I’m very fortunate to work with a wide range of excellent volunteers. Many of them work hard on projects outside of the usual conservation work parties and wardening roles that we have. There is lots of survey work, and a small group are currently inputting years and years of data. One of my vols, Carole, has put together a wonderful document looking at the history of Farlington Marshes and I thought I’d share it.
A History of Farlington Marshes
Today Farlington Marshes with its mix of pasture, salt marsh and lagoons attracts thousands of wildfowl, waders and other birds plus large numbers of people keen to enjoy these birds and the beauty of the area itself but how did it develop into the area we now know and love?
Farlington Marshes is situated at the north end of Langstone harbour where archaeological evidence from the Stone Age through to modern times has been found. Many archaeological sites and features have been exposed in the area as the islands, foreshore and saltmarsh has eroded and the sediments have shifted. Finds and sites on the islands include the Saxon log boat excavated in 2005, Bronze Age burial urns and large quantities of worked flint.
We know the Saxons landed in Hampshire in the 6th Century and founded a number of villages including what we now know as Farlington which they called Fern leah inga tun, which meant the estate or village belonging to the people of Fern clearing. By the 12th century Farlington was a royal manor with the lands being leased out by the king to various tenants. It continued in this way passing through the hands of many families sometimes with more animosity than others until 1348 when the manor passed to the prior and convent of Southwick. The manor remained in the possession of the prior and convent until the Dissolution of the Monasteries when in 1540 it was granted to William Pound of Beaumonds. In 1684 Captain Thomas Smith became lord of the Manor of Farlington and it remained in the Smith family’s hands until 1764 when it was bought by Peter Taylor.
Peter Taylor wanted to create pasture for grazing animals and so between 1769 and 1773 he set about the reclamation of salt marsh, islands and mudflats to create the Farlington Marshes we are familiar with today. Several small islands including Binners Island and inlets were filled in to create the Marsh. They were first surrounded by a wood and clay retaining wall, then the area within was drained presumably through purpose built channels. Traces of earlier sea defences or attempts at reclamation mean he was not the first to attempt this. The sea wall was originally constructed of clay faced on the seaward side by flint and chalk rubble held in place by timber.
In 1774 Peter Taylor became a member of parliament for Portsmouth but he appears to have made limited impact in this role. He died in 1777 and his youngest son Charles inherited much of his father’s land. By the start of the next century he had sold off at least some of his land in Farlington and Drayton to Admiral Keith.
It now becomes very difficult to discover exactly who owned Farlington Marshes and whether the whole Marsh we know today plus the areas now occupied by St. John’s playing fields and the Holiday Inn (which all formed part of the original marsh) were owned by the same person but it is very likely they were not.
In 1740 George II had granted Thomas Smith the then Lord of Manor of Farlington rights to supply Portsmouth and surrounding district with fresh water and when he died these rights were passed on to the new owner Peter Taylor. I have been unable to discover whether Mr Taylor took up this right but early in the 19th century two companies the Portsmouth Water Company and the Farlington Water Works Company proposed to use small springs from the chalk on the marshes to supply Portsmouth with water. The Farlington Water Works engineer devised a scheme which consisted of 2 reservoirs about 600 yards apart on the marsh. By the 1840‘s the companies had amalgamated but during a great storm the sea wall was partly destroyed and sea water flooded the reservoirs and made them completely useless. Although repairs were made these were ineffective and the Farlington site could not supply sufficient water so a new pumping station was opened in Havant and the Farlington pumping station remained empty and was demolished in 1928.
As well as being used as pasture for grazing and the location of reservoirs part of Farlington Marshes became the home and work place of the Russell family. In 1815 Mathew Russell bought the freehold on a small islet on the south eastern point of Farlington Marshes. He started a business with his eldest son David becoming an Oyster merchant in Langstone Harbour. By 1819 he had built a house on the island, it was of very basic construction. The 1841 census shows Mathew Russell living there at New Milton as he called it. He owned 18 acres of mud flats including Crastick creek which he called Russell Lake which stills bears this name today and this is where he grew oysters.
During the 1830’s other oyster merchants accused Mathew of trying to have a monopoly on oyster fishing in Langstone Harbour by using underhand methods to out produce his rivals. He refuted the accusations and no action appears to have been taken by the Fisherys Board. Mathew died on 11th December 1846 and he left his freehold house and all his land to his eldest son David and the business thrived under his leadership. David and his family took up residence on the island and the 1851 census indicates two families living at New Milton, David with his family of six and Charles Fleet with his family of five. Whether the Fleet family were in a second dwelling is uncertain. David died on 28th September 1875 and left his fortune of £7,000 to be divided between his six children.
The Russell family still occupied the Oyster house into the 1900’s. However the demand for oysters from this area stopped abruptly after the famous incident of the death of the Dean of Winchester in 1902. At a mayoral banquet in Winchester, the Dean and two other people died after eating contaminated oysters from Emsworth. The oyster industry in Emsworth suffered an almost overnight collapse and the close proximity of Langstone Harbour meant oyster producers there suffered too. On April 22nd 1913 the Russell’s house and the 18 acres of land were put up for sale as a freehold purchase. It appears the property did not sell and the house stood unoccupied for a long time.
Photo at http://www.portsdown-tunnels.org.uk/surface_sites/qsite_p2.html
Towards the end of the 19th Century whilst the Russell family were still farming oysters at the southern edge of the Marshes there was an exciting development at the northern edge, a Racecourse opened with a spring meeting on 26th June 1891 on a 230 acre site. There was a large grand stand which included a Royal Box and it was a very impressive building. According to Anthony Triggs in his book “Portsmouth History in Hiding” Portsmouth Park could have become one of Britain’s greatest racing centres. Despite he says financial success all the way along the line it only lasted 24 years. Mr Trigg asserts transport facilities could not have been better, the railway company ran special trains from London and Brighton and patrons walked from Farlington station straight onto the course. The course was a broad straight mile and was once described as among the best in the world with generous stables, paddocks and stands. Another account attributed to “Volume 2 of Racecourses Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” paints a slightly less positive picture saying “while it was anticipated that the crowds would roll up in their thousands to the launch meeting on Friday 26th June 1891, in the end the management were disappointed.” The same source says “The meeting was backed by such high profile supporters that it should have been a spectacular success, but the location was described as dreary, the access challenging, and the position isolated.”
Photo at https://www.google.com/search?q=farlington+Race+course+pictures&client=firefox-b&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjtxuHyxv_fAhXnYd8KHc04CR4QsAR6BAgFEAE&biw=1920&bih=944
As is usually the case when presented with two such opposing views the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Mr Triggs assertions about rail links is certainly true as Farlington Halt station was built to serve Portsmouth Park opening as Farlington Race Course on 26 June 1891 for the opening meeting. It was situated roughly where the road bridge is today so race goers would have been able to walk straight from the train onto the course. On 23 July 1894, the station was the scene of an accident when a brake van next to the engine hauling the 6.35pm from Havant derailed causing the first two coaches to overturn killing the guard and injuring seven people one seriously.
Photo at https://www.google.com/search?q=farlington+railway+station&client=firefox-b&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjFypSYx__fAhUFGt8KHYkUCoEQsAR6BAgFEAE&biw=1920&bih=944
The extent of the success of the race course may be debatable but it was still in business in 1915 when the War Office commandeered the land and used it as a site to dump ammunition. The station was initially retained to serve the ammunition dump but closed in 1917.It was re-opened in 1922 and closed for the last time in 1937.
After the end of World War One the Race Course owners wanted the course back but the War Office were unwilling to move as they were using the area to render ammunition harmless. In the end the War Office bought the land by which time it was one of the biggest ammunition dumps in the country. In early 1922 they disposed of 3,000 tons of ammunition a week for about 8 months and the loud noise very much disturbed local residents. The Course remained derelict for a further 6 years until in November 1929 the War Office put the site up for sale by auction and Portsmouth Council snapped up the land at £65 per acre.
An article in the News of July 1977 written by Arthur Garrett concerning conflicting interests for the Farlington Marshes suggests that what happened to the Marshes in the first half of the 20th century was a matter of luck. He says in the early 20th century there were plans to make Langstone Harbour a commercial dock complex but Southampton’s rapid growth put a stop to this. He also asserts that in the late 1930’s Portsmouth had hopes to establish a base for Empire Flying Boats on the Marshes, Southampton had similar ambitions but jet airliners ousted flying boats. Whether either of these projects would have happened even without competition from elsewhere is arguable, we must be grateful that for whatever reason they did not.
World War Two saw Farlington Marshes playing an important role again. A secret department was formed at Britain’s Air Ministry to co-ordinate a strategy to defeat German bombing by deception. With the help of leading technicians from the film industry this campaign of illusion was masterminded by an engineer and retired Air Ministry officer, Colonel John Fisher Turner. To reduce the impact of the bombing, an ingenious system was devised to fool enemy aircrews into dropping their bombs where they could do relatively little damage.
One of the Starfish sites as they were known was designed to protect Portsmouth. A series of fires would be lit across Farlington Marshes, parts of Hayling Island and on the small islands in Langstone Harbour to give the impression that here was a city under attack. Other structures were lit which looked like light was coming from chinks in blackout curtains that were supposed to keep the city dark. Most of the fires were oil-fuelled and all were ignited from a central Starfish control point. This worked amazingly well on the night of 17th and 18th April 1941 when 200 bombs that were intended for Portsmouth were dropped in this decoy area instead. The master control post was at Fort Purbrook, sub-control points were also erected including Farlington Control No1 and the building complete with rusty box which was once the observation hatch still exists today.
Photo at http://www.portsdown-tunnels.org.uk/surface_sites/qsite_p1.html
According to Mr Garrett in the 1950’s there were plans to develop the Marshes as an airport for land based planes but at the time over 20 city organisations demanded it become a nature reserve. He says it had been designated under the National Park and Access to Countryside Act 1949. The News of 28th October 1949 reports on a proposed 5 year scheme to create playing fields over 112 acres of Farlington Marshes with the site being shared by Education and Parks.
I have been unable to discover exactly what happened to the Marshes in the 1950’s but by the 1960’s it was a nature reserve as according to a “Farlington Marshes Nature Reserve guide by D A Thelwell” Farlington Marshes was first managed as a nature reserve by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Naturalists Trust in 1962 at first under an agreement with the owner.
The Journal of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Naturalist Trust Vol 2 , Nov 1967 reports that in December 1966 two men with one gun were arrested and charged with armed trespass on the Marshes and attempting to kill protected wild birds, each was fined £15 plus costs. Also in the same report it says that Farlington Marshes Nature Reserve was closed for about 10 days in mid January 1967 because of a foot and mouth disease outbreak in S.E Hants. All cattle on the Marsh were slaughtered as a precautionary measure.
The News of 24th November 1970 headlines “City buys Farlington Marshes” and goes on to say “Farlington Marshes, the largest area of land north of Langstone Harbour has been bought by Portsmouth Corporation which intends to preserve it as a natural open space. Austen and Wyatt Estate agents told the News they were negotiating the sale which belonged to the estate of the late Mr G. A Cooper.”
A spokesman for the Corporation said they were buying about 300 acres of land which would be used for open space purposes and they were considering an application from the Hants and Isle of Wight Naturalists Trust for a block to be used as a nature reserve. According to “The Portsmouth that has passed” by William Gates the City Council bought the area for £43, 500 under a compulsory purchase order.
I Googled G A Cooper and found an article in the News of February 2014 which had been prompted by an aerial photo in an earlier News. The article said the Cooper family lived at Paulsgrove House ( which was demolished in February 1970) and owned farmland around the area. Michael Cooper ( George and Lily Coppers grandson) contacted the News and said
“My grandfather was a butcher, farmer and racecourse owner, he owned Paulsgrove Race course”
In the same article
David Horne Paulsgrove Councillor said” 225 acres of arable land and pasture on the slopes of Portsdown Hill and marshes on the foreshore were all owned by the Cooper family at one time. Of course the Paulsgrove fields were bought by the Council for housing and Farlington Marshes also owned by the Coopers was gifted to the city.”
Whether the Marshes were gifted to or purchased by Portsmouth Council I do not know but they were declared a Local Nature Reserve in 1974 and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1985. Today Farlington Marshes is still owned by Portsmouth City Council and leased to The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. The Trust expertly manages the site ensuring the Marshes are a haven for a huge variety of flora and fauna and a wonderful place for people to visit.
Carole Roberts January 2019
I have done my best to ensure what I have written is accurate and below is a list of the sources I used many I found at Portsmouth History/ Records Centre at the Central Library thanks to the helpful staff.
As I do not have permission to copy photos I have just put in the links
The Purbrook Heath Story by Andy Cragg
The News Archives
Farlington Marshes Nature Reserve Guide by D A Thelwell
Anthony Triggs “Portsmouth History in Hiding”
“Volume 2 of Racecourses Here Today and Gone Tomorrow”
Farlington marshes History and Development essay by Helen M Grant 1975
Local Pamphlets- 639.41 Russell Family – Oyster Merchants by Allen Musselwhite
The Portsmouth that has passed by William Gates
Secret Portsmouth by Steve Wallis
Journal of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Naturalist trust vol 2 Nov 1967
Allen & J Gardiner (eds), 2000. Our Changing Coast; a survey of the intertidal archaeology of Langstone Harbour, Hampshire. 124 edn, CBA Research Report, no. 124, Council for British Archaeology, York