Thatcham became a town in 1974 and to mark the 40th anniversary I presented a talk, ‘40 years a town‘, at the Thatcham Festival in 2014. However to this day I hear people saying Thatcham is a village. If we were a village why do we have a TOWN COUNCIL? This is a quick overview of the talk I gave which will clear some of the confusion and shed light on the topic.
What makes a town?
This is a generalisation admittedly, but typically before the 20th century, and partly into it, a town was simply a settlement that had a town charter or held a regular market. Into the 20th century and a town was defined as a settlement with a population over 10,000 in a certain area and by the start of the 21st century it has become a bit of a grey area. For example, ignoring the historical context, Lancing with a population of about 19,000 is a village whilst Lyme Regis with a population of about 3,600 is a town1. The difference is population density, that is how many people are living within a given area. Lancing has 4 people per hectare whilst Lyme Regis has 8.9 people per hectare but the latter also has a Royal Charter from 1284 and is a 16th century market town. There are many other definitions to define a hamlet, village, town or city.
Concentrating on Thatcham there are finds from the Palaeolithic (before 10,000BC) period and a known settlement near Lower Way Sewage Works of Mesolithic (10,000BC to 4,000BC) period. What would these settlements have been? Not towns or even villages in the modern sense but to the people back then they probably were large settlements.
Moving on the Romans settled in Thatcham around the Henwick area. The finds show numerous wells and potential buildings covering a wide area. The exact size and much of the evidence has been destroyed and so we can only guess at the status of it. However I firmly believe it is the lost Roman settlement of Spinae.
The first time we can have a good guess is from the will of Alfeah c.975 who was connected to Thæc-ham (Thatcham). What can we say? Well we know when the Normans came that Thatcham was the administrative centre of a Hundred (similar to what a Shire is today). The local church seems to have served a wide area, Midgham, Greenham, Crookham, Cold Ash, and more. If that is the case this to me would indicate, to me at least, a town. Domesday suggest Thatcham itself had around 250 people, much larger than the surrounding settlements.
By the 12th century there is evidence that Thatcham was a market town and records of the men of Newbury disturbing the peace at the market on more than one occasion. Some time around 1300 the centre of Thatcham became a Borough town which lasted until the 16th century. The exact details and charters have long since been lost to time. There are glimpses though for example in 1502 the Star Chamber Proceedings note the “Towne of Thatcham.” There are a few references, in burial records for example that mention Thatcham Towne in the 1600s but it would appear that during the 1600s Thatcham became known more and more as a village. The implication is that the market had gone and other settlements had taken over. Indeed we know the market had ceased by this time and the cloth trade in Newbury had rocketed in the 1500’s along with the population.
The changing status continued in the 1890s a big part became a separate civil parish, Cold Ash. So in 1900 Thatcham was left a much smaller area, Greenham and Midgham too had been separated and borders changed. Thatcham was left with a population of around 2,500, much larger than Domesday but smaller than many other towns of the time. By c.1970 the population had reached 10,000 and under new laws the parish council applied to become a town and did so, officially, in 1974.
So the summary, Thatcham started as a nomadic settlement, becoming a Roman settlement and then a Saxon settlement, a hamlet or village, rapidly expanding to become a town by the end of the Saxon period if not early Norman period. This lasted until the 16th century when it reverted to a village and only changing back to a town when the population reached 10,000 in the 1970s.
1Values correct as of 2011.