The History of Newbury
Archaeological digs have revealed that human settlement in the Newbury area dates back to the Mesolithic period. This means it was inhabited by the middle Stone Age people at a time before the introduction of farming, when the people would have hunted and foraged for food.
The town of Newbury itself did not begin its life until shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, however. Ernulf de Hestin was one of William’s bravest and most powerful knights. His efforts in the conquest of Britain were rewarded with a number of settlements, including the hamlet of Ulvritone on the banks of the River Kennet . He created narrow plots on either side of the road crossing the river, which he then rented to craftsmen and traders. This proved highly successful and the plots were taken up quickly, creating a fast-growing ‘new burgh’ that was to eventually become known as Newbury.
The new town continued to earn riches for Ernulf although he did not actually live there at any time, preferring to reside in Gloucester . After his death in 1095, New Burgh continued to grow and continued to earn healthy income for his descendants. It soon became one of the top twenty towns in England in terms of size, although this would still make very small by modern standards. With this increase in size and importance came an increasing embroilment in the political shenanigans of the day. The War of Succession between Stephen and Matilda saw Newbury Castle under siege from Stephen for five months during 1152. The castle appears to have been a relatively modest wooden keep, not one of the more illustrious stone keeps for which the Normans were well known.
The latter part of the Middle Ages saw Newbury prospering on the back of the cloth trade, and no figure is more famous in the history of the Newbury cloth trade than Jack O’ Newbury himself. Born as Jack Smallwood, formally known as Jack Winchcombe (after his birthplace); Jack ran away from the monastery he had been set to work in to go to Newbury to seek his fortune as a cloth worker. He was apprentice to a wealthy clothier, but caught the eye of his wife. Following the death
of the clothier he married the widow and inherited the business. It is believed that the factory he then set up was the first factory in Britain. Such was his success and reputation; he entertained Henry VIII himself as he passed through Newbury. He had previously sent four marvellously clad and equipped soldiers to aid the King at the Battle of Flodden and was offered a knighthood by Henry, which he declined. Jack was a hugely influential figure in the town, donating a sizeable church to the community. He also had a hand in negotiating the lifting of trade embargoes for the town, thereby helping to ensure its continued prosperity.
The 16th century saw a number of protestants burned for heresy in Newbury, including Jocelyn Palmer, Thomas Askew and John Gwyn; all burned by officials of Queen Mary at the site of Enborne Road. Elizabeth I granted the town a Royal Charter at the end of the 16th century, which gave it certain new rights and led to the creation of the Town Council. A Guildhall was built in 1611 to house the mayor and
aldermen who comprised the council. Unfortunately, the 17th century was a tough one for the town. A decline in the cloth industry in the 17th century led to economic difficulties and high level of poverty in the town. In addition to the economic pressures, the town was hit, like most English towns at the time, by outbreaks of plague.
There were also troubles in England at the time in the form of the Civil War between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. Two ‘Battles of Newbury’ were fought; one in 1643 and the other in 1644 . In the first, the King had stationed troops at Newbury in order to cut Parliamentarian forces withdrawing from Gloucester from rejoining other allied troops. Unfortunately for the Royalists, the attempt failed. The second battle occurred when the King sent a force to relieve the besieged Royalist troops at nearby Donnington Castle . The King’s plan failed once again, however, and they were unable to assist the troops at the castle.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Newbury remained a relatively small market town. During this time clock making, malting, tanning and brick making were the economic mainstays of the town. During the 19th century the town modernised in a similar fashion to most developing English towns of the time; with gas lit street lamps and paving being installed for the first time. The Railway and the first Hospital also arrived in the town during the 19th century.
Twentieth century Newbury continued to grow; relying largely on the engineering industries in the town. These declined towards the end of the century, to be replaced by hi tech industries. At the beginning of the 21st century, the population of Newbury stood at around 35000.