The History of Abingdon
Abingdon started life in the Iron Age as an enclosed valley fort, surrounded by semi-circular defensive ditches. The defences were filled with water fed from the nearby River Stert. Around fifteen hectares of densely populated settlement is thought to have existed within these earthworks. This ancient start allows Abingdon to lay claim to the title of Britain’s oldest town, but that’s a claim that is shared by several other British towns! When the Romans came to Britain they developed Abingdon into a small Roman town with public buildings and roads. The Romans built stone walls around Abingdon in the second century. It was the establishment of an abbey that guaranteed the town’s development and long term survival. Abingdon Abbey is often claimed to be the oldest abbey in Great Britain. Some writers suggest it was founded by Joseph of Arimathea himself in AD 63, although more conservative accounts settle for the abbey being a Saxon establishment. The abbey had flourished enough under the Saxons that by 1084 William The Conqueror , the Norman King of England, chose to celebrate Easter there. The king must have held the establishment in very high regard because he left his son, the future King Henry I , at Abingdon Abbey to be educated.
Wool, and the abbey, were at the heart of the town’s economy in the 13th and 14th centuries. After the dissolution of the Abbey in 1538 by order of Henry VIII , Abingdon fell into decline and decay. A royal charter in 1556 had made Abingdon Berkshire’s county town, perhaps as part of an attempt to supplant the economy and influence of the former abbey. In an attempt to stimulate the local economy a charter was granted by Mary I which gave the town the right to elect a mayor and several other powers of independence. A long list of subsequent monarchs tried the same trick, but mostly to no avail. The town’s previous glory had been wedded to the power of the once mighty abbey, and now that was gone. From the 16th century the town declined to become a shadow of its former self. Crucially, Abingdon was slow to accept the railway revolution. The town allowed a branch line in 1856 but it missed out on being along the Great Western Railway mainline out of London , allowing that to go to rival town Reading . This subsequently led to the loss of county town status in 1869, this important administrative status also went to Reading. In 1974 a major local government reorganisation caused the redrawing of the county boundary and placed Abingdon in Oxfordshire.
Better transport infrastructure, in the shape of first the Wilts and Berks Canal and later a link to the Great Western Railway at Didcot , did manage to revive the town in the 18th and 18th centuries. Earlier work in 1790 saw the opening of Abingdon lock which enabled navigation directly into the town, instead of via Swift Ditch. The railway station opened in 1856 but served only a branch line to Didcot, where travellers could change for the Great Western. This link was subsequently closed to passengers in 1963. Freight continued to use the line until 1984 when traffic on the tracks came to a permanent halt.
Industry grew up in Abingdon in the shape of the MG car factory which opened in 1929 and became a mainstay of the town. Many locals were employed in the factory or associated businesses and suppliers up until MG’s closure in 1980. The passage of time at the close of the 20th century wasn’t particularly kind to Abingdon, and it found itself in the doldrums after the loss of the MG factory in the 1980s. The loss of the Morland Brewery to Bury St Edmunds was another economic blow to Abingdon. Rivals such as Didcot, Wantage and Witney enjoyed economic growth and the development of retail and leisure facilities, but Abingdon fell behind. Efforts by the local council to reverse the decline have included a refurbishment of the town centre in 2007, itself part of a wider redevelopment plan. The town has suffered flooding throughout its history, most notably in 1947 and again in 2007 when waters from the River Ock swamped the town.