A Brief History of Towcester
Towcester is probably the oldest town in the English county of Northamptonshire. It lies in a valley in the southern part of the county, with the River Tovy running to the East, and Silverstone Brook running through its centre.
Flint tools dating from 10,000 B.C. and evidence of a settlement dating 3,500-2,000 B.C. have been found in the water-meadows of the River Tovy near the site of the present town. The Romans when they arrived in 45-50 A.D., would have found quite an extensive settlement.
The Roman Occupation
The Romans called the town “Lactodorum”, from the Celtic ‘duro’ meaning ‘fort on low ground’ and ‘Lacto’ meaning ‘milk’, which may refer to the cattle and dairy products produced in the area. It was in a good military position for the Romans, because it sits on a plateau of dry land in the Tovy valley, which was protected by the river and marshland. This meant that the Romans could guard the river crossing, and watch over the native settlement at the same time. However, the most attractive feature from the Roman point of view, was the network of roads that ran through and past the town.
Watling Street (designated A5 today -pictured on left), was built by the Romans, and it goes straight up through the town. It ran from Dover in Kent, through London, Wroxeter and Chester to the Welsh borders. This was crossed in Towcester by another road running from Winchester in Hampshire, through Alchester in Oxfordshire, past Peterborough and on to Lincoln. Towcester also lies halfway between two Roman staging posts, Fenny Stratford in the south, and Whilton to the north.
There was also a “Petrifying Stream” which runs to the south of the town, which coated objects left in the water with calcium carbonate, thus giving them the appearance of limestone. This cannot be seen today, because it is piped out of sight underground.
The Romans built several large timber buildings in the town, and evidence of a large bath-house was found on the site where today’s St.Lawrence Church stands (pictured on right). Smaller houses developed along the Watling Street, in what today’s Town Planners would term “Ribbon Development”! The roads were vitally important for trade, with stone, glass (from the Rhine land), coal from the West Midlands, iron ore and shell-fish, all passing along Watling Street.
In 170 A.D. in response to trouble brewing in the east, the Romans constructed strong defences round the town. This measure was not designed to protect the local inhabitants, (they were all living strung out along the street), but they wanted to make sure that the granary and other important government communications were safe.
Lactodorum came to be known as “Towcester”, ‘cester’ from the Roman word for ‘town’, and ‘Tow’ from the River Tovy.
The Danes and Saxons
The Romans left in the 5th Century, but Towcester still remained an administrative town, where taxes would be gathered and justice dispensed. However, by the 9th Century, the town was caught between the Danes who were now only the other side of Watling Street at Northampton, and the Saxons in the South. It became something of a frontier town, and in the early part of 10th Century, King Edward, the son of Alfred the Great, reinforced its earth defences. After a siege in 921, which the town successfully withstood, the defences were rebuilt in stone.
The church of St.Lawrence was first built in Saxon times, on top of the remains of a Roman building. (A section of herring-bone tiles can still be seen from outside the staircase to the east of the South Porch.) It was later expanded during the Middle Ages, and had a major rebuild in 15th Century. Today, it looks much the same from the outside as it did in Mediaeval times (see photo on right).
After their conquest in 1066, the Normans found that Towcester was still a town of much importance, with a water-mill on the same site that it occupies now, on the banks of the Mill Stream, which feeds into the River Tovy. They built a Motte and Bailey castle in the early 12th Century, on Bury Mount to the east of the town, so that they could keep an eye on the surrounding countryside. These defences must also have afforded a certain degree of security to the town, and in the 13th century, it was allowed to hold a market.
The market was probably held on the site of the present Town Hall and Market Square. Shops were built round the Market placewhich had narrow frontages and long strips of land running back away from the road.
Traffic though Towcester increased in the Middle Ages, for this was the age of The Pilgrimage. Many Christians went on long religious pilgrimages, and they required good roads and lots of inns along the way, both of which Towcester provided.
In 1422, William Sponne became the rector of Towcester. He wanted to do something for the benefit of the town, so in 1430, he founded the Towcester Grammar School, which is one of the oldest schools in the country. The original school was in the Chantry House (pictured on left), near the Church, but it moved to its present site on the Brackley Road, at the end of the 19th Century. It is now a flourishing Comprehensive School called Sponne School. After he died, a wonderful tomb was erected for him in St.Lawrence church which can still be seen today. It shows a fully clothed effigy on the top, with a skeleton lying underneath. This was supposed to teach people humility in the face of death!
English Civil War
The Civil War broke out in 1642, and once again Towcester found itself caught between two opposing sides, Northampton, which supported the Parliamentarians, and Oxford, which was for the King.
Towcester was chosen by the Royalists as a garrison town, because they wanted to keep a check on Northampton. There were various skirmishes near the town, and by 1643, a large part of the Royalist army, (including their horses) were based here under the command of Prince Rupert. The town’s population was ordered to help construct defences, by digging ditches and making earth walls. These fortifications were arranged round the Bury Mount, this still being the strategic high point overlooking the Northampton Road. Once this was done, the Royalists rounded up all the local cattle and grain, and destroyed whatever could not be carried into Towcester, thereby preventing the enemy from getting any help from the countryside. The locals must have been very annoyed, (to say the least) because they were pro-Parliament! Finally, in January 1644, the King ordered his forces back to Oxford, and the Royalists abandoned Towcester, after first destroying the fortifications. The following year, Sir Thomas Fairfax secured Towcester for Parliament and it remained a Parliamentary garrison until the end of the war in 1646.
The 18th Century
Towcester changed little in appearance over the next few hundred years. It was still composed almost entirely of timber-framed, thatched buildings, which fronted on to Watling Street. Many fires broke out in the town, and one in 1749 destroyed 36 houses, barns and outbuildings.
By the 18th Century, the age of coaching had arrived, with the traffic through Towcester being increased by the Mail coaches that travelled up Watling Street and on to Dublin via Holyhead. Many travellers stopped in Towcester on their journey and there were a large number of inns in the town to cater for them. One of the oldest inns is the “Talbot” or ‘Tabarde’ as it was originally known (it is now Sponne House, pictured on right, and is used by Lloyds Bank). The Saracen’s Head Inn (formally Pomfret Arms) stands on the crossroads in the town and has served travellers for centuries.
The roads were often in bad repair, so turnpikes were built along the Brackley Road and Watling Street in an attempt to raise enough money to pay for their upkeep. The one at the south end of the town near the Heathencote turning even had its own “Weighing Machine” so that excess weight could be charged for!
This was also the time of the canals, and the Grand Union Canal linking London and the Midlands, was opened in 1805. It passes near Towcester through Stoke Bruerne, and a new road was built so that goods could be carried between the canal and the town. Local produce of boots, shoes and silk stockings were sent off to major cities, and coal and Welsh Slate, for roofing, were imported into the town. This is why many of the thatched roofs in the town were replaced with cheaper Welsh slate at this time (see photo of Watling Street cottages with slate roofs on left).
A large workhouse was built in 1836 (pictured on right), behind the Bull Inn on the Brackley Road, to cater for the town’s poor. It was designed to hold up to 208 people, but generally, there were only 80 or so there at any one time. The building has since been converted into flats (apartments).
Many important changes occurred in the town in Victorian times. The railway arrived in 1872, when the Stratford upon Avon and Midland Junction (S.M.J.) opened a line between Blisworth and Towcester. This later went on to Stratford on Avon via Blakesley. It was not a success, however, and the station was closed down after a few years.
The Town Hall
In 1866, a splendid new Town Hall (pictured on right) was built at the end of the Market Square. Various small properties were demolished to make way for the new building, which consisted of offices and a large assembly hall. This was taken over by Towcester Rural District Council in 1935, which eventually became South Northamptonshire District Council.
The Town Hall was now too small for the new authority and new quarters were built for them in 1982, near the Brackley Road. The Town Hall then became the responsibility of the Parish Council and it is now hired out and used for various private and commercial functions plus office accomodation.
One of the most interesting new developments in Towcester was the arrival of the Racecourse in 1876, to the South-East of the town, which came about almost by chance. Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria, had rented the large house and grounds of Easton Neston from the owner, Sir Thomas Fermor-Hesketh, so that she and her friends could take part in some local fox-hunting. It was decided to hold a race meeting in the park on the Easter Monday, and two stands were duly erected so that everyone could see the horses race. The stewards were very strict as to who they would allow in, and no bookmakers were allowed to attend! The day proved to be a great success and it was decided to make the race an annual event. This has increased over the years and today there are about 14 meetings a year.
Trade has, of course, changed in Towcester this century. The hand-made boot and shoe industry disappeared, although in 1945, a Mr. Law in Watling Street, made a special pair of running shoes for Roger Bannister, who subsequently went on to be the first person to run the four minute mile.
Motor cars (automobiles) were built for a short while in the old Baptist church by Victor Ashby and Sons. They were made in conjunction with Shorts of Rochester, and were known as “Short-Ashby”. However bigger premises were soon needed, and in 1923 they relocated to Manchester.
Telephones came to the town at the beginning of the 20th Century, and the telegraph poles started to appear along Watling Street (or the A5 as it termed today). The incumbent at Easton Neston did not object to them in principal, but he did not want to see them from his house! So the wires were laid underground down the hill and through the town, with their position marked by cast-iron “VR” signs. These can still be seen today outside various buildings in the town. Telecommunications later came to Towcester in a big way when Plessey built its micro-electronics factory on the edge of the town.
Motor Racing at Silverstone
A few miles to the south of Towcester lies the village of Silverstone. During the Second World War, a millitary air-field was built beside the village. This fell into disuse once the war had finished. In July 1948, a temporary lease was arranged so that the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) could hold a Grand Prix motor race on the old air-field. It was to be a 3.67 mile long circuit and they had just two months to get it ready! They utilized part of the run-ways for the circuit, and the first Grand Prix was held at Silverstone on 2nd October 1948. Silverstone has since become the venue for many races, not only the huge annual Grand Prix, but smaller club races too. In 1991, the circuit underwent major renovations, to bring it in line with modern safety regulations, but the names of the bends and circuit shape are still much the same as they always were.
The Towcester of today is still a thriving town. Its traffic problems have been somewhat alleviated by the building of the M1 motorway several miles to the east of the town, and the A43 by-pass built in 1987. It also has a new Leisure Centre complex, built in 1992, and new houses and shops to the south of the town. However, the heart of Towcester is still dominated by the long straight line of Watling Street lined on both sides by a wonderful selection of buildings and shops of different shapes, sizes and ages.
This Brief History of Towcester was written by Chris Howes