Some historians have argued that childhood is a modern invention and that before the 1600s, children were seen as little adults. Others have disagreed. However, it is widely agreed that the role of children has greatly changed over time. Childhood became increasingly distinct from adulthood, with its own duties, clothing, and games.
Before industrialisation, children worked with their families in farming or cottage industries. With the rise of factories in the 18th and 19th centuries, children were sent out to work. The poor conditions and long hours led to campaigns for child welfare. New laws set a minimum working age and limited children’s hours. The introduction of compulsory schooling in the 19th century also helped separate childhood from adulthood. Nowadays, most people’s childhood memories are of games, school, and friends.
Raggy children © Northamptonshire Archives Service
Many acts have always been considered crimes in Britain, but other crimes have emerged, changed, or been abolished. For example, organised crime by groups such as the Culworth Gang only emerged after the road network was expanded.
Before the jury system was developed in the 12th century, crimes were tried by local lords and communities. Alternatively, a ‘trial by ordeal’ could inflict physical harm on a person to see whether God would save them. The Northamptonshire witch trials of 1612 were one of the first cases where the accused were dunked in water.
Punishment for crimes also changed significantly. Physical punishments, such as mutilation, and shaming punishments, such as the stocks, were common before imprisonment became the norm. The number of crimes punishable by death went up and down, but the methods became more humane and less public until the death penalty was abolished in Britain. The last public hanging in Northamptonshire was behind the Sessions House in 1852.
You can view places in Northamptonshire related to crime and punishment on our Heritage map by selecting the 'Crime and Punishment' layer.
Executions at the Summer Assizes, 1828 © Northamptonshire Archives Service
People have farmed in Britain since 4,000 BC. However, the systems and tools have changed hugely over time. From the Anglo-Saxon period to the 18th century, Northamptonshire used an open-field system. This meant that local farmers shared a large field for crops and grazed their animals in the common land around it. After the introduction of new laws called the Inclosure Acts, landowners put hedges and fences around areas of land so that only one person could farm it. This was unpopular because it changed the way of life and increased poverty. Farm equipment also changed over the centuries. Simple hand tools were replaced by animal-led devices before large machinery arrived. Today, lots of farm equipment is automated.
Harvest © Northamptonshire Archives Service
Like the rest of the country, Northamptonshire has a long history of immigration. The first humans arrived in Britain in 800,000 BC and there have been waves of migrants ever since. The Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans all settled in Northamptonshire after invading. There was a small Jewish community in Northampton in the 12th century and the first record of a black person in the county was in 1205. As Britain expanded its empire and developed its slave trade, Indian servants and African slaves came to Britain. There was a large influx of migrants after the Second World War as many displaced Eastern Europeans settled in Britain. Foreign workers were also encouraged to come to boost the post-war economy. In recent years, refugees and European Union citizens have further diversified Northamptonshire and Britain.
Newly arrived immigrants in London, late 19th century © Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo
Northamptonshire has a long history of Nonconformism. In 1662, the Act of Uniformity required the clergy, politicians, and academics to follow the rules of the Church of England. Those Protestants who refused became known as Nonconformists and were persecuted. In Northamptonshire, there were usually as many Nonconformists as Protestants. They were strongly Liberal and often did charitable work or supported causes such as the abolition of slavery. Philip Doddridge, the minister for Northampton’s Castle Hill Chapel, was one of the best-known Nonconformists.
Frontispiece to The Rise & Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge © the Trustees of the British Museum, licenced under a Creative Commons Licence
In medieval England, sport meant the hunting and fishing activities of the upper classes. Northamptonshire was a popular destination, known for its well-stocked lands and central location. Although ordinary people had less time and energy for pastimes, they became increasingly common. Indoor games, such as cards and dice, and outdoor games, such as football and hockey, were popular. Unlike modern sports, there were few rules and injuries were common. Games were also controlled by the government. It was thought games would lead working people astray or make them unfit for the army. In the 18th and 19th centuries, recognised rules were developed, leading to the modern sports we have today.
The first football team in Duston, 1894 © Northamptonshire Archives Service
Workhouses have been immortalised in the tale of Oliver Twist and bring to mind images of Victorian poverty. Although many were built earlier, they became the central part of poor relief after 1834. Workhouses were feared institutions and the last resort for the poor. However, their records also give us insight into the lives of paupers that otherwise might have been lost.
Daventry Workhouse © Northamptonshire Archives Service
If you have any comments or corrections, please get in touch:
If your question is research-related, please contact the Northamptonshire Archives.