Bridgnorth

Extract from Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England, 1831.
Transcribed by Mel Lockie, © Copyright 2010
Lewis Topographical Dictionaries

BRIDGENORTH, a borough and market-town, having separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of Stottesden, county of SALOP, 20 miles (S.E.) from Shrewsbury, and 140 (N.W.) from London, containing 4096 inhabitants, but including the liberty of Romsley in the parish of Alveley, and part of the parish of Quatford. This place, anciently called Brugia, Brug, and (including Little Brug) Bruges, derives its name from a bridge over the river Severn, built by the Saxons, which, after many sanguinary conflicts with the Danes, they finally destroyed, to prevent the future incursions of these marauders. Upon the erection of a new bridge, about a mile and a half to the north of the former, it obtained the appellation of Brug North, whence its present name is deduced. Bridgenorth is supposed to have been founded by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great; it was afterwards enlarged by Robert de Belesme, Earl of Shrewsbury, who erected, or probably rebuilt, the castle, and fortified the town with walls and six strong gates, some portions of which are still remaining. On the earl's rebellion against his sovereign, Henry I., in 1102, the town and castle were besieged, and, after an obstinate defence, were surrendered to the victorious monarch, who gave them to Hugh de Mortimer, which grant was confirmed by Stephen; but it appears to have been little more than nominal, since that king appointed "Prtspositi", or provosts, to collect the revenue for the Crown. Mortimer having risen in rebellion against Henry II., that monarch laid siege to the castle, and nearly demolished it, and in this state it lay until the reign of John: he afterwards confirmed to the inhabitants all the privileges and franchises which they had enjoyed under Henry I.

In 1216, King John passed a day in this town, on his march to Worcester, where he was soon afterwards interred. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I., Bridgenorth, being a royal garrison, was, in 1646, attacked by the parliamentarians, whose infantry forced an entrance on the south side of St. Leonard's churchyard, that part being not so well defended as the rest of the town, and a sharp skirmish ensued. Another party of them broke through a narrow defile in the rock leading to the north gate, where many of their men were killed, not only by the fire of the garrison, but by great stones rolled down upon them from the summit of the rock. The infantry having gained an entrance through the churchyard, opened the gates to the cavalry, and the royalists retiring into the castle, set fire to the town, which was nearly consumed. The parliamentarians having made the church of St. Leonard their magazine, the royalists planted cannon on the round tower of the castle, and setting fire to the church, the flames spread to an adjoining college, and entirely consumed it. The castle was now closely invested, but being strongly fortified both by nature and art, it sustained a siege of three weeks without receiving any material injury. The besiegers, despairing of success, had begun to undermine the rock on which it was built, when the garrison, having exhausted all their ammunition, capitulated on honourable terms, and retired to Worcester.

The town is most romantically situated on the banks of the river Severn, which divides it into two parts, called the Upper and the Lower Town. The Upper Town is built on the summit and steep acclivities of a rock, rising abruptly to the height of one hundred and eighty feet from the western bank of the river, and presents an appearance singularly picturesque. Crowning the summit of the rock, at the southern extremity, are the small ruins of the square tower of the castle, declining considerably from the perpendicular line, and the handsome modern church of St. Mary Magdalene; and at the northern extremity is the venerable church of St. Leonard, with its lofty square embattled tower, adorned with pinnacles. About half-way between the churches, and forming a conspicuous object, is the reservoir, a capacious flat square tank, supported on lofty pillars of brick, and assuming at a distance the appearance of a handsome portico.

On the side of the rock rising from the river are several successive tiers of detached houses, many of them handsome modern buildings, the chimneys of the lower tier being below the foundation of the next upper tier, in regular gradation from the base of the rock to its summit. These are intermixed with caverns and rude dwellings excavated in the rock, with brick window and door-cases in front, and interspersed with gardens, shrubberies, and lofty trees. A road for carriages winds round the rock, and a nearer approach is afforded foot passengers by several flights of steps, of almost perpendicular ascent, formed of pebbles, and secured by a framing of iron-work, leading through the rock into the interior of the town. A wider road for carts, from the several wharfs on the quay, has been constructed on the north side of the bridge. The walk round the castle hill is defended by a palisade, and commands a most extensive view of the surrounding country, which abounds with picturesque scenery, being richly diversified by cultivated fields, well-watered meadows, wood-crowned eminences, and barren rocks.

Several streets, containing handsome well-built houses, lead from the church into the High-street, parallel with which are others of a similar character. Over the river is a handsome stone bridge of six arches, leading into the Lower Town, the streets in which contain some modern and several ancient houses. Among the latter is Canhall, an antique structure in the Elizabethan style, wherein Prince Rupert resided, in 1642, when, he addressed a letter-to the jury empannelled for the choice of town officers, entreating them "to select such men for their bailiffs as were well affected to his Majesty's service". The town is partially paved, and the inhabitants are supplied with soft water raised by machinery from the river into the reservoir in the Upper Town, and thence conveyed by pipes into their houses; and with spring water brought from Oldbury, at the southern extremity of the town, into several public conduits.

The public library, in St. Leonard's churchyard, a handsome octagonal brick building lighted by a dome, was founded by the Rev. Mr. Stackhouse, to whose memory a marble tablet has been erected over the fire-place: it has been extended by subscription from a theological' to a general library, and contains more than four thousand volumes. The theatre, a neat and commodious edifice of stone, was erected in 1824, on part of the site of the ancient moat of the castle, accidentally discovered 5 this being from thirty to forty feet deep, it became necessary to build strong piers, and to turn arches, to form a foundation: it is opened every alternate week for three months during the winter. The races are held in July, but they are not so well supported as formerly, the course having become damaged by being divided by moveable fences, and let out to different tenants during the interval.

The trade principally arises from the navigation of the river, which affords every facility for the transit of goods, and has made this town a thriving inland port: many vessels are built, and a great quantity of malt of very superior quality, and of grain, is sent to various parts of the country. The iron trade has greatly declined, but. nails are made to a small extent: a large carpet-manufactory has been lately established, and there is a considerable manufactory for tobacco pipes. The market, held on Saturday, is abundantly supplied with wheat, barley, and beans, to the growth of which the land in the neighbourhood is particularly favourable: the fairs are on the Thursday before Shrove-Tuesday, and the nearest Thursday to March 15th, for horned cattle and sheep; May 1st, a pleasure and statute fair; June 30th, for wool and cattle; August 2nd, for lamb's wool and cattle; September 15th, for cattle, sheep, and cheese; October 29th, a great fair for salt butter, cheese, hops, and nuts; and December 15th, a large fair for cattle and general merchandise.

The government, by a succession of charters from the reign of Henry I. to that of James II., is vested in two bailiffs, a recorder, deputy-recorder, twenty-four aldermen, forty-eight common council-men, two chamberlains, and two bridge-masters, assisted by a town-clerk, two Serjeants at mace, and subordinate officers. The bailiffs, who are justices of the peace, and the senior of whom acts as coroner for the borough, are chosen, on the 21st of September from among the aldermen not having served that office for three years preceding, by a jury, who are sworn not to eat or drink till they have made choice of proper persons; this bath has frequently compelled them to long abstinence, and, in 1739, subjected them to fast for seventy-four hours. The aldermen are chosen, as vacancies occur, either from the common council-men, or from such of the burgesses as have filled the offices of chamberlain and bridge-master two years previously, who are thus qualified to become either common council-men or aldermen. The recorder, who holds his office for life, appoints the deputy-recorder, who must be a barrister; all other officers are appointed by the bailiffs and burgesses in common council assembled.

The freedom of the borough is inherited by birth; acquired by servitude for seven years and a fine of £1; by residence, paying scot and lot and a fine of £5; and by purchase, on paying a fine of £10. The corporation hold a court of petty session every alternate Monday, at which the bailiffs preside; and on the same day, a court of record, for the recovery of debts to any amount, is held by the bailiffs and deputy-recorder: as lords of the manor, they also hold courts leet in May and October, at which the town-clerk presides as their steward. The borough received the elective franchise in the 23rd of Edward I., and from that time has continued to return two members to parliament: the right of election is vested in all the burgesses, whether resident or not; the bailiffs are the returning officers. The town-hall, erected about the-year 1646, is a spacious building of timber frame-work and plaister, supported on pillars and arches of brick, forming a covered area for the use of the market; above this is a large room, wherein the public business of the corporation is transacted/ besides two smaller apartments, in one of which the several courts are held.

Bridgenorth comprises the parishes of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Leonard, which, with Claverley, Bobbington, Alveley, and Quatford, are within the jurisdiction of the court of the royal peculiar of Bridgenorth, belonging to Thomas Whitmore, Esq. The living of St. Mary Magdalene's is a perpetual curacy, endowed with £200 private benefaction, and £1500 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of T. Whitmore, Esq. The church, formerly the chapel belonging to the castle, and exempted by King John from all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, was made parochial in the 4th of Edward III., and rebuilt of freestone in 1792: it is a handsome edifice in the Grecian style of architecture, with a lofty tower, surmounted by a cupola; the interior is divided by two ranges of lofty pillars of the Ionic order, supporting the roof. The living of St. Leonard's is also a perpetual curacy, endowed with £600 private benefaction, £400 royal bounty, and £700 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of T. Whitmore, Esq. The church, formerly collegiate, was erected in 1448, on the site of a structure raised in the reign of Richard I.: it was originally a very magnificent and spacious edifice, comprising seven different chapels, the arches leading into which from the present nave, and now walled up, are still discernible. It suffered greatly while in the possession of the parliamentarians, during the civil war, and now consists only of a nave, one aisle, and a chancel; the last, parted from the nave by a screen, is used only as an entrance: its modern ceiling still exhibits vestiges of the ancient roof of pannelled oak, and some of the corbels on which its supporters rested are still remaining on the walls. There are places of worship for Baptists and Independents.

The free grammar school, founded in 1503, by the corporation, in whom the management is vested, is supported partly by an endowment of £34, and partly by contributions from the corporation and others, producing about £160 per annum, which is paid to the master: it has three exhibitions to Christ Church College, Oxford, founded by Mr. Careswell, in 1689, who endowed eighteen in that college, for the benefit of six free grammar schools of this county; viz., four for that of Shrewsbury, three for that of Bridgenorth, four for that of Newport, three for that of Shiffinall, two for that of Wem, and two for that of Donnington, in the parish of Wroxeter. The management of the augmented property, which is chiefly in land situated near this town, has, since 1741, been vested in the court of Chancery; and, in 1820, the estate, including property in the funds, produced an annual income of nearly £1500, subject to certain deductions. The sums allowed to the exhibitioners, according to successive decrees of the court, are £60 to each under-graduate, £70 to each undergraduate being a commoner, £21 to each bachelor of arts, £60 to each bachelor of arts resident, and £27 to each master of arts, leaving a considerable surplus at the end of the year. The Blue-coat charity school, kept in an old castellated brick building, over an archway at the northern extremity of the town, which was one of the ancient gates, was established in 1720, and is supported partly by a small endowment arising from benefactions vested in the funds, and partly by subscription; there are thirty boys in this establishment, nominated by the subscribers in rotation, who are clothed annually, and, on leaving the school, receive £4. 2. as an apprentice fee, and £2 for clothing. There is also a National school, supported by subscription, in which two hundred boys and one hundred and fifty girls are instructed.

The hospital in St. Leonard's churchyard, for ten aged widows, who have an apartment and £10 per annum each, was founded, in 1687, by the Rev. Francis Palmer, rector of Sandby in Bedfordshire. The almshouses in Church-lane, endowed with estates producing £158 per annum, under -the- direction of the corporation as trustees, are for twelve widows of burgesses, who have each an apartment, two shillings-and sixpence per week, with occasional additions, according to the state of the funds. At the southern extremity of the High-street, is part of an arch which formed the entrance to the castle, also some portions of the walls which enclosed an area of fourteen acres; and at the northern extremity of the town, on the western bank of the river, are the remains of a convent of Grey friars which have been converted into a malt-house: the great hall, or refectory, is still nearly in its pristine state: the pannelled oak ceiling, the stone fire-place, and many of the windows, though the lights are stopped with plaister, are still in entire preservation. About a quarter of a mile south of the Lower Town was an ancient hospital for lazars, converted, in the reign of Edward IV., into a priory, and now a private mansion. In making the shrubberies to the north of the house, in 1823, thirty-seven bodies were discovered lying in rows, within eighteen inches from the surface, having evidently been buried in winding sheets and without coffins; they were in good preservation, the teeth still retaining their enamel: some slight vestiges of the church may be traced in the walls of the out-buildings.

There are remains of several fortifications in this neighbourhood, it having been the scene of frequent battles between the Saxons and the Danes. About a mile south of the town, on the eastern bank of the river, is a large mount, with a trench on all sides except the west, on which it is defended by a rocky precipice overhanging the Severn, where Robert de Montgomery had a strongly fortified palace. About half a mile eastward lay the ancient forest of Morfe, which, in Leland's time, was "a hilly ground, well wooded; a forest, or chase, having deer, and for which a forester and steward were appointed from the time of Edward I. to that of Elizabeth, The brother of King Athelstan is stated to have passed the life of a hermit here, and a cave in a rock, still called the Hermitage, is supposed to have been his solitary abode. On a portion of this tract are five tumuli in quincunx, under some of which the remains of human skeletons have been discovered. The sylvan features of the place have long since disappeared, and the whole, comprising between five and six thousand acres, was enclosed in 1815. Dr. Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore in Ireland, and compiler of "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry", was born here, in 1728.

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