Newbury and Thatcham: a historical comparison

Newbury Branch meeting 12th October 2016

Speaker: Dr Nick Young


Archaeological studies have shown that woolly mammoths roamed the area that we now call Colthrop, and that hippos wallowed in the nearby waterland. The river eventually attracted human beings, and flint tools from the Mesolithic era have been found in quantity around Lower Way. Bronze Age roundhouse remains have been found around Thatcham and Newtown. Iron Age hill forts topped Beacon Hill, Snelsmore and many more sites.

         The site of Newbury Town Hall has yielded evidence of continuous human occupation since prehistoric times.

         Roman remains suggest that Thatcham had a denser settlement than its neighbour Newbury, which had but a few scattered farmsteads, and a cemetery near Sainsbury’s. Thatcham, in contrast, had higher-status Roman buildings although – strangely – no cemetery.

         Surviving documentation names Thatcham before we hear of Newbury: a will of 975 names the settlement and, unlike Newbury, it features in the Domesday Book, with an estimated population of 350. Thatcham is thought to have kept its basic road layout from these times.

Newbury’s first mention came as New Bourg in 1079, possibly distinguishing it from the Saxon manor of Ulvritone south of the river.

         Both towns had medieval markets, giving rise to commercial rivalry. By the sixteenth century Thatcham’s market had gone. In the following two centuries the boundary between the two towns was altered, but both populations rocketed in the nineteenth century.

         Both towns have long-established parish churches: St Mary’s in Thatcham has had much added to its core structure of 1141, and underwent a major makeover in 1857. St Nicolas’ in Newbury is of more recent construction, dating from the sixteenth century, but replacing an older church. Both have chapels: St Thomas’ in Thatcham was built in 1304 to take St Mary’s overspill of parishioners, but four centuries later became a Bluecoat school. The Litten chapel in Newbury was sited on a Saxon burial ground on the edge of Ulvritone, and it too became a school. Both buildings survive (in part, in the case of the Litten) today.

         Noteworthy sons and daughters of the two towns have included Victor Buller Turner and his brother Alexander, both VCs, Dr William Twisse the Puritan divine, Thomas Parker the foundation settler of Newbury Massachusetts, Elizabeth Montagu of bluestocking renown, Jack Winchcombe the clothier and Francis Baily the astronomer.

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