The city of Gloucester: Introduction

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A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.

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This volume describes the history of Gloucester in most of its aspects from the late 7th century A.D. to the 1980s. (fn. 1) The institutional history of the religious houses and the history of the grammar schools to the late 19th century will be found in Volume Two of the county set, and some other matters, including the history of the canals and railways and the history of the county administration based in Gloucester, are intended to be more fully described in articles to be published later. Gloucester during the prehistoric, Romano-British, and pagan-Saxon periods is reserved for inclusion in a volume dealing with the archaeology of the county as a whole.

The boundaries of the medieval borough of the Gloucester, first found described in a perambulation of 1370, (fn. 2) enclosed 680 a. (275 ha.), (fn. 3) including a considerable area outside the town walls. Apart from a few, probably man-made, ditches, the boundaries were unrelated to physical features and followed a series of regular alignments; those on the north and north-west represent ancient divisions of meadowland and parts of the meadows left outside the boundary remained attached to the parishes of Gloucester churches. The fairly regular shape of the borough was disturbed only on the south-west where a peninsula of land intruded to enclose the site of Gloucester castle, later the county gaol.

Lying outside the borough were the hamlets of Twigworth, Longford, Kingsholm, Wotton, Barton Street, and Tuffley, and a number of extraparochial places, all of them having boundaries of great complexity. The hamlets were connected ecclesiastically with the parishes of Gloucester churches, and administratively they were attached to the city between 1483 and 1662 as part of the hundred of Dudstone and King's Barton and for a period in the earlier 18th century for poor-law purposes.

Gloucester's ancient boundary was first extended in 1835 and further extensions followed in 1874, 1900, 1935, 1951, 1957, and 1967. (fn. 4) By 1967, when the new boundary enclosed 8,239 a. (3,334 ha.), (fn. 5) the city had absorbed the bulk of the outlying hamlets, all but small parts of the ancient parishes of Barnwood, Matson, and Hempsted, a large part of Hucclecote parish (originally a hamlet of Churchdown), and parts of the ancient parish of Upton St. Leonards. The area covered by this volume is Gloucester city within its 1967 boundary, together with the modern civil parishes of Longford, Twigworth, Innsworth, and Hucclecote, which in 1986 included most of the land of the former hamlets and Hucclecote still outside the city, and a part of Quedgeley civil parish which had formerly belonged to Hempsted. Some former detached parts of the old hamlets and absorbed parishes remain outside that area, and those, which apart from a former part of Matson at Pope's wood near Prinknash are very small, are reserved for treatment with their new parishes in later volumes.

Gloucester, which was the shire town of Gloucestershire from the late Anglo-Saxon period, was sometimes styled civitas in the 11th and 12th centuries. Later it was always styled a town or borough until 1541, when on the founding the see of Gloucester, it was made a city by charter. In 1483 the town and the surrounding hundred of Dudstone and King's Barton had been given the status of a separate county, or inshire, and placed under the administration of the Gloucester aldermen as J.P.s, and the city remained a separate county after 1662 when the hundred was removed from its jurisdiction and returned to Gloucestershire. Gloucester became a county borough in 1889 and retained that status until 1974 when it was made a district, though keeping the style of a city.

The Roman settlement at Gloucester, whose walls later provided the basis for the defences of the east part of the medieval town, was established near a crossing-point of the river Severn on a low rise at c. 15 m. The land there is formed by the Lower Lias clay, which has a cap of gravel where the central crossroads of the town were established, and a larger covering of gravel east of the walls including the Barton Street area. The west side of Gloucester and the adjoining meadowland are formed by alluvium. (fn. 6)

The decayed Roman town retained some significance as an administrative and religious centre in early Anglo-Saxon times, and c. 679 A.D., when it formed part of the Mercian under-kingdom of the Hwicce, it was chosen as the site of a minster church. It was not, however, until the early 10th century that Gloucester began to emerge as an important commercial centre, probably under the influence of Ethelfleda of the Mercians who founded the new minster of St. Oswald there. By Edward the Confessor's reign the kings of England had a palace at nearby Kingsholm and Gloucester was a regular meeting place of the royal council.

Under the Normans Gloucester's strategic position, commanding the route across the river Severn into South Wales, was recognized by the building of a strong castle. The town continued to benefit from royal attention, and it played a part in national events until the 13th century. The former minster of St. Peter grew to be one of the greatest Benedictine abbeys of England, and a number of new churches and other religious foundations were added, notably in 1137 the richly-endowed Llanthony Priory. Partly under the influence of the religious houses, new suburbs developed outside the town walls. The town's economic prosperity was based on its manufactures, notably ironworking, its market for agricultural produce, a limited role in overseas and inland trade, and its function as a centre for the supply of goods and services to the surrounding market towns, among which it established a pre-eminence that went unchallenged until the beginning of the 19th century.

A wealthy class of merchants and tradesmen, ambitious for control of their own affairs, had emerged by the later 12th century and secured the right to farm the town in 1165 and the right to elect bailiffs to govern it in 1200. The further development of a communal identity and more complex institutions culminated in 1483 with a charter of incorporation, which gave the town a mayor and aldermen and control of the inshire. Gloucester shared in the economic problems that troubled many English towns during the 15th century but was able to maintain its traditional economic roles and in the early 16th century enjoyed a revival of trade, led by clothmaking and capping. The religious aspirations of the leading townsmen of the late Middle Ages were expressed in the foundation of chantries and religious guilds, and they sometimes adopted an aggressive attitude towards the monastic houses, whose dissolution in the late 1530s was a major landmark in the town's history.

In the late 16th century and the early 17th Gloucester endured a period of considerable difficulty, to which the decline of its textile trades, outbreaks of plague, and the burden of pauperism all contributed. It remained, however, a significant marketing and distribution centre, and its leather trades and malting industry flourished. The shipping of grain and malt down river gave it a significant share in the Severn trade, although the creation of a separate port of Gloucester in 1580 proved to be an irrelevance before the 19th century when the city finally freed itself from dependence on Bristol for most of its overseas trade. The management of charitable institutions became a principal concern of the city corporation, the medieval hospitals being augmented and reorganized. Other medieval institutions, such as the trade companies and the ancient city courts, had a dwindling role, as a small oligarchy, embodied in the bench of aldermen, tightened its grip on city government.

In the early 17th century Gloucester's rulers adopted puritan views, and at the outbreak of the Civil War the city became a stronghold of the parliamentary cause; the stubborn resistance of the inhabitants to a determined siege by a large royalist army in 1643 was widely regarded as the turning point of the war. The consequences for the city at the Restoration included the loss of the inshire, long a cause of friction between the corporation and neighbouring county gentry, and the purge of anti-royalist elements on the corporation. The city government continued to be disturbed by party conflict until the Revolution of 1688. There was, however, an improvement in Gloucester's economic fortunes, to which the growth of the pinmaking industry and the establishment of the city as a social centre for the county gentry contributed. It was a smaller place in the late 17th century, having lost large parts of its suburbs at the time of the siege, and nearly half of its eleven medieval parish churches had been demolished, but its main streets were steadily modernized by the refronting in brick of the old timber houses.

During the 18th century its markets, the river trade which brought the products of the West Midlands industrial area and Bristol imports to be distributed inland, a central position for road transport, its pinmaking and woolstapling industries, and, from the end of the century, the development of banking, gave Gloucester a moderately successful economy. Activity was such, however, as to generate only a very small growth in population and there was little new building, though considerable improvements to the streets and public buildings were carried through in the second half of the century. Within the limits of the closed, self-perpetuating system the city corporation was representative of the needs of the community as a whole, while a larger number of citizens shared in government through bodies set up to administer poor relief and street improvements. The city escaped serious problems of poverty and unrest and a philanthropic spirit prevailed, exemplified among other projects in the establishment of a county infirmary in 1755 and the promotion and support of Sunday schools from 1780.

The physical growth of the city began again after the Napoleonic Wars. It was stimulated in part by the development of a spa, though the rise of the neighbouring leisure resort of Cheltenham had by then diminished prospects of the development of the city as a social or residential centre. Its future lay with commercial activity, and in that field its opportunities were transformed by the opening in 1827 of the Gloucester and Berkeley ship canal, which gave direct and easy access to maritime trade. After the building of the railways in the 1840s Gloucester became a busy port for the distribution of foreign corn and timber to the Midlands, and docks, warehouses, railway sidings, mills, and timber yards developed at the head of the canal. The railways and the trade at the docks stimulated the growth of industry, which included flour milling, shipbuilding, and the manufacture of railway rolling stock and matches. The city was massively enlarged, its population increasing from c. 12,000 in 1831 to c. 48,000 by 1901, following three boundary extensions. In the mid Victorian period the building of churches and schools for the new suburbs became the main preoccupation of city churchmen, among whom the evangelical tradition was firmly rooted. Nonconformity, since the late 17th century only a minor element in city life, re-emerged as a significant force. The attendant social problems of growth, including epidemics and the decline of some older parts of the city into slums, were tackled by voluntary effort and by the array of stututory bodies which provided sewerage, water supply, and other services for the city and the adjoining suburbs. The city corporation, reformed as an elective body in 1835, took a leading part in the provision of such services after 1849 when it assumed the powers of a local board of health, and it acquired additional responsibilities in the fields of public health, education, housing, and public assistance in the late 19th century and the early 20th.

The trade at the docks had begun to decline by the late 19th century, but the established manufactures, joined by new engineering firms and, from the 1920s, by aircraft production, continued to provide employment on a large scale until the mid 20th century. In the later 20th century employment was increasingly provided by the institutions of local government, the civil service, and service industries, and office workers, drawn from a fairly wide surrounding area, comprised the bulk of those working in the city in the 1980s. Between the two wars slum clearance schemes in some inner city areas and new council housing estates on the outskirts further altered the appearance of Gloucester. Large private housing schemes were carried out from the 1960s, and by 1986 the greater part of the adjoining hamlets and absorbed parishes was built over. In the central streets of the city, where the basically Georgian character had been diluted by some large new banks and public buildings in the Victorian period, there was much redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1986 the former abbey church with its elaborate perpendicular architecture and the dock basin with its ranges of 19th-century warehouses were the two most substantial reminders of the city's varied history.

The chapters that form the first part of this volume give the general economic, administrative, social, and topographical history of Gloucester over five main periods; they are followed by a series of articles which describe in detail and in a manner designed for ready reference particular topics, institutions, and groups of buildings; and in the final part the history of the adjoining hamlets and absorbed parishes (excepting those aspects directly related to the city's later industrial and suburban expansion) is recounted.


  • 1. This introduction was written in 1986.
  • 2. Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. (Rolls Ser.), iii. 256–7; the boundary is shown on Hall and Pinnell, Map of Glouc. (1780), and Parl. Representation: Boundary Rep. Pt. 1, H.C. 141 (1831–2), xxxviii, facing p. 191.
  • 3. Census, 1831.
  • 4. Fig. 1; below, Glouc. 1835–1985, city govt.
  • 5. Census, 1971.
  • 6. Geol. Surv. Map 1/9,500, drift, sheet 234 (1972 edn.).