A Brief History of Newnham
(with acknowledgement to Humphrey Phelps, A Glance Back at … Newnham)
Originally Newnham was one of the five ancient boroughs of Gloucestershire west of the Severn. Conveniently situated for hunting in the Forest of Dean, it was visited by William II, Henry I, Henry II and Edward III, both Henrys signing charters here. That it must have been a substantial place is witnessed by the fact that Henry II launched his invasion of Ireland here before proceeding en route to Milford Haven.
By the 13th century Newnham, as a borough town, returned a member of parliament. During the Civil War, there was a Royalist garrison in the town, situated in the church and the fort adjoining it. A skirmish, after the Roundhead Colonel Massey entered the town unopposed, saw 20 dead and 100 taken prisoner.
Newnham was originally settled because of the comparative ease of crossing the river at this point and its importance and prosperity in former days was due to the river. A ferry was first recorded in 1238.
As a port Newnham’s main trade was timber, bark and hides to Bristol and to Ireland mainly glass and cider. By the 18th century ships were being built in Newnham, with a vessel of 600 tons launched in 1778. Ship building continued until the beginning of the 19th century, at which time Newnham’s port gradually lost trade to Bullo and Gatcombe. The fate of Newnham’s port was finally sealed by the opening of the Gloucester Ship Canal in 1827. The tramway to Bullo was opened in 1809, tunnelling under Haie hill, so that coal from the Forest of Dean went directly to Bullo’s quays.
The railway line superseding the tramway was subsequently joined to the GWR mainline and it became one of the most important ports in the area shipping as much Forest coal as Lydney. But after 1900, as the railways grew, Bullo’s trade declined and the port finally closed in 1926.
There was a market in the 12th century with a market house in place in the early 17th century where market tolls were collected. However the conditions of the roads meant that by 1740 the Friday Cornmarket, held since the 16th century, was in abeyance and two or three decades later the weekly market also declined. Two fairs were held each year on St Barnabas and St Luke’s days, 11th June and 18th October, which were mainly for pleasure but included some trading in horses and cattle. The sale of livestock ended during the First World War, although the pleasure fairs continued until 1928.
The first recorded mention of a place of worship in Newnham was in 812, with details of a substantial building in 1230. However in the middle of the 14th century this church stood perilously close to the river which was undermining it, and eventually it was taken down piece by piece and re-built in a position similar to today’s. There was a Victorian make-over of the church in 1875 when it had fallen into some disrepair, but a disastrous fire in 1881 destroyed most of the building and the present church is the one that rose from the ashes later that same year.
Over the years Newnham has been a thriving commercial centre as a list of the principal retail businesses before the Second World War shows: baker, 2 banks, boot repairers, 2 butchers, chemist, 2 clock repairers, 4 grocers, a hotel, 6 inns, newsagent, printer, post office, tanners and various other shops.
British History Online page on Newnham