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Bishop’s Stortford in 1835

BISHOP’S STORTFORD, a parish and market-town in the hundred of Braughin, county of Hertford, twelve miles E.N.E. from Hertford, and twenty-six miles N.N.E. from London. The place derives its name of Stortford from its situation upon the river Stort, and the prefix, from its having been, even from Saxon times, the property of the bishops of London. Domesday Book records that the Conqueror gave the town and castle of Stortford to Maurice, bishop of London ; if so, as Salmon remarks, he gave no more than he had previously taken, for the same document mentions that William, the last bishop but one before Maurice, had purchased this manor of the lady Eddeva. The same authority states that the property was then worth eight pounds per annum, but had been worth ten in the time of the Confessor. The small castle, which stood on an artificial hill, is said by Chauncey to have been built by William the Conqueror to protect the trade of the town, and to keep it in subjection at the same time. Salmon, however, thinks that it existed before the Conquest, and was merely strengthened and repaired by this king. It was called Waytemore Castle, and stood in a piece of land surrounded by the Stort. It would seem that the site had at a previous period been occupied by a Roman camp, as some Roman coins of the lower empire have been found in the castle gardens. It appears to have been regarded as a fortress of some consequence in the time of King Stephen, and the empress Maud endeavoured, but without effect, to prevail upon the bishop to exchange it with her for other lands. King John caused the castle to be demolished in revenge for the active part which Bishop William de St. Maria took against him in his difference with the pope, this prelate being one of the three who placed an interdict upon the kingdom. When the pope triumphed over the king, the latter found it necessary to give the bishop his own manor of Guildford, in Surrey, to atone for the demolition of this castle. ‘The castle hill,’ says Salmon, ‘stands yet for a monument of King John’s power and revenge ; and the bishop’s lands remain a monument of the pope’s entire victory over him.’ It seems that some of the outbuildings and other parts of the castle were standing in the seventeenth century, and indeed some very small remains are still existing. The bishops continued to appoint a custos, or keeper, of the ‘Castle and Gaol’ of Stortford till the time of James I. The last who made use of the prison was Bishop Bonner, in the time of Queen Mary, who kept convicted Protestants in its deep and dark dungeon. Quit-rents for castle guard are still paid to the see of London from several manors adjacent to Bishop’s Stortford.

We are disposed to concur with Salmon in considering that the town more probably arose from the castle, than the castle from the town, as Chauncey supposes. Here, as in many other cases, the castle seems to have formed an inducement for people to settle in the neighbourhood, as it offered a place of safety to which they could retire with their moveables in time of danger. It must have became a place of some consequence at the time that King John demolished the castle, for that king, in order to make it independent of the bishop, erected the town into a borough, with power to the commonalty to elect their own officers for the local government, and to return two members to parliament. This new constitution held until the 14th of Edward III, when the bishop was restored to his usual privileges in the place, as he had before been to his lands, and the town was thenceforward relieved from the necessity of making returns to parliament. The town is now within the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who hold a petty session here once a fortnight.

Bishop’s Stortford is built chiefly on the western side of the Stort, where it extends up the slope of a hill from the river. It consists of four principal streets, or properly two lines of street, in the form of a cross. There are some good inns, and many houses of the better class. The church, dedicated to St. Michael, stands upon elevated ground, ‘as,’ says Salmon, ‘those dedicated to that Saint generally do.’ and consists of a nave, chancel, and aisles, with a fine lofty tower at the west end. Chauncey was inclined to think it must be a church of Saxon erection, because the figures of King Athelstan and Edward the Confessor were in the windows about thirty years before his time ; but later inquirers acquiesce in the determination of Salmon, who says the painted glass may have been taken from some earlier structure, but that the church itself has no appearance of being older than the time of Henry VI. The church was partly rebuilt in 1820, and now accommodates 2,000 persons. The living is a vicarage in the diocese of London in the gift of the precentor of St. Paul’s, and has an annual net income of £419.

A fresh impulse was given to the prosperity of Bishop’s Stortford in the last century, by means of a canal which was completed in 1769. The surrounding district being fertile in corn, the trade of the place is chiefly in malt and other grain, considerable quantities of which are sent by the river or by the canal, the banks of which are furnished with convenient wharfs and quays. This trade, with a silk mill which has been established here, affords the principal employment to those who are not immediately engaged in supplying the wants of the other inhabitants. The market is held on Thursday, and there are three annual fairs, respectively held on Holy Thursday, Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and the 10th of October. A very superior market-house was erected in 1828 by means of funds raised in shares of £100 each. It stands at the point where the two principal lines of street intersect each other. Its front is in the Ionic style, and it has a semicircular area with a colonnade supported by iron pillars. Besides the parts appropriated to the common traffic there is a large hall used as a corn-exchange, over which is an assembly-room, a coffee-room, and a chamber for the magistrates. The parish, which comprehends 3,080 acres, contained 803 houses in 1831, when the population was 3,958, of whom 2,068 were females.

The town contains a public library and several book societies. There is a National School, supported by voluntary contributions, in which 200 boys and 100 girls receive instruction. There was formerly a free grammar-school in the place, the history of which is very obscure. Chauncey mentions that in 1579 a Mrs. Margaret Deane, of London, left. £5 per annum in fee towards the erection of a free school. He says nothing more about this establishment until, further on in his list of benefactors to the town, he says, ‘Among these benefactors I may well mention my honoured master Mr. Thomas Leigh, who raised a fair library for the use of the school in the town, from whence I was sent to the University of Cambridge : it was an excellent nursery that supplied both universities with great numbers of gentlemen who proved eminent in divinity, law, and physick, and some in matters of state. He obliged divers of those gentlemen to present books to the school at their departure, wherein their names are recorded and remain to posterity.’ Sir Henry Chauncey wrote in 1700, and was then advanced in years. Salmon, who wrote twenty-eight years later, states that when Dr. Tooke became master of the school, about twenty years previously, ‘its reputation was then in ruins;’ but he bestirred himself to restore its efficiency, and succeeded. He got the gentry of Hertfordshire and Essex, and those who had been educated at the school, to contribute their pecuniary aid. A new school-house was erected in the High Street; it was a square structure supported upon arches, and contained three rooms, that in front was the grammar-school, and as large as both the others, of which one was the library and the other a writing-school. The market-place and shops were under the arches. ‘Dr. Tooke,’ says Salmon, ‘raised it to a great degree of fame, as the living numbers of gentlemen sent by him to his own and other colleges attest, and considerably increased the trade of the town by such a beneficial concourse.’ The following is the amount of the information which Carlisle gives concerning the fate of this establishment. ‘The grammar-school of Bishop’s Stortford no longer exists, the whole establishment, together with the school-house, is in ruins. The library, which is considered a scarce and valuable collection of books, is deposited at the vicarage, but they also are going to decay.’