My Paternal Ancestors
Wray family: hurdle-makers and John Wray 1690c - 1756
The branch of the Wray family that had settled at Preston, Hertfordshire by 1900 can trace its origins over the previous two centuries to the rural parishes that nestle around Hatfield and Hertford. These include Tewin, Bengeo, Digswell, Datchworth, Hatfield and Hertingfordbury.
The reason for the Wray’s movement around Hertfordshire was the family craft of hurdlemaking, which was handed down from father to son. Because most generations of Wrays produced several sons and there was only so much local work for hurdlemakers, if a son wanted to continue in the trade he and any family were forced to move on to a nearby village. I know of seventeen Wray hurdlemakers, spread over seven generations, who are noted as hurdle-makers and/or carpenters) in primary documents. They, and their relationships, are shown next:
For thousands of years man has used hurdles to pen his livestock on selected portions of land with arable crops such as turnips and also as temporary fencing with which to divide his fields. The hurdles protected young lambs from fierce, bitter winds. Hurdles are light, durable and portable – several may be carried on a shoulder. A considerable amount of pliable hazel and willow wood is used to make wattle hurdles – each craftsman may take cuttings from four acres of woodland. In wintertime, hazel trees are prepared by being coppiced (or cut back hard) to promote several new ‘whippy’ shoots from the stump. The direction of the coppicing cut is important as it should be upwardly-facing to allow rainwater to run off so that the wood does not rot. A present-day resident of Tewin, Herts (where Wray hurdlemakers lived in the ninetweenth century) reports that even now, the woods show evidence of the coppicing work done by hurdle makers which would probably have included members of my family There are surviving low stumps of hazel with several long rods bursting from them, the appearance of which is quite different to trees which grow naturally with no coppicing (see below).
The craft of hurdlemaking
Hurdlemakers at work - splitting the rods and assembling the hurdle. Note the billhook in both photographs.
Later in the year, the tender, flexible, green shoots are cut, collected and split using the hurdle maker’s stand-by tool – the Wrazor-sharp billhook. The rods are first cut to length and then trimmed to shape on a chopping log. The rods are then woven and twisted between vertical poles or zales which are inserted into holes bored out at equal distances in a log or base-board. A six-foot long by three-foot high hurdle would have nine zales which are slightly offset toward the middle. These upright poles act as a template - the end poles being stronger than the rest being whole, and not split as the inner ones are. They are also a little taller to allow the hurdles to be joined together. The hurdlemaker likes his weaving to be even, The aim is to produce strong interweaving of cross-woods and poles. This entails a good deal of twisting and bending with strong hands and much knee work, pushing and pulling unrult rods into place to keep the hurdle shapely and neat. About two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the hurdle are two importnat rods - they are twisted around each other and around the poles across the hurdle. beneath this row, a small gap is left. When the shepherd carries the hurdles, he thrusts a stake through this opening so as to carry three or more at a time. The ends of the hurdle are then trimmed with the bill - an attractive, neat finish is another aim of the hurdle-maker.They must be well-made - weak ones collapse after hard wear. The visitor to woods might hear the quietitude punctuated by the tapping of the hurdlemaker’s billhook and find him surrounded by wood, tools and stacks of completed hurdles.
After the hurdle has been assembled, it is stored to allow nature to take its course. The wood will dry, season, toughen and change colour to an attractive deep brown. The offset of the zales is redressed as the hurdle flattens and tightens. At least four hurdles could be made each day. Completing six was a good day’s work and making a dozen was possible if a long day was worked from dawn to late evening.In 1790, a hurdle was worth about 6d. Therefore, six days work could result in an income of about 12/-. The farm labourers’ wage was between 9/- to 10/- at this time. The only cost to the hurdle maker was his time, which included the hours spent coppicing and cutting his raw materials. The hurdle-maker’s work was seasonal. Sometimes they cut undergrowth; sometimes, spars for thatchers; sometimes faggots fot housewives and sometimes sticking wood for gardeners. He might also augment his income (as my grandfather did) by laying hedges (illustrated below) – the principles of which are similar to hurdle making (Of my grandfather: “E laid ‘edges lovely!”).
Grtx5 grandparents: John and Ann (nee Tingy) (W)Ray
The following entry in the Bramfield, Herts Marriage Parish Record is the first mention of my Wray ancestors found so far:
John Ray (sic; a resident of nearby Bengeo) and Ann Tingy married in Ann’s parish church at Bramfield, Hertfordshire (shown right in 1832) on 12 October 1715. John was probably born in around 1690 but his origins are not definitely known. There are only two baptisms of a John Ray in the county around this time - in 1673 and 1674 at Datchworth, which would mean that if one was my ancestor he would have been aged around forty-two when he married Ann - not impossible but fairly unlikely. Another factor is that, as the marriage records of Datchworth are patchy around this time, it is even impossible pin down the parents of these Johns. There also is no helpful naming pattern from their children. I believe that John is at the end of my discoverable Wray family line. John and Ann had eight known children, all of whom were baptised in Bengeo - an indication that the family settled in this village.
When John was buried at Bengeo in 1756, the parish clerk included the welcome information that he was a carpenter (see below), as hurdlemakers are often described. He was the first known hurdlemaker in my family.
I am not certain that the record of Ann’s death shown below is of my ancestor, because she was buried at Hertford All Saints - although this was only around a mile north of Hertford. If she is John’s widow, she died (aged around sixty) only a year or so after her husband’s demise. Perhaps she was being cared for by a relative at Hertford - maybe one of her children.
Left, a newspaper advertisement dated September 1862 of a sale at Bengeo Temple Farm which describes hurdles as “Wray’s make”. A shackle was the means of securing hurdles - perhaps being a coil of hazel