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St Helens Wharf and Church

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The Abingdon Story

Energy, Innovation and Championing the cause of the common man - themes from our history

Abingdon-on-Thames has a strong claim to be England’s oldest town. Archaeological digs have shown that this was one of the earliest areas in which our hunter-gatherer ancestors first began to lead more settled lifestyles, attracted by the food and trading opportunities that the confluence of the River Ock with the River Thames provided.

Medieval Abingdon was a highly significant place. From the time of Aethelwold, who was abbot around 943-963, the Abbey of St Mary’s was a centre of excellence in the cultural and religious life of Europe. Run with the efficiency of a modern corporation, its lands, wealth and learning were managed by Benedictine monks, but relations with the little town which had begun to grow in front of the abbey were not always good. The archway which once formed the entrance to the abbey grounds can still be seen today and there were times when the gates had to be locked against the rioting townsfolk.

St Nicolas’ church belonged to the abbey but faced out to the town. Known as the “little church by the gate”, it was built so that the servants and ordinary people who were connected with the abbey could receive Holy Communion whilst being firmly kept out of the abbey itself. Inside there are interesting monuments mainly from a later era, including the intriguing Blacknall memorial with an unsolved puzzle: a poem that seems to deliberately ignore one of the two daughters depicted above.

The St Helen’s area developed as one of the principal trading wharves on this part of the Thames and the medieval houses that line the tranquil East St Helen street were the homes of the successful merchant and business families of the town. In St Helen’s Church they set up a decorative cross which was the focal point for their independence from the abbey. Although it sounds today like a religious sect, the Fraternity of the Holy Cross was in fact as much a committee devoted to the management of problems like the care of the poor and the maintenance of infrastructure for the common good. They built almshouses such as Long Alley in St Helen’s Churchyard and constructed the main bridge over the Thames. Much of their money was devoted to keeping this repaired as the trade it brought to the town was important to all their livelihoods.

St Helen’s Church is unusual in being almost square inside rather than the usual oblong, due to repeated additions of one oblong nave followed by another as the enthusiastic townsfolk of Abingdon added to their beloved church and raised its status as best they could, a little at a time. It is now a treasure of great importance to the town containing medieval ceiling paintings, a panorama of stained glass windows and one of the earliest known family tree paintings showing the 197 descendants of William Lee, five times Mayor of the town.

When Henry VIII engineered the breakaway of the English church establishment from the control of Rome, a solution to enable a divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his wife of 24 years, his ministers seized the opportunity for replenishing royal funds. In 1538 they targeted the abbey as one of the first large monastic sites to be closed and its assets stripped – quite literally. Stones, lead and window glass were transported down the Thames in barges and may well have been re-used in the lost palace of Nonesuch, the king’s glorious building project on which construction commenced the same year. Today historians have been able to establish where the abbey church of St Mary’s stood and the site is marked out in the Abbey Gardens so that the scale of the building and indeed the scale of Henry’s destruction can be appreciated.

The monks were pensioned off and there is no record of any popular support to keep the abbey going, but the town could not sneer at the fate of the abbey for long. When Henry was succeeded by his young son, Edward VI, the crown still needed funds and in 1547 his ministers passed a law seizing the assets of all “guilds and chantries” which included the Fraternity of the Holy Cross. This time the town saw the need to resist central government as this was their own property at stake! The negotiations with the crown that followed were led by local dignitary John Mason, a diplomat and civil servant who somehow survived the intrigues of the Tudor court through four changes of regime. In 1553 the town gained a replacement for the old guild, known as Christ’s Hospital, with much of the old guild property restored. This body still functions today, managing Long Alley and the other almshouses, although it no longer has to upkeep the bridge. In 1556 Mary I finally signed a Charter incorporating the town, giving it rights to govern itself and raise money by levies on trade and markets. Abingdon’s champion also emerged as something of a smooth operator: John Mason became lifelong Master of Christ’s Hospital and the High Steward of the town; both positions which paid well.

Abingdon was set to prosper and in the ensuing centuries the town grew steadily with a thriving mixed economy that included the river barge trade, bookmaking and printing, markets, leather manufacture, malting, brewing and, it would seem from the records, a vast number of pubs! The growing importance of the town was reflected in the design of the County Hall which dominates the Market Place. Erected between 1678 and 1684, it was first know as the Sessions Hall as it was built as an assize court above with a market hall below. Christopher Kempster’s building seems to have drawn heavily on the work of Sir Christopher Wren, designer of St Paul’s Cathedral, and we know that the two men worked on buildings in London together. The cosmopolitan magnificence of the County Hall is a bold expression of the status of the town in its heyday as county town of Berkshire, and indicates that Abingdon was not a rural backwater but strongly linked to the mainstream of cultural life, perhaps because of the busy barge trade running down the Thames to the capital. Today it is a museum housing local exhibits with interactive displays, rooftop visits and a programme of talks and workshops.

The Old Gaol, as it is still known, completed in 1811, was built under the direction of Daniel Harris, Governor of Oxford Prison, who used free convict labout to carry out his civil engineering projects. It is said that the Gaol was built using prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars but this may be a local myth as evidence is lacking for this particular historical "fact". Glowering over the Thames the strange octagonal shape with three wings can be seen clearly from the bridge. The design was part of a new enlightened approach to prison management, the central octagon being the main core of the building in which all the main functions and services operated and the cells being placed in the easily-managed wing-blocks with the benefit of outer walls on both sides allowing all cells to have light and fresh air from windows.

The Abbey Buildings used by the Benedictine monks for administration, guest hospitality, grain storage and baking still survive, having been saved by the Friends of Abingdon during the Second World War. Local volunteers created the Elizabethan-style Unicorn Theatre which opened in time for the coronation of Elizabeth II in1953 and for many years was a hub for the staging of Handel operas and early plays produced in the style of the era in which they were created. This alternative theatre of its era is still active today. Professional and amateur productions take on a unique quality from their intimate setting and actors have to get used to dashing from the Green Room across the open-air passage before diving in another door to find themselves on stage! The same narrow passageway can be used by visitors to nip through from Thames Street, overlooking the mill stream created by the Benedictine monks, to Chequer Walk leading up to the Guildhall and St Nicolas’ church.

In recent times the town acquired a reputation of importance to car enthusiasts worldwide as the Home of MG. Although the factory no longer exists, the clubhouse donated to the MG Car Club by Cecil Kimber is still in use with an increasing range of MG objects of interest, and rallies of brightly coloured MGs are a frequent sight in the town centre.

Abingdon boasts a wealth of living traditions such as its famous Bun-Throwing ceremony and the midsummer Election of the Mock Mayor of Ock Street in which the town comes alive with Morris Dancing and mayhem. More regularly, visitors will often find themselves hearing town news conveyed by one of our Guild of Town Criers. Dressed in eighteenth century costume, they start their announcements by ringing a handbell and finish with the sentiment we hope all our visitors share with us: “God Save Abingdon”.

Abingdon is a town that appreciates the richness of its history and our local history society have compiled a detailed study of all the buildings in the town centre that have historical significance. This is all published on this site in our history section. Click here to access more information about buildings and people of Abingdon-on-Thames.

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