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ABINGDON is a borough and market town, having separate jurisdiction, in the
hundred of Hormer, union of Abingdon, situate in a rich level plain, at the
junction of the Ock and the Thames, 6 miles S. of Oxford, 25 N.W. of
Reading:, and 56 W.N.W. of London. It comprises the parishes of St. Helen
and St. Nicholas, and is in the archdeaconry of Berks and diocese of Oxford.
The former parish includes the townships of Sandford and Shippon and the
hamlets of Northcourt and Cholsall; the latter comprises lands in
Sunningwell and Bayworth, which are beyond the limits of the borough. In
1861 the population of St. Helens, ncluding the townships of Sandford and
Shippon, and the hamlets of Northcourt and Cholsall, was 5958; that of St.
Nicholas, 742; total 6700. The number of inhabited houses was 1357. Area of
the two parishes in acres, 3361.
Abingdon historically, is the most interesting place in the county. The original town, according to a manuscript in the Cottonian library, quoted by Dugdale, was called by the Saxons Scovechesham or Seucham, and was a wealthy city, a royal residence, and a place of religious worship, even in early British times. It was, however, deserted by the Saxon Kings for many years, till Offa, King of the Mercians and West Saxons, accidentally visiting the place, became enamoured of the Isle of Andersey, which was situate in the river opposite the abbey. This was at that time the site of a residence of rich lay monks, but the King persuaded them to exchange it for the manor of Goosey, and erected a palace there, in which he resided, and in which his son and successor King Egfrid died. Kinwulf, the next King, used the palace only for his falconers and huntsmen, who became so obnoxious to the monks that the Abbot, Bethunus, persuaded the King to restore Andersey to them, in exchange for the Manor of Sutton Courtney and £120 of silver. The site of Andersey is the large tract of land encircled by the Thames and the stream commencing near the ferry, and falling into the main river at Culham Bridge. Leland mentions the place as occupied by a barn, and the foundations of buildings may still be traced.
For some centuries the importance of the town of Abingdon arose chiefly from its abbey, which became one of the highest in rank among the monastic institutions of the kingdom. Tanner, in his "Notitia," asserts that an abbey of five hundred monks is said to hare existed here, in the time of the Britons or Romans, wherein Constantine the Great was educated. This is very problematical, but it is more certain that a small monastery was founded on a hill called Abbendune, in Bagleywood, and that the present name of Abingdon had its origin from the direct communication of the abbey with the town. This religious house was for twelve Benedictine monks, dedicated to the Virgin, and was destroyed in the Danish wars, in the reign of Alfred; the King himself completing the ruin of the monks by taking away from them the town and all their estates, because he thought they did not reward him sufficiently for punishing the Danes. Edred, the grandson of Alfred, refounded and endowed the abbey in 955, and persuaded St. Ethelwald, then a monk at Glastonbury, afterwards Bishop of Winchester, to become its Abbot. This building was erected on the present site, and consecrated with great pomp by St. Dunstan, each saint presenting it with two bells of his own workmanship. The abbey was completed by the Abbot Ordgar, and, as in the earlier institution, the monks were of the order of St. Benedict. Numerous benefactions contributed to augment its splendour and importance, till it became one of the Mitred Abbeys, and the landed property belonging to the institution was so extensive that, so early as the time of the Norman survey, it possessed above 30 manors in the county of Berks alone, besides others which were held by the Abbots as lords of the See. Hollinshed relates that Egelwin, Bishop of Durham, was imprisoned here in 1073, and starved to death. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the chronicler, reported by Godwin to have been its Abbot, was interred in the monastery, which was also the burial-place of St. Edward, king and martyr; and of Robert D'Oyley, the friend of the Conqueror and founder of Oxford Castle. Henry I. was educated at the abbey by the monks, under whose tuition he made such progress as to earn the name of Beau-clerc. Henry III. held his court here in 1276. Contemporaneous records of various periods lead us to infer the opulence, sumptuosity, and dissoluteness of the monks of Abingdon. Probably the most striking instance in history of the strict and literal fulfilment of an uninspired prophesy, has reference to this very abbey. Piers Plowman writing in the middle of the 14th century his "Vision," one of the allegorical personages in the tenth " Passus " or " fytte," after a long exposition of the state of decay and corruption into which religion and the religious orders had then fallen, gives warning of the coming though still distant retribution, in lines which we quote in their ancient garb :-
Ac ther shal come a Kyng,
And confesse yow religiouses,
And bete you as the Bible telleth
For brekynge of your rule;
And amende monyals, [i.e. nuns]
Munkes, and chanons,
And putten to Mr peiiannce,
Ad piistinum statum ire.
And thaune shall the Abbot of Abyngdone
And al his issue for evere,
Hare a knok of a Kyng,
And incurable the wonnde."
Vision, vv. 6239-63.
Two centuries elapse and the forgotten prophecy is fulfilled; Henry VIII. is seated on the English throne, and issues the great "knocking" edict which gave the "incurable wounde," commonly called the "Suppression Of The Monasteries;" and the last Abbot, Thomas Rowland or Penthecost, being accused of enormous crimes, has to forego his delectable rent-roll, valued annually at £1876 10s. 9d., and for the rest of his life to "make things pleasant" at his manor of Cumnor, on a snug little pension of £200 a year; after which he and his monks disappear for ever. Of the Abbey few of the ruins remain. Leland describes it as being in his time a very magnificent building, and when Camden wrote (about the year 1600) it exhibited obvious marks of its ancient grandeur. In the Harleian collection are some manuscripts of Richard Symons, who visited Abingdon in 1611, and who observes:- "Near adjoining the church (St. Nicholas) still remaine part of the abbey and much of the ruynes towards the river." The site is now occupied by a brewery and the residence of E. J. Trendell, Esq. Some of the dormitories, though very dilapidated, are still to be seen, and one of the most beautiful and perfectly preserved (though comparatively unknown) groined crypts in England. The latter is devoted to the purpose for which it was anciently intended, as it affords a splendid and at the same time convenient receptacle for the productions of the modern brewery.
Abingdon received a charter of incorporation in the reign of Mary, A.D. 1557. In the civil war the town was garrisoned for Charles I., and was for some time the head quarters of his cavalry. After the retreat of the Royal forces to Oxford in 1644, it was taken possession of and garrisoned by the Parliamentarians under the Earl of Essex. On the arrival of Waller's army a few days afterwards, great excesses were committed, among others the destruction of the celebrated cross in the Market place, erected by Henry VI., and mentioned by Camden as an object of peculiar beauty and veneration. During the civil war the Royalists made many unsuccessful attempts to regain possession of the place, and the garrison on these occasions behaved with unusual atrocity to all Irish prisoners, putting them to death without trial; whence the expression "Abingdon law." In the year 1715, Oxford being then regarded as a grand retreat of Jacobitism, General Pepper held the town of Abingdon with a body of troops in order to overawe the disaffected in that city.
The Corporation of Abingdon consists of Mayor, four Aldermen, and twelve Councillors. The borough returns one member to Parliament. The town comprises several good streets diverging from the Market-place, and is lighted, paved, and well supplied with water. From a very remote period an extensive trade has been done here in the manufacture of sailcloth, sacking, rope, mattings, &c. Leland refers to a considerable manufactory of clothing as being carried on at Abingdon in his day, and says expressly that the town "standeth by clothing." From the time of Queen Mary, until within comparatively few years ago, this trade had gradually become nearly extinct, but through the skill and enterprise, principally of the firm of Messrs Hyde, Son, and Clarke, the staple has been restored, and at the present time that establishment, in the production of ready-made clothing, is perhaps the largest in England, employing in the town and neighbouring villages upwards of 2,000 persons. The Wilts and Berks Canal, joining the Thames near its confluence with the Ock, affords communication by water with Bath, Bristol, London, and intermediate places. By railway Abingdon is reached by a branch diverging from the main line of the Great Western, half way between Didcot and Oxford. One of the chief objects of interest is Culham Bridge, bearing evident marks of the attack made by the Royalists under General Gage when the town was held by Colonel Brown for the Parliamentarians. It was built by John Huchyns in 1416, with stone given by Sir Peter Besils of Besilsleigh. The expense of its erection was defrayed by King Henry V., and also that of another bridge at Burford. Some quaint contemporary rhymes, preserved in the old hospital, testify to the previous need of it and to the popular satisfaction at its erection,
'Kynge Henry V. in his fourthe yere,
'He hath i-found for his folk a brige in Berkscheere,
'Where cards with carriage may go and come clere,
'That many winters afore were marred in the myre.
'For now is Culham Hythe (ferry) come to an ende, ,
1 An all the contrie the better and no man the worse."
On one of the windows of St. Helen's Church was formerly this distich : -
'Henricus Quintus, qnarto fundarerat anno,
'Rex pontem Burford, super undas atque Culliamford."
The causeway between the two bridges, which is close to the town, affords a most agreeable promenade. This work, and also the bridge at Culham, was considerably assisted by the donation of Geoffrey Barbour, a wealthy merchant of the place, who gave a thousand marks towards its completion; thereby turning the high road to London through the town, and acquiring so much additional traffic as to rank Abingdon among the first towns in the country. His monument was originally in the Abbey Church, but at the Dissolution it was removed by the inhabitants to the church of St. Helen, where it now stands.
The site of the cross is at present occupied by the Market House, a spacious and elegant building of free-stone, supported by arches and lofty pillars, erected in 1678; it consists of a tower and commodious hall, in which the Nisi Prius Court at the Assizes is held, and public business connected with the county is transacted. Abingdon is the original county town of Berkshire, but the Assizes are held here and at Reading alternately, the prisoners being conveyed from one place to the other as it happens. The market days are Monday and Friday, chiefly for corn and provisions. Fairs are held on the first Monday in Lent, May 6th, June 20th, August 5th, Sep. 19th, the Monday before Old Michaelmas Day (a statute fair), Monday after October 12th (great market), and December llth: they are held in the principal streets in the town.
Of the two Churches, that of St. Nicholas is the oldest; it was founded between the years 1289 and 1307, by Abbot Nicholas de Colchan, on the site of a still earlier structure. The architecture is partly Norman and partly Gothic, and the edifice as it now exists is picturesque, but probably only a portion of the original building. The circular doorway, surmounted by the tower, at the west end has early English zigzag mouldings and side arches, and is very ancient. In one of the windows are the arms of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. The interior contains a handsome monument to the memory of John Blacknall, Esq., a benefactor to the town. The living is a rectory> in the gift of the crown, value about £50, united to the vicarage of St. Helen; the Rev. Nathaniel Dodson, M.A., is incumbent.
The church of St. Helen, near the river, is a gothic structure of very fine dimensions, having nave and chancel of equal breadth, with side aisles, and tower, from which rises a lofty spire with flying buttresses, forming a most conspicuous object in all distant views of the town, and also in Turner's picture of Abingdon. The second aisle from the entrance, called " Our Lady's Aisle," was built for a guild in 1539, by a person who lies buried under an altar tomb in the north wall, as appears by part of an inscription still remaining. The name is concealed by the stairs of a gallery, but the initials R. A. occur with the above-mentioned date on several of the shields which surmount the cornice, being perhaps those of Roger Amyce the elder, whose son of the same name was one of the first Governors of Christ's Hospital. This aisle was ceiled by Nicholas Gould, one of the fraternity of the Holy Cross; it formerly bore the inscription: -
"In the worship of our Lady,
"Pray for Nicholas Gould and Amy.
The roof is richly painted with figures of Kings, Prophets, and Saints, under Gothic canopies, finely carved in wood, and according to local tradition was removed from the Abbey at the Dissolution. Beneath are some verses in Monkish Latin, to the effect that William Beve was founder of the chapel. The gallery contains a portrait of Mr. William Lee, five times mayor of Abingdon, who is buried underneath, and who is mentioned by Ashmole as having, in his lifetime, had the honour of being able to claim paternity to the incredible number of 200 descendants, "lacking but three." In the north aisle is the tomb of John Royse, founder of the Grammar School, in 1571. The sepulchral brass of Geoffrey Barbour, the great benefactor of the town, is in the nave; it is dated April 21st, 1447. There are several handsome stained glass windows. The site of this church is supposed to be identical with that of a nunnery, founded by Cissa, the sister of Heane the first abbot, in 690, of which she became Prioress. This foundation was afterwards removed to Wytham, but the locality of her convent was always called the Manor of St Helen. The living is a vicarage, in the patronage of the crown, value £225 per annum, held with the rectory of St. Nicholas, by the Rev. Nathaniel Dodson, M.a.
The Dissenting Denominations have places of worship in Abingdon as follows :- the Baptists, a commodious building in Ock Street, erected in 1841, at a cost of £2,000, capable of accommodating 700 persons; it has vestries at the back sufficiently commodious to contain 200, and is surrounded by a burial ground. The site has been occupied by a building for Christians of this persuasion more than a century. The Particular Baptist Chapel is a neat building, situate near the Abbey, completed and opened in March, 1832. It was built principally at the expense of the Rev. William Tiptaft and is capable of holding 400 persons. The Independents have a chapel in the Sheep Market, erected in 1700, and rebuilt in 1862, which was originally a Presbyterian place of worship. The Wesleyan chapel is a Gothic structure, erected by subscription, at a cost of £900, in the year 1847. It is situate about the centre of Ock Street, and will accommodate 250 persons.
The Free Grammar School was founded in the year 1563, by John Royse, a citizen and mercer of London, for the education of 63 boys, natives of Abingdon; it was endowed with two messuages in Birchen lane, London, then known by the signs of the " Bell" and the "Unicorn." According to the directions of the founder, the master is permitted to take two private pupils. In 1608, William Bennett of "Marleborowe" bequeathed lands in "Brodeblunsdon" for the maintenance of six poor boys in Royse's Free Grammar School. The boys are elected by the Master and Governors of Christ's Hospital in this town, and from the increase in the funds, besides being instructed in writing and arithmetic, are clothed and apprenticed. Thomas Tesdale in 1609 gave certain lands in the county of Warwick for the maintenance of an usher. This benefactor was the founder of Pembroke College, Oxford, and first recipient of the Grammar School charity in Abingdon. By his bounty the school is entitled to four scholarships in Pembroke College; four scholarships at the same college were also founded by Richard Wightwick; two for the founder's kin. Preference is given to boys on Bennett's foundation, but in default the other free scholars and the master's private pupils are eligible, though by a rule of the present head master the latter must be two years in the school to be qualified. Several eminent men have been educated here; among whom may be mentioned Thomas Goodwin, author of "Roman and Jewish Antiquities;" Lord Chief Justice Holt, and Archbishop Newcome. The latter was born in the town in 1729. Other eminent natives have been St. Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, between the years 1234-40. Sir John Mason, whose father was a cow-herd, and whose mother was the sister of one of the abbey monks, from whom he received his education, and by whom he was sent to Oxford. While there, in 1523, Henry VIII. visited that city, on which occasion the youthful student paid so graceful a compliment to that monarch, that he was taken to court and sent to Paris to complete his education; after which, in the four successive reigns, he rose to be Privy Councillor, Ambassador to France, and Chancellor of the University of Oxford. In later times Abbot, Speaker of the House of Commons, and Moore, author of the well-known drama " The Gamester," have been among the celebrities born in this town.
The other public schools of Abingdon are, - the British for boys and girls, in Ock street, established in 1824, and capable of accommodating 200 boys and 120 girls. This school was built by voluntary contributions, and is placed under government inspection. There is an endowment of £56 per annum. The National, near St. Helen's Church, was also established by voluntary contributions, in 1824, and is supported by subscription and the children's pence.
The charities of Abingdon are of a peculiarly important and time-honoured description. On the west of St. Helen's Church is Christ's Hospital or the Hospital of the Fraternity of the Holy Cross, a society which certainly existed here before the year 1389, when they are mentioned as having a priest and two proctors, chosen annually. In 1442 they were incorporated and endowed with lands of the yearly value of £40, which enabled them to keep in repair the road between Abingdon and Dorchester, to maintain 13 poor men and women, and to provide a chaplain for St. Helen's; the trustees at that time being Sir John Golofre (interred at Fyfield) and Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet. This guild was dissolved, with other religious houses, by Henry VIII; but on a request of the inhabitants made through Sir John Mason to Edward VI, a new charter was granted in 1553. Laud, not then created bishop, preached the first sermon on its re-installation. The structure is a curious old range of building of brick and timber, with cloisters in front, and dome in the centre; the walls are externally decorated with scriptural texts, and paintings illustrative of the virtue of almsgiving. The figures are supposed to represent portraits of King Edward VI., Geoffrey Barbour, and Sir John Mason. The old oak hall contains their arms in stained glass, and also their portraits, with those of other benefactors, including Sir Peter Besils, Thomas Tesdale and his wife, and Lionel Bostock. The painting of the merchant, Geoffrey Barbour, giving John Huchyns money to build Culham Bridge is very curious; the building is proceeding in the back-ground. At the end of the cloister is a representation of the stono cross, erected by the Fraternity, and destroyed by Waller's army, on the 31st May, 1644. The cross at Coventry is supposed to have bten copied from this. Through the great increase in the revenues of the charity, in 1718, eighteen additional houses were built and endowed, and six others were added, to which Mr. Beasley, in 1826, added £600 stock. The present occupants receive each 8s. per week.
The Hospital of St. John the Baptist, in the Vineyard, is said by Leland to have been founded by one of the Abbots. It is for six poor people, and under the government of the Corporation, by whom it was rebuilt in 1801. Bernard Bedwell, Esq., of London, being a liberal contributor; Mr. E. Beasley, in 1826, added £600 Stock to its endowments. The inmates receive 7s. a week. A third hospital was erected near St. Helen's Church, in 1707, by Charles Twitty, for the maintenance of three men and three women; and further endowed by John Bedwell, in 1799, with £200; also with the same sum in 1819, by Samuel Cripps, and with £600 Three per Cent. Stock, in 1826, by Mr. Beasley. In 1842 Mr. Charles King left £200 to clothe a nurse, and in 1862 Mrs. Martha King left the interest of £200 towards the maintenance of a nurse. Mr. James Cole bequeathed £200 to Twitty's Hospital after the death of his widow, which took place in Nov., 1862. Benjamin Tomkins, Esq., endowed, in 1773, four handsome alms-houses, in Ock Street, for Dissenters. In 1823 Mr. Federick Klein bequeathed £1,000 for the poor of Abingdon, the interest of which is annually distributed in March, in small sums, to the poor of the borough, by the mayor and principal burgesses. The dividend arising from £700 Three per Cents., bequeathed by Mr. Beasley, is divided among the poor on Good Friday. John Blacknall, Esq., (to whose memory is a handsome monument in St. Nicholas" Church) and Mrs. Elizabeth Hawkins, (to whom is erected a handsome memorial in St. Helen's Church) were great benefactors to the town. There are several bequests for the education of children. In 1676 Robert Mayott, Esq., left to the corporation two meadows near Oxford, for the instruction of poor children of the borough. Ten boys and six girls, who are nominated by the mayor and principal burgesses, are at present on the foundation. John Provost, in 1703, bequeathed property for instructing ten boys in reading and writing, and for apprenticing poor children. From the increase of funds, in addition to the Founder's directions, the present recipients are clothed and taught arithmetic. Richard Belcher, in 1713, bequeathed £14 per annum, and Joseph Tomkins, in 1753, £100 South Sea Stock, for the instruction of poor children of the borough.
Abingdon possesses a Literary and Scientific Institution. The County Gaol is a handsome stone structure, in Bridge Street, erected in 1811, at an expense of £26,000. It comprises a chapel and court-house, in which the Summer assizes and July county sessions are held. The October sessions are held here and at Reading, alternately. The Members for the county are nominated and elected here, and the county magistrates hold Petty Sessions, for the Abingdon Division, on Monday fortnightly. The Abingdon union comprises 38 parishes; the Workhouse is a large building, in the form of the letter Y; it will accommodate 380 persons, and was erected in 1835, at a cost of about £9,000. A new cemetery was built in 1861, at an expense of £2,500. It was consecrated by the Bishop of Oxford, on the 5th of April in that year. The two chapels (one for Episcopalians and the other for Dissenters) are in the decorated style. The works were designed by Messrs. Poulton and Woodman, of Reading, and were ably executed by Mr. Jones, builder, of Oxford. Abingdon confers the title of Earl on the family of Bertie.
Northcourt is a hamlet situate about 1 mile N. of Abingdon, and contained in 1861, 290 inhabitants. J. M. Carter, Esq., has a handsome residence here.
Sandford is a township 2 1/2 miles N.N.E. from Abingdon. The population in 1861 was 113. There is a chapel of ease, of which the Rev. H. A. Pickard is curate.
Shippon is another township distant 1 1/2 mile N.N.W. of Abingdon. The Rev. W. A. Strange, D.D., officiates at the chapel of ease. The population in 1861 was 211.
Cholsall is a hamlet with 27 inhabitants.