A Brief History of Houghton on the Hill
The First Settlement
The first mention of Houghton is in the Domesday Book in 1086 (spelt Hohtone) when it is recorded as having a population of 10. Archaeological finds however suggest that there may have been a settlement here for much longer. Whilst it's impossible to say with any certainty when people first laid roots and starting living in Houghton, there may have been a settlement in the area from as early as 3,000 BC (the Late Neolithic period) - piles of worked flint flakes, flint cores and scrapers associated with this period and suggestive of an occupation site have been discovered close to the modern day school. The village also sits on the crossing point of two ancient trackways which pass close by to naturally occurring springs, all of which would have been important should anyone have decided to live here.
The first real evidence however of possible occupation dates back to the Iron Age (800BC—43AD) as Iron Age pottery has been discovered close to the church of Saint Catharine's. Archaeological finds of Roman pottery (43AD—409AD) in three separate places in and around the area of the modern day village also strongly suggest that there was a settlement here then. A Roman coin—a sesterius with the likeness of the Emperor Antonius Pius (138—186AD) - has also been found in Houghton.
Derivation of the Village's Name
The spelling of the village's name has changed over the centuries but the inclusion of the term 'ton' – which means a settlement on a spur of a hill – at the end of the name suggests that it is of Anglo-Saxon derivation and indicates the existence of a settlement, before the Danish Conquest, in the ancient kingdom of Mercia. An archaeological find backs this up as an early piece of Anglo-Saxon pottery has been found at a site to the south of St. Catharine's church. The first record of the spelling 'Houghton-on-the-Hill' was in 1509.
Religion in Houghton
It seems very likely that there would have been a wooden or even possibly a stone Anglo-Saxon structure on the site of the current church – indeed a now lost stone at the base of the east wall of the south porch with the Roman numeral date 'MXIV' ('1014') carved into it suggests that this may date to an earlier church. The oldest verifiable parts of the church however date from the mid- thirteenth century – there are carvings of Henry III (1216 – 1272) and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine in the nave. The font, now placed at the rear of the church, could be even older. The stained glass windows are mostly late Victorian and early twentieth century although one tiny piece of pre-Reformation glass survives in the top of the Baptistry window. The rest of this pre-Reformation glass was destroyed by Royalists troops, who at one point used the church to stable their horses, during the English Civil War in the 1640s. Five of the six bells, which date from 1570 to 1771, were rehung in 1978 on a new frame of cast-iron sections, mounted on a grillage of steel girders, in the tower after being sent to Holland for refurbishment.
The other building of worship in the village is the Methodist Chapel further down Main Street. Whilst the inscription above the door suggests the building was built in 1852, documentary evidence shows that it was originally built as a Baptist Chapel in 1829/30 and that the Wesleyan Methodists bought it in 1851. Non-conformists were active in the village throughout the nineteenth century as evidenced by the existence of a well-supported Band of Hope and the Wesleyan and Church of England Temperance Societies (CETS). Indeed in 1888, the Houghton CETS branch won a diocesan prize for having a larger number of members present at a meeting in Rockingham in proportion to the population of the parish than any other - seventy members attending out of a branch of 142 and a population of 358. When the village welcomed refugees from Belgium during the First World War and evacuees from London during the Second World War, the room adjacent to the main chapel was used as an overflow schoolroom. It did so again in the 1970s as the population of Houghton grew rapidly and before the school could expand to accommodate the new influx of children.
Education in Houghton
Adjacent to the church is the 'Old Rectory' – now a private house – and next to that is the village school. The land on which both stand was originally owned by William Freer of Knighton, Leicester – the father of William Thomas Freer who was appointed as rector to Houghton in 1855. The following year, William Freer (snr) paid for the construction of the 'Old Rectory', four cottages – now demolished and replaced with modern houses in the 1960s – down School Lane (for the Rectory gardener and the school teacher) and school itself. In the first hundred or so years of its existence, Houghton school hardly changed in size or character. In 1871 and 1960 there were just two classes (Juniors and Infants) and they were both accommodated in the original red brick school house. Similarly, the number of teachers and pupils was almost identical. In 1871, the first year one has figures for the number of children in the school, there were 45 children (25 boys and 20 girls) taught by a Head Teacher and an Assistant Teacher. In 1962, just over a hundred years after the school opened, the number of pupils and teachers was remarkably similar: a Head Teacher and two assistants, teaching 51 children (25 Juniors and 26 Infants). It was only from the 1960s onwards as the village grew in size that the school expanded to the large, modern structure you see today.
The earliest record of education in Houghton-on-the-Hill however is to be found as long ago as 1576. Christopher Pollard, the rector from 1571 to 1605, is described as 'a teacher in his own parish'. Thereafter, until the opening of the village school in 1856, various rectors are recorded as teaching in the parish. Interestingly, immediately prior to the start of the Victorian era in 1833 there were also two private day schools in Houghton, one with 24 children and the other, begun in 1821, with 52.
Sport and Clubs in Houghton
For a small village, Houghton boasts both now and in the past a large number of clubs. The cricket club can trace its history back to at least 1864 and probably earlier – an 1854 map of Houghton mentions a cricket field. Sadly, all records of the football club before 1945 have been lost although it was known to be in existence in 1929. The current tennis club was formed in 1976 but prior to moving to its current location on the Playing Fields, there was a grass tennis court where the current bowls club now plays - next to the Village Hall. Prior to all this, from at least the early nineteenth through until the late twentieth centuries, Houghton was also a regular venue for various local hunts.
Amateur Dramatics was alive and well in mid-twentieth century Houghton – a group known as the Houghton Village Players put on a succession of plays at the Village Hall - and today there are a number of other thriving clubs, such as the Music Club and Houghton Singers, the Walking Club, the Bridge Club, the Gardeners' Club and the Art Circle. Interestingly, Houghton was the birthplace of the renowned Australian landscape painter, John Glover (1767 – 1849). Other long established groups in Houghton include the Mothers Union (formed 1893), the Parish Council (formed 1894) and the Women's Institute (formed 1918).
Shops and Facilities in Houghton
Houghton has a surprisingly large number of shops and facilities and has done so for many years. The Village Hall, opposite the church, was built by J T Forsell in 1921, in memory of his son who died in the First World War. The land on which it stands was given by Miss Charlotte Smith in 1920. Two street names in the village – Forsell's End and Charlotte's Walk – recognise the generosity of these two benefactors. The oldest continuous business is the Rose and Crown Public House on the A47 – this was a coaching inn from at least 1810 – whilst The Old Black Horse Public House on Main Street can trace its history back to at least 1845. Old Boot Cottage – now a private house opposite the war memorial – was also a public house in the nineteenth century, again from at least 1845.
As a village which primarily thrived on agricultural business, there has been a long history of villagers earning their livelihood as farriers, blacksmiths, carpenters, butchers and boot makers as well as dressmakers, tailors, chimney sweeps, hairdressers, cordwainers, bakers and wainwrights. Indeed, the last blacksmith in the village – Charlie Partridge – only retired in 1974. His forge is now the Pharmacy on Main Street. Houghton has enjoyed a postal service since 1846 and the first postmistress was a Mrs Taylor who was appointed in December 1858. Her salary was £3 p.a. plus £4 for delivering the letters to the village and out to nearby Ingarsby, where from 1882 to 1962 one could catch a Great Northern Railway train at the descriptively named 'Ingarsby for Houghton-on-the-Hill' railway station
People have probably lived in and around Houghton for thousands of years. What is indisputable is that change is nothing new and is inevitable. Towards the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign Houghton had a population of 451 in 1841. By 1911, just prior to the outbreak of the First World War and with people moving from the countryside to the city for work, numbers had tumbled to a mere 271. Thereafter the population more than doubled to stand at 661 in 1951. The building in the 1970s of the St Catharine's and Heights estates in particular saw an even more rapid growth of the village with its population peaking, in 1981, at 1705. Whilst the number of houses has subsequently increased, the population has steadily declined and at the last census in 2011 it stood at 1524.
Houghton is not a museum. If history shows us anything, it is that Houghton has continually changed in size and character. It will undoubtedly do so again in the future. Indeed, change is the very essence of a living, breathing community. The new houses which are currently being built off Winckley Close and on the A47 are testament to that change. Indeed, their construction is simply the latest welcome chapter in the history of Houghton-on-the-Hill.
8th June 2019