Whitchurch is a small Hampshire country town, nestling in the upper reaches of the River Test, and surrounded by fine chalk and flint downland and tranquil countryside.
Over one hundred years ago the Star newspaper described Whitchurch as:
“Whitchurch is in Hampshire. People who live in it call it a town. People who live out of it call it a village. It is about as big as a good-sized pocket handkerchief. It has three shops and 19 public houses.”
Much has happened since that was written but Whitchurch is still a town, a status proudly guarded by its 4500 residents. The Royal Charter was awarded in 1285 and each year a Mayor and burgesses were elected to govern the town. The existing Town Hall, built around 1790, dominates the centre and is where the Town Council now conduct their business.
Early settlements date from around 400BC and there is evidence of a Roman presence with archaeological excavations unearthing ancient tools and pottery as well as remains of human habitation.
The town has had a church since the 9th century with the present All Hallows building dating from the 1200s. The name may originate from the Old English Witcerce, thought to mean White Church with connections to a chalk construction or to white-washing.
With The Black Death decimating the population in the 14th century arable farming made way for sheep rearing, and fairs and markets became a major feature of life. Situated on an important crossroads of ancient tracks the town developed into an important coaching and sheep trading centre and as such attracted a growing population.
It was the river that led to some of its earliest industries with four Mills being built in the area and trade grew in silk, grains, wool and paper, while many pubs and inns opened up to cater for the passing trade and the agricultural workers. A raft of small industries developed but the town never forgot its agricultural heritage.
However, it is not just the physical development that has built the identity of Whitchurch. On 6th September 1889 Herbert Booth of the Salvation Army said “Whitchurch today is writing a page in history that time will never erase” for it was in Whitchurch that the legal right of citizens to demonstrate peaceably was established. The police had arrested around eighty residents for gathering in the Square to support the Salvation Army Band. Thousands assembled in the Square and riots ensued. The case went to the High Court and the case thrown out. It was a “famous Victory for Liberty in England”.
Later years saw another local legal connection in the rise of one of the Town’s most famous residents, Alfred Thompson ‘Tom’ Denning – Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls (b.1899 – d.1999). He was born in the building adjacent to the Town Hall and a plaque now commemorates the occasion; he has been described as the most influential judge of the 20th century. To celebrate his 100th birthday a new bell was cast for All Hallows and named ‘Old Tom’ in his honour.
He is not the only famous resident. Richard Adams, author of the modern classic Watership Down lives in the Town. His most famous book went on to sell over 50 million copies throughout the world. Meanwhile the younger generation will associate Whitchurch with Carl Barat notable for being guitarist and frontman of the Libertines with the infamous Peter Doherty.
Much of this background has led to the Town’s special character, which provokes much friendly discussion and community interaction at the many events and in the numerous pubs and meeting places.
Today these pubs, the churches, the shops, the industries, all continue to serve the both residents and visitors. Small estates have grown up around the edg4es of the historic centre without loss to the character. The roads provide good links to the nearby towns of Newbury, Andover, Basingstoke and Winchester, while the railway provides just an hour’s ride to London.
Community groups flourish and in recent years there has been a resurgence in local events ranging from the Whitchurch Carnival Procession to the famous annual Pub Race. Shops, businesses and industries thrive, while the surgery, chemist, post office, tea shops, and police station provide for a good quality of life. Meanwhile the surrounding countryside with its small villages, walks, cycling routes, clear flowing streams and pleasant country inns has made Whitchurch a place to live, a place to work and a place to enjoy.