Bournemouth Echo Review

Sue Newman and Mike Tizzard

The common people who fought back

10:17am Tuesday 18th September 2007

Written by Ed Perkins

IT was like throwing down the gauntlet to the inhabitants of Christchurch when the Earl of Malmesbury tried to claim Town Common land as his own.

The inhabitants of the Old Borough of Christchurch had ancient rights, lost in the midst of time, to make use of common land in the town and they did not take kindly to the Earl's impertinent claim.

That was back in the 19th century when the tenth Earl, a local landowner, put down his stake by placing a replica cast-iron stag on it.

"The furious commoners removed it by horse and cart, impounded it in the town pound (near the underpass in Pound Lane), charged an impounding fee, and even provided the animal' with hay and water to justify the 4d (2p) poundage charge," write Sue Newman and Mike Tizzard in The Christchurch Commons, the book they have just published.

"The attempt was foiled when the Earl's men rescued their creation by winching it out of the pound."

The collaboration by the two local historians, who were the principal creators of the town's Millennium Trail of blue plaques, offers a remarkable insight into the history of the accessible common land in the Old Borough where the commoners' rights were reaffirmed at Court Leets back in the 17th century.

The common land they feature includes everything from the Town Common - once known as Turf Delph - to Coward's Marsh, the Quomps, Ogber, Bernard's Mead and many more.

Various rights apply to individual commons, including, for example, the right of common pasture for cows, horses and sheep... but not for geese, goats or pigs; the right of turbary', to cut turf for fuel; the right of estover', such as removing undergrowth for fuel; and the right of soil, entitling the digging of sand, stone and mineral for private use.

The book - that includes illustrated mapped out walks to discover and enjoy the commons - contains many interesting facts.

In 1769, for example, a pest house was built on Town Common, where people with diseases such as smallpox wre sent into isolation. The cottage still survives.

In 1925, an attempt was made to regulate the use of Town Common by gypsies and to prevent fly-tipping. A law preventing fires being lit effectively excluded the former from setting up camps.

And during the First World War the common was used by the Army for trench warfare practice.

The accounts for Coward's Marsh common land, too, throw up intriguing local details including local dialect words. A payment was made for "a man to kill the wants", for example - that being a local word for moles.

The common was used by a notorious smuggler in 1755 as a place to keep his horse.

And, in 1869, decomposing bat dung was bought for the first time in order to feed grass.

From the tragic suicide of Alma Rattenbury in the River Avon after her lover was sentenced to hang for the murder of her husband (the sentence was later commuted) to the violent shooting of a man in Elizabethan times in a clash over rights at Stocker's Mead, Sue Newman and Mike Tizzard's book contains a treasury of such details.