It is difficult to put together anything certain on the earliest history of Church Cottage. Work on documents suggests that it formed part of a manor called ‘Watermartyns’, set up from the bequest of Walter de Merton to his nephews in 1277. Tracing the tenants through the rentals, it would seem that the earliest part of the present building, the Schoolroom, was built by John Bowyer, with the Chapter Room following a little later, built in the latest style by wealthy clothier William South. A later inventory of 1638 describes the contents of this hall.
The first detailed map of Basingstoke dates from 1762 and shows a building with a similar outline to the present day with a leet from the Loddon flowing beneath; the adjacent land belonged to a Mr Spencer. The property was acquired in 1777 by the vicar, Dr Sheppard, from Daniel Jackson who had inherited it from his uncle Samuel Spencer. It became part of the glebe and the records include a useful description of the premises, which included a dyehouse and weaving shops. The Barn, newly built or re-built at this time, probably formed part of this textile industry. Later maps show the barn as the Vicarial Barn or Malthouse – malting became a major industry in Basingstoke in 18th and 19th centuries.
The building acquired a new use in 1865 when an Infant School was opened in the smaller barn, subsequently known as the Schoolroom. The rapid rise in population in the town, and the 1870 Education Act led the need for extra school provision, and in 1870 the larger barn was converted into a school for girls. The slate pencil sharpening marks can still be seen on the outer walls. The schools continued until the setting up of the School Board and the building of Fairfields School.
After that, the building was used for many and various parish purposes – Sunday Schools and evening classes, clubs, feasts, concerts, sewing parties etc. and this pattern continues to the present when the building is a popular venue for many groups in the town.
Copyright Mary Oliver