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A varied landscape surrounded Hungerford in the 16th century. Closely encircling the town itself were the medieval open fields (which were not enclosed until the Parliamentary Enclosure, 1820). The Enclosure Award Map of 1819 shows the open fields. Note that the boundaries of these may have changed somewhat since the Elizabethan period.
A detailed survey book from 1573 clearly shows how the system operated in practice (Hungerford family estate records, Wilts RO, ref 442). This is an account of the manor of Hungerford Engleford, a small estate quite distinct from the principal manor of Hungerford but which shared in the same open fields. An extract from the 1573 survey describes the holding of Thomas Seymour, then Constable:
"Thomas Seymer Phillippe Seymer and John Seymer holden by Indenture dated the XVth of ffebruarie anno iiird Eliz regina one ten[emen]t in Hungerford called the Swanne and lx acr[es] of arr[able] land in the Comon fields of Hungerford and Sanden Fee And one other mesuage and xxxtie acr[es] of arr[able] called the Kings Lands in Hungerford."
- Extract from 1573 Survey showing Thomas Seymour's holdings
- 16th century Hungerford Principal Common Fields (from "Elizabethan Hungerford")
Open Fields, cont'd:
A little further on in the survey the full holding is described. A total of 114 acres were scattered throughout seven different fields - Everlong, the Breach, Homefield, Middlefield, Pyddenfield, Posterne Field and Westbrooke. Seymour's holding in Pyddenfield, for example, comprised twenty-two acres, in eighteen separate parcels of between one half and three acres.
This gives some idea of the difficulties of open field agriculture - co-operation was vital to ensure effective management, under the general control of the manorial court. There were a further eighteen tenants with much smaller holdings. George Bradford, for example, held seven acres, split between four different locations. This would not have been enough to live on, but he was only a part-time farmer. Like many other people, he combined farming with a trade - in his case, two trades; a barber and a tippling-house keeper!
Extensive common pastures were situated to the south and east of the town. These included Port Down (still used today), Sanham Down, Sanham Green, Inglewood Down and Helmes Heath. These provided grazing for sheep, cattle and horses, as well as the opportunity to gather fuel, such as gorse. There were also meadow lands close to the river - again, Freeman's Marsh is still in use today.
The common pastures and meadows were a very important resource for the townspeople - perhaps even more so than the arable lands, given the town's position on major transport routes. Adequate grazing for horses was particularly vital, and although there is little evidence from the Elizabethan period, probate inventories from the 17th century show that some local people were specialising in horse rearing. Also, almost every family would hope to supplement their trade by part-time farming. A cow or two to supply milk and cream for the dairy would have been considered essential by most Elizabethan families. For this reason, common rights would have been a vital asset.
What remains today of the open fields and commons which would have been so familiar to the Elizabethans? It is interesting to note that Port Down may well have once been smaller in the 16th century than it is today - adjustments were made at the time of Parliamentary Enclosure by adding part of Sanham Down and Everlong. This increased its size by one third. Similarly, Freeman's Marsh was once smaller, being expanded at the same time, by adding twenty-one acres which had formed part of Westbrooke Common Field.
Both Port Down and Freeman's Marsh are familiar features in the modern local landscape, but we have to look much harder for traces of the other commons and open fields. Traces of early ploughlands can be seen on the slopes of what was once Everlong at each side of the railway. Similar traces can be seen on the south side of Freeman's Marsh. Otherwise, there are few traces. The innermost of the common fields have now largely vanished under bricks and mortar. The western edge of Everlong, approached by Everlands Road, is now occupied by both the railway and the Police Station. The Breach is occupied by the hospital and housing as far south as the football field. Home Field - perhaps one of the earliest of the common fields - is built over on the west and new developments at Smitham Bridge are encroaching on Westbrooke. Only East and West Pedden and Postern Field remain unscathed.
There is more difficulty in establishing whether the outlying areas of the parish, which were under the jurisdiction of their own manors and quite separate from the manor of Hungerford, had their own open fields during the 16th century.
Hidden had already undergone some enclosure by the early 16th century, when the tenant John Cottesmore was said to have enclosed a hundred acres and destroyed some houses, but there were still some open fields here until 1819 (I S Leadam, The Domesday of Inclosures, 1517, Vol 1, p 157, Hungerford Enclosure Award, 1819/20).
Hopgrass in Charnham Street must have had its own open fields at one time, because a lease from Alexander Popham in 1715 refers to the great part of the arable fields lately lying in three Common Fields in Chamham Street which hath lately been enclosed by agreement between the neighbourhood there (Deeds for Hopgrass Farm, Popham Family Papers, Somerset RO).
In 1605 Edmund Hungerford was given permission to enclose North Standen as there was only one freeholder left (his father); and, a few years earlier, Richard Stafferton was said to have enclosed part of Helmes Heath (VCH Berks, Vol 4, p194).
Such actions were not without repercussions for local people. In reducing the availability of land for common grazing in the outlying areas of the parish, there was inevitably more competition for land within and close by the town itself In addition, population growth created a further problem, and it is not surprising that even marginal land was coming under pressure.
These difficulties may well account for an argument between the tenants of Eddington and Hopgrass, concerning the rights to graze the 'islands' near Eddington Mill which took place in 1590 (N Hidden, The Manor of Hidden, p 76). The fact that these rights were worth arguing over, and even taking the case to one of the central courts in London, indicates the severity of the problem. It certainly suggests that rights of common were highly important to local people and worth defending against any encroachment.
(From Elizabethan Hungerford, Julie Shuttleworth et al, 1995)
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