A History of Banbury

By Tim Lambert

Banbury in the Middle Ages

Banbury started as a village called Banna’s burh. (Burh is a Saxon word. It means a fortress or fortified settlement in time it became corrupted to ‘bury’).

In the 12th century, the Bishops of Lincoln owned the village of Banbury. One of the bishops built a castle at Banbury early in the 12th century and he turned Banbury into a town. The bishop divided the available land into plots for building houses and started a market. In the Middle Ages, there were very few shops so anyone who wished to buy or sell anything had to go to a market.

Once a market was held in Banbury craftsmen and merchants would come and live in the settlement. By the early 13th century Banbury probably had a population of about 1,300. That seems tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days. By the standards of the time, Banbury was a fair-sized market town.

In the second half of the 13th century, a new suburb called Newlands was built on fields south of Market Place. By 1300 Banbury probably had a population of about 1,600.

However, the population of Medieval Banbury was decimated by the black death of 1348-49. It probably killed half the population of the town. Banbury recovered but its population did not grow beyond 1,600 for the next 300 years.

In the Middle Ages Banbury was surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart, probably with a wooden palisade on top. There were also stone gates at the 4 points of the compass.

Early in the Middle Ages, there was just one general market in Banbury in the Market Place. As trade grew in the 14th and 15th centuries people began to hold specialized markets in different parts of the town. By 1319 there was a cattle market in Broad Lane. By 1441 a sheep market was held at the east end of the High Street. By the 16th century, bakers had their own market by Bread Cross.

By the 13th century, Banbury was famous for its cloth. There were many weavers in the town. Banbury was also renowned for ale. By the 15th century, Banbury was famous for cheese as well.

By 1154 Banbury had an annual fair as well as a weekly market. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets except they were held only once a year for several days. People came from all over Oxfordshire to buy and sell at a Banbury fair. From 1329 there were 2 fairs in Banbury each held for several days in the summer.

The most important industry in Banbury was wool. Wool was woven and dyed then sent to London for export to France or Southampton for export to Italy. In Banbury in the Middle Ages, there were two ‘hospitals’ run by the church for the poor and infirm. The Hospital of St John stood outside the south gate. There was also a hostel for lepers over the Cherwell.

Banbury 1500-1800

Early in the 16th century, Banbury was described as a ‘great town replenished with people and a great market town’. Another writer said ‘The fairest street of the town lies east to west down to the River Cherwell. And in the west part of this street is a large area environed with many good buildings having a good cross with many steps about it. There runs a brook of fresh water through this area. There is another fair street from South to North’.

Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s. In Banbury St John’s Hospital was dissolved in 1549. (St Leonards hospital for lepers had closed sometime before).

Until the mid-16th century, Banbury was owned by the Bishop of Lincoln. Then in 1554, it was made a self-governing borough with a bailiff who ran things day to day, and 12 aldermen and 12 burgesses. Banbury was also given its own MP.

Wool was still the main industry in Tudor Banbury but there was also a considerable leatherworking industry. There were skinners, tanners, shoemakers, and saddlers.

As Tudor Banbury grew in prosperity more and more specialized markets were held. By the end of the 16th century, there was a leather market, a horse market, a sheep market, a cattle market, a swine market, a leather market, a corn market, and a flax market. There were also specialized annual fairs in Banbury. There was a leather fair, a horse fair, a cow fair, a fish fair, a cheese fair, and a wool fair. Moreover, Banbury cakes were first mentioned in 1586.

In 1600 the population of Banbury was still only about 1,600 the same as it had been in the Middle Ages. From 1608 there was a weekly wool market in Banbury. In 1610 a building was erected so it could be held undercover. Also in 1608, the bailiff, who ran the town was replaced by a mayor. By 1573 Banbury had a jail and after 1608 a gallows.

In 1628 Banbury was devastated by fire. Over 100 houses were destroyed which was about one-third of those in the town.

Banbury also suffered severe damage during the civil war 1642-1646. Royalist soldiers occupied Banbury Castle in October 1642. The parliamentarians laid siege from July to October 1644 but they failed to capture the castle. A second siege took place from January to May 1646. This time Banbury Castle surrendered.

In 1646 a writer said Banbury had ‘scarce the one half (of its buildings) stand to gaze on the ruins of the other’. Parliament gave the town 300 pounds worth of timber to rebuild the buildings. The townspeople were also given the stone from the castle, which was demolished in 1648. By the late 17th century Banbury recovered. At the end of the century, Celia Fiennes wrote: ‘Banbury is a pretty little town the streets are broad and well-paved’.

Banbury is famous for the nursery rhyme about a fine lady on a white horse. It first appeared in print in the mid-18th century. The fine lady on a white horse was probably Celia Fiennes. (Her family owned Broughton Castle). Celia was a famous horsewoman and travel writer. Rings are a symbol of authority and bells of wealth.

A white horse

In the early 18th century the writer John Swift took the name Gulliver from a tombstone in Banbury churchyard. In the 18th century, Banbury grew and new houses were built at the hamlets of Neithrop and Calthorpe.

About 1700 a workshop was set up in Banbury for weaving horse cloths (used on horse harnesses). It had up to 50 workers, which was a very large workforce for the time. By the middle of the century, Banbury had become noted for weaving plush (a kind of cloth). In the mid-18th century, a writer spoke of the ‘great trade in cheese’ in Banbury. Another flourishing industry in the 18th century was printing. Brewing was also important in Banbury.

In 1785 a writer called Banbury a ‘dirty, ill-built town’. But there were some improvements. Three of the 4 stone gates around the town were removed as they impeded the increasing amount of traffic. The last one was removed in 1817. Meanwhile, trade and industry in Banbury were helped by the Oxford to Coventry Canal, which opened in 1790.

In 1792 the townspeople used gunpowder to demolish the old Medieval Church of St Marys. It was rebuilt in 1793 in neoclassical style.

Banbury in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, Banbury grew rapidly. In 1801 it had a population of 3,810. By 1831 it had reached 5,906. It rose to 8,206 in 1851 and by 1901 the population of Banbury was 10,012.

There were many improvements in Banbury in the 19th century. In 1825 a body of men called the Paving Commissioners was formed to pave and light the streets. At first, the streets were lit by oil lamps but after 1833 gas was used. The powers of the Paving Commissioners were transferred to a Board of Health in 1852 and to the council in 1889.

Like other towns, Banbury suffered a cholera outbreak in 1832 and 1848. However, a network of sewers was built in 1852-57, improving the town’s health. Nevertheless, there was an outbreak of smallpox in Banbury in 1871.

The first police force in Banbury was formed in 1836. It merged with the county constabulary in 1925. Conditions gradually improved in Victorian Banbury. The first newspaper in Banbury was printed in 1838. Banbury Water Company was formed in 1854 to provide piped water. It was later taken over by the council. In 1859 a cross was erected to replace one destroyed by Puritans in 1602. (The Puritans disapproved of crosses).

Meanwhile, in 1850, the railway reached Banbury. Swimming baths opened in 1869 and a volunteer fire brigade was formed in Banbury in 1870.

Horton Infirmary opened in 1872. Horton Infirmary was founded by Mary Ann Horton and it was named after her. Unfortunately, she died before it was finished but her family oversaw its completion. The architect was Charles Henry Driver (1832-1900). (Horton Infirmary later became a general hospital). The first telephone line in Banbury began operating in 1899.

In the mid-19th century, Banbury was described as ’large and well built’. It was, the writer said: ‘second to Oxford in beauty’. The church was ‘large and handsome’. It was famous for cakes and cheese. A corn exchange where grain was bought and sold was erected in 1857. It is now the entrance of the Castle Quay Shopping Centre. In 1884 a School of Art and Science was founded in Banbury.

In the early 19th century plush weaving was a thriving industry in Banbury. But after 1850 the industry declined rapidly. The employers changed to tweed instead. The last plush factory closed in 1909. The manufacture of horse cloth in Banbury also declined and it ended by 1870. Cheesemaking remained important in the early 19th century but then declined. However new industries came to Banbury. In the early 19th century an industry making farm implements grew up.

Banbury in the 20th Century

The first electricity generating station in Banbury opened in 1901. The first cinema opened in 1916. The Peoples Park opened in 1919. Also in 1919, the first motor buses began running to and from Banbury.

In 1919 the council began building houses. Council houses were built at Easington in the early 1920s. The Ruscote estate was built in the early 1930s. The population of Banbury hardly rose at all during the 1920s but it rose by nearly 5,000 in the 1930s.

Banbury Rugby Union Club was founded in 1925. Moors Recreation Ground opened in 1933.

In 1930 a corset-making industry began in Banbury. The town was also greatly helped by an aluminum smelting factory, which opened in 1931. By 1951 almost one-quarter of the male workforce was working there. In the 1950s and 1960s, many more council houses were built west of the town between Warwick Road and Broughton Road. Meanwhile, In the 1950s Banbury council built Southam Road industrial estate.

Horton Maternity Hospital opened in 1961. Banbury Historical Society was formed in 1958 and a museum opened in 1968.

Modern industries in Banbury include electronics, engineering, and chemicals. Castle Shopping Centre opened in 1974 and the M40 reached Banbury in 1990. However Banbury cattle market closed in 1998.

Banbury in the 21st Century

In 2005 a statue of the Fine Lady on a White Horse of the nursery rhyme was unveiled in Banbury. In 2023 the population of Banbury was 50,000.