By Tim Lambert
Basingstoke in the Middle Ages
Basingstoke began as a Saxon village. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), it had a population of about 200. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large village. In Basingstoke, there were 3 watermills, which ground grain to flour. Basingstoke also had a weekly market.
In the Middle Ages Basingstoke grew into a town, though a small one. In the 13th century, Basingstoke probably had a population of around 600 or 700 people. There were really only 4 streets. In the middle was the Market Square. On the west was Church Road that led to St Michael of the Mount Church. On the east side was Mote Street. The Mote Hall was a hall by the marketplace where the townsmen met together. (Mote is the old English word for meeting).
In the north was the main Winchester to London road. In the south was a lane. It was called Frog Lane or Lower Brook Lane. In 1257 Basingstoke was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights).
The people of Medieval Basingstoke grew most of their own food. Around Basingstoke were 3 large fields, the west, south, and north field. They were divided into strips and most men would own some strips in each field.
There was also a common where all the townspeople had a right to graze cattle, pigs, and sheep. (The people of Basingstoke employed men to look after the livestock. There was a swineherd for the pigs, a shepherd for the sheep, and a cowherd).
The prosperity of Basingstoke depended on wool. Sheep were raised locally and wool was woven in Basingstoke. After the wool was woven it was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. There were also tanners in Basingstoke and tailors as well as craftsmen such as blacksmiths, bakers, brewers, and coopers.
In 1392 Basingstoke was devastated by fire, (fire was always a hazard in those days because most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs). A writer of the time said the fire caused ‘serious injury and utter loss’.
However, the king granted Basingstoke a new charter (a document giving the townspeople certain rights). The charter made the ‘good men’ of Basingstoke into a corporation and gave them the right to use a common seal (which was pressed into the wax seal on documents). Basingstoke was now entirely independent.
King John (1199-1216) quarreled with the Pope. As a result, the Pope placed England under an interdict, which meant the dead could not be buried in consecrated land. During the years 1208-1215, the dead in Basingstoke were buried in a cemetery north of the town called the liten. When the interdict was lifted a chapel was built by it called the Chapel of the Holy Ghost.
There was also a ‘hospital’ in Basingstoke. (In those days the church ran the only hospitals). By the early 13th century the Hospital of St John the Baptist had been founded where the monks looked after the sick and infirm, as best they could. They also provided hospitality for poor travelers.
In 1449 Basingstoke was granted the right to hold a fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year, for a few days, and people would come from a wide area to buy and sell goods.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Basingstoke remained a small and quiet market town. In 1607 some almshouses where poor people could live were built after a man left money in his will for this purpose.
In 1601 Basingstoke again suffered a fire. In 1656 another fire destroyed the Town Hall. A new one was built the next year.
In 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Basingstokenwere sympathetic to parliament but the Marquis of Winchester, who owned Basing House, supported the king. On 31 July 1643, a force of parliamentary soldiers attempted to take the house but the Marquis and his men were armed with muskets and drove them off. The parliamentary troops retreated to Farnham. The king then sent 250 men to reinforce Basing House. They then made earthworks around the house as extra fortifications.
Between June and November 1644 the parliamentary troops tried again to take Basing house and failed. Once again they retreated. But the king was losing the war by this time, and Basing House was a thorn in parliament’s side. In October 1645 Cromwell led an army against the house. This time, inevitably, it fell. The parliamentary troops then looted the house of weapons, food, furniture, and jewels.
During the 17th century, the wool trade declined as Basingstoke faced increasing competition from the north of England.
There was little change in Basingstoke in the 18th century. It remained a small market town reaching a population of about 2,500 by the end of the century.
A workhouse was built in Basingstoke in 1722 where paupers were housed and fed (they were expected to work if they were able).
In 1786 the 3 open fields around Basingstoke were enclosed until then each man owned some strips of land in each of the 3 fields. They were now divided up so every man’s land was all in one place.
Meanwhile, during the 18th century, the cloth trade in Basingstoke continued to decline.
Basingstoke in the 19th century
At the time of the first census in 1801, Basingstoke had a population of 2,589. By 1851 it had risen to 4,263. In 1901 it was 9,510. In 1806 more almshouses were built when a man named Joseph Page left money in his will to provide for them.
In 1832 a new town hall was built in Basingstoke. In 1887 it was given a clock tower but this was removed in 1961, as it was unsafe. In 1834 Basingstoke gained gas streetlights. A fire brigade was formed in 1838.
In 1857 Millwards boot and shoe-making business began in Basingstoke. Brewing was another important industry in Basingstoke. When the Salvation Army came to Basingstoke in 1880 they were unpopular, as they were teetotallers and people thought they might harm the brewing industry. There was unrest in Basingstoke between 1880 and 1882.
The railway reached Basingstoke from London in 1839. It was extended to Southampton in 1840. In 1848 a line to Reading opened. n In 1847 Willis and Stevens engineering firm opened in the town. Thornycroft factory opened in 1898 making engines.
In 1865 the Haymarket was built as a corn exchange (where grain was bought and sold). In 1925 after a fire it was made into a theatre. A cottage hospital opened in 1879. Blue Coat School opened in 1862. Fairfields School was built in 1887.
Basingstoke in the 20th century
In 1901 the Alton Light Railway opened. It closed in 1936. The first cinema in Basingstoke opened in 1910. Basingstoke gained its first electricity-generating station in 1914. In 1921 the War Memorial park was opened. The first museum opened in 1931.
By the early 1930s, the population of Basingstoke had risen to around 14,000 and it continued to grow. Private houses were built at Bramblys Grange Road in 1939. The government expected Basingstoke to be safe from bombing and in 1939 about 900 schoolchildren were evacuated to the town and the surrounding villages.
But Basingstoke was not entirely safe. Church Square was bombed in August 1940. Six people died. In 1956 a remembrance garden was opened on the site of the bombed houses in Church Square.
In 1943 Lansing Bagnall opened in Basingstoke making battery-electric trucks.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a new council housing estate was built at Oakridge. Oakridge tower, a 13-story block of flats was built in 1967. Another council housing estate was built at West Ham in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the late 1950s, private houses were built at the Berg estate.
In 1961 it was decided to make Basingstoke an overspill town for London and a new plan was drawn up for the town. It was made public in 1962. The plan called for 37,000 people to be moved from London to Basingstoke. The population of the town would rise from 16,000 in 1961 to 75,000 by 1981. Several estates of new houses, some of them council, and some of them private were built around the outskirts of Basingstoke. Houses were built at Winklebury and Popley. A council estate was built at Buckskin. Private houses were built at Kempshott.
By 1970 the population of Basingstoke had risen to 47,000. In the late 1960s and early 1970s houses were built at Riverdene. In the 1970s Brighton Hill, a private estate, was built. Furthermore, some private and some council houses were built at Black Dam on the site of Basingstoke Common. In the 1980s Chineham became built up.
Many new factories were built as well as warehouses and offices as industry moved from London to Basingstoke in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1960s an Houndmills industrial estate was built northwest of the town. The AA HQ in Basingstoke was officially opened in 1973.
The plan for Basingstoke called for a ring road and an east-west spine road (Churchill Way). It also called for a pedestrian shopping precinct to replace the old shopping center. The first shops in this precinct opened in November 1968. A multi-story car park for 2,000 cars was built above it.
In 1960 a technical college opened in Basingstoke. Russell Howard Park opened in 1967 and a new sports centre opened in 1970. A new hospital was opened in 1974 and new civic offices were built in 1975. In 1976 the remains of Basing House were opened to the public. London Street was pedestrianized in 1976. The rest of the Basingstoke town centre was pedestrianized in 1988. The Malls Shopping Centre was built in 1981.
Basingstoke in the 21st Century
In the 21st century, Basingstoke continues to thrive. Festival Place Shopping Centre opened in 2002. In 2020 the population of Basingstoke was about 90,000.