Cerne Abbas: when the village was sold at auction
When General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers died in 1900, there were heavy death duties on his huge Dorset estate. They were so enormous that parts of the estate had to be sold to meet them – including the village of Cerne Abbas, which was sold by auction in 1919. Tony Burton-Page tells the intriguing story of Dorset’s ‘sale of the century’.
Published in May ’12
Cerne Abbas’s chief claim to national (and indeed international) fame in the 21st century is its Giant, the notorious 180-foot-long figure carved into the chalk of a hill a quarter of a mile north of the village – it is Britain’s largest hill-figure. But at the heart of the village’s history is the abbey which accounts for its ecclesiastical suffix. Historians and archaeologists still argue as to which of the two is the older: the abbey definitely dates back to 987, whereas there are conflicting theories about the age of the giant – scientific research suggests a date in the 1st century AD, but there is no written mention of this highly visible artefact until 1694, which seems contradictory given how difficult it is to ignore.
Whether under the gaze of the giant or not, a Benedictine abbey was founded to the north of the present village in the 10th century (the monastery’s foundation charter is dated 987 AD) at the instigation of Æthelmær, ealdorman of the western provinces (i.e. the south-west of England), possibly on the site of some previous religious community. Æthelmær sent Ælfric from the Old Minster at Winchester to be its first abbot, which turned out to be an excellent choice: Ælfric’s reputation has endured to this day as being the most prolific writer in Old English (he has been compared to the great Bede himself) and also as the author of the first vernacular Latin grammar in medieval Europe, hence his nickname Ælfric the Grammarian.
For the next 500 years the abbey flourished, as the size of the magnificent tithe barn, its main storage depot, demonstrates. It was the dominating force in the area until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Henry VIII’s revenge on the Church of Rome. The following year the abbey and its lands were leased by Philip van Wilder, a Dutch lutenist and composer who had become renowned in Tudor court circles – he taught music to the young Edward VI. But there were many subsequent landlords, and in the confusion of multiple leases and tenants the abbey church and most of its associated buildings were demolished. All that survives inside the monastic precincts are the porch to the Abbot’s Hall and the nearby Abbey Guesthouse, which has a superb oriel window. The tithe barn also survived and was converted into a dwelling – not in the recent wave of such conversions but some 200 years ago.
Deprived of its ecclesiastical focus, Cerne turned into a small agricultural market town. In the 17th century, its main trade came from the weekly market of corn, meat, poultry and vegetables, and its chief industry was cloth-making. By the end of the next century, malting and brewing had taken over: in 1754 the widely-travelled Bishop Richard Pococke was able to state that Cerne was ‘more famous for beer than in any other place in this country’. By now it was a thriving little town, with gloving, shoe-making, silk-winding and tanning as subsidiary industries.
But Cerne went into a serious decline in the second half of the 19th century, reflecting a nationwide downturn in the rural economy. The population halved as the inhabitants sought less isolated worlds. The route of the projected Bath and Weymouth Great Western Union Railway was through Cerne, but it never materialised; the Bath to Weymouth line eventually went via the Frome valley instead. But Cerne’s decline cannot entirely be blamed on the lack of a railway; nearby Maiden Newton, whose station opened in 1857, also suffered a major slump and, like Cerne, its population went down to 600 by the turn of the century. Such was the nature of the Great Agricultural Depression.
At this time, the whole village (no longer a town) was part of the Pitt-Rivers family estate, having come under its wing in 1705. It had been inherited in 1880 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox, who added ‘Pitt-Rivers’ to his name to honour the great-uncle who had bequeathed it to him. This distinguished archaeologist died in 1900 and the estate passed to his son, Alexander Edward. By now, the decline seemed to be terminal, for in his 1906 Highways and Byways in Dorset Sir Frederick Treves describes it as ‘decaying and strangely silent.’ He tells of grass growing in the streets, of deserted houses with boarded-up windows, and of ‘empty barns, gates falling off their hinges and doorways grown up with weeds’. No wonder that when the Pitt-Riverses were faced with enormous death duties after World War 1 they decided that this was one part of their estate they could do without. So, on 24 September 1919, the ‘residential, agricultural and shooting’ properties of Cerne Abbas were offered to the highest bidder at the Town Hall in Dorchester by Messrs Senior and Godwin, amounting to 4700 acres sold in 75 lots – a giant sale, even if the Giant was not for sale.
Present at this remarkable event was Frederick Harvey Darton, of the famous publishing family and a respected expert on children’s literature. He was also a devotee of Dorset (his The Marches of Wessex, later re-published as The Soul of Dorset, deserves to be as celebrated as Treves’s epic) and not only attended the sale but inspected some of the properties a few days beforehand. Like Treves, he found a dismaying decay (‘slugs of the Giant’s kin were in many rooms’) which the auctioneers’ catalogue unsurprisingly failed to mention, opting instead for such glowing descriptions as ‘well-constructed small private residence’, ‘pretty creeper-clad cottage’ and the like. He describes the scene thus:
‘It was full, quite full, of farmers, with a sprinkling of gentry and humbler folk, and a few obvious agents: a gathering huge by the side of the coteries of Sotheby’s or Christie’s….An austere man with a little white pointed beard and a monotonous voice was saying, “Any advance on £700? £750. Any advance on £750? Going at £750…going…Gone at £750. Mr. X. Bought by the tenant.” There was hardly even an inflexion in his colourless voice as he asked “Any advance?” But in the audience there was a subdued undercurrent of feeling which could not be mistaken: it broke out in cheers when a tenant bid successfully.’
Thus a few erstwhile tenants became small householders; some even became landlords themselves by acquiring more than one property. Amongst the successful tenant bidders were Mr Green, the butcher, who bought his premises and the two cottages next to them. Mr Dubbin was able to buy his bakery and Mr Cheesman his corner shop on Duck Street. But they were in a minority: less than a quarter of the lots went to the sitting tenants, and even this number includes the better-off tenants such as Mr Bartlett (Abbey House, £7600), Mr Gale (Mount Pleasant Farmhouse, £2850) and Mr Sprake (Barton Farm, £12,500) – at the opposite extreme, some cottages went for less than £100. The medieval jetty-fronted houses in Abbey Street, now Grade 1 listed, went for a mere £340.
The Pitt-Rivers family raised £67,402 from the sale. One property, however, they did not sell: they presented the old Wesleyan Chapel to the village as a reading room, a deed which met with much applause when the auctioneer announced it. Reading having become less fashionable over the years, the building has now been replaced by a public toilet.
But many of those who purchased on that September afternoon did not have the financial wherewithal (or in some cases the inclination) to repair and maintain the properties they had bought. As a result, the village’s decline continued; a visitor during this period witnessed pigs living on the ground floors of the houses in Abbey Street. Within ten years of the sale the population had dropped to an all-time low of about 450.
Some villages never recover from such a slump; many books have been written about England’s lost villages. But since the 1930s Cerne has flourished. A new set discovered the decaying corpse: retired people, people searching for tranquillity and a respite from the rat race, people with money to invest. Gradually the buildings became serviceable again, particularly during the era that Rodney Legg called ‘the restoring 1970s’. The population has been augmented by the building of small housing estates around the edge of the village, which now boasts a surgery, a post office, a school and a village shop. A village hall was built on land reclaimed thanks to a flood relief scheme – water meadows which went for £100 at the 1919 sale.
The transformation has been remarkable. In 1992 Cerne won the Best Kept Village award and in 2008 it was voted the most desirable place to live in Britain. The latter award cited its beautiful historic buildings, its idyllic rural setting and its excellent local amenities – not a mention of the Giant.
- The Cerne Abbas Historical Society, formed in 1988, has built up an archive of material of local historical interest. The address of its website is cerneabbashistory.org and its email address is email@example.com