Imagine yourself in the year of 1843. You are listening to the Mayor of Basingstoke as he welcomes some important visitors to a civic function in the Town Hall. He is extolling the amenities and attractions of his town.
I am pleased to tell you that this town of Basingstoke is both populous and prosperous. Pleasantly situated in a fertile part of the county of Hampshire on the River Loddon, it is noted for the salubrity of its air and the pureness of its water. We are advantageously situated in the centre of an extensive agricultural district at the junction of five principal roads, and Basingstoke maintains a considerable trade in corn, malt, coals, timber and merchandise. The facilities for the carrying these goods are materially increased by having a communication with London by means of a canal and the London and Southampton Railway. An extensive manufacture of woollen cloths formerly existed here but has now given place to the malting business which, as well as the trade in corn, is very considerable.
The Town Hall to which we welcome you today was erected in 1832. As you will see, it consists of a spacious market for corn, a justice room for the despatch of the town and petty sessions, a retiring room and a handsome stone staircase leading to a spacious ball room and ante room with other convenient offices. In the course of the last year the rooms have been lit in the modern way by gas.
Each Wednesday a market is held in front of the Town Hall for corn, cattle, etc and each Saturday a convenient market is held behind the building in the Lesser Market for the sale of meat, poultry, fish, vegetables and such goods. Basingstoke’s fairs are held on Wednesday in Whitsun week and on 11th October. On Easter Tuesday a cheese and cattle fair is held on the adjacent downs. The annual races are held in September at Kempshott.
Basingstoke is a polling place for the northern division of the county and the centre of a poor law union, having a poor house established in 1835 near the road to Basing. The town consists of several well built streets, paved, lighted and supplied with water. The Gas Works were opened with considerable ceremony in 1834. The spacious church is dedicated to St Michael, while the Holy Ghost Chapel, a once beautiful edifice, is now in ruins upon an eminence to the north of the town. Basingstoke not only possesses an ancient public grammar school but also supports a Blue Coat and National School and several Sunday Schools in connection with the Church and the Dissenting Chapel. Our thriving Mechanics’ Institute was founded two years ago, having for its object. the instruction of the members in science and useful knowledge by means of lectures, conversation and reading at stated periods, the formation of a library and museum and the purchase of philosophical apparatus.
I have based this imaginary account of Basingstoke life in 1843 on information from accounts in the Reading Mercury, (held in Reading Reference Library), and from Kelly’s Directories of Hampshire and Minutes of the Mechanics’ Institute (held in the Hampshire Record Office).
The Mayor in the second half of 1843 was Robert Skeat Hulbert, whose father had been mayor and who continued his father’s chemist’s business in Church Street. Joseph Charles Shebbeare would no doubt also have been present to welcome the visitors. He lived in Queen Anne House in Church Street and was Town Clerk, Registrar to the County Court and Coroner.
Samuel Attwood, tailor, would no doubt have noted this civic event in his diary which he kept from 1816 to the 1860s. He took as great an interest in the people and affairs of the town as his nephew’s grandson, Arthur Attwood.
Food and drink was sometimes provided for such occasions by William and Richard Curtis of the Angel Inn in London Street, and musical entertainment was supplied by William Kitz, organist and innkeeper at the Black Boy (later the Hop Leaf) . Notable gentry who might be expected to attend are William Lyde Wigget Chute of the Vyne, William Hicks Beach, MP of Oakley Hall, George Purefoy Jervoise of Herriard House, William Apletree of Goldings, Rev M Harrison, Rector of Church Oakley and Rev Lovelace Biggs Wither of Tangier House.
As the Mayor mentioned, the Mechanics’ Institute had been founded in 1841. Meetings were held in the Town Hall until their own building was erected in New Street in 1869 (later to become the first home of the Willis Museum). Twelve of the committee were to be “working mechanics” and an amendment of 1843 specified that no less than eight of these should be journeymen. Those who ran the Institute were among the foremost inhabitants of the town, many of them professional men or well-established traders, several in turn being mayors or aldermen. Many of the names are now perpetuated in Basingstoke streets. The President, Christopher Edward Lefroy lived at West Ham House. One of the Vice-Presidents in 1843 was a surgeon, Edward Covey of The Shrubbery, while the two other Vice-Presidents were also surgeons who had a joint practice in New Street, Thomas Workman and Charles Webb. Other prominent members were Alderman Charles Simmons (ironmonger, smith, brazier and tinman in Church Street) and Alderman Robert Cottle who was Mayor five times. He was Postmaster, bookseller, stationer, bookbinder and printer, with premises in Winchester Street.
Some of the lectures delivered to the Mechanics’ Institute
The Principles and Practice of Cooking by Gas, and the Application of Gas to Culinary Purposes, by Mr Sharp of Winchester.
The Philosophy of Language, by Mr Jones of Southampton
Temperature as the Sole and Only Cause of Atmospheric Disturbance,by Rev Matthew Harrison , Rector of Church O:akley.
Pneumatics, by Mr Carter of Flaxfield Academy
Ancient and Modern Nations, their Proper Characteristics and Comparative Attainments in Civilisation, by William N Massey, Esq
The Eternal Truths of Revelation,by Rev James Wills of Basingstoke.
The Life and Character of Napoleon, by Mr Henderson of London
Apparitions and Witches, by Mr Henderson of London
Electro-magnetism, by Professor Partington of London.