This crumpled, faded and spotted scrap of parchment is the oldest item in the Usmeum, and, like many of the older documents, it has come to me via Auntie and Elsie Fry’s family. It is a deed to an acre of land in a village called Elm, in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, dated “Anno 7, Edw 2”, i.e. the 7th year of the reign of Edward II. At some point (possibly in the 17th century) an unknown hand has added “A.D. 1314” for clarification, which is almost correct (explanation to follow). This ancient deed still remains folded up in the tiny tin box in which I have always known it; probably not the best environment for its conservation, and perhaps one day it will end up in a real museum being properly looked after. I opened it up very carefully to take these photos, but could not decipher the script:
However, my mother did some detective work on it back in the 1970s, and I have recently unearthed a file in containing some documents and correspondence from her research (she was, after all, a professional secretary!). There is a transcript of the deed itself, which is written in Latin, and some notes which identify it as referring to “one acre of land in the town of Elm, in a field called Spetelfield, between the land of Giles Wysman and Simon Tosty, which one headland abuts above the sea ditch of Elm and another headland above the land of John Pigge”. The date is given as “11th July 1313 [Thursday after the feast of the translation of the blessed abbot in the 7th year of Edward the son of Edward]”; and the document is a deed of gift between “Nicholas Carle of Chatteris, and Agnes his wife; and Julia Carle, their daughter”.
The date is corroborated in another document I have found amongst Auntie’s files. This is a letter written to Elsie Fry, dated July 5th 1937, from a friend or relative (whose signature, unfortunately, I am also unable to decipher, but the address on the headed notepaper is The Chantry, Aylesbury, Bucks). The letter describes the outcomes of the writer’s efforts to have various historic documents, paintings and other items belonging to Elsie, valued on Elsie’s behalf by a “Mr Hollis”. One of these items is this deed; I quote:
“The two deeds about land are not valuable though they would be appreciated by the local museum concerned who might be able to trace the families concerned. The 1313 one may belong to the Horman Fisher family may it not? If so it really is rather a treasure to you. Mr Hollis happens to be running an exhibition of old deeds at this very moment – they being all connected with this locality. He has a thirteenth century one which is not much older than yours so yours is a real antique – he recognised its age at once – even though it has no money value. He read it to me & it proves to be about a field in a “town” call Elm which he finds is a little place near Kings Lynn. Did any of the H. Fishers ever come form Norfolk? …
By the bye your old 1313 deed he says should be dated 1313 not 1314 (as it is inscribed by someone writing on the back in the 17th century) as it is dated the 7th year of Ed. II’s reign & if he only ruled for one day his first year that particular year is dated one – I hope you understand this rather involved explanation.”
Mum’s correspondence with Fenland District Council 40 years later confirms that the land is located in Cambridgeshire, and not Norfolk. She wrote to the then chief executive of the Council about it, and received this very prompt and friendly response from the District Secretary, Mr E. S. Thompson:
“I can say from my personal experience that you will find great difficulty in tracing through the ownership of land from the early Middle Ages as there was no accurate system of land registration in those days, and, in fact, there is still no national system of land registration.” However, he does suggest she takes the deed to the local museum to show to the curator, and adds, “I might be able to give you some information from local knowledge. In fact, I live in Elm which is a small village on the outskirts of Wisbech.” Encouraged by this, Mum sent him the transcript and note and received a charming letter back:
“I did have a look through the Watsons History of Wisbech and District, published in 1827 and in respect of Elm, I noticed a reference to a site of a leper hospital on the outskirts of Elm adjoining Wisbech and it is just possible that the field surrounding the hospital would be known at that time as Spetelfield. The only other connection that I managed to trace was that in 1250 a Walter DeKyrkham was Rector of Elm Church and he is possibly an antecedent of Richard Kyrkham who was one of the signatories to your deed.
During the course of the next week or two, I shall probably meet one or two old and knowledgeable residents of Elm who may have heard a reference to a Spetelfield and this will give some more definite idea of its location and if I can obtain any further information, I will gladly pass it on to you.”
Mum did visit Wisbech at that time, and took the deed to the museum there, but as far as I know nothing further was discovered. So we gave up on our dream of land ownership. But this ancient document is a wonderful treasure to own in itself, regardless of its financial or legal value (or lack thereof). Another gossamer link to the far distant reaches of my family. (I am also delighted by the 1970s correspondence, with its light personal tone; so different to correspondence with many council officials today).
As for the 1937 letter to Elsie Fry, most of the items described therein are unknown to me. One of them, however, I have always known about, even though it has never been in the Usmeum. This item has found its way to a real, proper museum, and I will write about it in my next post.