Christchurch, Dorset - History

History

Christchurch was founded in approximately 650 AD by missionaries sent to Wessex by St Birinus, the first Bishop of Dorchester (Oxfordshire). They settled on a stretch of raised land between the rivers Avon and Stour which carried people and their wares to and from settlements such as Blandford and Old Sarum (Salisbury). The harbour became one of the most important in Saxon England as it was easily reached from the continent and boats could travel up the river Avon to Salisbury. The town appears in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle entry of 901 as Tweoxneam (Twynham) from Old English betweoxn (between) and éam (rivers). In around 890 AD, Alfred the Great considered Twynham to be of such strategic importance that, with the threat of invasion by the Danes, he made it a burh and defensive walls were erected around the town. In 1094 a chief minister of King William II, Ranulf Flambard, then Dean of Twynham, began the building of a priory on the site of the original mission church. Soon after the construction of the priory the town became known as Christchurch.

Some time in the early 12th century, a castle was built within the town. Originally a wooden fort built by Richard de Redvers, first cousin to King Henry I, it was rebuilt in stone by Baldwin de Redvers to resist King Stephen during the civil war with the Empress Matilda. The castle again saw action during the Civil War of 1642–1651 when occupied by the Parliamentarians. Christchurch changed hands a number of times: originally under Royalist control, it was captured by Sir William Waller's Parliamentary army in 1644. Lord Goring briefly retook the town in 1645 but was obliged to withdraw and returned with a larger force days later and laid siege to the castle. However, the Parliamentarians withstood the siege and maintained their hold on the town. Fearing such a powerful stronghold might once again fall into Royalist hands, Cromwell ordered the castle to be destroyed in 1652.

Although the fishing industry thrived in Christchurch, the importance of the harbour declined as it became inaccessible to vessels of a large draught. The harbour entrance was particularly troublesome with constantly shifting sandbars. In 1665 Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, bought the Lordship of the Manor of Christchurch. As part of his plans to improve trade in the town, he attempted to resolve the problems with the harbour entrance by cutting a new one through the sandspit at the foot of Hengistbury Head. However, upon completion the new entrance repeatedly silted up and in 1703 a large storm damaged a groyne which blocked the entrance entirely. Over the following 150 years alternative schemes were proposed but none were ever taken up.

Smuggling was one of Christchurch's most lucrative industries during the 18th and 19th centuries due to easy access to neighbouring towns and the difficult harbour entrance which acted as a barrier to customs cutters. Many townspeople were involved in this illegal trade and large quantities of wealth were accumulated. In 1784 a confrontation between a gang of local smugglers and Customs and Excise officers led to the Battle of Mudeford in which a Royal Navy officer was killed and a smuggler subsequently executed. Another important industry during this period was the manufacture of fusee chains for watches and clocks. In 1790, Robert Cox began to manufacture fusee chains in workshops in the High Street. By 1793 Cox gained a monopoly on chain production in Britain, supplying watch, clock and chronometer makers throughout the country. In 1845 William Hart opened a similar factory in Bargates. However by 1875 the chains were no longer required due to changes in watch designs and the factories were closed.

The railway came to Christchurch in 1847 although the nearest station, Christchurch Road, was at Holmsley and passengers were taken the rest of the way by omnibus. In 1862 a station was built in the town close to where it stands today and was served by a branch line from Ringwood. Christchurch joined the mainline in 1883 and a third station had to be built. Christchurch, and in particular Mudeford, had been enjoying a modest tourist trade since King George III had patronised the town in the 1790s but the arrival of the railways made Christchurch accessible to more potential visitors. A power station was built in Christchurch in 1903 to power the public trams. The excess generated was sufficient to light the town and in 1940 it was added to the national grid.

In 1930, the Fisher Aviation Company began to provide flights from fields at the eastern end of Somerford Road and by 1933 the company had flown over 19,000 passengers. In 1934 they obtained permission to establish an aerodrome on the site which became known as Christchurch Airfield. During the Second World War an Airspeed factory was built on the airfield and began manufacturing aircraft for the RAF and in 1944 the USAAF Ninth Air Force established a base there. A second aerodrome opened at Hurn in 1944 which became Bournemouth Airport. In 1940, with the German 6th Army at Cherbourg, Christchurch was fortified against an expected invasion: the construction of pillboxes, gun emplacements and tank traps in and around the town, made Christchurch an "anti-tank island". Between 1941 and 1942 Donald Bailey developed the Bailey bridge at the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment at Christchurch Barracks.

Much development with a large increase in housing occurred from the mid-18th century. In 1873, 300 acres (120 ha) of common land north of the town known as Portfield was enclosed and built upon and the town's population rapidly expanded. During the 20th century further development has seen the population grown from a little over 11,000 to more than 45,000. In the 1950s a large housing estate was built to the east of the town centre and in 1958 a bypass was constructed which redirected traffic using the town's high street as the main thoroughfare to and from London and Southampton. In 1974 the town was transferred from the county of Hampshire to Dorset following local government reorganisation and was granted borough status by a Royal Charter.

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