The Quiet Nomansland
We are busy marking the centenary of WWI, looking at the war, its consequences and repercussions, and what life was like on the Home Front. With this in mind, some publications in our Local Studies Library on the Wiltshire village of Nomansland, a name with WWI connotations, caught my eye. What was it like during the early 20th century, this quiet village with what would later become a notorious name?...
Wiltshire’s Nomansland can be found right at the edge of the parish of Redlynch, next to the border with Hampshire and the New Forest, a position which was to have a huge bearing on the establishment of the village and its name. The site was probably part of the ‘Franchises’, an area of mixed woodland and open heath to be found south east of Redlynch.
Wiltshire is not alone in having its own ‘Nomansland’. There any many similarly named villages in other English counties, Hampshire and Dorset among them. They usually marked the site of ‘anyone’s land’, or of land which was made up of rough scrub or waste land, or land of awkward angles, and the name was frequently given to land on a boundary. Wiltshire’s example consisted of rough land, right on the county border with Hampshire – no wonder it got its name!
H.M. Livens published a village history of Nomansland in the Salisbury Times, October 1910. It could also be bought by post, with profits going to the village’s Reading Room. These were his views of the village at that time:
In 1910 Nomansland consisted of 67 houses to include two corrugated tin bungalows. There were also allotments covering three and three quarter acres, divided into fifteen quarter acre strips. The nearest market town was Downton and there were regular carrier services to Salisbury, Southampton and Romsey. Livens noted that ‘there is more business done in Nomansland than in any other village in the Forest’.
So, how did the village become established? Locals say that a gipsy called Willett wanted to settle down, preferably on a site next to deer. The New Forest was perfect, but could also subject him to prosecution if he settled within its borders. If he remained outside of the Hampshire border he felt that no-one would ‘interfere with him’ and the land just over the border in Wiltshire belonged to no-one. It is said that if a person puts up a dwelling in the Forest with smoke coming from its chimney by morning, they had thereby established a right to that site, but Willet obviously preferred to use this builder’s right on less sensitive land. Livens stated that his cabin stood where Oak Tree Cottage stood in 1910, ‘beside the new reading-room in North Lane’, and the oak tree which stood there. The name was not marked on the Andrews and Dury’s map of 1773 (the site just south west of Landford Common) and the earliest reference to the place name, according to the English Place Name Society, is in the parish register of Whiteparish in 1817.
However, David Kerridge has studied a legal case brought on 23 October 1802, publishing details in his book ‘Nomansland: Its 200 Years of History’. It gives documented proof as to the first settlers in Nomansland. The case was of encroachment in the New Forest concerning John Shergold’s “house and garden, west side of Nomansland.” It was heard that there was “no enclosure at Noman’s land at all… his house was built about 7 or 8 years ago.” Another witness, aged 80 stated; “I know Noman’s land; called so as long as I can mind; remember it all my life; have heard people talk of it as early as I can remember...” It appears that our first settler Willet was correct in his assumption; the Parliamentary Commissioners visited the site and, finding that the land was not in the Forest, John Shergold was discharged. After the declaration, it is thought that new settlers rushed to take advantage pdq! The gentry, in the form of Lord Radnor amongst others, were also enquiring about the site. A reply from the Clerk of the Commissioners stated that the boundary of the Forest near Nomansland was “Across Piper’s Waight Road by Frenches Gate where a stone is to be placed mark’t by a Turf being there upturned and thence direct keeping Nomansland to a large bound Oak on the Hill. This line you will observe leaves Nomansland out of the Forest.” Despite the interest of certain landowners, Nomansland retained its independence, although it was probably due more to the slowness of their response than to any other reason. The extent of what is Nomansland was excluded from the nearby parish of Downton in both the enclosure map of 1822 and the tithe map of 1838; it became an ex-parochial place and remained so for many years, currently being within the boundaries of the parish of Redlynch. By 1841 the community numbered 149 inhabitants.
Wiltshire’s Nomansland is set as far apart from its ravaged counterpart in war torn France as could possibly be. As Livens put it, in the early 20th Century:
“If there be any spot where the longing to escape from the turmoil of the city and the cares of State... is capable of realisation, it should in some out-of-the-way retreat as the village of Nomansland, lying in the lap of its own gardens and green meadows, and girdled by a spacious wilderness of forest and moor.”
Local Studies Assistant