(See also our local history group web page.)
Birdingbury has had a quiet life. As a small village in east Warwickshire some forty generations have lived here while great events largely passed them by. The villagers put up with the weather, tilled the land, paid their rents and got on with their lives. For a thousand years, until about 1800, conditions changed only very slowly. The coming of the canals and railways in the 19th century brought new developments as well as new challenges and the 20th century saw the total destruction of old village life, to be replaced by a modern community living in a wider world.
Nothing is known of its earliest history but the name suggests that it was a Saxon settlement – the place of Byrd’s people. However, by the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 it was already well cultivated with 400 acres under the plough and it may have had a population of as much as a hundred.
Somewhat over half the land was owned by the Benedictine Monastery in Coventry founded by Leofric (husband of the renowned Godiva) who had endowed that new foundation with property in 24 villages in 1043. The other, smaller part was owned Thorkil, but farmed by Jocelyn, his tenant. Thorkil was one of the few great Saxon landowners to keep his property after the Norman Conquest (1066),
Both parts of the village passed through further ownerships until in 1400 they were united under a John Olney. It continued to be sold and resold, passing through the Throckmortons and Shuckburghs (who built the Hall in about 1630) until in 1687 Sir Charles Wheler (of the family then in Leamington Hastings) sold it to Simon Biddulph. He came from a Staffordshire family and his older brother had been created a baronet in 1664, a title which Simon’s grandson, Theophilus, inherited from his cousin in 1743, thus becoming the first of five Sir Theophilus Biddulphs of Birdingbury.
From medieval times until the beginning of the nineteenth century the parish was farmed in the old ‘Open Field’ system. Except for the area between Marton Road and the River Leam which had been divided into small enclosed fields at some early date, the rest of the parish was farmed in small strips of which there were several thousand and cultivated by individual farmers, mostly tenants, who, although they may have farmed a hundred or more strips, seldom had two side by side. Today we can see the remains of this system in the ‘ridge and furrow’. These strips were grouped in three huge blocks. Middle Field stretched from the village along the Stockton Road nearly as far as the cross roads, Lower Field was the land below the scarp either side of the Long Itchington Road and Upper Field was the southern part of the village towards the Boat Inn and to the tip of the parish. The majority of the land was owned by the Biddulphs and much of the rest was held by the Church or the Rector with a few freeholders owning smaller portions.
One person of particular note was connected with Birdingbury: HenryHomer, born about 1719, had met Sir Theophilus Biddulph when at Cambridge and was appointed by him as Rector of Birdingbury. He proceeded to have 17 children (author Arthur Mee described this as ‘thus ensuring his own congregation’) of whom three became classical scholars. He himself wrote widely on issues of the day including rivers, canals and particularly on the development of the highways on which he was far ahead of his time. He had liberal views on many social matters: one of these pamphlets, for example, commenting on the effects of the Enclosure Acts deprecated ‘the taking away from the poor by the rich of privileges which the poor are too weak to retain.’ He died in 1791.
Whether his attitude had an effect on his patron Sir Theophilus cannot be known but Birdingbury was one of the last parishes in this district to be subject to ‘General Enclosure’. That did not come until 1804 when the three big medieval fields were surveyed, divided into blocks and allotted to the landowners in proportion to the number of ancient strips they had held. These blocks were then fenced and hedged by the owners to produce the pattern of fields largely as it is today, divided between about six farms.
In 1800 the Warwick and Napton Canal was opened. This crosses the southern tip of the parish and led to the building of The Boat Inn– the only pub that Birdingbury has ever had.
The Rugby and Leamington Railway was approved by Parliament in 1846 though not completed until 1851. It crossed the River Leam on a handsome five-arched viaduct and then passed through the north of the parish in a deep cutting. It was closed to passenger traffic in 1959 but for over 100 years it had greatly increased village access to the wider world.
Where the railway crosses the river there had been a watermill, possibly dating from as early as 1200, but this had gone out of use before the railway came. There was also a windmill in the village during the 19th century which may have replaced an earlier one: the mound on which it stood can be seen by Mill House off Stockton Road.
St. Leonard’s Church is most unusual. It dates form 1775 and replaced a medieval building which had ‘become ruinous and wholly decayed and dilapidated’ so much that permission had been given to demolish it entirely. Nothing is known of the old building but it would appear that the new classical-style church was built on the original foundations. In 1876 the church was ‘gothicised’ by raising the roof, remodelling the windows and adding an apse to the very plain Georgian building of the previous century. Inside, the box pews of the 18th century largely remain but the Victorians added a chancel screen and encaustic floor tiles which have recently been revealed and restored.
Birdingbury Hall, built about 1630, originally consisted of a hall block with two projecting wings. It was enlarged in 1742 but retained its Jacobean appearance until a serious fire in 1859 destroyed one wing. The house was rebuilt with an entrance hall and gallery between the two wings. There is an extensive early 18th century brick stable block with a clock tower which has been converted into dwellings. The Biddulphs continued to live in the Hall until about 1874; after that it was let to a succession of tenants. It was sold out of the family in 1914 but has continued as a private house except for a brief period as a management school.
The Rectory is an elegant stucco-faced building from the 18th century. It was sold by the Church in 1929 when the living of Birdingbury was combined with that of Marton and is now in private ownership.
A school was founded in the mid-nineteenth century but closed in 1935 when pupil numbers had fallen to four. The old school building in the centre of the village has been adapted to become the Birdingbury Club. Alongside, a Village Room – The Birbury – was built in 1986, largely by voluntary labour. This has proved a great asset for meetings and small functions but the village still lacks a larger public hall.
In the village there are four of the original farmhouses from the 16th or early 17th centuries which retain their timber frames although most if not all the wattle-and-daub infill has been replaced with brick panels (mostly painted white). In addition there are two large late-Georgian houses and about ten smaller houses and cottages of the same period. Only about six houses were added in the next hundred years until just before the Second World War when five pairs were built in Back Lane. Since 1945 there have been about 90 new houses as well as a dozen conversions from the stables that belonged to the Hall and the old farmsteads.
In 1800 there were about 125 inhabitants, few more than in 1086. Almost all were working on the land or servicing the Hall but during the 19th century the number of occupations increased until in 1900 only about half were still in agriculture and there were 200 inhabitants living in 46 houses.
Early administration of villages like Birdingbury was in the hands of the Parish Vestry and the Overseers of the Poor but in 1894, in line with new local government organisation, the village held its first ‘Parish Assembly.’ Seventeen villagers attended, electing a Chair and Secretary and appointing Thomas Bayes to represent them at the new Rugby Rural District Council. The village continued to have its Annual Parish Assembly which discussed many matters from housing and drainage, village fêtes and coronation parties to road safety and the war memorial until, in 1967, the population reached the point at which the parish was allowed to elect a full Parish Council with five members. In 1973, when Rural and Urban District Councils were amalgamated, Birdingbury became part of the new Rugby Borough Council.
Electricity came to the village in the early 1930s. It was not until 1942 that a mains water system was introduced; rubbish was collected for the first time in the same year. The first general drainage was through a septic tank at the bottom of Back Lane but in the 1960s this was replaced with a pumped system taking the waste to Frankton sewage works. Gas was supplied to the village in 1993.
Through the 20th century a range of services developed including shops, a petrol station and a post office. With wider car ownership these have all gone and villagers now rely on neighbouring towns or deliveries to meet their needs. The social loss in not having these amenities is hard to overcome.