August’s webinar aroused speculation from the start with the title ‘Drinking from the Well of Nuns’ prompting speculation as to what this was going to cover. Sue Swalwell gave a fascinating and well-structured presentation of the history of the farm on which she grew up. ‘What she did cover was a history of her place stretching back to Domesday, some meticulous research and methodological tips and the debunking of some family stories.

Sue’s study relates to Holywell Farm in the South Loftus area of North Yorkshire. hHer researches began with material rescued from a family bonfire when her family moved out and with the family myth that the spring water supplying the farm was once used by the ‘naughty nuns’ of Handale Abbey before the reformation. Other enticements were the stories of the Saxon princess and roman chieftain, sadly neither of these proved to be from her area. That left the naughty nuns.

Sue started her work by confirming what the thought she already knew about the area, particularly regarding boundaries and jurisdictions. She then worked backwards from her parents and grandparents who rented (and later owned) Holywell farm. They rented/bought it from the Dundas family who themselves acquired it in the mid 18th century. They did a large amount of work to improve the land and housing and, thankfully, kept detailed records which survived!

In addition to the estate papers Sue was able to research the farm on both the 1941-43 National Land Survey (‘a school report for farmers’) and the ‘Lloyd George’ 1910 valuation survey, with nearby farms as comparators. She used the plan from the National Land Survey as a starting point to look at the footprint of the farm on every large-scale map she could find, including estate documents going back to 1807.

The estate papers included title deeds which, though initially daunting, contained a wealth of detail of previous transactions, abuttals and relationships and allowed Sue to reconstruct the family tree of the then owners and their neighbours. Money flowed into the family by business and judicious marriages and flew out as rapidly by extravagant lifestyles, over-mortgaging and family feuds. Some of these were played out in the Chancery resulting in more rich records which, whilst not the easiest record set to access, also contain rich information on identity, relationships, indications of lifestyle, background detail on the community and so on – ‘the collective record of the community’. Together these record sets give multiple hints and ideas for future research, particularly regarding women’s family ties and their role in the neighbourhood. The Ecclesiastical or Bawdy courts were another gossip-rich source Sue mined with great effect.

Field names gave further clues, with fields named after previous buildings (‘old house field’) or surnames. Sadly for the ‘naughty nun’ myth, study of field names suggested that ‘Holywell’ was a corruption of ‘Allywell’ rather than a reference to the convent.

The convent did exist however, so what of the ‘naughty nun’ story? There is evidence that the abbey received nuns from other convents who had misbehaved or doubted their faith, therefore encouraging them to reflect and repent. Sadly however there is no evidence that they got their water from the farm’s well.

Many thanks to Sue for a thought-provoking webinar. Some of us have serious source-jealousy, but her studies show what can be discovered about an ordinary farm.

The September webinar, for members only, is on September 13th at 20:30 BST/London over Zoom. In a joint meeting with the Devon Family History Society, Dr Lesley Trotter will be speaking on the ‘Use of Census Microdata to Research Social History’. See you there.

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