Freeman's Marsh is an area of common land to the west of Hungerford. It fulfils the same purpose for the Sanden Fee Commoners as the Common Port Down does for its Commoners of the Town.
The boundaries have varied over the centuries, but in the present-day it comprises about 90 acres (41 hectares) of permanent pasture, marsh and bog. At times land was added, and at other times land was lost to the canal and the railway.
The names of the marsh:
The origin of the name "Freeman's Marsh" is not clear. Freeman's Marsh has been known by a variety of names over the centuries. The names include:
- Freeman's Marsh
- Hopgrass Marsh
- The Marsh
The properties lying along the lane leading to the Marsh have also had various names:
- Marsh Lane
- Marsh Gate
Norman Hidden's notes include some jottings on the topic. He started with studying all references to the Marsh (in its various forms) in the parish registers for Hungerford and Froxfield. (See References to The Marsh in Parish Registers).
Between 1822-1830, all references were to Freeman's Marsh. After this date, a variety creeps in:
- 1830 Wakefields are in Marsh Lane,
- 1832 Fishlocks are in Hopgrass Marsh
- 1833 Wakefields are in Freeman's Marsh Gate
- 1838 Dobsons are in Marsh Gate
- 1838 Ann Farmer is in Hungerford Marsh
- 1839 Fields are in The Marsh
The choice of nomenclature seems indisciminate.
Note also, Coroners' Bills 1752-1796 (Wilts Dec Soc) contains a reference (no 1406) 30 Apr 1784 to Freeman's Marsh in Charnham Street - Mary Platt died in her house of infirmity.
The earliest mention of Freeman's Marsh:
The first mention by this name was in a survey by the Duchy of Lancaster of c1552, which described it as "a common marsh called Freeman's Marsh belonging as well to the town of Hungerford as to the fee of Sanden, containing by estimate 6 acres". By 1568 (the 11th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) it was reported that "there being 20 acres or thereabouts".
There was a case in the Duchy of Lancaster Court in the 11th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1568/9) brought by the inhabitants of Hungerford against one Brian Gunter when again there was mention that it was 20 acres of grazing for geldings and nags belonging to Commoners of both Hungerford and Sanden Fee.
In the James I feoffment of 1617, the tithing of the Liberty of Sanden Fee was not mentioned, nor was the land known as Freeman's Marsh. The feoffment spoke of the Borough and Manor of Hungerford, and it is thought that the Sanden Fee tithing was by then part of Hungerford Manor.
By 1803 (in the case of Webb v Salisbury in the King's Bench) the Marsh had increased in size to 45 acres 2 rods and 18 poles including the area occupied by the Kennet & Avon canal - 23 acres was taken by the canal and 22 acres of feeding land and 33 poles of "water and bogge".
The Enclosure Award in 1819 added 21 acres, 2 rods, 24 poles of arable land in Westbrook Field "for the grazing of nags". This area is shown on the 1819 Enclosure map as "North Westbrooks", and is the area to the south of the canal. On 1st March 1637 Edmund Sexton, a tanner, from Hungerford assigned in consideration of £5. 0. 0d a half acre of arable land in the Common Fields of Hungerford called West Brooks to Jeremy Eyrton, fell monger of Hungerford which had previously, on 4th October 1622 been leased to William Atkins of Hungerford, fell monger, for two thousand years, at a rent of one penny per annum. Atkins assigned the lease to William Wayte, a tanner, who died. Sexton married Alice his widow and thus came into the possession of the lease.
In 1974 the Trustees of the Town and Manor purchased 7¼ acres of pasture from the neighbouring estate of North Standen, owned then by Lord Rootes. This was a land-locked area of pasture in the south west corner of the Marsh. A bargain was struck for the abandonment of the land south of the railway known as Pennyquicks and the stream in it, and extinguishment of the Commoners Rights. "Rootes Meadow" was added to the Marsh.
The area is grazed by 30-35 store cattle each year, and although it is technically without Commoners Rights, the grazing by all cattle is overseen by the Trustees.
It is well know for its rich diversity of flora and fauna, and much enjoyed by local walkers and bird-watchers. It is crossed by the river Dun, as well as the Kennet and Avon canal (built here c1800) and the railway (extended west from Hungerford in 1862). At the eastern end the Shalbourne Brook joins the River Dun flowing eastwards towards the town through the adjacent meadow known in recent times as Hungerford Marsh.
An old road crossed the marsh leading from the town along Church Street, then Marsh Lane, and onto the marsh at marsh gate. The way can still be seen, crossing the canal near marsh lock, and then the ford near Marsh Cottage soon merging with the route of the modern A4.
The River Dun forms parts of the Hungerford Fishery, and the Commoners of Hungerford have the right to fish the water, but the Commoners of Sanden Fee do not have the right to fish the Kennet. It is said that in mediaeval times the Sanden Fee Commoners got into financial difficulties and were bailed out by the stronger Town Commoners and therefore were obliged to give up some of their historical rights. This remains the situation today.
Wink Walter's footbridge: In Nov 1981 more than 50 people gathered at the dedication ceremony for the footbridge across a stream of the River Dun near Hopgrass, provided by the Walter family in memory of 'Wink' Walter, who lived on the marsh for many years, and who lost his life at Arnhem as a member of the 10th parachute Brigade in Sep 1944. See "Tribute paid to a brave man", NWN Nov 1981.
Freeman's Marsh is one of the rare pieces of southern England combining chalk streams and alkaline marsh land. In recent centuries little attempt was made to interfere with the natural plain and water courses and there has never been any cultivation within the area. There has been management that is essential to control injurious weeds and river work to maintain the water courses, and the benefit of doubtful management and husbandry has been the legacy of unimproved marsh and pasture land.
The northern part of Freeman's Marsh was registered with English Nature as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1990, recognising the exceptional habitat for both wild flowers, birds and water voles. Much of Freeman's Marsh is technically herb-poor semi-improved permanent pasture, but the area is known for its healthy populations of water vole, brown trout and grayling. Otters are also resident in the area (2010). The SSSI area of Freeman's Marsh has examples of local rarities such as Bogbean, Flat Sedge as well as a wide variety of marshland wild flowers including orchids.
Along with the Lower Common (east of Denford Bridge), it was entered into a 10-year Higher Level Stewardship Scheme contract with Natural England in May 2008. There is now an agreed long term management plan aimed at protecting the natural environment and the area's biodiversity.
2010 was the third summer under the agreement. Much work has been done to restore the area's wildlife - with more works to be carried out in 2010-2011. Follow this link for further details of the 2009-11 wildlife restoration work.
Freeman's Marsh is a splendid site for seeing unusual birds, including green sandpiper, water rail, snipe, jack snipe, kingfisher, and, in mid December 2010, a glossy ibis and waxwings. Little egrets began to appear from 2007. In May 2011 there was a pair of Chinese Swan Geese happily joining a family of Canada Geese.
Town & Manor buys Hungerford Marsh: In Mar 2015 the Town & Manor were able to purchase Hungerford Marsh from the Susman family.
The land sits between Freeman's Marsh, the canal and the western edge of the town.
It is already registered as SSSI, and it will remain under the management of the current tenants, the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT).
The site, which covers and area of almost 28 acres and includes a wild trout fishery, is a rich mix of water meadows, reeedbeds, damp scrubland and patches of woodland.
Colourful wetland wild flowers include yellow iris, ragged-robin, southern marsh orchid, fen bedstra and marsh marigolds.
Around 120 different bird species including heron, kingfisher angrasshopper warbler have been recorded, and the area is one of the last strongholds of the threatened water-vole.
- Freeman's Marsh, looking south-east towards Marsh Gate, c1912. [A. Parsons]
- Freeman's Marsh, Aug 2008
- Freeman's Marsh, Aug 2008
- Polecat near Cobbler's Lock, 30 Jun 2008
- Mute Swans 1 Sep 2008
- Yearling 14 Aug 2008
- Kingfisher 20 May 2010
- Southern Marsh Orchids, 8 Jun 2009
- Adult grass snake on Freeman's Marsh 26 Jul 2008
- Glossy Ibis on Freeman's Marsh, 9 Dec 2010 (by Jerry Woodham)
- The Glossy Ibis (above) is not the first rare bird to be seen on Freeman's Marsh! From the NWN 3 Nov 1904: "Mr Leonard Cundall, of The Orchard, Hungerford, shot a peculiar bird which proved to be a Northern Diver. It inhabits arctic regions and migrates to Britain's northern coasts in the winter."
- A pair of Chinese Swan Geese on Freeman's Marsh, 4 May 2011
- Strongrove Cottages from Hungerford Marsh, 1904. [Wyndham Series "W8642"]
- Strongrove Cottage (?1960s)
- Cobbler's Lock Cottage, Nov 2015
- Richard and Margery Frankum, The Birds & Plants of Freemen's (sic!) Marsh, Hungerford, 1970-74, (Also Supplement covering 1975-79)
- Norman Hidden, Freeman's Marsh: A History of Dispute, in Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford, 2009
- E.L. (Jim) Davis, The Story of an Ancient Fishery, 1978