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Ironmaster to wildlife – the Canford Estate

Nick Woods on the history and the future of Poole's Canford Estate lands

Lord Wimborne, with the then Mayor, Cllr Anne Stribley (on his right) and Sheriff, Cllr Doreen Bugo (on his left), with the fountain donated to mark Poole Park’s centenary

In 1874 the  17,000-acre Canford Estate  was one of the largest in Dorset. It has since shrunk to around a tenth of its former size. However, the sale of the remaining  1748 acres was hoped to generate £10 million for the owners. Dorset Wildlife Trust led a consortium to purchase much of this land.
The name Canford goes back to at least Saxon times and with a probable origin being Cana’s ford – across the River Stour. In the Domesday Book, the manor of ‘Cheneford’ was held by Edward of Salisbury. In 1198 the manor passed by marriage to William Longspee, an illegitimate son of King Henry II and half-brother to King John and Richard the Lionheart. He died suddenly, possibly poisoned, in 1226 and was the first person to be buried in Salisbury Cathedral. His tomb was opened in 1791 and the well preserved corpse of a Black Rat, apparently containing traces of arsenic, was found inside his skull. The rat now forms one of the more bizarre exhibits in Salisbury Museum. Longspee was an important historical figure, having witnessed the signing of Magna Carta. His son, William Longspee the second, has a significant place in local history, granting rights to the emerging town of Poole by the Longspee Charter of 1248. The charter confirmed the long standing right (‘as always they have been accustomed’) of local people to graze cattle ‘in my heaths’. The charter was a means of financing the Crusades and Longspee was subsequently killed fighting in Egypt.

Canford Manor and Lady Wimborne (formerly Lady Cornelia Spencer-Churchill) inset

In subsequent years the manor passed to various owners and was also held by a number of monarchs, including Henry VIII. Conflict between the manor and locals flared up in 1608 when the owner Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon wanted to enclose an area of heathland to provide fuel for the development of early chemical industries. The fences were reputedly torn down by local people. However, in 1805 an Enclosure Act for the ‘Parish of Great Canford…and the Town of Poole was passed, enabling the enclosure of over 9000 acres of ‘Common Meadows, Heaths, Waste Lands and Commonable Grounds’. This changed forever the relationship between the Manor, local people and the land. Across the country, over 4000 enclosure acts limited the traditional rights of local people over vast tracts of manorial land in return for relatively small areas being allotted for their private use.
In 1846 Sir John Josiah Guest bought Canford Manor and some additional land for £335,000. The Guest family fortune was based on the ironworks at Dowlais, near Merthyr Tydfil, then the largest ironworks in the world. The company supplied cannon balls for the British Army and iron for the Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain, then the largest ship in the world. The company also supplied rails for the Great Western Railway and for the growing railway networks in America, Germany and Russia. The company eventually became part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefold; the initials ‘GKN’ would be familiar for many years to come.

Dowlais Ironworks by George Childs 1840; the source of the Guest family’s fortune

The Guests had ten children and their eldest son, Sir Ivor Bertie Guest took over the estate on his father’s death in 1852. In 1868 Sir Ivor married Lady Cornelia Spencer-Churchill. Her nephew, the future prime minister Winston Churchill, nearly lost his life whilst on holiday with the Guest family in 1892. He leapt from a bridge in Branksome Dene Chine whilst playing a game and was unconscious for three days.

Dowlais Ironworks by George Childs 1840; the source of the Guest family’s fortune

Between 1867 and 1904 the estate built over 100 of what are now known as ‘Lady Wimborne Cottages’ for local people. These are now scattered amongst more modern developments and many bear the distinctive coats of arms and date plaques made by the George Jennings’ South-Western Pottery at Parkstone. The estate also built or provided land for schools, churches and a hospital. In 1885 Lord Wimborne offered land for the creation of a ‘People’s Park’. Poole Park eventually opened in 1890 and in 1990 his grandson donated £30,000 for a fountain to mark the Park’s centenary. It is reputed that in 1892 Lord Wimborne also offered the Sandbanks peninsula to the Council – free of charge!  In 1880 Sir Ivor was created Lord Wimborne. He died in 1914 and was succeeded by his eldest son Sir Ivor Churchill Guest.

‘Lady Wimborne’s Bridge’ which carried the Southampton and Dorset Railway over a private drive

The Guest family sold the iron business in 1901 and in 1923 the Manor House was sold to become Canford School. Unbeknownst at the time, the purchase included an ancient Assyrian relief, mounted on the wall of what became the school tuck-shop. The relief was subsequently auctioned for £7.7million. Amongst the biggest land sales were the sale of 550 acres of south Canford Heath in 1973 to the Borough of Poole for £7million. The development of this land for housing and industry helped fund the town’s indoor swimming pool, sports centre and theatre. The Canford Estate provided much of the land for the growth of Poole and many local properties are still covered by the estate’s covenants. In the writer’s case, these prohibit me from running a business in my home or causing ‘nuisance or annoyance’ to Lord Wimborne. Much of the rest of Canford Heath itself was sold to W H Whites and was subsequently bought in 1999 by the Borough of Poole, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to be managed as a nature reserve.

Canford Estate land - Reed bed and saltmarsh in Holes Bay at Upton Country Park

The land most recently put up for sale includes saltmarsh, heathland, woodland and farmland, with associated buildings, in a broad arc around Poole. The largest parcel is 201 acres of Upton Heath and the smallest just 10 square metres of foreshore at Sandbanks. The heathland is expected to raise £1500 an acre whilst the smaller Sandbanks plots average almost £500,000 an acre. Much of the undeveloped land is heathland and supports rare species such as the Dartford Warbler and Sand Lizard. The area of heathland in Dorset has been reduced by over 80% in the last 250 years, making the sale a significant opportunity for local conservationists. In addition, there are significant areas of saltmarsh for sale, which are used by thousands of migrant birds.
Dorset Wildlife Trust is now leading a partnership in ‘The Great Heath Living Landscape’, which has recently secured £2.7 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund towards the estimated £4.7million it will cost to purchase around 80% of the land, to protect its wildlife and to enable appropriate access for local people – a fitting end to, or maybe just the next chapter, in the long story of the Canford Estate. More details of this exciting project can be found on the Trust’s website: www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/thegreatheathproject.html. ◗

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