Whitchurch – a town with a rich and varied heritage
It has had a number of different names during the last two thousand years and has been a settlement and focus for trade due to a variety of reasons.
The site of modern-day Whitchurch was determined by the Romans when they picked it as a location for a military fort. This was because it was midway along the route from Chester to Wroxeter.
The fort later developed into a Roman civilian town called Mediolanum, meaning “middle of the plain”. The current Whitchurch High Street follows the eastern boundary of this fort.
In Saxon times the settlement was known as Westune, meaning “the western village”, and a wooden church dedicated to St Alkmund was built. The great road from London to Chester that ran through Whitchurch became known as Watling Street at this time.
After the Norman conquest William de Warenne was awarded Westune. He was responsible for building a new church circa 1085 A.D. It was either constructed out of white Grinshill stone or was painted white and led to the town being known as Album Monasterium, “white minster” in Latin. Sometimes it is referred as its French equivalent – Blancminster. There are suggestions that monks lived close to the church and the town could have been a religious centre.
By the thirteenth century Whytchurch had developed into a small market town with a weekly market and an annual fair serving its local agricultural community.
At the beginning of the 15th century Whitchurch was very much a border town, being frequently raided by the Welsh. In 1404 the centre of the town was burned and pillaged.
One hundred and fifty years later records show that the town had an increasing number of inns. Whitchurch or Whitechurch was becoming an important overnight coach stop on the route from London to Ireland.
At the beginning of the 1800’s Whitchurch became a canal town when a branch of the Ellesmere Canal was built and a wharf created. This enabled heavy goods to be brought in cheaply and local produce to be exported faster.
The London & North Western Railway (LNWR) arrived in Whitchurch in 1858, the line running between Crewe and Shrewsbury. The new station included a goods shed and cattle dock. In 1863 the Oswestry, Ellesmere & Whitchurch Railway (OE & WR) was opened creating a route to Aberystwyth. Whitchurch became an important railway junction and route centre.
The improved transport links allowed William Smith to establish an iron foundry in the town. The enterprise flourished and the company was known throughout England and Wales, Whitchurch was now an industrial town.
Whitchurch cheese fair started in 1899 and was held every 3 weeks. It is reported that more Cheshire cheese was sold annually in Whitchurch than in the whole of Cheshire. The cattle market was held every two weeks at purpose-built premises opened in 1878. This new location was to get the animals off the town streets. Whitchurch was an important market town.
Like other towns in Shropshire Whitchurch has had to adapt to the changes in agriculture, trade, employment, and transport over the last fifty years. Although still very much a market town Whitchurch is now also a commuter town.