From the archive: A piece of detective work inspired by a mysterious note from 1892!

A summer Sunday in 1892 and two young men are sitting on a gate in the sunshine. Alfred Shortland (19) and Abraham Jennings (17) are spending what little leisure time they have in the countryside, having taken a walk from Lutterworth along the footpath to Cotesbach. What could be more idyllic?

The scene cannot be as innocent as it appears, however, or why were the youngsters’ names recorded and a log of the incident kept? The document itself holds no clues as to the reason – but local newspapers of the time do. Members of the Shortland and the Jennings families were often before the Lutterworth magistrates (of whom Charles Marriott of Cotesbach Hall was one) accused of minor anti-social offences; eighteen months previously, Abraham Jennings had found himself before Mr Marriott on a charge of letting off fireworks in the street. Charles Marriott (whose handwriting this is) had reason to suspect that Alfred and Abraham could be up to no good.

The real concern, of course, was that this might be a poaching expedition. The theft of rabbits was a perpetual worry to the landowning class and was treated harshly by magistrates; a week’s imprisonment with hard labour could be earned merely by being caught with poaching nets. Such punishment seems severe but landowners had to protect what was to them a lucrative source of income. In the 1890s, Charles Marriott was offered one shilling per rabbit for a regular supply to a butcher in Rugby, at a time when a rural labourer’s wage might be only eleven shillings per week. Most weeks, he dispatched twenty or so animals and he employed a rabbit-keeper (Mr Kettle) to make sure that the supply was maintained.

Mr Marriott’s suspicions about poaching were not wholly without foundation. The lads’ summer jaunt seems to have had no repercussions but Alfred Shortland was unwise enough to visit Cotesbach by the same footpath again six months later, accompanied by a friend called Garnett.  This time the pair took to their heels when they saw Charles Marriott but he gave chase and caught them in possession of a ferret and a poaching bag. Alfred Shortland was fined fifteen shillings by the Lutterworth magistrates.

From the Archive: Springtime in the Georgian garden.

This document is one of the earliest records of the Marriott family in Cotesbach. The ‘Mr Marriott’ to whom the bill was addressed was Robert, who had (at the age of 20 in 1763) recently graduated  from Oxford and taken up residence at the Hall. His gardener (one John Crow, as we know from his bills, also preserved in Cotesbach Archive) had been working hard to prepare the garden for the new owner and, in early spring 1764, it was about to produce the first crops of the year.

This was during the reign of George III (‘Farmer George’), an era of great public interest in botany and the development of plant cultivation. Joseph Banks, the famous botanist who sailed with Captain Cook and who is credited with the discovery of some 1,400 plant species, was an exact contemporary of Robert Marriott at Oxford. Banks went on to become botanical adviser to George III and director of the Botanical Gardens at Kew. Even Robert Marriott’s more modest establishment, however, can give us some insight into Georgian advances in horticulture.

The little list of seeds purchased for Cotesbach Hall gardens includes peas, beans, radish, lettuce, carrots, cucumber and mustard & cress, all destined to be sown in the winter months. In the days before frozen vegetables and produce flown in from warmer climes, varieties and techniques to extend the growing season were particularly prized. As Stephen Switzer (author of the classic Georgian manual ‘The Practical Kitchen Gardiner’) puts it: ‘[Gardening] of the Kitchen has been so wonderfully improv’d  within these few years, that … the winter, and almost all times and seasons of the year, are furnish’d with curiosities which it was thought could be had only in the summer and more benign months of the year. To this may be added likewise … the great improvements made in hot-beds and glasses; the forcing vegetables in such a manner as to eat near as well as when they come natural; [and] the great variety there is of new-discover’d plants and seeds.’

The seed varieties sown at Cotesbach in 1763/4 included some not generally recognised in the twenty-first century, but very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth. Mazagon beans, for example, were introduced as the earliest cropping variety, ready for picking from early April. Charlton peas were known for early and heavy crops and were at one time one of the most widely grown garden vegetables, possibly declining in favour because the peas they produced were white. Yellow, grey and blue peas were also available. The Cos lettuce seed purchased by Robert Marriott in January 1764 produced white lettuces. Cucumbers grown in Georgian and Victorian times were also frequently white, while carrots appeared in red, yellow, white, orange and purple forms. What a pity that so much of  ‘the great variety … of new-discover’d plants and seeds’ has since been lost to us.

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