A History of Northampton

By Tim Lambert

Northampton in the Middle Ages

Northampton began as an Anglo-Saxon village. It was called Hamm tun, which means the village by the well-watered meadow. Later it was called North Hamm tun, probably to distinguish it from Southampton. Gradually the name changed to Northampton.

When they occupied Eastern England in the late 9th century the Danes turned Northampton into a stronghold called a burh. They dug a ditch around the settlement and erected an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. However, Northampton was not just a stronghold it was also a place of trade where craftsmen worked and where goods were bought and sold at a market.

Despite the fact that it was a fortified settlement Northampton was captured and burned by the Danes in 1010. However, Northampton soon recovered from this disaster, and by the time of the Domesday Book (1086), it probably had a population of about 1,500. That seems tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days.

Northampton grew in size in the 12th and n13th centuries and may have reached a population of 2,500 or 3,000 by 1300. Early in the 12th century, the first Earl of Northampton built the Church of the Sepulchre when he returned home from the crusades. This was supposed to be a copy of a church in Jerusalem. He also fortified Northampton by building stone walls around it. The Earl also built a castle to safeguard the town.

Northampton gained its first charter in 1189. (A charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights). Richard I gave the charter in return for money. In 1215 Northampton was given its first mayor.

Medieval Northampton had weekly markets. By the early 13th century they were held in the present Market Place. There were also fairs in Northampton. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a few days and it would attract buyers and sellers from all over the Midlands.

The main industry in Medieval Northampton was making wool. It was woven and dyed in Northampton. The importance of the wool industry is shown by street names such as Mercers Row (a mercer was a dealer in fine cloth), The Drapery, and Woolmonger Street. The first shoemaker was mentioned in the early 13th century but there were shoemakers in all Medieval towns. There is no evidence that shoemaking was a major industry in Northampton until much later.

St Andrews Priory (a small abbey) was built about 1100 in Broad Street. Delamere Abbey was built in 1145. In the 13th century, friars arrived in Northampton. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were several orders of friars in Northampton. The Franciscans were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. There were also Dominicans or black friars in Northampton and Austin friars.

There was also a hospital dedicated to St Thomas. In it, monks looked after the poor and sick as best they could.

However, in 1264 there was a rebellion against the king. At first, the rebels held Northampton but a royalist army captured the town and sacked it. Soon afterward Northampton suffered a decline. By the 14th century, there were reports that many parts of the town were in ruins. This may have been because high taxes were charged on people within the walls and so men moved to suburbs outside the town.

Northampton also suffered severely from the Black Death, which may have killed half the population. However, Northampton soon recovered from this disaster.

Northampton 1500-1800

Northampton suffered a severe fire in 1516 when many of the houses were destroyed. Fire was a constant hazard when most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand, if they burned these buildings could be easily replaced. Like all Tudor towns, Northampton also suffered outbreaks of plague.

However, Northampton continued to grow in size and prosperity. The Welsh House was built in 1595. It got its name from the Welshmen who drove cattle to Northampton fairs.

By the 17th century, Northampton was noted for shoemaking. Indeed shoemaking was taking over from the traditional industry of wool (this was carried on as late as the 18th century).

In 1642 came civil war between the king and parliament. Northampton staunchly supported parliament. The walls of the town were repaired in 1642-43 but they were never needed. However, in 1660 Charles II ordered the destruction of the walls, remembering how the people of Northampton had opposed his father.

Then in 1675 disaster stuck Northampton. On September 20th a fire began in St Marys Street and it soon spread through the town. About 600 houses, half the total number in Northampton were destroyed as well as many public buildings. Yet the phoenix rose from the ashes. Many rich people, including the king, donated money to help the people of Northampton. The town was rebuilt. This time it was far more neat and elegant than it had been before the fire.

In the 18th century, Northampton had a reputation for being an attractive, well-built town. A survey in the mid-18th century showed it had a population of over 5,000. It would seem very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town. A County Hospital was built in Northampton in 1744.

Northampton in the 19th Century

At the beginning of the 19th century, Northampton only had a population of about 7,000 but it grew rapidly. By the 1870s it was n40,000 and by 1900 about 87,000. Unlike many Victorian towns, Northampton did not have appalling slums.

From 1823 the streets of Northampton were lit by gas. In 1838 a lunatic asylum was built. The first public library in Northampton opened in 1877 and from 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets. The railway reached Northampton in 1845. Also in the 19th century, Northampton gained a piped water supply and sewers. The Guildhall was built in 1864. The Royal Theatre followed in 1884. Victoria Park opened in 1898.

In the 19th century Northampton industry was dominated by shoemaking. In the early 19th century more than a third of men worked in this industry. In the late 19th century it rose to nearly half. The only other significant industry in Northampton at that time was brewing. However, a new cattle market opened in Northampton in 1873.

Northampton in the 20th Century

The boundaries of Northampton were extended in 1901. In the early 20th-century shoemaking was still the dominant industry but it was already declining and many men were laid off in the 1920s and 1930s. The council tried to attract new industries to Northampton in the 1930s with limited success.

The rapid growth in the population of the late 19th century leveled off after 1900 and Northampton grew only slowly in the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, the first council houses were built in the 1920s. The first electric streetlights were switched on in 1892 and during the early 20th-century electric streetlights gradually replaced gas ones. In 1936 public baths were built.

Council house building continued after 1945, as did private house building although there was only a small increase in Northampton’s population in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Then in 1965 Northampton was designated a new town which led to a huge expansion of its population. Many Londoners emigrated to Northampton. A Development Corporation was formed in 1968 and building work began in 1970. The first new area to be built was the Eastern District followed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Western District. The Northampton Development Corporation was wound up in 1985 but the growth of the town went on. In the 1990s a new area, the South Western District.

Weston Favell Shopping Centre opened in 1974 and Grosvenor Shopping Centre was built in 1975. The Derngate theatre was built in 1983. The new districts included industrial estates to attract new industries to Northampton. Today the main ones are financial services, soft drinks, cosmetics, and brewing.

Today Northampton is a thriving town and it is growing rapidly. Furthermore, the University of Northampton was formed in 2005.

In 2019 the population of Northampton was 224,000.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery