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The Progress of History

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March 2021

In 1 B.C. (before Covid) pupils at Castle School were invited to submit their essay on a topic of local history to the august and learned committee of the Thornbury History and Archaeology Society. In March this year the society had the pleasure of ‘Zooming’ in to the competition winners presenting their topics.

First up was Theo Jordan on the impact of Thornbury Station on the town. There are few reminders now of Thornbury’s rail link with the rest of the British Empire, but on September 2nd 1872 the opening of Thornbury Station was the biggest thing since governor Agricola had his lunch at the Swan. Celebrations involving the whole community started at daybreak. 700 schoolchildren were given a holiday and free rides to Yate and back. Joy was unreserved.

The mayor spoke of the inexorable progress of science, and a red-letter day for Thornbury. This would be the first step in connecting the town with South Wales via a rail tunnel under the Severn, with the rest of the United Kingdom via the burgeoning rail network, and by implication with the rest of the British Empire. It is not easy for us today to grasp the progressive significance of the Empire and the rail network that connected it but perhaps if we think of the world-wide-web we can get an idea.

Did all the great expectations come to fruition? Certainly the railway helped Thornbury Market thrive far into the 20th century, but hopes of industrial opportunities faded away with the dwindling of iron ore mining at Frampton Cotterell in 1878. Later, improving road transportation made it easier to get a bus down the A38 into Bristol rather than to change trains at Yate. Thornbury Station remained the end of the line, and eventually closed to passengers in 1944. But I suspect that many of our residents are happy to live here, and not in a major railway hub, as Swindon became.

Next came Jemima Barnes on the 1816 poaching affray. To understand progress it sometimes helps to go backwards in time. This relatively small affair sheds light on the social conditions and justice system of the time. After decades of intermittent war the country was heavily in debt, food was expensive because grain imports had been banned in order to line land owners pockets, and thousands of returning soldiers and sailors kept unemployment high. To try and keep a lid on simmering social unrest the ruling class had imposed the death penalty on over 200 offences, such as stealing a rabbit or a beehive, or blackening your face at night. We sometimes refer to this period as the ‘age of enlightenment’.

One dark night John Allen, a respectable local yeoman, chalked a crown on his hat and met 15 confederates at Morton House. They blackened their faces and went out to poach pheasants at Catgrove Wood on the Berkeley Estate. They were confronted by gamekeepers and a fight ensued. One of the keepers was killed and others were injured. At the Gloucester assizes the judge was a land owner, and a friend of the Berkeley’s. Allen and one other were hanged at Gloucester Gaol. Others were transported.

Justice was done you may say. But you should know that a Crossways man, Thomas Till, had recently been unlawfully killed while out poaching. The land owner got a telling off. This was an era when land owners had everything and made the rules, the commoners had nothing and suffered the consequences. John Allen would have seen himself as fighting for progress.

Strange to think only 56 years separates these events. Much progress in people’s rights and representation were made in that time. Thanks to Theo and Jemima for their excellent presentations. The progress of history is in good hands.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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