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History of Newtown National Nature Reserve and Old Town Hall

The two-storey, red-brick Newtown Old Town Hall, Isle of Wight
Newtown Old Town Hall, Isle of Wight | © ©National Trust Images/Scott King

Before becoming the quiet backwater it is today, Newtown on the Isle of Wight was once a bustling medieval town, one that played a huge role in both the brickmaking and salt production industries. Discover the political, industrial and natural history of Newtown, from the growth of Walter's Copse to how the Old Town Hall was saved by the mysterious Ferguson's Gang.

Newtown Old Town Hall

The existing Town Hall dates from 1699, though it's likely an official building has existed on this site since the 13th century.

A town’s rise and fall

The town of Newtown was created in medieval times but fell into decline after being unable to compete with nearby Yarmouth and Newport.

In 1584, Elizabeth I granted Newtown the right of parliamentary representation. A growing interest in politics in the late 17th century is likely to have influenced the decision to enlarge the Town Hall to its present size.

It's hard to believe that this quiet backwater on the Isle of Wight was represented by two Members of Parliament, one of which was Canning. He was Foreign Secretary while he represented Newtown and would later become Prime Minister.

A town hall with no town

As a result of the 1832 Reform Act, Newtown lost its right to elect MPs. The Town Hall gradually fell into ruin until it was saved and gifted to the National Trust in 1933 by Ferguson's Gang.

Ferguson's Gang

Ferguson's Gang were a group of young women who wore masks and used fictitious names such as Red Biddy, Sister Agatha and Bill Stickers. Their bizarre exploits have secured their reputation as some of the National Trust’s most unusual benefactors.

Newtown Old Town Hall was the second building the Gang purchased, the first being Shalford Mill, near Guildford.

Public appearances

The Gang’s peculiar nicknames and dramatic masked appearances attracted press coverage and publicised their cause.

In 1935, Ferguson was invited to make a radio appeal. It is not known whether the masked man who spoke was actually Ferguson, but his appeal was effective, leading to 600 people joining the Trust as members and raising donations of £900.

Black and white photograph of three women sitting in the countryside drinking from glasses
Members of Ferguson's Gang at a picnic in 1935 | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

‘The Boo’

The Gang recorded their exploits in a minute book known as 'The Boo'. It’s said to be named as such because they misjudged the space when writing the title, leaving no room for the final letter. A copy can be seen in the Town Hall.

The end of an era

After the Second World War, the Gang’s activities decreased.

Sister Agatha visited Newtown's Old Town Hall in 1989. When asked what motivated Ferguson’s Gang, she replied that they were young and wanted to help the National Trust and, above all, it was fun.

The salt industry at Newtown

Salt was produced at Newtown for many centuries. Evidence for this large-scale industry can still be seen on the reserve today, even though commercial salt hasn’t been made here since the early 20th century.

Why make salt here?

Salt production was an important industry in Anglo-Saxon times. Before refrigeration was developed, salt was used to preserve foods like meat, fish and vegetables.

If you lived by the coast, the easiest way to produce salt was by extraction from sea water. In the late medieval period the whole coastline would have been covered with salt ponds.

How salt was made at Newtown

The salt industry at Newtown dates as far back as the 17th century, when there were 14 saltpans here.

The two square ponds you’ll find near the black hut were saltpan feeder ponds. The ponds were flooded at high tide, then the water was let out over the saltpans next to them.

The water then evaporated and produced a muddy crust of salt. This strong brine was boiled in large iron pans in a salt house, where the remaining water was turned to steam leaving only salt crystals. They could then be scooped off, packed, and stored or sold.

Though the salt house no longer exists, bricks marking its outline can be seen on the footbridge side of the black hut at low tide.

Boardwalk across the saltmarsh at Newtown National Nature Reserve, Isle of Wight
Boardwalk across the saltmarsh at Newtown National Nature Reserve | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The demise of an industry

The salt industry at Newtown closed in the 1930s. By that time, it had become cheaper to transport salt dug up from underground mines in Cheshire or on the continent than to make it here.

Nearly all the salt we use today comes from underground deposits, though there are some traditional sea-water evaporation sites still working in other parts of the world.

Newtown's brick making industry

There’s a long history of brickmaking on the Isle of Wight. Clay here is of a suitable quality and is easily accessible, and the finished bricks could be delivered by boat.

The Prangnells

Brothers William, Henry and Alfred Prangnell were renowned local brickmakers in Newtown. They first set up their business here in 1866, but a storm washed away the whole brickyard soon after it opened.

Undaunted, they found good deposits of white and red clay which could be used to produce high-quality yellow and red bricks not far away at Elmsworth, on the east side of the estuary.

Brickfields Cottage

The Prangnell brothers lived a remote and self-sufficient existence nearby in newly built Brickfields Cottage. They were considered an eccentric family and used an individual dialect that was often difficult to understand.

Their cottage, now a holiday let renamed Myrtle Cottage, contained many decorative bricks for customers to see. This included a magnificent barley sugar twist chimney in the scullery which can now be seen in Newtown Old Town Hall.

Making high-quality bricks at Newtown

The intricate products made by the Prangnells were much sought after. Throughout their 50 years of production, Prangnell's Newtown bricks were all made by hand. The only machinery on the site appears to have been a horse-driven clay mixer.

Finished bricks were taken away by the barges that brought in coal for the kiln from Cowes.

Part of the kiln is still standing, but as it’s unstable and hazardous, we don’t encourage visitors to the site. The kiln was unusual in that it combined a highly efficient design with style and ornamentation.

The brickmakers' legacy

Brick making at Newtown ceased shortly before the First World War. Annie, the last of the Prangnell family, moved away in 1954.

Their legacy lives on in houses like Myrtle Cottage, built with their recognisably elaborate but functional yelllow and red bricks.

Ancient woodland at Walter's Copse, Isle of Wight
Ancient woodland at Walter's Copse, Isle of Wight | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The history of Walter’s Copse

Newtown’s Walter’s Copse is a small wood of 60 acres (24ha). But several hundred years ago, it looked quite different.

Medieval meadow land

Up until around 1800, most of what we know as Walter’s Copse was meadow land. Only the edges, where some of the older oak trees can be found, are mapped as woodland.

In medieval times, Newtown was farmed on an open field system, so much of Walter’s Copse would have been ploughed with oxen. You can occasionally see the old ridges and furrows in small woodland clearings.

Over time, the ploughed strips were turned over to grazing. Meadow flowers began to flourish, many of which can still be found in clearings in the wood.

Becoming a copse

The meadows were no longer grazed during the first half of the 19th century, and bushes and trees began to grow. By 1862, the meadow was covered in trees.

Walter’s Copse came into the Trust’s care in 1970.

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