History of the river in East Meon
Michael Blakstad for Meon Matters, December 2018
Did the river originally follow its present course through the village, down the High Street, turning at right angles along The Cross and again to split Cross Keys and Vicarage Lodge? Or could it have flowed through the grounds of The Court House, then between the houses on The Hyde and the High Street, joining the present course at the northern end of the Cross?
There is no documentary evidence, and certainly no maps, to tell us the course of the river through the settlement of East Meon before the 18th century; early maps either left rivers out entirely (Christopher Saxton, above left) or were very vague about their course (Norden, above right).
We know from Domesday that there were seven mills in the Hundred of East Meon, which then included the tithings of Froxfield and Steep. Only three were on the River Meon, Southmill near the source of the Meon, Frogmore Mill and Shutts mill at Drayton. None were recorded in the actual settlement of East Meon (though not all mills were full-sized, and some farms used the flow of streams to power small mills; there may have been one such at Hill Hampton. A millstone was found in the river between Cross Keys and Vicarage Lodge.)
Monasteries and great houses
In the Middle Ages many great houses were either built on flowing rivers, such as the Priory at Mottisfont, or diverted streams to create ponds and channels. At St Cross, two streams were cut, parallel to the River Itchen, one for clean water (feeding the ponds, and providing drinking water for the community) and one for foul.
We know that Court Farm, now The Court House, had a pond in the 19th century; in the Middle Ages it had been a working curia, or farm headquarters, and would have needed running water: there is a curious anomaly at the northern end of what is now the garden of Glenthorne House; the level of the ground on the Glenthorne side of the wall is a metre higher than on the north side, suggesting the river may have split Glenthorne and The Court House. If so, the river might have divided to the east of the village with one branch flowing along its present course, along what is now the High Street, and the other through the farmyard at The Court House. The latter would have continued just south of the track which is now the West Meon road flowing into the section which still divides Cross Keys and Vicarage Lodge.
In the 14th century, the ‘Tudor House’ was an important two-and-a-half-bay farmhouse which might well have had a pond and service channels, suggesting that there may have been a southerly stream which continued to the north of what is now Workhouse Lane and joined the other branch to the west of the settlement (along the route of the present culvert).
What are now called Paupers and Kews Cottages were built in the early 17th century, and the village Workhouse was built between these cottages and the Tudor House in the 1730s (or converted from existing cottages). The southern branch of the river may have provided them with running water.
The first map to show clearly the course of the river through East Meon was Thomas Milne’s map of Hampshire published in 1790. It shows only one stream, which leaves ‘Wigmore Mill’ (Frogmore Mill) and goes through Court Farm, splitting houses along the Hyde and the High Street, eventually going under the bridge on The Cross and continuing between Cross Keys and Vicarage Lodge. Granted, it is unlikely that Milne ever visited the village but will have relied on other cartographers, any of whom may have conjectured the course of the Meon, but there is logic to this route.
So why and when might the southern course of the river have been created, or expanded, to flow along the High Street, then blocked and diverted down The Cross. When was the northern route removed? The first reliable map of East Meon was created in 1851 to support the Tithe Apportionments; it too shows houses along the West Meon road but only a pond at Court Farm remains of the northern branch of the river. New houses have appeared to the west of Paupers Cottages and that section of the southern branch has also disappeared. It is not impossible that these streams created marshy ground unsuited to housing and were removed.
The early nineteenth century saw extensive civil engineering throughout the country, and the creation of such an unnatural route for the river, turning at right angles at each end of The Cross, was perhaps such a venture. If so, it created problems for future generations.
Flooding and flood prevention
Flooding in the main streets of East Meon became commonplace; heavy rainfalls caused the water to surge down the river; when it hit the barrier at The Cross, it flowed back along the High Street and Church Street. In the mid 1950s, engineering works were carried out to remedy the problem by creating an overflow culvert parallel with what was now named Workhouse Lane, following the route of the previous southern branch of the river but in a cement ditch which was presumably much straighter than the original stream.