Self-sufficiency then and now…

For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog in January.

I have been musing recently on how, for the past, say, nine centuries or so, until perhaps the early or even middle of the 20th century, the communities in the Meon Valley were mostly self-sufficient, one way or another.

In earlier centuries, people rarely left their village, for almost everything they needed was there, produced by themselves, or local farmers or tradespeople. People’s “needs” of course were, necessarily and aspirationally, much more limited than ours and, apart from “Shanks’s pony”, most people didn’t have the means to travel far.

There might be a market of some kind in the village, where folk would buy and sell their produce, and itinerant pedlars might bring “extras” that couldn’t be made in the village. In the days when a lot of villagers worked the land in one way or another, they took their grain to the mill to be ground into flour and either made their own bread or bought it from a baker. Many grew their own vegetables and perhaps some fruit. If they were wealthy enough, they might have a cow and be able to make cheese. More likely, they might have a pig and produce their own bacon, and even more commonly, have a few hens to produce eggs and eventually a stringy carcass for the pot. If they didn’t, or couldn’t, have their own livestock, others could provide it for a price. People made their own ale or bought it from the village ale-wives. For tasks they couldn’t do themselves, there would be tradespeople who could – smiths, farriers, wheelwrights, carpenters, builders, thatchers and so on.

That said, I am not clear about the nature of the “market” in rural communities. I have always imagined that villagers would have sold their surplus to their neighbours in some sort of “farmers’ market”: more affluent housewives who produced a lot of cheese, for example, or ran a large number of hens and had eggs to spare, or had a large holding and grew more vegetables than the family could eat.

That said, I am not clear about the nature of the “market” in rural communities. I have always imagined that villagers would have sold their surplus to their neighbours in some sort of “farmers’ market”: more affluent housewives who produced a lot of cheese, for example, or ran a large number of hens and had eggs to spare, or had a large holding and grew more vegetables than the family could eat.

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So when a community was “granted” a weekly market by the lord, perhaps this was a different sort of event, when merchants (to use the term loosely) might also come from outside to sell their goods? Maybe this was where villagers would purchase a new cooking pot, for example, or tools of various kinds?

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Titchfield Market Hall (1620s), now at Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, West Sussex. (© MilborneOne [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons)
Titchfield already had such a market in the 11th century, for the Domesday Book says its “market and toll (are worth) 40 shillings”. Titchfield’s was one of the first markets in Hampshire and, in the 12th century, it was the only place in the Meon Valley to have one. It wasn’t until 1231 that Meonstoke was granted a weekly Monday market, and in 1269 that Wickham was granted a charter to hold one every Thursday.

To buy something more exotic, folk might make the effort to travel a few miles to the nearest annual fair. Fairs were more than just over-sized markets. They were, as Ian Mortimer says, “the great gatherings of mediaeval England.” They were usually three-day events, held, in honour of a specific saint, on the saint’s day and the day before and after it. Merchants would come from further afield with more exotic goods, spices perhaps, fine quality cloth, more sophisticated household and personal items than could be had in the markets. They were also places of entertainment as well as shopping.

In the Meon Valley, there were several fairs, though only one or two would be within walking distance of a particular village. At the sea end of the valley, in the 13th century, Titchfield was granted permission by King Edward I to hold an annual five-day fair, which was of enormous economic significance, and perhaps reflected the importance of the town after the establishment of its Premonstratensian abbey, which was almost certainly visited often by officials and even royalty. Further upstream, Wickham, at the same time as being granted its market, also received permission for an annual three-day fair on the anniversary of the Translation Of St. Nicholas (in May). The Wickham Fair attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area, dealing in goods of all kinds. The fair has continued more or less without a break, and is still held every 20th May, now more of an entertainment than a grand shopping experience. In the upper reaches of the valley, Meonstoke was also granted an annual three-day fair, in 1231, to be held on the “vigil, feast, and morrow” of St. Margaret. East Meon, too, held an annual fair on Lady Day (March), which continued until the 19th century, but has recently been revived as a May Country Fair.

Knowing how very rural and tranquil the communities of the Meon Valley are now, it is interesting to picture them eight hundred years ago as – once a year at least – the busy, bustling centres of trade they once were.

Interesting too, to note how relatively large some of these, now quite little, villages once were. The Domesday Book of 1086 has the details… East Meon, for example, was very large in relation to the norms of the day, with 138 households (perhaps 700 people), although the area covered was probably more than just the existing village. Only a short distance away was West Meon, also quite large, with 50 households (250 individuals). A few miles further to the south is Exton, still quite large at 46 households, as was Soberton with 35. By contrast, and rather intriguingly, three of the communities that were granted annual fairs – which one interprets as an indication of their power or importance – were not among the largest: Titchfield had only 33 households, Wickham had 26 and Meonstoke had 28. How curious! Mind you, the fairs and markets were granted to these places nearly two hundred years later than Domesday, so perhaps they had by then become more important, and more highly populated places.

Obviously, the size of all communities has gone up and down over the ensuing centuries, but it’s quite interesting to see how the relative balance has changed since Domesday. In the most recent census (2011), East Meon and West Meon now have about 2000 individuals between them; Exton and Meonstoke, together with Corhampton (three villages that sit very close together) have 1600, with Corhampton now the largest of the three (having had only 60 or so individuals in 1086) and Exton the smallest. Soberton, too, has 1600. Wickham and Titchfield, however, have grown really quite large, at 4300 and 7200 respectively. As I have shown in a previous History Girls post, Wickham has been a thriving “townlet” for several centuries, and perhaps its location on a main route from the south coast at Portsmouth is a reason. In Titchfield’s case (see this History Girls post), it, too, was an important town for centuries, but eventually lost its status partly as the surrounding conurbation of Southampton/Fareham/Portsmouth grew and overwhelmed it.

Returning to the matter of the communities’ relative self-sufficiency, that way of life must have continued, more or less unchanged, for centuries,   certainly into the 19th and in some places into the 20th. I am not clear to what extent the “markets” or the fairs continued, but change of a sort did take place during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when shops came to the villages. In the Meon Valley, two communities, East Meon and Soberton, offer good, if different, pictures of just how self-contained a village could still be, even up to a time that is well within living memory.

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East Meon © Author

For example, East Meon was still virtually self-sustaining in the early 20th century, for then it had over 20 shops and tradesmen’s workshops. The East Meon History group (http://www.eastmeonhistory.org.uk) have a wonderful website with all sorts of fascinating information about the village’s history. The website includes a map, drawn from memory by a resident, which shows all the stores and workshops serving the village in the 1920s, and where they were located (all now, of course, private and highly desirable homes). Inter alia, there were four bakers, a dairy, three grocers, three butchers, two mills, a saddler and cobbler, a wheelwright, farriers, a post office, a herbalist, and a wide range of craftsmen and building trades. One of the grocers, alongside food, also offered haberdashery as well as household goods, fabrics, boots and shoes, and apparently all the grocers sold paraffin, vital for cottagers without electricity.

In Soberton, in the 1830s, it is thought that there was just a single shop in the High Street, a grocery, but, before long, more shops appeared: a butcher, a bakery, which was apparently also later the post office and sold beer and insurance too, and also a bicycle shop, a boot repairer, a blacksmith, and building craftsmen (carpenters, joiners, masons etc). In Soberton Heath, in the middle of the parish, there were a couple of grocery shops, and, in Newtown, at the southern end of the parish, a shop was opened in the 19th century, which, in the end, was the only shop in the parish and didn’t close until the 2000s. As late as, perhaps, the early 1980s most things could be bought in the village.

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Wickham square © Author
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Titchfield, South Street, looking towards the square. Public domain.

Wickham and Titchfield, now with very much larger populations than any of the Meon Valley villages, are unsurprisingly rather better served in terms of shops and businesses. In 1939, Titchfield had about 40 shops and workshops, and Wickham’s great square was lined on every side with businesses of different kinds. Now, each little town has a small chain supermarket and a second “open-all-hours” store, as well as a butcher, a post office, a chemist, hairdressers, several pubs, restaurants and tea/coffee houses. Wickham also has two hardware stores, several antiques centres and gift shops, and a chocolate shop…

However, there is no shop now in Soberton, and once bustling East Meon has just one shop, a general store and part-time post office. But there are also village shops in each of West Meon (which also has a butchers’ shop), Meonstoke and Droxford, all of which offer at least part-time post office services, and are village hubs, offering access to all sorts of local services and tradesmen as well as providing consumables and household goods.

In truth, it is perfectly possible to live quite well in either Wickham or Titchfield without having to travel further afield too often, provided one is prepared to accept a relatively modest lifestyle in the context of 21st century consumerism.

Yet, some of those village shops are also really striving to recover at least a degree of self-sustainment for their communities. The post office and village store in Meonstoke (which also serves Exton and Corhampton) is a good example. It offers nearly everything you could need for day-to-day living: bread, meat, vegetables and fruit; ale and wine; logs and coal; as well as culinary treats, and access to many trades and services. Moreover, a good deal of what the shop provides is locally produced, much as it was in the Middle Ages. Its website (http://www.meonstokepostofficeandvillagestores.co.uk/) sums up its credo: “Local produce, for us, is key for many reasons – to make sure you receive them when they are most fresh, to support local businesses and to promote a reduced carbon footprint.”

There seems to be a growing desire (in truth, a need) for “local produce”, for reducing “food miles”, for greater “sustainment”. And some small communities are clearly beginning to return to at least a modicum of the self-sufficiency they had for so many centuries. What is happening here in the Meon Valley is undoubtedly happening in rural communities throughout the country. One wonders if the tide is beginning to turn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Self-sufficiency then and now…

  1. Pingback: One fisherman, two saints, and three politicians… – Carolyn Hughes

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