The Village that Vanished

Church Street, Imber. Image: imberbus.org

The village of Imber lies in a valley in the middle of the Salisbury Plain military training area in Wiltshire, England. Imber is marked on Google Maps, a little dot with no public roads leading to it, surrounded by an expanse of open plain. It is listed in census records and represented by an MP in the UK Parliament. But Imber is no ordinary village: it has no postal code, you can only take the narrow private road to the village on a few specific dates each year. And its population is zero.

Like many villages in Europe, Imber was abandoned and destroyed due to World War II. It was not enemy bombing which emptied out the village, however, but the British War Office. The village was taken over by the War Office (now the Ministry of Defence) at the end of 1943, and its 150 residents were evacuated, never to return.

“Little Imber on the down. Seven miles from any town”

There was a settlement at Imber by the 10th century, and several tracks dating back to Roman times have been found in and around the village. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the population of this rural farming village was around 250. The population of Imber peaked at 440 in the 1851 census but had declined to 152 persons by the 1931 census.

Imber — pronounced Im-burr by locals — was always an isolated community, set in the middle of the sparsely populated Salisbury Plain, the largest chalk downland in Europe. For much of its history, Imber was linked with the nearby villages only by rough tracks. As a youth, my Grandfather John Wells used to courier telegrams by bicycle to Imber from his village of West Lavington five miles away.

A local rhyme about Imber in the local Wiltshire dialect went as follows:

“Little Imber on the downe
Seven miles from any towne
Ship bleats the unly sounds
Life ‘twer sweet with ne’er a vrown
Oh let us bide on Imber Downe”

(or: Sheep bleats the only sounds
Life was sweet with never a frown
Oh let us stay on Imber Down)

The rhyme perhaps romanticises Imber which was in fact, from the early 20th century onwards, surrounded on all sides by the noisy military training exercises going on on Salisbury Plain.

Imber’s main street followed the course of a stream known as Imber Dock, which was prone to flooding. Pre-World War II, along with St. Giles church the village also had a Victorian vicarage, a Baptist chapel (built in 1839, with the preacher coming from the nearby village of Chitterne to lead services), a Post Office, the Bell Inn pub, the village’s manor house Imber Court — which had been largely destroyed and rebuilt after a fire in 1920, a large farmhouse known as Seagram’s Farm, around 40 farm cottages, a schoolroom and some new terraced houses built in 1938.

The ‘friendly fire incident’ at Imber, April 1942

On the 13th of April 1942, a tragedy occurred at Imber when a Royal Airforce plane, one of six Hurricanes and six Spitfires who were giving a fire-power demonstration, accidentally fired upon the crowd of spectators. Twentythree people — 12 military officers, four Home Guard officers, and seven soldiers — were killed instantly and two more officers later died from their injuries. A further 71 military personnel were injured. ‘Pilot error’ and bad weather were blamed: in hazy visibility, the 21-year-old Hurricane pilot had thought the assembled spectators were one of the ‘dummy’ targets the planes were firing upon. The pilot was killed in action over France just two months later.

There is a memorial plaque at St. Giles Church, Imber commemorating the incident.

47 Days

On 1 November 1943, with preparations for the Allied invasion of mainland Europe underway, the people of Imber were called to a meeting in the village schoolroom. They were told that their village had been requisitioned and that the War Office could evacuate them without consultation or compensation. The villagers were told that they were leaving their homes ‘for king and country’, but only until the war was over. They were given 47 days’ notice.

A local newspaper, The Warminster Journal, published a piece about the evacuation on the 5th November:

“There are 19 old age pensioners (in Imber) and the official order has taken them completely by surprise…(they) cannot find the words to express their feelings.”

Letters sent to tenants of Imber dwellings in November 1943 along with a formal notice to quit the village implied they might be able to return one day. The letters mentioned that if residents needed to put their furniture into storage the War Office would cover the costs “until you can find another home, or until the Imber area is again open for occupation, whichever is the earlier.”

On December 17 the villagers left for what they did not know would be the last time. And Imber was empty after 900 years of settlement.

Though most residents left without protest, Albert Nash, who had been the village blacksmith for over 40 years, is said to have been found sobbing over his anvil and later became the first resident to die (in 1944) and be brought back to Imber for burial in the churchyard of St. Giles. It was said that he died of a broken heart after being forced to leave the village. As one family member of an ex-Imber resident points out,“It must have been heartbreaking…most of the older people had never been out of the village.”

Albert Nash’s grandson, Ken Mitchell, says:

“It was a bombshell dropped on the villagers. The elders were called together for a meeting in the schoolroom and when they were told, it was a complete surprise. Albert was very upset and it hit him very hard. He moved to (the village of) Bishops Cannings, near Devizes (Wiltshire), but he had lost the will to live and only survived four or five weeks.”

Ken himself lived in Imber for the first 17 years of his life. “There was no anger at the time” he remembers, “Dismay and disappointment, yes, but the anger took a long time. They felt they were helping the country and helping the war effort, and they thought they were coming back. My mother was visibly upset but I don’t think it really affected the children.”

Another resident, Gladys Mitchell, Albert Nash’s daughter, contradicts this:

“My youngest girl was so upset (about leaving Imber) she refused to go to her new school. People even left their belongings in their cupboards because they were so sure they were coming back.”

The evacuated villagers found new homes around Salisbury Plain, mostly working as farmhands.

How could this happen?

Beginning in the late 1920s, farms around Imber were bought up by the military as well as the land on which the village sat. The pressures of an agricultural depression, combined with the good prices offered, encouraged the sale of land, with few being put off by the new conditions of their tenancy. By the time of the Second World War, almost all of the land in and around Imber, except for the church, vicarage, Baptist chapel, schoolroom, the Bell Inn, and Nash’s blacksmith’s forge belonged to the War Office.

“God save Imber!”: The Forever Imber Rally, 1961

At the start of 1961, the Defence of the Realm Act, which had sanctioned the taking over of Imber, expired and the newly-created Association for the Restoration of Imber called for a mass ‘invasion’ of the village. On 22 January around 2,000 people including more than 200 ex-residents and their descendants trespassed at Imber. A message from Sir John Betjeman — English poet, writer and broadcaster — was read out:

“Success to your campaign! Wiltshire and the rolling downs forever! God save Imber!”

A public inquiry was held, but the inquiry found in favour of Imber’s continued military use. Although it also provided provisions for Imber to be open to the public during a select few days a year. In the early 1970s, the Defence Lands Committee (DLC) again looked into the need to keep hold of Imber. The DLC again recommended that the village be retained for military use.

The empty village was later used to train British troops sent to fight in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Imber today: the ghost village

The village church, St. Giles, has been protected and preserved. The consecrated grounds of its graveyard are surrounded by a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire. Parts of the church date to the 13th century and some of the church’s 13th and 15th-century wall paintings survive to this day. The church is looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, although access to the church is controlled by the Ministry of Defence — so the graveyard can get quite overgrown!

Burials of ex-Imber residents have taken place in the churchyard since 1943. For example, the Imber blacksmith Albert Nash and his wife and daughter are buried there.

The church forms the centre and symbol of the village. It is when the church can be open that the village and road to it are also open for the public. On Saturday 3 January 2003, a service at St. Giles to mark the 60th anniversary of the evacuation of the village attracted more than 300 people. Imber remains of interest to the descendants of the ex-villagers, locals, and people from further afield.

Since 2009, vintage red double-decker buses have run from Warminster train station to Imber on certain days over the summer. The buses operate to a scheduled public timetable, not as excursions, and the village appears as a destination on the bus stop at Warminster station.

The bus trips were of course cancelled in 2020, nor will the church be open at Easter 2021. It is hoped the bus trips can run in August 2021.

Retired Wiltshire headteacher Rex Sawyer, author of the book Little Imber on the Down, says that Imber “has such a grip on the hearts and minds of Wiltshire people. When Imber opens, people flood there, but the village is in a very sad state now, just a few buildings.”

Visiting Imber

I visited Imber on June 2 2012 with my father — a born and bred Wiltshireman — and the rest of my family.

On a rather overcast day, we visited inside St. Giles church — where there was a small exhibition about Imber — and its graveyard. We also took a look at the Baptist graveyard, Imber Court manor house and the Bell Inn.

Thanks for reading! This story forms part of the Weirdshire series — strange, incredible but true stories from the county of Wiltshire, England.

Researcher and writer. Author of the ‘Weirdshire’ series. True crime and strange tales. You can buy me a coffee at: https://ko-fi.com/chloewells

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