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A Brief History of the City of Gloucester, pt. 1

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

From the grant of city status in 1541 to the dawn of the industrial age. For the earlier history see A Brief History of the Town of Gloucester. For the later history from the 19th century, see A Brief History of the City of Gloucester, pt. 2.

Early years

Photo of the cathedral with foreground filled by a garden of grasses and flowers
Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester achieved city status in 1541 as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries and the consequent transformation of the abbey into Gloucester Cathedral by King Henry VIII. The population at that time was around 4,400. It was a period of economic instability; the tanneries remained an important part of the city's economy, but the clothmaking industry was in severe decline by 1600. Although pewtering, wiredrawing and pinmaking were expanding metal industries, Gloucester's traditional ironsmith industry was also in decline at the beginning of the 17th century.

Looking down the paved length of the quay, with the river lined on the far bank with trees running below to the right and, across a road to the left, the Old Customs House
Quay with Old Customs House to left

A quay had existed on the east channel of the Severn at Gloucester since at least 1390, and the grant of port status to Gloucester in 1580 by Queen Elizabeth I encouraged a flourishing marketing and distribution industry. With permission now to trade directly with foreign ports, a customs house was built next to the quay in 1581. It's successor, built c.1700, still stands and is, alongside today's quay wall, the last survivor in this episode of Gloucester's maritime trading past.

The establishment of Church and Crown courts at Gloucester attracted legal professionals, increased visitors and fostered a burgeoning service industry. Numerous alehouses began catering for the lower classes, while inns and taverns were established to serve wealthier visitors.

Gloucester nevertheless failed to emerge as a social centre; increasing political hostility between county and city over control of the inshire (the land immediately surrounding the city limits) kept the gentry away from the city.

Siege of Gloucester

Night view of street curling round to the right on the line of the city's Roman/medieval wall
Looking west along Parliament Street

A strong puritan streak in the city's leading classes ensured Gloucester would declare for Parliament during the English Civil War. Its strategic position on the Severn controlling traffic along that river and between the king's capital at Oxford and the Royalist areas of the Forest of Dean and Wales ensured the city would find itself on the front line. After capturing Bristol in July 1643, King Charles I turned his attention towards the city.

Gloucester was still defended on the eastern side and partly on the southern side by the old Roman walls (housing lining the north side of Parliament Street today marks the line of the south and south-east corner of walls). Earthworks had been hastily erected to cover the gaps where the old Roman/medieval wall had long since been dismantled and, to the north, where the city had expanded beyond the walls, while the Severn made the west side all but impregnable.

Map showing the defences of Gloucester and Royalist positions around it
Gloucester besieged

The Royalist army arrived outside the city on 10 August, but the king's demand for the city's surrender was refused. The defenders torched the suburbs outside the defences to deny their enemy cover, resulting in the loss of 241 properties south, east and north of the city. The Parliamentarians withdrew behind the city defences and, despite being outnumbered by up to ten to one, aggressively resisted all Royalist efforts to breach them. The king was forced to lift the siege on 5 September as a Parliamentarian army from London slipped down the Cotswold scarp above Cheltenham on its way to relieve the city.

View framed by trees and hedges across the lawn of Brunswick Square to Christ Church with its French Romanesque facade
Brunswick Square

The Royalists had concentrated their main effort against the wall around the south-east corner, with their heaviest artillery deployed on Gaudy Green. A meadow at the time, the green is today preserved in part as the central garden area of Brunswick Square. Another key Royalist position was Llanthony Secunda Priory, which suffered significant damage as a result of the siege. Other Gloucester landmarks to fall victim to the siege were St. Oswald's Priory and Greyfriars.

The restoration to the throne in 1660 of King Charles II, who as a boy had been with his father during the siege at the Royalist HQ at Matson House (which still stands to this day), was cause for retribution against the defiant city. The king ordered Gloucester's remaining walls to be torn down (a small section of surviving wall can be seen inside the furniture centre at the bottom of the pedestrianised Southgate Street), and settled the question of control of the inshire in the county's favour. The dominant puritan element in the city's governing corporation was purged in the decades following the Restoration and replaced by more loyal county gentry.

Early Modern Gloucester

After the Restoration, Gloucester consolidated its place as regional market town and port rivalled only by Bristol. The main commodities traded in Gloucester were corn and malt, with specialist agricultural trades such as cheese also gaining a foothold. With the Severn below Gloucester dangerous to navigate for large vessels, Gloucester's riverside port lost out to Bristol for overseas trade. Nevertheless, transporting goods by river in small boats was cheaper than overland travel, and the port remained key to the city's fortunes, with most trade conducted with and via Bristol.

Interior view of pin factory with wooden floors, old roof beams, timber-framed walls and stone chimney breast
Pin factory at the Folk Museum

Pinmaking became the city's main industry, and a mid-16th century barn converted to a pin factory in the 18th century survives today as part of the Folk Museum. Bellfounding and glassmaking also flourished in Gloucester. The rise of brick as a building material prompted the growth of brickmaking as a local industry. There was still a textile industry in Gloucester, but it was never the major occupation it was in the past. The professions – most noticeably lawyers, medical practitioners and teachers – became well-established in the city.

Gloucester's economy was based primarily on servicing the needs of the region, with innkeepers, victuallers, bakers, grocers, and tailors topping the list of most common occupations in the city by the end of the 18th century. By that time Gloucester had also become an important regional banking centre.

Elegant townhouse villa at the end of a road framed by trees
One of the first properties of the Spa development

With the issue of control of the inshire settled, Gloucester began to flourish as a social centre. The rural elite increasingly visited a city described by one county magnate as "a handsome neat city [with] a pleasant prospect...adorned with many beautiful towers and spires." The cathedral became a tourist landmark, and visitors were entertained by bowling at greens near the castle and at Greyfriars and by horse races at Sud Meadow. In the late-18th and early-19th centuries Gloucester was briefly fashionable as a spa resort, though it ultimately lost out in this respect to Cheltenham.

Night shot of the three-storey, five-bay, timber-framed New Inn with a single top-floor room light on illuminating part of a wood-beamed ceiling
New Inn

The city's popularity benefitted its hospitality industry; inns and taverns such as the now demolished Bell on Southgate Street, and the New Inn on Northgate Street and The Fountain on Westgate Street, both of which still survive, flourished with the influx of wealthier visitors seeking victuals and accommodation for themselves and their horses. Business was increasingly conducted in inns and taverns, to the detriment of the city's markets.

Alehouses also benefitted from the increasing prosperity of the lower classes, and between 1674 and 1719 the number of licensed premises in the city almost doubled to 92. Gloucester's inns further benefitted from the improvement in road transport fostered by the development of turnpikes in the 18th century. Coach services, some operated by the larger inns, were established to London, Bristol, Bath, Worcester, Birmingham and towns in south Wales.


Three-storey brick mansion with original two-storey east wing to left and later three-storey former fire-station with red garage doors that replaced the mansion's west wing
Bearland House

Estimates of the city's population in the late-17th/early-18th centuries range from 4,700 to 5,600. The housing stock lost as a result of the siege of Gloucester was not replaced immediately after the civil war, the city choosing instead to develop open land north of the castle around Quay Street and Bearland.

The still-standing mansions of Bearland House and Ladybellegate House are reminders of the fashionable residential quarter Bearland became in the early-18th century. Elsewhere in the city, it became fashionable from the late-17th century to either replace or at least re-front old timber-framed properties in brick. One of the many surviving examples of the latter is Dick Whittington's pub on lower Westgate Street, the 15th-century timber-framing of which is hidden behind an 18th-century brick façade.

Two-storey brick property with central pediment roof flanked on either side by stone balustrades
Dick Whittington's

In the mid- to late-18th century the increase in wheeled traffic prompted what has been described as one of Gloucester's worst episodes of civic vandalism, in which large parts of the historic city were cleared to remove obstructions.

The centre of Westgate Street was cleared of all buildings, among them the King's Board butter market, the remains of which now stand in heavily modified form as a stone gazebo in Hillfield Gardens. Structures and properties which caused obstructions in Northgate and Southgate Streets were also removed.

The east gate was taken down in 1778 (the subterranean remains of the gate can still be viewed at the Eastgate Viewing Chamber outside Boots on Eastgate Street), as were most of the other surviving medieval gates in 1781 (the wooden gates of Southgate Street were preserved and are currently held in the Folk Museum). Produce and butchers' markets were removed from the streets following the construction of new market places off Eastgate and Southgate Streets in 1786.

Black and white drawing of a stone bridge with three arches over a river, down which a trow sails, with the spire of St. Nicholas Church and the tower of Gloucester Cathedral in the background
Westgate Bridge, late 18th-century. Source: Wikipedia

The dilapidated Norman castle was demolished in 1787 to make way for a new prison. The last surviving medieval gate, the fortified west gate on Westgate Bridge, was demolished c.1805, preparatory to the replacement of the medieval bridge with a new bridge in 1816. To some the changes were an improvement, to others they resulted in a city that had become "a mutilated figure of its antique picturesque glory."


Gloucester and Newbury 1643: The Turning Point of the Civil War, Pen & Sword Military, 2007, Jon Day

A Street Through Time: Gloucester’s Westgate Street, Gloucester History Festival, 2020, Andrew Armstrong

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