The Berkshire parish of Catmore was home to many of our ancestors in the Hughes line of descent

Catmore, and its attendant hamlet of Lilley, is a small (700 acres), remote parish high on the Berkshire Downs. Its name is a corruption of its original Anglo-Saxon name, Catmere, meaning Wildcat Pool. After being in Saxon ownership for centuries the parish was - in common with most land in England - given to a Norman landowner after the Norman Conquest.

In 1086, the new Norman king, William the Conqueror, commissioned a book to be compiled containing details of all the land he now owned. This was called the Domesday Book, and its purpose was to assist William in collecting rent and taxes from those to whom he had assigned land. This is the entry for Catmore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What it notes is that Henry de Ferrers now owns Catmore, and has in turn leased it to another man, also called Henry. It says that a Saxon called Eadsige used to rent the land from the previous king, the Saxon King Edward. At that time it was assessed for tax purposes at 700 acres, but now it will be 360 acres. There is enough land to employ 6 ploughs, and the King is reserving one sixth of the land for himself, along with the labour of 5 peasants and 12 serfs. It says that the parish was previously worth £7, then the value went down to £2, and is now worth £3.50.
(Incidentally, Henry de Ferrers is the ancestor of the current earls of Derby.)

A church, St. Margarets, was built around 1150, possibly on the site of an earlier Saxon church, and - aided by some refurbishment in 1845 and 1891 - still stands today. The nave roof dates from 1607, and the bell from 1700. The font, carved from a block of limestone - and in which many of our ancestors were doubtless christened - is still there after 850 years of use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 1306 the parish was owned by the Norman Rogo Gascelyn who was granted a charter by Edward 1 to hold a weekly market at the Manor. This was very successful, and continued for the next 300 years until replaced by a sheep Fair at the nearby village of East Ilsley, in 1620.

In the early1400s the parish passed to the Eyston family who still own it almost six centuries later. During the medieval period there would have been a manor house, a farm and the church, grouped together - with the farm workers and other employees living in the thatched cottages of Lilley, some half mile distant. In the reign of Elizabeth 1, it was very disadvantageous to be a Catholic. Priests were often executed, and all Catholics had to pay heavy annual fines in order to practice their religion. The Eyston family were known Catholics but, due to the remoteness of Catmore, seem to have avoided the worst of the persecution. In the 1970s evidence of a hiding place and pre-Reformation chapel was found in the farmhouse. An early fifteenth century statue was discovered hidden under the floor, the head missing but the body carefully wrapped in silk. According to family tradition there was a second hiding place at Catmore and an escape tunnel.

The population of the entire parish was never high, peaking at about 120 (a good proportion of them being our relatives) in the middle of the 19th Century, but has fallen steadily over the years to its current 24.

Many people still like the quiet rural location, and detached houses in the area sell for around £450,000 – some way above the national average. By contrast, as noted in the Domesday entry above, the entire parish was valued at £3.50 in 1086, but that’s inflation for you.

 Sadly, however, despite the popularity of residences in Lilley, which still exists, the Catmore Manor house is long gone; the church is disused (though still consecrated); and the farm buildings have been converted for light-industrial use. But nevertheless, there is still much that the ghosts of our ancestors would recognise.