There have been settlements around north Warwickshire since man started to group together, evidenced by stone axe heads being found at Caldecote.
The Romans occupied the site at Mancetter on and off for 400 years, they were followed by the Saxons who salvaged building materials from the Roman site to build their settlement a mile away. Saxon burials have been found locally, also loom weights in Atherstone.
An isolated French religious order eventually decided to develop the town in 13th. Century and their leader, the Abbot of Bec, recorded and allocated land round the Market Place and along Long Street. These titles gave householders the rights to the land on which their houses stood and the strip of land at the back to the next street, a burgage plot. Along with rights came taxes which the church used to develop Atherstone including the right to hold markets and fairs.
The layout of Atherstone did not change much for 750 years. The land south of South Street belonged to the Dugdale family while the land behind St. Mary’s Church down to the flood plain of the river belonged to the Bracebridge family neither of whom was prepared to give up any parkland until the late 19th Century when small parcels of land were sold off for building. Hence there are very few really old houses anywhere other than Long Street or the Market Square.
For centuries the burgage plots were used as gardens. Atherstone developed as an important market town where the hill farmers exchanged or sold their produce to the farmers from the flat lands. As wood was used up and not replanted the area round Baddesley was found to contain coal so keeping the traditional industries in the area. As well as coal mining and farming the traditional indusries were hat making, brewing of beer and soft drinks and tanning, all based on there being a good supply of fresh water. In the industrial revolution hatting moved out of the sheds and garrets into factories built right in the middle of town (Still to be seen by the canal on Coleshill Road, up the side of the carpet shop by the Library and near the chimney that can be seen behind ALDI with a tree growing out of it.)
Factories needed workers and with nowhere to build, homeowners filled their burgage plots with tiny back-to-back houses. Each house was no more than 4x4 metres with just 2 rooms, one up and one down. These became known as the ‘Yards” and they were lived in until the 1960s. The toilets were shared often by 30 people and the water came from a pump in the yard. Women took turns using the wash house where the water was heated over a coal fire. Nelson’s Yard (Bus Station) stretched from Long Street to Station Road and was double sided with a gulley down the middle for dirty water. There were 35 houses in it many with more than 5 people living in one house.
Atherstone was at its height of prosperity around the turn of the 19th Century. First the canal, then the railway had helped with trade. Atherstone was the centre for distributing post first from the Mail Coaches then through the railway. Atherstone railway station used to have stables and cowsheds to accommodate the livestock coming to the Market. At least 3 butchers had their own slaughter houses in the town as recently as the 1960s. On market days the town was full and the pubs were allowed to stay open all day.
Atherstone has always had a lot of pubs for its size. It was a market town but the other industries were hat making (very hot, heavy work,) tanning, coal mining and brewing. With the demise of these industries Atherstone has had to re-invent itself. Geographically its position at the heart of England and within reach of all the major motorways has led to the development of warehouses and distribution depots. Very little is actually made here now but every day thousands of lorries distribute goods round Britain.
A start was made to clearing the yards in the 1900s and many of the houses round South Street were built then with grants from the government. Councils started building houses to rent in the 1930s, continuing in the 1950s. after WWII.
During the war a camp was built in the grounds of Merevale Hall. At first it was for soldiers in transit, including American forces. Subsequently it was a prisoner of war camp for Germans and Italians, then a home for displaced persons from Latvia and Poland, finally it was used as emergency council housing.
The only school in the town for many years was the Grammar School which was fee-paying and for boys only. Girls went to the Board School (Owen Street) until they went to work aged 12 and boys went to the Boys School (South Street).
Most of the old buildings are timber-framed but have been ‘modernised’ by having brick facades added. Look up in town and you will see the original shape of many of the buildings. Brick is the local building material as Atherstone has clay in its subsoil. This may be one of the reasons the Romans settled in Mancetter as they built over 60 kilns in the area to fire tiles and pots made of local clay, in fact pots with the mancetter maker’s mark have been found on Haydrian’s Wall.
With the decline in hat wearing and the closing of the coal mines the nature of Atherstone changed from the 1960s onwards. Nowadays the hat factories are all closed awaiting a new use and the town is ringed with distribution centres, Most of the old houses have survived to give character to Long Street and the beautiful Market Place where several second-hand bookshops have opened making Atherstone a place to find specialist shops and a pleasant place to live in the Heart of England.
|Hat making scene|