In 1839 Wolverton scarcely existed. The first workshop was not ready until September of that year and hardly any houses had been built for the workers. What housing there was were no better than temporary wooden shacks. The station served the towns of Newport Pagnell and Stony Stratford, and Newport was the larger of the two. This bill, printed in Newport Pagnell, was probably posted in the Swan Hotel, where you could buy tickets for travel on the railway. Note the rather quaint way times are expressed. A train leaves at 1/4 before 7 in the morning and arrives in London at 3/4 past nine. It seems that time expressions such as 6:45 am had yet to be invented. The journey times vary from Wolverton to London from 2 3/4 hours to 3 1/4 hours – slow by our standards, but an unheard of speed in 1839. The printer has also not found a way to present timetables in a clear format. The first and second columns list departure times from Wolverton and arrival times in London in no obvious order and uses the third column to list departures to Birmingham in the top part of the column and arrival times at Curzon Street in the lower group.
The remarkable achievement of modern archaeology has been to show us a more distinct picture of how our ancestors lived during pre-history, that is before documents provided us with some evidence of life in earlier centuries. This is particularly true of the Milton Keynes area, where the planned development of a new city led to the creation of an Archaeology unit which would salvage what knowledge it could before the bulldozers destroyed the evidence forever.
So until quite recently all we could do is conjecture that people may have lived in the area in the very distant past and that the only insights into how they lived could be drawn from parallels with excavations in other parts of Britain. The Milton Keynes Archaeology Unit changed that and has left a useful legacy of information. The one I want to focus on today is evidence of Bronze Age settlement (3000 years ago) in the area now known as Wolverton Mill.
50 years ago these were still green fields. The only buildings were at Warren Farm and Wolverton Park by the Old Wolverton turn. The first buildings on these fields for the Radcliffe School and the Wolverton College of Further Education disturbed a lot of evidence and the subsequent levelling of the ground for playing fields probably destroyed any hope of useful excavation in this area, However in 1969 some aerial photographs identified a ring ditch and part of an enclosure at Wolverton Turn and the MKAU began an excavation on the site in 1972. 20 years later, in anticipation of the building program at Wolverton Mill, a second archaeological excavation was undertaken.
Taken together, the evidence of a ring ditch and post holes indicate some kind of settlement here during the Bronze Age. A few pottery sherds from the period and the discovery of an infant’s cremated ashes are pretty much the only physical evidence of a Bronze Age settlement. No precise dating is possible, as the author of a report ruefully remarks:
Given the paucity of dating evidence, it is dangerous to ascribe too positive an interpretation to these features, but the probability must be that most or all of them can be associated as a Bronze Age settlement. Even if some of the features represent no more than tree-clearance, it seems mainly to have been Bronze Age tree-clearance. The consistent patterning of post holes suggesting irregularly circular structures also points towards a Bronze Age date, and the lack of positive dating for such features is (unfortunately) fairly normal. The existence of the buried soil could also indicate agriculture. (S. Preston and others. Bronze Age Occupation and Saxon Features at the Wolverton Turn Enclosure.)
The above drawing shows the ring ditch and the lines of the trenches that were dug. All of this is now built over as shown by the satellite map at the head of this post. The archaeologists discovered some post holes which might suggest some circular structures and really there are very few conclusions one can draw other than there was once a settlement here approximately 3000 years ago.
That Wolverton and area has changed dramatically in the past 40 years is plain to all who grew up in the area prior to the Milton keynes development. Less obvious, and now buried, were the old road patterns that were disrupted by the canal cutting of 1800 and the railway construction in 1838.
The Stratford to Newport Road more-or-less follows its 20th century line except there is no canal bridge to negotiate and it appears to go round the the triangle where Manor Farm cottages are located. One presumes that the road was straightened here when the canal was built. Indeed the drawing by JC Hassall made in 1819 does show an abrupt turn after the bridge.
The turn to Haversham has also changed much. On this map it shows as a crossroads, with one branch going north to Mead Mill and thence to Haverhsam and Castlethorpe and turning south to Bradwell. This road was first cut by the canal and since it appears to follow the line laid by the railway was probably obliterated at that date. Part of it survived until recent times as a footpath from the Blue Bridge down to the old Pumping Station and across the brook to Bradwell. From 1837, travellers to Bradwell took the orad that probably marked the boundary between the Bradwell and Stantonbury manors. This road now goes up as far as Bradville before being cut off.
There were two cross country roads: the low road that went through Old Wolverton and a high road, an ancient ridgeway, that linked Calverton, crossed the Watling Street at Gib Lane and continued eastwards on a line that would have joined Wolverton’s Green Lane before joining the Newport Road at Stantonbury.
Note too the trackway that runs from Stacey Bushes farm in the south to Old Wolverton and Manor farm to the north. This partly survived in the 20th century as a footpath from the corner of the cemetery, crossing the Stratford Road, and following the Blackboards to Manor Farm.
The Haversham Road has been much diverted. First the turn off to Haversham had to be moved to the east when the railway line and viaduct was constructed, and 40 years later when the loop line was built. there have been further modifications and road widening in recent times.
The other interesting points about this map is that it was drawn a decade before Wolverton House, Wolverton Park Farm House and Warren Farm House was built. The mansion at Stantonbury, demolished a few years later, was still standing, and noted on this map as one of the more important houses in Norty Bucks.
As I have discussed in an earlier post, there was almost certainly commercial activity and some settlement along what we now know as Stony Stratford High Street from early medieval times. But on either side of the road they were under the jurisdiction of thanes or lords. There was no entity as Stony Stratford.
This changed towards the end of the 12th century after Henry II’s long reign had brought peace and prosperity to the country. In these conditions trade increased and improvement in trade brought traffic along the Watling Street. Since 1066 various parcels of land abutting the Watling Street had been granted by the lords on both side to their followers, who had consequently improved their own economic standing so it is possible that those who lived on the Watling Street were a little more sophisticated than those who farmed land on the remoter parts of the two manors.
One such was a man called Gilbert Bassett who was married to Egelina, daughter of Reginald de Courtenay, probably before 1194. Neither had an obvious commection to Stony Stratford until we discover that Egelina had first been married to Walter de Bolbec, Baron of Whitchurch. One of Walter’s manors was Calverton and it is probable that part of the manor, approximately that part from the Calverton Road north to the river, had been given to Egelina in dower. Walter died in 1190 and as a widow with property Egelina would have been of great interest. Gilbert was the successful suitor.
The couple understood the economic potential of this neck of land and in the late 12th century there was money to be made through the establishment of a market. Because of the money involved, markets were restricted, and were only possible through a king’s charter. This the couple sought, and first managed to get a charter under Richard’s seal on 30th April 1194. It was granted at Portsmouth on one of the rare occasions that Richard I was in the country.
The lucrative potential of this market was confirmed by the Bassett’s anxiety about their charter, which must have cost them a good deal of money. The charter of 1194 was authenticated by the king’s seal, but this seal had fallen into Austrian hands when Richard had been captured on his return from the Crusade. A new seal had since been made, but the Bassetts, fearing that their first charter might be open to legal challenge, took the precaution of seeking a second charter under the new seal. This was granted on 20th January 1199. And again, after John had succeeded to the throne, the couple acquired a third charter under John’s seal on 21st March 1200. John, always on the lookout for additional revenue, was only too agreeable.
The date of 1194 offers an “official” date for Stony Stratford as an entity. Commercial settlement had preceded that date but now there was a critical mass of activity that made its recognition inevitable.