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Newbury is a civil parish and the principal town in the west of the county of Berkshire in England. It is situated on the River Kennet and the Kennet and Avon Canal, and has a town centre containing many 17th century buildings. Newbury is best known for its racecourse and the adjoining former USAF airbase at Greenham Common.
There was a Mesolithic settlement at Newbury. Artefacts were recovered from the Greenham Dairy Farm in 1963, and the Faraday Road site in 2002. Additional material was found in excavations along the route of the Newbury Bypass.
Newbury was founded late in the eleventh century following the Norman invasion as a new borough, hence its name. Although there are references to the borough that predate the Domesday Survey it is not mentioned by name in the survey. However, its existence within the manor of Ulvritone is evident from the massive rise in value of that manor at a time when most manors were worth less than in Saxon times.
Doubt has been cast over the existence of ‘Newbury Castle’, but the town did have Royal connections and was visited a number of times by King John and Henry III while hunting in the area.
Historically, the town’s economic foundation was the cloth trade. This is reflected in the person of the 16th century cloth magnate, Jack of Newbury, the proprietor of what may well have been the first factory in England, and the later tale of the Newbury Coat. The latter was the outcome of a bet as to whether a gentleman’s suit could be produced by the end of the day from wool taken from a sheep’s back at the beginning.
Newbury was the site of two Civil War battles, the First Battle of Newbury (at Wash Common) in 1643 and the Second Battle of Newbury (at Speen) in 1644. The nearby Donnington Castle – in the care of English Heritage – was reduced to a ruin in the aftermath of the second battle.
The disruption of trade during the Civil War followed a major collapse of the local cloth trade in the late 16th century leaving Newbury impoverished. The local economy was boosted in the 18th century by the rise of Bath as a popular destination for the wealthy escaping London’s summer heat and associated stench. Newbury was roughly half way between London and Bath and an obvious stopping point in the two day journey. Soon Newbury, in particular Speenhamland, was filled with coaching inns of ever increasing grandeur and size. One inn, the George & Pelican, was reputed to have stabling for 300 horses, and this was not the largest of the inns. A theatre was built to provide the travellers with entertainment featuring the major stars of the age.
In 1795, local magistrates, meeting at the George and Pelican Inn in Speenhamland, introduced the Speenhamland System which tied parish welfare payments to the cost of bread.
The opening of the Great Western Railway killed the coaching trade and Newbury became something of a backwater, a market town with an economy based on agriculture until the arrival of the high tech industries that provide so much employment in the town today. When, in the 1980s, Racal decided to locate their newly-formed Racal Vodafone division in the town it was a decision that ensured a new economic boom.