By Tim Lambert
Romsey in the Middle Ages
Dedicated to Gabriella Bowe-Peckham
Romsey is a market town in Hampshire in Southern England. Romsey began as a Saxon village. The name Romsey is probably a corruption of Rum’s eg which means Rum’s area of dry land surrounded by marsh.
In 907 AD a Benedictine abbey was founded at Romsey. The abbey stimulated the growth of Romsey because the nuns were a market for goods made or grown in the village. The Danes burnt Romsey Abbey in 993 but it was soon rebuilt. Later a market began outside the abbey gates and Romsey grew into a town.
In the early 12th century Henry I (1100-1135) gave the people of Romsey a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). The charter confirmed the town’s right to hold a market on Sunday and the right to hold a fair for 4 days in May.
In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a few days. Fairs attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area. In the 13th century, Henry III gave Romsey the right to hold another fair each October. King John’s House was built in the mid 13th century. (It was once thought to be a hunting lodge built by King John but in fact, it was built after his death).
In the Middle Ages Romsey may have had a population of 1,000. That seems very small to us but towns were very small in those days. A typical village had only 100 or 150 inhabitants. By the standards of the time, Romsey was a small but busy town.
In Medieval Romsey, the main industry was making wool. The wool was woven then it was fulled. This means wool was pounded in water to thicken and clean it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. The wool was then dyed and sent to nearby Southampton for export.
Another industry in Romsey was leather tanning. The leather was sent to Southampton to be made into artefacts such as shoes and bottles.
Romsey prospered until 1348-49 when the Black Death struck. It may have killed half the population of the town. The Abbey never recovered.
In the Middle Ages, there was a leper hospital just outside Romsey in the Middle Ages but this dreaded disease declined by the early 16th century.
Romsey in the 16th century and 17th century
In 1539 Henry VIII closed Romsey Abbey. However, in 1544 the townspeople purchased the Abbey Church for 100 pounds.
Like all towns in those days, Romsey suffered from outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1526 but Romsey soon recovered. Romsey may have had a population of 1,500 by the mid-16th century. In 1607 Romsey was given a new charter and it was made a borough.
Then in 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. At the end of 1643, the Royalists occupied Romsey. There was a skirmish when the parliamentary army arrived. The royalists fled but the parliamentary army plundered the town. At the end of 1644, the royalists took Romsey again and plundered it before they left in January 1645. However, Romsey soon recovered from the fighting.
During the 17th century, the wool industry in Romsey declined in the face of competition from the north of England.
Romsey in the 18th century and 19th century
The wool industry in Romsey had ceased by the middle of the 18th century. However new industries such as brewing, paper making, and sack making replaced it and Romsey remained an important market town.
In 1794 a canal was dug from Redbridge to Andover and it passed through Romsey. Broadlands was built in 1767.
In 1801, at the time of the first census, Romsey had a population of 4,274. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town. (Southampton had only about 8,000 people). However, Romsey grew only slowly in the 19th century. In 1851 it had a population of 5,654. By 1901 the population of Romsey had fallen slightly to 5,597.
However, there were some improvements in Romsey during the 19th century. In 1810 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Pavement Commissioners. They had responsibility for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets. At first oil lamps lighted the streets of Romsey but from 1834 they were lit by gas.
Meanwhile, Kents almshouses were built in 1800.
Then in 1826 market day, which for centuries had been on Sunday in Romsey, was moved to Thursday.
The railway arrived in Romsey in 1847. Romsey Signal Box was built c. 1873. Then in 1864, a corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built. A new Town Hall was built in Romsey in 1866 and a statue of Lord Palmerston was erected in 1867.
In the 1880s stormwater drains were dug in Romsey (but there were no sewers in the town until the 1930s). Romsey Hospital opened in 1899.
In 1858 a man named Thomas Strong purchased a brewery in Romsey and renamed it Strongs. In 1886 a man named David Faber bought 3 breweries and renamed them all Strongs. For nearly 100 years Strong’s Brewery was a major employer in Romsey but it closed in 1981.
The statue of Lord Palmerston
Romsey in the 20th century
In 1907 the people of Romsey held a pageant and created scenes from the town’s history. War Memorial Park opened in 1921. Middlebridge was rebuilt in 1935.
However, Romsey remained a small and quiet market town until the 1960s when it began to expand. At the beginning of that decade, Romsey still had less than 8,000 people but it then began to grow rapidly. In the mid-1960s the Whitenap estate was built. In 1964 plans were drawn up to build new houses and industrial estates in Romsey.
The Rear of the Hundred housing scheme was built in 1966. Also in that year, Budds Lane Industrial estate was opened.
Edwina Mountbatten’s flats for old people were built in 1963 and in 1978 Broadlands House was opened to the public.
Plaza Cinema was built in 1931. It became a theatre in 1984. A leisure pool was built in Romsey in 1990.
Furthermore, brewing returned to Romsey in 1997 when the Hampshire Brewery moved to the town. However, it closed in 2008.
Romsey in the 21st century
In 2007 Romsey celebrated the 400th anniversary of the charter given by James I in 1607.
In 2014 Romsey suffered severe floods. But in 2022 new defences to prevent flooding were unveiled.
Today the population of Romsey is about 20,000.