A History of Newbury

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to T/SGT Wayne F. Laubert, 2LT John P. Mockus, and 2LT Charles A Crooks

Newbury in the Middle Ages

Newbury was founded sometime after the Norman Conquest of 1066. At that time trade and commerce were increasing in England and many new towns were created. The Lord of the Manor created Newbury. He divided the land into plots for building houses. He also started a market. In those days there were very few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market. When the market began in Newbury merchants and craftsmen came to live in the area and sell their goods there.

The new settlement was called New Burgh. Burgh is an old English word. Originally it meant a fort or fortified settlement. Then it came to mean a town. It is the origin of our word borough. In time New Burgh became Newbury. It was a small town with not more than 1,500 inhabitants. Newbury would seem tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days.

Medieval Newbury had a fair. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for days. Buyers and sellers would come from all over Berkshire and North Hampshire to attend a Newbury fair.

In the Middle Ages, the main industry in Newbury was making wool. It was woven and then fulled. That means it was pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by a watermill pounded the wool. After fulling the wool was dyed. There was also some leather tanning in Newbury.

In the mid-12th century, there was a castle in Newbury but little is known of it and it was probably destroyed shortly afterward. Donnington Castle was built at the end of the 14th century.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only ‘hospitals’. From the early 13th century there was a hospital dedicated to St Bartholomew in Newbury where monks cared for the poor and the sick as best they could. Donnington Hospital was founded in 1393 for 13 poor men. There was also a leper hostel for female lepers dedicated to Mary Magdalene.

Newbury in the 16th century and 17th century

In 1518 a man named Christopher Shoemaker was burned in Newbury for heresy. In 1556 three Protestants, Jocelyn Palmer, Thomas Askew, and John Gwyn were martyred at the site of Enborne Road.

In 1596 Elizabeth I granted Newbury a charter (a document giving the townspeople certain rights). Newbury was given a town council consisting of a mayor and aldermen. A Guildhall was built in Newbury in 1611.

In the 17th century the cloth industry, which had been the mainstay of Newbury’s economy for centuries, declined. There was much poverty in Newbury. In 1624 John Kendrick left money in his will to be used to employ the poor. A building called the castle was purchased in 1626. Inside the poor were put to work weaving.

Like all towns in the 17th century, Newbury suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1604. Another outbreak occurred in 1665 but fortunately, this was the last one. Meanwhile, the first Baptist church was founded in Newbury in 1640.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. There were two battles of Newbury. The first happened in September 1643. London and most of the Southeast supported parliament while most of the Southwest, except some towns, supported the king. The royalists laid siege to Gloucester and a parliamentary army was sent to help the defenders. The siege of Newbury was lifted and the parliamentary army withdrew. The king attempted to cut them off from the rest of parliament’s forces in the Southeast. He stationed his men Southwest of Newbury.

The next day a battle was fought at Wash Common. The king attacked and attempted to drive back the parliamentarians. However, they hung on. That night the king was advised that his soldiers were short of ammunition so he withdrew. The parliamentary troops were able to join the rest of their army.

The second battle of Newbury was fought in October 1644. The royalists held Donnington Castle. In July 1644 a parliamentary army laid siege to the castle without success. In October the king led an army to relieve the castle. His men occupied Speen and Shaw House. The parliamentary army approached from the Northeast. Their plan was simple. Some of their men would circle and attack from the east. Meanwhile, the rest would attack from the west.

However, the plan failed. The attack from the west captured the village of Speen but the attack from the east did not come until too late and failed to capture Shaw House. The next day the king withdrew. However, the civil war ended in 1646. Donnington Castle surrendered in April of that year.

Newbury in the 18th century

In the 18th century, Newbury remained a small Berkshire market town although its industries were helped when the river Kennet was made navigable as far as Reading in 1723. In the 18th century, there was a clock-making industry in the town. Newbury was also known for malting. Malt is made from barley and is used in brewing. Other industries were brick-making and tanning leather.

Newbury also became a stagecoach town. Stagecoaches from London to Bath stopped in Newbury.

Meanwhile, in 1706 Kendricks School, a charity school for boys opened. Kimber’s almshouses were built in 1793.

Newbury in the 19th century

In 1801, at the time of the first census, the population of Newbury was 4,725. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town.

In the 19th century, there were iron foundries in the town. Other industries were brick-making, silk manufacture, paper making, and brewing. (The Salvation Army was very unpopular when they first came to the town in the 1880s because they were teetotallers and brewing was an important local industry). However, the old industry of leather tanning came to an end.

In the 19th century amenities in Newbury developed rapidly. From 1825 the streets were lit by gas. The railway reached Newbury in 1847. Newbury gained its first newspaper in 1867. A cattle market was built in 1873. (It closed in 1969).

In 1862 a corn exchange was built where grain could be bought and sold and at the end of the century, a network of sewers and drains was built.

The stocks in Newbury were last used in 1872 when Mark Tuck was sentenced to 4 hours for drunkenness.

Newbury Hospital was built in 1885.

Newbury in the 20th century

Amenities in Newbury continued to improve in the 20th century. West Berkshire Museum opened in Newbury in 1904. The first public library in Newbury opened in 1906. The first cinema opened in 1910. Newbury Clock Tower opened in 1929.

However, Newbury was bombed during the Second World War. The worst occasion was in February 1944 when 15 people were killed. During the war, 26 houses were destroyed. A tragic accident occurred on 15 December 1944 when 2 B-17s collided over the town. One crashed behind Mr. Smith’s Cottage near Swans pub. All the crew was killed. They were from the AAF, 306th BG, returning from a mission and were diverted to Greenham Common Airfield from Thurleigh due to heavy fog. Two men from the other plane survived.

In 1948 Newbury was given a coat of arms. It shows Newbury Castle and wavy lines for the River Kennet. The sheaf represents Newbury’s long history as an agricultural market town. The teasel represents the wool industry that used to exist in Newbury (teasels were used to comb wool).

A new east-west relief road was built in Newbury in 1959 and a new police station was built in 1965. Waterside Youth Centre opened in 1964. Newbury Leisure Centre opened in 1980. The Watermill Theatre opened in 1967. The Community Theatre opened in 1984.

For most of the 20th century, Newbury was noted for engineering. However, in the late 20th century, the traditional industries declined. They were replaced by new hi-tech industries. Firms such as Vodafone, Quantel, Micros Focus, and Bayer PLC moved to the town. Newbury by-pass was built in 1998.

Newbury in the 21st century

A new Community Hospital opened in Newbury in 2004. The Parkway Shopping Centre opened in Newbury in 2011. Today Newbury is a flourishing town. In 2022 the population of Newbury was 44,000.

Newbury Racecourse
Newbury Racecourse