Lechlade – A Short History
Lechlade gets its name from the River Leach which joins the Thames just east of the town. From the earliest days, it was an ideal location for a settlement as the rivers were a source of food and an easy way to travel. There is evidence of a henge monument dating back to 2500BC and there are Bronze Age barrows dating back to 1800BC. By the early Iron Age, there was a large settlement with grain stores indicating a farming community.
During Roman times there was a substantial presence around Lechlade. Corinium (now Cirencester) was an important administrative capital and second in importance only to London, with a large fort and there was an important roman villa just to the north of Lechlade. An archaeological excavation of Butlers Field in 1985 revealed a Saxon burial ground dating to a period between 500 and 700AD. Many of the artefacts are now on display in the Corinium Museum in Cirencester and include beads, pins, brooches and rings.
Lechlade is mentioned in the Doomsday book. William the Conqueror gifted the manor of Lechlade to Henry de Ferrers, one of the noblemen who came across from France with him in 1066. In 1205, Isabella de Ferrers founded the St. John the Baptist nunnery near the river. The nunnery was later upgraded to a priory and the monks built a bridge across the Thames – St John’s Bridge. Monks were some of the few people who had the necessary skills to build a bridge and their labour was free. In 1210 King John granted a market charter to the town. There was a thriving wool trade and the river and roads were important means of transportation. On several occasions, the priory was given the right to collect tolls from the bridge to pay for repairs. However, by 1472, the priory was dissolved due to lack of funds and to provide building materials for the new parish church.
The building of St. Lawrence Church started in about 1472 and was completed in 1476. Catherine of Aragon took over the manor of Lechlade in 1501 and she supervised some additional work on the church after a roof fire in 1510. It was at this time that the spire was added.
Lechlade was now a flourishing port. The Salt Way brought salt to the Thames for shipping down the river to London. Wool and cheese were also loaded onto barges at Lechlade for shipping down the river. A five day fair was held every August near St. John’s Bridge. St. John’s Bridge was an important river crossing so Lechlade was an important intersection of road and river traffic. Lechlade was an important part of the inland trade route between London and Bristol particularly in times of war when sailing in the channel was dangerous. In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I came through Lechlade on her way to the source of the Thames.
Over the next two hundred years, trade through Lechlade increased. The roads were improved when tolls were introduced and Lechlade was on the main route to Gloucester. The inns in the town flourished as a result of the increased coach travel which required stabling and accommodation and the wharf owners and merchants were also prospering. In 1789, the Thames and Severn Canal was completed. The canal joined the Thames at the Roundhouse, a short distance upriver from Lechlade. This meant that goods could now be transported all the way from London to Bristol by barge and Lechlade was an important town on the route. A second bridge across the Thames was built in 1792. It was called Halfpenny Bridge after the toll required for a pedestrian to cross. The bridge is still in use and carries the A361 across the river. The current St John’s Bridge was built in 1886.
In 1815 Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lechlade. He wrote the poem “A Summer Evening Churchyard” in St Lawrence’s churchyard. The path through the graveyard is now named after him – “Shelley’s Walk”.
The invention of the steam engine in the early 19th Century was to revolutionise travel. In January 1873 the railway between Witney and Fairford was completed and meant that Lechlade was now on a branch line linked to Oxford. Not only did this mean that it was possible to commute to work and transport goods by train but also made the countryside more accessible to people in the towns and cities. The railway was the future for travel and transport as was demonstrated by the growth of Swindon, only about 12 miles south of Lechlade, but on the main line between London and Bristol.
The Thames and Severn Canal was often closed due to repairs and lack of business. Motor cars were becoming a more common sight on the roads. Leisure traffic on the Thames was replacing the barges. Houseboats and cruisers came up the river and rowing and punting became popular. The market moved to a location near the station and in 1933 the canal was formally closed. Trade through Lechlade dried up and local business were based on agriculture and farming and catering for the new tourists.
Both World Wars had an effect on Lechlade. In the first war, forty men from the town were killed. In the second war, eight men from the town lost their lives. Their names are listed on the war memorial in St. Lawrence Church. During the second war, the town was full of troops who were billeted in the town. Personnel from the airbases at Fairford and Brize Norton also needed accommodation in the area.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Lechlade became a much quieter town. Lechlade was a convenient place to live for civilians working in the nearby airbases and later for commuters from the rapidly expanding town of Swindon. It also became a popular place to retire to, with its idyllic setting and quiet life.
Today, the population of Lechlade is just over 3100. There is a healthy tourist trade, particularly in the summer when the Thames is busy with cruisers, narrowboats and small boats. There is good fishing in the local rivers and lakes, country walks in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside, and various nature reserves in the area. The town is a good staging-post for visitors to the Cotswolds and the historic towns of Oxford and Cirencester.