The History of Alton
Although there is evidence of a nearby Roman settlement, it is believed that Alton began life as a Saxon village. The name is possibly derived from the Saxons word ‘aewielltun’ meaning farmstead or village by a spring. The main road that stretched from Chichester to Silchester in Roman times passed near to the location of modern Alton. There is known to have been a posting station at nearby Neatham, probably called Vindomis. A large seventh century cemetery was discovered during building work, revealing some valuable archeological finds. Saxon grave goods found at the site are now displayed at the Curtis Museum . These include the Alton Buckle, considered one of the finest pieces of Anglo Saxon craftsmanship discovered in Hampshire. Found in the grave of a warrior, the silver-gilt buckle is set with garnets and glass.
The First Battle of Alton was fought there in 1001 when the Danish forces invaded England. The men of Hampshire came together at Alton in an attempt to stem the advance of the Danes. 81 English warriors were killed in the battle, including Ethelwerd and the Bishops Elfsy’s son, Godwin of Worthy. The Danes suffered even greater losses but nonetheless the defeated English were forced to flee to Winchester . Despite the attentions of the Danes, by the time of the Norman Conquest , Alton was a very wealthy part of England. The Domesday Book of 1086 has ‘Aoltone’ listed in the ‘Odingeton Hundred - Hantescire’ and notes that it possesses the most valuable market of all recorded. It should be remembered though, that the other valuable markets such as those of London , Southampton and Winchester are missing from the Domesday Book.
The main street through Alton is named Normandy Street but this is not a modern reference to the D-Day landings . Instead, its naming probably dates back to the Normans themselves who, no doubt having read their own Domesday Book, took a great deal of interest in Alton. In 1101 the sons of William the Conqueror met in Alton to patch up a dispute the two were having over who should wear the crown of King of England. Robert came back to England from the first crusade, landing in Portsmouth, to meet with his brother Henry who had seized the throne in his absence. The pair met in Alton to agree and sign the Treaty of Alton that recorded peace terms between the two.
Historical records show a Saturday market was in operation in Alton by 1288. The thriving market was a sizeable affair and shows Alton was a major English market town at the time. King Edward II granted Alton a charter in 1307 allowing the town to hold an annual fair. Medieval fairs were huge events, usually held annually. They would attract sellers and buyers from far afield. It wasn’t all about goods as various other acts and sideshows would attend. Fairs were an important focus for the local community, both for business and pleasure! The annual fair at Alton continues to this day but it is much smaller and only the funfair survives.
A second battle of Alton was fought when Parliamentary troops took on Royalists there in 1643 during the Civil War . A small Royalists garrison of around 700 men were captured after finding themselves outnumbered and trapped in the St Lawrence Church . Bullet holes from the battle are still visible in the church today.
As the modern era dawned Alton made its living mainly from brewing, an industry that persists there to this day. During the 18th century the town had a thriving paper making industry. The railway came to Alton in 1852, linking it to London. However, Alton didn’t get caught up in the industrial revolution and remained a largely rural market town. Today Alton has some busy industrial parks housing a mix of hi-tech and light industrial businesses.
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