Steels Drove is an old forest track that meanders from Woodgreen’s High Street up to the Common. Originally, it used to pass through the grounds of Merrie Cottage (formerly Merry Gardens), heading straight up to the front door, then taking a sharp turn, passing right in front of the house.
The area became gentrified in the early 20th century with several new houses built on what had been extensive orchards. The motor car arrived. Understandably, it irked the owners of Merrie Cottage and Merrie Gardens that the increased traffic that resulted was passing right in front of their houses. In 1938, a new route was created avoiding both houses but this was simply a footpath and was never fully adopted. For decades, people continued to use the old route.
The Drove was finally diverted in 1989 on a route parallel to the failed 1938 diversion, skirting around Merrie Cottage, going up past Pink Cottage, Trieste and Iona, and rejoining its original route past Merry Orchard, Home Cottage and then out onto Brook Lane between Beech Cottage and Byways.
Not surprisingly, Steels Drove has been a continual source of neighbourhood disputes and it continues to be so even to this day. Here’s one particular dispute from 1939 that caused much amusement in the local press.
Salisbury Times & South Wilts Gazette, Friday January 27th 1939
THE BATTLE OF WOODGREEN
VILLAGE PREACHER ATTACKS FENCE WITH HAMMER
A RIGHT OF WAY DISPUTE
Woodgreen, a quiet hamlet on the fringe of the New Forest, is in the news. The events of this week have shown that the villagers still boast the old spirit of rugged independence, a realisation of their rights wrested in the past from the landed interests and from the Crown itself.
The present contention concerns a little used lane. Some villagers say it is a carriageway, and must be maintained as such. Others, two frontagers in particular, say it is but a 4ft right of way. Matters came to a head on Saturday afternoon when, in the presence of an interested, but not entirely sympathetic crowd, Mr. George Brewer (Methodist Sunday School Superintendent, local preacher and former Parish Councillor), wielding a sledge-hammer, laid low 20 yards of fencing round two cottages, “Merrie Gardens”.
To complete this outspoken expression, this upholding the rights of the villagers, Mr. A.E. Gould, grocer and leader of a minority in the Parish Council, drove his car through the flowerbeds exposed by his friend’s handiwork. A lock-up garage belonging to Mr. Lancelot Spence, and one of the frontagers also obstructed the ‘road’. “Why not try and remove that?” shouted someone in the crowd. The suggestion was not acted upon. “So you’re yeller” jeered the crowd as they nonchalantly went away. Meanwhile, two policemen looked on, imperturbable notebooks in hand. They did not interfere and were merely there to see there was no ‘breach of the peace’.
PULLED DOWN THREE TIMES
The lane, or rad, or right of way leads from the Common down to the main road through the village a little below the Methodist Church. The two frontagers concerned are Mr Spence & Miss Doris Garle who bought the adjoining cottage from him and has lived there for nearly three years. Briefly, their claim is that the thoroughfare is but a 4ft pathway, and to that extent, they have left it free. On the other hand, their opponents claim that it is a carriageway and must be maintained as such. In 1937, and again last year, they removed fencing and a rock garden belonging to Miss Garle. Since then, Miss Garle has replaced the fence at a point indicated by the Council, but this still encroaches on the road, if it be such. Providing the Hants Quarter Sessions give their consent, the ‘road’ will shortly be closed and a diversion made by Mr Spence through his own property, used instead. The Woodgreen Parish Council have intimated that they will accept this, but the opposition hold that the old road must stay open until the new one is offically accepted.
A Salisbury Times reporter who went to Woodgreen on Monday afternoon found the sympathies of the village mixed. Some were in favour of an uncompromising defence of what they consider their rights. Others were not quite so sure about the claim, and again others, although admitting the legality of it, thought it unfortunate to take matters to such extremes in view of the existence of the diversion.
I THINK IT WICKED
Mrs Spence was most indignant about the whole affair, “It is only a 4ft pathway,” she said. “The only horses which have ever been up here are those which used to come when a Miss Jackson used to live in the houses up above. Then they used to go to her stables only. I think it is wicked to drive a car right through Miss Garle’s flowerbed like that. Then there is Mr. Brewer. They call it exercising their rights, but I think it is disgraceful, with him a Sunday School superintendent and preacher, and all! It has only ever been a 4ft path, and when the Council made it up, they put down gravel for that width only.”
Miss Garle said that she had not decided what action she intended to take. “I only warned them the last time it happened” she said “but apparently that was not enough. They even said they had no ill-feeling against me, but are doing it as a protest against the District Council but they came and drove a car through my flower-bed”.
Mr Brewer was most emphatic about his contention. “We claim it is a carriageway and there are maps showing it has been an old forest road for 140 years. We don’t need to go any further back than that. We will continue to uphold our claims and stand by our rights. If this obstruction is still allowed to encroach on the carriageway, we will pull it down. We have plenty of evidence to uphold our claims. We have inhabitants 80 years old, some of them born in the village, who are prepared to state that they have seen horses and carts go right through there”.
Asked why he did not attack Mr Spence’s garage with his hammer, Mr Brewer said: “In my opinion we should have done so, and so removed the whole of the obstructions, but there were others who thought we had done enough to draw the attention of the authorities concerned. We did not do anything underhand. We warned everybody concerned – the Chief Constable, the District and County Council representatives, and our notice to Miss Garle and Mr Spence expired, as they knew, at 2.30pm on Saturday”. When it was pointed out to Mr Brewer that the Parish Council had only gravelled a 4ft path, he argued that it had been done more for reasons of economy than anything else.
Mr Gould, when interviewed, said he thought it was the Fordingbridge & Ringwood Rural District which had let them down about the matter, but Col. Kingscote, the former representative of the village on that body, when seen, pointed out that as they only recognized it as a right of way, the District Council was no longer concerned with obstructions. The right of way was still unobstructed, and there the matter ended for them.
NO OBJECTION TO DIVERSION
The position of the Parish Council in the matter was explained by the Chairman (Mr H. Harrington) who is a butcher in the village. “No notice of objection was ever given to our decision in favour of the diversion of the path” he said. “Years ago, I know, this path was regarded as a forest road; in fact, 30 years ago the Parish Council was allowed to purchase gravel from the Crown Gravel pits to repair the path at a penny a yard. Three years ago, similar repairs were made and we bought the gravel at the prevailing rate of 3d per yard. About that time, the question of the alleged encroachment on the verge beside the path was brought before the Council. We took it up with the Forestry Commission, and the result was that the Crown solicitors informed us that there was no record that the path had ever been a forest road at all. It was undoubtedly a public right of way as a footpath, but the Crown or the Parish according to their ruling had no claim on the surroundings which belonged to the adjoining property owners, so long as the path was left free for foot passengers”.
A further account of the event from The Christchurch Times, January 28th 1939:
ST. GEORGE BREWER AND THE SLEDGE HAMMER
SIEGE OF THE WOODGREEN GARAGE
FORDINGBRIDGE POLICE “STAND-BY”
HOSTILITES HOT – BUT HONOURS EVEN
HERE’S news from Fordingbridge that has a romantic smack of an item from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s the story of a fight for a right-of-way, one hundred and forty years old – the right-of-way – not the story.
An ultimatum for the removal of an offending 20 foot fence; a garage and a flower bed – which – so it was alleged, bestrode a public right-of-way, was issued by a Fordingbridge fifty-one years old Methodist preacher, Mr George (or St. George) Brewer. On Saturday last action was recorded.
SCENE OF CONFLICT
The scene of the conflict was Woodgreen, hard by Fordingbridge, and the actors who essayed heroic parts were: Mr George Brewer and his first lieutenant, Mr A. P. Gould – who when strife is not about is Woodgreen’s grocer.
The challenge, which was cast at the feet of Mr. Lancelot Spence, a local builder, and Miss Garle, alleged that they, by the erection of barriers – to wit – one garage and one flower garden, did feloniously with malice aforethought and full of intent to harass, impede, obstruct, bung-up and otherwise make imperfect a certain right-of-way from the High Street to the Common – and gave full fair and legal warning that unless Lancelot and Doris removed their fence, garage and flower garden, they – the appointed (champions, knight errants, etc., “maidens rescued and giants over-thrown with utmost despatch”) would forthwith “slip into the fence, garage and flower garden,” and set free for all Woodgreen men the path that had been theirs for years and donkey’s years.
Proud Lancelot and fair Doris scorned this missive – or in the words of to-day, Mr Lancelot Spence and Miss Doris Gayle smiled and ignored the flamboyant call of the challengers.
So on Saturday last matters moved to a dramatic issue.
Mr George Brewer put on his armour and best bowler and hied him up a 14lb. sledge hammer, and with his trusty grocer lieutenant, A. P. Gould, marched two paces to the rear (carefully) he proceeded to the scene of the tournament-no-conflict-no-demolishing.
There was a nice little audience already gathered on the arrival of St. George and company, and a little cheer broke forth as the 14lb. sledge hammer whirled in greeting.
From their casements, pallid and anxious, Lancelot and Doris (who occupy adjoining cottages, known as “Merrie Gardens,” Fordingbridge) peered forth and saw to their comfort that the Fordingbridge constable was one of the awaiting audience.
Striking a penny-plain-twopence-coloured attitude, and leaning negligently on his sledge hammer, Mr. St. George Brewer told the constable just what he intended doing, received in return a sphinx-like stare and silence, which was somewhat disconcerting to one engaged in the knight-errantry business, until a voice from the crowd behind the constable cried, heartingly, “Good ole George – cosh ‘em for six wi’ the ole ‘ammer!”
That metaphorically did it! St. George Brewer drew a deep breath – two breaths as a matter of fact – and accompanied by his faithful grocer-henchman, strode slap into the middle of Miss Garle’s flower bed! Slap!
From the distant casement came a thin cry of anguish and Lancelot looked literally daggers. No one challenged them, however, St. George and Co. stumped about furiously to demonstrate just what they thought of the flower beds built over public rights-of-way.
At the conclusion of the seance, it looked more like one of our Council’s roads when “not adopted” – than a flower bed.
CHEERS AND A BREATHER!
St. George and Co. paused and surveyed the scene – all was well and even the constable hadn’t stirred – in fact, judging by the way he tightened his lips, he was desperately trying not to laugh.
Now a twenty-foot fence barred the way. Addressing the troops, St. George indicated the offensive, receiving three of the heartiest grocer-like cheers ever heard in Woodgreen.
“Where that flag flies, all men are free, and the man who would lay his hand upon a female other than in self-defence is not worthy of the name of cur! Into the breach!”
With bated breath and muffled cheers, that goodly assembly of Woodgreen burgesses beheld their knight and his Sancho Panza, sally slap into the 20 foot fence!
Moments and bits of wood flew whilst the crashing of the sledge-hammer alone broke the silence. Wielding the weapon alternately as a cross-sword, battering ram and rapier, St. George soon stood alone, sans fence, plus firewood!
It was a proud moment for Woodgreen and one leading townsman laughed so much that he had to be slapped to stop him.
Hostilites were at a fierce height, and Mr A.P. Gould sounded the war cry of all the St. Georges, loud and long, whilst St. George himself reduced the firewood to the finest kindling ever.
Now came the great moment! There ahead loomed the offending garage!
Proudly it stood four-square and fair to all the winds that blow. High of peak and sturdy of buttress. Firm of double-doors and fort-like in its sullen glare of resistance. Above, it there seemed to flare the mystic words, aura-like:-
“Abandon all hope ye who would consider konking me!”
St. George puffed (pretty hard-going – knocking down a twenty foot fence and trampling flat a flower garden) and cocking one eye at the supporting troops, he asked the unspoken question, “ What about it?”
In the same significant manner the troops signalled back, “O.K., call it a day!”
Shouldering the family sledge-hammer, Mr. St. George Brewer and Mr. A.P. Gould sounded the Retreat, and in good order marched back to headquarters – puffed mark you! but vindicated. Although the garage did seem a bit too steep – still one can always fight another day!
CARRIAGE-WAY FOR 140 YEARS
“I don’t regret my action,” said Mr. Brewer to a pressman after the battle, “I claim that the path has been a public carriage-way for at least 140 years.
We told the police what we were going to do and the constable, as you saw, made no attempt to stop us.”
The residents of “Merrie Gardens”, Mr. Lancelot Spence and Miss Garle have nothing to say upon the matter.
On Saturday night, as a particularly lurid sun sank slowly in the west; the massive structure of the unassailed garage was thrown into sharp relief.
Bats flitted uneasily around its eaves and night birds made rude noises – seemingly of derision. From out of the gathering darkness which surged around the battlements of the garage, a small figure suddenly detached itself, and a thin croaking laugh denoted it to be dear old Diddley Dan, the oldest man hereabouts.
“Ar,” he cried pointing with a quavering forefinger at the majestic walls of the three-ply garage, “T’wouldn’t do! T’wouldn’t! Might as well try to knock that liddle ole Hitler as bash that liddle ole shed – that be Fordingbridge built – that be! He, he, he!”
And darkness swooped down, mercifully closing the scene with highly-approved promptitude!
To-day – proudly fluttering from the garage’s battlements, flies Lancelot’s flag! – and they do say that the Garle sunken garden is being patted into shape again. Hostilities might have been hot but those competent to judge declare honours to be even – pro tem. – that is!