The History of Ashwell
From the Bronze Age to the present
By David Short
Pre-historic to Roman times
People have lived since the Stone Age leaving behind them artefacts and evidence in the landscape. Ashwell Village Museum has objects from all periods from the Stone Age to the present day.
It is in the Bronze Age that we first find evidence in the landscape. Aerial photographs show many Bronze Age burial barrows besides the one called Highley Hill, the only one which has not been ploughed out. Arbury Banks, a hill fort covering over 12 acres, was probably started in the Bronze Age before becoming the major site of the Iron Age in Ashwell.
A Roman farming community
Once the Romans had settled in Britain in the first century AD fortifications like Arbury Banks were not needed and the site was abandoned. It appears that what is now the parish of Ashwell became a farming community based on the Roman town where Baldock is today. One such farm seems to be based on the building in what is now Pricems Field.
Anglo-Saxon to Medieval times
Little is known about the history of the area between the Roman period and the later Anglo-Saxon period. That people lived here is evident from graves that have been excavated and from place names. The creation of present-day Ashwell was probably in the early tenth century. By 1086, when Domesday Book was compiled, it was the most important settlement, being a borough, a market town, in the area. The market place would have dominated the town and brought the wealth that is reflected in the number of quality medieval buildings, including St Mary’s Church, that still exist today.
It would seem that the status of Ashwell did not last for long. Documents suggest that the sort of people one would expect in a thriving market town did not live here by the end of the thirteenth century. By that time many other market towns had come into existence in the area, and would have taken trade from Ashwell, which was not ideally placed, not being on any main roads. This does not mean that Ashwell had become a backwater. The building of the greater part of St Mary’s Church during the fourteenth century points to the wealth of those who could afford to pay for it. It was during this building that the Black Death devastated England and left scratched on a wall of the tower the cry of those who survived this tragedy.
Medieval times to the Present Day
From 1350 to the early part of the nineteenth century it would seem that Ashwell stagnated. It was during this period that the flourishing market declined, so that by 1799 there was no longer an official market, although the last reference that can be found to a market existing is in 1862. It was during this period that Ashwell must have come to rely on agriculture as a source of income. Even so it was still near enough to London for those who could afford it to move into the country and yet be near enough to town when needed. The nineteenth century saw some changes, with the growth of three industries, brewing, coprolite digging and straw plaiting. As in most of England the population of the village grew during this period, reaching a high of 1,576 people in 1871, a size which was not overtaken until 1981 when 1,612 were recorded in the annual census. After 1871 the population held steady for two decades but declined between 1891 and 1901, when they stopped digging coprolites and the straw plait was not needed as much in Luton.
A thriving, active community
In the twentieth century the two breweries closed – Pages in 1919 and Fordhams in 1966. In the latter part of the twentieth century changes in transport have brought a different life into the community. The motor car and rail travel mean that people can live in Ashwell but work elsewhere. These changes also bring traffic speeding through the village and parked cars fill the roads. But the village is a thriving, active community, where often it is difficult to find a night to hold a meeting or activity as there is likely to be something else already taking place.