Looking back to the 1960s one or two people come to mind who highlight the period and made an impression one way or another.

One person who fits this profile is Romany Gypsy Alfie Cole along with his brother Jesse.

Alfie was chiefly known at the time for his direct fight with the planning authorities to correct what he saw as an injustice.

Alfie’s father, Jesse (Senior), married Emily Ayres in 1909, both part of a community who travelled Hampshire for generations before settling in Basingstoke, firstly in North Waltham and then in Holly Bush Lane, Baughurst.

They had nine children, Freedom (Freda), Robert (Bobby), Henry, Louisa (Queeny), Gilbert (Gilly), Jane and Thomas (Tommy) as well as Alfie and Jesse (Junior).

Louisa was the last to be born in a bender tent, or Vardo, which was a simple shelter made from willow or hazel branches and covered with tarpaulin. 

Jesse traded in horses and wood from land in Old Basing, adding another site in the 1950s at Peatmoor Corner.

The River Loddon ran through his land and he marketed this for fishing, to which the authorities at Hackwood Park protested and summonsed Jesse to court.

However, the case was overturned due to the argument that the Hackwood Park estate only owned the centre of the river and not the shallows.

In due course an agreement was made to swap this land for seven acres of marshland, where Eastrop Park is now situated, which overlooked the huge gasometers in Basing Road, visible across the town, which manufactured and supplied gas before the days of Natural Gas.

Using the clinkers from the Gas Works, Jesse built up a foundation to create a hard standing for parking caravans and this was soon used to house Romany families passing through the town. 

Basingstoke fair, which was originally stationed at Stokes Yard in Brook Street, later moved to the Eastrop site, where the fair was often stored for winter months.

Jesse also used the site to buy and sell horses and trade in carting and wood, with him supplying horses to the Co-Operative Society, provided to him by Lushy Smith.

Kindling wood was sold at twelve shillings and sixpence for one hundred bundles (62½p today).

By the mid 1950s the site was upgraded with a ‘Change of Use’ order to house eighty caravans with running water and toilets installed by family members.

The Cole family also diverted part of the river Loddon to create more space. The site, managed by Tommy Cole, became known as Coles Yard.

Jesse’s son, Alfie, later purchased more land next to Coles Yard and housed more caravans for the travelling community as well as a riding school but, in the 1960s, an act of Compulsory Purchase forced the Cole family from the site – but not before Alfie protested against the authorities in a way that has been remembered to this day.

Appalled by the offer of only £7,000 for the whole ten-acre site, Alfie enlisted the aid of Charles Hemsley, a former Fleet Street reporter, to plan a headline hitting protest. 

At 9.30am in May 1966 Alfie loaded his tipper lorry with topsoil and strategically blocked the whole of the then town centre by placing four loads at key points, the first in front of the Town Hall (now the Willis Museum).

This brought the whole of the town centre to a halt until the soil could be removed. He was arrested and fined £220 which he appealed stating that he was standing up for the ordinary person, but he lost.

Encouraged by overwhelming support from the public, Alfie then took his protest to the top of government by taking three days, led by Topsy his favourite pony, to trek to number ten Downing Street where, having narrowly missed Prime Minister Harold Wilson, he handed in a petition of thousands of signatures, a box of chocolates for Mrs Wilson and a gift of pipe tobacco for the Prime Minister.

He also threatened to drive pigs into the Mayors Banquet, which he did not do, but gained just as much publicity by allowing himself to be lifted and swung round by the ‘world’s smallest strong man’ Ivan Karl at the local circus.

Eventually, within a few hours of the deadline, the local authorities relented and increased the purchase price to £12,000 which was deemed enough for Alfie to sign the papers. His family moved out of the site and into local housing.

Three years later Alfie was again subjected to another Compulsory Purchase order for land to build Churchill Way East but this time the district valuer agreed to pay £36,000.

Alfie, who was often seen in a local pub alongside his beloved pony, died in January 2021 aged 88 within a few weeks of his brother Tommy and Jesse’s grandson Daryl, aged 30, signalling the end not only of a colourful local character, but also the end of an era in Basingstoke history.