Newbury was established in the 11th century as a Norman ‘new town.’ It does not appear in the Domesday Book, but the first known reference to the town by name is from William the Conqueror’s reign. The first reference to St Nicolas’ church appears at the same time.
The common arable fields, farmed in strips, were the West Field (in the Craven Road area) and the East Field (on both sides of the modern St John’s Road). The importance of the cloth industry grew in the middle ages, with a number of fulling mills developed on the River Kennet and Lambourn. The industry reached its height in the Tudor period, when the leading local clothier was John Winchcombe II (died 1557), known as “Jack of Newbury.” He produced thousands of dyed woollen cloths each year, at a time when the cloth industry dominated English exports and Newbury was of national importance. A fragment of Winchcombe’s home survives in Northbrook Street, but most of the site is currently occupied by Marks & Spencer.
In the third year of Queen Mary’s reign, 1556, three Protestants were put on trial for their faith in the parish church, condemned to death, and were burnt at the stake at a site along Enborne Road. The town’s first known Charter was granted later the same century, by Queen Elizabeth I in 1596.
Newbury was the site of two major battles during the Civil War. Both involved substantial forces, but neither proved decisive. In the first Battle of Newbury, in September 1643, fighting was concentrated at Wash Common and the surrounding area. The second Battle of Newbury was fought in October the following year, across the north of Newbury from Shaw to Speen, with Shaw House fiercely contested.
Of long-standing importance for markets and fairs, in the 18th century Newbury also became an important inland port. Roads were poor, and heavy goods were carried more cheaply by water. In 1715 an Act of Parliament approved work to allow barges along the Kennet from the Thames at Reading to Newbury Wharf, and the waterway was completed in 1723. This was important not just for Newbury, but also in serving Hungerford and part of Wiltshire to the west.
Some of the prosperity generated in the town during the 18th century is reflected in the range of surviving 18th century buildings in the centre of Newbury. The coach trade proposed, especially along the London Road and Bath Road at Speenhamland (part of Newbury near the Clock Tower), where there were numerous coaching inns with stabling for hundreds for horses. Brewing was also an important local trade.
Poverty among local agricultural workers grew into a severe problem in the 1790s. Magistrates met at the George and Pelican Inn in Speenhamland, and agreed that workers’ wages would be subsidised from local taxation, according to the price of bread. This model was adopted by many other magistrates across southern and central England, and became known as the “Speenhamland System.”
In 1794 an Act of Parliament was granted to link the Kennet Navigation in Berkshire with the Avon Navigation further west, creating the Kennet and Avon Canal, eventually opened in 1810. The following year saw the making of the Newbury Coat. A wager was made that it was possible to start the day with two sheep, and by the end of the day to sit down to dinner in a coat made from their wool.
Many changes took places in the 19th century. A branch line of the GWR opened in 1847, connecting Reading via Newbury to Hungerford, where the line ended. Market Street was added and a new cattle market created, reflecting Newbury’s role as an agricultural market town. Numerous public buildings went up, such as the Town Hall, St Bartholomew’s School in Enborne Road and Newbury District Hospital, then in Andover Road.
The 20th century was the century of the two world wars. Fifteen people died in a single day in 1943 when Newbury was bombed. A stack of bombs from a German bomber destroyed several buildings including St John’s Church and the Council School (where five of the victims died).
In the 20th century Newbury expanded, with new housing estates, shopping developments such as the Kennet Centre and Newbury Retail Park, and various business and industrial estates. The pressure for development increased significantly after the opening of the M4 motorway in the 1970s.