A brief review of our early land ownership

It sometimes comes as a surprise to local residents to realise that the history of our local area stretches back well beyond the arrival of the railway in 1886. The area of Barton, Milton, Bashley, Ashley and Fernhill are all mentioned in the 1086 Domesday book.  

The Norman victory in 1066 changed the land ownership position. William I by conquest ‘owned’ all the land. He granted areas of land (from huge areas to small parcels) to lords and other favoured subjects. Initially they all ‘held’ their land for the king – at that stage they didn’t ‘own’ it. Normally they retained the holdings by ‘service’, the holding known as a fief and the service a fee. This represented the birth of the feudal system in England. Land could also be held by ‘bodies’, most notably the church. Consequently during the middle ages the convents, abbeys and monasteries developed huge estates, e.g Glastonbury.  Beaulieu abbey also held numerous manors, especially around Burgate in the Avon Valley. Institutions such as Winchester College held manors, for example Fernhill.

A manor is farm land and buildings, including the ‘manor house’, held by a lord of the manor. The manor often included common land which was left uncultivated and tenants had rights to use it, for example for pasture, or grazing. In medieval times there were six manors within Milton parish. Milton manor  (or ‘Mideltune’ manor meaning ‘middle farm’) lay in the centre around Old Milton village green and church surrounded by Fernhill manor , Bashley manor , Ossemsley manor, Naish manor and Barton manor to the south.

Those who worked the land, the peasants, held from their lord, arable strips for growing crops and were given rights over the common. The common was an area of land, sometimes known as Manorial waste. It was left uncultivated by the lord. Freehold tenants, and sometimes copyholders had rights of common. In other words they could cultivate it or graze their cattle or other animals on it. The common belonged to the lord but the rights of pasture or turf or whatever it might be was attached to the peasants’ properties. Use and payments were decided at manorial courts held at regular intervals (initially mostly three-weekly but later much less frequently, by the nineteenth century usually only annually).

All tenants (i.e. the peasants holding property or the land, which initially meant nearly everyone) were required on pain of a fine to attend the courts. There were three courts. The two important ones were the Court Baron and the Court Leet. At the Court Baron occupation of holdings or land was decided.  The courts consisted of a jury which made the decision overseen by a steward who represented the lord and his interests. They were very formal and, fortunately, they kept written records which happily survive in their thousands and enable us to see how the system operated. Common rights were enshrined and ensured by the Court Baron. In forests the jurisdiction operated slightly differently but the essential features reflected that of common law.

In and around Milton Parish were a number of commons. To the north was Bashley Common, to the east was Chewton Common, now just over the Parish boundary.

To the east was Upper Ashley and Lower Ashley Commons. To the south, on the coast, was Barton Common. The commons were vital for local people especially those with only a few cattle or limited access to land for growing food. Taking Barton Common as an example. When it was sold in 1903 to a solicitor, Mr Alexander Paris, he put a fence around the common to prevent locals from using it. At a meeting in 1905 held in the Milton Hall, now a furniture shop opposite the railway station, villagers reported utilising Barton Common for a variety of different uses. Mrs Charlotte Bolton had lived at Barton Common for 50 years. She stated that they had never been hindered in going where they liked and anyone in Milton could turn out cows there. Her father had always turned out his cattle and they never had to pay anything.  She recalled people coming there to cut furze and take it away.

Furze, otherwise known as gorse, is of great use to a commoner. The fresh tips of the gorse are very nutritious to cattle and ponies. The thick wood of the plant burns extremely hot and was ideal for heating bread ovens. Other commoners reported extracting gravel for the pit at the western end of Barton Common. This was used for road repairs amongst other things. There is a happy ending to the Barton Common story. Mr Paris took the villagers of Milton and Barton to court to prevent them from accessing and using the common. He lost his case and the High Court in London reinforced the rights of the locals to use the common. On Mr Paris’s death Barton Common was sold to the local Council and in 1970 it was formerly registered as Common Land under the Commons Registration Act 1965. With the passing of the Commons Act 2006 the rights of people to access and enjoy Barton Common is established in modern law.

The other commons in our area were enclosed and taken into private ownership. Some commoners received a one off compensation payment. In Ashley the allotments at the north end remain the last public use of the former common land.

Next time you drive down one of the ‘Common Roads’, Ashley, Bashley or Barton think of the historic link back to our early history.