The borough of Warwick: Introduction

Pages 417-418

A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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. . . So' wrote Dugdale, 'may it justly glory in its situation beyond any other, standing upon a rocky ascent from every side, and in a dry and fertile soil, having . . . rich and pleasant meadows on the south part . . . and . . . woodland on the north'. (fn. 2) The physical setting of Warwick, however, was more significant, in many ways, than its geographical position, for the Avon was not navigable up to the town and it was by-passed by important roads. Consequently it was unable to develop as a centre of trade and industry. Yet, strategically placed near the centre of England, Warwick was of considerable military importance during the Middle Ages, and the castle rather than the town was the significant factor. The decline of its military importance in modern times, apart from the short period of the Civil War, and the continued inability to overcome the disadvantages of its site, left Warwick at a standstill while its neighbours increased in importance. The construction of canals in the 18th century improved transport to the town and created an important but short-lived boom in trade and industry, a stimulus which the railways failed to provide. Not until the growth of road transport in the 20th century has Warwick been able to take advantage of improved lines of communication.

The historical importance of Warwick lies in its position as the shire town, as one of the few early mediatized boroughs in the country, and as the caput honoris of 'one of the most consistently powerful, influential, and distinguished feudal dynasties in England'. (fn. 3) The attractiveness of both castle and town has made Warwick for three centuries and more a focal point of interest to both sightseer and antiquarian, so that 'few towns in England make so fine an appearance'. (fn. 4)

The first mention of the boundaries of any part of Warwick is in 1033, when those of neighbouring Myton were described. They included Tach Brook and the rivers Avon and Leam, and appear to have been the same as those known at later dates. (fn. 5) The boundaries of Warwick as a whole were first described, though only briefly, in 1554, when they were said to be the ancient boundaries of the town. The limits were Emscote Bridge in the east, Ford Mill Brook in the south, 'the outer side' of Longbridge in the west, and Hampton Brook in the north. (fn. 6) Longbridge and Hampton Brook would have been better described as in the south-west and west respectively, and no mention is made of the great extent of Wedgnock Park which in fact lay to the north of Warwick. A detailed description of the boundaries in 1820 (fn. 7) remedies this omission but since it was concerned with the manor, not the borough, it takes in even more land on the north-west than belonged to Warwick.

On the east the borough boundary ran southwards along the Avon, left it to follow the River Learm for nearly a mile, ran along a small stream dividing Warwick from Leamington, and then struck across open country to reach Tach Brook (formerly Ford Mill Brook). On the south it followed this brook to its junction with the Avon, and then kept to the Avon itself as far as Barford. On the west the boundary mostly followed small streams, among them Hampton Brook (or Gog Brook). On the north Wedgnock Park took the boundary in a long finger nearly three miles towards Kenilworth, before it returned to the Avon near Guy's Cliffe.

No recorded change was made to these boundaries until 1931. The area that was formerly Wedgnock Park was then transferred to Kenilworth, Beausale, Leek Wootton, and Budbrooke, and the borough boundary was rounded off on this northern side. A small area was also lost to Leamington Spa in the east. At the same time the boundary was extended on the west into Budbrooke and Sherbourne. The net result of these changes was that the area of the borough was. reduced by 556 acres to 5,057 acres. (fn. 8) Not included within the borough boundary is Guy's Cliffe, in the north-east beside the Avon. Described in 1545 as in the parish of St. Nicholas, (fn. 9) it later became an extra-parochial place under the Extra-Parochial Places Act of 1857. (fn. 10) The history of its 12 acres is, however, included in this account.

The borough contained only two parishes until the 19th century, St. Mary's and St. Nicholas's. The boundary between them ran roughly north south with, in 1891, 2,975 acres in St. Mary's and 2,638 acres in St. Nicholas's. The walled town, the suburbs of Saltisford, West Street, and Longbridge, and the whole of Wedgnock Park all lay in St. Mary's. The suburbs of Smith Street, Bridge End, Coten End, and Myton were in St. Nicholas's.

The medieval town occupied only a small part of the extensive territory within the borough boundary, and only in modern times has its population substantially increased. The population in 1086 may have been in the region of 1,500, for in addition to 244 houses mentioned in the town there were 100 bordars cultivating garden plots just outside. In Coten End a further 20 individuals were recorded and in Myton 39, most of them no doubt heads of families. (fn. 11) There is no reliable guide to the 13thcentury population, since the number of houses described in the Hundred Roll entry of 1279 are clearly too few. (fn. 12) The 92 taxpayers of 1332 can similarly represent only a fraction of the total number of householders, (fn. 13) and there is no surviving poll-tax return for Warwick.

In the first half of the 16th century the population seems still to have been only about 2,000. The 296 subsidy payers of 1543 (208 of them in St. Mary's parish), (fn. 14) the 1,000 'houseling people' of 1545 (though this obviously round figure is rather low), (fn. 15) and the 410 families in 1563 (288 of them in St. Mary's parish) (fn. 16) all suggest such a total. In the 1580s, however, there is evidence for a population of between 2,600 and 3,000. The number of Easter communicants in St. Mary's parish alone was 1,247, from 371 households, in 1581, 1,321 in 1585, and 1,291 in 1586; (fn. 17) St. Nicholas's must have provided about 530 more, from about 160 households, in 1581, for it usually contributed about 30 per cent. of the town's population. (fn. 18) A survey of St. Mary's parish for poor-relief purposes in 1582 gives a figure of 209 households. (fn. 19)

By the late 17th century the population was well over 3,000. The hearth tax assessment of 1663 gives only 550 households, (fn. 20) but those of 1670 to 1674 each give over 600, with as many as 636 in 1674. (fn. 21) The 'Compton Census' of 1676 gives 1,992 adults in Warwick (1,351 of them in St. Mary's parish). (fn. 22) This appears to have been an accurate return for in St. Nicholas's the vicar and churchwardens stated 'This is an exact account, in all respects, according to the best information we can get, by going to every house in the parish for our information herein'; (fn. 23) it suggests a total population of some 3,300. There had been a marked increase to about 4,500 in 1730, when there were 676 houses in St. Mary's parish and about 240 in St. Nicholas's. (fn. 24)

By 1801 there were 5,592 people in Warwick. Numbers increased steadily and the total was almost doubled by 1851 when it was 10,952. After a slight decrease in the next decade it rose to almost 12,000 by 1891 and, after remaining almost stationary for two decades, to 13,459 by 1931. The boundary changes of 1931 had had a negligible effect on the population. In 1951 it was 15,349 and in 1961 16,051. (fn. 25)


  • 1. Most of this article was written in 1965; it incorporates additions made in 1966.
  • 2. Dugdale, Warias. 372.
  • 3. H. A. Cronne, Boro. of Warw. (Dugdale Soc. Occasional Paper no. 4) 13.
  • 4. Defoe, Tow through Gt. Britain, ed. G. D. H. Cole, 484.
  • 5. Cod. Dipt. ed. Kemble, iv, pp. 46-47.
  • 6. Cal. Pat. 1554-5, 19.
  • 7. Kemp, Hist. Warw. 269-72.
  • 8. Censuses. The acreage was said in 1831 to be 5,360; it was increased to 5,410 in 1851, 5,512 in 1881 (on information supplied by the Ordnance Survey), and 5,613 in 1891 (without explanation).
  • 9. E 301/31, no. 36.
  • 10. By 1861: Census.
  • 11. V.C.H. Warws. i. 299, 301, 310, 324.
  • 12. E 164/15.
  • 13. Lay Subsidy Roll for Warws. 6 Edw. III (Dugdale Soc. vi), 3-4.
  • 14. E 179/192/153.
  • 15. E 301/53 nos. 4A, 86.
  • 16. B.M. Harl. MS. 595, f. 212.
  • 17. Bk. of John Fisher, 85-86, 193.
  • 18. See 1543, 1563, 1663, 1676, 1730. The Easter 'communion halfpence' paid at St. Nicholas's do not give a realistic figure: in the 10 years 1579-88 they brought in on average only 11s. 6d. a year: Chwdns.' Accts. St. Nicholas, ed. R. Savage, passim.
  • 19. The survey of St. Nicholas's is incomplete: Bk. of John Fisher, 81-85, 87-94, 95-96.
  • 20. W.R.O., Q.S. 11/5.
  • 21. Warws. Co. Recs., Hearth Tax Returns, i, table facing p. lxxvi.
  • 22. Warws. Co. Recs. vii, p. lxxxvi.
  • 23. Ex inf. Miss Anne Whiteman.
  • 24. Dugdale, Warws. 467.
  • 25. Census; for population tables 1801-1901 see V.C.H. Warws. ii. 192.