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In the Common Meadow a more perplexing system prevails, and all the science of the village seems to be necessary to enable the inabitants to understand and maintain the cumbrous machinery by which this part of their agricultural proceedings is regulated.
The Common Meadow is laid out by boundary-stones into 13 large divisions, technically called “ layings-out.” These always remain the same, and each laying-out in like manner is divided into four pieces, called " Sets,” First Set, Second, Third, and Fourth Set. Now, as the customs of Aston and Coat are based upon the principle of justice and equity between all the commoners, and the Common Meadow is not equally fertile for grass in every part, it becomes desirable to adopt some mode of giving all an equal chance of obtaining the best cuts for their cattle. To effect this, recourse is had to the ballot; and the following mode is practised. From time immemorial there have been sixteen marks established in the village, each of which corresponds with four yard-lands and the whole sixteen consequently represent the 64 yard-lands, into which the common is divided. A certain number of the tenants, consequently, have the same mark, which they always keep, so that every one of them knows his own. The use of these marks is to enable the tenants every year to draw lots for their portions of the Meadow.
When the grass is fit to cut, which will be at different times in different years according to the season; the Grass-Stewards and Sixteens summon the tenants to a general meeting, and the following ceremony takes place. Four of the tenants come forwards, eachi bearing his mark cut on a piece of wood, as, for example, the "frying-pan,” the “hern's foot,” the “bow,” the "two strokes to the right and one at top,” &c. These four marks are thrown into a hat, and a boy, having shaken up the hat, again draws forth the marks. The first-drawn entitles
its owner to liave his portion of the Common Meadow in
The most singular feature of this very intricate system remains to be told. When the lots are all drawn, each man goes, armed with his scythe, and cuts out his mark on the piece of ground which belongs to him, and which, in many cases, lies in so narrow a strip, that he has not width enough to take a full sweep with his scythe, but is obliged to hack down his his grass in an inconvenient manner, as he is best able.
Another extraordinary peculiarity of the system is, that a single farmer may have to cut his portion of grass in the Com. mon Meadow from twenty different places, though the tenants frequently accommodate one another by exchanging allotments when it is convenient to two parties to do so.
I conclude this long and tedious description of Aston Common-Law with some extracts from an old book, partly of vellume and partly of paper, which contains the proceedings of the Sixteens for the last 200 years, and is still preserved in the custody of Mr. Richard Townsend, tenant of Cote Farm.
On the first vellum-leaf.
Pretium 6s. - This book given March 24th, 1668, by me Thos. Horde Esqre, Lord of the manor of Aston Bouges and Coat in the parish of Bampton in the county of Oxon. for the benefitt, use and direction of his tennants and the Landholders thereof, and for the Sixteens to register yearly all their orders made at the Crosse of Aston aforesaid, according to their auncient custome and to be kept in safe custody by the Stewards pro tempore.
No person in Aston so proper to keep this book safe and cleane as Richard Alder, and so convenient to wayte on the Sixteens And to write down all their orders so plaine and legible as he; who ought not to suffer the book to be taken or put out of his house to any person or persons but by the order of the Sixteens, who ought to reward him for his care and paynes att the discretion of the said Sixteens, either at every meeting att the Cross as they make orders, or every halfe yeare or yearly, as they shall thinke fitt. Ănd I trust the Sixteens will meet lovingly and kindly, from time to time, as they are directed by their auncient and laudible custome, to the generall satisfaction as nere as possible can be endeavoured by them that love and friendship, peace and prosperity may continue for many ages to the whole neighbourhood of Aston and Coat; Which hath been and is the hearty wish of Their loving Landlord and Neighbour, Tho: Horde Coat House, 3 April, 1708.
On the second leaf of the book is the following entry :
If any person desires to read what orders have bin made or to satisfie himself concerning the land or about any other matter that is mended or wrott down in his book, he may come to the Steward's House who keeps the book and in the presence of the said steward may peruse it and read therein when he pleases, but the Steward is not to carry or send the book up and down att the towne's pleasure, but to the lord only to set downe orders made att the Crosse in the presence of the stewards or one of them.
If it fall out that all the Sixteens sette not their hands to orders made at the Crosse, then the Steward is to carry the book to those that have not subscribed and to noe other, unlesse the whole towne att any time have occasion to subscribe to any agreement made for the benifit of the towne upon such generall agreement then the Stewards or Steward shall carry the book to those persons who ought to subscribe and have not if the Steward doth otherwise then is hereby directed he shall forfeit two shillings to be given to the poore of the towne of Aston and Coat, att the discretion of the Lord for the time being, and to be impounded for by the Sixteens the Steward or Stewards that keepeth the book shall promise on the 24th of March yearly (being the Lady Eve) att the Crosse before the Sixteens for the payment of the two shillings as above-mentioned if they offend herein being proved by their own confession or wittness of credit that is a reputed honest person. That the Stewards doe faierly transcribe
their orders into this bock, and, att the Sixteens' next meeting att the Crosse, to bring the book for them to subscribe to the orders againe that they may continue upon recorde, unlesse the Stewards will carry the book to the Sixteens.
That the Stewards suffer not any person to subscribe or write any matter in this book, nor the Stewards themselves, but what is don att the Crosse, by the consent of the Lord and the Sixteens, unlesse the Lord have a desire to send att any time for the book to insert some thing for the benefit of the towne.
As the matters in this book are divided into so many sheets for the conteineing thereof, this book may serve to register all the affairs of the towne for twenty years.
That the Stewaris buy a stick or black-lead pencill and a ruler to
draw and rule the lin es in the book, as 'tis now done that all matters may be wrott in order fairely and handsomely for the better and easier understanding of the neighbors that shall peruse the book.
Also put a clean sheet of brown paper between the fresh written leaves that they blott not.
That when this book is finished and noe blank paper left, yet it ought to be carefully kept and preserved in the steward's or some other's custody but rather delivered up to the Lord then in being, that the inhabitants may know what have bin aunciently acted for the good of the towne and a guide for the succeeding Sixteens.
Richard Bersall, due to me
1704 seventeen and 4 pence. 17s. 4d. On the third leaf :
That noe officer whatever be pd for writing any thing for the towne but what the law gives them or the Sixteens for the former all the kings's officers must doe their duty upon their owne expenses unlesse the Law have appointed them some recompense for the latter the Sixteens have given an office out of which they are to pay their clark or scrivener, if they cannot be theire own scrivener.
$ 21. COTE.
At the distance of about half a mile eastward from Aston is the little hamlet of Cote, consisting of about 30 houses. It is in general still more humble and unpretending in its character than Aston ; but it contains two objects of interest which merit the attention of the reader, - COTE CHAPEL and COTE HOUSE.
$ 22. COTE CHAPEL. This chapel is one of the most respectable establishments, founded for the use of Dissenters, in the whole kingdom.
It was built for the denomination of dissenters called Baptists, and is endowed wlth a house for the minister,—a respectable building, situated, as was before observed, at Astonand an annual stipend.
The congregation of this chapel came originally from Longworth, where they had a burial-ground, which, however, they did not long possess; for, owing to the neglect of the Trustees, it reverted to the lord of the manor.
The following curious entry is found in the “Church-book” of the Society at Longworth upon the opening of the burialground.
The Lord, who was pleased in these last days to gather his people out from amongst the people of this world, hath been pleased, according to his abundant goodness, to gather together some of his poor children, and to plant them in and about Longworth, where we have enjoyed many mercies and privileges, which he hath bestowed upon his people ; and amongst the many mercies this is not the least, that in this church he hath given some increase in number of us, his witnesses, against those vain wayes of this world which they receive by tradition from their fathers; as chiefly baptizing of infants (as they call it), and touching their faith and persuasions about the place where they bury their dead, which two things, (as also many others) the Lord hath separated us from them in.
And taking these things into consideration, we, who were led by that gude word of Prophecy, as in baptism, so also in burying our dead in a place apart from the people of this world, hereupon our births and our burials were neither of them registered by the Parish Register, so we judged it expedient to take care in this matter, whereupon we appointed and prepared this book, wherein we have inserted, on one side births, and the other burials.
The earliest entry in this book is in 1647; and, like the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers, they avoided using the names of the days of the week and the month : thus ;
John Williams was buried on the 8th of the 4th month, 1675.
The meeting-house was first registered, as the law required, in the month of September, 1703, the ground having been given by Mr. John Williams of Aston.
The ministers of this chapel since its foundation have been the following:
1. Rev. Joseph Collet,* from July, 1703 to 1741.
2. Rev. Joseph Stenett, Brother of the Rev. Samuel Stennett, D. D. from March 17, 1742 to 1772.
3. Rev. Tho. Dunscombe, M. A., from June, 1772 to 1798.+
* Author of a treatise on Divine Providence, and son of Joseph Collett, gentleman' of Cote, who lived in a house on the site of the present “ Pond-House," which descended to Mr. John Williams, late of Shifford, who married his grand-daughter.
† At this time the number of members who received the Communion in this chapel is registered 102.