Saturday, June 23, 2007

Change and Decay Chapter 10

By now, the records room was looking much more ordered. Piles of papers were arranged neatly on the table, spotted with fluorescent Post-It notes. Each pile had been skimmed and quickly characterised by date and content. Some gaps remained: documents which must once have existed but had since been lost, discarded or transfered elsewhere. But it consitituted a good representation if several centuries of estate management and industrial enterprise.

I had seen Jeremy passing the doorway a couple of times that morning, and now took the opportunity to introduce myself.

"I've nearly finished in here now- do you think I could see the current records?"

"Of course," he replied, "but I'm not sure they'll be worth your trouble."

"Some of the properties seem to be missing: I suppose your system is that the deeds bundles are kept with your working files."

"I'm not sure you'd call it a system as such," he said, laughing, "but come across now."


I followed him outside and into the stable yard; the estate office was based in an old tack room, supplied with telephone and power connections by a fragile tracery of overhead cables from the main house. Jeremy unlocked the door and lit a gas heater, clapping his hands for warmth.

"It's a bit basic, I'm afraid- not much better that the records store."

He lifted a stack of letters from an old wooden chair, adding it to a pile on top of the filing cabinet in the corner, its drawers rendered unclosable by excess files.

"We're a bit disorganised, so you'll have to wade through things. We used to put stuff away but these days we have to manage without a secretary."

"I thought Helen helped out?"

"Is that what she told you? I don't really count gossiping on the offcie phone with her friends and playing solitaire on the computer as helping. She doesn't understand the business side of the estate at all. I keep telling them there's no money, but they can't bring themselves to believe it. Not that we can afford outside staff either. Penny, my wife - you've met her, haven't you? - she had to do all the documentation when we sold some paintings last year. The research took her ages, trying to find evidence of ownership. Well, you've seen the paperwork!"

I was pleased to find that Jeremy had circled around closer to my professional interests. But before I could interrupt, he sat back and stared out of the window into the yard.

"It's a dispriting task, trying to keep it all together. It was easier in the past, when your land was on long leases and you just had to collect the rent each quarter-day. But you can't make enough money that way anymore- not with farming the way it is."

"I'm not sure your ancestors would agree: they certainly complained enough in their letters."

"Oh yes - I suppose you'll have seen all that. But anyway, whatever they used to say, these days land is pretty much worthless - farmland is, at least. That's why we need to diversify. I'm always trying to find ways to raise cash. But it's a long process- you can't do a thing without planning permission, and that process is a nightmare. I don't think our cities would ever have been built if they'd had the same system." Jeremy snorted.

"I suppose councils have to be careful about their decisions." I wasn't quite sure how I had ended up defending local government.

"Not if it's their own project. We're having a big row at the moment- have you heard? They're proposing to allow housing development on the New Mill fields."

"Didn't that used to be part of the Littleworth estate?"

"We sold it forty years ago, when the council was building up its land bank. we never thought they'd build on it, though - it'll ruin the character of the area. We're organising the opposition at the moment - a lot of people round here are very concerned. That's the file." He pointed at a large cardboard box, its sides bulging with the weight of paper.

"Oh, I was looking for the New Mill deeds: could I check through them?"

"Help yourself."


The papers were stratified chronologically, like a geological sequence. The top layer comprised recent Council feasibility studies, consultation letters, notes of telephone calls. Halfway down there was a more ordered sequence of legal correspondence about the purchase of the land; below that there were two thick bundles of deeds and leases.

To my surprise, the papers showed that the sale had been an amicable process, from an initial inquiry from the Clerk's Department whether the estate owned any land it might be willing to relinquish suitable for the Council's long-term plans to enlarge its housing stock. I wondered whether Jeremy was aware of this, and concluded he must have been. The actual negotiation of prices was also smooth enough: an independent valuation had been obtained, calculating the rate for prime farmland and multiplying by the area. The offer was accepted by the estate without a quibble, earning £800, a very substantial sum for the 1950s.

I expected little more than a simple sequence of earlier tenancies from the remaining bundles, but grew increasingly confused, and eventually leafed through to the earliest deed.

The New Mill was not, in fact, very new. In 1760, John Sheldon had exchanged 'the field next the stream' for another in the adjacent parish, and then commissioned a local builder to 'make a new mill with all necessary equipments and facilities'. After 50 years of silence, presumably reflecting work under the estate's control, the family lost interest in metalworking, and the site was leased to a succession of companies with closely-similar names and personnel. These were obviously unstable financially, since deafult on rents and references to 'the works, now idle' fomred a recurrent theme. By 1890 the mill was almost worthless, and the land was rented to the Durston Gas and Light Company. They gave up the lease in 1908, and the land returned to the control of the estate.

This sounded innocuous enough, if reflecting a depressing story of failed ventures. But I had encountered the early gas industry before, when I was working on another archive. The creation of Town Gas, as the predecessor to natural gas was called, was a hazardous and toxic process, generating large quantities of cyanide and arsenic waste.

I was shocked at Jeremy's reaction when I told him this. He laughed.

"That'll scupper their houses, won't it? Who wants to live on a chemical dump? You've made my day."

When I suggested that the estate might have acted in poor faith when selling the property as farmland suitable for development, he waved it away.

"Not our problem, not our problem."

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