My Paternal Ancestors
Wray family - hurdle-makers
The origins of the Wray family that had settled at Preston, Hertfordshire by 1900 can be traced 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 due to the family craft of hurdle- making, 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 hurdle-makers, 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 hurdle-makers, spread over seven generations, who are noted as hurdle- makers and/or carpenters) in primary documents. They, and their relationships, are shown next:
The craft of hurdle-making
A hurdle-maker at work, photographed by Gertrude Jekyll in 1904. Note that he is wearing a stout leather pad on his left side to protect his clothing where the rub of the loose rods in weaving and splitting would otherwise tear them about.
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. Wattle hurdles (ie not bar 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 hurdle-makers lived in the nineteenth 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).
(Above) Hurdle-makers 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 hurdle-maker 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 unruly 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 important 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 quiet punctuated by the tapping of the hurdle-maker’s bill hook 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 for 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!”).
(Above) 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.
There are four stages to laying a hedge:
1. The butt of each ‘stool’ is partly severed as near to the ground as possible. 2. The stool is interlaced between the upright stakes. 3. The butt is neatly trimmed. 4. The binders (ie long, slender hazel or wych elm rods) are woven in and out at the top of the stakes to make a hurdle-like finish to the hedge top.