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What Is a Hundred?

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In Anglo-Saxon times, society was organised for purposes of government into hundreds, each of which represented the quantity of land necessary to support one hundred families. In places with rich soil or other abundant natural resources, a hundred might be a very small area; but in Surrey, with its varied terrain and mostly problematic soils, the hundreds were relatively large. The hundred persisted as an administrative unit into the nineteenth century, when increased urbanisation made it a less meaningful entity.

‘Ploughing the Hillside’ by Robert Polhill Bevan. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B2001.2.656.

          There never was an official Darking Hundred. The market town of Darking lay in Wotton Hundred and did not lend the hundred its name even though it had long dominated the economic life of the neighbourhood. Nor were the overlords of Wotton House—for many centuries the Evelyn family—the lords of Wotton Hundred. The ‘hundred-man’ of Wotton Hundred was the Duke of Norfolk, along with his forebears going back to the Conquest.

          Over time, the secular unit of the hundred came to be overlaid by manorial grants and then by the parish system of the Church of England, and the parish system eventually became also a secular entity. The Duke of Norfolk was the lord of the manor of Darking, as well as a considerable landlord in other parts of the hundred. Wotton Hundred comprised the parishes of Darking, Capel, Ockley, Wotton, and Abinger, and these areas mark the boundaries of my tales.

          Of these systems of societal organisation, only the parish remained a dominant force in 1800. The hundred and the manor, while yet present, were in the process of losing their influence in the lives of the average dweller there. Property was drifting out of the hands of the lords of the manor, especially in towns like Darking, and people were becoming more mobile, moving from farm to farm or from farm to town at an accelerating rate. Increasingly they were changing professions and benefitting from access to education.

          In 1800, Darking Hundred’s feet were still mired in the past but its eyes were turning towards the future. The turn of the nineteenth century was a moment when traditional lifeways were still taken for granted even as they were imperceptibly eroding and being supplanted by new ones. As Vivien Ettlinger et al. say in Dorking: A Surrey Market Town through Twenty Centuries, ‘Dorking’s identity during the 18th century is one of progressive loss of its old identity, but the beginning of discovery of a new’ (page 37). It was this largely unrecognised ferment that attracted me as a storyteller.

17 May 2019

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