Richard Willowes, Vicar of Meldreth, 1692-1736

A lecture, given with Lantern Slides, to the Young People's Guild in the Old Chapel, Melbourn Tuesday, March 18th, 1924

By W M Palmer, MD, FSA, of Linton

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Richard Willowes, Vicar of Meldreth, 1692-1736' page

Richard Willowes, who was vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Meldreth from 1692 to 1736, kept meticulous accounts during his time in Meldreth and from these it is possible to tell a great deal about the village.

This lecture, therefore, was, as Palmer states in the first paragraph below, "to a large extent only a peg on which to hang a bag of facts about the Parish of Meldreth" during these years. 

The lecture was prepared for publication on our website by Meldreth Local History Group volunteer, David Marsh and is given in its entirety below.

All of the illustrations on this page were taken from the original booklet.


Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Richard Willowes, Vicar of Meldreth, 1692-1736' page

Many years ago, I listened to a sermon in the Chapel over the way preached by a Minister from Eversden, whose name I have forgotten, but he had a thin brown beard, and his text was, "The cloak that I left at Troas bring with thee and the book, but especially the parchments".   It was such an odd text that it has stuck in my memory, but the sermon I fear was long and dry, which any text might have suited, and not like the short and brisk discourses to which we are now accustomed. The only connection between that sermon and this evening is that the title to my lecture is to a large extent only a peg on which to hang a bag of facts about the Parish of Meldreth. As my title is about a Vicar, I will first explain what a Vicar really is.

In some parishes there are Rectors, as in Fowlmere, Barley and Orwell, but in most parishes there are Vicars. Doubtless most of you know the difference between the two, but some may not know. The explanation involves some knowledge of local history, and all of you being patriotic and intelligent citizens know something about the past history of your village. Those who have had to do with copyholds and freeholds belonging to the various manors, know that all these manors extended into both Meldreth and Melbourn. This looks as if at one time both parishes belonged to the same owner, and if we go back far enough, say a thousand years, we find that they were the property of King Athelstan, the Grandson of Alfred the Great. How he ''obtained the lands is not for us to enquire here, but they descended to his nephew, King Edgar, and in 970 a large portion of the Parish was given to refound the Monastery of Ely, which had been destroyed by the Danes. About a century later, in 1066, the Abbey of Ely held 6/11ths of the two parishes, being about 300 acres more than the half; the remaining half being held by the Earl of Mercia, Edric, and twenty-six Danish freeholders. Twenty years later still, when the country had felt the mailed fist of William the Conqueror, the disposition of property had changed very much; the Abbey had been deprived of nearly half its holding, and Norman lords were in possession of all the rest of the parish, including the holdings of the Danish freeholders; the degradation of whom into serfdom was a sad blot on the Norman Conquest. 

But we have to do only with the property of the Abbot. He was still the largest landowner and perhaps in virtue thereof, had the privilege of appointing the Parish Priests. The position of Parish Priest was then a more lucrative post than it is now, particularly if his circumstances are compared with those of other villagers. The Priest received a tenth part of all agricultural produce; and this tithe, or tenth, when the parish was enclosed about 100 years ago, was reckoned to be worth 300 acres of arable land. But the largest farmer in 1086 held not more than about 50 acres, so you can judge what a much more important man the Parish Priest was, as regards worldly goods, than his neighbours. The Priests had no families to feed and educate, so I suppose they spent their means on building and beautifying Churches. 

The wealth of the Parish Priests of Melbourn and Meldreth excited the envy of the Abbots. They had no doubt preached many sermons against the sordid sin of envy, but they were only human after all. About a century after King William had shorn the Abbey of nearly half its possessions in Meldreth, in order to make up for this shortage, the Abbey conceived the idea of appropriating to its own use the greater part of the revenue of the Parish Priest. It was being done all over the country then, and during the next three or four centuries, but it was an expensive business; as before it could be done, several important officials had to be squared, namely, the Archdeacon of Ely, the Bishop of Ely, and the Pope of Rome. But the business was done, and in a large Chartulary at Ely you may read how Pope Innocent 111 in 1205, gave the Prior leave to appropriate all the revenues of the Parish Priest of Meldreth for the use of the Guest House of the Monks of Ely, under the condition that they were to allow sufficient for the support of the Parish Chaplain or Vicar. They thought that one-sixth of the income was sufficient, and with that the Vicar had to be content. So the Incumbent of Meldreth Parish Church, if he had all the rights of his Anglo-Saxon predecessor, should have six times the income he has now. When Melbourn Rectory was appropriated, only one-eighth was left to the support of the Vicar, that being a larger parish. At Fowlmere and Orwell, where no appropriation has taken place, and Incumbent gets the whole of the tithe and is called “Rector”, but in most other parishes about here, the Incumbent gets only the small tithes and is called the "Vicar”. The names of over 50 vicars of Meldreth are known, from Roger, who was here in 1298.

When the Abbot of Ely was made a Bishop, the head of the Monastery was called the Prior, and to the Prior and Convent the villages of Melbourn and Meldreth were allotted. The accounts of the tithes were kept quite separate from those of the manors, and there exists one precious roll of the value and expense of collecting the tithes of Meldreth for the year ending 25th July 1352, and this I had the pleasure of copying in the study of the Dean of Ely about two years ago. The account is kept in exactly the same form as the account of Argentine's Manor, which I expounded to you here some time ago, only it is a much smaller document. The account of the Argentine Manor was kept by an official called a reeve, but that of the tithes of Meldreth was kept by the Vicar, which is my reason for introducing it here. The Vicar's name was Robert Aleyn, and he was appointed 25th July, 1349. The date makes it probable that his predecessor had died of the Plague known as the “Black Death”. Dominus Robert's task was to farm the 21 acres of glebe belonging to the Rectory, and to collect and thrash the tithe corn. The collection of the tenth sheaf was a very different business from what it would be now, as the parish fields were not then enclosed by hedges, but were open, except that each man's land was separated from that of his neighbour by a strip of grass called a balk. Some pictures of unenclosed fields were shown. In this year (1352) the harvest produced 106 quarters of corn, 44 of wheat, 57 of oats and barley mixed, called dredge, and 5 of peas. Of these 106 quarters, about 70 were sold. The yield was poor, probably about one quarter per acre, and consequently the price was high, wheat making 7s in the Autumn, 8s 6d in the Winter, and 10s in the Spring, the average for 20 years having been 5s. The total receipts, including tail corn, hay and straw, were £26 5s. For taxation purposes the value of the Rectory had been assessed at £28 a century before, so that assessment was not far out, and 300 years afterwards the glebe and great tithes were let on a long lease for £26 13s 0d a year, and a rent in kind, namely, 4 quarters of best wheat, a boar and a calf on St. Luke's Day, and sufficient straw for strewing the Church.

But the £26 of 1352 was not a net return, as it cost £7 11s to collect it, and the Rev Robert's list of his expenses is very interesting. First, there are about three dozen items for repairs to carts and ploughs, which need not detain us. A new pony cost 10s 6d, manure or compost cost 14s, an iron tribul 31/2d; labour was the great expense. This was for the harvest alone. Probably the labour for the other part of the year was done by bondmen from the Bury Farm. Dominus Vicar took 31/2 marks, or £2 6s 8d, as his wage for overlooking. Under him was an official called a “spensar".  Perhaps he was "King of the Harvest". Anyway he got no wages for this job, as he was paid by the year. Two Carters with their own horses and carts were paid 14s each. The Pitcher got 5s. Six Dozenners, whose duty it was to collect the tithe sheafs as they lay in the field marked with a dock or thistle, got 5s each. One Stacker got the same, the Cook was paid 4s, and a Brewer 4s. 6d. These last two were necessary because the Vicar fed his workmen during the whole harvest, which lasted for four weeks from St. Peter's Day, August 1st. Evidently this year was an early harvest.

The Vicar was no niggard in his supply of food. Three quarters of wheat or bread corn were used. This I am told would make 400 quartern loaves, thus allowing 5lb of bread to each man for each working day; and six quarters of malt were made into beer for the 13 men. They might have been drowned in it. But they had no tea, and ditch water was flat. Bread and beer, with occasionally salt fish and herrings, was the daily diet of the harvest men, but for the harvest home, or horkey, a more generous diet was provided. Meat, horse-radish and onions, with plenty of pepper and salt, both of which were luxuries; as a second course, cheese, butter and salad. Then there was a special horkey cake, made of white flour, milk and honey, coloured with saffron, and flavoured with cumin seeds. Leaving out beer and bread, the coat of the harvest supper was 18s. 6d, of which 13s was for meat. Perhaps that is what the men most enjoyed. Dominus Robert had to give various tips. Beer money was given to various bondmen from the Bury Farm who came to help, and meat was given to the domestics of Thomas Deschalers, Lord of Whaddon, whose lands extended into Meldreth parish. He had recently been beaten in a long suit which he had had with the Prior over a corn rent due from him to the Prior, and this present of food to his men was perhaps by way of being a soft answer. A penny was given to the Mower, “pro custodio bladi", that is, for the care of the corn. This in later years was called "largess" or "larger". 

It seems to me that the expenses of getting in this small harvest were excessive, and perhaps a reason can be found in the fact that three years before, about half the population of England had been carried off by a severe visitation of the Oriental plague called the "Black Death". This made labour scarce and dear, so much so, that Parliament stepped in and fixed the men's wages. Even then it was often difficult to get work done, and I suggest that Dominus Robert, the Vicar, gave his harvest men roast beef and horse-radish and saffron cake in order to encourage them to work for him again.

The Vicar begins his account at St James's Day, July 25, 1351, and ends it the same date next year. For the next harvest he sowed 8 acres of wheat at the rate of 31/2 bushels per acre, and 21 acres of dredge corn at 41/2 bushels per acre. No barley was sown by itself. Malt was made from dredge, a mixture of barley and oats.

Dominus Robert was Vicar many years, for he was still there in 1377. Perhaps he was a Kelshall man, for two men of the same surname from Kelshall gave evidence in a lawsuit in which he was concerned in 1377.

The north side of the church looked much as it does now in Richard Aleyn's time, except that the priest's door, now closed by rubble, was open. On the top of the buttress to the east of the door, may be seen a dial which told him when it was time to say 6 o'clock Mass on a summer morning. He did not live on the site of the present Vicarage, but in a house some distance behind it, on the N.E. side of the church. I shall show you a picture of the old site later on. The house at present serving as a Vicarage House was built on the site of the old Parsonage House. There are probably many people living who can remember when it was a farmhouse inhabited by Parsons and Linton. The old Parsonage House which was pulled down (judging of the style of the present house) in the time of William French, consisted of a central hall, with parlour on one side and kitchen on the other, with chambers above. It had 18 windows and 8 fireplaces. Behind it was a large tithe barn, shown in first picture of the old Vicarage. The Rectory was held on lease for many years by Squire Haggar of Bourn, who sublet to a succession of tenants. Henry Blany was here 1649 to1666.  John Hitch followed. From 1698 to 1710 George Harrison was here, and he was followed by Jonathan Stockbridge.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Richard Willowes, Vicar of Meldreth, 1692-1736' page

At the time when the Parsonage House had 18 windows and 8 fireplaces, the Vicarage House was a poor contrast. Mr. Thomas Elton, the Vicar, who with great difficulty survived the changes of the Civil War, Protectorate, and Restoration, lived in it in 1662. It then had only two fireplaces, and must have been only a cottage. Mr. Elton died soon after, and in 1666 the house was empty. The Vicar lived somewhere else, as in 1672 his house contained five fire places. In 1685 the Archdeacon describes the Vicarage as a "poor pitiful house in which the [Parish] Clerk lives". 

We now come to the chief subject of my lecture, Richard Willowes. He was born in Wiltshire in 1659, but two years afterwards was brought to Offley, near Hitchin, where his father was Vicar. He entered Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1678, became B. A. in 1682 and M.A. in 1686, and on May 2, 1692, was presented by the Bishop to the Vicarage of Meldreth. The Dean and Chapter were the Patrons, but they had allowed their right to lapse. Mr Willowes was a bachelor and remained so. Still he wanted a house to live in, so he pulled down the poor pitiful house of his predecessor and built the house which I now show you on the screen. It had 15 windows and so must have been a great contrast to its forerunner. I do not know how the money was raised, but there was certainly no Queen Anne Bounty to evoke in these days, but I think Mr. Willowes had money in addition to his stipend. The value of his tithe was only about £22 9s a year, for that is what his predecessor, the Rev. William Pearson, let the tithes for to William Holder, a chandler, of Meldreth.  But he was able to leave £100 to his sister and her children, and other legacies, which he could hardly have saved out of his stipend, and he certainly got the annuity of £25 left by William Ayloff to the Vicar of Meldreth when resident; and he was also in receipt of an Exchequer Annuity. In order that his heir should not be held liable for dilapidations, he bought and gave to the Vicar for ever a small piece of land lying between the Vicarage ground and the river, held of Veysey's Manor at a quit rent of 6d a year. Perhaps it was the corner where the tree stood which had a house built in it, during the time of the Rev. E.W. Cory. Mr Willowes was brought up at Offley, near Hitchin. Some of his notes are made on the backs of envelopes directed to the "Rev. Mr. Willowes, Minister of the Gospel, at Offley". Perhaps he was then taking duty for his father, who was barbarously murdered in 1698, by footpads, on his way home from Hitchin.

Now a man whose income from his profession, tithes, service fees, &c, was under a pound a week, who built a new Vicarage House and presented it to the parish, and who enlarged the Vicarage garden, is worth remembering for these facts alone; but Richard Willowes also deserves to be remembered for the care he took over the parish records. He was a neat and orderly writer, a gift which he inherited from his father, for the Vicar of Offley tells me that the register of Offley is beautifully kept during the time of Richard Willowes snr. He was also a good calculator for when he was working out the parish assessments he would calculate the proportions up to several points of decimals, and we ought to be very grateful to John Palmer and Joseph Stockbridge and their successors, for allowing Mr. Willowes 10s for writing out the rates and the accounts each year. These parish accounts were a much more serious business to look after than they are now. At least they involved more labour. Much of the work which is now done by Central Bodies, such as County and District Councils, was then done locally. First of all there were the King's taxes. There was the land tax which had been levied since the Danish invasion, and is still collected. There were also the window tax, the house tax, poll tax, the servants and bachelors tax, and the marriage tax, and the militia rate. All these were kept by Mr Willowes. Then there were the local officers, the Constable, the Church Wardens and the Overseers of the Poor; all these kept separate accounts and for each there was a separate rate; and for every year for over 41 years Mr Willowes made a neat copy of these rates and accounts.

The rates and taxes are on single and double sheets 12in by 71/2in, the accounts on sheets 15 by 6. The lists containing valuations of estates and assessments form a large bundle. As regards King's taxes, sometimes several are included in one list; as in a list dated 7th February, 1697, from which you may learn that George Harrison, who lived in the Parsonage House, then had a wife and three children, two indoor servants for which he paid 1d a week poll tax, and one outdoor manservant for whom he paid 1s. 4d in the £ tax on his wages. He paid 71/2d tax for money in his purse, and 1s. 93/4d for his stock. Then also John Burton who lived in the Sheen Farm, had a wife and six children, three indoor servants and one outside manservant. My great-great-great grandfather, John Palmer, who lived in and owned the house where I was born, had no wife, children or servants, therefore he paid the Bachelor tax. To avoid the latter apparently (fortunately for me), he got married in October, 1700, and on which ceremony the parish had to pay a duty of 2s. 6d. From 1699 to 1736 it is possible to trace the ownership and tenancies of all the farms, large and small, in Meldreth. One house and farm mentioned in the taxes has a strange name, and that is the Chard farm which belonged to Harvey's Charity, Chard. It had a house on it as large as the Sheen, although the amount of land was only half as much. James Maddy and his wife and five children lived here in 1700. Robert Ellis in 1736, (It was the farm formerly belonging to Bowman and Clear, The Laurels). In the Sheen Farm John Burton was followed by the Scruby family in 1720. Michael Lambkin held the Sheen Mill, and he was followed by Richard Ellis. Mary Surplus [or Surplice] held Topliff [Topcliffe] mill, and was followed by James Scruby ; William Horsley held the Flambard's Mill.  Hitch, Scruby and Stockbridge were then writ large on the parish.

There are lists of the window tax from 1698 to 1707. A house with from 5 to 9 windows paid a 1s, from 10 to 19 3s, with 20 and over 5s. Another rate, the assessment and collection of which gave Mr Willowes much work, was the Militia rate. Some were assessed to light horse and some to the foot soldiers. The largest estate in the village, the Sheen farm, was assessed at a quarter of a horse or 5s a quarter. Perhaps the tax which seems most curious to us was the births 2s, deaths 4s, marriage 2s 6d, bachelors 6d and widowers 6d. In 1700 there were 2 marriages, 2 births, 4 burials, 7 bachelors and 2 widowers, producing £1 9s. 6d. The bachelors had decreased from 7 in 1700 to 4 in 1706.

Mr. Willowes was an old fashioned man and believed in living on his cure, later incumbents did not. In 1775 the Vicar lived for two or three days at a time in the Vicarage House, and for the rest of the week at Christ’s College. He kept no curate, had one service on a Sunday, and Communion three times a year. The Rev W. J. Totton unabashedly stated that he lived at Debden, in Essex, where he was Rector, but he kept a Curate, who held one service on Sunday, administered sacrament four times a year to about five communicants, and had a Sunday School. One of the questions put to the Churchwarden was “Has any one cut down trees or encroached on the Churchyard"? Joseph Scruby answered "Not as I know of", which is a good specimen of the vernacular. It is difficult to see of what monetary value this living was to Mr Totton, as he was in no sense a stingy man. He used to give £5 annually for coal for the poor, and when extensive repairs were done to the Church in 1841-42, he subscribed £45, and another £10 towards making a churchyard wall.

It may be interesting to remind you how money was raised for Church repairs when there were no such, pleasurable meetings as bazaars, concerts, and whist drives. In the year 1841 and 1842, over £500 was spent on repairs to Meldreth Church. This was raised as follows: — Offertories amounted to only £4 10s. 0d and a special offertory of £5 for a stained glass window. A shilling Church rate brought in £153. The Church Building Society provided £100. The remainder, about £115, was raised by subscriptions. Of this amount the Vicar, as stated above, was the largest subscriber. John Burr and John Mortlock gave £20 each. Other members of the Mortlock family, including the banker, gave £15. Cambridge Camden Society £5.The rest was chiefly given by Cambridge dons, probably friends of the Vicar. In 1845 French built a new brick churchyard wall for £55. As recently as 1828, £34 had been spent on this. Altogether I have been astonished at the amounts paid to bricklayers and glaziers, during the middle of the last century, when wages were low.

I will now give a short account of each kind of parish account, beginning with the Constable's, as this is the oldest office. These range from 1696 to 1870. The Constable is not now a very important parish officer. His duties have to a great extent been taken over by the modern policeman, and the district road surveyor, and although each parish is still obliged to elect a Constable in Cambridgeshire, very little remains for him to do. But it was quite otherwise in the time of the Rev. Mr Willowes, as the annual list of disbursements shows. Many and varied were the duties which he had to undertake, and some of his expenses seem quaint and even extraordinary to us, now that two centuries have elapsed since they were incurred.

The earliest account existing is that of Henry Knight for the year 1696. He lived in Green's Orchard, Chiswick End. His house, turned into three cottages, was burnt down only a few years ago. The site is now occupied by Council Cottages. Here are some of the items :-

John Malding for cutting the river twice £1 15s. 4d. Paid to Robert Cowling for whipping Elizabeth Lilley 1s. Paid to six passengers and a cart to take them to Kneesworth 3s. For a hue and cry to Kneesworth 3s. The first item above is an illustration of the constable's function as surveyor of the parish, of which we shall meet with more examples later on. Malden appears to have been river cutter in ordinary to the parish - he cut the weeds twice every year at 17s. 8d. a time. There is nothing to show why Elizabeth Lilley was whipped, but for whatever reason, she got a good dose of it, for 1s was often as much as was paid for a day's work. Whippings were very often perfunctorily carried out, and in a note-book belonging to a Cambridgeshire Justice, he states that having ordered a certain vagabond to be whipped, he had his suspicions that the culprit was going away without his whipping, so he called him back and had him stripped; then finding no marks on his back, concluded that he had bribed the whipper, so he ordered a double whipping and stood by while it was done. We know that the whipping post in Meldreth stood where the effigy of the stocks still stands. A new whipping post was set up in 1782 and cost a shilling, and a new set of stocks was made by Wm Course in 1833 costing £3 2s. It is possible that they were the stocks the remains of which you see in the picture. They are said to have been used as late as 1860, for a brawler in church.

The payments to passengers are examples of the most frequent kind of entry in these accounts, we should call them tramps. The item of 3s for a hue and cry to Kneesworth seems excessive, usually the amount is 4d, and if in the night 8d. The hue and cry was the old method of catching thieves and recovering stolen property. It consisted of the constable carrying a description of the supposed thief and stolen goods to the next village. If a village, through its constable, allowed a thief to escape, it had to pay a fine. Therefore it was to the advantage of everyone to hinder the escape of such a person.

The constable had a greater variety of duties to perform than the policeman has now. The following extracts refer to what we should call the policeman's part of his work. In 1707 warrants were served upon Goody Hall to answer for her abuse of Amey Game, at three separate times, which showed that she was a troublesome person. Earlier in our history she would probably have sat in the Cucking stool, such as you see on the screen.

A man named Leonard Webb was arrested in harvest time, 1713. Two men guarded him for about a week and then he was taken to prison. There is nothing to show what his crime was, but although he had disgraced the parish, we are interested to know that they still allowed him 4d for straw to lie upon in his wretched prison abode. I will show you two or three pictures of old Cambridge Castle, the prison to which this man, Leonard Webb, was sent. 

In the account of James Letchfield for the year 1720, we find this charge for a new oaken pound: - For carriage from Walkern, 16s. 8d; to Thomas Pinnock for setting it down, 5s. 6d; to Ephraim Skinner for irons for it, 2s; for a look Is. 4d; for the timber and framing it £6 7s. 6d.

I don't know where the pound stood at Meldreth, but possibly some of the older residents can remember it. The use of the pound was to confine stray animals. If not claimed and redeemed by payment of money they were kept a year and a day and then sold, the proceeds going to the Lord of the Manor. Several pounds are still in existence. I know one at West Wratting, of which I show a picture; and others at Saffron Walden and at Linton. In the account of Jonathan Stockbridge, 1723, there are charges for making new fire hooks. They consisted of two deal poles, smoothed, coloured and oiled, with large iron hooks weighing 21lbs each. These were for pulling down burning buildings, and I show pictures of the Linton fire hooks and also of fire hooks being used on a trolley. The fire hooks of the Sheen Farm, and others at Meldreth Church, have existed within living memory.

In the constable’s accounts there are constantly occurring names given to various parts of the village, many of which are now forgotten. The Guilton ground is often mentioned. It belonged to Squire Layer, of Shepreth, and was rated at £4 a year. It is possible that this piece of ground may have had some connection with the Guilden Arch which still retains its name, and the arch may have had some connection with the Village Guild which existed here before the Reformation. The Guilton Ground may have been left to the Guild under the condition that it was to undertake the repair of this Bridge. I don't know where the Guilton Ground was.

Another name is "Norgan's Nook”, which was on the high river near Malton, where the river burst its banks in December, 1731. Westnal Bridge and the ford at Westonhale, may perhaps be Lordsbridge. Beaver's Lane and Whistlin Ditch, Hayward's Nook and Kneesworth Hook were often mentioned.

Of the bridges which the Constable had to keep in repair, in the Surveyor of roads part of his office, the far most expensive was that called Meldreth Holm Bridge. Something was done to it nearly every year. It broke down in the harvest of 1714, and the running ditch had to be turned out of its course to allow it to be mended, when 46 feet of oaken planking at a cost of 3d a foot were used. It must have had a lot of carting over it to be so frequently in need of repair.

Two of the lost names which occur in these accounts are Veezes Moor and Feezies Lane. Veysie's [Vesey's] Manor House now belongs to Mr. Medlock. It was so called from a 14th century owner, and it got its name of Bury House from a 17th century owner. Veysie's Moor bounded on Shepreth Moor, and a lane to it was enclosed by a gate.

There are two entries in the constable’s accounts which refer to the military life of the period. On March 25th 1708, 5s. 3d was spent at William Pateman's about the men whom orders were given to press or find. These men were required for the army in Flanders under Marlborough. It might be expected that the glories of Blenheim and the other victories would have fired the country with youthful enthusiasm, but we find accounts of money being paid for journeys to Cambridge with the pressed men in 1728.

There are many charges about James Brittain when he enlisted for a soldier. New shoes and stockings were bought for him, he was shaved, and Is. 41/2d given him for drink. Wine, brandy and beer to nearly a £1 in value were given to the officers, and the sergeant was given 11s in money. Then the gallant James Brittain ran away, and William Worland and another man had to take two horses and fetch him back.

Surely the parish must have been very anxious to get rid of James Brittain, or they would hardly have incurred all this expense. Perhaps he was a parish apprentice who had turned out badly and had run away from his master. Why should they have paid the sergeant money, except as a bribe to take their man away? What a noble defender of his country he must have made!

The constable had to attend at the Quarter Sessions and Assizes with a bill of presentments as to the behaviour of the villagers, and had to pay a small fee to the Clerk of the Peace for acknowledging the receipt of the bill. At the Sessions he used to pay the "County contribution” then known as "quarterage." It amounted to only 17s.10d; in 1788 it had risen to £1 13s. 4d and at the present time it maybe twenty times that amount.

 

THE PAYMENT OF LARK SILVER AND FEE FARM RENT.

I suppose that in every generation, for the last two centuries and more, the constables and overseers have been at one time or another, puzzled by the mysterious payments of Lark Silver 3s, and Fee Farm Rent 10s, which are annually demanded of them by the officers of the Crown. Perhaps some, more independent than the others, have refused to pay them, until a peremptory order has arrived from His Majesty's Exchequer, or in later times, from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, and a threat of legal proceedings if not complied with. Under these circumstances, most Overseers have considered discretion the better part of valour and have paid up without more to do. But about the year 1714 a fighting, or questioning, generation had arisen in Meldreth, and they refused the payment of 13s, which their predecessors had been accustomed to pay annually, under the names of Common Fine, and Lark Silver. For a time all went well. Nothing further is heard about it till the year 1719, when the constable charges 3s for two journeys, one to Comberton, the other to Cambridge, about the "fine and lark silver demanded as due to the crown".  

Some years pass, however, before there is any further notice of the matter. In 1725 the parish authorities were making enquiries in London, about this matter. We may suppose that the following proceedings took place between them and the Exchequer’s officers. The latter demand the payment; the parish protest, “Why should we make this payment? We get nothing in return for it". The Exchequer answers, "You have paid it for centuries, which is good enough reason for us. We shall enforce it". But the parish still protests, "Why did we ever have to pay it at all “? Exchequer answers, "We don't know, and we don't care. You can come and search the Exchequer Rolls and find out. Our business is only to collect money". No doubt they thought that this answer would silence these pig headed country people. But no, they have a champion who accepts the gauge. For Jonathan Stockbridge, in September, 1725, having quite finished his harvest, rides up to London on his horse to enquire into these weighty matters. He charges 10s for his three days stay there. What he accomplished in these three days we do not know, or what he did with himself. But certainly he did not waste much money, for 3s. 4d a day for board and lodging, and necessary expenses, can hardly be called extravagant. But next month a journey to Cambridge, and several attorney's letters, began to make the expenses of the litigation mount up. We can imagine the parish meeting in the spring of 1726 may have been a lively one. Those who had been in favour of continuing the payments, without incurring more expenses, no doubt talked very scornfully of the clever people who were trying to "best" His Majesty's Exchequer. Under date of April, 1726, we can read:

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After this find one would have thought that the doughty champions of non-payment would have been satisfied, and paid up as pleasantly as they could. But no, they still take more advice. This time it is a local man, Mr. Counsellor Gatward, of Cambridge, probably a member of the Meldreth family of that name. The effect of his advice is shown by the fact that they paid up all arrears in 1728 to a Court held at the Falcon in Cambridge. They amounted to over £28, which, with the other expenses of the constable, brought the disbursements for the year up to£41 13s. 0d, a large sum for a small parish to pay. So an 8d constable's rate was what the interfering party brought on the inhabitants of Meldreth.

In 1858, the parish was again having researches made about this payment, and later still in the time of Mr Andrew Howard, the right was again questioned. The origin of these payments is this. The common fine of 10s was paid for the privilege the villagers had of settling their disputes in the local Court of the Honour of Clare instead of taking them to Cambridge. The privilege of course had elapsed, but the payment was still in force. The lark silver of 3s was money paid instead of a present of 100 larks for the Earl of Clare’s Christmas dinner, which as it had once been agreed upon, ought not to be refused, unless for a 20 years’ purchase.

For the benefit of all future overseers who may question the legality of these payments, it may be stated that there is indisputable proof that they have been paid regularly since the year 1249, which is a s far back as they can be traced, and the law regards such a custom, 650 years old, as an undoubted right; and I think ought to be continued, as a curious medieval survival. in one of the latest constable’s accounts, that for year 1870, the auditor surcharges Wm Worland with the sum of three shillings which he had charged for going to Cambridge to pay the common fine and lark silver.

 

THE CHURCHWARDENS' ACCOUNTS

They exist from 1094 to 1735 in Mr Willowes' handwriting, and from 1776 onwards in books. They consist mainly of lists os expenses for church repairs. Thus in 1701, the chancel windows cost 30s to repair. Details of the glazier's bill are given - 111/4 pounds of solder were used at 10d. a pound, and 100 quarries of glass, which cost 8s. 7d. The youths of the village appear to have been specially fond of the sport of window breaking, judging from the annual amount of the glazier's bill. In 1703 three new bell ropes, weighing 21 lbs each, were bought at a cost of 13s. 4d. In 1706, the steeple underwent some extensive repairs costing £34. Six men were at work for 26 days. Mr. Willowes kept an elaborate time table of the workmen, and in one place remarks that when he went to Royston Market on a Wednesday afternoon, very little work was done. Anyone interested in the cost of building at this period could gain much information from the detailed account. The materials used were lime, sand and iron dust. The workmen drank 7s. 6d. worth of small beer, and 2s. 6d worth of strong beer, which they got from William Pateman's. The smallest item was five farthings for soap for the workmen's pulleys.

In 1713, 11/2 hundred of bricks were bought to underpin the churchyard gatehouse, so there was then a lych gate at the entrance to the churchyard. In 1715, pins were put upon the seats for the men's hats to hang upon.

In the same year there is a long account about bells which begins in the good old-fashioned style :- "Oct. 3rd - Spent at Pateman's at the meeting of the town to put out the second bell and agree with the carpenter," &c, 4s. The bell was sent to John Waylet, of Bishops Stortford, to be recast at a cost of £6 12s. 61/2. The journey occupied from Friday to Tuesday, and cost £1 19s 2d.

Next year the first, or treble bell, was sent to the same place to be recast at a cost of £6 18s. From the inscription now on the bells they appear to have been recast a second time in 1855, in obedience to an order of Archdeacon Browne, dated 4th Oct, 1831.

A frequent feature of the Churchwardens’ accounts is the payment for books of special prayers for fasts and thanksgivings, which were sent "by authority", and on which the parish had to pay the postage. On December 15th, 1703, 6d was paid for a prayer to be used after the great tempest of wind. This was the great storm of November 26th previous, the greatest storm ever known in this country, when whole forests were uprooted, and the damage in London alone estimated at a million sterling. In 1704 there were special service in Meldreth for the victory at Blenheim, and in 1705 for the capture of Gibraltar by Admiral Rooke. There are also entries in the accounts indicating the changes of sovereigns. In 1702 6d was paid for a paper concerning the altering of this name in the common prayer book. This was Queen Anne for King William. In 1714 the name of Queen Anne had to be changed to that of George 1st, and in the same year there was an order to pray for George, Prince of Wales, by name. This was, of course, to prevent any hidden reference to the exiled Stuarts.

During this period there was a constant demand in the parish for money to pay for the briefs. These were collections started by authority for the relief of individuals or villages that had suffered severe losses. Sometimes they were collected throughout the whole country, sometimes only in certain dioceses.

In 1699 half-a-crown was given to Drury Lane in London, where was lost by fire £7,320, and 3s for a fire at Soham in Cambs, where the loss was £759. It will be noticed that the loss at Soham, although only a tenth of the loss in London, touched the people to a greater extent.

In 1716 7s was given to the brief for the cow-keeper whose loss was above £24,000. The amount seems incredible, but this is the amount on the brief, which was collected throughout England.

In 1730, a second brief came from Melbourn, where on August 24th, 1728, the loss by fire was £6,869. This fire must have destroyed nearly the whole village, if the amount stated be the true one, but I always expect a considerable exaggeration in these amounts. It may account for the absence of many houses in Melbourn older than 1700.

An important village custom then was that of beating the bound. It has now almost fallen into disuse, as of course there is no longer any necessity for it. The parish records contain frequent references to this annual function, which like all other functions of the older time, was an occasion for much eating and drinking. The origin of the custom was somewhat like this. Before the enclosure of the common fields, each village did not lie side by side as now, but were separated by waste ground, each parish being surrounded by a ring of common land. Very often a road ran along this common, when the boundary line was the middle of the road, but when there was no artificial line of division between the common land of two villages, natural objects, such as pollard trees and ditches, were used as marks. It was very important that the exact boundary line should be remembered, so every year on Ascension Day the parish priest with cross, banners and bell, men, women and children, went in procession, or perambulated as it was called, along the traditional bounds. At vital points a halt was made and the epistle read, and the town children, that is children brought up at the parish expense, had the situation of any particular landmark impressed on their memory by a beating at that spot—-hence the expression "beating the bounds". The neglect of this practice in modern times has resulted in some parishes having the whole cost of a highway running along their borders thrust upon them, instead of only having to pay half. The function did not take place every year at Meldreth. The following are the only entries during the time of Mr Willowes: - In 1701, 30s was spent at Wm Pateman's after the processioning. In 1716, Wm Pateman was paid a £1 for beer after the Perambulation of the Bounds, and George Stanford supplied 121/2 dozen of bread bought for processioning. In 1724 Isaac Smith, of Royston, was paid 10s for 10 dozen of penny bread had for the men and children at the perambulation, and Richard Hadgar was paid a £1 for beer which the men and children had at the same time. Richard Hadgar kept the Bell Inn. In 1732 the charge was, beer 18s, bread 10s, beef and mutton 7s.

There is much in these accounts about the destruction of vermin, for which the following rates were paid: - For a fox 1s. For polecats, hedgehogs and weasels 4d each, for young weasels 2d, and moles 11/2 d, sparrows 3d a dozen, the young ones 2d, their eggs 1d.

It is somewhat difficult to understand why hedgehogs were considered vermin. There was once a superstition that they were injurious to milking cows. Perhaps that is why the inoffensive animals were persecuted at Meldreth. Rooks were also killed and most parishes had rook net. In 1577 an inhabitant of Linton contracted to supply and keep in order a parish rook net for the rest of his life, and if he left the town to leave a good rook net behind him. Pictures of mole and weasel traps and a rook net were shown.

There is a regular annual payment of 1s 6d for Ely farthings. This was a charge of one farthing levied on every house in Cambridgeshire for the upkeep of St Peter’s altar in Ely Cathedral. The payment can be traced back for 800 years. There were about 60 houses assessable to the Hearth Tax in 1665.

A fragment of an account of 1757 tells us that in that year the Church was releaded. The weight of the old lead was 82cwt 2qr, 15lb, of the new lead 87cwt, 2qr 21lb, and 1/2 cwt of solder was used. In 1873 the Church and its contents, exclusive of the chancel, was insured against fire for £900.

 

OVERSEERS’ ACCOUNTS

The Meldreth overseers’ accounts begin in 1692. They are much longer than those of the other two officers, and contain many interesting headings, especially those that refer to attendance on the sick, charges for parish clothing, legal proceedings about settlements, &c.

In 1702 John Palmer had a long bill for clothing, but did not supply expensive materials, e.g. He laid out on the boy, John Barber: - For 5 1/2 yards of sacking 5s 11d, pair of stockings 1s, buttons 6d, for making 2s 6d, for 2 shirts 3s 6d, a pair of shoes 2s 4d. He laid out on the three Creisal orphans £1 6s 8d, which included an ell of linsey woollsey at 2s 1d.

In 1706, when Robert Caldicote, a parish apprentice, had a new rig out, we find the following items: -

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These examples might be multiplied indefinitely.

A very short examination of the relief items leads one to the conclusion that 200 years ago the overseers were truly “Guardians” of the Poor. Their primary object was the relief of distress. In fact the Overseers appeared to have looked after the poor very well indeed, as such entries as the following show:-

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They also paid the debts of paupers. Thus in 1713 John Anicoe died owing £3 15s 0d in small sums to 24 different people. They were all paid by Edward Hawkes, the overseer, who first sold Anicoe’s furniture.

The entries in the account of Isaac Coxall and Richard Hadgar, overseers, 1728-9, concerning Thomas Hussey, show him to have been in a most doleful condition.

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Besides money and clothes, faggots, turves and coal, barley and sometimes malt, were given away.

The Overseers often provided spinning wheels for infirm people to prevent them from being perpetually on the rates. But whatever kindness the paupers received from the Overseers, they had to obey the law of badges, and in 1719 we find an entry of 4s paid to Thomas Barker for badges for the poor persons who received relief.

This badge the paupers were compelled by law to wear upon the shoulder of the right sleeve of their outside garment. It consisted of a large Roman P, together with the first letter of the name of the parish of which the person was an inhabitant cut in red or blue cloth. Thus all the Meldreth paupers would have P M on their shoulders, the Shepreth paupers P S.

The Overseers had one way of getting rid of a woman who had become chargeable to the parish, which might have very much commended itself to that generation of ladies; they could get rid of her by marrying her to a man belonging to another parish. By this means the wife seems to have become chargeable to the parish to which her husband belonged. Take for example, the story of Sarah Creisal as told in the constable’s and overseer’s accounts of Meldreth. She was left a widow before 1702, for in that year the overseer accounts for money paid to Goody Creisal and for clothing and keep for her children.

In 1706, Amey Game was paid about £3 10s for keeping Sarah, and in the same year she had two new shifts which with making and thread cost 2s 10d, her shoe leather cost 3s 10d, and a pair pattens 8d.  She appears occasionally in the accounts till the year 1724. By this time her children had grown up, and she had no ties. She had been a widow for 20 years, and was a highly eligible companion for any middle-aged gentleman, who wanted a helpmate. Such a man appeared in Roger Sergeant, of Clapwell. He interviewed Sarah and was satisfied. The Overseers were so delighted that nothing less than a licence would suit - nothing so common as banns. Of course they may have been afraid that Robert would change his mind in the three weeks required for the publication of the banns. However that may be, the licence was obtained, it cost one pound and two pence. The ceremony took place on September 16th, 1724, the minister and clerk received their usual fees of 5s and 2s. 6d. An order from the Justices for removing Sarah cost 7s, and Mr. George Wicks, overseer for 1724, ends the story with this charge :— 

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Thus they got rid of her for £2 10s. 6d, a pound less than she cost a year to keep. Sometimes marriages of this kind were not unqualified successes. Cases had been known in which the bridegroom's courage had failed him, and after the ceremony he had run away, and not even a warrant from a Justice could bring him back.

Perhaps Bernard Quilton may have been such a man.

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The name of the wife is not mentioned.

The overseers' accounts contain much curious and interesting matter concerning the medical treatment of paupers. A parish doctor in those days did not receive a fixed sum for his services, but was paid by the job, and it is to this fact that we owe most of this kind of information.

In 1696 we find an account headed :-  Pd. to Cheirurgians.

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Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Richard Willowes, Vicar of Meldreth, 1692-1736' page

In 1711 occurs an entry which shows that men had not quite the monopoly of the surgical profession in those days.

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In 1720 Isaac Trigg had an injured or diseased arm, which probably disabled him from work. For besides paying Mr. Burr £1 8s. 3d "for surgery upon it", the overseer paid his debts. It was not at all an uncommon thing, in those days, for a sick person to be sent by the parish to live near a surgeon in the nearest town, for surgical or medical treatment. For instance, 1725, James Knatchbull had the itch and was sent to Dr Burr, of Royston, to be cured. The doctor boarded him in his home for three days, and the cost of board, lodging and cure was 13s. 10d. The authorities also made a determined effort to cure Richard Bigrave as the local doctor was unsuccessful.  

On July 31 1725 he journeyed with his nurse to Cambridge. He made another Journey thither on Aug. 15, and was away a fortnight. On Sept. 29, he was taken to a London Hospital. In that year he cost altogether £5 18s. 8cl. Next year he was home again, for in Oct., the overseer paid Dr Sams his charge for R. Bigrave £5 6s. Altogether, for -medical attendance alone, he cost the parish £11 6s. 8d in two years. After this result, unsatisfactory both to doctor and patient, it is encouraging to find that the medical man was then, as he is now, sometimes successful in his treatment. For nothing can be more definite and satisfactory, than two entries in the accounts of 1728.       

He paid Dr Burr for curing Jo Purton’s wrist 5s.

Aug. 31, he paid Dr. Thompson for the cure of John Wood's throat 1s.

I should think that the last named was an amateur doctor, by the small value which he set upon his cure.

During the period covered by these accounts there seems to have been only one disease which was frequently present in the minds of the people, and that was the small-pox. This fell disease has in recent times caused much trouble in the village of Meldreth, but the benefits derived from isolation and vaccination have deprived it of many of those characteristics which rendered it such a terror in past times. Many will remember the passage in Macaulay's History of England, where, after having recorded the death of Queen Mary from small-pox in 1694, he describes the horrors of this ever present disease at that period. But although that paragraph may have been written more with regard to effect than facts, there can be no doubt that the fear of this disease, if not constantly present, was at least easily raised. Take the following items :—

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Such generosity could only have been to get rid of her. The only other disease which is mentioned in the time of Mr Willowes is the itch.

But in 1777 a man named Skinner must have had a bad attack of ague, because the parish paid for Peruvian bark electuary to the value of two pounds for him.

All three parish officers, the constable, the overseer and churchwarden, seem to have granted alms to strangers as they thought proper, but the overseer gave the most. The commonest form in which almsgiving appears in the accounts is:-

Given to a man with a letter of request 6d. These were licensed beggars, or travellers. Tramps still call themselves "travellers”.

On what principle they regulated their doles I have not been able to find out, but when they were afraid that the company of any traveller was likely to entail any unusual expense a little extra was given in order to make such a person move on speedily, as in the case of the woman suspected to have small-pox already mentioned. The following are some of the instances of almsgiving in the Meldreth accounts:-

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I wonder whether a modern constable would believe a tale such as these last two probably told. Perhaps the money was given for their entertaining stories as much as for sympathy.

With regard to miscellaneous payments to people within the parish, it may be remarked that it was customary for the children to have 5s worth of beer when they went stone-picking. This was an annual institution. Let us hope that they had small beer. Beer was sometimes drunk in prodigious quantities in those days. Thus on August 4th, 1720, there was a fire at Meldreth, at some farm probably, and on that occasion, beer to the value of £118s. 6d was drunk. But of course August is very thirsty weather. In May, however, your rosy-cheeked countryman is not in such a chronic state of dryness, and we find that on May 26th, 1726, when the fire happened at Dan Sadler's, only a pound’s-worth of beer was drunk, of which 10s worth was had at the Bell, and 10s at the Widow Childerley's. The above payments for beer were made on the authority of the constables. The overseers were occasionally much more extravagant. In 1719 they allow 6s for brandy, "which the watching men had, after the fire which happened on Aug 13th and 14th".

The later accounts are most interesting as they contain more details. Just as some men get more talkative as they get older, so Mr Willowes as he got older entered more minutely into explanations of the payments. The lawsuits about the settlement of paupers gave him plenty of scope. The stubborn wheels of the law required much oiling in those cases. When James Burton was transferred to Stotfold in 1722, he records the following payments:-  “For wine and beer which Mr. Field had at the Dolphin at Royston 7s 6d". "He paid to Counsellor Butler to plead half-a-guinea”. "He paid for wine before the trial 1s, and after the trial 1s 8d, at the Rose". "He paid Mr. Field, the attorney of Hitchin, for his services and journey from thence to Cambridge two guineas". "He paid to the Clerk of the Peace for a copy of the case, 5s". "He paid for dinner and expenses at Mr. Lavender's, Cambridge,10s". He paid to Mr. Goodall and the Clerk of the Peace, about the case, 10s". “He paid to Counsellor Raybey for his fee to endeavour to get a hearing of the case from the judge, a guinea". "He spent with the Clerk of the Peace 1s, with Counsellor Raybey 1s”. This account is not the only one of the kind, we should call some of these payments bribes. At another place Mr Willowes chronicles the journey of two Meldreth men with a pauper to Old Weston, near Kimbolton. They spent the night at Godmanchester on the way back, paid 4s for their supper, and 2s for their breakfasts.

Although Mr Willowes became garrulous as he got older, his handwriting failed very little, and he got even neater still towards the end. His last assessment of the land tax was for the year beginning April, 1735. It is neater than his list for 1697. On the back of it are some notes about appeals, as late as June, 1736; his hand had become very shaky, and he died in November the same year.

 

THE PRICE OF COTTAGE BUILDING
IN 1722

Now that the cost of cottage building is often being discussed, it may be of general interest to print an account of a four-roomed tenement which was built by the overseers of the parish of Meldreth, about two hundred years ago. Amongst the property belonging to the parish of Meldreth, is a double tenement in Chiswick End, known as Addleston Charity. From this way of describing it one might suppose that someone named Addleston had willed it to the parish. But it became a parish possession in a different way. The following story of this house is derived chiefly from the parish accounts kept by the Rev R Willowes.

In 1662 died a man named John Addleston, who had lived on Chiswick End Green in a house which had only one fireplace. Probably it was a cottage with a brick chimney in the middle, a living room on one side, a backhouse or storeroom on the other, and two bedrooms above. In this he brought up a family of six children. His son James inherited it after him. John had other property, houses and land in the open fields. He had dowered his daughters with half-acre strips, or sums of money, and to Michael Lumpkin, afterwards tenant of the Shene Mill, he left an ewe and a lamb. Evidently he was a flourishing small holder of those times. But his son James fell on evil days. He never seems to have had enough property to come within the scope of the parish rate collector, and he could not even keep his house in repair. His first appearance amongst the parish records is in February, 1720, when the overseer allowed him 2s a week "being sick". And from that date until his wife died in Feb, 1722, and he died in October,

1724, they were both receiving parish relief.  But the payment of the weekly dole, and occasional supplies of coal, turves and straw were not the extent of their requirements. In February, 1722, Goody Addleston was taken ill and died, which event resulted in this account, which is a specimen of Mr Willowes’ attention to detail. 

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The only medicine she had was beer; perhaps the pennyworth of bran was part of the ritual for laying out the corpse; the affidavit was a declaration on oath that the deceased had been buried in woollen. Soon afterwards James Addleston's house felt down on the top of him, and the overseers paid 2s, for removing his furniture, and the same amount for separating the timber and thatch from the dust and rubbish, when the rest of the house was pulled down. Now as early as 1721 the overseers had obtained a “writing” from James surrendering the house to them on his death. As it was copyhold, they now set to work to re-build it, having cleared the site by selling the timber and chips of the old house for 10s, and the dust and rubbish for 3s. Here are the details as they appear in the account of the overseer, Henry Knight.

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Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Richard Willowes, Vicar of Meldreth, 1692-1736' page

The reeds were used as a foundation on which to lay the plaster inside. "Fourpenny" nails were originally 4d. a hundred. A few years later a new boarded floor cost £5 11s 1 1/2d and an outside oven £1 5s 2d. This account relates to the tenement yet existing, but in later times the clay batts have had a coating of brickwork outside. 

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It does not seem to have been a good speculation for the parish. In 1837 the two tenements were let for £2 and £1 10s. The latest rents have been £4 10s and £3 15s, but these amounts have usually been swallowed up in repairs.

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