Bransgore: Bygone days
PUBLISHED: 16:49 24 October 2012 | UPDATED: 10:30 26 February 2019
Carole Varley investigates the little known village of Bransgore to see what historical tales she can unearth
The villagers in Bransgore are probably not going to thank me for mentioning this, but it was once described as a “neglected common with a group of mud cottages... the refuge, for the most part, of those who have been chased from more civilised places”.
The writer was Samuel Wilberforce, the Canon of Winchester and son of the famous anti-slave campaigner William Wilberforce, and it could have been that he was simply taking a dig at his younger brother Henry, who became the vicar at St Mary the Virgin Church in the village in 1834. It may even have hit the target for Henry, his wife Mary and their family fled to another living at Walmer in 1841, a year after his brother wrote these derogatory comments.
Still, those who love the village can take heart from the fact that Canon Wilberforce himself was labelled as “unctuous, oleaginous, saponaeceous” (slippery and evasive) by no less a figure than the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, so he seems not to have been a particularly sympathetic character, nor perhaps a totally honest one, either, if the zoologist and evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley is anything go to by. Wilberforce was known to be a great speaker and, in a public debate over Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the clergyman facetiously asked the scientist whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley admonished him by saying that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be “ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth”.
Whether or not the good villagers of Brangsore raised a toast to Mr Huxley, history does not reveal, but they would have had at least two good inns in which to do so in. The village’s prettily thatched Three Tuns and the Crown both date from the 18th-century and, as well as celebrating villagers, they would once also have made welcome the sheepherders who regularly drove their charges through the village on their way to the markets at Milton. Today, both establishments are more likely to have lamb on the menu than flocking in the yard, and cater most comfortably for the many walkers and hikers who come to enjoy the delights that Bransgore, perched as it is on the edge of the New Forest with both trees and open areas, can offer.
The more civilised places that the underwhelmed Canon Winchester was referring to no doubt included the nearby towns of Christchurch and Bournemouth, the latter of which was already starting to enjoy its early popularity as a seaside resort. Bransgore, which is just four miles from the sea, certainly makes a good base from which to visit the popular towns and beaches.
Although the discovery of Bronze Age remains attest to the fact that there was ancient habitation here, the village itself is relatively young (particularly when you consider that the ‘New’ Forest was created almost a thousand years ago as William the Conqueror’s private hunting grounds), having developed as a civil parish only in the 19th century, when the church and the school were built. Parish boundaries included the village of Thorney Hill and the hamlets of Neacroft, Godwinscroft, Beckley and Waterditch. The earliest glimmers of village life stretch back a little further, however, in that it was first mentioned in house deeds in the 1730s, and in 1759 it was being referred to as Bransgoer Common (gore in Middle English meaning a triangular piece of land). By 1817, it is rather confusingly referred to as Bransgrove, before finally becoming Bransgore in 1850. According to a local myth, the name came from one of King Alfred’s many battles at the site against the Vikings, who regularly raided the area from the sea (brans from brains and gore from blood), but there seem to be few facts to back up this rather sanguinary idea, and goodness knows what the curmudgeonly Canon Wilberforce would have said about the place had he known that little gem.
Newish it may be, but that’s not to say that Bransgore has no heritage for, hidden among the village’s modern housing, numerous 19th century manor houses and cottages are to be found nestling, while Beech House, which lies just a mile and a half from the centre of the village, had its foundations laid in the 17th century, during the reign of Charles II, and is thought to have served as a safe haven for aristocrats fleeing France in the French revolution.
Bransgore’s finest dwelling, however, was Bransgore House which lay in thick woodland. This fine 36-roomed Edwardian mansion stood in 57 acres of garden, pasture and woodland and included three thatched cottages, a stables and a coach house. There was also a Dutch garden with geometrically-shaped flower beds enclosed by box hedges, orchards, rose gardens, herbaceous borders, lawns and a tennis court gracing the grounds, and a pond inside a walled kitchen garden.
All of this was cared for by a team of gardeners, who also managed several greenhouses in which peaches, nectarines, grapes, orchids and carnations were grown. So immaculate was it, that the locals said that the grass was cut by a machine pulled by horses, whose hooves were clad with leather shoes to protect the grass.
By the 1950s, though, the house had fallen into a sad state of dereliction and disrepair, and it was eventually divided into nine flats, with six pairs of houses set in the grounds, and much of the rest of the land used for development. It still bears some of the marks of its once glorious existence, though, for the Dutch garden, a gothic oriel window, and the Portland stone entrance still remain.
It was stone from Caen that was used to build All Saints Church at Thorney Hill in 1906. This Grade I - listed Edwardian baroque church was unusually designed in the arts and crafts style by the architect Detmar Blow, one of the last remaining disciples of John Ruskin, at the behest of Lord Manners of Avon Tyrrell, to commemorate the death of his daughter from cholera. Inside, there is more work in the arts and crafts style in the form of a mural by the Irish artist Phoebe Anna Traquir.
St Mary’s is the older church, however, having been built in 1823, and today it houses a 16th century octagonal font,and glass windows that were donated by one J Dart, who was at the time living in Beech House. In 1841, Henry Wilberforce founded a school in the village, and in 1895 a national school was built, which still serves as the primary school today.
No doubt the children there are taught about the Wilberforce family – William’s fight for the emancipation of the slaves and possibly Henry’s work for the village, but as for Samuel... well let’s say no more.