History of Newbury

Newbury was established in the 11th century as a Norman ‘new town.’ Unlike most local villages, it does not appear by name in the Domesday Book (1086), but the first reference to the town does occur during William the Conqueror’s reign.  The first reference to St Nicolas’ church appears at the same time.

Historically the main streets were Bartholomew Street, Cheap Street and – linked for centuries by a wooden bridge across the Kennet – Northbrook Street.  The common arable fields, farmed in strips, were the West Field (across the Craven Road area) and the East Field (on both sides of the modern St John’s Road).  The common pasture was Northcroft and The Marsh (now Victoria Park).

Newbury was always an important agricultural centre, serving a wide area.  Among local industries, cloth production grew in the middle ages and reached its height in the Tudor period, when the leading clothier was John Winchcombe II (died 1557), known as “Jack of Newbury.”  He produced thousands of dyed woollen cloths for export, at a time when Newbury’s output was nationally significant.  

In 1556, during Queen Mary’s reign, three Protestants were tried for their faith in the parish church, condemned to death, and burnt at the stake near Enborne Road.  An element of self-government for Newbury arrived later the same century, when the town’s first Charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1596.

Clock Tower Newbury
The Clock Tower Newbury

Two major battles were fought around Newbury during the Civil War.  Both involved substantial forces, but neither proved decisive.  In the first Battle of Newbury, in September 1643, fighting was concentrated at Wash Common and the surrounding area.  The second Battle of Newbury was fought in October 1644 across the north of Newbury from Shaw to Speen, with Shaw House fiercely contested.  King Charles I was present at both battles. 

Of long-standing importance for markets and fairs, in the 18th century Newbury also became an important inland port.  Roads were poor, and heavy goods were carried more cheaply by water.  In 1715 an Act of Parliament approved work to allow barges along the Kennet from the Thames at Reading to Newbury Wharf, and the waterway was completed in 1723.  This was important not just for Newbury, but also in serving Hungerford and part of Wiltshire to the west.

Some of the prosperity generated in the town during the 18th century is reflected in the range of surviving Georgian buildings in the centre of Newbury.  The coaching trade prospered, especially along the London Road and Bath Road at Speenhamland (near the present Clock Tower), where there were numerous coaching inns with stabling for hundreds for horses.  Brewing was also an important local trade.

Poverty among local agricultural workers grew into a severe problem in the 1790s.  Magistrates met at the George and Pelican Inn in Speenhamland, and agreed that workers’ wages would be subsidised from local taxation, according to the price of bread.  This model was adopted by many other magistrates across southern and central England, and became known as the “Speenhamland System.”  The town developed a variety of almshouses, many of which survive to the present day, some keeping their external appearance, while others have been rebuilt.

In 1794 an Act of Parliament granted approval to link the Kennet Navigation in Berkshire with the Avon Navigation further west, creating the Kennet and Avon Canal, which eventually opened in 1810.  The following year saw the making of the Newbury Coat.  A wager was made that it was possible to start the day with two sheep, and by the end of the day to sit down to dinner in a coat made from their wool.  

Many changes took places in the 19th century.  A branch line of the Great Western Railway opened in 1847, connecting Reading via Newbury to Hungerford, where the line originally ended.  Market Street was added and a new cattle market created, reflecting Newbury’s role as an agricultural market town.  Many religious groups, including the (Roman) Catholics, Methodists and Baptists, built new churches.  Numerous public buildings went up, such as the Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, St Bartholomew’s School in Enborne Road, and Newbury District Hospital, then in Andover Road.

The 20th century was the century of the two world wars.  A war memorial which originally featured 330 names was erected in 1922.   In the Second World War, fifteen people died in a single day in 1943 when Newbury was bombed; bombs from one German bomber destroyed several buildings including St John’s Church and the Council School (where five of the victims died).

In the late 20th century Newbury expanded, with new housing estates, shopping developments such as the Kennet Centre and Newbury Retail Park, and various business and industrial estates.  Through traffic was moved out of the town centre, and the pressure for residential development increased significantly after the opening of the M4 motorway in the 1970s.  Vodafone arrived in the 1980s, first occupying dozens of buildings in Newbury itself before moving out to purpose-built headquarters at Shaw.  It was in Newbury that the first official mobile phone call was made in January 1985.  Parkway shopping centre opened in 2011.

Like other towns, the future of Newbury is vulnerable to many pressures, including the growth of online shopping, and planning and development changes.

David Peacock 2021