A History of Worcester

By Tim Lambert

Roman Worcester

The city of Worcester was founded by the Romans about 50 AD. It stood on the Roman road from Wroxeter to Gloucester so a considerable amount of traffic passed through. Soon Worcester was a flourishing little town. In Roman Worcester, there were many craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, bakers, and potters but many people were farmers.

By the late 2nd century there was an iron industry in the town. Worcester was probably surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. However, in the 4th century, Roman civilization declined. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD. Afterward, Worcester was probably abandoned.

Worcester in the Middle Ages

However, the site was not abandoned for long. By the mid-7th century the Saxons had started a new settlement by a ford in the River Severn. The old Roman settlement gave its name to the new Saxon town. The Saxons called a Roman settlement a ceaster. They called this one Weogoran ceaster. Weorgoran means people of the winding river. In time the name changed to Worcester.

In 680 AD Worcester was given a bishop and a cathedral. Once it was the seat of a bishop Saxon Worcester grew rapidly. (The church was very wealthy and powerful in those days and having a bishop was a great asset).

In the late 9th century Worcester was made a burgh. Alfred the Great created a network of fortified settlements called burghs across his kingdom. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men in the area could gather in the burgh to fight them. Worcester would have been surrounded by a ditch and rampart, probably with a wooden palisade.

However, in the year 1041, Worcester was raided. The king sent a tax collector to Worcester and the townspeople murdered him. The king then sent an army to punish the citizens of Worcester. The townspeople fled to the island of Bevere but the king’s men plundered Worcester. However, the town soon recovered and continued to prosper.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Worcester probably had a population of about 2,000. It would seem tiny to us but towns were very small in those days. By the standards of the time, Worcester was a fair-sized town.

The Normans built a wooden castle in Worcester. In the 12th century, it was rebuilt in stone. In the early 13th century stone walls were built around Worcester. King John died in 1216 and he was buried in Worcester Cathedral.

In Medieval Worcester, there was a weekly market and after 1218 an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. Buyers and Sellers would come from all over Herefordshire and Worcestershire to attend a Worcester fair. The number of fairs increased during the Middle Ages and by 1500 there were four.

In Worcester, the main industry was making woolen cloth. Wool was woven. Then it was fulled. That means it was pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. Afterward, the wool was dyed.

There was also a leather industry in Medieval Worcester. There were shoemakers, glovers, and saddlers. There were also the same craftsmen you would find in any medieval town such as carpenters, bakers, brewers, and butchers (who had their shops and stalls in The Shambles). Worcester was also an inland port. The main import was wine (the drink of the upper class). The main export was wool. Timber and iron were also brought to Worcester by water from the Forest of Dean.

In the Middle Ages and the 16th century, by law, all men had to practice archery on Sunday afternoons. they practiced archery at The Butts. n In 1202 a fire devastated Worcester. In the Middle Ages, fire was a constant hazard as most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. However, if they burned they could be easily rebuilt.

In 1227 Worcester was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). Afterward, the townspeople were allowed to elect two officials called bailiffs who ran the town.

Like all towns Worcester was devastated by the Black Death of 1348-49 which may have killed half the population. However, Worcester soon recovered. In the late Middle Ages, it may have had a population of 4,000. Nash House was built in the 14th century.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, there was a Jewish community in Worcester but all Jews were forced to leave England in 1290.

After 1084 the Normans rebuilt the cathedral. In the mid-13th century, a nunnery was founded in Worcester called the Ladies Convent. In the 13th century, Franciscan friars arrived in Worcester. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. In the 14th century Dominican friars, known as black friars came to Worcester.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only ‘hospitals’ (which were often almshouses rather than hospitals in the modern sense). There were 2 other hospitals in Medieval Worcester, St Oswalds and St Wulfstans (later known as the Commandery).

By the 13th century, there was a grammar school in Worcester run by the church.

Worcester 1500-1800

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries. His men also destroyed the shrines of St Wulfstan and St Oswald in the cathedral.

Tudor House was built in the early 16th century. Kings School was founded in 1542. The Royal Grammar School was given a charter by Queen Elizabeth in 1561. Worcester was given a mayor in 1621. In the 16th century, the wool trade was still the lifeblood of Worcester but in the 17th century, it began to decline.

Nevertheless, Worcester continued to grow. In the 17th century, a suburb grew north of the town. In 1646 a survey showed Worcester had a population of over 7,000. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large town.

The population growth happened despite outbreaks of plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1637.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. In June 1642 a royalist army was making its way from Oxford to Shrewsbury with a hoard of gold and silver. The royalists occupied Worcester. A parliamentary army was sent to intercept them. The royalist army was resting in Wick Fields when the parliamentarians crossed Powick Bridge. The ensuing battle ended indecisively but the Royalists moved on.

The parliamentary army occupied Worcester for a while. They used the cathedral as a stable for their horses. However, the Parliamentary army left in October. The royalists then occupied Worcester. A parliamentary army attempted to capture Worcester in July 1643 but was repulsed.

By 1646 the civil war was coming to an end and Worcester was one of the king’s last strongholds. A parliamentary army laid siege to Worcester from May to July 1643. Eventually, the royalists surrendered.

King Charles was beheaded in 1649 but his son persuaded the Scots to try and put him on the throne. He came to Worcester in 1651. Oliver Cromwell went to meet him. At the battle of Worcester in 1651, the royalists were crushed and Charles II was lucky to escape. The fighting disrupted trade and left Worcester impoverished but the town soon recovered.

In 1661 John Nash left money in his will for an almshouse. In 1692 Robert Berkeley left money for another almshouse, which was built in 1705. Worcester gained its first newspaper in 1690.

Edward Wyatt built another ‘hospital’ of almshouse at the beginning of the 18th century. By 1700 the population of Worcester was about 9,000 and it continued to grow. The population was almost 13,000 by the end of the century.

In 1702 Foregate was demolished as it impeded the flow of traffic. The other gates followed. Sidbury Gate went in 1768 and St Martins Gate in 1773. Guildhall was built in 1723. An infirmary was built in Worcester in 1746. The first bank in Worcester opened in 1765. A new bridge over the Severn was built in 1781. At the same time, Bridge Street was built.

In the 18th century, the wool cloth trade continued to decline and by the end of the century, it was dead. In 1751 Dr. John Wall tried to revive industry in Worcester by founding a porcelain works. It became the Royal Worcester Porcelain Works in 1778. In the late 18th century other industries included carpet making, vinegar making, and brick and tile making.

However, the main industry was glove-making. The first glover in Worcester was recorded in the 13th century and by the 18th century, the industry was booming.

Worcester in the 19th Century

In 1801 the population of Worcester was 13,000. It rose rapidly. The population was almost 30,000 and it reached 46,000 by the end of the century. Meanwhile, the boundaries of Worcester were extended in 1837.

During the 19th century conditions in Worcester improved. A prison was built in Salt Lane in 1813. In 1818 a dispensary opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. Shire Hall was built in 1835. In 1849 a Corn Exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built.

The Worcester and Birmingham Canal opened in 1815 and the railway reached Worcester in 1850. From 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets.

However, like all 19th-century towns, Worcester was dirty and unsanitary. An outbreak of cholera in 1832 killed 79 people. Another outbreak in 1849 killed 49 people. However, conditions improved later in the 19th century. Sewers were dug under the streets of Worcester.

In the early 19th century a piped water supply was created in Worcester – but only for those who could afford it. In the later 19th century the water supply was improved and extended to all the citizens. Worcester gained its first electricity supply in 1894. Pitchcroft was obtained by the council in 1899.

In 1826 import duties on foreign gloves were removed – with disastrous results for the glove industry in Worcester. However other industries such as brick-making, vinegar-making, and pottery continued to thrive. In the 19th century, Worcester became an industrial town. Iron foundries were opened and engineering flourished. Worcester sauce was made in the town after 1837.

Worcester in the 20th Century

The population of Worcester was 46,000 in 1901. In the early 20th century it grew slowly and was still less than 49,000 in 1931. However, from the mid-20th century, the population began to grow more rapidly and it reached 73,000 in 1971.

In the 20th century conditions in Worcester continued to improve. Between 1904 and 1928 electric trams ran in the streets of Worcester. Cripplegate Park opened in 1932.

During the 20th century, major industries in Worcester were sauce-making, printing, and light engineering. However, manufacturing industry declined and the service industries became more important.

Crowngate Shopping Centre opened in 1992.

Worcester in the 21st Century

In the 21st Century, Worcester continued to flourish. The first Worcester Festival was held in 2003 and in 2005 the University of Worcester gained full university status. Cathedral Square Shopping Centre opened in 2017. In 2023 the population of Worcester was 103,000.