Year: 2022

Lieutenant Colonel Vernon Watkins Urquhart

On the 23rd October 2022 the Heritage Working Party of Thatcham Town Council unveiled their fifth blue plaque. This latest plaque was to commemorate Lieutenant Colonel Vernon Watkins Urquhart.

Born in 1877 in West Bengal, India to parents Alexander Shaw Urquhart and Louisa Jane Urquhart (née Watkins), Vernon grew up in a large family and was educated at Christ Church (Newgate Street, London). In 1894 he sailed from Liverpool to New York and remained in america for several years. While there he married his first wife Isabelle Sara Holdsworth and soon had their first child.

In 1906 the family moved back to England. A year later Isabel died. In 1909 Vernon married Ada Maude Lucas. The family continued to grow with more children and by 1911 the family are recorded as farmers living at Lullington Court, Alfriston, Sussex.

In 1915 Vernon was recorded as a serving in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) in France. Alfriston Roll of Honour records all those who enrolled during the First World War and names Vernon. In 1917 Vernon was appointed a temporary Captain of the Army Ordnance Department and in that same year was mentioned twice in Despatches. He became an acting Lieutenant Colonel in 1918 and his rank and role varied over the years. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) during the war and was still Assistant Director of Engineering Stores in 1920.

The Depot

In February 1940 land in Station Road, Thatcham, that had been a tobacco store for W.D. & H.O. Wills was requisitioned for British Military for use as an Ordnance Depot. In 1942 the depot was taken over by the American forces and it became the largest depot in the country. The depot, at this time was named General Depot 45. The closure was confirmed in 1998, a Beating of the Retreat was held in 1999 and an official closure came in March 2000. The site was developed and is what we see as the Kennet Heath estate today.

Urquhart and Thatcham

Blue plaque for Lieutenant Colonel Vernon Watkins Urquhart.
Blue plaque for Lieutenant Colonel Vernon Watkins Urquhart.

Vernon became the first commander of the Depot at Thatcham. However, this would be a short lived appointment. Several bombing raids took place in Thatcham during 1940. One raid was on 16th August 1940 where the ARP note two high explosive bombs were dropped. It is said that Vernon was in the garden of his house, 141 Station Road, Thatcham, when at 6.05pm one bomb exploded nearby. Metal from the explosion hit Vernon in the chest killing him instantly. His house suffered damage but his wife who was inside at the time and was unharmed.

Although for security reasons the exact location or names were not mentioned, the Newbury Weekly News of 22nd August 1940 reports in this bombing raid there were human casualties, one man was killed and injured two others, one of whom required hospital treatment.

Vernon was buried 3 days later in Shaw Cemetery. Although the Army Roll of Honour (1939 -45) records Vernon having died in 1940 while serving in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps his death was not officially recorded, and no death certificate was issued.

Deserted Medieval Villages

Guest post by Ray Hopgood.

Most people’s first contact with a Deserted Medieval Village (DMV) is seeing one referred to on an OS map. If the site is visited, then there will be little to see except humps and bumps in the ground. The first and obvious question asked is “why did these villages disappear?” The most common perception, due to local lore, is they quite literally died out due to a pestilence and/or the Black Death. In fact, research has revealed that this notion is wrong. The reality, like most historical events, is far more complex with a range of possible explanations.

The study of DMV became a respectable area of academic study in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The work of Professors Hoskins and Beresford really presented the full potential of the subject in their books, “The Making of the English Landscape” and “The Lost Villages of England. These together with the development of aerial photography during World War Two proved to be a boon for landscape archaeologists allowing them to view sites with much more accuracy.

In many ways term “Deserted Medieval Villages” needs to be treated with some caution. Deserted has an implication of rapidity about it, as opposed to the more accurate term of depopulated. Medieval suggests that all the changes occurred in what is recognised as the Medieval period, that is prior to 1485, but a great number, possibly the majority, occurred in later periods such as Tudor or C17/18th. Not all the places were villages; some were hamlets, or farmsteads. The term settlement is far more accurate. Perhaps the correct terminology should be “Depleted Past Settlements”; not a very catchy title!

As with all historical events the important interest is not just in what happened, but why, and what were the results, in other words the model cause and effect pattern.

Causation is always a difficult concept to analyse. Normally there is a “web” of causes both long and short term on any major event. With the loss of so many settlements the reasons must be many and varied and not just the old chestnut of the Black Death although it did have minor effect and must not be dismissed. The outbreak of the Black Death may well have hastened the demise of small unviable settlements on marginal land. There is little evidence of a return of peoples to the abandoned sites after the passing of the epidemic.

The earliest causes of depopulation/desertion can be attributed to ecclesiastical and royal desires for pastureland or extending Royal Forests for hunting in the 12 century. The Cistercian monasteries were keen to enclose arable land for pasture in later centuries. The eviction of the peasants was often well documented.

The desire to graze more sheep and to benefit from the booming wool trade, together with a reduced workforce, also drove landowners to clear their estates of people and their homes. After all, if land was good for the plough, it would be good for grass.

Another reason for the eviction of the local populace was the desire of the landowner to create a park and the peasant settlements were often in the way and whole communities had to be removed. The instances of this can be found from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries.

In reality the situation was far more complicated with villages already too small to sustain themselves, founded on poor or marginal land and would die out naturally over an extended period. Perhaps these were the vast majority of cases. Examples of all these causes can be found within the environs of traditional West Berkshire.

Henwick, the local case; although there are no physical remains of Henwick DMV sophisticated aerial photography identified earthworks and soilmarks of field banks and ditches, ridge and furrow fields and a possible hollow way close to Henwick Manor.

Henwick Manor Farm, c.1899. By Miss Thompson
Henwick Manor Farm, c.1899. By Miss Thompson

Documentary evidence is more encouraging with the 1334 Lay Subsidy being above average for a Berkshire vill and with 79 poll tax payers in 1379 which suggests a substantial population Depopulation seems to have occurred between 1350 and 1450. The 1662 Hearth Tax only reveals two returns. The return of 99 houses almost certainly reflects the inclusion of Ashmore Green. For further and more detailed information I would highly recommend visiting Dr Nick Young’s site. As will be seen in later there are examples of all these different causes throughout old Berkshire.

Her Majesty The Queen

We are deeply saddened by the news of the death of Her Majesty The Queen, the UK’s longest reigning monarch. Our thoughts and sympathies to the Royal Family at this sad time.

Berkshire Heritage Fair

Berkshire’s first ever online heritage fair takes place on Saturday 6th August – for those with Berkshire ancestry, those who live in Berkshire and those interested in Berkshire’s rich history.

There are two sessions – morning and afternoon – and you can sign up for one or other or even both. And it’s FREE.

This is your chance to speak to volunteers from over thirty heritage organisations.

Maybe you’re into family history and have ancestry from Berkshire or its surrounding counties? Come and talk to Berkshire Family History Society about your family history queries. Have you lost an ancestor, are you missing a marriage or puzzled about the location of a farm or hamlet? Do you want to find a will or need help interpreting it? Are you just looking to get started or have you hit a brick wall and are stuck? We can offer advice, free lookups and local expertise.

Also, many of Berkshire’s neighbouring family history societies will be present – all offering similar look-up services – Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, West Middlesex and West Surrey. So if your ancestors moved around a bit – we have that covered.

The Berkshire Record Office will be present to answer questions on their collections and offer expert advice.

As will a range of other heritage organisations specialising in specific buildings, local parishes and towns, businesses and occupations. Our experts cover everything from archaeological finds, industrial buildings, local customs and bespoke sources. Some hold private archives containing images, documents and information you won’t find elsewhere which they are willing to share. They will also be delighted to hear your stories and learn about your research or interests. You can see the full list of participants and find more about them on the link below. We encourage you to plan your involvement in advance so that you get the most out of the day.

This is a unique opportunity to further your family and local history research, build new connections and discover more of our local heritage.

Find out more and book your free place at: https://berksfhs.org/berkshire-heritage-online-fair/

The Jubilee Exhibition

Thatcham Historical Society in partnership with the Old Bluecoat School held an exhibition from 2nd to 5th June 2022. This was to celebrate Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, a remarkable achievement. There were three sections to the exhibition; first there was information about the Queen and events that have happened during her reign, next there was information on the history of Thatcham and finally there was information about the Bluecoat School Charity as well as the history of the building.

The opening day saw a visit from Thatcham Town Mayor, Councillor Jeff Brooks, along with an estimated 500 visitors over the four days. The Exhibition had a constant flow of visitors including visits from locals who attended cookery and other school classes at the venue when it had been used as an extra classroom for the local schools. Other visitors took a keen interest in a model of Thatcham Ordnance Depot (on loan from West Berkshire Museum) with some having worked there and/or living on the site, Kennet Heath, today. Others took an interest in how Thatcham got its name, or the soldiers from WWI and the old photos of Thatcham as always stir memories and discussion.

Members of Thatcham Historical Society and the Old Bluecoat School with Thatcham Town Mayor.
Members of Thatcham Historical Society and the Old Bluecoat School with Thatcham Town Mayor.

There was also a Queens and Crowns hunt for the younger visitors and a history quiz too – popular with both children and adults! For those that found all the Queens and Crowns or got all the quiz questions correct, there was also a certificate given out.

Exhibition organiser and committee member Nick Young said “I am enthusiastic about educating people about our local history and the last 4 days have been a joy to do that and to celebrate the Queen’s remarkable achievement at the same time.

It wasn’t just local visitors either, we have seen people from all over Berkshire and further afield. Some came just to see what the “old building” was that they had driven past but then got enthralled by the history on display.

Thatcham Historical Society Chairman, Sue Ellis, noted “everyone who has come through the doors has been delighted with the exhibition, and all have gone away having learnt something new.

The event wasn’t just educating visitors, many visitors helped educate us with some of their own memories and lent or donated old documents and photographs to the Society. The chairman of the Old Bluecoat School, Mark Thomas, had a visit from a lady whose father attended the Old Bluecoat School as a pupil before it closed in 1914.

Mark Thomas, Chairman of the Old Bluecoat School Charity said “We were very happy to work with Thatcham Historical Society to make our 700 year old building available for this special exhibition and to talk with the many visitors who came to see us.

A selection of materials on display relating to the Old Bluecoat School building.
A selection of materials on display relating to the Old Bluecoat School building.

The exhibition has only been possible with the support of volunteers from the Old Bluecoat School, Thatcham Town Council, Station Tyres and West Berkshire Museum. Many thanks to them all and to all who visited.

Digital History Trail for Thatcham

The Thatcham Town Council Heritage Working Party recently launched the towns first Digital Heritage Trail. The group wanted to create a more interactive way of connecting with local history, encourage people to get out and about and thus the idea of a QR trail came about. There are a series of panels dotted around the town centre. The idea is that you scan the QR code with the camera app on your smartphone, this then takes you to a webpage which gives you a photograph and information on the location. This might be St Mary’s Church or the King’s Head for example. For those without smartphones leaflets with the same information can be collected from Thatcham Council Offices or Thatcham Library. At present there is one trail, the town centre. This is an accessible route and the group plan to expand with additional trails in the future.

To get started either visit the trail website at thatchamhistorytrail.info or have a walk around the town and scan in a sign when you spot one.

Platinum Jubilee Exhibition

Thatcham Historical Society, in conjunction with the Old Bluecoat School, will be holding an exhibition to mark the Platinum Jubilee. We will have a selection of materials covering the local history and timelines to show the Queens reign with history during that period.

The event will take place from 2nd to 5th June at the Old Bluecoat School. Entry is free. Opening times are:

  • 2nd June, 1pm to 4pm, 6pm to 9pm
  • 3rd to 5th June, 10am to 4pm

Keep an eye on the event page for any more information.

Prehistoric Thatcham

Most of the towns and villages of the Thames and Kennet Valleys have histories, which are full of interest, but few can boast a story either as long or as fascinating as the history of Thatcham.

Long before people appeared, animals – many now extinct – roamed the landscape and their remains sometimes emerge from the gravel. Mammoth tusks have been dug up here, including a section two feet long (recovered during excavations at the Sewage Works in April, 1959), and another four feet long (recovered from a gravel pit off Lower Way in November, 1979). Other relics found locally include the remains of hippopotami which swam in the ancient river and reindeer which roamed the higher ground.

Please continue reading the story on our Prehistoric Thatcham page.

Happy New Year 2022!

Happy New Year! We hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year. Normally we would welcome you to the New Year face-to-face but with the recent spike in Covid infections we have made some changes to the programme (see our events page) with the first talk of the year being online and our AGM being held in March.

We hope to hold meetings, from February, face-to-face, but events may change in response to the Covid situation and/or national guidelines. For all the latest events and news please keep an eye on our website, www.thatchamhistoricalsociety.org.uk.