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An Overview of the History of Yateley, Hampshire, England

by Dr R H Johnston


The village of Yateley lies at the extreme north-east corner of Hampshire where the three counties of Hampshire, Berkshire and Surrey meet, about 35 miles south-west of the centre of London, the capital of England. Now a suburban village mostly of houses built since 1945, it is a very old village, originally dependent on subsistence agriculture, with a history stretching back to the close of the Ice Age.


Many local people, however, might be inclined, as they survey the modern housing estates, to agree with former local historian and Vicar, Rev C D Stooks, who, about 1900, wrongly wrote that "Yateley has no history". Recent research is showing that many Yateley people played important roles in Society, either in London, or in far off places like India. Some people are important enough to appear in such books as the Dictionary of National Biography, though they are now largely forgotten names. Neither Yateley nor its inhabitants appear to have played a major role in pivotal national events. But even if few Yateley people achieved lasting fame, the development of social and historical geography, the burgeoning of local and family history studies, and the general availability of more local and personal records means that historians now pay more attention to the lives of ordinary people, living in insignificant rural villages like Yateley. The history of ordinary lives derives its interest from what it tells us about what our own lives might have been like had we lived at a different historical period.


Today Yateley continues its insignificant role as an unimportant suburban village, yet reflecting in its modern housing estates the hopes, desires and aspirations of ordinary people. Some commute to London to work, which reflects a historical continuity which reaches back for at least three centuries! An intelligent understanding of that sense of continuity helps the people of the Yateley of today to have a sense of belonging somewhere, which is the foundation upon which a socially effective community is grounded.


Why is Yateley here?


Every settlement comes into being because its location has advantages over other places in the area. The location of the settlement of Yateley, on the relatively fertile, gentle slope of the Blackwater Valley between the river and the barren "lowland heath" upland, was determined by the needs of a system of subsistence agriculture which has long since ceased to operate anywhere in England. See Figure 1


Figure 1 The Yateley Tithe Map 1844, showing land use


The River Blackwater, whose westward flowing waters ultimately reach the River Thames, is a small river within a wide valley. This valley reached its present form during the closing stages of the last Ice Age. A series of terraces mark earlier river margins. The main road from Reading to Guildford runs through Yateley along one of these river terraces. This was as near to the river as the road could be built, for the area to the north was prone to winter flooding, a circumstance which only ceased with the canalisation of the river about 1930.


The centre of the main settlement of Yateley sits on this same terrace, roughly near the boundary between what were, for centuries, the cultivated fields to the south, which originally formed a formal "open field system", and the floodable riverside meadows to the north. Yateley's subsistence agriculture depended upon the river meadows for hay, and on the cultivated fields for arable crops. In addition Yateley Green, to the west, and the rest of Yateley Common, to the south of the cultivated fields, provided rough daytime grazing for animals, which were kept for working the fields and for food, while its small wood, gorse and peat provided fuel. The streams running down from the Common towards the river were dammed to form fishponds, and eels thrived in the River Blackwater. The fertility of the arable land is generally poor, but the predominently sandy soil made for easy ploughing, which accounts for the fact that Yateley was inhabited from very early times.


After the Ice Age, the lower lying, now more fertile, valley soils of England were heavily waterlogged, and hence impossible to clear and cultivate, and so agriculture was confined to the upland limestone, chalk and gravel soils which are widespread across southern England. The first land to be cultivated in Yateley was probably the highest land, the heathland which now forms Yateley Common. These upland soils were not particularly fertile, and such fertility as they had was soon exhausted, turning the land into heathland: a mixture of heather, gorse, scrub and poor grassland. As the fertility of this land declined, and as the lower lying land dried out, the land further down the slope towards the river was cultivated, and eventually the historical pattern of agriculture was established. With the accelerating trend away from subsistence agriculture from the eighteenth century onwards, the traditional balance of arable and animal agriculture involving the use of the Common declined. From about 1870, because the fertility of the arable land was relatively poor, it was increasingly converted to pasture. The Second World War, when the airfield was built, finally brought the traditional agricultural use of the common to an end, and after the war extensive housing developments were built on the fields, and Yateley became the suburban commuter village which it is today.


Prehistoric to Saxon times


The earliest evidence of habitation in the area is from the neolithic period - a neolithic hand axe was found in what are now Yateley School playing fields. Much more evidence of habitation is available for the Bronze age - there is a bronze age barrow on the common and a bronze age urn field was found in a field behind Moor Place Farmhouse in Moulsham Lane in the 1920s. Single burial urns have been found in the Potley Hill area. This suggests that Yateley was then, by the standards of the time, a sizeable, but scattered settlement. No evidence of substantial buildings from this period have ever been found, which suggests the settlers at this time were either very poor, or perhaps that the area was only worked during the summer months.


This latter hypothesis might account for the fact that almost no evidence has been found in Yateley of occupation during the Iron Age or the Roman period. The Iron Age was a troubled period marked by tribal warfare, and it may well be that Yateley was abandoned because it was not a place that was easily defended. Yateley lies on a gentle slope between Hartford Bridge Flats (the Common) and the river, and there are no hills which are capable of being defended. The hill upon which the church at nearby Finchampstead stands, and the so-called Caesar's camp at Crowthorne were both Iron Age forts, better suited for defence. The Romans continued to use these forts to defend the main road which ran from London to Silchester.


The apparent lack of Roman settlement is rather more of a surprise, since conditions were peaceful, and the Roman Road from London to Silchester passed closely by providing excellent communications. Perhaps the quality of the land gave it little appeal, or such Roman settlement as there was, such as villas, which doubtful local traditions claim existed, has been entirely lost under later development.


Yateley had become resettled by the Saxon period, and was a place of sufficient importance to have its church constructed in stone, which was then far from the norm. The first stone church is thought to have been partly destroyed during the Danish invasions of the ninth century, but it was subsequently rebuilt by the Saxons. The north wall of this Saxon church is incorporated into the present building.


The Medieval Period


Opinion is divided as to whether Yateley has a separate mention in the Domesday Book (1086). Certainly Yateley in later times was part of the Manor and Hundred of Crondall, but the Crondall entry seems inadequate to account for the resources which would be expected if that entry covered Yateley. There is an entry for a place called "Effele", which older commentators believed to be Yateley, but modern scholars ascribe to Heckfield, on the basis of the later ownership of that manor. The land ownership makes it more likely that Yateley was part of Crondall.


In the Middle Ages, Yateley was one of the largest settlements in North east Hampshire, by which time the Parish, which then included the huge and generally sparsely populated areas of Hawley and Cove, was an integral part of the Manor and Hundred of Crondall. This manor had been granted by the king for the support of the monks of the Old Monastery at Winchester, and this was confirmed in King Edgar's will (AD 976). This ecclesiastical connection survived the reformation, for the Manor was transferred to the Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral at the reformation, and, apart for a short period during the Civil War when it came briefly into the hands of Mr Love, one of the regicides of Charles I, it remained in the hands of the church until the manorial system came to an end in the twentieth century.


The Norman Conquest imposed the system of feudal land tenure on England. Under this system, the peasants held their land by customary law. Initially they were slaves, unable to leave the land. They had to undertake various services for the lord of the manor, such as ploughing and weeding his fields, as rent for their land. As the centuries passed, the legal ties of servitude weakened, and the payment of rents by service was gradually commuted into money payments. The feudal form of land tenure eventually turned into a variety of other forms of land tenure in different manors.


In the manor of Crondall, the land belonging to the peasants had always passed to their descendents, or nearest relatives, on their death, and hence the land subsequently became held by heritable "Copyhold tenure". The ownership of the land could be bought and sold, and the title was held by a "copy" - hence the name - of Court Roll of the Manor. Various rents and fees had to be paid to the Manor, and all the transfers were recorded in the Manor Court Rolls. Many of these manor records survive, including some from the middle ages, and a complete series from 1656 to the last entry in 1951. As practically all Yateley land was copyhold, these records provide a "land registry" of ownership for the whole of Yateley. Some holdings can be readily identified, even as far back as a manor rental from 1287, but the lineage of others remains obscure.


These manor records suggest that Yateley's settlement pattern, with its clear distinction between the developed, formerly cultivated, land and the common land, the uncultivated waste heathland, reached its present form during the Middle Ages. All the landholders who held land from the lord of the manor had the right to put a specified number of animals on the common, and to take small wood, peat, gorse, sand and gravel from it. These rights are laid out in the Crondal Customary of 1567. But the lord of the manor also encouraged people to take land from the common, enclose it and cultivate it. This increased the value of the land for the lord, as the person who enclosed the land then had to pay rent for it. It was not always equally profitable for the person who made the enclosure, as the name of one such field, "Lost cost", amply demonstrates! These enclosures became inheritable like the rest, but their description in the manor court rolls tends to be in the form of "so many acres", whereas the earlier holdings in the open fields are expressed in "virgates". This process of casual enclosure was called "assarting", and by comparing the land in the rentals for 1287, 1351 and the customary of 1567, the expansion of the land in cultivation can be estimated.


The finer details of this process can be seen on the Yateley Tithe Map, 1844 (figure 1 The Yateley Tithe Map 1844, showing land use), and even on the ground in the Cobbetts Lane area, where the distinctive shapes of the fields reflect, not only the quality of the land, but also the cost of making an enclosure. The field pattern is characteristic of assarting, but this particular example is uniquely important in its strange yet characteristic patterns. For each enclosure, a bank and ditch had to be constructed, and there was a tendency to enclose as much land as possible for the smallest amount of boundary, subject to the prevailing geographic constraints. As a circle has the largest area for a given circumference, this accounts for the curved nature of many of the field boundaries and the winding nature of the old village lanes. The later enclosures tend to have smaller banks and ditches than the earlier ones. The tithe map shows that, as time went on, the roads - rather a grand title for the muddy tracks or ways which connected different parts of the village - became narrower, as the neighbouring fields were extended into them.


The sizes of the fields vary, too, according to their usage: the meadows near the river, which flooded every winter, were generally larger than the arable fields, and the overnight enclosures for the animals kept on the common, and the gardens associated with the houses were the smallest.


What is also clear from the map (figure 1 The Yateley Tithe Map 1844, showing land use) is that Yateley was a very scattered village - more a collection of hamlets each clustered round a "Green" - at Yateley proper, Cricket Hill, Darby Green and at Frogmore, with a few larger farmsteads scattered evenly across the village. These Greens were common land, and each gave easy access onto larger areas of the common beyond. Each Green had houses around it, each house having one or two small fields for keeping animals overnight - the animals were not allowed to stay on the Common overnight. These houses were for the poorer of the landholders: they were, however, still relatively well off - the very poor had no land at all. These landholders made their living from about 4 acres - insufficient to provide a liveable income on its own, but with the addition of the common rights, and perhaps a trade like making cloth or shoes - making shoes seems to have been a significant local industry in later times - these people were able to get by.


The larger farms, held by richer people, were scattered across the village, each with some of its fields close by. These holdings were not compact however. The 1844 Tithe Apportionment shows a land holding pattern with each farm having fields near the river for early hay as well as arable land on higher ground. The largest of these holdings, Hall Place, now Yateley Manor School, was a sub-manor of Crondall holding its own manor courts; it is clearly identifiable in the Rental of 1287, when it was owned by a woman called Juliana. Although during the medieval period, and for some time afterwards, Hall Place was the largest landholding, it still only held a small proportion of all the land in the village: thus nobody had overall control over the village, and this contributed to the village's scattered character.


By the eighteenth century at the latest, many of the larger farmers - the middle ranking people in Yateley society - were growing malting barley for brewing beer, the impoverished land being particularly suitable for this purpose, and some fields were growing hops. This trade was strongly integrated with the development of common brewers, and the bonds of business were further cemented by marriage alliances.


After the Middle Ages


Hall Place, and later, in the post-medieval period, Frogmore Park, Hilfield, Yateley Place, Yateley Hall, and Monteagle House provided suitable accommodation for people with the social status of Gentleman, Esquire or, occasionally, as at Hall Place, Knight. Generally, the more vigorous men with this social status might play roles in the administration of the County, becoming Justices of the Peace, who then had a wide adminstrative role in addition to the judicial functions of their modern counterparts. A few Yateley people did fulfil such roles: however, the fact that Yateley land was Copyhold, rather than Freehold, gave its land holders inferior social status in a society where holding Freehold land was the key to social success.


When the land began to be traded, rather than simply inherited, these larger properties in Yateley became attractive to people from outside, particularly to merchants, bankers, and lawyers whose business was in London, and also to retired professional men. Commuting was relatively easy, as the main road from London to Exeter ran across the common to the south of Yateley. At 34 miles from London, it was half a day's horse ride from the capital, close enough to be convenient, but far enough away to avoid the dreaded and recurrent plague, which had first taken its toll in 1349, when about a third of the population of Yateley had died. These London based people held their land mainly for its social status, and were probably not particularly interested in farming, but either farmed their land as a part time activity or rented it out to others. These were their country homes; they owned other houses in London. Some of their relatively modest but comfortable houses - such as Yateley Hall (now greatly enlarged) and Monteagle House (still much as it was when it was built) - survive.


The land in north-east Hampshire was poor and hence cheap, the rents were low and fixed, it was heritable so buying and selling it was straightforward, and the manorial system ensured a reliable title - not always the case with freehold land. Moreover the landlord was the church, distantly located at Winchester, which did not mind who lived in Yateley. This made Yateley an "open" village, in contrast to "closed" villages where the lord of the manor lived in the village and tightly controlled who lived where and how they were allowed to live.


The disinterested absentee landlord, and the lack of a single dominant landowner, each leading to the village's "open" character, with its laisser faire outlooks, made Yateley a refuge for people who were not particularly welcome in other places. This may help to explain why Yateley had a relatively large population, in spite of the land being poor, and why it had a disproportionately large number of poorer people. Many of the poorer people were landless, and some were undoubtedly homeless too: there is a very long tradition of traveller encampments on Yateley Common (they appear in the nineteenth century censuses), with their disruptive elements (recorded in the school records) - a problem with modern parallels. Those whose religious views did not meet with general acceptance in the days of religious intolerance were another category. A large proportion of the more important families in North-east Hampshire and Berkshire seem to have had Catholic sympathies. Monteagle House has long been locally associated with Lord Monteagle of "gunpowder plot" fame. Many of the local traditions can be discounted: he certainly did not own it, though he had family connections with those who did, and he may have found it expedient to live there quietly at some stage during his notoriously turbulent political life.


The main road from London to Exeter had a considerable influence on Yateley: the London commuting has already been mentioned. Bagshot heath was notorious for its highwaymen, and Yateley Common saw similar armed robberies. During the worst period for highway robbery, travellers from the west country passed through Yateley village and on into Sandhurst to take a safer more northerly route to London, avoiding Bagshot heath. However, the romantic tale of a "Parson Darby", supposedly an Eversley curate who did robberies in his spare time, and who was hanged at Darby Green in 1841, lacks historicity. Blackwater, then part of Yateley parish, had a number of inns catering for the needs of travellers. During the heyday of the coaching era (1750-1835), this became a major local source of income.


But this was not the only long distance road of local importance. The Welsh Drive, a drovers road from Wales to Blackwater, brought Welsh cattle across the common in November to an annual fair at Blackwater, a fair which had begun in the Middle Ages. Brandy Bottom, on Cricket Hill, may therefore derive its name from the branding of animals, rather than from any connection with contraband. Blackwater fair was very large, supplying meat on the hoof to the London market. The fair, which was held at what is now the Hawley roundabout on the A30, rapidly declined in importance after the Government outlawed the long distance droving of animals in the late nineteenth century in order to control the spread of animal diseases.


The coming of the military


The next major influence on Yateley was the coming of the Royal Military College to Sandhurst in 1816. As a result, the staff, together with retired army officers, settled in the area, some choosing Yateley. They generally took houses with more modest amounts of land than the larger estates favoured by the London based lawyers and business men who had preceded them. Thus the "suburbanisation" of Yateley began. Later Yateley boasted a cramming school, teaching young men to pass the examinations for Sandhurst. These military influences intensified when Aldershot became the "Home of the British Army" in the 1850s. By then improving communications, with the advent of the railways, were bringing more middle class commuters and retired people seeking country homes.


As time passed, the suburbanisation pressure steadily moved down the social scale. It is noticeable that the main nineteenth century development of Yateley was at Frogmore and Darby Green, which was closest to Camberley and to the railway at Blackwater. The railway also drew the local business focus away from Odiham towards Wokingham. These trends continued slowly and steadily up until the Second World War, with development creeping westwards across Yateley. Parts of the land holding of Yateley Hall were sold off piecemeal in relatively large plots to build houses for middle class incomers. Even so, the development of housing in Yateley still largely reflected its historic pattern, and there were substantial tracts of pleasant open fields between the houses. By this time, however, very little of the land was under the plough, but had been largely turned over to cattle pasturage. Poultry farming, fruit growing and market gardening became increasingly important in the period leading up to the second world war, the ready access by rail to London markets being particularly advantageous.


The Second World War and its aftermath


The Second World War brought dramatic changes. On the eve of the war, Esther Harris from Moulsham was still keeping animals on the common. All this changed with the decision to build an airfield. Hartford Bridge Flats, the almost perfectly flat part of Yateley Common, which had narrowly escaped being enclosed in the nineteenth century, was hastily covered with acres of concrete to form a transport command airfield. Huts for the personnel sprouted at Cricket Hill, and over many of the fields near the airfield. Factory buildings appeared in the area south of the church. These big changes were to have enduring implications. After the war the airfield became London's third airport for a period, until it closed in 1960 because of air traffic control conflicts with Heathrow. The airfield concrete should have been taken up and the land returned to its previous use, but this did not happen, and after many long and complex planning and legal battles, Blackbushe airport, though smaller than its predecessor, survived.


After the war, systematic housing development began, starting in the area to the south of the old village centre. The war time activities had left a legacy of temporary buildings which were turned into homes, and derelict land which invited redevelopment, and a proper sewerage system had been installed which now had surplus capacity. This made Yateley an obvious place to build the new housing which was being demanded by people who were moving out of London into the countryside. North-east Hampshire lay just beyond the London Green Belt: the development pressures were intense. Partly for local political reasons, the bulk of the new housing in what is now Hart District was placed in Yateley, and pressure intensified in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time Yateley expanded more rapidly than most of the designated New Towns, but unlike New Towns, there was no corresponding planning or funding for infrastructure, roads, shops or business development. Yateley consequently became a dormitory town with a very high turnover of population. In the 1970s many Yateley people worked at Heathrow airport. There seemed to be no way to contain the development: the historically scattered nature of the village provided no obvious boundaries - apart from the common land, and the floodable land near the river, which suffered instead from gravel extraction. Only when the available land became exhausted, did the rate of development start to slow down. Now only a few fields remain to Yateley, and even these lie under continual threat of being buried by houses.


Today and the future


Yet in spite of these tribulations, Yateley managed to retain a substantial proportion of its former rural character. The Greens remain, and three are now designated as Conservation Areas, with special emphasis on their semi-rural character, though urbanisation pressures continue to press upon them. Many of Yateley's historic buildings survive, mostly hidden away from view behind huge hedges. Yateley Hall, with its Georgian Canal converted from a medieval moat, which was probably constructed between 1200 and 1350, now proudly presents itself to Hall Lane in a new way, following a comprehensive and successful renovation at the end of the 1980s.


Yateley still has its common, which is now designated as an SSSI and is a proposed European Union Special Protection Area for wild birds, for the protection of three very rare heathland species. This land is lowland heathland, an internationally rare, and, as it is no longer grazed, a rapidly declining, habitat. Nearly all of the world's lowland heath lies in England, most of it in Hampshire and Dorset. Once thought of as worthless, and fit only for growing pine trees, great efforts are now being made to preserve the heathland of Yateley Common by removing the invading pine, birch and oak, which were once kept under control by the grazing of the Yateley commoners' animals. Grazing has been reintroduced at Castle Bottom, a now rare valley bog habitat, lying just to the west of Yateley in the neighbouring parish of Eversley, and it is hoped it will be possible to reintroduce some limited grazing in Yateley itself in the future.


For reasons which are not entirely clear, people who live in Yateley now appear to be staying here longer, and truly making it their home - enjoying the blend of the urban with the chance for recreation in the nearby countryside. Most commute to jobs elsewhere, but as was indicated at the beginning, this is something some Yateley people have always done. We still have the sometimes troublesome travellers, and the authorities regrettably still remain somewhat casual about what is allowed to happen here. Yateley is obviously a different place from what it was in the past, yet these things reveal that there is some historical continuity.


Where will Yateley go from here? Much will depend on how much Yateley people care about their environment. Yateley's charms depend substantially upon its rural feel: its future attractiveness depends on retaining what remains of this rural character, which means maintaining and improving the environmental quality of the Common, of the fields which remain, and avoiding further urbanising development.


© Dr Richard H. Johnston 28.3.1998, Minor revision 20.10.2000 (v5) Note: this paper may be subject to further amendment. It may not be republished in any form or used for any commercial purpose whatsoever without the written permission of the author.

Dr Richard H Johnston is a Yateley local historian who has lived in Yateley since 1974, and is presently the history group leader for The Yateley Society.

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