The History of Burton upon Trent
Burton’s history is dominated by its Abbey and by two industries: textiles and brewing.
Though various archaeological finds and structural remains from the Bronze and Iron Age show human presence in the area, and in spite of a Roman road running through the site of modern Burton, the town has its roots in the Saxon era. It is thought a monastery was built there in the 7th century, the ensuing settlement around it named Mudwennestow, or Modwen’s meeting place. The name Burton is probably 8th century, meaning fortified farmstead.
The Vikings probably seized Burton in the late 9th century, and it was one of the sites that retained Scandinavian links for centuries thereafter. The decayed abbey was re-founded by one Wulfric Spot in the late 10th century.
Burton’s abbots governed the settlement after the Norman invasion ; one of their number, Nicholas, established it as a borough at the end of the 12th century. Such power does not imply large numbers of monks – at its greatest perhaps 30 lived there – but authority was maintained through ownership of land, and for example with the abbey long being the only church there.
In 1200 King John granted the town a charter whereby its market and two annual fairs were confirmed; the following year supposed relics of St Modwen were ‘found’ in the town. Both events ensured increasing prosperity with both merchants and pilgrims drawn there. As ever the abbey was central to activity, selling wool for export, and in 1340 building a fulling mill.
The decline of clerical power can be traced from the 15th century: a local merchant family, the Blounts, became influential then; in the 16th century a grammar school was established as an alternative to the abbey’s own school founded in 1453. By 1539 when the formal dissolution of the abbey took place it had already been softened up by Crown attacks on the cult of St Modwen.
For a brief period the abbey became a clerical college, but in 1546 one of Henry VIII ’s counsellors, Sir William Paget, was granted its property and land. His family lost control of the town in 1583 due to involvement in plots designed to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne, but by 1597 its ownership was restored.
In the Civil War Burton, heavily influenced by Puritanism, came out for Parliament. With its cloth wealth and its strategic position on a crossing of the River Trent Burton was prized by both sides, however, and changed hands numerous times.
Though Burton remained a centre of religious dissent after the Commonwealth, its textile industry began to suffer. An alabaster carving trade provided limited alternative employment. What changed this economic stagnation was the opening of the Trent Navigation in the second decade of the 18th century, facilitating first the growth of an iron industry there; but of longer-term significance, opening more distant markets to its brewers: London became an important buyer of Burton ales ; strong brews were specially developed to keep well on voyages as far afield as Russia – this keeping helped by the mineral salts in Burton’s water which allow greater use of preservative hops in its beers.
Burton became ‘Beeropolis’. The centre was full of breweries, and by the 1860s featured railway tracks linking them to the main lines; its local government was dominated by brewers like the Bass family and the Worthingtons. In the 1880s there were more than 30 breweries, and half the men in Burton worked in them, a state of affairs that continued into the early 20th century. In the 1960s, however, rationalisation of the sector meant some breweries closed. The face of the town (though happily not the wonderful aroma often noted) changed, its retail sector plus smaller companies based in its business parks replacing employment lost in that period, though brewing remains Burton’s major industry.