Norton Bury
By Kenneth Johnson

Originally printed issue 62  September 1995


Until a history of Norton Bury is written, the following fragments may help to show a sketchy outline.

Mrs Hilda Bailey, wife of the Vicar of Norton, wrote a short history of the parish, "Norton in Hertfordshire" in 1931. In this she said: "Both farmhouses (Norton Hall and Norton Bury) are comparatively modern, though the one at Norton Bury undoubtedly stands on the site occupied by former Lords of the Manor. Bury or Burgh means a house or houses surrounded by a moat."

The Victorian County History, published in 1908, describes Norton Bury as "the present manor-house. In front of the house is a rectangular moat about 150 by 100 feet having an arm connecting it with a pond nearby, which shews that it may at one time have been more extensive, and perhaps inclosed the manor-house. There are no manor courts held."

From an old book of parish customs, the Victorian County History deduced that "the tenants seem to have performed the usual services of carrying poultry and eggs to St Albans, and of doing harvest work, boon work and ploughing." Boon work was simply the special  jobs they did when the lord of the manor asked them, and they could hardly refuse.

Carrying eggs to St Albans is explained by the fact that in 795 King Offa of  Mercia granted Norton manor to St Albans Abbey. After about 200 years, an ealderman named Leofsig obtained the manor for himself, but after he had been banished for murder, King Ethelred II returned Norton to the Abbey of St Albans. The Saxon families living around the river valley here were known as the tribe of the Gifla. This name later changed to Yifla, and eventually as Ivel became the name of the river itself.

John de la More, from one of the conquering Norman families, probably lived at Norton Bury. When lie died in 1306 lie left all his lands in Norton to be added to those already held by the monks of St Albans. More than 200 years after this, the Act of Dissolution in 1536 was a sort of compulsory nationalisation of all monastery lands. In 1542, King Henry VIII gave Norton manor to Sir Richard Williams (also known as Cromwell, whose great-grandson Oliver later made a name for himself). Very soon, however, Sir Richard sold the manor to his bailiff, John Bowles from Wallington, and for the next century it passed from one family to another.

I
Norton Church Terrier (meaning a land survey of the parish) in 1637 refers to "Norton-Berry Land on the North" of the Great, or White. Field. The feudal strip system was still operating here, as everywhere else, when William Pym of St Martin's in the Fields bought the manor in 1662. It stayed in the Pym family until the twentieth century.

Francis Pym was lord of the manor when enclosures were enforced and the open fields of Norton were divided by fences and hedges in 1798. Another Francis Pym still owned Norton Bury in 1903. He then sold it with all his Norton and Radwell estate to the new company called First Garden City Ltd.

The Pyms did not live here at the time, for Norton Bury was held by tenant farmers. From various directories we see that Nicholas Stick was fanning here in 1899 (probably much earlier), and was still here as the tenant of First Garden City Ltd in 1912. By 1923, and at least until 1937, the farmer was Charles Webb. After the Second World War Alfred Bertram Sapsed was the tenant of Norton Bury, as he was when Letchworth Garden City Corporation became the lords of the manor in 1963.

When the Corporation rationalised its farming policy throughout the Garden City agricultural belt, Norton Bury fell vacant, until in 1978 it was leased to the Letchworth and Baldock Scout District. By a happy coincidence, the District Commissioner at this time was named Peter Norton.

Looking at Norton Bury farmhouse, or activity centre, you mainly seethe late Victorian yellowish-grey brick walls, very similar in style to the village school which was built in 1877. The farmhouse, however, has one chimney stack of red brick which is much older, and seems likely that there are red brick walls hidden from sight - possibly from the Stuart period, and perhaps built by William Pym. Even these, however cannot be called the original walls of the house, for Norton Bury has obviously been altered, added to, and rebuilt many times since the fourteenth century. In the topmost room there is an access to the inside of the roof, where the beams appear to be medieval. And even these must have been put up over surviving parts of earlier farmhouses from Saxon times.

The remains of the moat are still here, though no longer surrounding the old manor house. If Mrs Bailey and the Victorian County History are right, it seems that manor courts may have been held at Norton Bury. These courts began when the Norman barons were the only kind of local authority in England, and only gradually lost their powers as the King's courts took over the administration of justice.

Norton Manor Courts continued to be held until August 1916, but for their last 50 years were mostly brief formalities in solicitor's offices in Baldock. In 1977, however, Messrs Balderston and Warren discovered the Manor Court books dating back to 1757. The first of these hand-written accounts begins.
"The Special Court Baron of William Pym Esquire Lord of the said Manor there held in and for the said Manor on Thursday the Twenty Fourth Day of March in the Thirtieth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord George the Second by the Grace of God of Great Britain France and Ireland King Defender of the Faith and so forth and in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Seven Before Isaac Wilkinson Gentleman Steward there."

"In and for the said Manor" certainly suggests that the courts were held at Norton Bury, which will be an impressive thought for any future meetings to be held on this historic site.