The history of West Hagbourne
Rural myths

The village name

A notorious fire myth

There is an apocryphal story that West and East Hagbourne were once one and the same village. The origins of this myth can be traced to 10th March 1659 when most of East Hagbourne was destroyed by fire. According to legend, this fire spread to houses between the Hagbournes, thus separating them into two villages.

There is, however, plenty of evidence to support the fact that West and East Hagbourne have always been two separate villages. Firstly, the fire started at the east end of East Hagbourne and stopped at the church. Dr J W Walker gave a lecture, based on his research and reported in the Reading Mercury and Oxford Gazette in 1932, in which he stated:

On March 10th, 1659, the greatest calamity that ever befell Hagbourne occurred; on that day a fire broke out at the east end of the village, and, fanned by a strong east wind, spread among the thatched roofs of the houses, causing the destruction of practically the whole village the flames spread from roof to roof and gutted every house until the church was reached, and that sacred building, being of uninflammable material, was spared, and thus the fire burnt itself out.

Secondly, historical documents written long before the fire of 1659 treat West and East Hagbourne as two quite distinct villages. In the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, the two villages each have their own separate entries. The villages were certainly tithed and taxed as two separate holdings as far back as the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). The two Hagbournes paid their taxes to different manorial lords and had their own manors. In fact West Hagbourne had two manors by 1355 and probably even earlier. The Lay Subsidy Rolls of 1334 confirm the separate status of the two villages. Lay subsidies - so called because the clergy were exempt - were a form of taxation on certain goods, and they show that the two villages were taxed separately. Furthermore, in 1642, seventeen years before the disastrous fire, the two villages each submitted their own Protestation Returns. West Hagbourne's Return was signed by all 36 males of 18 years or over living in the village at the time.

Apart from this documentary evidence of two separate and distinct villages, there are also geographical factors to consider. Centuries ago villages were nucleated, that is to say, the village buildings were clustered together, with their meadows, commons, woodlands and wastelands around them. Given the distance between the two villages, it is most unlikely that West and East Hagbourne could have been one large nucleated village.

Furthermore, there are no traces of any foundations of buildings or evidence of any kind of habitation between the two villages and nothing has been revealed by aerial photography. This evidence surely lays to rest the myth which persists to this day that West and East Hagbourne were once one village.