A Brief History of Alresford

Early History

The clear chalk streams have attracted people to this area for many centuries. There is evidence of Neolithic (stone age), bronze age and iron age occupation on numerous sites in the area particularly on the downs to the north of Old Alresford. There is also evidence of a Roman or Romano-British site on Fobdown near Alresford not far from the River Alre. (see sidebar) There is another to the south-east of the town in Bramdean.

By the early 5th century the Roman Legions had left Britain and there is then a gap of some 200 years. Following the baptism of the Saxon King Cynegils in 635 and the re-establishment of the Christian faith in Wessex, the King may have granted an area of land, in the Alresford area, to the Church at Winchester. There is evidence that a grant was in existence some two hundred years later and this became known as

the Liberty of Alresford and covered what we now know as the parishes of Old Alresford, New Alresford and Medstead. Places of worship were built in Old Alresford, when it was still known as Alresford, and probably Medstead. At the time of the Doomsday Survey in 1086, the entries listed under Alresford did not include any reference to a settlement south of the river Alre although a reference thought, by some, to refer to a church at New Alresford, is more likely to have referred to a now lost chapel, perhaps at Armsworth or Southtown Medstead,as there is no evidence of any building on what was to become New Alresford prior to 1200. All administered from Old Alresford as was New Alresford when it later came into existence.

The Liberty of Alresford lasted until 1850 when each settlement became an independent parish with its own incumbent.

Novum Forum - The New Market

Henri de Blois, brother of King Stephen and Bishop of Winchester, is credited with the idea of building the Great Weir or dam and designing the T-shaped town of Novum Forum, soon to become New Alresford. He died before the completion of the project and Godfrey de Lucy, his successor as Bishop(1189 - 1204) finished Alresford's T-­shaped town centre, as we see it today, still based upon the original burghage plots laid out by the developers. Another legacy of these early days is the medieval stone bridge still in place crossing the outflow from the pond and leading on to the dam and connecting with the old road from Winchester to Farnham through Medstead and Bighton.

Robert Boyes, master of Perins Grammar School wrote a manuscript in the 1770s in which he suggested that de Lucy's idea in building the Weir and creating Old Alresford Pond was to provide a head of water to assist navigation of the river between Alresford and Northam. Modem thought, however, inclines to the view that its purpose was that of a fishpond.

Many who could afford it, provided themselves and their household with a pond in order to vary the monotonous diet of the period and to satisfy religious requirements regarding food consumption.

The construction of The Weir did provide access to the main Winchester to London road which at that time ran to the north of the river through Old Alresford. The construction of the weir also dried up the marshy flood plain to the west and made it possible to cross the Itchen at Sewers bridge, Ladycroft just to the west of the modern town. This gave a direct access to Southampton over Twyford Down bypassing Winchester. This may have helped establish New Alresford as a prosperous market town.

Alresford had to send two members to parliament in the 13th and 14th century but following the decline in the town's prosperity following the Black Death (1348-9) the town requested and was granted a release from this obligation.

A copy of a Charter granted to the 'Burrough' of New Alresford appears in the Bishop's Register of 1572. Nine men of 'ye betar and more honest inhabitance of our town and Burrough', (one as Bailiff and the others as Burgesses) were charged with the organisation of the fairs and markets and the use of the income from these for the good of the town. They did their work well. Courts were held, offences were dealt with, streets were paved, schools were financed, the Avenue was planted, the elderly were looked after, an organ was bought for the church and singing boys hired. It was about this time that the first use of the Town's Coat of Arms is recorded.

Fires have been a part of life in Alresford over the centuries, some disastrous and others less so. The first serious fire was in 1440 but there were a number in the 17th century the most destructive being in 1689 which destroyed 117 houses in the town as well as the Church and Market House. Most of the town was rebuilt by the end of the century. Alresford had another bad fire in 1736 which started in a brewery on the north side of West Street. None of the fires changed the street pattern of the town because a lot of the houses have cellars dating back to Norman times. When the town was rebuilt using brick and clay peg tiles or slate for roofing in the eighteenth century this saw an end to the serious fires and left Alresford much as you see it today - a Georgian town.

The Civil War touched Alresford briefly in the spring of 1644 when two royalist armies under Hopton tried to prevent the parliamentary army under Sir William Waller controlling access to Winchester and the region to the south and west of London. Early skirmishes took place around Bramdean Common and Cheriton Wood but the main conflict known as the Battle of Cheriton, took place in the valley between Tichborne Down, to the North, and Hinton Ampner, to the South. There is a commemorative plaque on the lane from Cheriton to Bishop's Sutton which overlooks the valley where the battle took place. The defeated Royalist Army made their retreat through Alresford in the evening of 29 March. Known as the Alresford fight the beaten Royalists retreated through the town setting fire to houses as they went. The battle was reputed to be the fourth largest, but more significantly it proved to be a turning point, of the war. Waller went on to take Winchester although the castle held out for some time leaving the city to be ransacked.

Trade and Commerce

The building of the town was completed in the early 1200s and it immediately became a prosperous centre of trade. Wool and leather and the associated products from sheep and cattle were at first the most important items. Alresford was closely linked with Winchester in the grand staple or 'settled' market. But this did not last. In the following century Edward III removed the staple to Calais and Melcombe Regis, and Winchester and Alresford suffered accordingly. From then on Alresford had periods of prosperity and gloom. Although it was not affected much by the Black Death, the town did suffer greatly from the plague of 1479.

During the reign of Henry VIII, clothiers, dyers and tanners were recorded as living here and fulling and corn mills operating. Under Cromwell's patronage, a prosperous trade with the Cotswolds ensued, with wool being exchanged for cheese, bacon and staples from there. Locally the businesses of wool, tanning, sewing and food prospered.

In 1827 thirty thousand sheep, driven down the drove roads, pigs and cattle. The only reward for all this was the annual dinner - usually held at the Swan or George. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1882 dissolved the Borough which was replaced by the New Alresford Parish Council supervising civic affairs and the New Alresford Town Trust responsible directly to the Charity Commissioners for charitable affairs and the property deemed to belong to the people of Alresford.

Watercress growing became industrialised in the 1860s following the undercutting of cereal crops by imports of cheap maize by both sides seeking funds for the American Civil War and the simultaneous arrival of the railway to carry the perishable cress to distant destinations

The Influence of Geography

Alresford is situated on the ancient invasion route from the Channel to London, as well as being positioned directly between the two capital cities of Winchester and London. This ensured good communications, which helped with trade and provided local wealth. Pilgrims on foot to and from Canterbury, found it convenient to use the route, although by-passing the town for safety reasons.

With the improvement in road surfaces, the turnpike built in 1753 (and now the A31) enabled services of coaches and freight wagons to run regularly between London and the Channel ports increasing the number and turnover of the inns in Alresford enormously.

During the Napoleonic struggle with the Fleet in the Solent, and store ships in constant danger from French ships, two canal plans emerged to link up London directly the two cities of Winchester and Southampton via Alresford. One from the Basingstoke Canal did not get off the ground, the other linking the Wey with the Itchen was past the planning stage and capital was being raised when Waterloo put an end to it.

The railway was next, carrying many people, thousands of troops, much livestock and the products of the town's light and watercress industries for over a century. Sheep previously driven down the drove roads to and from the Sheep Fair could now be carried swiftly and more cheaply.

Recent History

The town played host to the 47th Infantry Regiment, US Army from 1943 until D-Day 1944 who were headquartered in Broad Street. In September 1943 a disaster was narrowly averted when a Flying Fortress, with a full bomb load, was steered away from the town and crashed to the east of Old Alresford Pond.

The above is based on an article by John Adams, Alresford Historical & Literary Society, which was originally published in the first edition of the Chamber of Commerce Diary in 1993, with contributions from Garry Allam of Bighton.

River Arle or Alre?

There is some confusion regarding the spelling of the river's name. The historical evidence suggest that it should be the Alre and that the Arle is a twentieth century innovation. The ancient records of the Bishopric of Winchester describe it by no other name than the Itchen although other records suggest - Alresforda 701; Alresford 1086 DB, from alres (Old Eng. genitive of alor 'alder-tree') plus ford.

Both Adrian Room's 'Dictionary of Place Names' and A.D. Mills' 'Oxford Dictionary of British Place-names' give: Alre - a back-formation from Alresford (a common practice) for that branch of the Itchen which flows past New Alresford.

Richard Coates' 'The Place-names of Hampshire' points out that Old English charter boundaries considered this branch to be the Itchen's headwater, whereas the other branch was called Ticceburna (Tichborne).

William Camden in his 1695 edition of Britannia (first published in 1586) arrived at the name of the river by concluding that the town name of Alresford meant "The ford of the Alre" and so the river was called "The Alre".

This was probably an incorrect assumption as it is now generally accepted that the naming of the ford relates to the ford by the alder trees, hence aldersford shortened to Alresford over the years. This would suggest that the river was named after the town and not the other way around.

By 1724 Daniel Defoe in his tour through Great Britain calls the river "The Alre".

Robert Boyes in his 1774 manuscript "A history of Alresford and its environs", quotes Camden and likewise calls the river "The Alre".

The problem seems to come in 1937 when A J Robertson in his book, "History of Alresford" also quotes Camden but misspells the name as Arle.

J E B Gover in his 1961 manuscript "Hampshire place names", calls the river "The Alre" as does one of the countries leading authorities on place names, Richard Coates in his "Place Names of Hampshire", 1989.

The Ordnance Survey Pathfinder Map 1243 (SU 43/53) compiled from the a large scale survey carried out between 1962 and 1987 refers to the river as "The Alre".

If anybody else can throw light on this subject or add to the confusion please e-mail your contribution to

We would like to thank Garry Allam of Bighton for the historical references in the panel above and David Dowd for additional source material.

Histrical information on the Town's Coat of Arms and Information on Alresford and the Civil War including the Battle of Cheriton.

Alresford Displayed was a publication with articles of local and historical interest produced by local people for local people. Issue No. 1 was published in 1976 and the last issue appears to be No. 20 in 1995.

Here is a gallery of old photographs - can you contribute for the future?