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On the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, Hungerford was a small market town of about 600 people (see Population and Censuses). No map or plan survives to show the actual size or extent of the town at this time, but there is enough information to help provide an impression of its appearance.
The main east-west route from London to Bristol was well established; a survey of Savernake Forest dated 1228 had mentioned 'the King's Street, leading from the house of the lepers at Hungerford towards Marlborough' (see Coaching). By 1275 there had been a bridge over the Kennet - the 'pons de Hungreford', presumably for the benefit of travellers on the Kings Way. At this early time the road to Newbury probably ran nearer to the river than the present road, linking the hamlets of Denford, Avington, Wawcott and Benham, whilst the 'old and great market road from Hungerford to Newbury' ran across Hungerford Port Down and onwards along the south bank of the Kennet through Kintbury.
The route to the south of the town passed along what is now Priory Road, to Sanham Green, then south to join up with the modern road south of Beacon Farm.
It was during the Elizabethan period that road travel began to be used more widely, for private as opposed to military purposes. The Queen herself visited most of her realm by coach, and one of her coachmen is recorded as dying in Hungerford in 1592.
The Bear had been along established (documentary evidence since 1464) as a lodging place for travellers along the London to Bristol road, in association with the adjacent medieval Priory of St John. The parish registers record that Queen Elizabeth's coachman died here in 1592.
The overall layout of the town, with High Street, Cow Lane, Church Street, the two back lanes, and Charnham Street was as we know it today, having been established c1200-1250. Much information on the individual properties can be found under High Street properties, Bridge Street properties, Charnham Street properties, and Inns and Alehouses.
The main properties, perhaps around 100-120 in total, would have been timber framed, with a narrow street frontage, with buildings extending back from the street frontage along the narrow burgage plots. Behind the houses were gardens and crofts, with enough room to grow a few vegetables, raise a small crop of hay and perhaps keep a cow, a pig and a few chickens - a timeless scene, which had changed little since the early middle ages and would remain the same for many years to come.
Also along Charnham Street were more alehouses, butchers, tailors and shopkeepers.
Between the High Street and Charnham Street, in the area of the present Bridge Street and close by the river, was the town's industrial area - a corn mill ("Queen's mill"), a brewhouse, a dyehouse and a tannery. These provided some employment for the townspeople, but most worked at home, combining a trade with part-time farming.
The Great Fire, 1566:
Fire was an ever-present hazard in closely built towns such as Elizabethan Hungerford. With houses constructed of timber (brick was not yet in general use) and thatched roofs, any fire would quickly get out of control.
In 1566 a serious fire started in (or near) Queen's mill in modern Bridge Street, and spread south on both sides of the street as far as modern Three Swans Hotel. A large number of properties were completely destroyed by the fire, and no doubt many others were partly damaged. Rebuilding took a variable amount of time. Queen's Mill itself had been rebuilt at least by 1570, but others took longer. 1 High Street was still "decayed by fire" in 1591, although it was probably rebuilt by 1609. See Great Fire of Hungerford, 1566.
Re-building after the great fire:
The later 16th century is sometimes known as the period of a 'great re-building' when favourable economic circumstances enabled wealthier people to re-build their houses, to incorporate new materials such as brick and glass for the first time. Perhaps the fire provided the opportunity to start afresh, but it could take time to re-build affected houses.
There may have already been brickworks to the south of the town, although at this time the bricks were only being used to 'infill' the panels between the timber framing, replacing wattle and daub.
A further use of brick was in the construction of chimneys, a fairly recent development in house construction, but evidence from local manorial records of 1593-5 suggests that fully-brick built chimneys were not in general use (N. Hidden, The Poet as Historian: Fresh Light on Urban Fire Damage in Elizabethan Hungerford', Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Vol. 86 (1993) pp 130-135). Several tenants were reported for not having chimneys or flues and were threatened with loss of tenancy if they failed to install them. George Burrows, for example, was granted an elm tree to build a chimney or flue, which probably implies the construction of a smoke hood, a timber framed enclosure supported on the mantel beam of the fireplace and tapering to an outlet or chimney on the roof. However, he did not comply with the requirement and lost his tenancy.
What were buildings like at the time?
Whilst only a very small proportion of buildings survive from the Elizabethan period, there are documentary sources which can add some valuable details to the general picture. Wills sometimes include bequests of items which would now be considered part of the fabric of a house, but which were highly esteemed by Elizabethans and often subject to a special bequest. For example, Thomas Dolman, an innholder, gave all the glasses in the wyndawes to his son in his will (All wills and inventories mentioned are held at the Wilts RO). Probate inventories, which list all the moveable goods of a deceased person, often provide valuable information about housing, farming and trades. Unfortunately, few survive for Hungerford during this period.
However, from those that have survived, it is possible to make some comments about the layout of houses and use of rooms. (Further information gained from inventories is mentioned in later chapters, when we look at everyday life, trades and occupations.) John Collyns, a wealthy yeoman, whose inventory appears on pages 29-31, had at least five rooms on the ground floor: the hall, the 'house' behind the hall, the shop, the entry and the kitchen. Upstairs were the chamber over the hall and the middle chamber. There was also a cellar, a malthouse and a brewhouse. Another example was that of William Grove, a glover. His house had a hall, a little buttery behind the hall, a kitchen, a chamber, a wool loft and a shop. This suggests a single-storey house, with a small loft and a separate outhouse which was a workshop.
Outside the town itself, but still within the parish of Hungerford, North Standen farmhouse is said to have Tudor origins with a brick and flint chimney dating from the 16th century. Hopgrass Farm, the manor house of Charlton or Charnham Street manor, contains massive early timbers which are almost certainly of 16th century. The date stone on the south gable reads 1642, but this may denote the date of partial re-building. Further north, there are 16th century houses in Hungerford Newtown (which was still known as 'Hidden' at this time). The best example is Great Hidden Farm House, which is said to date from the late 16th century with additions every century from then onwards. The earliest part, on the west, has timber framing and an original stone fireplace.
Our ancestors were not sentimental about the past, and should not be blamed for wanting to improve their standard of living. Thatched roofs were not always watertight; wattle and daub swiftly decayed unless plastered; and timber frames might rot, especially in damp locations. The fact that there is no great evidence of Tudor buildings is in fact an indication of growing prosperity - Hungerford was a town able to reap the benefits of increasing trade and improving transport in succeeding centuries.
(From Elizabethan Hungerford, Julie Shuttleworth et al, 1995)
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