England, especially the area of Lincolnshire where I live, is littered with mediaeval villages that were abandoned. In many cases we may have no idea that the village is there, except for a map reference. A ruined church and slightly bumpy-looking fields surrounding it may be the only sign that a settlement once existed in a place. Those villages were abandoned long ago, for reasons we don’t know. Plague, famine, or the desire to find a new life in the towns, may have driven out the last inhabitants and often the reasons for the abandonment have been lost to time.
Others have been lost to the waves, and more look likely to succumb, if climate change continues unabated. Towns which gradually slipped from land to sea, and took their histories with them. Some towns like Dunwich, survive on land and also at sea, with romantic tales woven around the lost past of the town.
There’s another type of lost town or village, though, all over Britain. Towns or villages which were flourishing and not likely to be abandoned, which somehow got in the way of a rich man’s plans, and thus had to be destroyed. And one such is Milton Abbas in Dorset, a place that I have links to through the Jearrad or Dirent family.
Milton Abbas is – by British standards – a new town, founded in 1770. It replaced an old, old town, one which had grown up around the monastery of Middletun, which was founded in 934 by Athelstan. The sad story of Milton Abbas is that it was very much not abandoned, it was a flourishing town, with good transport links to the other towns in this area of Dorset. However, Lord Milton, in consultation with Capability Brown, decided that it was ruining the plans he had for his estate. He built a new village in the next valley over, to house his workers and tenants, and destroyed the old town and road system in order to put his landscaping plans into action.
Of course, the village was never the same; it lacked the transport hub that it had possessed before, as the Dorset crossroads on the way between London and Exeter, and I presume those people who could afford it, and weren’t reliant on Lord Milton’s largesse, would have moved away from the chaos of construction and destruction. The Local History group for the town are currently pursuing a very original and interesting project, trying to gather together the knowledge which is spread out among genealogists and family historians with roots in the area, to attempt to ascertain the human impact of this event. They can see the physical evidence of the houses and facilities which were provided to those who transferred to the new village, but more interesting is the human impact of the changes which were made. Which families moved away and never returned? Where did they go? What happened to the families who stayed?
Both Milton Abbas village and the Local history society for Milton Abbas have very interesting websites, and it is possible to volunteer for the project that they have underway, which I have done, as it seems fascinating to me. Even if you don’t have roots in the area, the social history bound up in the records of this event will be fascinating, and may inform us about what happens when a landowner takes the decision to change the things which have grown up organically and replace them with a plan. I have found examples of this wholesale removal of people and their houses all over the country in different eras, and I think that this project has the potential to tell us a great deal about the impact of such things.
The picture above is of course of the “new” Milton Abbas, and comes from Wikimedia commons, on a creative commons share alike attribution license. It was taken in 2015 by Wikimedia contributor PaleCloudedWhite.