ABINGDON, Description and History from 1868 Gazetteer


The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868

ABINGDON, comprises the two parishes of St. Helen, and St. Nicholas, it is a municipal and parliamentary borough and market town, having separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of Hormer, in the county of Berkshire, of which it is the chief town, 6 miles S.W. of Oxford, and 56 miles N.W. of London. It is on a branch of the Great Western railway, the Abingdon-road station being about 2½ miles from the town. It consists of several large streets, diverging from the market-place, and is pleasantly situated on the Thames, where the small river Ock falls into it. In the time of the Britons it was a city of importance, and a royal residence, where the councils of the nation were held. Its earliest name was Seouechesham or Suekesham (Chron. Abbend.). In the year 680, a Benedictine monastery, which had been previously founded at Bagley Wood by Cissa, viceroy of the King of Wessex, was removed to this place, which then took the descriptive name of Abbandune, or Abbendon, the "town of the abbey."

King Offa afterwards erected a palace here, in which he and his immediate successors occasionally resided. In 871, during the reign of Alfred the Great, the monastery was destroyed by the Danes. A new house was commenced by Edred, the grandson of Alfred, completed by the Abbots Ethelwold and Ordgar, and more largely endowed and privileged by Edgar and Canute, so that it attained the dignity of a mitred abbey. William the Conqueror was entertained at Abingdon during Easter, 1084, by Robert d'Oilly, a powerful baron, and he left his son Prince Henry, afterwards named Beauclerc, to be educated in the monastery. Two other royal visits were paid to this town, one in 1267, by Henry III., and another in 1518, by Henry VIII. In 1431 an insurrection of the Levellers took place here, under Mandeville The town was garrisoned for Charles I. early in the civil war, and the head-quarters of his cavalry was fixed here. But in 1644, when the royalist forces retreated to Oxford, the Earl of Essex took Abingdon, and it was garrisoned for the parliament. Many attempts were subsequently made by the royalists to recover possession of it, but without success, and the garrison used to put to death every Irish prisoner they took, without trial; hence arose the phrase, "Abingdon law".

The borough received its first charter of incorporation from Philip and Mary, in 1557, by which its government was vested in a mayor, high steward, recorder, twelve principal and sixteen secondary burgesses, two bailiffs, a town clerk and chamberlain. Under the Reform Bill, it is governed by a mayor (who is returning officer), four aldermen, twelve councillors, with the style of the "mayor, aldermen, and burgesses of the borough of Abingdon". It returns one member to parliament. It is a polling town and place of election for the county members, who are nominated at Reading. Borough sessions are held quarterly, and borough petty sessions weekly, on Tuesday. The county magistrates hold a petty session once a fortnight for the Abingdon division. The town is the centre of a county court, and assizes are held here alternately with Reading. Since the census of 1851, the population of the town has considerably declined, having been then returned at 5,954 against 5,691 in 1861, showing a diminution of 263 inhabitants in the decennial period. The number of inhabited houses has likewise fallen from 1,244 in the formed period to 1,187 in 1861.

The manufacture of woollen cloths was anciently carried on here to such an extent that Leland says, "The town standeth by clothing;" but this had declined before the time of Queen Mary. This branch of trade has lately been revived with great success, and at present gives employment to above 3,000 men and women. This, with malting, the dressing of hemp, the manufacture of carpets, sacking, and sail cloth, furnishes the principal occupation of the industrious classes. The Wilts and Berks canal joins the Thames here, near the confluence of the Ock with that river, and wharfs and warehouses have been erected at this point. The market days are Monday and Friday, the former for corn principally, the latter for provisions only. Fairs are held on the first Monday in Lent, the 6th May, the 20th June, the 5th August, the 19th September, the Monday before Old Michaelmas Day, the Monday after October 12th, and the 11th December, for horses and horned cattle.

Abingdon includes the two parishes of St. Helen and St. Nicholas, in the archdeaconry of Berks and diocese of Oxford. The living of the former is a vicarage, with the perpetual curacy of Drayton, value £225, in the patronage of the bishop of the diocese. The church is in the early English style, and has a square embattled tower with a lofty spire. It was built before 1573, and contains brasses of Barber and another, the former of the date of 1417. The living of St. Nicholas is a sinecure rectory, value £30, the vicarage being annexed to St. Helen's, and is in the patronage of the Lord Chancellor. The church, which stands close to the abbey, was built by the Abbot Nicholas about the close of the 13th and commencement of the 14th century. It is partly Norman, and partly Gothic. There is an arch in the Norman style, and the circular door at the west end, with zigzag ornaments, appears to be of a much earlier date. Nothing is left of the abbey but the west gate-house, with some remnants of the old buildings occupied as a brewery by Miss Spenlove! It had 136 charters, and its revenue at the Dissolution amounted to £1,876 10s. 9d. It contained the tombs of its founder, and its abbot, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and others. A beautiful octagonal cross formerly stood in the market-place, and around it, in 1641, a company of two thousand singers celebrated the accommodation with the Scots. When Waller's army, which had been stationed at Wantage, entered the town, a few days after Essex had taken possession of it, this cross was destroyed. It formed the model of one subsequently erected at Coventry. There are four chapels in the town belonging to the Society of Friends, the Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists.

There is a large and elegant market-house, built of freestone in 1678, containing a hall in which the County Court and the Nisi Prius Court are held, and borough or county business transacted. The county gaol, in Bridge-street, a handsome stone building, was erected in 1811, at a cost of £26,000, and includes a court-house in which the Crown Court at the summer assizes, and the January and July county sessions, are held. Near the town are Burford and Culham bridges, with a causeway uniting them, forming an agreeable promenade. They were constructed in the reign and by licence of Henry V., by the fraternity of the Holy Cross. The bridges have been widened and improved. There is an oval racecourse of a mile and a quarter, on which races take place in July. The town has a mechanics' institution, a reading-room, horticultural and philanthropic societies, and a savings-bank.

There are several free schools, and other charitable institutions. The revenues of the charities amount to the large sum of £1,953. The free grammar school was founded by John Royse in 1563, for the education of three-score and thirteen boys. It was endowed with two messuages, called at that time "the Bell and the Unicorn," situated in Birchin Lane, London. These were afterwards burnt down, and the site now forms part of the premises of the London Assurance Company. There are ten scholarships at Pembroke College, Oxford, connected with this school. It had Goodwin the antiquary for a master; and among its pupils have been several men afterwards distinguished: Chief Justice Holl, Graves, author of the "Spiritual Quixote," Holwick, the Greek scholar, and Morant, the antiquary. In 1608, William Bennett left lands for the maintenance of six poor scholars in this school; and in 1609, Thomas Tesdale gave lands to support an usher. Mayott's free schools were founded in 1756 by Robert Mayott, for the education of poor children of Abingdon. There are at present ten boys and six girls on this foundation. They are nominated by the feoffees, and are educated, clothed, and apprenticed. Another free school was founded in 1703 by John Provost, for the instruction of ten boys in reading and writing, and for apprenticing poor children. Richard Belcher, in 1713, gave £14 per annum, and in 1753, Joseph Tomkins gave £100, South Sea Stock, for the education of children in this borough. There are also national and British schools.

St. Helens, or Christ's Hospital, which is situated on the west side of St. Helen's church, was built in 1446, and belonged to the fraternity of the Holy Cross. In 1553 it was refounded by letters patent of Edward VI., granted on the application of the inhabitants of the town who lamented the loss of the establishment by its dissolution in 1547. It was placed under the government of twelve persons who were incorporated by the name of "The Master and Governors of the Hospital of Christ". It consists of almshouses for twelve poor men and twenty-two women, and a nurse, with cloisters in front, and a turret and dome in the centre, with a handsome hall and council chambers, containing portraits of the founder and other benefactors to the hospital, in which the governors meet, and where prayers are read morning and evening. Additional almshouses have been built, and donations made to the hospital from time to time. St. John the Baptist's Hospital, endowed before the Reformation, for six poor men, was rebuilt in 1801. There are also almshouses endowed by Twitty in 1707, and by Tomkins in 1733. The poor have the benefit of several charitable bequests by Mr. Klein, Mr. Beasley, and others.

St. Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1240; Sir John Mason, British Ambassador at the Court of France, and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, who was born in 1500, and had for his motto, "Do, and say nothing;" Sir T. Smith, who died in 1609; E. Moore, author of "The Gamester;" and W. Stevens, a poet, born in 1755, died in 1800, were natives of Abingdon. It confers the title of earl on the family of the Berties, of Wytham Abbey.

[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)
Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]