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West Bridge and Northampton’s Castle

As has been mentioned previously John Taylor was a keen historian, publisher and proprietor of the Dryden Press in Northampton until he died in 1901. He could be considered a “Victorian Blogger”. Northamptonshire Notes & Queries was one of his long-lasting enterprises commenced in 1884 and continued after his death through to 1920. Northamptonshire Notes & Queries (similar to a national publication Notes & Queries) published quarterly, it contained readers’ questions and lengthy answers on points of historical and topographical interest relating to the county. In the early years, it was edited by the Rev W D Sweeting, Vicar of Maxey near Peterborough but later by John Taylor. The article that follows appeared in 1894, and was written by a fellow historian, Sir Henry Dryden of Canons Ashby. It is titled Northampton Castle but also contains significant information about Northampton’s early West Bridge, a major thoroughfare into the town, crossing the river between St Peter’s Church and the nearby Castle and St James Abbey.

During the works constructing Northampton’s Castle station in 1856 the river was diverted to the west requiring the demolition of the medieval bridge. The station is currently located partially in the area previously occupied by the river.

Plate 1: Plan

Plate II: Elevation (along the wall A B C D E)

Plate III: The Bridge

Northampton Castle.—The object of the present article is to describe the place and construction of a wall that formed the southern boundary of the Castle grounds, and which was destroyed when Castle Station was made in 1858-9. The River Nen, which bounded the Castle ground on the West flows to the South in this part of its course. Before the construction of the railway from Northampton to Harborough, the bridge over the Nen was a little to the South of the place of the present one, and was much narrower and lower. It consisted of two arches for the main stream, and to the West of them a third arch, under which a narrower stream flowed, which also eased the main stream in time of floods.

A view of it from the South-East is given. At one time the space occupied by one of the arches was spanned by a drawbridge; and in the Chamberlain’s Book of Minutes of the Borough there is an order, dated January 10th, 1641, that there be provided chains and great posts to chain up the bridges of the town.

There is in existence, probably in the possession of the North Western Railway Company, a map made in 1743 for Sir Arthur Hesilrige, of the Castle ground, then his property, and some adjoining parts, to the scale of ½ inch to the chain. This map was in 1869 in the possession of Mr Walker, and a tracing is in the Taylor Collection, Northampton Museum. In 1743 a watering place for horses adjoined the North of the bridge on the town side and ended at or near the West end of this wall. About 20 yards East of the end was a toll-gate.

In 1854, there being rumours of impending destruction, I made a survey of the part of the Castle ground between the Castle wall and the street and between the Castle wall and the river and made the elevation of the wall, which is the subject of the present notice. Just previous to this a vicarage house for St. Peter’s parish had been built on part of the Castle earthworks. The rise from the water level to the street at the top of Black Lion Hill is about 31 feet.

It appears from the section and elevation of 1854 that the rise at this hill had been much shorter and steeper and that at some time between 1743 and 1854 the slope had been made more gradual; and between 1847 and 1854 the earth on the street side of the wall had been cut away up to the wall to widen the public road, leaving the bottom of the wall several feet above the road surface. See elevation—F G H, unmoved soil under the foundation of the wall: R R R, road surface. At that time there was a brick dam or weir on the North side of the bridge, giving a fall of about 6 feet, for the use of a mill about 20 chains lower down; but in the map of 1743, no weir is shewn. Unfortunately, the comparative level of the river above the weir and the bottom of the West part of the old wall was not taken in 1854. This wall was 226 feet long, including a gap of 13 feet recently made for carts, a part of 13 feet rebuilt and a part of 36 feet rebuilt. Throughout its length, it had originally a chamfered set-off course of 7J inches depth and about 4 inches projection. This boundary wall on the South was about 7 chains (462 feet) long, and the upper or East part of it was the southern boundary in 1743 of the yard of the kennel. A few feet in length of the end of this kennel-yard wall (North and South) still remains alongside the opening of St. Andrew’s Road. In the volumes, XV and XVI of the Associated Architectural Societies are papers by Mr E. F. Law, Mr S. Sharp, and Mr Scriven on the Castle and the remains found there; but none of them describes or mention this wall. Between 1743 and 1854 the approaches to the bridge were altered. The watering-place and toll-gate were abolished and wing walls were made to the end of the bridge. In 1759 an advertisement shows that there was a toll bar at the Green Man beyond the bridge, and it was there in 1832 when the landlord of the inn collected the tolls. The East half of the wall with which we are concerned was on a bank (F G H) averaging 4 feet 6 inches above the street or road (R R).

The whole was of red sandstone, divided into 5 portions (A B C D E) by steps in the set-off course of 10 inches and 1 foot each. Besides having these steps the 2 East portions of the set-off sloped with the ground. The East piece inclined 9 inches in 9 feet, the rest to the West inclined 5 ½ inches in 9 feet; the other portions were about level. Below the set-off course, most of the masonry was rougher than above it, and only the 2 East portions had much ashlar work. No part was complete as to its upper part. The courses varied in depth from 4 to 11 inches and were broken in many places. The remarkable feature was in the West part of the wall, which contained 5 rude arches of semi-circular form from 2 feet to 3 feet 6 inches diameter at the bottom or impost. None had any upright jambs. Probably one more arch existed in a part rebuilt. It may be argued that these arches were merely for the strength of the wall on a wet foundation, but the more likely reason for their existence is that they were to ease the stream of water in floods. The earth was much higher inside the wall than outside. The thickness of the wall above the set-off at the breach in the portion D was 2 feet 3 inches. A wall much resembling this in construction can be seen on the left hand of the road from St. James’ End to Upton. It was part of the boundary wall of the lands of St. James’ Abbey. Though the masonry is in well-laid courses, these courses are broken in many places.


Map by Speed, 3-16th in. to 40 paces


Map by Nunn, ½in. to 1 chain


Map by Law, ¼in. to 1 chain


Vicarage (Castle House), built before


My survey


West Bridge destroyed


Market Harborough line made


New Bridge opened

Dec. 23, 1857

South wall destroyed


Station opened

Feb. 16, 1859



Canons Ashby.   H. Dryden

Reference to Plate I.

The dark line is the wall described; A B C D E is the part illustrated in the elevation. F F The river as in 1854. G G The river as at present. H Railway station. I Castle Hall School. J Remains of inclosing wall of the Haselrige Kennel. K St. Peter’s Churchyard.

Reference to Plate III.

The view of the bridge is taken from the South-East. At that time (1850) a wall lying nearly East and West formed the Southern boundary of the Castle ground—A B C in the plan. Near the North side of the bridge was a dam to raise the level of the water to the North of the bridge for the sake of mills at some distance along the stream, which then, as now, flowed to the South.

Northamptonshire Notes & Queries, Volume 6, 1894-95, item 818. John Taylor (ed.), Dryden Press, Northampton, 1896

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