Along The Moors
Eyton upon the Weald Moors
Despite its secluded location, the village of Eyton has played a pivotal role in the history of the Weald Moors for many centuries. The tiny settlement, which lies tucked away at the end of a short minor road on the western edge of the moorlands, was the ancestral home of the Eyton family who, as lords of the manor, wielded considerable power and were among the first members of the local gentry to attempt a programme of agricultural improvements in the area. By 1231, their tenants had begun to clear scrub on moorland belonging to the township, which was eventually separated from the huge expanse of the Rough Moor between 1579 and 1580, when Thomas Eyton constructed the Black Dyke. The ancient waterway now forms the boundary between Eyton and Preston parishes but is not the only remnant of the family’s all-pervasive influence, which can be seen in several locations around the village.
Ties that Bind
The Eytons are among the oldest landed families in Shropshire and it was Catherine Eyton, one of the earliest known members of the dynasty, who is thought to have been responsible for founding the local church which supposedly bears her name. Although the current edifice only dates from 1743, St. Catherine’s was so-named by 1336 and is said to owe its foundation to a vow made by Lady Eyton in the event of her husband Robert’s safe return from the Crusades of the late 12th Century. The family motto Je m’y oblige (‘I bind myself’) is also said to have originated from her promise and appears, together with a depiction of St Catherine, in the stained glass of the church’s north wall.
Nestled behind a cluster of trees to the south of the parish church is Eyton Hall, the former seat of the lords of the manor. Surprisingly, the current edifice is actually a heavily altered 18th Century farmhouse that was chosen as the family residence when the Eytons moved back to the village from Wellington in 1816. No trace of the original building (which may have been located in dense woodland to the east of the current hall) survives and it appears the family left their ancestral home in the wake of the English Civil War. Lord of the Manor Thomas Eyton was forced to pay a heavy price for his support of the monarchy during the conflict and subsequently made to compound his estate to the tune of £976 after it ended. It is unclear what, if any, physical damage was rendered to his property but Eyton was supposedly captured in a surprise attack on his home in 1644 which, combined with the heavy fine later imposed on him, may explain his family’s decision to leave.
The Birdman of Eyton
Half a century after the Eytons moved back to the Weald Moors, the ancestral home was extended again to incorporate — somewhat improbably — a museum, considered at the time to be among the finest private collections of its kind! The enterprise belonged to TC Eyton, a distinguished naturalist and friend of Charles Darwin, who inherited the estate in 1855. He enjoyed fame throughout Europe as an ornithologist, publishing several books on the subject, including A History of the Rarer British Birds (1836). His museum was housed in a specially built wing of the hall and said to contain a series of ornithological skeletons that ranked with the best in the world; while it was also home to an ‘almost unequalled’ library of books on natural science and field sports. Indeed, sporting pursuits formed an important part of Eyton’s life and his village cricket club is thought to be one of the oldest in the county — earning him the title ’Father of Shropshire Cricket’.
Sadly, much of Eyton’s collection was dispersed following his death in 1880, although a Sotheby’s catalogue containing an array of items from a sale of his effects survives as a testament to its owner’s eclectic tastes. TC Eyton was not the only family member to achieve fame as an author, as his cousin Rev Robert Eyton, in addition to his ecumenical duties, was a noted historian. His masterwork, Antiquities of Shropshire — which dealt with the feudal and judicial history in the two centuries following the Norman Conquest — continues to be a vital resource in understanding the county’s medieval past. Such was Eyton’s reputation that, upon his death in 1881, The Times newspaper remarked ‘the country lost in Mr Eyton an antiquary who, for accuracy and fulness of research, could hardly be surpassed’.
Hortonwood and the Hoo
That the Eyton’s sphere of influence on the Weald Moors extended beyond the confines of the village itself owed much to the disconnected nature of their ancient estate. Until the mid-17th Century, the family held two extensive blocks of land on the other side of the moorlands at Hortonwood and The Hoo. It seems likely the former probably consisted of the same half a league of woodland and hay recorded near Horton Township at the time of the Domesday in 1086. By the early 1600s, several clearings were made for a number of new smallholdings, although the Eyton’s carefully preserved some of the remaining woodland (containing oak, ash, crab and yew) as a place for their tenants to pasture cattle and collect timber.
The Eyton’s sold their holdings in the east of the moors (comprising 24 tenements and woodland known as ‘The Hackles’) in 1659 ,when they also relinquished Hoo Hall, a property through which they had controlled a quarter of Preston Manor. The half-timbered dwelling dates from 1712, although evidence suggests a house has stood on the site (which is situated between Horton and Preston) since the middle ages and remnants of a moat and two fish ponds associated with the earlier property remain extant near to the current edifice. In 1731, Hoo Hall was purchased by the Trustees of Preston Hospital and remained with their estate (which by 1772 incorporated the whole of Hortonwood) until the 1950s. Just a few years later in 1963, the remainder of the family estate was broken up when Eyton Hall and its home farm were sold to RG Murphy, Chairman of the Wrekin Brewery Company, bringing the direct involvement of the dynasty in the affairs of the moorlands to an end after nearly a thousand years.