“A market town prosperous in the eighteenth century”
It is hard to imagine when one visits Aylesbury today that just forty years ago it was still a sleepy market town in one of the most under populated areas in southern England. It has been transformed and almost reconstructed without being designated a new town and without being connected to any motorways or major railways.
In the 1950’s the local new towns of Hemel Hempstead, Stevenage and Bracknell were taking all the development and overspill population of London. Aylesbury could carry on living in the past with a population of just 21,000. Even this figure represented some growth as the number of inhabitants at the turn of the century was just under 12,000 and at the beginning of Victoria’s reign was 6,000.
A Day at the Races
What was to change the face of Aylesbury for good, and take it into the 20th Century, was a government decision to allow some towns to take overspill population from London together with some of the industry. And so as Aylesbury approached the swinging 60’s, new estates (both residential and industrial) were built on the then periphery of the town. Aylesbury Borough council had already built a large council estate in the 1920’s in Southcourt on land where the old racecourse had been. Aylesbury Racecourse was once well known for steeplechases and had held the Grand National in 1874. It is also said that ‘point to point’ started in this part of Buckinghamshire.
In 1960 Pevsner wrote in his book ‘Buckinghamshire’, ‘The impression is of a market town, prosperous in the eighteenth century’. The 1960’s was to be the decade that would change the sleepy market town and destroy the prosperous 18th century atmosphere forever.
The first sign of any significant population in Aylesbury was during the Bronze Age. Major excavations in Aylesbury during the 1980’s revealed many artefacts and traces of a hill-fort from the Iron Age. This is commemorated on a historical plaque in Prebendal Court off of Oxford Road.
The Romans came to Aylesbury in 55 BC and the remains of their villas have been found in Buckingham Street, Walton and in nearby Bierton and Stone. They were all near to the Roman road, Akeman Street, that ran from Verulamium (St Albans) to Alcester. The current Sainsburys supermarket was built on the site of a British Leyland motor dealer, but 1900 years before that the Romans had lived there.
It is generally agreed that Aylesbury did not become a town until the Anglo-Saxons arrived in 571 AD. It was probably known as Aiglerburgh or a similar spelling, but anyhow the town began to grow and prosper and in the 13th century is the first recording of the market in what is now known as Market Square (pictured). This square was much larger than the present one but encroachment by temporary stallholders, which then became permanent buildings, has given today’s shape.
The Kings Head was a building which once fronted the Market Square but because of encroachment is now tucked away up narrow cobbled passages. It is without doubt one of the grandest buildings in Aylesbury and was restored by the owners The National Trust in 1995. It is unoccupied at the moment, but has been an inn since the 14th century. The Great Hall dates back to the 15th century and has a grand window with the arms of Henry VI and his Queen Margaret of Anjou.
The Civil War
Rumour has it that Oliver Cromwell stayed in The Kings Head. He most certainly visited Aylesbury during the Civil War, as the town was firmly parliamentarian. The garrison repulsed many attacks from Prince Rupert who was stationed in the king’s capital Oxford. A local man, John Hampden, started the Civil War by refusing to pay Charles I’s ship tax. He is remembered by a statue, which can be seen in the Market Square.
Even in the late 20th century modern developers have further encroached on Aylesbury’s Market Square. The new building in the south-western corner was built in 1991 to enlarge the modernised Friars Square. This area before the major development of the middle 1960’s was known as The Triangle and contained listed buildings and quaint tea-rooms and inns. The area behind this where the shopping centre is now situated was known as Silver Street. This was also a jumble of old fashioned shops and cobbled streets leading down towards the railway and Aylesbury’s river, the Bearbrook.
The listed buildings apparently numbered nearly thirty but they were all demolished in the name of progress. The local council in the early 1960’s had a new influx of people to cater for. They were not locals and wanted ,quite rightly, new facilities such as shops and entertainment centres. In 1964 conservation was a new word in most middle-sized towns, although the Civic Trust had been started in 1955. Harold Wilson heading a new national government promised ‘the white heat of new technology’. Old things did not fit in and so Aylesbury followed the trend. The town leaders at the time coveted Hemel Hempstead’s new purpose built open-air market and Stevenage’s precincts. We want some of that they said, and the bulldozers moved in.
A County Town
Aylesbury had become the County town almost by default. In 1725 following a fire, which destroyed most of the important parts of the then county town, Buckingham, the law courts moved to Aylesbury in what was originally to be only a temporary relocation. They never moved back and after the Reform Bills (when local government became more important), Aylesbury soon found it was the centre of an administrative region.
A new County Hall was built in Walton Street in 1929, but by 1966 expansion of services meant a new grander building was needed and the present 12 storey County Tower was built. This was Aylesbury’s new landmark and was in keeping with Aylesbury’s tradition of having buildings of different eras cheek by jowl with each other. Walton Street, once the main artery into the town from London, also has the 1980’s angular glass and award winning Equitable Life office block (pictured on right). Just as the county tower is known as ‘Pooley’s Folly’ then the Equitable building is known as the ‘Blue Leanie’. Ironically, Equitable has probably just overtaken Buckinghamshire County Council as the major employer in the town.
Great Train Robbers
A good view of Aylesbury is from the top of Market Square looking south. Here the old and the new can be taken into perspective. The clock tower built in 1876-77 replaced the old Market hall which had been demolished in 1860 and replaced an older structure. At the bottom of the square the Corn Exchange arches were opened in 1865 and replaced the White Hart hotel which had only been rebuilt 50 years earlier. Next to the Corn Exchange is the original courthouse built in 1740. A balcony, now removed, in the middle of the courthouse was used to execute criminals. Crowds would gather to watch and use the balconies of inns either side of the square to get a good view. One of the inns was The Green Man now ‘Butlers’ wine bar. The most famous case tried here was that of the Great Train Robbers in 1963/64.
Aylesbury Market Square has three statues. Already mentioned is that of John Hampden. Opposite him is Lord Disraeli and at the bottom of the square is local soldier Lord Chesham who was unveiled in 1910. The recumbent lions at the bottom of the square were donated by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1888. They were bought on the continent by him and formerly stood on his lawn at Waddesdon Manor five miles from Aylesbury. The manor, which has been restored, is now owned by The National Trust and opens to the public.
The Five Squares
Market Square is one of five squares that make up the centre of Aylesbury. The newest is Friars Square, which was opened in 1967 and refurbished in 1992. Kingsbury, Temple Square and St Mary’s square all lie within the conservation area. This part of the town is well worth a visit as there are a large number of historical buildings, most of which are protected.
The most significant are St Mary’s Church (pictured on the right) and Prebendal House. St Mary’s parish church may have Saxon origins but dates mainly from the 13th and 14th centuries, although it was extensively restored in the 19th century by Gilbert Scott. It is famous for its fine Norman font. There is an excellent monument to Lady Lee (an ancestor of the Robert E Lee of Virginia) in the north transept. In the chancel is the monument to Sir Francis Bernard, a notable governor of Massachusetts from 1760 to 1769. Sir Francis lived in nearby Prebendal House. This is a Grade 2 star listed building, which was built circa 1740. It was the home of the radical politician John Wilkes from 1749 to 1764. On the boundary wall within the churchyard is a stone tablet, which Wilkes dedicated to his gardener, John Smart.
The Martyred Virgin
Some of the streets in the conservation area of Aylesbury’s old town are well worth visiting. These include Castle Street which has many buildings dating back 400 years and is also noted for it’s alignment. The street use to be the drover’s road from Oxford. To make ascent into the town easier for heavily laden wagons the road was lowered and the incline made less severe. The pavements and entrances to the fine old houses and cottages is now much higher then street level.
Church Street (pictured on left) is the home to the excellent County Museum and The Roald Dahl Gallery. This is a pretty street with buildings of all eras. Parsons Fee which leads from Church Street to Castle Street is a steep cobbled lane. The 16th century half timbered house known as St Osyth’s (see History Index page for photo) was named after the town’s patron saint. Her body was moved to this vicinity after marauding Danes martyred her in the seventh century. She was said to be from nearby Quarrendon and was betrothed by her father Frewald to marry Sighere, a Christian king from East Anglia. She had, however, vowed to be celibate all her life. On her wedding day her husband agreed to her keeping her virginity and gave her a village near Clacton in Essex now known as St Osyth’s.
Rickfords Hill, Bourbon Street and Temple Street all have some noteworthy buildings and quaint old-fashioned shops. Pebble Lane at the back of the museum and running from Kingsbury to St Mary’s Square is unusual in that it has a central kennel or drain which allowed the ladies to walk to church without getting their dresses wet. It also has one of the only two surviving town pumps.
Aylesbury’s other conservation area is at Walton, half a mile south on the A413 to Amersham and London. This was originally a separate village and remains a parish in its own right. Although spoilt by a traffic management system, is has the other remaining town pump and some notable listed buildings. This includes the 18th century Walton Lodge which has been tastefully restored and extended in the original style. A large Saxon village once stretched for nearly a quarter of a mile across what is now the trunk road to London, again linking this bustling town with the past.
This History of Aylesbury was written by Roger King, Hon Secretary to the Aylesbury Society