A Brief History of Hungerford

The attractive rural market town of Hungerford is at the very western end of Berkshire, near the borders with Wiltshire and Hampshire. It lies in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A walk around the town and its immediate surrounding countryside will reveal the inherent charm of the area. Much of the town has remained unaltered for generations.

Pre-history:

Archaeological excavations on the northern outskirts of Hungerford in 1989 revealed Stone Age tools and the site of a Bronze Age ceremonial building. A Roman road passes just north of the town on its way from Silchester and Speen in the east through Littlecote estate to Mildenhall and Bath in the west. This early information begins the jigsaw of local history, but little of real detail can possibly be known about the town until written records begin.

Domesday and Manorial History:

The Domesday Survey, carried out by King William I in 1086, does not name Hungerford, although many of the manors immediately adjacent to the town are recorded, including Eddington, Leverton, Inkpen, Denford, Avington, Inglewood and Charlton. For the first written evidence of the town, one has to wait just a few years more until 1108, when documents refer to the church of Hungerford being assigned to the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. Of this church there are no remains, although there is a beautiful Norman church standing today in an idyllic setting at Avington, just a mile or so east of Hungerford.

The Parish Church:

The present parish church of St Lawrence was built in 1816, and stands on the site of an Early English predecessor. It is probable that, in turn, this church had been built on the site of the earlier Norman building. The church lies several hundred metres to the west of the town centre. In Norman times it is likely that the village was clustered around the church, on land now known as The Croft, and spreading on to Freeman's Marsh.

The new medieval town:

Around the end of the 12th century, a new town plan was conceived. This consisted of a main street running roughly north south, with back lanes on either side of the main Street, about a hundred metres to the east and west. The area contained within this framework was divided into narrow burgage plots, and within these the new town of Hungerford was built. The overall structure is still visible today, although sadly only a few of the High Street properties retain their long gardens reaching back to Prospect Road in the west, and Fairview Road in the east.

The connection with John of Gaunt:

Through the 11th to 14th centuries the manor of Hungerford passed between the Crown and various Duchies of Leicester and Lancaster. In 1351 it was in the ownership of Henry, Duke of Lancaster, who married Isabel of Beaumont. Henry died in 1361 leaving no sons, but two daughters, Maud and Blanche. Maud inherited the estates, but died childless on 10 April 1362: and the manor of Hungerford, along with many other estates, passed to her younger sister, Blanche, wife of Edward III's fourth son, John of Gaunt. This date is therefore of some interest to Hungerfordians.

The connection with John of Gaunt is remembered today in the naming of some important buildings, such as the John of Gaunt Inn and John o'Gaunt School, and also streets, including Lancaster Square arid Lancaster Close.

Chief of the traditions surrounding Hungerford's association with John of Gaunt is that he granted the right of fishing on the River Kennet from Eldren Stubb (just below Leverton in the west) as far as Irish Stile (at least two miles below Kintburv in the east). To support this tradition there is in the town's possession an ancient (and battered!) brass horn, which is said to have been given to the town by John of Gaunt as guarantee of those rights. There was a written charter confirming these rights, but the Duchy copy was lost in a fire at John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace in The Strand in 1381, and the town's copy was allegedly stolen in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. The loss of the charter occurred when there was increasing hostility between the Duchy and the townspeople over various rights and privileges. Many legal wrangles ensued, and at one stage the town appealed to the Queen herself in an attempt to win the day.

The James I grant, 1612:

In the reign of James 1, the long-standing legal disputes were settled, and in 1612 the King granted the Manor of Hungerford to two local men, John Eldred and William Whitmore. After a further few years of legal transfers, the Manor of Hungerford was conveyed in 1617 to Ralph Mackerell (Constable), and 13 other local men 'in trust for the inhabitants'. These 14 men thus became the first feoffees or trustees of the Town and Manor of Hungerford. The present commoners are those people owning and living in the properties established at the time of the 1612 James I grant.

The Town and Manor:

The organisation of the Town and Manor of Hungerford has been handed down from generation to generation for nearly 400 years. The Commoners' Court is headed by the Constable, who is ably supported by a group of other officials including the Port-Reeve, Bailiff, four Tutti-men, a number of Water-Bailiffs, several Overseers of the Common (Port Down), three Keepers of the Keys of the Common Coffer, two Ale-Tasters (or 'Testers'), and the Bellman and Assistant Bailiff. Some offices have fallen from usage, including the Searchers and Sealers of Leather, and the Tasters of Flesh and Fish!

The most important day in the life of the Town and Manor is Tutti-Day, always held on the second Tuesday after Easter. In the past this was the day by which all quit rents and fines were due to be paid, and it marks the end of the financial and administrative year. The Bellman (who is also Town Crier) summons all the Commoners to the Commoners' Court, which is held in the Town Hall at 9 o'clock. Meanwhile the two Tutti-men, accompanied by their guide and mentor, the Orangeman, work their way around the town, visiting every house with common rights, numbering nearly 100 in total. In the past they would have collected the 'head penny' from each householder, but nowadays the most they collect is a kiss from the ladies of the house, and a little hospitality to help them on their way.

Meanwhile, in the Town Hall, the Commoners' Court is under way. The Constable guides the Court through a series of stages which are carried out today much as they have been for generations. The officers are elected for the coming year, the accounts are read and agreed, and a number of other matters are discussed concerning the affairs of the Town and Manor.

In 1908 the Town and Manor became a registered charity, and is thus responsible to the Charity Commissioners. The present trustees arid court have a considerable responsibility, managing the Town Hall (probably the only Town Hall in the country not paid for by the Community Charge), the John of Gaunt Inn, the Common, Freeman's Marsh, as well as the extensive fishing in the Rivers Kennet and Dun.

The visit by William of Orange, 1688:

In 1688 a very important part of British history took place in Hungerford. The Catholic King James II was King of England, but he was not widely popular, and by 1688 there were plans to remove him from the throne. The Protestant Prince William of Orange landed at Brixham in Devon, and travelled with his army towards London, hoping to gather support for his cause along the way. When the King learned of this approach, James II sent three commissioners to meet Prince William. The meeting took place in the Bear Inn at Hungerford on 6 December 1688, and it was during this meeting that plans were made for the throne of England to pass to William. The very fact that such a crucial meeting took place in Hungerford is evidence, if any were necessary, of the importance of the London to Bath Road, one of the major routes of the country.

Coaching:

The fact that Hungerford lay on the Bath Road had a considerable effect on the town's growth and development. Coaching became big business, and Hungerford became a coaching town.

As early as 1228 there are written records of an important road through Savernake Forest from the east. This 'King's Way' was the forerunner of the Bath Road, and it crossed the River Kennet at the 'pons de Hungreford', recorded in 1275. Savernake Forest was much larger then, and surveys of the forest describe it as extending as far as "the house of lepers at Hungerford". In 1232 the Priory of St John was established on land at the northern edge of the town, now the site of Bridge Street. The priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1548.

During the Elizabethan period road travel began to be used more widely; one of the Queen's coachmen is known to have been buried in the parish churchyard in 1601. By 1740 traffic along the Bath Road had increased greatly, and at this time the access to the town from the Bath Road was improved. The ford through the River Dun (adjacent to the present war memorial) was proving very inadequate, and land was bought in order to build a new road with bridges — now the northern end of Bridge Street.

Hungerford lay not only on the Bath Road (running east-west) but also on the Oxford to Salisbury turnpike (running north-south). During the hey-day of the coaching period, at the end of the 18th century and the first few decades of the 19th century, the town grew and prospered. There were many coaching inns around the town servicing the coaching trade, along with many stables and blacksmiths. A new Town Hall was built in 1786, and many of the timber-framed High Street properties were 'modernised' by the addition of new Georgian frontages.

The Kennet and Avon Canal:

The prosperity of the town was further enhanced by the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810. Hungerford wharf was a busy trading centre, and brought valuable business to the town. Census figures show that the population rose from 1987 in the year 1,801 to 2,696 in 1851, a very considerable growth of 35 per cent. There seems little doubt that this first half of the 19th century was Hungerford's busiest, but the opening of Brunel's Great Western Railway to Bristol in 1841 spelt disaster to the canal trade. Journeys that had taken more than a week by canal could now be accomplished in just a few hours. Both the canal trade and coaching traffic slumped.

The Railway and trhe Victorian period:

It seemed that only one thing could help Hungerford — the building of a railway to the town. This came sooner than many would have dreamed of, and a terminus station was opened (on the site of the present station) in 1847. This line was later extended (in 1862) onwards to the west, and one could have expected that Hungerford would continue to thrive, now that it lay on a main railway route. The expected prosperity failed to materialise, however. Rather than bringing trade to the town, the railway drained the town of people and resources. The population actually fell between 1851 and 1901.

Despite the many problems at the time, Hungerford's civic pride ran high. A new Town Hall and Corn Exchange were built, and several new churches. Two important iron foundries provided employment for many men in the town, and with the continuing role of market town for the local area, Hungerford reached the 20th century as a busy and active community. The Hungerford Water Works was established in 1903, and mains drainage in 1909. Telephones were installed in 1907, a splendid new All-age Council School was built in 1910, and a new post office in 1914. Many of the photographs in this book date from the early 20th century, and the atmosphere of the town can be assessed through them.

The Twentieth Century and beyond:

The outbreak of the First World War had a profound effect on the town. Many men went to fight, whilst the town itself was host to an army unit assembling here before joining the front.

The years after the First World War saw the town begin its great 20th-century expansion. Until that time there had been very few houses outside the main streets of High Street, Bridge Street, Cow Lane (Park Street) and Church Street. Post-war, however, there was an accelerating expansion. This was a time of great community spirit, with a strong emphasis locally on sports and games. A sports ground in The Croft was opened in 1921, and bowls, croquet, tennis, shooting, rugby, football and cricket all thrived. There was even a golf course on the Common.

More recently the town has grown more, and the building of the M4 motorway in 1971 has brought further prosperity to the whole Kennet Valley. Modern Hungerford is well known for its antique shops, and as a tourist centre. The Kennet and Avon Canal was restored at Hungerford in 1974, and fully reopened in August 1990. It provides enjoyment for many, whether in boats or on the tow-path.

See also:

- Town Walks