A History of Christchurch England

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Christchurch

Christchurch began as a Saxon village. Its original name was Tweoxneam, which means between 2 rivers. The Saxon settlement stood on a triangular piece of land between the rivers.

Early in the 10th century, Christchurch was made a burgh or fortified settlement. (Alfred the Great created a network of fortified towns across his kingdom called burghs). Christchurch was defended by the sea on one side and by two rivers, the Stour and the Avon on the other two sides. (Both rivers had marshes along their banks, which made them even more effective barriers). The Saxons erected an earth rampart on the remaining side. It probably had a wooden palisade on top. If the Danes attacked men from all over the area would gather inside the burgh of Christchurch to fight.

The name of the settlement was changed to Christchurch when the church was built in the 11th century. According to legend St Catherine’s Hill was chosen for the site of a church. Each evening the builders would finish work but when they came back the next morning the building work was undone and the materials were moved somewhere else. One day a beam was cut too short and a stranger miraculously lengthened it. The builders decided the stranger must have been Jesus Christ so they moved the site of the church and changed the name of the town to Christchurch.

Christchurch in the Middle Ages

At the time of the Domesday book, Christchurch probably had a population of around 170, which made it a fairly large village for that time. Christchurch had one watermill, which ground grain to flour for the inhabitants.

In about 1094 the Normans built a priory (a small abbey) at Christchurch. There was also a leper hostel in the Middle Ages, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. About 1150 the Lord of the Manor of Christchurch built a castle. He also built a house for the constable of the castle (The constable looked after the castle when the lord of the manor was absent).

Medieval Christchurch had a weekly market. In those days there were very few shops and if you wanted to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market.

By the 12th century, Christchurch also had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market except it was held once a year and people would come from a wide area to buy and sell at one. From the 13th century, there were 2 fairs in Christchurch. One was held in June, the other in October.

To us, Medieval Christchurch would seem very small. It probably had a population of fewer than 1,000 people. However, in those days towns were usually very small.

There were many fishermen in Christchurch in the Middle Ages. There were also stocks and a ducking stool. This was a stool or chair on the end of a beam. A woman convicted of ‘scolding’ was tied to it and then ducked in the river. (Scolding meant more than just nagging. It meant harassing your neighbours by slandering them or using abusive language).

The people of Christchurch had the right to graze their livestock on the common ground near the town. However, if they let an animal stray it was put in a pound and the owner had to pay a fine to get it back.

From 1307 Christchurch sent 2 MPs to parliament. The number was reduced to 1 in 1832.

Christchurch in the 16th century and the 17th century

In the early 16th century, a writer said that Christchurch was ‘situated in a desolate place in a very barren country, out and far from all highways, in an angle or a corner (between 2 rivers), having no woods or commodious country about it, no good town near but only the said poor town of Christchurch which is a very poor town and slenderly inhabited’. Christchurch probably had a population of around 1,000 and was in a sparsely populated area.

In 1539 Henry VIII closed the priory. Fortunately, the leper hostel remained. By then there were no more lepers in England but it continued as a ‘hospital’ for the sick and infirm.

The first stagecoaches began to run from Christchurch in 1640. Then in 1642 came the Civil War. At first, Christchurch was in the hands of the Royalists but in April 1644 a parliamentary army captured the town. Later that year the royalists made 2 attempts to capture Christchurch. The first time they were driven back. The second time they were more successful and pushed the parliamentarians back into the castle and the priory but the royalists withdrew when they heard parliamentary reinforcements were coming. After the Civil War, in 1652 the castle was demolished to make sure it never fell into the royalist’s hands again.

In 1662 a free grammar school was founded in Christchurch. In 1677 a man named Edward Elliott left money to provide bread for some poor people on the second Sunday of each month.

Christchurch in the 18th century

In this century there were still many fishermen in Christchurch. Other industries in the town were knitting silk stockings, glove making, and making fusee chains (a type of very small chain that formed part of the mechanism of a watch). Another important industry in Christchurch was brewing. Perhaps the most profitable industry in those days was smuggling!

In those days it was much easier to transport goods by water than by road so goods were taken from Christchurch by ship to other parts of Britain. Bulrushes were ‘exported’ from Christchurch to other parts of Britain (to be used to make baskets). Grain and timber were also exported.

In 1744 the Bargate was demolished and from 1774 Christchurch had a fire pump. It was rushed to the scene of a fire and the pump was worked by hand to try and extinguish the flames. In 1746 a Town Hall was built in Christchurch. In 1792 an artillery barracks was built.

Christchurch in the 19th century

In 1801, at the time of the first census, the population of Christchurch was 1,410. Even by the standards of the time, it was a very small market town. It was also poor. In 1832 a writer said ‘The town presents no symptoms of activity or industry. The houses are of a middling description. The appearance of the inhabitants, who are thinly scattered, gives no indications of prosperity’.

Bear baiting was held in Bargates until 1835. A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it. This cruel ‘sport’ was finally abolished by law. Highcliffe Castle was built between 1830 and 1835.

By 1841 the population of Christchurch had reached 1,922. By 1871 it was 3,064.

Life in 19th century Christchurch gradually improved. A gasworks was built in the town in 1853 and soon Christchurch had gas street lighting. The gas was made from coal, which was brought to the town, by the sea in steam barges.

The first newspaper in the town, the Christchurch Times began publication in 1855. The railway reached Christchurch in 1862. The 2 fairs that had been held in Christchurch since the Middle Ages were abolished in 1872. The weekly market also stopped about this time but it started again in 1976.

In 1878 the field called Portfield west of Sopers Lane, was sold for building and was soon built up, except for a small part that was made into a park. Christchurch Sailing Club was founded in 1883. In the 19th century, people in Christchurch obtained their water from pumps or wells. A piped water supply was installed in Christchurch in 1895. A School of Art, Science, and Technology opened in 1898.

Christchurch in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Christchurch stood at 4,204. So it was still very small. In 1902 the council began laying sewers in the town. In 1903 an electricity generating station opened but it was many years before electric light completely replaced gaslight.

Trams ran in Christchurch from 1905 to 1936. They were replaced by trolleybuses. These ran on overhead lines like trams but did not run on rails. The last trolleybuses ran in 1969.

In 1911 Convent Walk was opened to the public. In the years 1912-1930, the marsh at Quomps was drained and turned into a park. In 1934 slum clearance began around Spicer Street. Airspeed opened an aircraft factory in 1941. The factory closed in 1962.

By 1951 the population of Christchurch had risen to 20,000. A bypass was built at Christchurch in 1958. In 1967 Stanpit Marsh was made a nature reserve.

In 1975 Christchurch, England was twinned with Christchurch, New Zealand. It was also twinned with Aalen in Germany.

By the mid-20th century, there were many engineering firms in Christchurch. Plessey came to Christchurch in 1979. The airfield industrial estate was built in the early 1980s.

The Red House Museum opened in 1952. In 1980 new civic offices opened in Bridge Street. In 1983 a new shopping precinct opened in Saxon Square. A Tourist Information Office also opened in 1983. Place mill opened to the public in 1983.

The Regent Cinema opened in 1931 but it closed in 1973. It then became a bingo hall for a time. But in 1983 it was re-opened as the Regent Centre. It consisted of a cinema, a theatre, and a concert hall.

A Museum of Electricity was opened in Christchurch in 1981 by John Wedgwood. It closed in 2012.

In 2024 Christchurch had a population of 48,000.