History and Geography of Berkshire, England
A Research Aid from Combs &c. Families of Devonshire
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As is often true in the case of genealogical research, an understanding of the history, geography and economics of an area can be the key that unlocks the mysteries of our ancestors. In the course of researching our early Archdale, Combs and Lovett &c. families of England, it became increasingly clear that knowing how their lives were affected by, for example, the Parliamentary War, could provide us with both the whys and wherefores of their moves and even their deaths. Berkshire, although small, has frequently played a key role in the history of England, and quite probably in the lives of our ancestors.
In 1831, the Rev. Samuel Lewis published A Topographical Dictionary of England, S. Lewis and Company, London, which describes Berkshire both historically and geographically, including the parishes of the time, and can be of enormous assistance to historical and genealogical researchers. Our particular history of Berkshire begins with Mr. Lewis' Berkshire, but will eventually include additional data in respect to the specific effect of Berks' history on our ancestors.
Ed. Note: Some changes in formatting have been made; i.e., those locations mentioned
which included early Combs &c. have been placed in bold-face (incomplete); surnames
have been capitalized, and some paragraphs have been split for ease of reading.
"A Topographical Dictionary of England" (Berkshire)
by Rev. Samuel Lewis
Berkshire, an inland county, bounded on the north by the county of Oxford, and a small part of the county of Buckingham, from both which it is separated by the Thames; on the east, by the counties of Buckingham and Surrey; on the south, by the county of Southampton; and on the west, by that of Wilts: it extends from 51º 19' to 51º48' (N. Lat.), and from 34½' (E.) to 1º 43' (W. Lon.). The extreme length is forty eight miles, the greatest breadth twenty-nine, and the circumference nearly two hundred and eight: including the detached parts, it contains about four hundred and sixty-four thousand five hundred acres, and seven hundred and fifty-six square miles. The population, in 1821, amounted to 134,700.
This county was anciently called Barocscire, or Berocscire, softened in process of time into Barkshire and Berkshire, and probably derived its name from a thick wood, called Barroc, which occupied an extended tract between Lambourn and Wantage, on or near the downs; though some deduce its etymology from Berroc, a bare oak in some part of Windsor Forest, beneath which the Britons, as their custom was, assembled for devotional or legislatorial purposes. The Bibroci occupied the south-eastern extremity, and the Segontiaci dwelt in that part which borders on Hampshire, but the greater part was inhabited by the Attrebatii. The Romans included it within the district of Britannia Superior, and subsequently in that of Britannia Prima. During the heptarchy, it formed a part of the kingdom of the West Saxons, or Wessex, and, after the reduction of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom into one monarchy, it belonged to the district called West Saxon Læge. Offa, King of Mercia, after his victory over Kinewulf, King of the West Saxons, in 775, seized on all that territory lying between Iknield-street and the Thames. The Danes having made an irruption into Wessex, in 871, were repulsed near Englefield by Earl Athelwolf, who was slain in a subsequent battle between them and the army under Ethelred; a few days after which, they were again routed at Ashdown, and compelled to retreat to Reading, where they passed the winter of 872. Alfred gained a decisive victory over them at Eddington, in 878; but, in 1006, they committed great devastation in the county, and defeated the Saxons near the river Kennet. In 1011, Berkshire was under the dominion of Ethelred II., and in the year ensuing, Swain, King of Denmark, was at Wallingford. In the struggle between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, the castle at Wallingford was one of the strongest fortresses which were garrisoned by the empress, and was the place of her retreat when driven from Oxford: it was repeatedly besieged by Stephen, but was successfully defended until the termination of the war, when the amicable arrangement which ensued was concluded beneath its walls.
During the absence of King Richard I. on a crusading expedition into Palestine, his brother John came over from Normandy, and seized the castles of Wallingford and Windsor, but the latter was retaken by the partizans of the king. Two meetings for the redress of grievances were held between John and the barons in 1213, one at Wallingford and the other at Reading; three years afterwards, the former place was fortified by the king, and the latter besieged by the barons, whose army, under Simon de MONTFORT, obtained possession of it in 1263: a temporary reconciliation was effected at Reading between Richard II. and the discontented nobles, in 1389.
During the parliamentary war, Berkshire was frequently the scene of hostile operations. Wallingford was garrisoned for the king, and Windsor for the parliament; and each place continued in the possession of its own party until the close of the war. Reading, which had been seized on by the parliamentarians, was evacuated by them on the approach, in October, 1642, of a detachment of the king's troops, the head-quarters of whose cavalry were at Abingdon: at this period, the king held the whole of the county, except the neighbourhood of Windsor, which fortress sustained but one attack during the war, and that an unsuccessful one, from Prince Rupert.
In April, 1643, Reading was retaken by the parliamentary army; and in the month of September following, the first battle of Newbury was fought, and the victory claimed by both parties; a few days after the action, Reading again fell into the hands of the king, who also placed a garrison in Donnington Castle
(1), near Newbury, under Colonel BOYS, by whom it was bravely and successfully defended against repeated attacks of the enemy. In the course of the ensuing year, Newbury, Reading (which had been dismantled of its fortifications by the king's troops), and Abingdon, fell successively into the hands of the parliament, who obtained possession of the whole county, except Wallingford. The second battle of Newbury took place in the month of October, in this year, the result of which was equally indecisive with the first. In 1645, Sir Stephen HAWKINS made an unsuccessful attack on the parliamentary garrison at Abingdon; and Cromwell, with like fortune, attacked Farringdon (2), which was then held by the royalists, but he soon after took Sir William VAUGHAN and Colonel LITTLETON prisoners, with two hundred of their troops, at Radcot-bridge. Prince Rupert attacked Abingdon in March 1646, but failed in his efforts to retake it; and this was the last event of a military nature which took place in Berkshire during the parliamentary war. (a href="#3">3) Wallingford and Farringdon were surrendered to the parliament a few months afterwards, and the king passed his last Christmas in confinement at Windsor. Subsequently to the Restoration, a slight skirmish took place near Reading, in December, 1688, which, with the exception of a more trifling affair at Twyford, was the only engagement that happened in this county previously to the Revolution.
Berkshire lies within the diocese of Salisbury, (with the exception of the parishes of Chilton and Langford, the former of which is in the diocese of Oxford, and the latter in the diocese of Lincoln,) and province of Canterbury: it forms an archdeaconry (4), is divided into the deaneries of Abingdon, Newbury, Reading and Wallingford, and contains one hundred and forty-eight parishes, of which, seventy-two are rectories, sixty-four vicarages, and twelve perpetual curacies. For civil purposes it is divided into twenty hundreds, -Beynhurst, Bray, Charlton, Compton, Cookham, Faircross, Farringdon, Ganfield, Hormer, Kintbury-Eagle, Lambourn, Moreton, Ock, Reading, Ripplesmere, Shrivenham, Sonning, Theale, Wantage, and Wargrave. It contains the boroughs and market-towns of Abingdon, Reading, Wallingford, and Windsor; the incorporated market towns of Maidenhead, Newbury, and Wokingham; and the market towns of Farringdon, Hungerford, East Ilsley, Lambourn, and Wantage.
Two knights are returned for the shire, and two representatives for each of the boroughs, except Abingdon, which sends one: the county members are nominated at Reading, and elected at Abingdon, these being the chief towns. This county is included in the Oxford circuit; the Lent assizes and the Epiphany sessions are held at Reading, the Summer assizes and Hilary sessions at Abingdon, the Michaelmas sessions in either town, at the option of the magistrates, the Easter sessions at Newbury: the county gaol and house of correction is at Reading, and the county house of correction, or bridewell, at Abingdon: there are ninety-three acting magistrates. The rates raised in the county for the year ending March 25th, 1827, amounted to £118,593, the expenditure to £114,970, of which £99,527. 4., was applied to the relief of the poor; the average rate on the rents is about 3s. 4d. in the pound, which, taking the assessment of 1803 as the standard of computation, makes a rental of about £560,000 per annum.
Berkshire is not a manufacturing county, but there are some cotton manufactories and a large paper mill near Newbury, a paper mill at Bagnor, and a large manufactory for blankets at Greenham-mills, near Thatcham; sacking and sail-cloth were formerly extensively made at Abingdon and Wantage; silk is manufactured at Wokingham to a small extent, and copper bolts for the navy, at the Temple mills in the parish of Bisham: there are also several large breweries in the county, particu larly at Windsor, which is celebrated for its ale.
The natural divisions of the county are four,-the Forest district, commencing at the eastern extremity of the county, and extending to the river Lodden westward, and from Sandhurst on the south, to Maidenhead on the north; the Vale of the Kennet, stretching from near Wargrave on the east, to Hungerford on the west, the Chalk Hills, extending nearly across the upper part of the county; and a vale lying between Budcot and Sheatley. The substratum consists of chalk, or gravel, with portions of clay at greater or less depths, according to the quality of the soil. Stones of a fine siliceous grit, vulgarly called Sarsden-stones, or the Grey-weathers, are seattered over the Berkshire and Wiltshire downs, and lie onstrata to which they do not naturally belong. The crops commonly produced are those of wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas, rye, buck-wheat, vetches or tares, rape or cole-seed, turnips, and potatoes; those of limited cultivation are cabbages, carrots, hops, woad, flax, dill and lavender. The artificial grasses are red, broad, Dutch clover, rye-grass, cow or marl grass, hop-trefoil, hearttrefoil, saintfoin, lucern, burnet, and corn spurry. The south and east sides of Berkshire have a great deal of woodland; the predominant wood is hazel, but oak, beech, ash, and alder are frequently met with. For pleasing and picturesque scenery, the eastern extremity is pre-eminent, particularly in Windsor Forest, on the banks of the Thames between Henley and Maidenhead, and between Reading and Wallingford. The waste lands chiefly consist of Maidenhead Thicket, and some parts of Windsor Forest and its neighbourhood: this forest was formerly of much greater circuit than it is at present, having included a part of the counties of Buckingham and Surrey, and the whole of the south-eastern part of Berkshire, so far as Hungerford; its present circuit, in which is a part of Bagshot Heath, is about 56 miles. Windsor Great Park was lessened by George III., from 3800 to 1800 acres, 2000 acres having been brought into cultivation. From an estimate made in the year 1806, it appeared that there were in the county 255,000 acres of arable land, 72,000 in meadow and dairy-land, 25,000 in sheep-walks, chiefly un-enclosed, on the chalk hills; 25,000 in other dry pastures, parks, &c., and 30,000 waste, chiefly barren heaths. The cattle are of the long horned, or common country breed; many calves are bred for stock, but suckling for the butcher is the prevailing practice: there is a native breed of sheep, strongly marked, but the pure race is not very common: the horses are usually black, very strong and powerful, and rather of full proportions than tall: the hogs, for compactness and size, are excelled by none; in the dairy tract, the piggeries are an important appendage to the farm.
The principal rivers are the Thames and the Kennet; the former skirts the county during a course of more than one hundred miles, and is navigable as high as Lechlade; the latter flows into Berkshire at Hungerford, becomes navigable at Newbury, where it is joined by the Lambourn, and falls into the Thames near Reading: the river Loddon rises near Aldershot, in Hampshire, enters Berkshire in the parish of Swallowfield, and runs into the Thames near Wargrave; the Ock rises near Uffington, and flows into the Thames at Abingdon; the Auborn rises near Inkpen, pursues an easterly course beyond Hide-end, then taking a northerly direction, falls into the Kennet a little below Wasing; the Lambourn rises amongst the hills above the town of that name, and falls into the Kennet near Shaw. The Wilts and Berks canal extends from the Thames, at Abingdon, to the eastern border of the county, in the upper part; and the Kennet and Avon canal, from the river Kennet, a little above Newbury, across the lower part of the county. The great road from London to Bath enters at Maidenhead-bridge, and passing through Reading, quits near the 65th mile stone; the road from London to Oxford enters at the same place, and leaves at Henley-bridge; the Cirencester road, which branches off at Dorchester, re-enters Berkshire at Abingdon, and passing through Farringdon, quits it at St. John's bridge, near Lechlade.
1 Donnington was originally "Deritone," and a manor granted by William the Conqueror to William LOVETT (according to the Domesday Surveys). Another Berks manor held by William LOVETT (who came to England with the Conqueror from Normandy) was Enborne, which is only a few miles from the battlefield of Newbury. William's descendants include
Sir Robert LOVETT and his son, John LOVETT, Esq., who died in Sparsholt, Berks in September and December 1643, respectively (Sparsholt having been the home at the time of Sir Robert's daughter, Elizabeth, wife of John COMBE (s/o
John and Margaret ARCHDALE Combe). Might their deaths have been the result of the Parliamentary War?
2 Re Farringdon, Lewis adds elsewhere that "During the civil commotions in the reign of Charles I., Farringdon house was garrisoned for the king, and a large body of the parliamentary forces sustained a repulse before it a short time prior to the reduction of Oxford."
3 Lewis also references Prince Rupert in respect to
High Wycombe, stating that "The only historical event connected with the place is a successful attack on the parliamentary troops quartered here, by Prince Rupert, after the battle of Reading."
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