This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.
Freeman’s Marsh, today well known for its rich diversity of flora and fauna and as a pleasant pasture in which to stroll in summer alongside the various water channels which wind their way through it, in the past occupied an ill-defined area of territory. It was this lack of clear demarcation which for several centuries gave rise to a series of disputes between the inhabitants of Sandon Fee and the manor of Hopgrass.
The main area of the Marsh has always lain between two arms of the river Dun a short distance upstream from Hungerford. Today, however, the original marsh has been expanded by various accretions which have resulted in a total of some 70 acres of common. And it is this total area of contiguous land to which commoners’ rights apply which is now thought of as Freeman’s Marsh rather than the more restricted area to which the term ‘marsh’ might, geologically speaking, more properly belong.
There are two major entrances to the marsh, one at each end, both paths leading from the town across the marsh to connect with the Bath Road (A4). Towards the eastern end is a gateway across the canal; this is for a path from Parsonage Lane, which leads over the canal and across the marsh to Strongrove Hill and so to the Bath Road. At the western end a swing bridge across the canal allows a path from Marsh Lane to cross northwards to the Bath Road about ½ mile further west. This entrance to the Marsh clearly existed in 1565 when a deed Lovelake - Fawler mentions land in Honey Furlong abutting on the Queen’s Highway there leading from Hungerford to Freeman’s Marsh .
A third entrance is from Hopgrass Farm on the northern side, the main function of which was to give the farmer of Hopgrass access to the water and to certain disputed pastures at the western end of the marsh.
The earliest reference to Freeman’s Marsh which I have been able to trace comes in the Duchy of Lancaster survey dated 1552: ‘item, a common marsh called Freeman Marsh belonging as well to the town of Hungerford as to the fee of Sandon, containing by estimate 6 acres ’.
In 1573 the boundary of the manor of Sandon Fee is said to run from ‘Hungerford Mill pound head and so to Stockham bridge and leadeth up the river and boundeth on Freeman’s Marsh on the south and the manor of Hopgrass on the north, the river that cometh from Froxfield parteth Wiltshire and Berkshire, and then to a bridge called Freeman’s Marsh bridge, and from that with a cross hedge returning back to the south ’. This is also the wording of the 1606 presentment .
‘The river that cometh from Froxfield‘ is of course the Dun, as it is nowadays called. It was also at that time called ‘the Bedwyn stream’, for the name Dun had not yet been given to it. Despite the awkward syntax of the passage it seems clear that the northern arm of this river (flowing West–East) not only divided the manor of Hopgrass from Freeman’s Marsh but also at this point formed the county boundary of Berks and Wilts. Reference to the bridges clearly indicates that as early as the 16th century there were in existence then, as today, two major footpaths crossing the marsh, one (Stockham Bridge) at the eastern end and the other (Freeman’s Marsh bridge) at the western end.
The 1573 survey has another reference to the Marsh: ‘Also we have one other piece of ground in common called Freeman’s Marsh containing by estimate 20 acres which hath been common to the town of Hungerford and Sandon Fee time out of mind’. The increase in area claimed from 6 to 20 acres may well reflect a belated recognition of the need to assert rights which had been grossly underestimated in 1552 and were now under challenge. Whence this challenge came is revealed by another section of the 1573 survey in which the local jury report that ‘George Essex and Brian Gunter gents’ (i.e. the lord and his tenant farmer of Hopgrass) ‘have carried away by force one tree valued at 2 shillings out of Freeman’s Marsh, which was appointed and cut down to mend the highways by Henry Edes‘. Edes was a prominent townsman who held various local offices including one described (in another case involving the cutting of timber) as ‘deputy to the Queen’s Surveyor ’.
It looks as though one of his local offices may have been overseer of the highways. Perhaps one of the gates or bridges on the pathways across the marsh was in need of repair. The timber which he cut down, or authorised to be cut down, however, was carried away by Essex and Gunter in a demonstration, presumably, of their claim that the land on which the timber was felled belonged to the lord of Hopgrass and not to Sandon Fee or Hungerford.
The argument, however, was almost certainly not so much about timber but about pasture. The marsh lands afforded lush grazing for cattle. Although the surveys of 1552 and 1573 mention Freeman’s Marsh as common, it is not until the 1606-9 series of surveys that the specific right is mentioned in respect of the commoners of town and fee for ‘the feeding of their geldings and nags ’. A Hungerford Engleford rent roll of 1609 states that the rights in Freeman’s Marsh are for one horst beast , and a Hocktide Court presentment of 1708 confirms that the commoners of the borough have the right to pasture one nag there . In an economy largely based on cattle, the rights of commoners to grazing, and especially such lush grazing as the Marsh offered, were of vital importance to the success and prosperity of the community.
In 1573 in a case concerning some missing charters the vicar of Hungerford affirmed that the burgesses and inhabitants of the town and borough of Hungerford had the right of common pasture ‘in two marshes, one called Woodmarsh and the other Freeman Marsh ’.
In all the 16th century references the Marsh is called Freeman’s (spelt Freman). It is never called Freemen’s. Since the townsmen claimed right of it ‘time out of mind’, it is surprising to find no reference to the marsh before 1552. If such references existed, they might help us to be more certain of the derivation of the name.
Freeman sounds suspiciously like a person’s surname; but there is no record of a family of that name in the locality. We do have, however, plentiful references to an influential family called Farman and it might well be considered whether 14th century Farman can have been corrupted into 16th century Freeman.
There was a Simon Farman or Fareman in the parish of Hungerford as early as 1199 ; there are several references to Peter Farman or Fareman in the 13th century; but the period of especial Farman ascendancy was in the first half of the 14th century. The Victoria County History of Berkshire  has a limited account of the Farmans in relation to their possession of land in the parish, including that known as Ponzardesland, but although there is now a good deal more material available concerning them, it is not clear where their various lands lay or whether they had any connection with the marsh. We find a reference in the 1432/3 compotus of John Hopgrass, bailiff to Lord Walter Hungerford, to a close of land held by Agnes Haynes called Farmans and some other references to marsh lands which seem to be in Charlton .
A survey in 1552 recorded a meadow called Ellis Farman’s in Sandon Fee held by the manorial lord of Hungerford . Another survey in 1573 has the same meadow spelt Vermans and estimates it as 8 acres in several all the year round. This meadow may not be the same as Freeman’s Marsh; the spelling, however, is suggestive.
In a survey of the manor of Hungerford Engleford taken in 1583 the meadow (now of 16 acres) is called ‘Freeman’s als Verman’s in Sandon Fee’ , and it is possible to see the corruption of name from Verman to Freeman. The same formula is used in a similar survey taken in 1623 .
Over the centuries there have been frequent disputes between the tenants of Hungerford and Sandon on the one hand and the manorial lords of Hopgrass or Charlton on the other. One of these disputes is related by an aged deponent in a special commission set up in 1610 to inquire into the fishing of the river Kennet. Stephen Whittington ‘of the age of 100 years or thereabouts’ recalled that some fifty four years previously (i.e. c.1556) the men of Hungerford used to fish all the waters behind the church. (This would bring them in the area of the eastern road leading across the marsh). The lord of the manor of Hopgrass, Mr George Essex, forbade them to do so and the fishers sent for the town Constable who arrived ‘with bow and arrows’. Thereupon Essex withdrew his objection . Another deponent describes the area thus fished as being from Hungerford Mill pound head to the rails at the upper end of Stockman (i.e. Stockham) Mead ‘which parteth Freeman’s Marsh‘. In addition to the clash ‘with bow and arrows’ in 1556 already quoted, matters came to a head when the tenants of Hungerford and Sandon Fee complained to the Duchy of Lancaster that whereas they had ‘time out of mind been in the practice of coming there ’ (i.e. to Freeman’s Marsh) ‘to pasture for all their beasts and cattle’, about a half year ago (that is, in the spring of 1570) Bryan Gunter, the farmer of Hopgrass, had ‘disturbed the tenants from their said common in Freeman’s Marsh and with force’. Those who were beaten up by Gunter’s men included town officials John Parker (tithing man) and Richard Ive (hayward). Gunter’s men forayed ‘daily on horseback, with chasing stones in their hands and ‘morysch’ pikes, having great mastiff dogs, which chase and kill and worry the tenants’ cattle ’. In reply Gunter merely stated that the tenants had no title to the land whatever. The tenants’ case was then taken up by the Duchy’s attorneygeneral .
He argued that Freeman’s Marsh contained an estimated 30 acres of ground which was in Berkshire and applied for a subpena against Bryan Gunter. Gunter replied that he had leased the manor of Hopgrass from George Essex in 1569 and that this included Freeman’s Marsh which was in Wiltshire. In his replication the attorney general denied that Freeman’s Marsh was part of Hopgrass or was in Wiltshire. No depositions are extant and the court’s order in the matter is not known.
W.H. Summers says that Freeman’s Marsh is referred to in 1607 as belonging to Sandon Fee alone and that in 1684 it appears as intercommoned between Hungerford and Sandon Fee . As usual he fails to give his sources, but, as we have seen, the town surveys of 1552 and 1573 make it quite clear that the marsh had already been ‘intercommoned’ at these earlier dates for ‘time out of mind’. Summers goes on to record a local tradition of how this ‘intercommoning’ occurred, saying that the Hungerford people once upon a time gave aid to the commoners of Sandon Fee in a lawsuit and stipulated that they should share the right of pasturage there.
What his authority for this is not known, but such an oral ‘tradition’ still extant in his day would have had to survive a minimum of four centuries; and although Summers says that the ‘tradition’ cannot refer to the (then still remembered) case of Webb v Salisbury, he is unable to point to one earlier.
There are, in fact, two earlier and related cases, to which reference has already been made, viz., the inhabitants of Hungerford v Bryan Gunter in 1569 and the sequential Duchy of Lancaster Attorney General v Bryan Gunter in 1570/1 . Even these, however, are too late to precede the reference to intercommoning in 1552, but they may have formed part of a local legend inspired by the successful assertion of local rights against the farmer of Hopgrass. The tension which existed at this time is reflected both in the deposition of Stephen Whittington (c.1556) and in the jury’s presentment concerning George Essex and Bryan Gunter (1573).
A more recent case was that of Webb v Salisbury in the King’s Bench in 1803 . The issue in this case was whether a piece of land known as Hopgrass Marsh was part of Freeman’s Marsh and of the common land of Hungerford. William Webb was the farmer of Hopgrass, tenant of General Popham who owned the manor; and Benjamin Salisbury was Constable of Hungerford at the time. The case was brought by Webb after Salisbury, as Constable, had instructed Henry Clements, the town bellman, to impound cattle belonging to Webb on the grounds that they were grazing land which was the property of the town, namely Freeman’s Marsh.
Webb’s case stated that the manor of Hopgrass had passed to the Popham family at the death of William (‘Wild’) Darell and had descended with the Littlecote estate. About 1710 the manor had been enclosed by the Popham family and the enclosure included Charnham Marsh and part of some marshy ground (water meadows by the time of the case in 1803) at the lower end of Freeman’s Marsh. The defence replied that for the past sixty years the former tenants of Hopgrass farm had never attempted to stock Freeman’s Marsh, and that it was only attempted after the plaintiff’s father had taken the farm in 1781.
Since the farm generally was deficient in pasture, the right to Freeman’s Marsh would be very valuable. There had been an artificial stream in existence ‘from time immemorial’ for the conveyance of water to the meadow called Stangrove Mead, part of Hopgrass farm. An annual quit rent of 3s 4d was payable to the portreeve of Hungerford in respect of this. This quit rent was in fact paid by General Popham; and it appears in the rent surveys of 1552 and 1609. The stream ran close to Webb’s farmyard and he stated that he had always watered his cattle there. About 13 years previously he had put up posts and rails and moved his boundary to enable his cattle to water at will. This encroachment was presented at the manor court in 1800 and he was ordered to remove it.
On the other hand, arguments which might seem to favour the farmer were that there had been a road directly through the farmyard to the marsh, the farm had always had the right to go to the stream with cattle to water and they were frequently left there for long periods, and for about thirty years past the farmers of Hopgrass had taken the liberty of driving their cattle across the marsh to feed them in the meadows at the western end and had suffered them to feed of their way. In a passage that followed, the draft brief for the defence commented: ‘the present Constable of Hungerford is a smith, and the whole Corporation consists of little tradesmen who neither know nor have the time to watch for the gradual encroachments of their neighbours. Nor has the town any revenue to support a steward, clerk, or gamekeeper who might be able to remark and give information at the annual Courts, and through this neglect we are afraid that many acts of ownership have been exercised by Mr Popham and his tenants which will be strongly taken against the defendants’.
One instance in which Mr Popham’s interest had been forwarded at the expense of the Town’s was said to have been when the canal was cut about nine years previously, and portions of both the Berkshire and Wiltshire parts of the Marsh were taken. Mr Popham’s steward, having to make a claim of the company for other property of Mr Popham’s, had, unknown to the town of Hungerford, claimed that part which cut through in Wiltshire, and Popham had been given recompense for this by the Company.
The case experienced many delays and spread itself over three years. A great mass of historical detail was built up by the defence, and most of this now rests in the Berkshire Record Office .
Local issues can give rise to strong emotions and when the Hungerford commoners were victorious in the suit which had been launched against them, we are told that the decision re-establishing their right to pasture jointly with Sandon Fee in all parts of the marsh, ‘was celebrated with great rejoicings, which gave great offence to General Popham ’.
The acreage of the marsh has fluctuated over the centuries. In 1552 there were only 6 acres; in 1573, 20 acres. In 1804 a little over 45 acres, consisting then of 23 acres of ‘water and bog’ and 22 acres of feeding land. Part of the water, if not of the bog, was made up by the Kennet and Avon Canal which had been cut through the valley a few years previously. The Enclosure Award of 1820 gave an additional 21 acres of arable land in Westbrook Field to be thrown into Freeman’s Marsh for the grazing of nags . This addition is clearly shown on the Hungerford Enclosure Award map of 1819 as North Westbrooks and it runs east to west immediately south of the Canal. The award was to compensate for loss of common rights in Sandon Fee.
Then in 1974 the Town Trustees purchased about 7¼ acres in the south west corner of the Marsh from Lord Rootes, which had formerly been part of the Littlecote estate, but the cost of the purchase included the formal abandonment of all claim to common rights in the land known as the Pennyquicks. Thus the total acreage of the Marsh today is about 70 acres.
An excellent account of 20th century developments affecting the Marsh has been written by the late E. L. Davis. The purpose of this present article is to give an accurate history of the Marsh as far as pre-20th century documents allow and to draw particular attention to the disputes which have occurred in the past, demanding of the townsmen of Hungerford and Sandon Fee a constant struggle and alertness to maintain their rights and privileges. Although the function of the Marsh has now changed, it still represents an important feature of local community life, being an area of outstanding natural beauty, with a bird and plant life which has been recorded with loving care .
1 Wilts. R.O.: 118/16
2 P.R.O.: DL42/108
3 Berks. R.O.: H/M5
4 Berks. R.O.: H/M6
5 P.R.O.: DL/44/871
6 Berks. R.O.: H/M6
7 Wilts. R.O.: 442/2
8 Berks. R.O.: H/AH/1
9 P.R.O.: DL4/15/6
10 V.C.H. Berks. iv, 190
11 Ibid. iv, 190-1
12 P.R.O.: SC6/749/20
13 P.R.O.: DL42/108
14 Wilts. R.O.: 442/1
15 Wilts. R.O.: 490/1529
16 P.R.O.: DL44/869
17 P.R.O.: DL1/92/29
18 P.R.O.: DL1/78/6
19 W.H.Summers, The Story of Hungerford, p.87
20 P.R.O.: DL1/92/99 & DL1/78/6
21 Berks. R.O.: HL/2
23 W.H.Summers, unpublished notes
24 Berks. R.O.
25 R.&M. Frankum Birds and Plants of Freeman’s Marsh