It is tempting to think, when walking across the Backies, especially from the evidence of ridge and furrow, that the land has been undisturbed for centuries. But the area does have a history and has passed through interesting times. The land known today as the Backies roughly corresponds to what had been known in the past as the Moor Brots (or Moor Broats).
After the retreat of the icesheet the Vale of York filled with glacial meltwater to form the vast Lake Humber. Eventually this silted up, leaving a rich and fertile soil which would have been beneficial to early human settlers. York, before it was known as such, was within the vast Celtic kingdom of Brigantia that covered Northern England coast to coast. The tribe were the Brigantes, the Children of Bridget. Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes had links with Aldorough, Catterick and Stanwick, the latter of which could have been her headquarters. In Roman times Brigantia became a client-kingdom. In essence, this mean that Cartimandua threw in her lot with the Romans, in exchange for which, she retained some power. In 51 AD when King Caratacus fled to Brigantia to ask for Cartimandua’s help, she betrayed him to the Romans. This act did nothing for the queen’s popularity among her own people, many of whom were anti-Roman, and in AD 69 she was overthrown by this opposition, led by her on husband, Venutius. The Romans, tired of the fractious natives, overran Brigantia.
There is evidence of two Roman camps on Bootham Stray. These are but two of a larger group that were used as field training camps. Their presence indicates that the Romans, if not the Brigantes or even earlier peoples, had gone some way towards opening up the local forest. After Cartimandua fled Brigantia the north of the city east of the Ouse was settled by Roman and pro-Roman native farmers.
Clifton was situated in the southern bailiwick of the King’s Forest of Galtres. We should not imagine thick woodland, but an area of deciduous trees with some boggy and open spaces. Galtres extended from the north of the city and covered the area between Ouse, Kyle and Foss. Although Galtres, apparently, means “boars’ brushwood” there are no surviving records of such animals in the forest, although similar forests had boar and there is no reason to suppose they were totally absent. Large, nocturnal and sometimes dangerous, boars are thought to have become extinct in this country from around the 13th century – those inhabiting places such of the Forest of Dean today have bred from farm escapes. Galtres was, however, prized for its oak and deer.
Galtres was disafforested in 1630, which furthered its disappearance and like many others of its kind it slowly vanished from a landscape that was becoming increasingly agricultural.
At some point the Manor of Clifton, including the Moor Brots, was acquired by St Mary’s Abbey, the Lord of the Manor being the Abbot of St Mary’s. After the dissolution of the monasteries the land passed back to the Crown.
From medieval times the land was strip farmed but in the 16th and 17th centuries many such strips were grouped together into closes and it is from this time that the name Moor Brots probably originates.
The Moor Brots was purchased in 1600 when Letters Patent were granted to Richard Swayne and Richard Ryves who sold the land in 1605 or 1606 to Robert Seymer and William Blake, who in turn sold it shortly afterwards to William Robinson. Robinson already had lands in Rawcliffe and could already have been a lessee of Clifton tithes before this purchase. The family held the area for many years and were important and wealthy people whose members included Aldermen, Mayors and Members of Parliament.
In 1585, on nearby Huntington Moor there had been a riot on Robinson’s land. While he was away in London men had arrived to work on the land and had gathered at the house of a man named Sherbourne, who had come out and questioned their right to plough. The men affirmed their right but Sherbourne was unconvinced and asked them to return when Robinson was back and it would then be confirmed that they did have the right to plough. The men left, but returned later that day with re-enforcements from Clifton, 40-60 strong and armed, one with a pikestaff and the rest with whips and agricultural implements. They were overheard to say they would plough there or die for it. Sherbourne tried to hinder them by stepping between them and the plough, at which there was a serious affray between the ploughmen and the dozen or so men with Sherbourne, the latter who received two head wounds. At some point the coulter, being the vertical blade that cuts down before the ploughshare, broke, thereby causing ploughing to halt and tempers to cool.
Unfortunately for the Robinson,s many of their deeds and papers had been kept at St Marys Tower in Bootham, which seems to have served as a local document storage centre, and during the Seige of York this tower was blown up, burned and ransacked and a quantity of the papers were lost – a situation which hampered future disputes about the land.
One ownership dispute arose in 1637 over the Moor Brots. There had been a local farm, “Carter’s Farm”, which had been leased by a Captain Yorke, and a man called John Wells had lived there during this time. After Captain Yorke’s lease expired Wells continued as a tenant of the Robinson’s. Seemingly Wells had originally held land in Gallows Close but had swapped it for land in the Moor Brots, which he had enclosed. When Wells died a dispute arose as to whether Moor Brots and Esh Tree (or Ash Tree) closes belonged to Carters Farm or another in Clifton, North Chantrie, and a legal wrangle ensued. Such matters could be long and drawn out and usually called for an array of witnesses, being locals and tenants who would give their version of who owned what and where the boundaries lay.
St Michael le Belfry held various pockets of land in the area. Another dispute arose between the Robinson family and Mr Knight, the curate of St Michael le Belfry, when the latter tried to bring an action for non-payments of tithes of hay in the 1720’s. If such tithes had ever been payable they were not probably worth a great deal and this was instrumental in the issue being dropped.
The Moor Brots was situated in a larger field known as the Lady Mill or Lady Milne Field. The Lady Mill had been leased to a miller by the name of Francis Lund in 1610. The Robinsons owned another mill on Burton Stone Lane and, according to Alan Whitworth’s “Yorkshire Windmills”, there were two mills here as recently as 1878.
The Robinsons were powerful and wealthy, and as well as land at Clifton and Rawcliffe they had property in the city, including two houses in Bootham that were lost in the Siege of York, and land at Rainton. The family was related to William Weddell. Anyone familiar with Newby Hall will be familiar with Weddell’s work on the house and interiors as well as his sculpture collection. He died in 1792 and having no children, Thomas Philip Robinson became the new owner of Newby Hall. Thomas Philip was a keen amateur architect, as were his father and grandfather, and his interest and gift in this field led him to becoming the first president of Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). He had changed his name to Weddell in accordance with instructions left in Weddell’s will; he was already 3rd Baron Grantham, and when a maternal aunt died he inherited another title which will be familiar to York people; he became Earl de Grey of Wrest (Wrest Park is in Bedfordshire, now an English Heritage property).
In 1836 much of the Manor of Clifton, totaling 1,740 aces, was put up for sale, and from the sale prospectus and map in York City Archives, it is possible to deduce the names of the local closes surrounding the Moor Brots. Described in the North Chantrie wrangle as being 5 or 6 acres, it appears as no less than 4 separate lots. Plot 97, occupied by John Cuthbert was pasture and meadow; plot 98 occupied by Thomas Holgate was meadow; plot 99, again occupied by Thomas Holgate, was arable land and plot 100 was occupied by John Giles and was meadowland.
On the first bend of Water Lane coming from Clifton Green, where the end of Kingsway North is, and extending part way up Water Lane, was a little oak and ash plantation owned by the de Grey family, indeed the Robinson family seem to have been keen on tree planting. Details of agreements with their tenants showed the tenant had to agree to plant so many (typically half a dozen) ash, willow or ”other quicksettes” per year. Quaintly, rents were sometimes paid in so much money along with two hens and 20 eggs.
The land sale, of course, proved to be the beginning of the end of the Robinsons’ link with Clifton and this came to a final close in 1919 when Lady Lucas and Lady Alwyne Compton Vyner ,both descendants of the Robinsons, presented the Manors of Clifton and Rawcliffe to York Corporation.
In more recent times, of course, the area is associated with the airfield, though the Backies did retain farmland and some of its age-old ridge and furrow ploughmarks. The airfield had been present since 1936 but was taken over by the Air Ministry in 1939 as a relief landing ground for RAF Linton on Ouse. For a while Linton’s Armstrong Whitworth (Whitley) aircraft were stationed here for safekeeping (an attack on Linton being feared). Clifton airfield was itself raided by the Luftwaffe in April 1942. The Whitleys, which were a distinctive aircraft due to their slightly nose-down, tail-up flight, were soon replaced by the new Halifax, and it was for this later type of bomber that three concrete runways were built. An array of buildings went up in 1940/41, despite concern from local farmers that loss of trees meant loss of shade for cattle.
Post war, the airfield was used for stripping down Halifax bombers. It is a shame this fate befell so many, as there is only one in the country now, that being Friday 13th at the Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington, and she is a composite aircraft. For a while there was a flying club in situ at Clifton but after 1953 the airfield as such was disused. The hangars were utilised by the Department of the Environment as government stores before the current use as a grain storage facility.
Local people may remember Pigeon Cote Farm on Water Lane which stood on the Moor Brots until the early 1970s. It was situated on the same side of the road as the Clifton Hotel, but a bit further north where Water Lane bends slightly just before the junction with Rawcliffe Drive. It had been occupied by the Bean family, who were market gardeners and farmers. Pigeon Cote Farm did indeed have a substantial pigeon cote, topped by a weather vane, directly behind it. By 1980 there was no trace of farm or cote except for a raised area which marked the well.
The Bull Butts is the triangle of land between Water Lane, running north, and the Bur Dyke, veering to the right, separating the Short Wandales and Socar and Gallows Closes from the Moor Brots.
Sources and Bibliography
The History of Easingwold and the Forest of Galtres – Geoffrey C .Cowling M.A. Advertiser Press, Huddersfield, 1967
Britannia – A History of Roman Britain – Sheppard Frere. Routledge and Kegan Paul (3rd edition, 1987)
The Short Oxford History of the British Isles – The Roman Era – The British Isles 55 BC – AD 410, Ed – Peter Salway. Oxford University Press, 2002
Brigantia – A Mysteriography – Guy Raglnd Phillips. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976
The Stanwick Fortifications, North Riding of Yorkshire – Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Society of Antiquaries, Oxford, 1954
Yorkshire Windmills – Alan Whitworth. MTD Rigg Publications 1991
The Robinson Papers – York City Archives, Ref: M31-M35, Clifton Manor, Deeds and Estate Papers of the Robinson Family
Information on Clifton Aerodrome – York City Archives
Drawing from the Past – William Weddell and the Transformation of Newby Hall – essays by various authors published in book form by Leeds Museum and Galleries
Newby Hall Estate Office and English Heritage at Wrest Park and Cambridge were also helpful with regard to queries about William Weddell and Earl de Grey of Wrest respectively.
The map showing the close names was produced by the writer having deduced the close names from the lot numbers and corresponding information held in York City Archives regarding the sale of land in Clifton in 1836.
Property of writer’s family.
This essay was written by Dawn Hogarth, York, 2005, updated 2008, for the Friends of Clifton Backies.