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The rise and fall and rise of Northampton

Empty shops, political upheaval, redundant land - we've seen it all before

Mike Ingram takes a look at the ups and downs of Northampton throughout history from the medieval solution for empty buildings to dirty politicians and when the shoe trade really started…

Today, critics are always bemoaning the decline of Northampton, the rubbish, the new unitary councils as well as politics and the decay of the town centre etc.  many with good justification. The way forward has been hotly debated. There has been a growing number of people in the town trying to make a difference and to make changes. Each and every one of them should be applauded for their efforts. However, the town is still beset with despondency and apathy.  But there is hope, Northampton has suffered massive downturns many times in the past and like a phoenix has risen from the ashes (quite literally after the Great Fire of September 1675), so like so many times before, if we all work together, we can make the town great again.

The town can trace its history to before 600 AD and by 1020 was a home to kings and queens. It started to grow in importance during the reign of King Henry II and expanded eastwards. The fledgling university and its month-long international fairs not only attracted Royal buyers, but buyers and sellers from across Europe boosted the local economy.  The town was given a further boost in 1202 when King John granted the town the right to buy and sell dyed cloth. The town’s prosperity can be seen in the annual payments made to the crown which at its height in the late 1170’s was second only to London. One hundred years later, during the reign of Henry III, the burgesses were reporting they were struggling to meet the payments.

Under John’s son, King Henry III, the town expanded further, becoming the third largest town in England after London and Norwich. In 1235 the market was moved from All Saints churchyard to a piece of waste land, just to the north.  This waste area became the present Market Square. By the fourteenth century the town had a national reputation for fulling and dying with 300 cloth workers. In 1311, Northampton was one of only nine towns in the country to be given the status of a staple merchant. It also became a trading centre of national repute for horses which lasted into the seventeenth century.  Much of this is reflected in street names that remain today such as Woolmonger Street, Scarletwell Street, Marefare, Mercers Row and Horsemarket.

The castle mound in Northampton, there is evidence to suggest the keep was closer to the chapel across the road

However, all was not good and there seems to have been a major rift between the ordinary townsfolk and the ruling oligarchy. In 1274 there were bitter complaints in court that the wealthier burgesses were escaping the burdens of citizenship such as the paying of tallages (the equivalent of council tax and rates) for the upkeep of the town, often by settling outside the borough boundaries to escape the charges. There were further complaints that they were claiming expenses for trips to London on behalf of the town which were payed for by the townsfolk, whilst the poor had to pay their own. In 1330 a presentment was made against the Bailiffs of the town for taking unlawful tolls

The people of the town were ‘grievously tallaged’ and as a result, large numbers of craftsmen including the weavers, dyers and fullers, left the town. Many of their houses were left empty and in 1334 the town asked for a reduction in the fee-farm (the annual payment to the king) as houses had fallen to the ground and rents had been lost. At the same time, the town’s bailiffs also complained that they had been made beggars although this was probably not the case. To try and staunch the decay of the town, permission for another fair was sought. A four-week fair from 2nd Monday after trinity was granted. Attempts to halt the decline seem to have failed as an ordinance from the last decade of the fourteenth century allowed the mayor and chamberlains to lease out waste places which were occupied by “thieves and other filthy persons,” and where no profits had accrued for a number of years. The Black death which arrived in 1348 only exacerbated the towns problems. Despite the decay and the decline in trade, the town was still known as a centre for high quality clothing. However, after complaints of poor workmanship in the 1440’s, it was deemed necessary to appoint two wardens to oversee the workmanship of the towns tailors. There are frequent references to the fullers and their tenters in the Assembly Books from 1550 to 1630. The King’s Council noted in 1577 that merchants of Norwich, London and Northampton were in the habit of buying and selling wool at Northampton, driving up the price, to the great decay of clothing in the shire. James Hart, writing in 1633, speaks of the ruins of great buildings once employed in the clothing trade. The enrolments of apprentices on the town records show that the tailors were still the most popular industry as late as the 16th and early 17th centuries. The poll books of the elections of 1768, 1784 and 1790 show a large number of woolcombers and weavers. James, wrote in 1857 that “A century ago, the woolstaplers of Northampton were the local magnates, the weavers of serges, tammies and shallons more numerous than the shoemakers of the present day.” In the second half of the 18th century, there was a marked revival in weaving but by this time shoemaking was firmly established.

In 1535 an act of Parliament stated that Northampton was then, and had been for a long time in great ruin and decay, and that many empty spaces existed, covered only with the remains of dilapidated houses. It was ordered that, unless the owners of these ruined houses rebuilt them within three years, anybody who chose to rebuild them could take posession.

Another massive blow to the town came with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when from 1536 to 1541, Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriating their income, and disposing of their assets to fund his military campaigns in the 1540s. At the time, around a quarter of the town was occupied by religious houses. The priories were also the biggest landlords, with St Andrews Priory owning 100 properties in the town and St James Abbey another 60 alone, out of a total of 500 or so. The number of churches were also reduced from nine to the four ancient parish churches of St. Peters, Holy Sepulchre, St. Giles and All Saints. This meant that the huge numbers of visitors to the town for religious purposes disappeared.   As a consequence, the hospitals which provided accommodation for the visitors also fell into decline and eventually out of use. The town had hit a new low. However, towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I a new charter, which enlarged its privileges of the town, and specified several fresh fairs, perhaps marked a resurgence of the town’s prosperity based around leather.

By 1524, tanning and leatherwork was the principle trade in the town with cloth slipping to second place. A common saying in England around the end of the Tudor period was “You know when you are in a mile of Northampton by the smell of the leather and the noise of the lapstones.” In 1619 there were complaints about the nuisance caused by tanners, glovers, whittawyers (makers of fine white leather) and parchment makers washing their hides in the river and the watercourses of Cow Meadow south of the town, suggesting a flourishing leather trade. However, it was the rise of the shoe industry over many years that changed the fortunes of the town. Responsibility for this can be attributed to a single entrepreneur – Thomas Pendleton. In 1642 he successfully secured an order from Parliament for six hundred pairs of boots and four thousand pairs of shoes for soldiers destined for Ireland. It was an abnormally large order for the time, so Pendleton had to engage twelve master shoemakers in the town to fulfil it. Northampton did not have an exclusive contract for shoes for the army and the pairs made for the New Model Army in 1645 came from London. Another army contract to supply Cromwell’s troops followed in 1648. By 1661 shoemaking was firmly established in the town. Thomas Fuller, an English churchman and historian wrote at the time in his History of the Worthies of England, “the town of Northampton may be said to stand chiefly on other men’s legs; where (if not the best) the most and cheapest boots and stockings are bought in England.” The town continued to make boots and shoes for the army. In 1689 it received an order to “clothe the feet of William III’s army in Ireland.”

All Saints Church is still the gathering place for protests and public demonstrations

If the town didn’t have enough problems, in 1566 a major fire destroyed part of the town. Between 1578 and 1638, Northampton had no less than four outbreaks of the plague, with over 600 dying in 1605 and 665 in 1638. During these times, the town ordered “…for the preventing of anie further infection within the saide towne than the saide howses (yf yt soe please God), It is ordered that all howses suspected to be infected shalbe shut up, and the persons therein kept in.” Another fire in 1668 left only six houses standing in Cotton End. Then the whole town was destroyed by fire in September 1675. In six hours, it destroyed around 700 buildings [out of 850] including All Saints church. Local people and businesses rallied together and raised £25,000 towards re-building the town centre based around the Market Square. Even Charles II donated 1,000 tons of timber from Salcey Forest for the re-building. As a consequence, a commemorative statue of the king (dressed in a Roman toga) was placed on the portico of the re-built All Saints church.

The collapse of the wool industry and the destruction of the town by the Great Fire left many in the town poor and starving. In 1693, starving rioters seized the corn-dealer Buckby’s wagons to stop him forestalling (preventing normal trading by buying or diverting goods, or by persuading persons to raise prices). Buckby was arrested as “an oppressor of the poor and a public enemy of the whole country.” Somewhat suspiciously he hanged himself in Northampton gaol soon after. Not long after, a large crowd of women went to the Northampton market with knives, determined to get corn at fair rates. When in October and November merchants brought up large quantities of corn for “export,” The townspeople overturned their carts, threw several into the river and cut open sacks. Matters came to a head the following June. First crowds seized several loads of corn and abused the owners. A battle lasting for several hours between the crowd and towns leaders followed after the crowd broke into an inn to seize corn. Two rioters were killed and another 60 or 70 were wounded.

The town was rebuilt and in 1725, its new appearance inspired author Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) to describe Northampton as the “handsomest and best built town in all this part of England…..finely rebuilt with brick and stone, and the streets made spacious and wide”. He also commented that the shoes of most Englishmen from poorest countrymen to his master were from Northampton, showing that the industry had not only recovered from the disaster, it was flourishing.

In the eighteenth century, possibly stimulated by vast numbers of Huguenots arriving in the county, Northampton and Northamptonshire was also famous for its hand-made “pillow” lacework, especially items made in Kettering, Middleton Cheney, Spratton, and Paulerspury. However, Northampton lace had a simple design which was easily copied by Nottingham lace machines the following century, leading to the decline of the local industry.

In 1818 there were only 12 boot and shoe manufacturers in the town. In 1830 there were 31. By the following year, a third of the men in the town were employed as shoemakers either within the home or in small places of work. However, there was considerable resistance to mechanisation of the industry in the town leading to “anti-machine” strikes in Northampton during 1857-9. The town became perilously close to loosing its preeminent place in the industry as a letter in the Northampton Mercury dated February 1858 attests, “The manufacture of boots and shoes appears to be the staple trade of Northampton and its vicinity. Do you wish to retain it? If so, you are driven to the alternative of having recourse to machinery. It is a notorious fact that the French and Americans are sending into this country tens of thousands of boots and shoes made by machines. They are underselling you in price, beating you in the quality. You are not now competing with them on equal terms. Bestir yourselves. Let machines do the work of machines; let brains and souls steer towards that higher position to which they were destined.”


Max Liebermann’s 1881 painting “Schusterwerkstatt” (Cobbler’s workshop) at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

It was not until 1894 when the men’s union demanded that no work should be done outside of the factory that the shoemaking industry became entirely factory based.  Northampton became progressively more specialised, employing eleven times the national average of shoemakers in 1841, rising to 17 times in 1861 and 22 times by 1871. The growth of the trade owed much to the arrival of London-based entrepreneurs taking advantage of the availability of a relatively docile pool of labour willing to undercut the wages of London shoe workers. Whist the influx of labour from surrounding areas helped to keep wages low. The population tripled from 7,020 in 1801 to 21,242 in 1841 and in 1851 72 per cent of the adult population had been born outside the town. However, this massive growth and low wages had a downside. Living conditions in the town were described as worse than some areas of London by social commentators, with over one third of working families living below the sustenance line. Life expectancy at birth was 36 years for males and 38 for females, which was five years below the national average. Typhus and scrofula were endemic, TB rates were twice the national average, reflecting the cramped domestic working conditions and the dust and chemicals associated with leather-working, and child mortality at 173 per thousand in the first year of life was well above the national average of 153. So, when we remember Northampton’s shoe industry, we must not forget that it was built on the lives of all those men, women and children, living in squalid conditions, and dying incredibly young.

Another issue that was as much as a problem then as it is now is rubbish and waste. In 1431, the town council were granted powers to compel freeholders to maintain the pavements in front of their property, out to the gutter in the centre of the road or out to 30ft of a property if on the Market Square. In the 1460’s, the towns inhabitants were ordered not to throw “carione or stynkyng things” into the highway. In 1505 butchers were banned from throwing offal behind their stalls or onto the pavements. It seems to have not cured the problem as in 1520, a long list of fines was recorded around the Checkers Ward (market square) and the East Ward which included blocked or putrid gutters, dung and old rushes thrown onto pavements and animal intestines discarded in the street.

Things had still not improved by the Victorian era as according to the Royal Commission on the Health of Towns 1843/5, only 700 houses in Northampton were supplied with water out of a total of around 4,200 or 16.7 per cent, In November 1862 the Improvement Commissioners reported that the water tanks of Wood Hill and Jeyes’ Jetty that supplied the water for most of the poor in the town centre were contaminated with urine. The Sanitary Committee in its first annual report in November 1856 noted that in its first year alone it had issued 860 orders relating to 692 privies, 126 drains and cesspits, 19 cases of inadequate drainage, and 19 of the build-up of filth.

In an article in a newspaper called “Good News” from November 1869 called “Northampton – Toiling and Moiling,” Richard Rowe described part of the town saying “Bearward Street, already mentioned; Harding Street; Spring Lane, with stagnant duck-weeded water at its foot; Compton Street, the very unaristocratic namesake of the local earl; Scarletwell Street, so called because its well used to be supposed to supply water peculiarly adapted for scarlet-dyeing; and Crispin Street, are the most fashionable quarters of the cordwainers’ colony, a part of the town which is almost soley peopled by shoemakers and their purveyors. Neatly built, yet squalid, unfragant, two-floored cottages; roadways splashed with slops, and littered with garbage; dirty children quarelling, grubbing in the dirt, racing, squealing, squatting on the kerbstone in rows; vixenish women and beery men, in and outside of low “publics”, are the salient features of Snobopolis…After nightfall, too, on week days its noble Market Square is disgraced by scenes of juvenile depravity quite as shameless as those which ever and anon, when police supervision has grown slack, may be witnessed after church-time in Sunday evenings in the Westminster Road and Upper Street, Islington.”

Local politics must also take their share of the blame for the decay of the town particularly during the medieval period, and even then, there seems to have been two major rival political factions. In 1326, the then mayor of Northampton Walter de Pateshull, who was also the coroner (both elected positions) was beaten and dragged out his house by his political opponents which included an ex-mayor. They declared de Pateshull unfit to be coroner and a pluralist before forcing him to renounce the coroner’s office in an open court session in the guildhall. Public opinion seems to have been on the side of de Pateshull’s attackers, for though the deed was not denied, another burgess stood pledge for five of the offenders. The following year, the king appointed a commission to investigate a complaint by William Trussel that 20 men, including Pateshull and other prominent Northampton men (including other ex-mayors) had ransacked his property at Flore. In 1437, concerns that a few families had a monopoly of power, led to the introduction of an ordinance prohibiting anyone from serving as mayor twice within a period of less than seven years. These divisions within the wealthiest sections of the local community were still apparent in 1484 when to avoid election, burgesses began withdrawing their goods from the town.

Until this time, in theory, every citizen possessed a voice in the government of the town, stimulating public spirit and a sense that private interests were second to the general good of the community. For over two hundred years, mayors and burgesses were elected at St. Giles Church in the town. However, in 1467, under Edward IV, efforts were made in Northampton to control unruly behaviour at communal assemblies, by banning non-freemen from meetings and prohibiting those who were permitted to attend from yelling out nominations. In 1489, during the reign of Henry VII, the ruling oligarchy petitioned parliament to support their vested interests.

“a large number of the residents, lacking in means or social graces, as well as in gravity, judgement, wisdom or sense, who have often outnumbered in their assemblies other persons of proven gravity, judgement and sound behaviour … have through factions, confederacies, and noisy and unruly behaviour in those assemblies caused serious trouble, division, and discord amongst their number, at the time both of elections and of the assessment of lawful levies upon the community, to the subversion of good rule, government, and traditional politics, demeaning to the borough and often resulting in a serious breach of the king’s peace…”

The town council subsequently took the unprecedented step of setting out how elections would be conducted in the privacy of the old Guildhall on the corner of Wood Hill and Abington Street which was able to contain the reduced electorate in an orderly fashion. It completely destroyed the old democratic constitution of the assembly and placed the government of the town in the hands of the mayor, ex-mayors, bailiffs and ex-bailiffs, and forty-eight of the burgesses, chosen in the first instance by the mayor and ex-mayors and subsequently kept up in numbers by co-optation. This constitution continued until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. In the 1490’s this was followed by legislation setting punishments for seditious or slanderous talk against the administration, and for disobedience to mayoral orders. After this time, the town’s prosperity decayed even more rapidly and was soon little more than a small market borough with a crumbling castle to remind the inhabitants of its former glories.

In 1650, Benoni Coldwell the mayor, was so strict in his mayoralty, both to the inhabitants and strangers, that many gentry absented themselves from the town. Three years later, another mayor, Henry Sprigg was described as “very much self-willed, and made his will a law, contrary to sense or reason.”

In 1665, on the day of electing a new mayor, the outgoing mayor, Francis Pickmer refused to hand over the keys of the Guildhall. The aldermen were forced to break down the doors before electing John Friend as mayor. On Michaelmas day, “ when the new mayor should have entertained his guests, he was taken away by a warrant of the lord lieutenant, as a prisoner, to the Lord Cockayne’s, of Rushden, to put bond for nobody knowing what, but they pretended he was grown a fanatic, because he forsook Pickmer’s party.” However, Pickmer still refused to swear him in, and the aldermen had to send for Lord Manchester, who was met at Billing bridge, on the 5th of October, by at least 300 gentlemen on horseback who escorted him into the town. Even then, Pickmer refused to hand over the mace and other insignia of mayoralty, forcing Manchester to seek assistance from the King and Parliament, then assembled at Oxford. It was only after being held in custody for 19 days, that Pickmer gave up the mace. During this period, corporation property, which had been considerable in earlier periods, was wastefully managed, and became considerably impaired. Around the same time, the important suburbs of Cotton End and St. James’ End, which had been under the government of the town, was passed to the county.

It was during the sixteenth century that Northamptonshire became the home of great families and the county of famous houses. The large royal possessions in the forests of the county furnished estates for the new nobility who owed their origin to Crown favour in Tudor times, and by the end of the century the large landowners of the county were the dominating influence, and the county town came more and more to think of itself as the market town for the large graziers and the centre of county government. In 1701 a gentleman tourist, Sir John Perceval, remarked on the many gentrified families living within the town and its outlying districts who were a vital “support” to the local economy, and they, rather than leading townsmen, supplied the candidates for the borough seats.

Northampton’s local elections of 1768, now called the “Spendthrift Election,” reached national notoriety as the most expensive election in eighteenth century England. Lord Spencer decided to break the hold of Lord Northampton and Lord Halifax, two members of the local aristocracy who had held a monopoly on borough politics since 1727. The election was overtly corrupt, and the partisan voting was down to outright bribery. Northampton’s and Halifax’s candidates, Rodney and Osborn won the election. However, the returning officer was overtly partial to Lords Halifax and Northampton and although there were a large number of invalid votes, a significantly higher number of Spencer’s candidate, Howe’s votes were rejected. Howe petitioned Parliament to get the decision overturned. Realising, they would lose, the two elected members flipped a coin to decide who should stand down: Rodney won and retained his seat. The three candidates had spent over £100,000 (almost £9 million by today’s standards).  Halifax was financially ruined and would never again participate in politics. It was not until the 1774 election a truly independent candidate, that was free from either local or party interest or aristocratic ties came forward.

Charles Bradlaugh

But it was the squalid conditions of the mid-to-late 1800’s that saw the rise of Northampton’s radicals such as Charles Bradlaugh and popular socialist militant James Gribble. At the time,  Bradlaugh claimed he had come to Northampton, with the backing of the men of Lancashire, the men of Yorkshire, and the men of the mines with a strong desire to fight the “working man’s battle.”

There are a number of striking similarities in what has happened in the past, and what is happening today. In a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Are we learning from our past? What will history say about our time in Northampton? We can see from the above, that the town has overcome adversity when we all work together. Whoever you are, wherever you are from, be proud of your town, every step you take, you are walking on over 1,000 years of nationally important history.

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