Latton is a tiny village which lies at the northern tip of the county of Wiltshire, one mile from the little town of Cricklade. A few houses cluster around the old parish church, with its yew tree and its ancient tombstones. Further off, there are a few old stone houses here and there, and one or two farmhouses standing between the roads and the fields. It is probably not very different now in size and appearance from the way it was two or three centuries ago; only in those days, the fields and meadows were open and unfenced; and the horses which pulled the plough through the heavy soil left the surface uneven and hummocky. Between the fields, the pathways were dry and dusty in summer, and thick with mud in winter.
In the year 1750, fifty or sixty families lived in Latton, renting their strips of field and meadow land from the Lord of the Manor. There was the vicar, of course, who commanded everyone’s respect even though he wasn’t quite a member of the gentry. Then there were the farmers, solid law-abiding yeomen, a few craftsmen, and the labourers who tilled the land and worked all the daylight hours for the food to fill their children’s stomachs. Apart from these, there were the poor, the old, and the sick who could not work and who sometimes needed the charity of the parish to stay alive.
One of the yeomen-farmers living in Latton was called James Habgood. He had managed to raise eight healthy children, six sons and two daughters. He had worked hard all his life, and was respected by the community. From time to time, he was called upon to be church warden, which meant collecting in the rates, and paying out money for things like essential repairs or pest control. He would also watch to see that everyone behaved in a conventional and respectable manner; it they didn’t, he might have to report them to the bishop. Some years the villagers elected him to be overseer of the poor, so when some old man or woman was sick and had no money to live on, he would decide what was appropriate and give out some of the money from the rates; or if there was a widow who could not feed her children, he might make her a regular allowance.
Partly through hard work, and partly through inheriting land from his father, James Habgood managed to live fairly comfortably, and he was determined that his children should have the opportunity to prosper too. He would see to it that each of his sons was trained to do a trade, while his daughters would marry businessmen with prospects.
Of course, the eldest son, James, would stay at home with him and work on the farm, which he would one day inherit; but the others were to be apprenticed: Edward and John to a baker, Thomas to a mercer (which is a dealer in textiles), and the fifth son, William, to a haberdasher.
This story is about the fifth son, William.