Whitchurch lies on the A41/A49 Roman (Watling Street) Road and is signposted from many miles away. Whitchurch is the only town in Shropshire on an original Roman site. A selection of Roman burial vases are on display at the Civic Centre, excavated during refurbishments at 33 High Street in the early 1980’s, leading us to believe that this site was the Roman burial site below the fort at the top of the High Street. Many more artifacts have been unearthed in the aptly named Roman Way, now a housing estate beyond the top of High Street. The Roman fort of Mediolanum (‘town in mid-plain’) was a day’s march between Chester (Deva) and Wroxeter (Viroconium).
The Saxons called their village Westune (‘west farmstead’). The surrounding hamlets became townships and Dodtune (‘the settlement of Dodda’s people’) is now fully integrated into Whitchurch as Dodington. The first church was built on the hill in AD912. After the Norman Conquest a motte and bailey castle and a new white Grinshill stone church were built. Westune became Album Monasterium (‘White Church’). In 1377 the Whitchurch estates passed to the Talbot family. The town was granted market status in the 14th Century. The replacement third church collapsed in July 1711 and the present Queen Anne parish church of St Alkmund was immediately constructed to take its place. It was consecrated in 1713.
In the 18th Century many of the earlier timber-framed buildings were refaced in the more fashionable brick. New elegant Georgian houses were built at the southern end of the High Street and in Dodington.
As dairy farming became more profitable Whitchurch developed as a centre for Cheshire cheese production. Cheese fairs were held on every third Wednesday when farm cheeses were brought into town for sale. Cheese and other goods could be easily transported to wider markets when the Whitchurch Arm of Thomas Telford’s Llangollen Canal was opened in 1811. The railway station was opened in 1858 on the first railway line in North Shropshire, running from Crewe to Shrewsbury.
Sir John Talbot (1386-1453)
Sir John Talbot, born in 1386 at Blakemere, was twice governor of Ireland. He fought in the Hundred Years War and was immortalised by Shakespeare in ‘Henry IV’ as the “Scourge of France”, and is also thought to have fought against the legendary Joan of Arc. He was the first Earl of Shrewsbury, and was killed in the last battle at Castillon near Bordeaux in 1453 (allegedly with his younger son). At his request his heart was brought back to Whitchurch and buried under the porch of the parish church (St Alkmund’s). In 1548, a descendant, another John Talbot, left £200 to found a school in Whitchurch which would be free from church control. Today, in Whitchurch, you will find the Sir John Talbot Technology College (formerly Sir John Talbot Grammar School). To this day the Earldom of Shrewsbury is the premier Earldom of England.
Sir Thomas Egerton
Sir Thomas Egerton, successful lawyer and chancellor to both Queen Anne I and King James I, bought the manors of Whitchurch and Dodington in 1598. The little town prospered, becoming a centre for leather working and shoe making, with an estimated population of over 3,000 by the end of the 17th Century.
J.B. Joyce & Co.
Forty five clock makers are listed in Whitchurch between 1698 and 1886. J.B. Joyce & Co. was established here in 1782. The oldest established maker of tower/turret clocks in the world, J.B. Joyce, now part of the Smith of Derby group, enjoys a world wide reputation as a maker of highest quality large clocks for public places. Joyce clocks are to be found in the tower of St Alkmund’s church and in the Bull Ring in Whitchurch. If you visit Chester you are bound to take a tourist’s picture of the majestic Eastgate clock. Visitors to China can see the famous Joyce clock at the Customs House in Shanghai. Many other clocks are in situ in many other churches and public buildings across the British Isles. Similar clocks have been sent all over the world to places such as Melbourne and Montevideo.
Sir Edward German (1862-1936)
Sir Edward German, the composer of ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Merrie England’ was born at the Old Town Hall Vaults in the town in 1862, where many interesting artifacts can be seen. Whitchurch has held three festivals in honour of its famous son, in 2006, 2009 and 2014. Sir Edward died in London in 1936. His grave can be found in Whitchurch Cemetery, Mile Bank.
Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
Randolph Caldecott was an internationally famous Victorian book illustrator whose ‘Picture Books’ were best-selling children’s books. Even Toulouse-Lautrec, the French artist, had one in his nursery. Caldecott was illustrator to Washington Irving, the famous American author of, among other more serious works, the famous ‘Rip Van Winkle’, and is very highly thought of in America where there are numerous Caldecott Societies. He spent his early life as a bank clerk in Whitchurch, and his drawings are strongly influenced by the Whitchurch architectural scene. To this day in Whitchurch you will find ‘Caldecott Crescent’ to the west of the Victoria Jubilee Park.
Owen Paterson MP
Owen Paterson, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Whitchurch, was born in Whitchurch.
More information about Whitchurch, its history and famous sons, can be found in the Heritage Centre, at 12 St Mary’s Street, Whitchurch SY13 1QY – 01948 664577 – and on the website http://www.whitchurch-heritage.co.uk.
Also see the web site for the Whitchurch History and Archeology Group.