ferry which ran from the end of what is now River Gardens to the other side of the river. The ferries carried the tow horses and the towpath switched to the north bank of the river. It returned by another ferry by the Roebuck.

There were other ferries operating on the Thames. The usual practice was for there to be a post with a bell and when someone wanted to cross they rang the bell to summon the waterman who would row them over. There were such ferries between Mapledurham and Purley and between Pangbourne and Whitchurch.  It is also believed there was a third between Hardwick and Westbury. The Whitchurch ferry was replaced by a bridge by an act of 1792 which established a 'company of proprietors' which included Richard Southby representing Purley.


Crime and Civil Suits

The 18th century seems to be notorious for the amount of crime committed. Perhaps this is because of better records rather than any great increase in crime rates. There was also an increase in the amount of civil litigation. A number of cases are reported which affected Purley.

The most serious crime  was the murder of farmer Giles  Blagrave on the road between Purley and Reading on 31st Jan 1738.  

Land and Land Disputes

Beginning 1738 Francis Hawes of Purley Hall and William Dench went to court several times over a piece of land which Hawes had originally leased to Dench in 1735. This include the fields known as  Beer Close, Broom Close, Little Moors and Upper Herridge which had been let on a five year lease for 20s per annum. Hawes alleged that Dench had torn down fences, stolen gates and grubbed out 200 yards of hedges. He failed so in the following year he sued Dench for a debt of £60.


The People

Purley’s affairs were dominated by the Sherwoods who eventually came to occupy all the Parish Offices and farm virtually all the land

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