History & Development of the Parish of Irchester
Consisting of 2,888 acres, the Parish of Irchester is situated right in the heart of England and is made up of the main village of Irchester, the estate hamlet of Knuston, the 19th century hamlet of Little Irchester, Ditchford and Chester House. Lying on the banks of the River Nene with its lush meadows is Chester-on-the-Water, a deserted medieval hamlet with the listed farmhouse and farm buildings of Chester House. Adjacent to this is an abandoned Roman township that encompasses a walled Roman town (an Ancient Scheduled Monument) and its surrounding suburbs. This historic site also contains an Iron Age Settlement.
The A45 east-west expressway cuts through this landscape separating it from Irchester, a dramatically developed conurbation, now one of the largest populated villages in the county. Major transport links historically connect the parish with the rest of Northamptonshire and beyond. Important stagecoach routes like the Kettering to Newport Pagnell turnpike of 1753-1754 and the Great Staughton to Wellingborough turnpike of 1754-1755 both passed through the parish.
From 1761 the River Nene was navigable from Northampton to Peterborough, and in 1845 the Blisworth, Northampton and Peterborough railway was constructed with a railway station being opened at Little Irchester. This was followed by the Midland Railway’s Leicester to Hitchin extension in 1857 which saw a railway station opening in Irchester.
Irchester, with its Grade I Listed Parish Church of St. Katharine’s dating from the 11th century, originally only consisted of the main High Street until Victorian times. In fact the ‘High Street’ didn’t acquire its name until the late 1800s. Along the High Street can be found some of the oldest buildings in the village dating from the 13th century onwards. These include the Manor House and its adjoining Tithe Barn, the old Vicarage, The Carpenters Arms Public House, a medieval open hall house (33-39 High Street), the original blacksmith’s cottage and forge (57 High Street),and thatched and stone cottages dating from the 1600s to early 1800s.
In the centre of the village, in fields adjoining Station Road and Townwell Lane, was found in 2014 the site of medieval remains including a medieval iron production site, which provide valuable new insights into this poorly understood industrial aspect of medieval Northamptonshire.
John Wesley (1703-1791), who started the Methodist movement, visited the village in 1775 whilst on his way to Bedford. He took tea with Dr Thomas Angrave who lived at the Manor House. Dr Angrave went on to establish the Methodist movement in the village, first in a barn within the Manor House grounds and later in a chapel built in 1788 in what became known as Chapel Yard.
Agriculture has always been a significant aspect of the parish. The farming landscape we see today was formed by Enclosure in 1769 (Knuston) and 1773 (Irchester).
In 1801 the population of the parish was 523. During Victorian times there were many changes which caused the population to rise. In 1841 the population was 907 and by 1901 had risen to 2301. Many people in the 19th century in the village were employed in agriculture, lacemaking, rush mat making, or boot and shoe making.
The village also started to expand during the Victorian period, which saw the construction of terrace houses in Station Road, Farndish Road, Wollaston Road, Thrift Street and Berrill Street. Many yards and rows of houses were constructed between the High Street and School Road, in Townwell Lane and around the present. St Katharine’s Way (which was then called Cattle Lane). Many of these rows of houses were similar to the present Sharwood Terrace in design.
The Victorian expansion of the village also saw community needs being met when the first public school was opened in 1848 on School Hill although pupils had to pay a penny to attend. Shops, a post office, off-licences (or outdoor beerhouses as they are called in Irchester), five shoe factories, the Red Lion Public House (now renamed The 19th Hole), a Baptist Chapel (1850), a new Wesleyan Methodist Chapel (1869) and a 150 seater Primitive Methodist Chapel (1877) were also built. One particular business that developed during the Victorian period was that of Edward Parsons and Son Ltd, Pork Pie Manufacturers whose products were distributed throughout the British Isles.
In 1909 a Carnegie Free Library was opened in the High Street, with a new school in School Lane opening in 1908. The present Co-operative Store opened in 1915 and has been serving the community ever since.
During the First World War (1914-1918), soldiers from The Herefordshire Regiment were billeted in the village as were some of the Belgian refugees. Servicemen and women went off to do their duty both at home and overseas. Many did not return and the War Memorial was unveiled in 1920 to commemorate the 74 servicemen from Irchester who gave their lives for King and Country.
During the interwar years ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ were constructed by the local authority when Council Houses were erected in Farndish Road, Edward Road, Wollaston Road, Alfred Street, and Gray Street. Further private houses were also built along the Station Road, Wollaston Road, Prospect Avenue and Gipsy Lane area of the village in a ribbon development. A recreation ground was opened on the Wollaston Road and the Irchester Sports Club ground was also opened in Alfred Street in the 1930s.
The Second World War (1939-1945) saw servicemen and women going away to fight, some of whom never returned, with 16 names being added to the Irchester War Memorial. Evacuees came to the village and many settled into school and village life. On the 20th May 1941 four bombs were dropped by enemy planes on the village. These bombs destroyed the former Primitive Methodist Chapel in Farndish Road and some adjoining houses. Nine people died as a result of the bombing.
In the 1950s many of the Victorian yards and rows of houses were demolished as they were classed as unfit for habitation. Some of the houses along the High Street were also demolished for this reason, which in hindsight perhaps was unjustifiable. In the 1950s James Street, Grange Close, Grange Way, Baker Crescent and Parsons Road were constructed with further building work taking place along Prospect Avenue, Gipsy Lane, Wollaston Road and Station Road. These took residents from the many houses that were classed as unfit for habitation.
Parsons Hall was opened in 1952 as the staff canteen for Edward Parsons and Son Ltd, Pork Pie Manufacturers. Village organizations could also use the canteen as a village hall in the evenings. It was purchased by the Irchester Parish Council in later years and is still used by many organisations.
The 1960s saw Chapel Close (on the site of the 1788 chapel), Arkwright Road, Woodlands Road, and Bradshaw Way estates constructed. The Village Hall and Doctors’ Surgery were built in the 1970s in School Road. The Gypsy and Travellers Site was also established in Gipsy Lane in the 1970s.
Edward Parsons and Son Ltd, Pork Pie Manufacturers, closed in 1965 and the site was developed for housing and other light industrial use. All the five shoe factories have closed since the 1970s and have either been demolished or turned into residences. Many of the smaller shops have also closed as people have taken to their cars to shop and work elsewhere. One former shop, the Co-op Arcade is now used as the Irchester Community Reachout Church. Irchester still continues to have a small selected range of retail outlets.
Since the 1990s Irchester Schools have been expanded to cope with changing pupil and teaching needs. In 2016 additional classrooms were also added to the school to cope with future potential educational growth. Further small areas of the village have also been developed since the 1990s like Coulon Close, Mansfield Way and Biscay Close.
The hamlet of Little Irchester, developed around a railway in the 19th century, which eventually saw brickworks, maltings, a tannery, shops, three public houses, a chapel, a Mission Church and Whitworth Mill being constructed. Two of the public houses closed in the 1930s and in the 1960s the railway closed, followed by the tannery in the 1970s.
In the 20th century houses were also constructed along the London Road and at Butlin Court. The A45 dual carriage-way was constructed in 1981 linking Northampton with Wellingborough and Rushden.
More recently in the 21st century, the Victoria Business Park opened adjoining the A45, the Mission Church closed and was replaced by two bungalows and Riverside Close was built on the former site of The Cottage Public House and Borough Council depot.
Separating Little Irchester from Irchester are the former ironstone quarries that were used from 1872-1969. Steam and later electric mechanical diggers were used to excavate the iron ore. The ore was then transported by wagons and steam engines to the railway sidings at Little Irchester before being taken to the blast furnaces at Wellingborough and later Middlesborough. Part of the iron ore quarry is now the Irchester Country Park that opened in the early 1970s and now also contains the Irchester Narrow Gauge Railway Museum.
The old estate village of Knuston with Knuston Hall (now a Grade II Listed building), its associated farm houses and estate cottages, was owned by the Arkwright family from 1865-1920. It was then purchased by a local shoe factory owner Charles ‘Zoony’ Green. In 1949 Knuston Hall was purchased by Northamptonshire County Council and in 1951 it opened as an Adult Education Residential College and Conference Centre. Nearby is Ditchford with its medieval bridge that forms the boundary with Irthlingborough and Rushden.
The population of the Parish of Irchester has nearly doubled from the 1901 figure of 2301 to 4745 in 2011. The Parish of Irchester with its main village of Irchester and the hamlets of Knuston and Little Irchester has continued to change, develop and grow over the centuries but is still a vibrant area to live, with a great community spirit, history and future.