Farming the Meon Valley
By Michael Blakstad for Meon Matters, June 2016
Today, just 1% of the British workforce is employed on the land, and fewer than one in five people live in the countryside. At the time of the Domesday book, almost the entire population of England was rural and the History Group has embarked on an ambitious research project to learn as much as possible about farming in the parish of East Meon.
Large flocks of sheep grazed the South Downs; woodland covered much of the land and wasused for tending animals, firewood, building materials and hunting. Park Hill was reserved for the sport of the Bishops of Winchester who owned the manors of East Meon). Some of the valley was arable, some was ‘common waste’, where migrant poor built shelters and grazed a few animals… until they were driven out by the parish authorities. The part played by women in agriculture, the tithes farmers paid to the church, how animals were slaughtered, … these are among the subjects which our members chose to research at two workshops earlier in the year. We are lucky to have expertise at our disposal … a retired surgeon to research the history of disease and epidemics, a solicitor, the Acts of Enclosure, an architect, farm buildings.
Others have chosen to research periods of history or to follow individual farms over the centuries. In Norman times, the Bishops of Winchester owned two East Meon manors; the land was farmed by yeoman tenants while ‘villeins’ did the hard work; After the Civil War, wealthy landowning families either farmed themselves, or let out their estates, to a new generation of yeomen whose male and female lived under their substantial roofs. When Victoria was on the throne, common wastes were enclosed, trees felled and farming became more efficient and mechanised; this caused poverty and overcrowding among farm labourers. Our picture of East Meon’s farms across two millennia will be drawn from wills, parish registers and poor lists, from hearth tax and poll tax registers, from censuses and trade directories; we hope to identify the crops they grew, the animals they tended and the fields they rented.
For most of the last millennium, the Hundred of East Meon included a large swathe of East Hampshire, including the tithings of Langrish, Stroud, Ramsdean, Froxfield and Steep… and more! Our Langrish and Ramsdean members are researching farms in what were then ‘tithings’ of East Meon.
If anyone fancies joining the Group and taking a stab at research into any other aspect of Farming in East Meon, we can promise support from our more experienced members, notably David Hopkins who is leading this project. We have accumulated a small library of relevant books and reports, and our website has number of records, so there’s no need to travel to the County or National Record Offices (it would be sad to deny yourself the excitement of handling the original documents …)
From all this research, we hope to an exhibition like our previous displays of East Meon’s House Histories and of World War I. We shall post records and reports on www.eastmeonhistory.net, and produce printed booklets as well. We shall write up our findings for Meon Matters, and hopefully produce maps showing how farms and fields changed across the centuries. Above all, we hope to help village residents to understand better how their predecessors lived and how our wonderful landscape evolved.