A History of Hereford

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Hereford

Hereford means the Ford used by the army. The Saxons arrived in this part of England in the 7th century and a settlement grew up at the ford. In 676 AD it was made the seat of a bishop. By 700 AD Hereford had grown into a town.

In 760 a battle was fought between the English and the Welsh at Hereford. Hereford was probably protected by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. Hereford benefited because of its position near the border with Wales. Warfare between the English and Welsh brought a great deal of business to the town!

Hereford also benefited from the fact that St Ethelbert (died 794) was buried there. In those days people traveled long distances to visit the shrines of saints and, of course, they spent money in the town.

In the late 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of fortified settlements called burhs across his kingdom. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men in the area could gather in the burh to fight them. By the 10th century, Hereford was a burh. Saxon Hereford also had a mint and a weekly market. Hereford was able to resist a Danish attack in 914. About 1050 a castle was built in Hereford.

However, the town was burned by the Welsh in 1055.

Hereford in the Middle Ages

After the Norman conquest, many Frenchmen came to settle in Hereford. The town grew northwards and the market was moved to a new position north of the old town. By the early 12th century there was a Jewish community in Hereford. The Jews lived in the area of Maylord Street. However, all the Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

Meanwhile, in 1100, a stone bridge was built across the Wye to replace the wooden one. In 1189 Hereford was given its first charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). At the end of the 12th century stone walls were built around Hereford.

In 1121 Hereford gained a fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a few days. People would come from all over Herefordshire and Worcestershire to buy and sell at the Hereford fair, which was held in June. In 1227 the town was given a second fair in October.

In Medieval Hereford the main industry making wool. The wool was woven then it was fulled. That means the wool was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in a mixture of clay and water. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills.

Leatherworking was another important industry in Hereford. Leather was used for all kinds of goods e.g. shoes, gloves, hats, bottles, arrow spacers (for holding arrows), and saddles. The first quay at Hereford was recorded in 1256.

The Normans set about rebuilding Hereford Cathedral. A new bishop’s palace was built about 1180.

In the mid-13th century, the friars arrived in England. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were 2 denominations in Hereford. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because they wore grey costumes. Dominican friars were called black friars because they wore black robes.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only hospitals for the poor and the sick. In Hereford, there was the Hospital of St John founded in the 12th century St Ethelbert was founded in the 13th century. There was also a leper hostel outside the town.

Bishop Thomas Cantilupe died in 1282. He was buried in Hereford and in 1320 he was canonized (declared a saint). Soon people reported miracles at his shrine and many pilgrims visited the town to see it adding to the prosperity of the town.

The first record of the mayor of Hereford was in 1383. The Cathedral Grammar School was founded in 1384. The population of Hereford in the Middle Ages is not known for sure but it was probably around 5,000. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large town.

Hereford in the 16th century and 17th century

About 1540 a writer described Hereford as ‘ancient, large and strongly walled also having a main castle hard by the river Wye. The wall of the town is encompassed by a dike filled with water. The wall and gates of Hereford are well maintained.’

Hereford continued to prosper in the 17th century. Coningsby Hospital was built in 1614. The Old House was built in 1621. Aubrey’s almshouses were built in 1630.

However, like all towns at that time, Hereford suffered from outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1566, 1580, 1604, and 1610 but each time the town recovered.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. Hereford strongly supported the king. Nevertheless, in September 1642 a parliamentary force took Hereford but they withdrew in December. A small royalist army then held the town but they fled in April 1643 when a superior parliamentary force came. However, Hereford soon changed hands again when the parliamentarians left and a royalist army arrived.

A parliamentary army laid siege to the town in July 1645 but they were unable to take Hereford. They withdrew in September. However, by then, the king was losing the war. In December the parliamentarians took Hereford by trickery. Some of their soldiers dressed as laborers and took shovels and picks. They went to Bysters Gate. When it was opened they took control and let in more parliamentary soldiers. Hereford was soon taken.

During the 17th century, the wool industry in Hereford declined sharply due to competition from the North of England. However, in the 17th century, Hereford was known for brewing and also for cider making. Furthermore, the leather industry continued to be important.

Hereford in the 18th century

In the 18th century, Hereford remained a quiet market town. In 1757 it had a population of 5,592. There was little manufacturing industry although it was known for glove making. However, in the 1720s Daniel Defoe visited Hereford but he was not impressed. He called it ‘mean built and very dirty!’.

In 1710 a blue coat school opened (so-called because the children wore blue coats). In 1774 an act of parliament formed a group of men with powers to pave and light the streets of Hereford. Afterward, the main streets were paved and they were lit by oil lamps. Hereford Hospital was built in 1783.

At the end of the 18th century, all the gates around Hereford were demolished as they restricted traffic. Wye Bridge Gate and Friars Gate went in 1782. St Owens Gate went in 1786. Eign Gate followed in 1787. Bysters Gate and Widemarsh Gate were demolished in 1798. Meanwhile, in 1786 the west tower of the Cathedral collapsed and had to be rebuilt.

Hereford in the 19th century

In 1801, at the time of the first census, Hereford had a population of 6,828. It would seem very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town. By the end of the century, the population had reached 21,000.

There were many improvements in Hereford during the 19th century. From 1836 Hereford had gas street lighting. After 1849 it had a fire brigade. In 1854 the Hereford Improvement Act was passed. In 1856, following the act, a waterworks was built. Furthermore, a network of sewers was built. The Buttermarket was built in 1860. From 1899 Hereford had an electricity supply.

A canal was dug from Gloucester to Hereford in 1845. It closed in 1880. The railway reached Hereford in 1854. (It was the last major town in Britain to be connected by rail). Several new churches were built as the town expanded including St Pauls at Tupsley and St James in Green Street in 1865. A museum and library opened in 1873. Victoria Suspension Bridge was built in 1897.

In the 19th century, leatherworking continued to be an important industry in Hereford. Brewing also flourished as did cider making. There was also a boat-building industry and a brick-and-tile industry. Furniture was also made in Hereford. However, it was a market town for the surrounding countryside rather than a manufacturing center.

Hereford in the 20th century

A new Town Hall was built in 1904. Also in 1904, a College of Education opened. The first cinema in Hereford opened in 1911. A War Memorial was erected in St Peters Square in 1922. By 1931 the population of Hereford had reached 24,000. It rose to 47,000 by the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the composer Edward Elgar lived in Hereford from 1904 to 1911.

The County hospital opened in 1940. Hereford Technical College opened in 1949. In 1968 an inner ring road was completed.

In the late 20th century the town continued to develop rapidly. Hereford Cider Museum was founded in 1973. Maylord Orchard Shopping Centre was built in 1987. The Courtyard Arts Centre opened in 1998.

The interior of Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral

In the 20th century, industries in Hereford included food canning, brewing, furniture making, leather, brick making, and making nickel alloys.

In 2005 a statue of Edward Edgar was unveiled in Hereford.

In 2023 the population of Hereford was 53,000.

A Timeline of Hereford

c 650 The Saxons create a settlement at Hereford

676 Hereford is given a bishop

700 Hereford has grown into a busy little market town

760 The English fight the Welsh at Hereford

900 Hereford is a fortified settlement as well as a market town

914 The Danes attack Hereford but are repulsed

1055 The Welsh burn Hereford

1100 Many Normans live in Hereford. A stone bridge is built over the Wye.

1121 There is a Jewish community in Hereford. The town has an annual fair as well as weekly markets.

1180 A new Bishops Palace is built

1189 Hereford is given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights)

1227 Hereford is given a second fair. In Hereford, the main industry is wool making.

1282 Bishop Thomas Cantilupe dies and is buried in Hereford. In 1320 he is canonised and people flock to visit his remains.

1383 the first record of a mayor in Hereford

1384 A grammar school is founded in Hereford. The population of Hereford is about 5,000.

1580 Plague strikes Hereford

1610 Plague strikes Hereford again

1614 Coningsby Hospital is built

1621 The Old House is built

1630 Aubreys Almshouses are built

1642-45 During the Civil War Hereford changes hands several times

1680 The wool industry in Hereford is in rapid decline

1757 Hereford has a population of 5,592. It has declined in importance since the Middle Ages and is now a quiet market town.

1774 A group of men is formed with powers to pave and light the streets of Hereford.

1783 Hereford Hospital is built

1786 The west tower of Hereford Cathedral collapses

1801 Hereford has a population of 6,838

1836 Hereford gains gas street lighting

1854 The railway reaches Hereford

1856 A waterworks is built in Hereford

1860 The Buttermarket is built

1873 A museum and library opens

1897 Victoria Suspension Bridge is built

1899 Hereford gains an electricity supply

1904 A new Town Hall is built

1911 The first cinema in Hereford opens

1922 A War Memorial opens in St Peters Square

1931 The population of Hereford is 24,000

1940 The County Hospital opens

1949 Hereford Technical College opens

1968 An inner ring road is completed

1981 Hereford Cider Museum opens

1996 Mappa Mundi Library opens

1998 The Courtyard Arts Centre opens

2005 A statue of composer Edward Elgar is unveiled