Newbury’s many claims to fame

PUBLISHED: 10:20 18 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:20 18 April 2017

Elsie Kimber: a woman leading the way in a mans world

Elsie Kimber: a woman leading the way in a mans world


It’s awards time and we’ve headed to Newbury to hand out some historic gongs. The town has lots of claims to fame, as Claire Pitcher discovers

The Golden Touch

John Winchcombe the Second, or ‘Jack of Newbury’ as he became known, was a 16th century industrial clothier. In the 1500s woollen cloth was the most important product of England’s economy and John made a fortune from the cloth trade: enough to buy ‘the manors’ of Thatcham and Bucklebury, and to become a member of the county gentry. He was so well known that Thomas Deloney, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a novel based around his life. ‘Jack of Newbury’ was created and became a familiar character like Robin Hood and Dick Whittington. Deloney claimed that John entertained Henry VIII and one of his wives, and led troops to victory over the Scots at the battle of Flodden, but Deloney was no historian. It appears there could have been ‘alternative facts’ even then?

Headline News

The Greenham Common Protests (1981-2000) often made the front page news after the Government announced that nuclear missiles would be sited at the reactivated RAF Greenham Common, as part of NATO’s defence of Europe. This decision was opposed by CND and others as a dangerous escalation of Cold War tensions. Peace Camps became internationally famous, partly due to a decision to make them exclusively for women. They would be there until 2000. When the huge shelters to house the missiles were being built, women cut through the fence and danced on the earthworks. They did all they could to disrupt military activity and many were arrested. Continually evicted, they set up new camps nearby. In 1987 Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. The Cruise missiles were withdrawn by 1991 and most of the runways, once the longest in Europe, were removed, with a lot of the concrete used to build the Newbury bypass.

The Entertainer

Newbury-born Lord George Sanger (1827 –1911) was the curator of a circus which was so popular it became one of the largest and best known in Britain and Europe. The spectacle featured clairvoyant ponies, performing elephants, lions and ‘living curiosities’ such as the world’s tallest woman. The circus travelled to more than 200 towns a year, performing two shows a day, six days a week, quite a feat in the age before cars and lorries. By the end of the century Sanger claimed there was not a town in England with a population above 100 people that had not been visited by Sanger’s Circus.

High Society

Elizabeth Montagu of Sandleford Priory began the famous ‘Blue Stocking Club’ at her London home in 1750. She wasn’t one for the Berkshire countryside, much preferring to entertain accomplished and intellectual people in the city. These gatherings grew into receptions of 600 to 700 people. There are a few theories as to what the club was named after. Perhaps it was Mr Benjamin Stillingfleet, who attended the parties wearing blue stockings. Or it could have been because the ladies had adopted the French fashion of wearing blue stockings. But the term of ‘Blue Stocking’ for a lady of literary tastes came into common usage because of these ‘get togethers’.

The Height of Fame

Air heroine Gertrude Bacon was a pioneer in several fields, most notably ballooning, Along with her father, the vicar of Cold Ash, she took to the sky by balloon many times, making her much more adventurous than most people expected of a woman, let alone a vicar’s daughter. The Bacons were Britain’s first aerial photographers, taking pictures of the countryside as early as 1888. She became the first English woman to travel in an airship, in an aeroplane and on a commercial flight, all before 1920. On a more local scale, she was recorded as the first woman in Cold Ash to own a bicycle.

Revolutionary Road

Many Newbury residents and holidaymakers will recall the nightmare of travelling down to the coast through Newbury town centre. Hours of nudging your way along the A339 to rejoin the A34, the summer traffic was intolerable. Did you know that the original proposal for the current A34 western bypass was made as long ago as 1981? The route ran through mature woodland, the site of the 1st Battle of Newbury, and a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), which led to a public enquiry in 1988 and debate in Parliament. Construction finally commenced in 1996. Whilst many residents and businesses welcomed the road, environmental protesters coined the name ‘Third Battle of Newbury’ and attempted to stop the work. One in particular, ‘Swampy’, made national news when he tied himself to a tree. He and other protesters set up camp in the trees along the route or tunnelled underground, but after the longest road protest in European history it eventually opened in 1998. Swampy apparently now lives at a commune in Wales and is a tree surgeon for the Forestry Commission.

Leading Lady

When Elsie Kimber, Newbury’s first woman mayor, was elected in 1922, only women over the age of 30 could vote in elections. It would be another six years before women had equal voting rights. She had a life-long interest in community issues and was most interested in improving housing, slum clearance, education and public health. No detail was too small, a cracked pavement or an unlit lamp, to demand Elsie’s attention and fighting spirit, and she would not rest until it was put right. In later life, Elsie was again the first woman in a man’s world – as a delegate amongst 500 males to the ‘All England Grocers’ Conference’.

‘Star of the Show’

“It has been very difficult to choose my star piece in the museum, but it is from our new exhibition, ‘Lives and landscape – The story of West Berkshire,’” says Newbury Museum curator Ruth Howard. “It could so easily be the 340-year old chine of bacon roasted on the day the gibbet was used at Inkpen; the 125,000 year old hippopotamus bones found at Donnington; the beautifully embroidered 17th century ‘undress’ hat worn at East Woodhay, or the stunning Bronze Age gold armlets found on the Lambourn Downs.

“My favourite piece is not big, or gold, or flashy. I don’t even know who made it. It is a Mesolithic stone axe. It’s so skilfully made and so tactile to touch. Whoever made it knew exactly where to hit the flint with another to uncover the shape they were aiming for. These axes are a tangible link to our ancestors and how they lived, although we still know very little about this period. What also interests me is how long Stone Age technology continued. Flint axes are still found at archaeology sites where metal tools were used alongside stone tools. West Berkshire is particularly important for research into the Mesolithic period as over 50 sites have been found in the Kennet Valley, including a site in Victoria Park, a mere stone’s throw from the museum.”

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