Day 4: Billington and Leighton Buzzard

Father John Fenn

We visited Billington in search of the home of an ancestor, John Fenn, (called “Father” John Fenn, perhaps to distinguish him from a great-grandson, also named John).

The story of Father John Fenn is amusing and worth your acquaintance:

Quite late in life, he converted from Methodism to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (That was January 1847; he was 70 years old!) Father John was, in fact, the first in Eaton Bray (where he then lived) to open his house to the LDS missionaries.

Now, the Church of England was rather bound up with the law of the land, and even if a person appertained to a different church, he was still obliged to leave a tithe (one tenth of his produce) in his fields for the church to collect. Some time after his conversion to the LDS church, John Fenn determined that he had done with paying tithes to the Anglican Church and of a consequence, was arrested for non-payment. It was indignation at this incident that resolved aged Father John to emigrate to America.

Little Hill, Billington

The house that John Fenn quitted for America was called Little Hill and received a reservation order from the National Trust in 1966. We didn’t find the house, though we used the address (a street named Little Hill) and photo from the National Trust as a guide. We don’t know what to make of it; here’s how it played out.

The Little Hill we encountered was not a house but a single, short road in a very sparsely-populated place. We found no house to match the photograph from the National Trust and so inquired at a house near the dead end of said road.

A pleasant, grey-haired woman in a sweater informed us that she had lived in present house all her life and that all the houses there had been in place at least as long as she, with the exception of two which were torn down but fifteen years earlier. Two other houses yet remained which dated to the 1500s, or so she said. Perhaps Father John Fenn’s house was one of those demolished and built over.

That’s right, she was wearing a sweater in July! Just about everywhere north of London, it was more common than not to see people in long trousers and sweaters or long-sleeves. Even down in London it was not unusual. I imagined that the people would think their July weather was hot and dress accordingly.

Alas that something less pretty and of much less character went up in its place, but at least the newer constructions are probably more efficient to heat and maintain.

Churchyards and graves

Just across the way and down the street from Little Hill was a churchyard, about which we poked, looking for graves naming persons from our genealogy. We peeled vines and moss away from gravestones which could not have been more occluded if they had been props in a film. Although they were, most of them, quite legible underneath the growth, Alas, we made no finds.

Here Lyeth ye Body of Ioan Higton ... March 172 2/4

Later in the day, a country stroll took us through another churchyard, where we admired headstones and monuments, the oldest of which was marked 1648 (but must have been built 1649 or after). It was remarkable to us that, through the several graveyards we visited while in Britain, that some markers less than 100 years old were far more dilapidated than some over 3 centuries old (including said stone casket marked 1648).

George Fenn and Leighton Buzzard

Sounds like a terrible name for a village, doesn’t it? “Leighton Buzzard.” Why so? It happens that there were two Leightons within a single diocese, so in the 12th century, the dean of Lincoln differentiated the two by appending the name of each’s prebendary (a canon who receives a stipend called a ‘prebend’). The prebendary of this Leighton at this time was Theobald de Busar.

Just three miles north of Billington stands Leighton Buzzard, where Father John Fenn worshipped in his days as a Wesleyian Methodist. But that’s not where the oddly-named town drops out of our history. Recall that Father John emigrated to America. With him went his wife, two of their children, and grandson George (aged 21).

A year after settling down in Manti, UT, George was commissioned by the LDS church to return to England to preach the restoration of Jesus’ church. (Oh, the irony!) He travelled back to Bedfordshire, specifically, to Leighton Buzzard. While a missionary there, George married Eliza Ann Dyer of Eaton Bray, and they had a son, John (born on English soil just two days before they re-emigrated to America). (This is the other John, perhaps the reason why the elder is called “Father” John.)

Our stop in Leighton Buzzard

Tuesdays are market days in Leighton Buzzard. Cait, Mum, and I visited a chocolatier and tried some horrid basil-flavoured white chocolates. That’s right—basil! Horrid! Cait and Brad donned chocolate moustaches, as you can see in the photo.

chocolate moustaches

More history

The foregoing details about Father John Fenn and his family come from this text, assembled by my mother prior to our trip. For interesting details about Bedfordshire, Leighton Buzzard, Father John, et al., read on.

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