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If you say you live in Whixall, a likely response is …..”AARGH! That village of endless winding lanes where you get lost before ending up in a scrap yard on the side of a great peat bog like Siberian tundra where ‘Bog-Bodies’ have been dug up”.   Whixall, indeed, has a unique character compared to other Shropshire villages.  This is tied up with its history.

 In his history of Shropshire published in 1854, Samuel Bagshaw writes, “Whixall is a village which at the census of 1841 contained 211 houses and 978 inhabitants. There is some good meadow and pasture land which produces a fine herbage and cheese is made to a considerable extent. The houses are chiefly cottages built of brick and slated, with a small portion of land. The inhabitants are chiefly employed in cutting the moss, which they dry and then take to distant parts of the country for sale”.   Today there are about 350 houses and a population of approximately 630 living in the village. Children are not included in this figure whereas the previous figure of 978 inhabitants was for the whole household.

 Bagshaw’s evocative snapshot of Victorian Whixall is explained by a number of unusual earlier historical factors.  From the late middle ages on, land was usually owned outright by the greater aristocracy, local gentry, or prosperous yeomen farmers. Yet Whixall doesn’t fit this model.  

In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, though they might claim authority and landowners rights, in reality, power and influence of landed families such as the Hills of Hawkstone tended to end on the borders of Whixall.  The Hill empire ended at Coton; the Hanmer estates at Fenns and Bettisfield.   Bostock Hall, familiar as an area to anybody who has gawped endlessly at signposts while navigating a way around Whixall (but originally a substantial house resembling Alkington Hall, built probably in the late sixteenth century, demolished in the 1960s), would have been the home of a wealthy yeoman farmer.  

 Elsewhere the picture described by Bagshaw would have begun to emerge with a number of small independently owned cottage dwellings each with a small parcel of land and peat digging rights on Whixall Moss, an obvious surviving example is the tiny abandoned cottage (see photo) on Moss Lane.

This was a most unusual historical situation: many Whixall cottagers would have been outside the control of landed estates or large farms.  Together with working on the vast, wide open, windswept, curlew echoing, spaces of the Moss, it would have been likely to produce a fiercely independent spirit, which in the past was often remarked Whixall people displayed.   Some cottages will have been of the type where if a person was able to erect a hearth, walls and roof in one day, they had full possession.

Hearsay evidence exists that querulous, unpaid soldiers (a disruptive element you would wish to get rid of into a spot off the beaten track), were given small parcels of land with the right to build such a dwelling in Whixall.  Some of these may have been veterans of the English Civil War (1640-1649).  Turbulent ex-soldiers would also have been likely to exhibit an independent frame of mind, and in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this spirit would have been a natural ally to the fast rising non-conformist Methodist religious movement, itself a rebellion against the establishment – in this case, the overly comfortable Church of England. Chapels such as Welsh End date from this time.

Trying to shine a light on life in Whixall in the early middle ages, the Saxon or pre-history eras is more problematic. Three legendary ‘Bog-Bodies’ discovered on the Moss in the nineteenth century are evidence that, perhaps 1500 years ago, very small numbers of humans lived in, or passed through a most inhospitable area, covered with forest, with the Moss prior to any drainage an excessively marshy location.   Circa 1867, two peat diggers, Henry Simpson and Thomas Woodward, dug up the body of a young man.  The body was partly covered by a leather apron, ‘2 – 3 feet’ down in the peat, in a sitting position near a three-legged stool.  Circa 1877, the body of a woman was found at a similar depth.  In 1889, the naked body of a man almost 6 feet tall was discovered lying flat between the ‘grey and black peat’ layers, 4 – 5 feet down.  The bodies lay within ‘300 yards’ of each other. What were Whixall folk of long ago doing on the Moss?

Historical generalisations, however,  may not contain the whole truth; one should be wary of too much certainty. The Doomsday Book calling Whixall  Witehala, suggests that in 1086 there was a sole Lord of the Manor with absolute authority, Ranulf Peveral.  On his demesne there were “one ox-team, two neatherds (cowherds) and two boors (dwellers)”.  The impression may have been given that more recently  independent-minded cottagers of Whixall were somewhat withdrawn,  focussed on work on the Moss, their small plots and chapels.  That’s not the full story: the coming of the canal (1807) and railway (1863) would have put Whixall on the map creating much excitement. Whixall cottagers also worked at market gardening and wreath making. The photograph below (part of the business of the writer’s great great grandfather) shows there were thriving businesses in the area in the late Victorian era.  

At that time even the independent cottagers of Whixall existed in a world defined by deference.  The writer’s grandmother told of an incident, the recounting of which she was present at as a child.  An old man returning from digging peat on the Moss, told how he met Sir Wyndham Hanmer strolling on the Moss, smoking a cigar.  Sir Wyndham enquired of the peat digger how he would feel if their positions were reversed. The old man charmingly but dutifully replied: “like a great shining silver sixpence amongst a lot of old half-pennies”. Life in Whixall has changed!

A History of Whixall