Saturday, November 26, 2016

Does Wolverton Destroy its Past?

The recent announcement that the remainder of Wolverton works will be redeveloped , leaving little but a vestige of the former railway town, has prompted this question. Those of us who grew up in the town in the middle of the last century knew only a town which was, at most, 100 years old. The house that I grew up in was built in the 1890s and, relatively speaking, was quite young. Those of my contemporaries who lived in houses in Eton Crescent or Stacey Avenue, enjoyed houses that were less than a decade old. We were living in a very modern town.
The 1839 Engine shed on the left.

Time changes our perspective. What was new becomes old. What is old is to be treasured. It becomes our heritage. In my lifetime all of the cottages built in the 1840s have disappeared, along with the original railway works built in 1839. The second and third station have been demolished, together will the Gables and a good section of Church Street and Buckingham Street. The Science and Art Institute suffered a disastrous fire and was subsequently flattened. The works drafting office suffered the same fate. McCorquodale's print works has also gone.
The Little Streets in the process of demolition

So much for our recent past, but if you look back over a longer period you can see that this is not unusual for Wolverton; it seems very much the norm.

The Wolverton Manor, an area of 2500 acres bounded by the Watling Street in the west, the River Ouse in the north and Bradwell Brook in the east and south, has a history that goes back to Saxon times. The Normans simply took over the existing structure in 1066. By this time, the original village  by the Happy Morn had been abandoned and a newer village settlement made nearer to the castle and church. Oh yes, Wolverton had a castle once and all that remains of that is a mound near the church. It has never been excavated. The Saxon church was replaced in the 12th century and had some later additions, but this church was almost completely replaced in 1815 by a modern church. Bradwell priory, also built in the 12th century, lost most of its buildings in the early 16th century, although some parts survived as farm buildings. On the Watling Street it is possible that some medieval foundations survive in the present buildings, but the comprehensive fire of 1742 destroyed most of the town from the Bull northwards. Earlier buildings include the tower of a late 13th century church (St. Mary Magdalene) and a late 15th century or early 16th century building (Rose and Crown). The 18th century is well-represented along the High Street, with the Bull, the Cock, and the former Three Swans, but much of the former building stock was replaced in the 19th century. Wolverton also retains a few 18th century houses: the Vicarage, Wolverton House and Wolverton Park House, and some 18th century cottages (Manor Farm).

An awful lot of buildings have been lost along the way and you can't help but observe that many other communities across the country manage to keep some ruins of their castle, their medieval churches and their 16th and 17th century great houses. Wolverton, however, has contrived to lose these buildings and indeed the process continued into the 20th century where most of 1840s Wolverton was demolished.

I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. You could argue that this betrays a progressive spirit of continual improvement, sweeping away the old to make way for the new; or it can be regarded as rather sad that we are left with so few visible signs of Wolverton's long and rich heritage. I'll leave you to make up your own mind. This post will be a survey of what has been lost.

Pre History and Early Medieval

It would be too much to expect much survival from this period, and indeed there isn't. Archaeological work has revealed traces of settlement all over the manor - the Romano British villa farm at Bancroft is the most spectacular example, but there is also evidence of another villa at Manor Farm and traces of Bronze age settlements in the area known as Wolverton Turn. It also appears that the first Anglian settlers may have chosen this site when they arrived in the early 6th century.

Medieval Wolverton

In the 9th century they moved the village northwards to lower land. The reasons for this are unclear but this remained the medieval village of Wolverton until enclosure was finally effected in 1654. From a high enough vantage point you can see the ridges and furrows of the land where the village once stood.

A surviving building from Bradwell Abbey
As far as the larger houses go there was a castle and evidence of it once being surrounded by a wall. It is suggested that this motte and bailey castle was built of wood, and initially there is every reason to accept this. But it is hard to imagine that as time passed the fortifications were not strengthened by stone walls. Stone after all was readily available from local quarries. Admittedly not a high quality stone, but suitable enough for buildings and defences.
Medieval Old Wolverton

This should immediately provoke the question why is there no remaining evidence? All I can say is that a succession of buildings in different periods may simply have re-used the quarried stone from redundant buildings. Closer to our own time there was apparently a very fine mansion in the 16th century. This was completely rebuilt in 1586 and this house in turn was demolished in the early part of the 18th century. Not a trace today remains. Some of the stone was undoubtedly use to build the new vicarage and some was carted off to various parts of the estate for farm buildings. It is not unreasonable therefore to belive that earlier stone structures, possibly even the castle itself, were recycled. If and when an archaeological dig is undertaken on the site perhaps these questions will be answered.

16th and 17th centuries
The 16th century building known as the Rose and Crown

In Wolverton itself there are no remnants of any 16th or 17th century buildings. On Stony Stratford High Street is the former Rose and Crown building which dates to the 16th century. Everything from the Bull north was destroyed by fire in 1742 and most of the southern part of the High Street was rebuilt in the 19th century. The George is an early 17th century building and the highway has been built up so much over the years the at George's ground floor is now below ground.

18th Century
Stony Stratford High Street's 18th century facade
The survival rate gets better in the 18th century and most "old" buildings in Stony Stratford date from the second half of the 18th century. The reason fro this was two great fires, one in 1736 which destroyed Church Street and part of the west side of the High Street, and, far more disastrous in 1742, the fire which started in the Bull and raged northward destroying everything in its path. The church tower of St Mary Magdalen was restored, but there was not the money or interest to replace the church, so only the tower remains. All of the inns were rebuilt to 18th century standards and present this face to the world today.
In Wolverton itself, the vicarage was rebuilt in the mid century using materials from the old manor house and it seems that some of the se materials were used in the Manor Farm cottages which date from the same period. The farm hues at Wolverton Park was built later in the 18th century and the mansion of Thomas Harrison, Wolverton House, was built between 1781-4.
The church was almost completely rebuilt in 1809 retaining only vestiges of the medieval church.

Early 19th century
Wolverton itself started to rebuild in the early 19th century. The canal brought new work to the area and the population of Old Wolverton doubled between 1801 and 1831. Slated Row dates from this first decade.

Early Victorian

Ledsam Street
Some of the first-built cottages on the north side only lasted 15 years before they were pulled down to make way for workshop expansion. The same process ate away at Bury Street until it too had gone by 1895. Gas Street also disappeared at around this time.Only St George's church and vicarage and part of the school (now the library) and the former Royal Engineer survive from the 1840s. You could argue that some parts of the Reading Room and the Vets Institute (built on the site of the first Market House) survive from that time, but the original architecture has been lost.

Mid Victorian
Wolverton entered a new building phase in 1860 when the Stratford Road and Church Street were constructed up to the Cambridge Street back alley. Most of these buildings survive, including the North Western and the Vic. Some houses were pulled down in the 290th century on Church Street to accommodate the former Empire and the former GPO. Some parts of the south side of Church Street were demolished to make way for the Agora.

Church Street: These houses were replaced by the Empire Theatre and the GPO in the 1920s and 1930s
Late Victorian
Osborne Street

Green Lane, Victoria, Moon and Osborne Streets, Cambridge Street and Windsor Street were built in the 1890s.

Girls and Infants School opened in 1906

The Church Street school was opened in 1896 and the Aylesbury Street school in 1906. Both buildings are still in use today as school. Around them the Radcliffe Trust developed the housing stock in the first two decades of the 20th century. Nothing much has changed. The Craufurd Arms, the Palace and the West End Methodist Chapel were part of that development.
The Elms, built for the doctor c 1905

Wolverton Today

Anyone driving today through the relatively narrow older street of Wolverton will recognise that these houses were not built with cars in mind. Back gardens have been adapted over time to provide some sort of accommodation. However, most of the late Victorian and early 20th century houses were and are substantial 3 bedroom homes and will remain as such for the time being.

One thing we can be sure about is that there will be change. As I have tried to illustrate here, there have been dramatic changes over centuries and in general only a few fragments are left to show us what buildings were like in centuries past. Railway Wolverton had now had its time and I suspect that if I were here in 100 years time, I may have even less of redbrick Wolverton to write about.

The former Manor House at Old Wolverton, pulls down in the  1730s.

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