I wrote an article for a local magazine and town guide a few years back on the general history of Thatcham. Here is the updated version.
Not everyone who lives or works in Thatcham knows that this Berkshire town lays claim to being Britain’s oldest inhabited settlement. Indeed it is an ancient settlement, with archaeological finds covering most periods of history, from the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) over 12,000 years ago right up to the present day. One of the best preserved Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age, c.8500BC – 4000BC) sites in the country was unearthed in Thatcham; its people at that time were semi-nomadic and occupied the site periodically for centuries.
There is evidence of occupation in the area in both the Bronze Age (2500BC –750BC) and Iron Age (750BC–43AD), and at Hartshill Copse evidence of iron working was discovered. Little was thought of this until the finds were analysed and proved to date from at least 250 years before the Iron Age was supposed to have started.
Thatcham Broadway and Broadway Green (a registered village green) are considered by many to be the historic heart of Thatcham. When the Green came about is another topic of research with some scholars believing the Saxon settlement was centred on the Church and others believing it was around a Green. There is little evidence to support either theory. Local legend has it that in the 7th century a Saxon chief named Tace set up a settlement (or ‘ham’) here. ‘Tace’s ham’ evolved over the years to become ‘Thatcham’. However, the modern name of Thatcham is more likely to come from the earliest record of Thaec-ham, meaning thatching material in a river meadow (see this earlier post for more on this). It is believed that a Saxon church was built in around 675AD, around which the settlement would have built up.
Features at St Mary’s Church include the Norman south doorway with its zigzag carving, the early 13th-century north arcade and the handsome 15th-century tower, although most of what can be seen today is from an 1857 renovation.
By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Thatcham had 12 ‘hagae’ (enclosures, usually with houses). The settlement was centred on The Broadway Green with burgage plots also laid out on the London–Bath road; around 250 people lived in the area at that time.
Thatcham was at the peak of its importance in the 14th century. In the assessment of a lay subsidy granted to King Edward III (1327–77), the borough of Thatcham consisted of several streets including: East Street (Chapel Street); West Street (High Street); South Street (The Broadway); Front Lane (Church Lane); Back Lane (Park Lane).
By the 1500s Thatcham started to give way to neighbouring Newbury with its thriving cloth trade. The Chapel of St Thomas, built c.1304 on East Street and financed by Sir Richard de Fokerham of Colthrop, appears to have been abandoned in the 1500s and stood empty until 1707 when it opened as the Winchcombe School, a charity school for the education of poor boys. In 1794 the school reopened as a Blue Coat School, a name attributed to the blue uniforms issued to pupils. Now known as The Old Bluecoat School, it is Thatcham’s oldest remaining building after the Church of St Mary’s, and the only Grade I listed building in the town.
Thatcham House, in Station Road, was built c.1869 for Reverend Hezekiah Martin, vicar of Thatcham 1866–89. The true use of its imposing tower is unknown, although, interestingly, it is almost the same height as the tower of St Mary’s. Reverend Hezekiah and his wife moved into the house, then a 30-roomed property, shortly after construction was finished in 1871. Later, in 1902, Thatcham House was owned by the Turner family, two of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross: Alexander Buller Turner (1893–1915) received his posthumously for service in the First World War following a single-handed grenade attack in 1915; his brother Victor (1900– 72) was awarded his for gallantry in the Second World War.
In The Broadway are the remains of the Market Cross, identifying the location of the medieval market place. Around the corner in Chapel Street is the Parish Hall. Miss Henry, daughter of John Henry of Colthrop Mill, instigated the idea for the Parish Hall in 1903 and plans were made to erect a venue to accommodate 200 people at community events. Within a few years £350 had been raised and the building was officially opened on 10 April 1907 by Mrs Benyon, wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire.
By the start of the 20th century Thatcham’s population was around 2,500, and grew rapidly from that point. New housing developments sprung up around the village centre, along with new commercial and industrial units. By 1970 the population was nearly 10,000, having tripled in size in only 70 years.
In 1974 the village of Thatcham became a town and it continues to develop, with several big-name industries making it their home, including Sony, Xtrac and Thatcham Research.
In 1997 town-centre facilities were enhanced with two supermarkets and a shopping arcade, supplementing shops in other parts of the town. Since 2008 the Thatcham Design Appraisal has been in existence, providing a framework for prospective development of the town centre. Who knows what changes our future ancestors will come to know?
Now to answer the question “Is Thatcham Britains oldest inhabited settlement?” We were for a period recorded as “the strongest claimant to the oldest inhabited settlement in Britain” but I will let you judge for yourselves.