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Northampton in the 1850s

Between 1920-21, James Ward (1847-1925), a Northampton nonconformist, social campaigner and journalist wrote a series of six articles for the Northampton Daily Echo describing life growing up in the town in the 1850s and 60s.

It is going back further than I intended, but to show the great increase in population, I may perhaps be permitted to quote from some states of the poll given to me by the late Mr. George Gibbs, which contain particulars of the first elections under the Municipal Reform Act, 1855. The late Alderman Joseph Gurney has often related to me particulars of the composition and method of election of the old Corporation previous to the one mentioned. Perhaps W.W.H.(William Waite Hadley) in his “Look Round” in the “Northampton Mercury” might find this an interesting topic.

The number of burgesses for the different Wards at the 1835 election will show where the then sparse population resided. The number of electors for the East Ward was 273, West Ward 261, South Ward 312. The slates of the poll, given me by Mr. Gibbs, continue to the year 1884, with the names of the candidates. And what a revelation they are of the past history of Northampton, and of men who strutted their brief hour on life’s stage for good or ill or both, for truly it may be said:

That our lives are a book in which we write
The story we weave in time
’s quick flight.
As hourly or daily we fill each page
With acts that are good, or mistakes made.

Often when I come home I like to wander about the old churchyards or the General Cemetery, when memories of the past come back like a flood of the deeds of men and of some women that still live in the lives of the present generation through the work they did. I can still see them on the various platforms or in pulpits. I can hear them passionately pleading for the causes for which they fought, many of them personally known to me. What a theme for Alderman Campion, who knew them even better than I.

By the way, it may be of interest to know that Alderman Campion1 was first elected to the Town Council in November, 1883, at a by-election in the West Ward, when the figures were: Campion 807, S. Barber 339. I don’t think it has placed upon record, but I believe that was for the victor, the cheapest contested election ever fought. Apart from the printing, which he did himself at the “Guardian” office, the expenses were 4s. 6d., and your humble scribe was his agent.

The foregoing are memories by the way, and I now return to my original theme Northampton’s development.

In imagination, I am standing on Abington Square in the year 1855. Where the Technical School is now there was an orchard, which extended behind the old houses still standing on the Lower Mounts up to where is now Overstone Road. I can see the old Bantam Cock with its thatched roof, but the great attraction to my juvenile mind was the rosy-cheeked apples which grew in the orchard. The wall was low, but for fear of disturbing the serenity of mind of the Chief Constable, I forbear further details.

One incident in connection with Abington Square will never fade from my memory. At that time (1854) my place of residence was Chapel Place. I remember being sent with a shilling for a four-pound loaf to a shop which is now a ham and bacon shop. The change received was one halfpenny, and I remember being told that we could have only so much, as bread was so dear. That taught me to hate war, and I have hated it ever since. Even then we heard of the “bursting corn bins” of Russia, and I can hear people say that “until peace comes bread will be dear, as much of our bread supply came from that country.” Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

I look across the way opposite the Technical Schools, to what is now York Road. Where York Parade stands I can see a magnificent row of tall trees; not a house of any kind on either side of the road until one reached the entrance to St. Giles’ Churchyard. The terrace from there to the bottom on the west side stood as now. St. Edmund’s Road, as we know it, was practically non-existent. There were a few houses on the left, which are still standing; and on the east of York Road, there were gardens up to those houses. A large orchard stretched back from where Dr. Milligan now resides.

Along the Billing Road, there was only one cottage besides the Asylum and the Infirmary, and these were not so imposing as now. On the south were beautiful views of the Nene valley, orchards, fields, and gardens. The other side was unbuilt on all the way to the Cemetery, which was very different from what it is today. (Most of the well-to-do people found their last home in the churchyards at that time.) Even then Billing Road was a favourite promenade for courting couples and oft could be heard in the trees of the cemetery the melodious trill of the nightingale.

I believe the first villa on the Billing Road was built by a Mr. James Boysun who had a shoe manufactory in Castle Street, down a court on the right-hand side from the Horsemarket, with his house in the front I have fetched closing work from there many a time. He afterwards removed his warehouse to Victoria Street. Mr. Henry Wooding or Mr. James Crockett doubtless’ remembers him well.

The next house to be built on the Billing-rood was, I think. Nine Springs Villa at what is now the corner of Cliftonville, which then was non-existent. It was built by the late Mr. John Middleton Vernon, one of the most eloquent of Northampton public men whom I remember. He was Mayor in 1868. and was the first holder of the office to attend officially a Nonconformist place of worship on Mayor Sunday. I can still see the procession as it wended its way down Bridge Street to Commercial Street Chapel. As a note of local political history, I may be permitted to say that (of course, not during his year of office) he was the first member of the old Liberal party to speak for Charles Bradlaugh at a meeting at the Town Hall.

James Ward
12 February 1921

  1. Alderman Campion. Samuel Smith Campion or S. S. Campion(1846-1938) was the son of Rev Joseph Campion, a Baptist minister at Little Brington near Northampton. By profession S S Campion was a journalist rising to editor of the Northampton Mercury for 20 years. He was a keen local historian. In politics, he was a Liberal and served as an elected councillor and Alderman. He was a keen supporter of universal education and founded the Northampton School for Girls. In his earlier years, he attended College Street Baptist church but after marriage in 1869 transferred to Commercial Street Congregational chapel where in 1886 he was elected a deacon. He remarried in 1928 to the daughter of the Northampton photographer, Henry Cooper.

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