History behind a Biggleswade landmark

editorial image

Memory Lane readers may recall our recent article on Biggleswade emigrant Albert Field, the son of Joseph Field who was gardener in the 1900s at Stratton Park. Ken Page of the Biggleswade History Society has now kindly written us an account of the manor’s history which we are very pleased to publish here.

THE ancient manor of Stratton (the feudal house and its land) is now part of Biggleswade. But it once covered the area east of the Great North Road from Toplers Hill along Drove Road to Hitchmead Road. The word ‘stratton’ comes from the Roman ‘strata’ and the Roman road can be traced in a straight line from Baldock to Godmanchester. Recent excavations at Stratton uncovered the ancient north-south paved street and sites of long houses plus two burial grounds. There were also Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman settlements.

In Saxon times Archbishop Stigand held the manor and following the Norman Conquest it was listed in the Domesday Book of 1080 when it was made up of four small manors covering about 900 acres. Ralph de Lisle seems to have absorbed part of it into his Manor of Biggleswade while Countess Judith, whose daughter married David King of Scotland, owned another part.

In 1231 William Rixband was holding Stratton and 100 years later it was left to William Latimer. Elizabeth Latimer brought the manor as a dowager for her marriage to Robert de Willoughby.

Richard and Alice Enderby were the next occupiers. Their son Sir John became a Member of Parliament and loaned money to the King. His daughter Eleanor married Francis Pigot who was living there when he died in 1509. The Pigots had been settled at Stratton long before, and had served the office of Sheriff of the Counties of Bedford and Bucks as early as 1408.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Stratton became the property of Sir Francis Anderson of Eyeworth. Edmund, his eldest son left an infant daughter, Dorothy who later became the wife of Sir John Cotton - son of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, a famous antiquarian and collector of coins who lived at Westminster. During the Civil War Sir Robert’s priceless collection was moved to Stratton Mansion for safety. It is now stored in the British Museum.

In 1726 Sir John Cotton founded a charity school at Stratton for the instruction of 12 poor children of the parish of Biggleswade. It was funded by £1,800 which was ‘to be laid out in lands for charitable purposes’. He died in 1752 but his charity is still active today.

In 1764, Stratton Manor was purchased by trustees of Curtis Barnett who had died in 1746 at Fort St David. His widow Elizabeth lived at Stratton until her death in 1775.

According to the Parish Directory of 1862, in 1790, a ploughman turned up about 300 gold coins of Henry VI enclosed in a yellow earthen pot while digging near the manor house.

Brigadier Charles Barnett who died in 1804 was the next squire. His son Charles was master of the Cambridgeshire Fox Hounds from 1829 to 1867 and also the first Chairman of the Board of Guardians.

Another discovery was made in 1824 by some labourers who, while digging the foundations of a farmhouse near Biggleswade suddenly struck against something hard, which proved to be a helmet of exquisite workmanship. Nearby they found human bones and a heavy metallic oval, supposed to be a shield. But a bigger discovery was to come.

In 1824, the complete skeleton of a gigantic armoured warrior with his long sword and horse was discovered at Stratton Manor. Next day, more armed skeletons and their horses were found, all in a perfectly upright position. It was believed they must have fallen into a trap.

Charles Barnett, squire at that time, died in 1876 and was succeeded by his son Captain Charles Fitzroy Barnett who had served in India. He was survived by his widow Lucy and their son Clayton Barnett.

When Clayton died in 1900 he left Lucy with the estate. President of the Harvey Habitation of the Primrose League and an active worker with the Church, she took great interest in both day and Sunday schools. Noted for her sympathy, assistance and advice, she often opened her home to workhouse inmates. There are many memorials to the Barnett family in St Andrew’s Church.

Lucy Barnett died in 1908 and the whole estate was put up for sale on June 29, 1910 at the town hall. Bedfordshire County Council purchased large parts of the estate with the remainder sold to local market gardeners. The mansion was let to James Clouston of Seamer House School and became Parkfield School.

A prep school for boys aged seven to 14, principals were Captain G B Pratt (retired) and R C Connor Green. Fees were 125 guineas per year, with a 10% reduction for sons of clergy and officers in service. The school continued at Stratton until September 1935 when it relocated to Aldenham leaving the mansion empty.

During the Second World War, the grounds were used as a lookout by the Home Guard. After the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, soldiers were billeted there. Then in 1942, the Scottish Horse, Royal Artillery moved in, departing in 1944 for the D Day landings.

After the army left, the mansion slowly deteriorated until local resident Walter Stratton purchased it in 1948 and used it to breed some of the first battery hens in England.

That same year, a giant 500-year-old oak tree was felled in the grounds and The Dower House was pulled down, disappearing without trace.

Then in 1960, although a listed building, the mansion was demolished with no objections from the planning authorities, leaving the stable block. Mr Stratton subsequently built himself a bungalow using materials from it.

Today, Stratton Park Drive from Dunton Lane beyond The Lodge is now a site for mobile homes. Stratton Business Park was opened in 1988 by Doris Brunt, vice chair of Bedfordshire County Council. Its road names: Normandy Lane, Pegasus Drive and Montgomery Lane come from the 1944 invasion of Europe. The business park has been a success and still expanding.

The stable buildings were pulled down in March 1989 and their site is now Manor Court.

There have been several major archaeological digs since September 1991 discovering the Saxon and medieval village of Stratton. An ancient clay lined moat is awaiting preservation. Saxon Gate, a housing estate started in the 1990s, has been built from Dunton Lane to Stratton School, bounded by Saxon Drive. The historic link with Stratton Manor finally evaporated when the estate roads were named after plants, with the exception of Chambers Way and Kingsfield Road.

A huge development, Kings Reach, is now underway to continue development towards Sutton. This will include the original Kings Field behind Stratton School. The road from Dunton Lane to Potton Road just beyond Biggleswade Hospital will eventually join it to provide an eastern bypass.

The Saxon Project, a joint venture between Biggleswade History Society and Mid Bedfordshire Trades Council was started in 1992 with the planting of a hedge and wood. Four oak bench seats are sit surrounded by woodland.

Completed in 1999 and known as Pocket Park, an information board and oak sculpture have since been erected with a plaque marking the millionth tree planted by the county council.