Heritage at its heart
By Ian McClurg-Welland (February 2004)
On first viewing, Northampton would seem to be an ordinary south midlands town. Touched by the unfortunate functional building regime of post Second World War Britain and, like most similar urban environs, it seems to be a town that has turned its back on gateways. The truth is, somewhat different. Northampton is really the story of a Roman settlement, clusters of Saxon and Medieval, a disastrous fire, but enhanced by fine Georgian, Regency and Victoriana. There is even Art Nouveau to be found.
The origins of Northampton can be found outside the current inner core of the town at Briar Hill. Well known as a Neolithic encampment, the area was secured with a further encampment at Hunsbury. The roots of the town centre, due north of the original encampments, is firmly Roman dating to 50 A.D. The Saxons in 410, following the subsequent abandonment by the Romans, established the town centre’s layout that we roughly know today. Initially this layout would have consisted of a stronghold positioned castle keep with gateways into main arenas.
The town’s name can be traced to the year 913. It was recorded that King Edward The Elder recaptured ‘Hamtun’ from the occupying Danes, during his campaigns to secure Northumbria and East Anglia to add to his kingdom of Wessex. The town was at the time the western edge of Danelaw (now known as East Anglia).
The next 500 years was dominated by Northampton establishing a municipal position. In 1086, the Doomsday book mentions 300 houses and a population between 1500 to 2000 people, and this led to the necessary appointment in 1089 of the town’s first Norman Earl, Simon de Senlis I. Within just a few decades, the town had become the third largest in England. By 1131, the town succeeded in gaining a Parliamentary seat and a series of charters including the establishment of a market place. The Royal connections are many, particularly involving the Wars of the Roses, but this has rather overshadowed the remarkable embracing by the town of diverse communities and religions down the centuries.
The Great Hall of 750, was perhaps the first municipal building. Close to St Peter’s Church in Marefair, this signalled the extensive building of meeting houses, dwellings and eventually by 1100, churches, castle, and fortified town walls. Today, only churches remain as testimony to those early times, however it is relatively easy to picture the location of the castle (which was close to the town’s railway station), the mounts, moats and walls (now mainly the line taken by the inner ring road), the alleys called jetties (which were and remain essential links from the trading spaces and central marketplace) and the gateways into the town (easily identifiable where main roads now meet the inner ring road).
Why was Northampton the epicentre of the religious and municipal functions? Geographically, the town is a major crossroads at the halfway point between London and Birmingham, offering vital east – west routes. The kingdom needed to be governed from an excellent vantage point, prosperous, thriving middle-England base – Northampton fitted this perfectly. Parliament was known to have actually sat, debated and enforced with Royal guidance as early as 1170 from Northampton. The ideas of national taxation were almost certainly aligned to the town’s wealth, mainly from its thriving economy and community. Consider the town’s markets for cattle, sheep, wool, clothing, leather and shoes. Later to be joined by gold and silver merchants. Throughout the town centre there are countless examples of trades with named streets, squares and buildings. The basis of community life and hallmark of wealth was and still is Northampton. The confluences provided by the River Nene Valley and eventually the arrival of the industrial revolution with mills and railways, further galvanised the town’s status.
The heritage trail however, is interrupted. Little evidence of the late Saxon and Medieval period remains. Although King Charles II had already ordered the demolition of the Castle as an act of retribution against the town’s support for Cromwell during the English Civil War, the Town was to suffer a great fire on 20 September 1675. Destroying over 600 buildings, the Aldermen arranged for businesses to donate £25,000 toward the rebuilding programme. King Charles II offered 10,000 tons timber and a new era was planned. Buildings in natural stone and based on the leading designs by Wren and Vanbrugh amongst others, meant splendour sprang up from the centre, with purposely layered interconnecting squares with wide walks. The renaissance style of pillars, porticos, sculpture, and inscriptions appeared on endless flowing external facades, with the interiors decorated with emphasis on civil and social functionality. Large reception rooms, drawing rooms, and personal chambers, all with high ceilings, lavish wall coverings, panels and coving dominated. Guilt, crystal and glass furnishings amassed the rooms complemented with artwork hanging sometimes in life-sized measures. The attention to detail was vast, meticulous and expensive. Pedestals crowned with vases, busts, and ornamental heads, joined forces with carved bookshelves containing leather bindings, clothed bureaus, dining, wine and occasional tables. Harpsichords and later pianos added to the frivolity, with unmistakably gentlemen quarters and pleasure rooms. Total building size would often exceed three levels with parapets and basement accommodation for hired servants. As a sign of elite statue, the occupants would be extremely well connected and receive patronage in equal quantities.
The town’s finest examples of this period can be found in the streets surrounding All Saints Church. The Church we see today was built following the Great Fire, which practically destroyed the original Collegiate Church. Indeed only the tower and crypt survives. The Church-rebuilding programme included the introduction of a portico in 1701 and cupola in 1704. The clock and mechanism was installed in 1829 and the tower itself was renovated in 1929. A grateful town erected a statue in honour of King Charles II, which can still be seen today high up and centrally placed on the portico. The award-winning square immediately in front of the Church was added in 2002. Within the Church grounds on the eastern side, can be seen the town’s war memorial. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was also responsible for the Cenotaph in London, it was unveiled on 11 November 1926. At the time, the memorial served as the town’s remembrance for over 6,000 Northamptonians lost in the First World War but now is the focus every Remembrance for all subsequent wars.
Nearby in George Row and fronting to the south of the Church, are the splendid Sessions House and County Hall, completed in 1678. The building has been used as a County Court with basement cells but now it houses part of the County Council’s services. Next is a terrace consisting of the former County Infirmary (now the Northampton and County Club) with its smaller, less flamboyant entrance, and offices - completed in 1744.
Other buildings surrounding the Church on other sides are based on similar period designs but were all later additions – the most attractive being the domed 1920s turreted bank on the corner of Mercer’s Row and Drapery. The former Corn Exchange, now Chicago Rock Café on the north-west edge of Market Square is a fine Victorian building however only the façade retains any evidence of this. Ironically, The Welsh House, situated next to the entrance of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre on the northeastern edge of Market Square, is perhaps the oldest building belonging to the late Elizabethan era but due to modifications can be excused as an early example of Jacobean influence. It escaped the fire but not the hand of later builders. Thankfully, it is restored close to its original design.
In contrast to rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1675, regaining the economy was not an issue for the town. The industrial revolution in due course, replaced handcrafted processes but essentially the town continued to prosper with the leather and shoe trade taking precedent. By 1831, the population had risen to over 7,500 with at least 1,500 men employed as shoemakers. Indeed, with military orders adding to home domestic demand, the shoe industry ensured the Town’s availability of labour and enhanced quality of life. Other trades in the town thrived, including breweries, carriage makers, smithies, bakers, tailors and jewellers. The first gas works opened in 1824, and finally the town’s first railway station opened in 1845 at Cotton End. Later stations followed on the site of the old castle (1859) and St Johns (1872). The cross-town links allowed connections similar to those provided by the Roman roads. Today only the Castle Station remains and serving the whole town’s needs, though evidence can still be partially seen with the road level crossing at Cotton End, and the original St Johns station house still standing (now in Victoria Gardens).
Nearby St Johns and rising from the southern low aspect is Guildhall Road. Stretching at least a third up the hill is a rundown but yet marvellous tiled listed building dominating the street scene. Crossing Guildhall Road is the once-cobbled Angel Lane and Swan Street and beyond this, are the Derngate and The Royal Theatres. The ‘Royal’ is particularly striking. Victorian, intimate, and wonderfully designed, it has been the town’s major entertainment venue for over a hundred years. Now part of the larger dramatic Derngate Theatre complex added alongside in the late 1970s, the Royal is still used for plays and recitals. It is worth noting that The Royal continued to operate separately from the Derngate Theatre until the successful merger in 1999.
At the top of the hill is the impressive gothic styled Guildhall. Built by Edward Godwin and opened in 1864, it replaced the smaller Town Hall originally sited on the corner of Wood Hill and Abington Street (now demolished). Godwin’s building, totally symmetrical and complete with Mayoral balcony and stunning Great Hall, placed the 110ft high Clock Tower as centrepiece. However Matthew Holding sympathetically added additional chambers to the western side extended the Guildhall between 1887 and 1892, with assistance from Albert Jeffery. The Guildhall today is of immense proportions with a Council Chamber, individually designed meeting rooms, stone carvings and wide staircases with galleries. The addition of a modern, yet tasteful eastern extension with courtyard, has meant the site has remarkably remained the seat of Local Government and municipal services. Its prime usage retained, it is also a popular choice for weddings, receptions, parties and conferences.
Opposite the Guildhall is a quaint building called Mr Grant’s House. Originally built in 1840 but in a Georgian style, with wings, for many years the house was covered by shops built to the front. The use for the building has included a gaol overflow extension to the Sessions House and Police Station in 1872 (which closed in 1888), and finally after demolition of the shops in 1990, a visitor centre. Mr Grant incidentally was the name of the Gaoler Governor.
Throughout the town,
Jacobean, Georgian, Regency and Victoriana
can be seen, however, the influence of Art
Nouveau transformed Northampton at the start
of the 20th Century. None better than the
public baths in Lower Mounts, and 78 Derngate.
The public baths have recently been internally
restored to its original mix of late Victoriana
and Art Nouveau complementing the unique
frontage, not too dissimilar to the few
Odeon cinemas that remain. The whole building
has stood the test of time and town planners.
78 Derngate is perhaps the finest example of Art Nouveau in Britain today. Re-opened to international acclaim in 2003, 78 Derngate is often referred to as ‘The Mackintosh House’ after its famous chief designer, Charles Rennie Macintosh. It was the home of local businessman, Wenham Joseph Bassett-Lowke and his wife until 1926. Built in 1815 as a modest lower-middle class house, it attracted a large number of tenants prior to 1916. After being given to Bassett-Lowke by his father as a wedding present, it was spectacularly altered to specific designs by Mackintosh. The disregard for pastel coloured Regency decoration and Victoriana cluttering resulted in a new stark but elegant scheme - a combination of rectangle, diamond and triangle mosaics mixed with two-tone colour and appropriate integrated furniture in a pre-minimalist setting. Records show that Mackintosh did not visit the house during the initial works and only finally visited in 1921 when he offered suggestions for further renovation, probably in line with emerging Art Deco styles. Today, with the addition of 80 and 82 Derngate acting as entrance lobby and gallery, the house has been completely restored to former 1916-19 glories and attracts an international following.
In summary, the formation of the Northampton Development Corporation in 1965 perhaps strangely, ensured preservation against the backdrop of social housing demand and provision of facilities. Whilst the surrounding areas, including the first encampments, were developed beyond recognition, in contrast most of the heritage has survived. The oldest buildings and monuments sit wonderfully among their concrete descendants. Alongside is history and folklore, all proving that Northampton really does have heritage at its heart. To celebrate this, Northampton holds annual Heritage Days. These involve FREE admission to over 30 of Northampton’s most interesting buildings, plus bus tours, canal trips and guided walks. An information leaflet will be available from the Visitor Information Centre in mid-August and further details can be found at www.northampton.gov.uk or Email: email@example.com , Tel: 01604 838800.
The author acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Harvey Steers, Northampton Borough Council; and also Northamptonshire County Council Libraries and Information Services.
Photographs are reproduced with the kind permission of Northamptonshire County Council Libraries and Information Services:
· All Saints Church
& George Row, Circa 1830
· Guildhall, Circa 1910
· Hall at 78 Derngate, Circa 1918
Brown.C. (1990) Northampton
1835 – 1985 – Shoe Town, New
Phillimore. Chichester, Sussex
McClurg-Welland. I. (2003 - 2004) Original Research Notes (unpublished)
Northampton Borough Council.
(2003) Heritage Days in Northampton
Leaflet and website: www.northampton.gov.uk
Northampton Borough Council.
(1989) Northampton Remembers: Guildhall
Northampton Borough Council
Northamptonshire County Council – Libraries and Information Services, Local Archives, Abington Street, Northampton
78 Derngate (2003) Visitor’s
Leaflet and website: www.78derngate.org.uk