Sir Robert Clerke teetered on the brink of losing his Watford estate for decades. He had inherited the Watford manor and lands after the death of his uncle George Clerke in 1689. But his financial predicament did not originate by his own doing.
The root of the problem can probably be laid at the feet of Sir Robert’s grandfather, Sir George Clerke. To mark the occasion of his son's marriage to Mary Holman in 1648, Sir George provided the newlyweds with a marriage settlement. George Clerke was given Sir George’s landed manor estate in Watford parish, albeit with strings attached. The younger George was obliged to provide settlements for his daughters.
When George died in 1689, his Will reflected his obligations. In the absence of any male heirs, George passed on the large part of the Watford manor estate to his nephew, Sir Robert Clerke. His three unmarried daughters were each given £2,000 as required by the marriage settlement of 40 years earlier. As a condition of receiving his legacy of the manor and lands, Sir Robert had to pay his cousins their cash bequests.
To meet the obligation, Sir Robert Clerke borrowed the necessary £6,000 from three gentlemen in 1690, giving the common form of mortgage security. This involved Sir Robert settling on the lenders the entire estate he inherited in 1689. The mortgage was conditioned such that should Sir Robert repay the loan in six month’s time with interest at 5%, the settlement became null and void. Four years later, Sir Robert had not repaid the mortgage.
Sir Robert approached his friends and neighbours, the Bretons of Norton parish, for help. In April 1694, he persuaded Elizabeth Breton, widow of Robert Breton, to buy part of his estate for £9,000. The lands acquired were two closes (or inclosed grounds) in the west of Watford and several large closes in the north-east of Watford town.
To finance the purchase of the inclosures, Elizabeth Breton had her husband’s executors pay the £6,000 from Robert Breton’s estate. In May 1694 she borrowed £2,700, presumably to cover most of the remaining purchase price of £3,000. Elizabeth later admitted she gave the mortgage security on the Watford manor and lands in turn to the gentleman as security for his loan to her.
The first £6,000 of the price was directed to repay Robert’s mortgage, which required the intervention of the High Court of Chancery. The other £3,000 presumably went towards about £1,200 interest and Sir Robert’s other debts. But the Lord of the manor remained in financial difficulties. To make matters worse, another mortgage came to light, this one taken out by Robert Clerke in 1686, before George Clerke had died.
Scarcely a year after selling part of his estate, Sir Robert again approached Elizabeth Breton asking for a loan of £1,000 to address his predicament. He was very much sued and outlawed and afraid of being taken up by some of his creditors. The loan was granted in January 1695/6, secured by mortgage on Sir Robert’s remaining estate, described as the Manor of Watford and the Manor of Catesby in Watford, the Rectory, Manor House, Park, and other lands. Undaunted, Sir Robert requested and received further loans on the same security from Elizabeth – £400 in 1697, £200 in 1700, and £400 in November 1702. Now the loan amounted to £2,000.
In the meantime, Elizabeth Breton had repaid some of her debt, but leaving £1,500 due. In November 1702, she borrowed another £400, her loan then totaled £1,900.
Obviously unable to repay his mortgage to Elizabeth Breton and her only son, Nicholas, Sir Robert attempted to repeat the solution effected once before. Late in 1702, he asked the Bretons to buy another part of his manor estate, six yardlands, in exchange for the return of the mortgage deeds. This signaled the beginning of a long, drawn-out dispute between the neighbours, which inevitably affected the local farmers who occupied the lands. The six yardlands were situated in Watford’s open fields, meaning they were not inclosed. At the end of 1702, the occupants of the yardlands included John Burgess, William Rogers, and Joseph Gilbert. They paid annual rents of about £8 per yardland.
Sir Robert wrote a letter to Elizabeth stating his willingness to sell the lands to her for the £2,000 mortgage plus another £100 when the lands were inclosed and another 50 guineas to gain his Lady’s consent to the sale. The price, he said, represented 30 years purchase at £12 annual rental for each of the six yardlands. He was quite certain he could get those rentals ‘tomorrow’ and that all interested parties had agreed to the inclosure, which would instantly make the lands worth £5,000. A lawyer drafted the conveyancing deeds in January 1703, but they were never signed.
Along the way, in 1710, Elizabeth Breton’s debt was bought by one Elizabeth Palmer, who sent another £100 to the Bretons, so rounding off the Breton debt to £2,000, the same amount as Sir Robert owed the Bretons. Early in 1711, Elizabeth Palmer loaned another £1,200 to the other Elizabeth, making the Breton’s debt a total of £3,360 including interest.
By 1713, in frustration Sir Robert took his case to the High Court of Chancery in an attempt to force Elizabeth and Nicholas Breton to complete the conveyance of six yardlands and release the mortgage deeds to him. Apparently, Sir Robert believed he had sold the grounds. To the contrary, Elizabeth said, she had no interest whatsoever in buying lands that were not inclosed or convincingly agreed to be inclosed.
Elizabeth and Sir Robert each claimed the other had acted as landlord. Sir Robert said the rents had been paid to Elizabeth. Not so, said Elizabeth, those were amounts of interest paid on Sir Robert’s behalf to her by his tenants. Sir Robert had several reliable witnesses report through an Interrogatory in 1715 that Nicholas Breton had been heard proclaiming that he and his mother had bought the six yardlands. Elizabeth retorted that Sir Robert acted as landlord when he ejected several tenants and obliged others to carry coal to Sir Robert’s house as part of their rental arrangement.
Sir Robert had, for example, effectively kicked William Rogers off his two yardlands in 1703, called 'Rogers Lands', by demanding unreasonable rent of £10. William promptly retired to Long Buckby. At that point, Sir Robert somehow persuaded Joseph Gilbert to lease ‘Rogers Lands’ in exchange for Joseph giving up his lease of the larger farm of two and three-quarter yardlands. Those were another part of Sir Robert’s lands, not part of the six yardlands in question.
Several deponents said none of the six yardlands included a house or a barn necessary ‘to in the crop’, and so were worth only about £5 p.a. per yardland or even less. All of which indicated that purchase multiples of 30 or more at rentals of £12, without a house or barn and not even a guarantee of inclosure, was nonsense.
The fate of the six yardlands is not clear. The Breton's Watford estate appears to remain limited to the inclosed lands purchased in 1694. About 1720 John Bridges recorded the value of the Breton holdings at about £400 per annum, which accords with a report by the Bretons listing the 1694 lands at those rentals. And that is consistent with parish tax records much later in the century. Neither did the Clerke manor estate include any of the open field lands of Watford when sold in the early 19th century. The open fields of Watford were inclosed in 1771, as noted on the inclosure map of the same date. The map demonstrates that Watford open fields were located in the netherend of Watford, an area south of the village and abutting Murcott town.