History of the Town
Thatcham is truly an ancient town with archaeological finds covering every period from the Palaeolithic over 12,000 years ago, right up to today.
It is unknown if Palaeolithic people settled in the area. However, it is know that Mesolithic (circa 8,500BC – 4,000BC) people did settle here.The settlers would have been semi-nomadic and occupied the site periodically for several centuries or more. The settlement itself was on a pine covered gravel hill near the modern sewage works on Lower Way. The site itself was not discovered until 1920 when workmen who were carrying out levelling operations at the Lower Way sewage works found flint implements. Since then there have been various excavations on the site and finds have included not only flint tools but also hearths and flint knapping floors which indicate the area where people were working to produce these tools. Excavated bones from animals included those of the red deer, roe deer, wild pig, elk, horse, ox, beaver, pine marten, fox, dog, wolf and some wild fowl.
A nationally important site
Arguably it is the Bronze (2,500BC – 750BC) and Iron (750BC – 43AD) Ages which make Thatcham more notable than any other and indeed makes Thatcham a nationally, if not internationally, important place. Evidence for both Bronze and Iron Age sites has been uncovered at Dunston Park and Cooper’s Farm. However, it is the sites in and around Hartshill Copse that are most notable. In 1986 a field evaluation of Hartshill Copse by the Oxford Archaeological Unit indicated a Bronze Age cremation cemetery and dense settlement.Excavations at the site by Cotswold Archaeology in 2001 and 2002 found evidence for later periods including Iron Age, Romano-British and Medieval occupation. A later excavation found evidence of iron working. Although Iron Age settlements had already been found on or near Hartshill Copse, this was different. When the finds were analysed, they were dated to around 1,000BC, at least 250 years before the Iron Age was supposed to have started, thus requiring the history books to be re-written.Thatcham was once a settlement for the Romans. This settlement, which lies on and near Henwick Worthy Field, is known to have been associated with a Roman road, Ermin Way. Evidence includes coins, dishes, leather shoes, pottery and wells dating from the 2nd to the 5th centuries. Like many other parts of Thatcham’s heritage, whether this Roman settlement is the long lost town of Spinae is a highly debated topic.
Birth of modern Thatcham
Thatcham Broadway is considered by many to be the historic heart of Thatcham. This is only true thanks to the Saxons who founded what we know today as Thatcham. Popular local culture has it that in the 7th century a Saxon Chief started a settlement here. The Chiefs name was Tace and this was his settlement or ham. Hence Tace’s ham which evolved over the years to become Thatcham. However, the modern name Thatcham is more likely to come from a nearby river meadow, giving us the ‘hamm’ and ‘thatch’ referring to the reed beds and not the style of roofing.
It is also believed that a Saxon Church was built in around 675AD. The settlement would have then built up around the Church. Evidence of Saxons have been found around the area and includes pottery fragments.
The medieval town of Thatcham
By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Thatcham had twelve ‘hagae’ (an enclosure usually including a house), which are mentioned in the survey. By the medieval period, when the borough was created, the town was centred on the Broadway with burgage plots also laid out on the London-Bath Road. There was little development south of The Broadway. There are some 70 deeds surviving dated from about 1300 to 1430 which deal with burgage tenements, curtilages and common land. These documents give an impression of what Thatcham was like at the time. Even at the height of its medieval prosperity Thatcham was still small by modern standards, the population was probably no more than five hundred people.
No official records have been found to give any details of the creation of the Borough of Thatcham. Usually there would have been a Charter of Incorporation but this has been lost and although we do not know the actual date of Thatcham’s Charter of Incorporation, there can be no doubt that by the early years of the 14th century Thatcham had gained the rights and privileges of a borough. This included limited rights to self-government and a guarantee of market and trading privileges.
The creation of the Borough of Thatcham necessitated the setting up of a separate annual court for the transaction of business matters relating to the Corporation. The inhabitants of the medieval town – the burgesses – became freemen, in return for their houses and plots of land they would now pay a money rent rather than labour services to their lord.
To secure a Charter the inhabitants of a town had to pay money to the king and/or associated lords. Usually only the larger towns obtained their Charters from the king; smaller ones, within the lands of barons or monasteries, sought theirs locally. Thatcham’s Charter would have been granted by Reading Abbey, although it would have depended on the approval of King Edward l (1272-1307).
Thatcham was at the peak of its importance in the 14th century, during the reigns of the first three Edwards. In the assessment of a lay subsidy granted to King Edward III (1327 – 1377), Thatcham was classed as one of the four boroughs in Berkshire, along with Windsor, Wallingford and Reading.The borough of Thatcham at this time consisted of several streets including:
- Duck Street leading into East Street, towards Reading – later Chapel Street
- West Street leading towards Newbury – later High Street
- South Street – later Broad Street and more recently known as The Broadway
- Front Lane – later Church Lane
- Back Lane – later Park Lane
West Street has also been known as Crown Street and Cheap Street (often written as Chip Street); the use of ‘Cheap’ highlights the retail activity of the street and may indicate that the town’s market was held there at some time. However, the market place is usually thought to have been held in South Street (The Broadway).
Historic buildings in Thatcham
The Parish Church Although largely rebuilt in 1857, the parish church of St. Mary still retains earlier features including the Norman south doorway with its zigzag carving, the early 13th century north arcade and the handsome 15th century tower, in which is a peal of ten bells, of which five were cast in the 17th century. In the south aisle there are detailed stained glass windows from 1865 whilst the modernised chancel preserves the original priest’s doorway. Monuments include, in the Fuller chapel, the tomb chest to Sir William Danvers (dated 1504) and a memorial, dated 1620, to Nicholas Fuller. The latter is an alabaster tablet that shows his kneeling family, the seven children below the parents.
Close to the parish church is the former Vicarage, an early Georgian house of blue brick. The neighbouring plot was once Thatcham Farm, the farmhouse remains and is now called Thatcham Grange, a mixture of work of the Tudor and Queen Anne periods with a delightful granary sitting on staddle stones in its grounds.
Some of Thatcham’s oldest houses can still be seen in the town centre and date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. In The Broadway are the remains of the Market Cross, marking the location of the medieval market place. There are former coaching inns, including the King’s Head and the White Hart in the High Street.
The London Road including Chapel Street
London Road leads into Chapel Street and here you will find several Georgian and pre 18th century houses, including a row of timber framed and thatched cottages of early date and picturesque appearance. On the other side of the street is Thatcham’s Parish Hall. The idea of a village hall was instigated in 1903 by Miss A.L Henry, third daughter of John Henry of Colthrop Mill, and plans were made to erect a venue to accommodate 200 people at concerts and other entertainments. Within a few years some £350 had been raised. The Parish Hall was built by Mr. W. Child of Thatcham and was opened on 10th April 1907 by Mrs Benyon, wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire. The Parish Hall still serves the community today.
The Chapel of St Thomas Becket was built circa 1304 on East Street and was financed by Sir Richard de Fokerham of Colthrop. It is not clear why the chapel was dedicated to St Thomas but there is a previous local connection. In 1222 a charter was issued for an annual fair to be held in Thatcham on the eve of and day of St Thomas Becket, 6-7th July.
The Chapel survived Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and establishment of the Church of England but appears to be abandoned by the time Elizabeth I is queen. In 1707 the chapel was opened as the Winchcombe School, a charity school for the education of 30 poor boys from Bucklebury, Thatcham and Little Shefford. These were parishes associated with the founder of the school Lady Frances Winchcombe.
The trustees who were responsible for managing the school and associated charity where neglectful of their duties and the school had to close. In 1794 the school reopened as a Blue Coat School, a name attributed to the blue uniforms that were issued to the pupils. Now known as The Old Bluecoat School, it is Thatcham’s oldest remaining building after the Church of St. Mary’s and the only Grade I listed building in the town.
Through the 20th century the Old Bluecoat School had a mixture of uses, it is currently owned by Thatcham Town Council and leased to the Old Bluecoat Charity. The Lady Frances Winchcombe’s Thatcham Foundation although no longer connected to the school continues to assist young people in their education.
Beyond Chapel Street the road becomes London Road again and here is the former Council School, opened in 1913 but in 1964 named the Francis Baily School in honour of the famous astronomer. The son of a long-established Thatcham family, Baily was actually born in Newbury and went on to make a fortune on the Stock Exchange before becoming the first secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society. He calculated the Earth’s weight, revised the Nautical Almanac and produced a standard reference book on ‘known stars’ (8,000 of them). He died in London in 1844 but is buried in a tomb at St Mary’s, the parish church of his ancestors.
Another interesting building in the town is Thatcham House, built circa 1869 for Reverend Hezekiah and Isabel Martin. The Reverend Hezekiah was vicar of Thatcham from 1866 until 1889 and the house then contained 30 rooms. The true use of its imposing tower is unknown; however it is almost the same height as the tower of St. Mary’s Church. The Reverend Hezekiah and his wife moved into the property shortly after construction was finished in 1871. The next residents, the Martin family, moved out in 1889 when Mr John Hart Player took up residence. In 1902 the Turner family (see Alexander and Victor Buller Turner below) moved in and stayed until 1946 when the house was put up for sale due to the house being too large for one family.
In 1951 it was modernised into 3 flats and within a few years of that, Mr Zornow acquired the house, built himself a detached house nearby and continued to let the house as flats. During the early 1960s Mr Zornow erected more houses in the grounds of Thatcham House. By the 1970s Thatcham House had deteriorated so much that the flats were vacated and a closing order placed on the property in 1980. By 1988 Mr Zornow had developed Thatcham House into 25 office suites which continue to be leased as offices today.
Three Victoria Cross Recipients
In more recent times the people of Thatcham have been justly proud of three local men, two of them brothers, who won the Victoria Cross for gallantry in action. In 1900 William John House (1879-1912) received the award for rescuing a wounded soldier while under enemy fire during the Boer War.
In 1915 Alexander Buller Turner (1893-1915) was mortally wounded in a single-handed grenade attack upon a German position. His medal was awarded posthumously. During the second war, his brother Victor (1900-72) was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the field while commanding a battalion of the Rifle Brigade with the Eighth Army in North Africa.On Monday 28th September 2015 commemorative stones were unveiled on The Broadway for Thatcham’s Victoria Cross recipients Alexander Buller Turner, Victor Buller Turner and William John House. The Department of Communities and Local Government had provided commemorative stones to the home towns of 504 servicemen from the British Isles who were presented with the Victoria Cross during WW1.
The stone for Alexander Buller Turner was laid exactly 100 years after the battle that led him to be posthumously awarded the VC. The Town Council decided to commission additional commemorative stones for William John House and Victor Buller Turner so that they could be laid in The Broadway alongside the stone for Alexander Buller Turner.
We would like to thank the members of Thatcham Historical Society for their assistance in preparing this brief summary of the rich history that Thatcham has, the images used to illustrate this section are copyrighted to the Thatcham Historical Society.
To find out more, visit www.thatchamhistoricalsociety.org.uk
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16th Jan 2018
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