By Richard Holt of Holt's Family History Research
Charities and the Cost of Living:
The current cost of living crisis will have many households evaluating their finances. While today’s crisis refers to the cost of everyday essentials rising faster than average incomes, for many of our ancestors the cost of living was a constant struggle. The records of parish charities are often underused by family historians; however, they can provide a wealth of information and contain a fascinating history in their own right. You will see that reference is made throughout this post to a number of under-used sources that can help tell the story of our ancestors in time and place. I hope to piece together some of the more fascinating history of a parish charity and illustrate how this entwines with my ancestors.
The ancient parish of Bledlow, Buckinghamshire once included the hamlet of Bledlow Ridge. Bledlow Ridge became a parish in its own right in 1868 when a chapel was built and dedicated to St Paul. My ancestors have a long connection to this parish and it is one of its many charities that is the subject of this post. All but one of the seven charities associated with the parish of Bledlow were created by private individuals. The last charity, stated to be ‘the most valuable of all’ was the outcome of two Acts of Parliament. These Acts were the General Inclosure Act of 1801 and the Bledlow Parish Inclosure Act of 1809. Under the authority of these Acts, the Bledlow Inclosure Award of 14th August 1812 allotted two plots of land in Bledlow Ridge to the Vicar, Churchwardens and Overseers of the parish of Bledlow. It was stated that the land was in substitution for the right of cutting firewood which the poor inhabitants of the parish had previously enjoyed.  The charity was thus called the Fuel Charity, but was later known as the Coal Charity when coal, instead of wood, was purchased by the profits raised from the land. This charity was also referred to as the Poor’s Land.
The Cost of Fuel:
While we are facing increases in the cost of fuel and energy, our ancestors often had a hard time keeping warm in the winter. Found at the back of 'A book of the wills of benefactors and of other writings relating to the parish of Bledlow, 1768’ are charity accounts for the years 1800-1830. In 1813 and 1814, entries for ‘tickets for wood’ and ‘tickets for scrub-wood’ appear. These tickets were issued by the Vicar to the individuals named in the accounts.  This firewood was grown on one of the plots of land allotted by the Bledlow Award of 1812. This plot of land was situated at the top of Loxborough Hill fronting the north-east side of the road.
A number of entries in the charity accounts give more information about the management of the land and the beneficiaries of the firewood. The wood was cut between November and January of each year depending on its growth. In 1818 the following entry was made:
"About the beginning of November 1818, a portion of the Scrub Wood on Loxborough Hill was begun to be cut for the use of the poor it having attained in the opinion of the Trustees a sufficient growth since the last cutting (Christmas 1814). Men were employed in cutting under the direction of Mr. Gibbons the Churchwarden at 10d per score of faggots which were served to those poor persons who produced a ticket from the Vicar empowering them to receive on paying for the cutting. Three score of faggots was allowed to each. Five kept or contributed to by persons entitled to the wood. The number of claimants was found to be great not less than a hundred. About half the ground or 13 acres was cut this year."
It seemed that there was a growing need for firewood by the poor of the parish and in 1819 ‘only a small portion of the wood [was] left standing for another year’. It was said that ‘the number of claimants [was] greatly increasing’ and a list of individuals issued with tickets amounted to 86 families in Bledlow and 46 families at Bledlow Ridge. It seems that the Scrub Wood was struggling to revive itself after each cut and in 1820 the Fuel Charity turned to purchasing coal. This was bought, in part, out of the rent from five cottages on the second of the two plots of land allotted by the Bledlow Award known as ‘The Scrubbs’. 
In 1820, around 140 families were each supplied with around 100kg of coal. This amounted to seven wagon loads which were provided by Lord Carrington and a number of the local farmers. Five of the wagons were stationed at Bledlow and two at Bledlow Ridge, where the coal was weighed out and distributed.
It is not until 1822 when we next hear about the Scrub Wood at Loxborough Hill. In this season, the wood was “cut throughout the whole piece clean to the stumps the faggots being small & the wood only of three years growth and the number of claimants very large about 150 families who were supplied with 60 faggots each on paying each eight pence per score for the cutting.” It seems that there were growing issues with how beneficial the land was seen to be. The Vicar, William Stephen, explained that the wood was “considered as very unprofitable, to those who live at a distance especially, and a wish [had] been expressed by many of the poor that the land could be grubbed & let for tillage - but this is contrary to the express words of the Act & could not be accomplished without general consent.” 
It would appear, that by Christmas 1825-1826, the use of the land on Loxborough Hill had changed. The accounts explain that “the Poor’s Land at Loxborough Scrubbs having been completely grubbed in the winter of 1824-1825 was let in two equal portions of 12 1/2 acres each for cultivation on a lease of twenty one years at 11s/- an acre to Mr. Philip Gibbons & Mr. Thomas Chown. The rent to be laid out in fuel.”  This is confirmed by the entry for Christmas 1826-1827 when it was “resolved to purchase coals [with the rent from the two plots of land] in preference to any other fuel.” Ten tons of coal were brought from Wendover Wharf on the 20th December 1826 and distributed the next day. The coal was issued by tickets that were given the poor who were deemed entitled. The parish purchased a further two wagons full of coal for the poor who were able and willing to pay the wharf price and distributed it to those who had purchased tickets. It is needless to say, that despite receiving aid from the charity, our ancestors had to pay a high price to keep warm during the winter.
Living Conditions, Housing and Rent:
The plot of land known as ‘The Scrubbs’ provided income for the Fuel Charity from the rent of five cottages known as Colony Cottages. These cottages had long been connected with my ancestors, the Brooks family, as well as being entangled in local disputes, lore and legends. The Brooks were once referred to as “nomadic people… [who] squatted on… land called The Scrubbs.”  Today the track down to the site of Colony Cottages is called Scrubbs Lane. It was rumoured “that the houses in Scrubbs Lane (Colony Cottages) passed to the person who had his or her shoes in the fireside on the death of the owner.”  The Bledlow Award map “indicates that there were two small structures on the plot of land at the time of the Inclosure although no mention of them is made in the award itself.” It seems that the Charity Commissioners referred to "four cottages let at 16/- each” although five cottages are mentioned in many other sources. 
These cottages became a constant source of trouble for the charity. Writing about the Bledlow Charities in 1936, McGown stated the following: “When these cottages were built and by whom is not definitely known. Their ownership seems to always have been a matter of dispute between the trustees and the occupants.”  The first reference to “the Brooks’ Cottages” is found on 30th January 1820 when “the Rent of 5 Cottages & Gardens occupied severally by Richard, William, Ambrose & Francis Brooks & Henry Newell” was recorded. The entry states that the cottages were “on land allotted to the Officers and Trustees of the Poor. The rent [was] 16s a year each & [was to be] paid half yearly.” This year the rent money was added to the Coat Charity set up by Henry Smith’s will of 1627 “in consideration of £4 of Smith’s Charity being employed towards apprenticing a boy.” 
Richard Brooks, William Brooks and Francis Brooks of Colony Cottages, Bledlow Ridge are all my direct ancestors. In fact, Richard and William Brooks feature more than once in my family tree on both my paternal and maternal lines. In 1915, John William Turner, Headmaster of Bledlow Ridge School, even had a favourite joke: Why is Bledlow Ridge School like a river? Because so many little Brooks run into it.  The same could be said about my ancestry!
It appears that the occupants of Colony Cottages struggled to pay their rent. The Rev. William Stephen added 4 shillings to the rent collected during the period from 21st December 1830 to 7th March 1831. In 1832, Ambrose Brooks had fallen in arrears and paid £1, 4 shillings ‘in part for three years’ rent and the Vicar excused him for the year he advanced his rent. It is also recorded that “Richard Brooks had not paid [his rent] up to March 7th & probably will not pay his rent to Mich[aelma]s 1831.” In 1833, Richard paid 10 shillings towards 2 years worth of rent; and while he paid his rent of 16 shilling in 1834, he was still in arrears of £1, 2 shillings. The entry for 1835 reads “R. Brooks in debt £1..18” and records no payments against his name. In 1836 Richard Brooks paid £1, 1 shilling towards his rent arrears and Ambrose Brooks was also paying arrears. The following note at the bottom of the entry reads: “N.B. R. Brooks left 17d Arrear & 16/1 Michs. Rent hitherto unpaid. But his cottage is ready to fall & hardly worth any rent. But he promises payment. A Notice has been served on all these cottagers to admit no more Inmates. Willm. Stephens.”
Clearly the cost of living was a crisis that these families could not avoid. The Brooks brothers had fallen into a cycle of rent arrears; their arrears increasing despite payments towards the rent owed. We also learn that the condition of the housing was very poor, with at least one of the cottages nearly falling down. It is no wonder that the surname Brooks appears multiple times in the petty session records for trespass charges in pursuit of conies and game. Poaching was one way of feeding their families. It is not hard to image that the fight for survival was a constant struggle. On 3rd January 1837, one of the major landowners, Henry Gibbons, paid the yearly rent of 16 shillings on behalf of Richard Brooks. Another lifeline was passed to Richard Brooks as the Rev. William Stephen excused all arrears. Gibbons also paid Richard Brooks’ yearly rent on 21st December 1837. Despite such benevolence, Richard was unable to pay his rent in 1839 and Henry Gibbons, having stepped up two years in a row, declined to be answerable for the rent. Still a year later in 1840, Brooks settles his rent arrears while Henry Gibbons furnishes him with the 16 shillings for the annual rent. At this point, Richard was 75 years of age and probably in poor health. 
Colony Cottages - Ownership Dispute:
It seems that Gibbons had accepted this custom of paying 16 shilling for Richard Brooks’ rent as the same occurred in 1841. It is interesting to note that the 1841 account book entry reads as follows: “Rent of Cottages, Gardens etc. (or quit-Rents on grounds).” Richard Brooks died the following year and was buried at Bledlow on 16th February 1842 at the age of 77 years. Even though his life may have been somewhat ‘nomadic’ with it being claimed that he ‘squatted’ on The Scrubbs, his legacy of survival lives on through his many living descendants.
In 1841, the Rev. William Stephen penned his ‘observations’ in relation to the charities. Regarding “the Rent of the Brooks Cottages,” he said that “the Charity Rents should… be paid in Public Vestry & proper Receipts given.” No further mention of the rent payments appear in the charity accounts from 1841-1854. The historical record does not turn silent despite the cottages not appearing in the account books for these dates. Even for cottages which were about to fall down and ‘hardly worth any rent’, they are the subject of much dispute and controversy.
Jumping forward in time to September 1896, the following letter was published in the Bucks Free Press:
OVER-CROWDING AT BLEDLOW RIDGE
In 1911 the Bucks Herald reported on a case heard at the High Wycombe County Court on 6th April. The case was reported as follows:
A BLEDLOW RIDGE CASE
Mrs Brooks was the widow of Jesse Brooks whose obituary appeared in the Bucks Free Press on 21st May 1909:
OBITUARY - We have this week to record the death of an old and well-known inhabitant of this village, Mr. Jesse Brooks, of “The Scrubbs,” which took place on Wednesday, at his residence, at the age of 76 years. Deceased, who had been in failing health for several years, was a well-known figure both in this and surrounding villages, through his lifelong occupation and frequent attendances in different localities as chimney sweep, an occupation which he followed with credit and success as long as health permitted. He was much respected by all who knew him. Deceased had been married twice, and leaves a widow, two sons and four daughters to mourn their loss. We understand that the funeral will take place at Bledlow Ridge Church on Saturday, at 4 p.m.
When the Valuation Office conducted its survey of Bledlow Ridge in accordance with the Finance Act of 1910, the dispute over ownership of the cottages was raised. Ordinance Survey maps were annotated by the surveyors and assessment numbers were recorded for each property. These assessment numbers are referred to in the field books which contain various information about the properties as recorded during the survey. The image below shows the field book for Bledlow which contains the information on ‘Scrubbs Cottages’.
The field book contains a sketch plan of the properties and numbers them consecutively from 282 to 286.  The occupants of each of the properties are shown as follows:
282 - Thomas Smith
283 - Mrs Brooks
284 - Newell
285 - Isaac Brooks
286 - James Brooks
The inspections were made on 2nd October 1913 and the annual rent of each of the cottages is shown to be 15 shillings. The rent for cottage #283, occupied by Mrs Brooks, has been changed to 25s. with a note in brackets reading: “Now the Vicar claims 25/-” Clearly there was still some issue with the rent for this particular cottage following the court case two years previously. There is further evidence of this in McGown’s writings where he states the following:
“The Trustees Minute Book records that in 1913 as a result of successful litigation against one of the tenants the future terms of the cottages were settled between the trustees and the tenants as follows:- the tenancies to be yearly at rents of 25/- each, tenants do repairs and pay rates.” 
While McGown applies the rent of 25s. to all the cottages, only Mrs Brooks’ cottage is subject to the amended rate in the field book. Furthermore, McGown states that “in spite of this settlement, the tenants continued to regard themselves as the owners of their respective cottages and claimed that the rents of 25/- were ground rents only.”
The field book also adds further descriptions of the properties, referring to #286 as a “2 Roomed apology for a cottage.” A note under #282 reads: “N.B. The tenants of all these 5 cottages maintain that the Buildings are their own & that only the land belongs to the Charity. The Building[s] are in the most cases homemade affairs & very often been erected by the present tenants.”
From what we have learned of Colony Cottages, it is easy to build a picture about how they may have looked. I refer back to the note in the charity account book from 1841 which read: “Rent of Cottages, Gardens etc. (or quit-Rents on grounds).” This would seem to support the occupants’ claims that the houses were their own and erected by themselves. Having seen that the cottages were ‘homemade affairs’ and an ‘apology for a cottage’ it is not difficult to imaging how the Brooks’ and other occupants may have lived.
The many Bledlow charities had been consolidated on 15th October 1909 to be run under the title of the Consolidated Charities.  There were further disputes in 1931 and much was done at this time to ensure the charities were administered correctly. An article in the Bucks Free Press dated 6th February 1931 discussed the ‘Bledlow Charities Dispute’ with the following in bold: “ALLEGATIONS that the trustees had wrongfully distributed the Bledlow Charities, and that one trustee had taken possession of a cottage at a rent of 25s. a year, were made at a Parish Meeting at Bledlow Ridge on Monday.” 
It was claimed that “one of the trustees of the Parish Council had moved into occupation of the Scrub Cottages at the old rent of 25s. a year.” The article noted that the Charity Commissioners wrote to the Parish Council stating “that Scrub Cottages belonged to the Charity and if one became vacated, it should be publicly advertised by the Trustees.” There was much debate at the meeting relating to the custom of giving gifts and various people believing they were entitled to such charitable gifts on the basis that they had always received them. The parishioners wanted to know if the Charities were run properly. The chairman explained that the trustees had ‘rather wide powers’ and that a good deal was left to their discretion. Mr J. Keen asked: “Can you explain the Consolidation Act then?” The chairman responded: “You would need a lawyer to do that. It would take him a couple of hours and then you would hardly be able to understand it."
The article continued: “Major McGown said that he was sincerely sorry that tenants in several of the cottages which belonged to the trust, and which the tenants looked upon as their own, now found that they had no right to the cottages. Perhaps something could be done on their behalf. They might be able to negotiate with the Charity Commissioners to get a 21 years’ lease upon the cottages.” A voice responded: “Twenty-one years? I have lived in my cottage all my life as my father and grandfather did before me. I don’t want 21 years’ lease but 60 years.”
In the next issue of the Bucks Free Press, dated 13th February 1931, the following letter appeared:
Here, William Robert Keen of The Scrubbs, Bledlow Ridge explains that the cottages belonged to the people who lived in them subject to a quit rent charge of 15s. per annum and not 25s. as stated in the article. It seems that the 25s. may have only applied to Mrs Brooks’ cottage as noted in the field book. The claim that the properties were owned by the occupants who paid ground rents only led to one of the properties changing hands in 1930 on this basis; “the new occupant purchasing possession from the representative of the deceased occupant.” 
Interestingly, the debate of property ownership came to an end in 1931 in a move to avoid the expense required in litigation to assert the Trustees right of ownership relating to the property sale the previous year. The charity Trustees came to an arrangement with the tenants “for the sale of the cottages to their respective occupants on special terms. The Charity Commissioners consented to the sale on the condition that the full value of the entire property, as assessed by an independent valuer, was paid to the Charity account. Each tenant paid as much of the purchase money as represented the value of the plot of ground in which his cottage stood and the Trustees found the balance of the purchase money from outside sources. The proceeds of the sale were invested in War Stock producing a yearly income of £9 15s. as against the previous rental of £6. 5s. The occupants of the properties thus became the legal owners in freehold of their respective cottages and garden plots, and the long-standing dispute between them and the trustees was brought to an end.” 
Sadly, with the cottages being in a dilapidated state, in 1935 the Public Health Committee recommended that the Council make Demolition Orders in respect of the following:
No. 2, Scrubbs Cottages, Bledlow Ridge, A. C. Stallwood
No. 3 Scrubbs Cottages, Bledlow Ridge, Mr G. A. Smith
No. 4 Scrubbs Cottages, Bledlow Ridge, Mr Owen East 
That same year, it would appear that the Council proposed the site at Bledlow Ridge for a housing scheme. “The District Valuer’s report stated that the cost of acquiring the freehold of No. 4, The Scrubbs, Bledlow Ridge, with the right of way and vacant possession would be fairly represented by the sum of £30, and it was resolved that this offer be made to the owner and that the consent of the Minister of Health be applied for.” 
Whatever the eventual fate of the cottages, they are enshrined in history and a story that deserves more attention than is given here. When we put the lives of some of our ancestors in context, it helps bring a new perspective to the modern day.
Note: The Consolidated Charities still exist today under the name Bledlow Charities; Charity Number: 203785.
 McGown, Melville, The Charities of the Ancient Parish of Bledlow in Buckinghamshire, Freer & Hayter Printers, High Wycombe, 1936, pp. 6-7. Lipscomb, George, The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, Vol. I, London, J. & W. Robins, 1847, p.123.
 Bleldow Parish Records; Charity and Schools [Bledlow], ‘A book of the wills of benefactors and of other writings relating to the parish of Bledlow, 1768', 1768, 1800-1831, PR_17/25/2, Buckinghamshire Archives.
 The Buckinghamshire Village Book, Buckinghamshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, Countryside Books, 1987, p.19.
 Oakley, Gwen, Bledlow Ridge, 1973.
 McGown, Melville, op. cit., p.14; Public Charities, Analytical Digest of the Commissioners’ Reports, In Continuation of Digest Printed in 1832, London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1835, p.16.
 McGown, Melville, op. cit., p.14.
 'Charity book' [accounts of payments to the poor] [Bledlow], 1702-1759, 1830-1853, PR_17/25/1, Buckinghamshire Archives.
 Bledlow Ridge Board School in 1915, Photograph and Article, Newspaper Cutting in possession of author.
 'Charity book' [accounts of payments to the poor] [Bledlow], 1702-1759, 1830-1853, PR_17/25/1, Buckinghamshire Archives.
 Over-Crowding at Bledlow Ridge, Typed copy of article from Bucks Free Press, September 1896, email from Mary Anne Britnell, 17th September 2000, copy in possession of author.
 A BLEDLOW RIDGE CASE, The Bucks Herald, 15th April 1911, p. 3, col. 2-3
 Board of Inland Revenue: Valuation Office: Field Books, Bledlow Assessment No. 201-200, IR 58/39387, No. 282, The National Archives
 McGown, Melville, op. cit., p.14.
 McGown, Melville, op. cit., p.10.
 Bledlow Charities Dispute, Vicar’s Action Defended at Parish Meeting, Bucks Free Press, 6th February 1931.
 McGown, Melville, op. cit., p.14.
 "Former miller, Bledlow Ridge, Bucks - Mr Keen?”, VENN-IMG-01-023, The Mills Archive, available at: https://catalogue.millsarchive.org/former-miller-bledlow-ridge-bucks-mr-keen, accessed: 22nd August 2022.
 McGown, Melville, op. cit., pp.14-15.
 Demolition Orders, Bucks Advertiser & Aylesbury News, Princes Risborough “Advertiser”, 6th September 1935, p.2, col. 3.
 HOUSING SITES, The Bucks Herald, 6th September 1935, p.15, col. 5.