History of Woodchester

Early History
Woodchester is, of course, most famous for its Roman Villa, which was in the area around the old churchyard in North Woodchester. Before the Romans came, stone age man lived in the Cotswolds and some of their pottery has been found in a barrow at Bown Hill. Iron age people also lived in this area and left their remains on the edge of Selsley Common.

We know that the Romans occupied Woodchester from the 2nd Century AD. Evidence of their buildings from that period were found on the site of the villa which was erected in 4th century. It is still uncertain who lived there but he was clearly very important and possibly the local Governor. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Woodchester is a similar distance from the Military centre at Gloucester, the commercial and administrative centre at Cirencester and the large spa at Bath.

The villa contained the largest known roman pavement (mosaic) north of the Alps. It was first recorded in 1693 and first excavated 1712. Lysons made his famous and detailed excavation in 1793 and it is a print from his painting of the pavement that we see in the Village hall and in many publications about the pavement such as John Cull’s excellent description of the villa in “Roman Woodchester”. Although the villa is no longer visible on the surface there are some roman bricks can be seen in the old church and stone roman culverts are visible in the wall around the Old Priory Grounds.

Dark Ages and Medieval
In the 6th Century the Saxons arrived and plundered the villa to build their village, Uuduceaster “Fortress in the wood”. At this time it was probably a sheep farming area. By the time of King Athebald (716 -743) Uuduceaster was of Part of the Kingdom of Mercia and when the Normans arrived in 1066, according to the Domesday Book, Woodchester belonged to Britric, and was part of the Longtree Hundred in the lands of the Earl of Gloucester. The Norman Manor House was on the site of the Old Priory and there is evidence of a Medieval building near the old church and a Tithe Barn on Selsley Road.

Towards the end of the medieval period the Stroud valleys became famous for the woollen cloth industry. This was probably started in 14th Century, primed by Walloon families from Flanders. Later Hugenots, from France came to Woodchester. These included the Pauls who lived at the Old Priory amongst other place and owned Woodchester Mill. Onisiphorus Paul invented the knapping mill.

16th to 18th Century
By this time we have far more information available. For instance the church registers from 1563, except 1625 to 1668, are held at Gloucester Record Office. Woodchester Historical Society has transcripts of some these, with parts in electronic form. The village grew slowly and intermittently during this period. We know that in 1608 there were about 50 men of Military age (20 – 60) in the village about 30 of these were in the cloth trade. By 1756 there were 792 people in the villages dropping to 613 in 1801 and thereafter the population remained between 750 and 1000 until at least 1971. It 1198 now (2004)

In this period the Old Priory was re-built (1512). Most of the mills along the valley were first recorded between 1580 and 1718, although not necessarily in their present form. By the time we reach the 18th century the village had to look after its poor and to facilitate this the Almshouses in Bospin Lane were bought in 1763. Until 1781 the road from Stroud to Nailsworth passed through the village but this all changed in that year with the opening of the Nailsworth to Dudbridge turnpike road along the valley bottom along the route of the current A46. This was a toll  road and some of the Toll Houses still exist such as Pike Cottage at the corner of Southfield Road and Selsley Road. It was only with the growth of the woollen mills in the 17th century that people began to live in the new village of South Woodchester.

19th Century
Woodchester entered the railway age in 1867 when a branch line opened, running from a junction with the Midland Railway main line at Stonehouse, to Nailsworth. It continued operating with regular passenger services until 1947 and closed to all traffic in 1968. Woodchester station was on Station Road and the Station Masters House is still visible today.

Many of Woodchester’s public buildings were built in the 19th Century
Baptist chapel in 1825
School room (now the Village Hall) in 1835
“New” School in 1889
Catholic Church 1846-49
Convent in 1860
New Church in 1863

Further information
Members of the Woodchester Historical Society have transcriptions of the Church registers and Census returns for 1841 – 1911. They also have a copy of the 1838 Tithe Map and numerous artefacts and copies of information about Woodchester in the past.

Useful Books include
Domesday Book 1086
Woodchester Roman Villa S Lysons 1793
Pavement Pictures and Saxon Charters 1881
Short History of Woodchester Mr Little 1919/20
Gloucestershire Woollen Mills J Tann 1967
Woodchester History Rev Back 1972
Roman Villa at Woodchester G Clarke 1982
Roman Woodchester John Cull.
Victoria County History Vol XI