The town of Uppingham is a vintage English market town
Local history by Bryan Waites
Uppingham would have been an excellent county town of England’s smallest county, Rutland, but Oakham, in a more central location, acquired this role and consequently grew double in size and population. Even so, Uppingham was situated on more important roads like the A47 and became much more of a route centre.
Additionally, Uppingham retains a unity of townscape with its wonderful High Street and focal market place sitting on top of a commanding ridge. Too many modern shop fronts mar Oakham’s High Street.
There is too much of a mixture of bricks, blue slates and stone. Its market place is just too far from the church and its anti-climax connoisseur’s castle is hidden from sight.
There are good views of Oakham from the hills around but it lies flatly in the Vale of Catmose lacking the impressive townscape panorama of Uppingham.
But should Uppingham exist at all? Perhaps it is an accident of history that it does for it was not mentioned in the famous Domesday Book of 1086. It may have been an appendage of Ridlington - now just an obscure village off the beaten track.
For centuries, too, Preston and Uppingham were grouped together with the former being considered more important. Most likely they were all part of a multiple estate in Anglo-Saxon times.
Lyddington, a few miles to the south, was a market competitor of Uppingham’s. If the struggle had gone in favour of the former perhaps the latter would be only a small village to-day. Since the road from the south via Caldecott almost certainly went through Lyddington before reaching Uppingham and the former was the headquarters of the powerful Bishops of Lincoln one might suppose these to be strong reasons for Lyddington’s dominance.
But history shows otherwise. Uppingham defeated its competitors. Certainly there were inherent advantages of its site as a crossing point of east-west, north-south routes. Its market function and regional role improved and the establishment of a great public school contributed to its rise. Even so, it lacked a rail link until 1894.
Uppingham grew into a vintage English market town. It is Stamford in miniature. Town and country meet in the Market Place frowned over by St Peter and St Paul. Wander through the churchyard to find the original Uppingham School of 1584. Read the inscriptions around the walls. Notice the old village pound nearby. Walk out onto Beast Hill, once the cattle market. Hog Hill and Horn Lane were close by but now the latter is called Queen Street. Stagecoaches used to come this way to avoid the steep Scale Hill, the other side of the church.
A walk across the fields via the public footpath to Lyddington will give you a fine view of the town on its ridge with a skyline silhouette of many of its buildings. Back in the churchyard, look for the memorial to Edward Thring, the great headmaster. You can make your way to Leamington Terrace round the School to see how much it has grown since 1584. Inside the quadrangles it resembles an Oxford college. Go to the Victoria Gateway on High Street West and look up at the figure of Archdeacon Robert Johnson the founder of both Uppingham and Oakham Schools.
Uppingham was granted a market charter in 1281 but it is likely that a flourishing market existed many years previously. It has been suggested that it is a planned market town maybe as early as the late 12th century - the same time as the parish church was founded.
The original Market Place added to the High Street may have been larger - perhaps from Queen Street to School Lane in the west and bounded to the south by the present line of Leamington Terrace and South View. The east-west road was the most important axis of the town then and it is possible that the north-south route did not go via Scale Hill but a little further east. Subsequently, as some photographs show, there was encroachment on the Market Place making it smaller.
Like Stamford, Uppingham contains late medieval houses with characteristic open hall and cross wing such as the former White Hart on High Street West. No doubt there are many relics from these periods hidden behind façades or in cellars and so not clearly evident.
The 17th century saw an expansion of attractive stone town houses with gabled dormers and striking bay windows. Manor House and Tudor House, close together in High Street West, represent this period with some differences. At the east end of town, Anthony Fawkener built the Hall (1612) with two cross wings, perhaps the largest building seen in Uppingham up to that time. Nearby in the same grounds 50-52 High Street East (1616) has a hall and cross wing - another ambitious enterprise.
During the 18th century the town became more prosperous although the population was less than 1, 500. Trades such as building, quarrying (to provide the ironstone for houses), leather, metal and wood working increased. Uppingham was well-known for trencher manufacture - ‘As round as an Uppingham trencher’ was a popular saying. The nearness of the Forest of Leighfield may have been advantageous as a supply of wood for related industries. Emerging however, was a brisk trade in deliveries and transport hence the need for waggoners and the development of associated trades such as coopers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, stablemen and so on. Services providing food, drink and accommodation arose to handle the passing trade of this route centre, hence the great numbers of inns. This prosperity led to some fine Georgian buildings and frontages in the High Street such as the Crown Inn (1734).
The 19th century saw the remarkable growth of Uppingham School from 1853 when the Rev Edward Thring became Headmaster. From 43 boys in that year within ten years the number had risen to 300 and school buildings multiplied correspondingly. But in the town the problem was increasing population and limited space. The Enclosure Act of 1770 allowed some additional land for building. Mostly, however, people crowded into yards and jitties some of which can still be seen. Terraces appeared in this historic town, for example Thorpes, Deans and Wades illustrating the need for high density housing. Between 1801 and 1901 the population rose from 1,400 to 2,500 with the peak being in 1871 - not spectacular (Oakham’s population had doubled to 3,500 in the same period).
As the population increased the town drain proved inadequate and cess-pits dug near to wells contaminated drinking water. This caused outbreaks of typhoid and in 1875 five Uppingham schoolboys died. The parental panic which ensued could have caused the ruin of the School. Consequently, on 17 March 1876, Thring moved the boys to Borth , a seaside village in mid-Wales. At Seaton a goods train with 18 trucks was loaded with 300 beds and bedding plus other equipment for Borth. When the new term started in September 100 new boys went straight to Borth to join the rest of the School who had been there for several months.
The departure of the School resulted in economic crisis for the town and it was one year before the water and sewage systems were judged to be safe for the School’s return. Then, at the start of the summer term 1877, Thring returned triumphantly to the town’s tumultuous reception and garlands in the High Street.
Uppingham School has gone from strength to strength as a leading public school and became co-educational between 1973-75. Over 90% of the 700 pupils are full boarders and the sixth form is over 300 pupils.
There are more than 60 acres of playing fields and many new buildings such as the Art Design & Technology Centre. Expansion has been westwards between Leicester Road and Stockerston Road creating another campus to rival the original nucleus.
In 1908 a contributor to the Victoria County History of Rutland wrote ‘Time was when white violets could be plucked before houses merged into country along Stockerston Road in Uppingham. The little stream which flowed by has gone and with it the violets. Many woods had oxlips which are now bare of them’. What would he think now?
The School has expanded so much especially in that direction; the town became a haven for commuters from the 1970s; traffic and parking increased then a by-pass for the A47 was built; many new estates congregate around the edges and the population continues to grow. Yet this historic market town has retained and in some places enhanced its character. Town and Gown have kept their good partnership still justifying the floral arch erected in the High Street on the School’s return from Borth in 1877: Flourish School; Flourish town.