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Oswestry in 1840

OSWESTRY, a corporate town in the parish and hundred of Oswestry and county of Salop, 16 miles north-west from Shrewsbury, 160 north-west from London (direct distances), and on the road from London to Holyhead. "On this spot," says Pennant, "celebrated in Saxon history and legendary piety, on August 5, 642, was fought the battle between the Christian Oswald, King of the Northumbrians and the pagan Penda, King of the Mercians. Oswald was defeated and lost his life. The barbarian victor cut the body of the slain prince into pieces and stuck them on stakes dispersed over the field as so many trophies….. From the fate of the king the place in aftertimes was named Oswald's Tree, now Oswestry." (Tour in Wales, London, 4to., 1778 pp. 246-8). The miracles reputed to have been wrought by means of the earth taken from the field in which the remains of the prince were interred, are detailed by Bede in his "History of the Primitive Church," and occupy several pages of that work.

Oswald was admitted by the Romans into the list of their saints, and a church was raised to commemorate his martyrdom. In the corporate seal he is represented in his robes holding a sword in his right hand and an oak-branch in his left ; above, are the words, "De Oswaldatre sigillum commune.' In the vicinity of the town, at a place called by the Welsh "Cae Naef" (Heaven's Field), there is a remarkably fine spring of water, which bears the name of Oswald's Well, and over which, as recently as the year 1770, were the ruins of a very ancient chapel, likewise dedicated to him.

The first charter was granted to the town in the reign of Henry II, by William, earl of Arundel, the lord of the manor. The son of this nobleman having taken part with the barons against King John, the latter (1212) marched upon the town and reduced it to ashes. A similar fate befell it, about a century afterwards, at the hands of Llewellyn, prince of North Wales, and it continued to suffer from border-warfare until Edward I, in 1277, ordered it to be surrounded by a wall and ditch. Some portions of this wall are yet standing, but the four gates were removed in 1769. The charter of Richard II, granted in 1397, after the attainder and execution of Richard earl of Arundel, exempts the burgesses from all customs throughout the kingdom, the liberty of the city of London excepted ; and among other privileges acquired by them during this reign, was that of compelling the inhabitants of the eleven towns within the hundred to bring their cattle, corn, victuals, and wares for sale in the market-place of Oswestry before sending to any other market or fair. The lord's Welsh tenantry of the hundred were also bound by their tenure to keep watch and ward for three days and three nights at the gates of the town during the fairs of St. Andrew and St. Oswald, but instead of protecting they were found to ravage and plunder the place, whereupon they were dismissed from that duty and compelled to pay a sum of money to Englishmen for the safe custody of the town.

The boundary of the present municipal borough extends about two miles east and west of the town, and half a mile north and south, and is divided into two wards. The governing body is composed of 6 aldermen and 18 councillors. The town is paved and lighted under a local act, and is increasing in extent, particularly on the English side. It contains a town-hall and a small gaol, erected in 1825. The church, erected since 1616, is spacious and surmounted by a plain tower. The vicarage is in the diocese of St. Asaph and patronage of Earl Powis, and yields an annual net revenue averaging £477.

The trade of the town is facilitated by the Ellesmere canal and the Llanymynech branch, which passes within four or five miles. The manufactures are chiefly coarse linens and woollens. The market-day is Wednesday, and fairs are held in March, May, June, August, and December. The population of town, in 1831, was 4,478, and that of the entire parish 8,581.

By an Act of 33 George III, all the parishes within the hundred of Oswestry, with the exception of the parish of Melverly, are incorporated for affording relief and employment to the poor, and a spacious house of industry been built in the vicinity of the town. The number of inmates, in 1831, was 273. There is a free grammar-school, national school, and Sunday-school. In the national school there are from 230 to 240 boys, and from 150 to 170 girls, all of whom receive daily instruction. The grammar-school was founded by David Holbetche or Holbeck, prior to the year 1634. It is open to all boys born within the parish who are able to read. The average number of scholars upon the foundation has not for many years exceeded fifteen. In addition to these the master usually has about twenty pay boarders. Much of the property belonging to the charity has probably been lost, and that from which the present revenue is derived, amounting only to £268, 11 shillings and 6 pence, appears to have been recovered with difficulty. There are a smaller charities in this place.