top of page

Sherfield English - History in a Nutshell 

From Saxons to Normans

According to ‘A History of the County of Hampshire, volume 4’, published in 1911, the manor is first noted in the reign of Edward the Confessor, when it was held by one Edric. After the Norman Conquest, it was given to a Norman knight, Hugh de Port, and at this time the existence of a mill in the parish is recorded in the Domesday Book. His successors were called the St. Johns, and they held it until the 15th century. 

Origins of the village name

At some point while the manor was held by the St.Johns, probably in 1254, Gilbert l’Engleys became the tenant. This family held the tenancy for about 100 years, giving the parish the second half of its name. Before that the recorded name was some variant of ‘Sherefeld’, which either means ‘divided field’ or ‘clear field’. The uncertainty arises from the fact that Old English had two almost identical words which have come down to us, with little change, as ‘shear’ and ‘sheer’. Because there was no standardised spelling in those times we simply cannot tell with any confidence which it was, and we have to look at the context. 

The first word means, essentially, to ‘divide’, and was the origin of the term ‘Shire’ for what the Normans later called Counties, the way the country was ‘divided up’. The second word means ‘clear’, as in a ‘sheer drop’ or ‘sheer stockings’. If it is the word meaning ‘divided’, it probably refers to the fact that the main stream below the original settlement site at Manor Farm (pages 15 & 19) is a straight line dividing the easily ploughed fields into two halves. If it is the word meaning ‘clear’ we have to ask why it could be used to identify this ‘field’ from any other, and the only plausible explanation is that it was so named by incoming settlers because they found the ground ‘already cleared’, against their usual expectations in a predominantly wooded area. This would fit in with there having been an established Celtic settlement here, which the presence of an Iron Age fort on Dunwood Hill would support. 

Stability through Georgian and Victorian times

There were many recorded changes in the manor over the next 300 years, taking it through the upheavals of Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean times, but in the late 1600s things settled down. Three generations of the Sheldon family were resident owners of the Manor. Then in 1785 it was sold to the Lockhart family, who held it until it was sold to Louisa Lady Ashburton in 1903. Lady Ashburton survived barely a month longer, but in that time provided the funds for a new church, the present St. Leonards, in memory of her daughter Mary Florence, Marchioness of Northampton. The estate passed to her grandson, Lord Spencer Douglas Compton. 

Land ownership changes in the early 20th century

Everything changed after the First World War, and especially after the stock market crash in the late 1920s, when the Manor’s estate was broken up. The various tenant farms were bought by their tenants, and these families, by and large, are still the main land owners in the parish. This local ownership has been crucial in the preservation of the village as a working rural community, preventing the kind of opportunistic housing development that often occurred before the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act.

How the habitation pattern preserves the history of the parish

The 1840 Tithe Map of the village

The habitation pattern in Sherfield English is little changed from that in the 1840 Tithe Map for the parish. The overall pattern of dispersed groups of buildings is instantly recognisable, with hardly any changes even to the layout of the roads. The only new group of buildings since that time is the area we refer to below as Melchet End, which has grown up on the main road around and to the west of Graemar Lane. Looking back before 1840, only the arrival of the Salisbury to Southampton toll road (now the A27) in the late 1750s had made any discernible difference to the pattern which would have existed in early medieval times. And there is good evidence to suggest that the pattern then, and now, reflects influences unchanged since Neolithic times. 

Settlement in Iron Age times

We know there was a significant population in the area of Sherfield English at least as far back as Iron Age times because they had the resource to build the defensive work on the hill top at Dunwood, in the east of the parish, which is now a Scheduled Monument. This site was probably chosen, not just because it was a hill, but because it has boggy ground all around, and would have also been completely hidden within woodland. As far as we can tell from archaeological investigations, this hill fort was never permanently occupied, but would have been a place of retreat when invaders (Saxons) or marauding armies (Vikings)were feared.  

We can say with some confidence that some of these people, at least, were living exactly where we can see hamlets now because the main sites so clearly reflect the geographic constraints. These would have dictated the location of farms at any time in the past several thousand years: Reliable, free-flowing springs, which here are close to light, easily tillable soils, with rich summer meadows below and relatively open, free-draining pastures immediately above – an irresistible combination.  

This combination is perfectly expressed at Manor Farm, which would certainly have been the first and main site to be settled. Here there is a clearly defined location for the spring, with firm ground on three sides. The spring flows out into a straight-sided valley, rather than onto an ill-defined wetland, so that stock movement and general access to south is easy under all conditions. Here, either side of the valley are light sandy soils which would have been ideal for the simple post ploughs that were universal before the Saxons brought in the iron plough share. To the north, the summer pastures (over porous chalk bedrock) are literally within a few yards, and these give unrestricted access to other settlements all over the Wessex region. It is therefore no accident that we find the ‘Manor’ house here, along with the original church site. If anywhere is the historical heart of the village, this is it.

There are also favourable conditions at other points where the chalk ridge gives way to sand and clay deposits (technically classified as Reading Beds), with springs emerging over a layer of clay immediately under the sand. This occurs notably around Melchet Court (where there is now a substantial pond), just above the hamlet now called Newtown, and at Doctors Hill, where the water course is now below the surface because the clay layer has been excavated right down to the underlying porous chalk – see comments below on the toll road for an explanation of why this happened. 

Changes in Saxon times

These three or four sites were probably the only significant settlements until more advanced farming techniques arrived with the Saxons, allowing heavier soil to be tilled. This is probably the earliest that the secondary sites, each about half a mile below the spring line, would have first been permanently occupied.

The most important of these, now known as Mill Lane, is in the centre of the parish, downstream from the Manor. In the west, downstream on Park Water, we have Wellow Wood and Plaitford Green (which are just outside the modern parish), and in the east we have the area below Doctors Hill and Newtown, including Newtown Road, extending south just beyond the modern main road, but not historically as far as Birchwood House Farm. 

Changes in Elizabethan times

The next phase of development would have come with the continuing growth of the wool trade, and hence downland sheep farming, through Elizabethan into Georgian times. The higher land to the north of the parish, bordering Lockerley parish, would have been common grazing land in earlier times (part is still called North Common), but eventually permanent farms grew up, notably Bryce’s Farm and Gambledown Farm. Several relatively isolated farms in the south of the parish (and beyond) possibly also date from this time, but may be ancient.

The coming of the Toll Road

In the late 1750s the Salisbury to Southampton toll road came through the centre of the parish, and this finally made a significant difference to the habitation pattern. In its day this was an important road, the main connection between the wool producing area around Salisbury and the port of Southampton, with the developing wool finishing industry in Romsey along the way. 

The line of the road through Sherfield English lay well away from the existing hamlets, but where it intersected the lanes joining those hamlets it was inevitable that development would occur. The main changes were in the section now called Melchet End, which saw gradual development through Victorian times, continuing on a small scale to the present day. This is where the original village school was moved to, where the local shop and post office eventually appeared, and where there has been most new building in the past few decades. The ascendancy of this area was sealed when it became the site of the village’s sports and recreation field.

The other area significantly affected by the Toll Road was around the top of Mill Lane, where the prosperity of the Hatchet Inn was a direct result of the toll road – it lies about half way between the staging posts of Whiteparish and Romsey. This part of the parish was also chosen as the location for the new church in the early 1900s, and a little to the east, the village garage and the village hall. The area is now, de facto, a second centre for services in the village. 

The toll road itself was of unusually high quality. The fine ‘gravel surface’ of the road was remarked upon by the famous 18th century travel writer Arthur Young, writing in 1768. He though it one of the best quality toll roads in the southern counties. The road would have needed a huge quantity of both chalk and gravel because it passed across several low-lying boggy areas. This aggregate would have been excavated from as close to the road as possible, and undoubtedly one of the main sources in Sherfield English was the valley running down Doctors Hill, which is within a few hundred yards of the road. This excavation was on such a large scale that the entire valley now cuts right through all the sand, gravel and clay layers to the underlying chalk, with the consequence that there is no longer any surface water flowing from the springs around its head – the water disappears immediately into the porous chalk floor of the valley.

This document was originally published as Appendix II of the Sherfield English Village Design Statement.


The History of Sherfield English

This item researched and presented by John Hartley. Thanks to Elizabeth Noble and others for some of the information. Please send any queries or further information to 

Recorded history in a nutshell

John Hartley, 12 May 2015

bottom of page