A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.
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Newtown, containing the hamlet of Porchfield, was formerly a borough by prescription, returning two members to Parliament, with a charter of liberties dating from the 13th century. At the present day it consists of a few scattered cottages, a coastguard station and a dilapidated town hall. The very streets (fn. 1) are now but grassy lanes and the market square resembles a village green, but the narrow strips of ground which formed the ancient burgage tenures are still in many cases to be seen fringing the forsaken streets. The village—if it can even be called that—lies at the extreme north of the parish on the tongue of marshy land inclosed by the Clamerkin and Newtown creeks, and consists of a few cottages bordering what was once the High Street. (fn. 2) The town hall, which was built in 1677, stands by the side of the road leading from the bridge, with a colonnade on the north face and an iron staircase on the south. It was repaired in 1812 by the patrons of the borough, but is now falling into ruins. The oyster fishery is an old industry and still flourishes.
A considerable manufacture of salt (fn. 3) was carried on at Newtown until the end of the 19th century. The salterns are still to be seen on the coast.
A croft known alternately as Longbridge Croft, or St. Mary Magdalen's or the Parson's Ground occurs in the 16th century. (fn. 4)
Traditional evidence only assigns to the borough of NEWTOWN or FRANCHEVILLE a very early existence, identifying it with one of the towns destroyed by the Danes when they raided the Island in 1001. (fn. 5) It does not appear in the Domesday Survey, being included in the manor of Swainstone (q.v.) and may have been held as a mesne borough by the lords of Swainstone.
In 1255 Aymer de Valence, Bishop-elect of Winchester, obtained from the Crown a grant of a market and fair at his manor of Swainstone (fn. 6) which, it would appear from later evidence, were held at Newtown within that manor. Probably as a consequence of this grant, the bishop in the following year gave to his burgesses of Francheville or Newtown all the liberties and free customs which the burgesses of Taunton, Witney, Alresford and Farnham enjoyed. (fn. 7) These rights were confirmed by Edward I in 1285 on the occasion of his visit to Swainstone, (fn. 8) and in 1318 Edward II confirmed to the Earl of Chester (as lord of Swainstone presumably) a weekly market on Wednesday and a yearly fair on the vigil, feast and morrow of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22) at La Neuton, (fn. 9) the date of the fair and the day of the market being the same as in the grant to Aymer at Swainstone. (fn. 10) Francheville was not numbered among the boroughs of the Isle of Wight in 1295, and never seems to have made its appearance before the justices in eyre by twelve separate jurors as distinct from the hundred. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 14th century the burgesses as a body owned 26½ acres of land and a fishery, for which they paid 17s. 8d. and 5s. respectively to the lord of Swainstone, and farmed their own court at 10s. They also rendered a yearly rent of assize amounting to 70s., payable half-yearly. (fn. 11) When the manor of Swainstone was granted in 1307 by Edward II to his sister Mary that part of it which was extended at £104 16s. 9¾d. annually was reserved from the grant, (fn. 12) and in this reservation the town of Francheville was perhaps included. From 1330 onwards a fee farm of 102s. 8d. was paid for the vill, (fn. 13) but at Michaelmas 1331 the men of the town seem to have raised some objection to paying this rent because Lady Mary, the king's sister, occupied their fishery. (fn. 14) This rent was paid to the manor of Swainstone year by year until the corporation was dissolved. The amount in 1835 is given as £4 12s. 8d. (fn. 15)
The town is said by tradition to have shared the fate of Yarmouth at the hands of the French in the reign of Richard II. (fn. 16) If such was the case it must have been speedily rebuilt, for in 1393 the charter of the borough was confirmed by Richard II, (fn. 17) and a further confirmation was granted by Henry V in 1413. (fn. 18) The latest charter, by which the borough was governed until its corporate life ceased, is dated 7 July 1598 (fn. 19) and exemplifies the previous charters at the request of the mayor and burgesses of Newtown. The town had, however, long before this time (fn. 20) lost all importance as a port and borough, for in 1559 it was stated that, though from the great cross streets in Newtown it would seem to have been twice as large as Newport was then, there was neither a market nor any good house standing. This decay the surveyors attributed to the taking away of the staple from Winchester to Calais, to the suppression of small holdings, the destruction of woods and the inclosure of commons. (fn. 21) They advised the encouragement of corn-growing and cloth-weaving and tanning in the Island, and that an order should be made that no timber should be exported. (fn. 22)
As the earliest books of the corporation begin only in 1636, it is impossible to determine the exact date at which the office of mayor originated. The town seems, however, to have been governed by a bailiff until about the middle of the 14th century. (fn. 23) Worsley states that there are in existence a grant of the freedom of the borough by the mayor and burgesses dated 1356–7 and a grant of 1380–1 of 40 acres of land in Calbourne to the Mayor and burgesses of Newtown. (fn. 24) William Woodnut and William Smythe, Mayors (fn. 25) of Newtown, were witnesses to deeds of 1444. (fn. 26) The only charter to the town in which the office is mentioned is that of Elizabeth, and there it is recognized as already existing. (fn. 27)
The mayor was elected annually by the mayor and chief burgesses from among the latter, whose numbers varied considerably. There was no fixed date for the election, but it usually took place in the first week of October, and the mayor issued notices of meetings to all chief burgesses resident in or near the borough, only ten to fifteen of whom were usually present. The mayor was usually a friend of the patron of the borough and, since his residence was optional, seldom resided in the town. (fn. 28)
The chief burgesses were elected by the mayor and chief burgesses from holders of a freehold or life estate in one or more burgage tenements, and held office only so long as they held the estate. The number of burgage tenements in 1835 was thirty-nine. (fn. 29) These were held by twenty-three burgesses, and the reversionary right in them belonged at that date to three families in unequal portions, so divided that any two had a majority over the third. The election of members of Parliament being vested solely in the owners of these tenements, life grants were often made to friends of the proprietors, usually non-resident in the borough. If these failed to vote the proprietor would nominate another, who was immediately elected into the corporation. In the time of Charles II the corporation of Newtown limited the number of its capital burgesses to twelve and confined the right of voting to such burgesses; but in 1697 Lord Cutts, then governor of the Island, was empowered to call a hall at Newtown and examine witnesses concerning the ancient method of choosing members to serve in Parliament. (fn. 30) Consequently, in 1698 the limitation of the burgesses to twelve was pronounced illegal and the qualification of a burgess was admitted to be payment of rent to the borough for a freehold. (fn. 31) However, in 1721 this also was found to be contrary to ancient usage; the minutes were erased from the town book, and an election by the majority of the existing chief burgesses was henceforth necessary before any holder of a burgage tenement could become a chief burgess. This decision was upheld by the House of Commons in 1729, but in practice anyone showing his title to a burgage tenement was elected a chief burgess. (fn. 32)
Free burgesses (fn. 33) certainly existed at one time in the borough. Their oath is set out in one of the corporation books with the oaths of the mayor and chief burgesses, and they are often mentioned in the rolls of the court leet. (fn. 34) The last election of a free burgess took place in 1701, when a chief burgess relinquished his burgess ship and was sworn a free burgess. (fn. 35)
The common clerk or steward of the borough was elected by the mayor and chief burgesses, and held office during pleasure, being chosen or approved by the patron of the borough. His office, to which no salary or fee was attached, was to attend meetings of the corporation, enter the proceedings in a book and see that notices and summonses to special meetings were duly issued. He also managed the funds of the corporation and served as steward of the court leet until its discontinuance. The duty of the town serjeant, (fn. 36) who was elected by the mayor and chief burgesses during pleasure, was to serve notices and summonses for meetings of the corporation and to attend meetings as a servant of the corporation. The constable, elected until 1683 at the court leet and afterwards at the mayoral election, was nominally a peace officer, but owing to the small extent of the jurisdiction of the court leet and to the paucity of the population his duties were not onerous. (fn. 37)
From 1584 to 1832, when it was disfranchised by the Reform Act, the borough sent two members to Parliament, (fn. 38) but, as has been seen above, the electors were seldom inhabitants of the borough. Hence the Commissioners of 1835 found that no contest had taken place for many years, the return being arranged by the patrons of the borough. (fn. 39)
The only sources of revenue of the corporation in 1835 were some fee-farm and quit-rents and a rent of £10 reserved upon a lease of an oyster fishery for a term of years. The fee-farm rents were paid to the corporation for burgage tenements and the quit-rents arose from four small tenements leased upon lives. These fee-farm and quit-rents together amounted to £4 18s. (fn. 40)
The corporation possessed an ancient silver mace bearing the seal of Henry VII. (fn. 41) The 13th-century seal of the town is of latten. It is circular (17/8 in. in diameter) and bears the device of a ship with a leopard of England on the deck, and over the rear castle a shield of St. George, with the legend 'S. CO'ITATIS: DE: FRANCHEWILLE: DE: LILE: DE: WYHT' round the border. The corporation property was bought by Sir Richard Godin Simeon, lord of Swainstone, when the borough was dissolved, and besides the mace includes all the rolls and records of the corporation, among which are the charters of Richard II, Henry V, Henry VI and Elizabeth, with the black box in which they were kept since 1671 and the seal with a small iron box in which it was kept, fitted with a lock with four bolts. (fn. 42) A drawing of the mayor's chair of Newtown, one of a set of eighteen, was exhibited at a meeting of the British Archaeological Association held at Winchester in 1845. The chairs date from the time of William III, (fn. 43) and some are still in existence.
A borough court never seems to have existed at Newtown as distinct from the court leet. The latter was held continuously from 1636 to 1683, when the last court leet was held before the mayor, deputymayor (fn. 44) and eight chief burgesses, with twelve inhabitants as a jury. A constable and hayward were presented and several presentments were made relating to depasturing on the common land and repairing highways. (fn. 45) From 1683 business formerly transacted at the court leet was undertaken by the mayor and burgesses at their meeting for the election of a mayor.
After the grant to the Earl of Chester of a market and fair at Newtown in 1318 (see above) no further reference has been found from authentic deeds to any market or fair held in the borough. No entries of profits from the market or fair occur in the ministers' accounts of the 14th century, but the fair at any rate seems to have been continued, as in 1778 and 1792 it was held on 22 July, the date mentioned in the grant of 1318, though the market had become obsolete before 1559. (fn. 46) The fair had also ceased to exist before 1835.
The Commissioners of 1835 reported: 'Not only does no burgess reside within the borough, but from the appearance of the houses it is not probable that there is an inhabitant capable of exercising any municipal function: there are probably not sufficient inhabitants of intelligence to constitute a court leet jury. Since the Reform Act the functions of the corporation have become entirely nominal, and there does not seem to be any district which could be added to the borough by which a useful and efficient corporation might be constituted.' (fn. 47) The Commissioners of 1876 found that the borough was extinct, (fn. 48) as all traces of corporate life had disappeared. Newtown was again incorporated in Swainstone.
Newtown, though it possessed at one time a haven considered to be the safest in the Island, was never summoned to provide ships for the king's service. In or about 1657 a scheme was started for draining and embanking the haven of Newtown, and in 1662 plans were made for the carrying out of the work, but nothing was done, possibly owing to the failure of a similar scheme at Brading. (fn. 49) In 1781 the harbour was able at high water to receive ships of 500 tons burden, but is now completely silted up.
The 13th-century church of ST. MARY MAGDALEN (fn. 50) at the end of the 18th century was but a ruin. (fn. 51) In 1835 it was replaced by a stone church dedicated in honour of the Holy Ghost. This consists of an aisleless nave and chancel with 13th-century details run in plaster. It has a bell-turret on the west wall and pretentious crocketed pinnacles at the east. The one bell, dated 1837, is cracked and disused. The plate consists of a silver chalice and paten given by Sir Richard Simeon, bart., in 1837, also a small plated flagon. The registers previous to 1871 are at Calbourne.
Newtown was a chapelry of Calbourne (fn. 52) until 1871, (fn. 53) when it was formed with Porchfield, part of Shalfleet, into an ecclesiastical parish. The living is a vicarage in the gift of the Bishop of Winchester.
In 1395 the rector of Calbourne was, for some unknown reason, admonished not to allow his chaplain to perform divine service in the chapel at Newtown. (fn. 54) In 1547 an arrangement was made by the bishop as arbitrator between a certain John Mewes and the rector of Calbourne. It was agreed that Mewes should pay his whole tithes for his marsh called Bernard Marsh in Newtown, and that although the parson of Calbourne had formerly only paid 20s. a year towards finding a priest for the inhabitants of Newtown, he should in future, with the aid of the people of Newtown, maintain a priest at his own cost to reside in the house adjoining the churchyard at Newtown. The mayor and burgesses of Newtown on this consideration gave up their claim to Longbridge Croft, otherwise called Magdalen's Croft, to the rector and his successors for ever. (fn. 55)
The chapel appears to have been in a dilapidated state in 1663, and in 1724 the rector of Calbourne returned that, Newtown being reduced to a few cottages, the chapel, which was formerly supported at the charge of the inhabitants, had been out of repair for many years, so that no divine service could be performed in it. Before its decay it was served once a month by the rector of the parish. (fn. 56) When the borough was dissolved the proceeds of the sale of the corporate property were applied in rebuilding and partially endowing the chapel.