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Local history

The Renewal Project area has a rich and interesting history, in particular in relation to its significance as a key site in the Civil War in the seventeenth century. We are grateful to Thomas Haynes of Nature Bureau for compiling the following information.

Prehistory (500,000 BC – AD 43)

In prehistoric times rivers were a much easier route for early people to traverse than many overland routes and this often led to communities of people hunting, preparing food and establishing settlements close to river systems.

i) Mesolithic Period (10,000 BC – 4,000 BC)

The first groups of people to make use of the Lambourn were nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Maglemosian culture. Bones of an aurochs, the ancestor of modern-day cattle, and a Mesolithic tranchet axe were dug up near the banks of the Lambourn (Leamon, 1991). The Aurochs was extinct in Britain by the Bronze Age.

Click here to read about our Aurochs event, held in January 2011.

ii) Neolithic Period (4,000 BC – 2,000 BC) – Bronze Age (2,400 BC – 750 BC)

Settlers from the continent introduced farming techniques of crop growing and animal husbandry to the local area. They used many tools and also manufactured pottery. A polished stone axe and several flints were found in the local area (Leamon, 1991). Near the end of the Neolithic Period the Beaker Folk arrived with a small number of earthworks in the local area attributed to them (Leamon, 1991). Although such tools have been found in the local area there is no evidence of settlement on the banks of the Lambourn within this period. Excavations of the former Turnpike School site on the banks of the Lambourn unearthed a ‘burnt mound’, where large quantities of flints were heated. It is believed that this was undertaken to boil water or to cook food. The mound is believed to be dated to the Bronze Age (Orr, 2007).

iii) Iron Age (750 BC – AD 40)

Hill Forts at Bussock Wood and Grimsbury Castle indicate the presence of Iron Age settlement within a 4 mile radius of the project area (Leamon, 1991).

Roman Period (AD 40 – AD 410)

Newbury and many of its associated settlements did not exist within the period of Roman occupation. Roman architecture and archaeological finds have been recorded within Shaw and it has also been suggested that Speen and Donnington originated from Roman place names (Spinae and Dunnan-straet-tun respectively) (Leamon, 1991 & Ford, 2009).

The Romans were well known for creating organised road networks across Britain, and within the Newbury area a road from Silchester to Cirencester called ‘Ermin Street’ crossed both the Lambourn and Kennet rivers. Much of the road has been lost to time and speculation exists as to the true route of Ermin Street through Newbury. There is clear evidence of the line of the road in Thatcham and in Speen and evidence of the road is believed to have been found near the Shaw Social Club (Orr, 2007). Many other Roman artefacts and earthworks have been found in the local area.

Anglo Saxon Period (AD 410 – AD 1066)

The place names Shaw, Hambridge and Lambourn are all derived from Anglo-Saxon place names. Shaw comes from the Anglo Saxon “sceaga” meaning a small wood (Rackham, 1986). With regard to Hambridge, references exist to earlier names including ‘Hammyll’ (1540) and ‘Hammulle’ (1300) (Tubb, 1991). These names indicate a reference to a homestead or water-meadows occurring at the joining of the Lambourn and Kennet rivers. ‘Lambourn’ itself refers to the washing of sheep in the river and indicates the areas importance for sheep farming and the later industries that would develop around the river system (Leamon, 1991).

Apart from the origins of place names, there is very little evidence relating to the Anglo Saxon period in the local area. Many villages along the Lambourn (through this period and later) were under the control of a manor, with their livelihoods coming mainly from growing corn on the lower slopes of the downs. The poor soil was fertilised by the dung from large flocks of sheep, which were usually managed by a shepherd who was employed by the manor. By the time of the Domesday book (1086) there was a manor named ‘Ulvritone’ somewhere in the Newbury area, although its location remains unknown.

Middle Ages (AD 1066 – AD 1536)

During the Anglo Saxon period watermills, based on Roman technology, had increased in the county and by 1086 mills were located at Shawbridge and Donnington (Orr, 2007).

Donnington was home to a religious house in the medieval period and the Donnington Hospital was founded in 1393 for poor retired people living in Berkshire and Oxfordshire. The river Lambourn runs directly underneath the hospital.

Upstream from the Shawbridge mill the Lambourn was straightened into a mill leat (an artificially straightened section of river). In 1386 there is reference to “two water mills in poor and ruinous condition” in Shaw. These mills were sold off the Shaw estate after World War II and have been converted to residential accommodation (Leamon, 1991).

Newbury is a planned market town, designed to centralise trade and industry. The first record of Newbury is from a land grant in 1079 (Money, 1905). Borough status was granted in 1189 and by 1204 there was a market, corn mill and fulling (cloth/woollen) mill. Prosperity began when Newbury became a centre of business in the manufacture and trade of wool in the 15th and 16th centuries (WBAS, 2006). Wool was spun in a collection of mills located on the Lambourn and Kennet river systems. A number of tanneries at Shawbridge have been mentioned since the 15th century (Leamon, 1991).

In Shaw an estate or manor predating the modern Shaw House had developed by 1086 and is recorded in the Domesday Book. The location of this manor house is unknown (Leamon, 1991).

Post-Medieval (AD 1536 – AD 1900) – Modern Period (AD 1900 – Present)

i) Shaw House

Shaw Manor was acquired by a family that prospered from the wool industry in Newbury and completed the present Shaw House in 1581 (Leamon, 1991). Shaw Manor was extensively landscaped from the late 16th century until the early years of the 20th century (WBC, 2008). Many of the landscape features were developed in the 18th century as was common in this period. These modifications included the manipulation of the Lambourn river channels to create aesthetic water features, including a pool that cast a prominent reflection of Shaw House (WBC, 2008).

ii) Civil War

Shaw House, Speen and Donnington played important roles in the English Civil War (1641-1651). The site of the second battle of Newbury is situated on the south bank of the Lambourn in Donnington. In a failed attempt to reclaim Shaw House from the Royalists, the parliamentarians dispatched 400 musketeers to Shaw. The Parliamentarians were however driven back by the Royalists with many musketeers perishing while attempting to return across the Lambourn on a temporary bridge. Skeletons and a cannonball have been excavated from near Shaw House and several skeletons have been excavated from the river banks of the Lambourn further down the river in Shaw village (Money, 1905).

At the end of the civil war period the dominance of Newbury’s cloth industry had diminished due to competition with mills in the north and did not recover, leaving many people without work (WBAS, 2006).

iii) Water-Meadows

In a survey of 1630 ‘improvements to the meadows by watering’ on the Shaw estate are recorded. This was a feature being widely introduced by landowners on suitable flood plains at the time. These modifications were made to maximise the number of sheep that could be grazed by farmers (Leamon, 1991).

The artificial irrigation or ‘floating’ of water meadows involved the inundation, during the winter months, of low-lying meadows along the Lambourn so that a thin layer of moving water passed through the lower stems of the grass sward. This system protected the grass from frost and also encouraged the early growth of the grass in the spring, providing an early feed for livestock. The system used on the Lambourn involved water passing along a leat, which lead off the river higher up its course, and distributed the water to a system of parallel channels running along the tops of ridges into the meadows. (Cook et al. 2003).

Water-Meadows are known to have existed between Donnington and Shaw. Modifications to the water-meadow systems were made to control flooding in the area and one of the water-meadow networks, west of Shaw House, was converted into watercress beds around 1900. The area of the former watercress beds have now become wet woodland.

iv) Fishing

The Lambourn and its tributaries were well regarded for fish. Documents from 1386 onwards praise fishing on the river. The poet Joshua Sylvester (1563 -1618) wrote a poem about the Lambourn:

“Little Lamb’s Bourne”

All summer long (while all thy sisters shrink)

Men of thy tears a million daily drink

Beside thy waste, which then in haste doth run

To wash the feet of Chaucer’s Donnington

But (while the rest are full unto the top)

All winter long then never show’st a drop

Nor send’st a doit of needless subsidy

To cram the Kennet’s wanton treasury

Before her stores be spent and springs be stayed

Then, then alone, thou lend’st a liberal aid

The Duke of Chandos (1728-1744) called it a ‘pretty river’ with abundant trout, gudgeon, crayfish and eels. James Pettit Andrews (1737–1797) when referring to the Lambourn river and spout, wrote that he “reckon’d (them) to be more excellent than those in any other stream in Great Britain” (Leamon, 1991).

Walter Money’s History of Newbury (1905) describes the river as being famous for its crayfish which are reported to have been caught in large quantities, baited with dead fish and animal matter.

The Victoria County History for Berkshire (1907) compares the fishing on the Lambourn to other rivers. ‘While the dry-fly fisherman of the Itchen or Test thinks he has done well if he finds a couple of brace in his creel at the end of a spring day, on the Upper Kennet he may capture twice or thrice that number of fish; and on the pretty little Lambourn, which joins the Kennet at Newbury, his bag will be still larger although the fish will run smaller.’

Two fisheries are recorded in 1576 as belonging to Shaw Manor. One of these was on the Lambourn with the second being on a small tributary call ‘Shaw Spout’.

v) Mills

A corn mill in Donnington is recorded in the 1880 edition of the Ordnance Survey, but is no longer present by the 1911 edition. A mill was recorded from Shawbridge in 1086 and in 1386. A corn mill is also recorded in Shaw in the 1881 edition of the Ordnance Survey. By the 1935 edition this mill appears to have been converted to flour production.

West of Hambridge Farm, on an area between the Kennet and Lambourn rivers, were the Ham Mills. There were two flour mills on this site in the 19th Century and it is possible that the mills recorded in 1086 were also positioned on this site. One of these mills was situated on the Kennet and the other on the Lambourn. The Lambourn mill was used as a saw mill in the early 20th century, but has since been demolished. The mill house which dates from around 1720 still exists and has been incorporated into the Newbury Manor Hotel (Tubb, 1991).

vi) Industry

As the wool industry declined in the 17th Century a mixture of small industries continued to do business, with tanning being prosperous from 1563 – 1728 (Leamon, 1991). Newbury’s industries were helped greatly by the Kennet river being made navigable in 1727.

The canal allowed for the expansion of trade between London and Newbury and also allowed for easier collection and distribution of goods throughout the south. Other industries of this period included clock making, brick making and malting (WBAS, 2006). Cloth making still had a presence in the town, but not to the extent of the boom years and also silk manufacture is recorded.

Due to the increased use of railway and canal transportation new industries established themselves, including the manufacture of agricultural machinery such as ploughs and water pumps. Other firms specialised in manufacturing marine engines. Newbury is also recorded as having five iron foundries in the 19th century (BCC, 1995).

In the late 1870s there was an agricultural depression caused by a combination of bad weather, low grain yields, competition from abroad and falling wool prices. Many of the arable fields were laid to grass; the water meadows were abandoned and the sheep population decreased dramatically.

Use of the canal network declined as the railways entered Newbury in the 19th Century. In 1881 the Didcot, Newbury & Southampton Railway was opened which crossed the Lambourn east of Shaw and entered Newbury station. This rail link became important during the 1940s with the movement of military personnel and supplies which lead to the railway being closed to normal traffic for a number of years. Many industries in the local area shifted to the manufacture of supplies for the war effort, particularly aircraft parts to service the many airfields that had become established in Berkshire (BCC, 1995).

The section of the line that crosses the Lambourn was eventually closed in 1967 due to nation-wide railway cut backs, competition with motor vehicles and a general decline in passenger traffic.

In the period from the Second World War to present day many of the local industries declined and were replaced with service-based businesses and hi-tech industries with many business parks being constructed (BCC, 1995). Much of the eastern area of the Lambourn has been developed into business units and business parks, including the former Didcot, Newbury & Southampton Railway track bed.


Berkshire County Council (1995) Industrial Berkshire. Babtie.

Cook, H., Stearne, K and Williamson, T (2003) The Origins of Water Meadows in England. Agricultural History Review, Volume 51, II, pp155-162.

Ford, D. N. and Leamon, R (2009) Royal Berkshire History Website.

Leamon, R. (1991) Historic Landscape of Shaw: A West Berks Manor. Rosemary Leamon.

Money, W. (1905) A History of Newbury. Thames Valley Press.

Orr, S. (2007 & 2009) Personal Communication. West Berkshire Archaeology Services.

Rackham, O. (1986) History of the Countryside. Phoenix.

Tubb, R.B. (1991) Thatcham Road Names. RB Tubb.

West Berkshire Archaeology Service. (2006) Historic Newbury, Fit for the Future: The Newbury Historic Character Study. West Berkshire Council.

West Berkshire Council. (2008) Shaw House, Gardens and Wider Landscape Heritage.