IN THE BEGINNING
Over 900 years ago England was an area of vast tracts of wild, uncultivated land with scattered farms and wild forests. The Anglo-Saxon period of which some records survive in the records of Gloucester Abbey states:- . . . Alre XX hides. . . so evidently the Abbey was landlord of 20 hides of land in Alre (now Arle) but this was an area of approximately 2400 acres distributed amongst 20 farmsteads which must have included Alstone, for Arle and Alstone retained close links throughout history.
In those far-off days the agricultural administration was subject to the laws of the manor which was not only an agricultural unit, but was also responsible for law and order under the control of the lord of the manor.
Cheltenham itself prior to the Norman Conquest, was held by King Edward and had 8.1/2 hides (about 120 acres) of which l.1/2 belonged to the Church. Reinbald the priest held them. It was a tiny community with only 20 villagers, 10 smallholders and 7 slaves and it had a total of 18 ploughs and there were two mills, and because of its proximity to the Forest of Dean - a favourite hunting ground for King and nobles - in addition to a levy of £9.5.2. it had to supply 3000 loaves for the hunting dogs.
After the Norman Conquest, William and his Council met at Gloucester and it was decided that a great survey of William's holdings be made. This survey we know as the Domesday Book. The King's commissioners were sent all over England to record the acreage in each shire; who previously held it, what livestock there were on it and what was its worth.
After this survey Cheltenham belonged to King William and his reeve added to the manor - 2 smallholders, 4 villagers and 3 mills- 2 of them being held by the king - 1 more plough and the levy was adjusted to £20 plus 20 cows, 20 pigs and 10/- for bread.
So here we have the foundation for the history of Cheltenham in which mills played an important part for water-mills relied on local streams and rivers and it is believed that the 5 mills mentioned in the survey were Sandford Mill, Barrats Mill, Upper Alstone Mill, Lower Alstone Mill and Arle Mill.
Agriculture at that time was usually based on the three-field system whereby three open fields were rotated - one for crops, one for grazing and one left fallow. In Alstone the largest fields were Hillfield, Rowanfield and Sandfield, the last two being divided by a trackway leading to Arle.
As the population of Cheltenham grew it expanded outwards and other open field were taken into cultivation. Some of these fields were named after particular features such as Hillfield, Sandfield, Mill Ground, whilst other bore a family name such as Hazards Field and Fosters but generally the land was unenclosed and the villeins or peasants held individual strips which were scattered amongst the several fields. These strips were sometimes referred to as selions or ridges. The lord's land, however, known as his desmesne on which the tenants were obliged to give free service according to the customs of the manor, was naturally the best and kept apart.
This system of strip farming was uneconomical for it meant the peasant travelling from strip to strip and if one had a lazy neighbour then his weeds and carelessness affected his holding. Many disputes arose and were settled in the manor courts.
This system , unsatisfactory as it was continued until the Black Death which decimated the population and led to such a shortage of labour that the peasants were at last in a bargaining position and more efficient ways of farming had to be devised.
By the 17th century Enclosure Acts came into force and the richer landowners began either to mutually exchange plots of land or purchase neighbours' land, thus the first real changes in the structure of the land began.
Whilst the tenants were still, to a great extent, tied to the manor, some of the earlier manorial customs were dropped but if he wished to leave his land to his heirs or pass it to some other tenants of the manor the transaction had to be dealt with in the manor court. We are fortunate in that the Manor Court Books for Cheltenham have survived and are kept at the County Record Office. There we can read how a tenant surrendered his holdings into the hand of the lord of the manor, who in turn passed it on to the intended recipient on payment of a sum of money called an heriot.
The land in Alstone was particularly suitable for farming and to be more successful, further enclosures were needed and by 1835 further great changes in the land of Alstone occurred. Some of the biggest landowners were absentee landlords such as Jesus College, Oxford. Other land was held by local families such as the Gregorys, the Packers and Butts. Once these changes took effect we find that the land in Alstone, especially in Sandfield and Rowanfield, developed into several market gardens, most of which seemed to be held by the Cook Family, residents in Alstone for some hundreds of years. It lent itself more to arable farming for cattle raising seemed to have been carried out in Arle.
So this was the state of Alstone in the first quarter of the l9th century but all was soon to change. By the 1830's whilst the land looked much as it had for many years, the biggest farm thereon, namely Six Chimneys Farm which stretched from Gloucester Road to the boundary with Arle, was perhaps one of the first to experience great change. The owners of this farm, Jesus College, Oxford, had acquired it from one James Beckett in 1727 and had leased it out to various farmers over the following years but the land began to be sold bit by bit; the first substantial section sold to the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway Company in 1838 and this railway cut a swathe across Sandfield and Rowanfield which was to have long term effect on the whole area.
At about the same time the Tramway was built along Gloucester Road carrying coal to the coal wharves set up in that area though the tramway did not compete for long against the railway and where a good supply of coal is available so factories began to be built alongside the railway.
The next big change in that area was the development of the Gas Works which extended from Gloucester Road northwards and abutted Six Chimneys Farm. Bit by bit the Gas Works encroached on the surrounding area till one by one the old cottages which lay along the old Coach Road; despite a petition to Parliament by the residents of Alstone Terrace which, at that time was opposite Market Street; that old street, its poor residents along with Gas Green School, gave way to the march of progress. Later still in 1898, more of Six Chimneys Farm was sold to the Gas Works.
Still, despite the changes wrought by this industrial development, there was farming and market gardening being carried on along Arle Road formerly known as Sandfield Road whilst Alstone Lane and Rowanfield still remained mostly rural. However this was not to last and Jesus College sold more land - a piece to Cheltenham Corporation off Arle Road for the erection of an Ash Destructor; pieces to a member of the Cook family; another to the Boote family and a larger piece to Western Estates who developed Brooklyn Gardens; at that time a flourishing market garden in the possession of the Sindry family.
By the late 19th century negotiations were going on between Jesus College and Cheltenham Corporation for the sale of a piece of the farm land bordering Gloucester Road for the erection of a school. The then tenant of the farm, a Mr George Prude who had farmed there over 25 years was given notice to quit that piece of land. That piece of land was the site of the old Central or Technical High School which opened prior to WW1 and like so many schools served as a temporary hospital during the War. Many people alive today (2004) remember the old school with great affection and, like the residents of Alstone Terrace drew up petitions to stop it being demolished with little success. So, once again an Alstone landmark has disappeared.