Samuel Lewis - A Topographical Dictionary of England (1831)


NANTWICH, a parish in the hundred of NANTWICH, county palatine of CHESTER, comprising the market-town of Nantwich, and the townships of Alvaston, Leighton, and Woolstanwood, and containing 5333 inhabitants, of which number, 4661 are in the town of Nantwich, 20 miles (S. E. by E.) from Chester, and 164 (N. W.) from London, on the road to Chester.

The origin of this town, which is of uncertain date, has been attributed to the Britons prior to the Roman invasion, when it is said to have been called Halen Gwyn, the white salt town; its modern appellation is probably a compound of the British term Nant, a brook, or marsh, and the Saxon Vic, by corruption Wich, a vill, or settlement, which latter term appears indefinably to be appropriated to towns where salt is made. Previously to the Conquest, the importance of this place consisted in its numerous brine springs, which became an ample source of revenue to the King and Earl Edwin, between whom, according to the record of Domesday, the district was at that period unequally divided: it was soon after erected into a barony by Hugh Lupus, the first Norman Earl of Chester, who conferred it, together with the whole hundred, on William Malbedeng, or Malbank, and in consequence thereof the town was for some time denominated Wich Malbank. At the time of the Norman invasion, Nantwich was defended by a line of earth-works constructed along the bank of the river, but the opposition made to the progress of the invaders was terminated by a battle fought here in 1069: the inhabitants then became subject to the incursions of the Welch, who are said to have destroyed the town in 1133. In 1146, a predatory band of that people was routed here, on returning from one of their plundering inroads; and in 1282 Edward I. came hither, to concert measures of protection for the inhabitants from similar annoyance. On the return of James I. from Scotland, in 1617, he was received here with demonstrations of joy; but during the subsequent disastrous reign, the town was remarkable for its firm adherence to the cause of the parliament, and was garrisoned in its behalf: in 1642 it was captured by the royalists, but soon after was retaken by Sir W. Brereton, who fortified and made it his headquarters. Sir Thomas Aston made an effort to dislodge him, but this attempt, as well as a regular investment and vigorous assault of the town by Lord Byron, about the close of the year 1643, proved unsuccessful; and Sir Thomas Fairfax having defeated the royalists in the neighbourhood of Nantwich, the siege was raised, and the parliamentarians held the town during the remainder of the war. The anniversary of this victory, the 25th of January, was for many years afterwards esteemed a kind of festival, and the event was commemorated by the inhabitants wearing sprigs of holly in their hats. On the defeat of the Scottish army in 1646, the Duke of Hamilton, with three thousand and fifty cavalry, found a temporary refuge here. In 1438 and 1583, the town suffered severely from fire; the injury sustained m the latter year was estimated at upwards of £30,000, and a royal license was granted for a general collection for its renovation. Other calamities have at different periods befallen the inhabitants, such as the ague in 1587,  the flux in 1596, and the plague in 1604, which severely produced considerable mortality: on the cessation of tne last disease, the court of assize was removed hither from Chester, where that infectious malady still prevailed.

The town is situated on the banks of the river Weever, in a level and fertile tract of country: it is irregularly built, and consists of three principal streets, which are very indifferently paved; most of the houses are of timber and brick, covered with plaster, having large bay windows and projecting stories, but some, of modern erection, are of respectable appearance: the inhabitants enjoy a plentiful supply of water. There is a small theatre, also an assembly-room.

Throughout a long period, the brine springs were a source of extensive commerce; during the conflicts between Henry III. and the Welch, that sovereign imposed a temporary restraint on the manufacture, in order to harrass his opponents, who carried on an extensive traffic in salt, but on the restoration of peace it was resumed. In the time of Henry VIII. there were three hundred salt-works, but this number, from the destruction of several by fire, and the discovery of springs and mines of superior quality elsewhere, where the facility of communication by water was greater, has been gradually reduced, until only one spring remains. In the time of Elizabeth and James, the tanning business, and the manufacture of bone-lace and stockings, prevailed somewhat extensively, but they have been long superseded by that of shoes, chiefly for the London and Manchester markets, gloves, and cotton goods, which afford employment to about two thousand persons. Cheese is the principal article of agricultural produce.

A canal from Chester, terminating about a quarter of a mile from the town, was completed in 1778, at an expense of about £80,000; and the construction of another, to be called the Liverpool and Birmingham junction canal, is in progress. In 1734, an act was obtained for making the Weever navigable, but the design has never been carried into effect: the first stone bridge across the river here, in lieu of the original one of timber, was built in 1663. The market is on Saturday; and fairs, chiefly for cattle, sheep, and pigs, are held on March 26th, the second Tuesday in June, September 4th, and December 4th; a market for cattle also is held once a fortnight, from Candlemas until the fair in March.

The civil government of the town was anciently vested in a guild, whose common hall was the present school-house: during its existence, a bailiff and various other officers were regularly appointed ; the fraternity was suppressed in the time of Edward VI.; the nomination of the bailiff, however, at the court leet of the lord of the manor, continued to be observed for a few years, but has long since been abandoned. A manorial court, and a court for the hundred, are held by the Marquis of Cholmondeley; at the former constables are chosen. Petty sessions for the hundred are also held here: the general quarter sessions, formerly held at Nantwich, were removed to Knutsford about 1760. Lord Crewe, as proprietor of certain fees of the ancient barony, holds a manorial court, at which a few of the inhabitants render suit and service; and a similar court is annexed to the fee granted by Hugh Malbanck to the abbot of Combermere, and now in the possession of Lord Dysart. A court of requests, for the recovery of debts under 40s., is held under the presidency of an officer appointed by the joint lords of the manor; the inhabitants are exempted from being impannelled on juries beyond the jurisdiction of the town.

The town hall was built in 1720, by George, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, afterwards George II., at an expense of £600; but, in 1737, a portion of it fell down, and a few persons were killed; it was rebuilt, but not many years afterwards, a similar accident being apprehended from a sudden crash heard during the holding of the sessions, it was taken down, and a modern edifice, used as a market-house and town hall, has been erected on its site.

The living is a rectory, in the archdeaconry and diocese of Chester, endowed with £200 private benefaction, £200 royal bounty, and £800 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of Lord Crewe. The church, dedicated to St. Mary and St. Nicholas, is a spacious and venerable cruciform structure, principally in the decorated and later styles of English architecture, and comprising a nave, with lateral aisles, a chancel, transepts, and an ornamented octagonal tower rising from the intersection: the chancel has a groined roof, and contains stalls with carved subsellia, and enriched with tabernacle work; under the north-eastern angle of the arches which support the tower is a stone pulpit projecting from the piers, neatly carved in the ancient style of English architecture; the church contains several ancient monuments, There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists, and Unitarians.

The grammar school, an ancient edifice in the churchyard, was vested in the crown at the suppression of the ancient guild to which it belonged, and subsequently purchased for its present purpose; it was endowed, in 1611, with a small sum, the joint benefactions of John and Thomas Thrush, natives of this town, and woolpackers in the city of London, for which a limited number of boys are educated. The Blue-cap school has been endowed with various benefactions, principally by the family of Wilbraham, of Townsend, for the education and clothing of forty boys.

An almshouse for six poor men was founded, in 1613, by Sir Roger Wilbraham, and endowed by Lady Wilbraham with £ 12 per annum; another for the same number, by Sir Edmund Wright, in 1638: an almshouse for four poor men and their wives was founded, in 1722, by Mrs. Ermine Delves; one by Roger Wilbraham, Esq., in 1676; and one for seven poor persons, in 1767, by John Crewe, Esq. (afterwards Lord Crewe), in accordance with the will of Sir Thomas and Sir John Crewe; the inmates of these respective hospitals receive stipends proportioned to the endowments.

The ancient castle, erected here by the first Norman baron, was in ruins prior to the reign of Henry VII., and its site alone is now visible.

Thomas Harrison, a major-general in the parliamentarian army, and one of the judges at the trial of Charles I.; John Gerarde, the herbalist, born in 1545; and Geoffrey Witney, a minor poet in the reign of Elizabeth, were natives of this town. The widow of the poet Milton was born in the vicinity, where she spent the latter period of her life, and died, at an advanced age, in the year 1736. The Marquis of Cholmondeley enjoys the inferior title of Baron Cholmondeley of Namptwich.

From Samuel Lewis A Topographical Dictionary of England  (1831) ©Mel Lockie