A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 4, Hemlingford Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1947.
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The parish of Atherstone comprises the northern part of the old ecclesiastical parish of Mancetter. It is predominantly agricultural, but within the parish has grown up a fair-sized market town built round the Watling Street, a section of which forms its main thoroughfare, Long Street. While the centre of the town remains much as it was early last century, the last twenty years have seen the building of many small houses on the outskirts, particularly to the north of the main street. This has resulted in the clearing of some of the squalid courts leading off Long Street. Moreover, new premises for the Grammar School, a cinema, a number of modernized shops, and some new factory buildings have all contributed to change the general aspect of the town.
Although a house-to-house inspection might reveal some 17th-century or earlier interiors, the frontages in Long Street are almost entirely of the 18th century, with many later alterations. These fronts are mostly of red brick with sash windows in the upper stories; the lower stories are largely modern shops, but there are a few 18th-century bow or bay windows surviving. One building in the north side in the east half of the street has a good late-18th-century façade with pilasters, &c. The one exception is the Old Swan Inn near the east end of the street, at the corner of Welcome Street. This is of early- to mid-16th-century timber-framing with close-set studding to both stories. It has an overhanging upper story on the north side towards the street, with a moulded bressummer above the projecting floor joists and curved and moulded brackets. It has been partly restored, but the interior has a wide fire-place and stop-chamfered ceiling beams. The private house next east and under the same roof was probably part of the same building originally. It is faced with cement. The east gabled wing is jettied in the upper story, but the short length of main wall in line with the other has both stories in one plane. The rest of the town is mostly of modern growth, but a few 18th-century fronts exist near the church and in the back street. The Hall is a large cemented building of classic design of the type common in the late 18th century.
In 1246 Henry III granted to the abbey of Bec Herlouin in Normandy a weekly market and a yearly fair in their manor of Atherstone. (fn. 1) The development of the market town of Atherstone, which until the middle of the 18th century was conditioned by the framework of the manor, was no doubt influenced by its situation at the intersection of two ancient roads. But, although the Watling Street was the direct route from London to Holyhead, the section on which Atherstone lay was by-passed by the road through Coventry, which in the 17th century was, 'one of the most frequented of the Kingdom', only carts going by way of Atherstone. (fn. 2) At this time also the way from Oxford to Derby was 'no very good road', though well supplied with inns. (fn. 3) In 1720 Atherstone had 32 alehouses. (fn. 4)
In the 14th century both town and market flourished. The Abbot of Merevale obtained a grant of pontage on goods carried over Fieldon Bridge in 1332 for its repair. (fn. 5) A few years later, in 1341, the ninth of the property of merchants in Atherstone was valued at one mark, (fn. 6) and in 1343 the 'bailiffs and good men' of the town were granted pavage for five years, because the town 'lies low, and in the wintertime and in wet weather is dirty, whereby merchants with goods and wares come only in small numbers at such times'. (fn. 7) Ralph Basset of Drayton saw in Atherstone a suitable place for the foundation of a house of Augustinian friars in 1375, but the foundation never became very important. (fn. 8) At the Dissolution the nave of the friary church was converted into a chapel for the town, while the chancel housed the Grammar School. (fn. 9)
In 1668 Seabright Repington, lord of the manor, was granted three additional fairs and three additional markets; these latter were to be held in the three weeks after Epiphany solely for the sale of cattle. (fn. 12) At this time no inclosure had taken place in the parish and the town lay in the midst of the open fields. (fn. 13) On either side of the Watling Street south of the town was the Windmill Hill Field. (fn. 14) In this part some of the strips of meadow-land near the river-bank had been consolidated but not inclosed, and here, near to the road, were the pinfold and two brick-kilns. Atherstone itself was surrounded by the Middle Field. The town comprised a single row of houses built along each side of the Watling Street. At the rear of each house was a long rectangular garden. The market-place and the chapel lay on the north side of the main street, and behind them was the manor-house and its gardens. The third of the common fields, the Aldermill (fn. 15) Field, lay to the north of the town, beyond the Watling Street. It consisted entirely of small strips occupied by the cottagers. All the roads approaching the town ran through the common fields and were unfenced. (fn. 16)
A vivid picture of life in Atherstone in the first half of the 18th century emerges from the mass of documents which the struggle about inclosure in the parish has left behind. (fn. 17) The actual attempts to inclose the common fields of Atherstone extended from 1730 to 1765, when they were finally successful. The prime mover was Abraham Bracebridge, 'a tradesman and no great farmer', one of the principal freeholders, who persuaded the lord to consent to the proceedings. Curiously enough, in 1738, the lord's holding in the common fields amounted to no more than 5 acres and there was no demesne. (fn. 18) The smaller freeholders and the cottagers resisted stoutly, and they justified their attitude in a series of memoranda. (fn. 19) From these it appears that there were in the town about 120 cottagers and 60 freeholders. Many of the latter had come to the town recently and had paid high prices for houses because of the very valuable rights attached to them. These included rights of common for every holding for two horses and two cows in the 700-acre Middle Field and in the 135 acres of outwoods. Also there was the right of cutting timber, which was estimated to yield 6s. to 8s. a week to the poorer cottagers, who sold it in the market. The return it yielded compared very favourably with the 4s. per week, in addition to beer, then paid to farm labourers. Furthermore, the extra work provided at harvest time for both men and women, together with gleaning rights in the common fields, increased substantially the incomes of those numerous cottagers in the town who lived just above subsistence level. (fn. 20)
While the majority of the population was engaged in agriculture, nevertheless the town had two small industries, felt-making, principally for the manufacture of hats, and tammy-weaving. (fn. 21) Most of those employed, both men and women, were cottagers who combined this work with the management of a small holding and the carrying of goods to and from Nuneaton and Ashby. (fn. 22)
In the first half of the 18th century the government of Atherstone was still in the hands of the manorial bailiff and the court leet functioned as it had done for centuries past. Indeed, Abraham Bracebridge used this institution to bring pressure to bear on the cottagers and small freeholders to agree to his proposals for inclosure. (fn. 23)
Baker's map of the town (1763), (fn. 24) compared with the plan of 1716, shows some additional houses near the market-place to the north of the main street, and the beginning of that network of crowded courts and yards with their entrances on either side of Long Street, which grew up to accommodate the workers in the hat factories at the end of the 18th century. (fn. 24) It also shows that the Watling Street was the only road worthy of the name. The present Coleshill road is marked as a footway through the Middle Field joining the main street practically opposite the market-place. Similarly what is now the road to Fieldon Bridge was a path across the Aldermill Field, leaving the town by the chapel. After inclosure, however, the roads in the district were greatly improved; a fact which, together with the cutting of the Coventry Canal, did much to increase Atherstone's commercial importance. (fn. 25) Writing in 1813, Cooke says of the town, 'its fairs are much resorted to, more especially one held on Dec. 4th, when London dealers attend as purchasers'. (fn. 26) In 1828 Atherstone was 'a neat market town … consisting chiefly of one street, a full mile in length, tolerably well-built with a commodious market square and house'. There were daily coaches to London, Chester, Holyhead, Manchester, and Liverpool, one three times a week to Birmingham, besides a network of carriers' rounds in the immediate neighbourhood. (fn. 27) For feltmaking and the manufacture of hats and soldiers' caps the town boasted seven factories in 1828. (fn. 28) The making of silk ribbons was also carried on. The occupations of recipients of grants from the town charities from 1820 to 1850 reveal the diversity of trades in the town. Hatters, ribbon-weavers, tailors, tanners, carpenters, and brickmakers, are included. (fn. 29) When the Trent Valley Branch of the L.N.W. Railway was made to pass through the north of the town extensive coal, lime, and corn wharves were constructed. (fn. 30)
In the 19th century the majority of its inhabitants were employed in the local manufactures. The number of houses, small streets, courts, and yards increased. This tendency towards industrialization is clearly illustrated if the population figures are compared with the evidence of industrial activity in the town. In the thirties when the ribbon trade slumped the natural rate of increase in the population slowed down, and in the sixties, when a similar state of affairs existed, the population began to decrease. On the other hand, in the eighties, when the number of hat factories in the town rose to 12, a rapid increase in population took place. (fn. 31)
The town was on the edge of the East Warwickshire coalfield, and was not directly affected by the growth of large-scale mining from 1850 onwards. The opening of Ansley Hall Colliery in the seventies, however, added a mining element to the town's population, for some miners sought lodgings in Atherstone. (fn. 32)
At the time of the Conquest the Countess Godiva held 3 hides in Atherstone, (fn. 33) which afterwards passed with most of her other lands to the Earls of Chester. (fn. 34) The manor of ATHERSTONE was granted to the Abbey of Bec Herlouin in Normandy by Hugh, Earl of Chester, soon after the Conquest, and Henry II confirmed the gift; (fn. 35) so did Henry III in 1227. (fn. 36) In 1285 the Abbot of Bec pleaded a further charter from Henry III as his warrant to have gallows and the assize of bread and ale in the manor of Atherstone. (fn. 37) Like other English estates of Bec it was put under the management of the abbey's cell, the priory of St. George at Ogbourne in Wiltshire. (fn. 38) In 1343 the abbot and convent of Bec obtained leave to dispose of Atherstone to the abbey of Merevale. (fn. 39) The abbey of Bec then held Atherstone from Henry, Earl of Lancaster, in frankalmoign. The yearly value of the manor was £13 2s., the profits of the market were 13s. 4d., those of the fair 6s. 8d. and the view of frankpledge produced 2s. annually. (fn. 40) But this project was never proceeded with, for Atherstone was among the possessions of the Priory of Ogbourne when the alien houses were suppressed. In 1406 the manor was granted to John, Duke of Bedford, and Thomas Longley, the Chancellor, who jointly leased it to William Brynkelowe, clerk, and Peter Prilly, for 20 years at a rent of £40. (fn. 41)
After the death of the Duke of Bedford, Atherstone was granted in 1438 to Humphrey, Earl of Stafford, with reversion to King's College, Cambridge, Henry VI's new foundation. (fn. 42) In April 1453, however, the king granted the manor to Edmund, Earl of Richmond, but revoked the grant in July. (fn. 43) After the accession of Edward IV the manor was granted in 1462 to the Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire, (fn. 44) to whom it was confirmed by Richard III in 1483. (fn. 45)
At the Dissolution the manor returned to the Crown and was granted in 1546 to Henry, Marquess of Dorset. (fn. 46) He was created Duke of Suffolk, was attainted at the beginning of Mary's reign, and all his lands were taken into the Queen's possession. (fn. 47) The manor of Atherstone was sold to William Devereux in December 1554, (fn. 48) and let by him to Sir James Baskervyle and others. (fn. 49) Sir William Devereux, as he had become, died in 1579, leaving two daughters, Margaret wife of Edward Littleton and Barbara Cave, widow of Edward Cave and later wife of Sir Edward Hastings; (fn. 50) his widow, Jane, retained Atherstone during her lifetime. (fn. 51) In 1609 Sir Edward and Margaret Littleton settled their half of the manor, with a court leet and the view of frankpledge, on their son Edward, (fn. 52) who, with his mother, sold it in 1617 to Sir John Repington. (fn. 53) He must have acquired the other half, for his son, Sir John Repington of Amington, was in possession of the whole manor in 1640. (fn. 54)
The Repington family retained Atherstone for over a century, and when the Inclosure Award was made in September 1765 Charles Repington was lord. (fn. 55) However, he disposed of the property to Stratford Squire Baxter of Gray's Inn in 1786. (fn. 56) In 1811 Baxter sold it to his relative Dugdale Stratford Dugdale of Merevale Hall, (fn. 57) in whose descendants the lordship remained vested, the present lord being Sir William Dugdale, bart.
The site of the Friary of Atherstone was granted in 1543 to Henry Cartwright, with reservation of the church for the use of the parishioners. (fn. 58) It was, however, in the hands of Amyas Hill (who had been granted the office of bailiff of Atherstone in 1554 (fn. 59)) at the time of his death in 1558 and then passed to his son Robert. (fn. 60) Robert Hill was dealing with the property in 1592, (fn. 61) and in 1599 Richard and Amyas Hill conveyed it to Alexander Morgan. (fn. 62) The estate was subsequently bought by Sir John Repington, lord of the manor, who built a house on the site and died there in 1625. (fn. 63)
The chancel may be built on the foundations of the 12th-century chapel of the alien Abbey of Bec. (fn. 64) The Friary of St. Augustine, founded by Ralph, Lord Basset of Drayton, c. 1375 took over the chapel and remodelled it by inserting new windows, &c. The chapel probably had a west tower of the 13th or 14th century on which the present tower stands. The Augustinians added a nave c. 1385 (fn. 65) so that the tower became central and there may have been some sort of transept. After the Dissolution the chancel became the chapel of the grammar school founded by Sir William Devereux, who held the manor in the 16th century. Amyas Hill, who owned the site of the friary, presented the chapel to the school, the charter being dated 22 December 1573. The chancel arch was walled up and a new doorway was inserted in the north wall. It served the school until 1863 and then was allowed to remain derelict for 20 years. The nave, aisles, &c., had been rebuilt in 1849 and in 1888 the chapel was purchased by the vicar and restored to the church as the chancel.
The chancel (about 55½ ft. by 22½ ft.) has a late15th-century east window of five lights and vertical tracery below a segmental head with a plain hood. The sunk-faced splays of the jambs are ancient, but most of the tracery has been restored. In each side wall are three late-14th-century windows in yellow stone, each of three cinquefoiled lights under a twocentred head. The lower half of the north-west window was filled in for a modern vestry. Between the first and second north windows is the blocked 17th-century doorway with a triangular head. Above it outside there is a suggestion of a former early window, in the remains of an arch picked out in roofing tiles. The east wall has an external weather-course as a string-course below the window, and a moulded plinth of red sandstone. The walling below the string-course is of grey rag rubble, probably early. Above the stringcourse it is of 15th-century brown sandstone ashlar patched with grey rubble. At the angles are late-14th-century diagonal buttresses, of yellow ashlar like the windows. The side walls have similar strings and plinths; below the strings they are built of grey and red ashlar and above are of dark brown rubble, except east of the eastern windows where they are of the yellow ashlar. The roof is modern, of trussed rafter construction with a barrel-vaulted ceiling.
The tower, about 12 ft. square, has a west archway of the same span of two chamfered orders with a hood-mould towards the nave having head-stops. The head is probably 15th century; the responds have moulded capitals of 14th-century style, but apparently modern. The side-walls of the tower are replaced by pointed arches set high up and dying on the east and west walls; they are probably modern. In the east wall south of the chancel arch is an altar recess with chamfered jambs and segmental-pointed head. Its position indicates that there were shallow transepts flanking the tower, their outer walls being now occupied by the arches (in line with the nave-arcades) that open into the modern deep transepts. The upper part of the tower above the contiguous roofs was rebuilt in 1782; (fn. 66) it is octagonal and of two stages; the lower has pointed windows and the bell-chamber windows of two cinquefoiled lights and tracery; there is a pierced parapet with crocketed pinnacles at the angles.
The north transept has a traceried circular high east window and a north window of two lights and tracery. The south transept has an east and a south window of two lights and tracery. Both have modern archways into the nave-aisles.
The nave (about 95 ft. by 31 ft.) has north and south arcades of five bays of 14th-century style. Above is a clearstory with five two-light windows on each side. In the east wall on either side of the tower arch are narrow modern arches into the transepts.
East of the north transept is a modern porch, a private entrance from the grounds of the Hall: in it is reset a 12th-century doorway brought from the demolished church of Baddesley Ensor. It is of three orders, the inner square and continued in the round head, the other two have nook shafts with scalloped capitals and modern abaci. The middle order of the head has an edge-roll; the outer order is treated with moulded cheveron ornament on the face. The hood-mould is of the 13th century. All is of red sandstone.
The octagonal bowl of the font may be of some age retooled or recarved. Each side has a trefoiled panel; those to the cardinal points are carved with emblems of the four Evangelists and the others with shields bearing instruments of the Passion.
Alice Couney by indenture dated 16 October 1623 gave a yearly rent of £7 issuing out of her messuage in Hartshill, of which 40s. was to be distributed to the poor of Atherstone. The endowment is now represented by a rentcharge of £1 received from the Jees Hartshill Granite & Brick Co.
Michael Trafford and Alice his wife by an indenture dated 1 October 1670 gave the residue of their estate to the use of the poor of Atherstone. The endowment now consists of a rentcharge of £2 10s. 10d. charged on property at Atherstone.
William Symonds by will dated in 1687 gave the profits out of certain lands in Twycross, together with a yearly sum of £5 payable out of land in Mancetter, to be expended in apprenticing poor boys inhabitants of Atherstone, Tamworth, and Nuneaton. The lands are now let on a yearly tenancy and the income in 1934 amounted to £65 approx.
Sir John Repington by will dated 2 December 1625 gave £5 a year for ever payable out of land in Atherstone to 50 poor people of the most honest conversation in the town of Atherstone. The charge was redeemed in 1904, and the sum of £5 applied in accordance with the terms of the will.
Richard Warwick and Hester his wife on 15 December 1633 surrendered two messuages to the use of the poor of Atherstone to buy yearly for 20 poor men coats and hats. The premises were sold in 1670 and with the proceeds Mount Pleasant Farm in Dexford was bought. The farm was sold in 1920 and the proceeds invested. The income, after payment of the expenses of management, is expended in the purchase of coats and hats for 30 poor men.
Harrington Drayton by will proved 1671 gave to the poor of Atherstone £5 a year to buy six coats and six pairs of shoes for six of the most ancient orderly women within the town, the rest to put out one child apprentice every year. This bequest was afterwards reduced to a sum of £2 12s. 6d.. being a charge upon a house in Long Street, Atherstone, and a sum of £29 3s. 9d. 3 per cent. annuities. The charge was redeemed in 1904 and the income amounting to £3 7s. is expended in the purchase of five gowns and five pairs of shoes for poor women.
William Simmonds by will dated 1 July 1685 directed the rents and profits of three tillage acres situate in the common fields of Atherstone to be employed in giving six two-penny loaves every week to six poor widows. In 1764, on the inclosure of the common fields, land containing 1 a. 3 r. 30 p. was awarded to the churchwardens of Mancetter in lieu of the said common land. This land was sold in 1864 and the proceeds invested. The endowment now produces £11 1s. 8d. annually, which is distributed in bread as directed in the will.
Loveday's and Gramer's Charities. James Gramer by will dated 11 March 1724, after reciting that John Loveday by will had given £100 the interest to be distributed among 20 poor men and women of Atherstone and that Ann Loveday his wife had left or intended to leave £100, to the same uses, gave £200 the interest to be similarly applied. In order that the several charities might be made perpetual James Gramer charged his estate in Mancetter with the yearly payment of £20 to be distributed to 20 poor men and 20 women living in Atherstone in sums of 10s. each. The charge is now secured on Manor House, Mancetter, and distributed in sums of 10s.
John Choyce by will dated 14 December 1786 gave to the minister and churchwardens of Atherstone £150 4 per cent. annuities, the interest to be distributed to 30 poor housekeepers in sums of 3s. 6d. each. The legacy now produces £3 15s. annually.
Samuel Bracebridge by deed dated 18 August 1687 charged part of his estate called Hall Lane Closes with the sum of £10 per annum to be paid to the Vicar of Mancetter for providing divine service and a sermon to be preached every alternate Sunday afternoon in Atherstone Church. The charge was redeemed in 1876 and the income of £7 13s. 4d. is now paid to the Vicar of Atherstone.
Susanna Thompson by will proved 10 June 1846 gave to the minister of St. Mary's Church, Atherstone, £300, the interest (which amounts to £7 15s.) to be applied in small gifts not exceeding 3s. to poor people of Atherstone.
Mrs. Sarah Chapman's Charity. By a deed dated 24 March 1859 it was directed that the interest on a sum of £150 3 per cent. Reduced Annuities should be paid to the minister and churchwardens of Atherstone and distributed to twelve widows resident within the Township, of 60 years of age and regular communicants at St. Mary's Church. The income amounting to £3 15s. annually is so distributed.
Charities of Cramant and Harris. Jane Cramant by will dated 10 March 1819 bequeathed the residue of her personal estate (about £300) upon trust for investment, one moiety towards the expenses of carrying on the Worship of God and preaching of the Gospel to the congregation of Independent Protestant Dissenters in Atherstone, and the other moiety to similar purposes in Market Bosworth. James Harris gave £100, the interest to be applied for the benefit of the said congregation at Atherstone. Trustees of the charities are appointed by order of the Charity Commissioners.
Charles Everitt Thurlow by will proved 18 October 1934 gave £1,000, the interest to be paid out annually in sums of 10s. to old men of Atherstone. The donor also gave a further sum of £1,000 upon similar trusts for old women. The legacies produce £30 13s. 8d. annually in each case. By a scheme of the Commissioners dated 20 September 1935 a body of four trustees was appointed to administer the charities.