History of the Alleys

Alleys are a common feature of old market towns. They go by a variety of local names; Ginnels in the north, Gulleys in the west midlands, Twittens in the south east and Opes in south Cornwall. There are many more names. The ones we are interested in were created in the middle ages among burgage plots.

Tewkesbury’s alleys are special because of the particular development of the town centre which was followed by a level of industrial decay which precluded development until the 1960s, when many were swept away.

Burgesses were the free men introduced to Tewkesbury by Queen Maud, soon after the Norman Conquest. This was an attempt to generate wealth, and taxes, by giving incentives to merchants to manufacture, store and trade goods. The High Street was created which split the first furlong of the open field which was called Oldbury into two, and burgage plots were created, four strips (a chain in old measure) wide and half a furlong (about 100 yards) deep. To the west they stretched to the river, to the east to what is now the Oldbury Road, where the next furlong of the field remained. Similar plots on Church Street and Barton Street were adapted to fit around existing features. The centre of town, around the Cross, was an open market area, where the agricultural hinterland regularly traded with each other and the merchants in the town.

Success attracted more merchants, and burgage plots were sub-divided along the street frontage, to half- and quarter-plots. The street frontage became crowded with wealthy merchants.

Trading needs space. For warehousing, manufacturing and, as the organisation grew, for workers to live. The front houses had long rear pots, but to access them meant an alley alongside or, almost always, tunnelled through, the house. On the west of the High Street and Church Street the plots extended to the river, which was ideal for traders bringing goods in or shipping them out by water. The warehouses crowded along the water edge. Manufacturing, with tanning, malting and textiles predominating needed work space, and much of this was behind the front houses. Workers and their families were provided with cottages, of the most basic sort, among the other buildings, and so the alleys we know today arrived.

Hosiery manufacture became big business by the eighteenth century and whole alleys were occupied in this. Stephens Alley, as an example, had the hosier in the front house and the alley packed with little cottages rented to stocking frame knitters, who worked at home on piece-work. Alongside them was the frame-smith’s workshop where Mr Stephens’ frames were made and repaired, for renting to his workers. Comfort needs were met by a water pump and basic drainage. Later, piped water and a couple of lavatories were added.

Over time, the ownership of the alleys became divided, as inheritance, insolvency and cash-flow saw cottages sold off, individually or in blocks.

This pattern was repeated all over the town. Every six or seven paces there is probably an open entry or a door which leads to the back of the property. Some of these became thoroughfares, especially when the Victorians developed the rest of the Oldbury to extend the town. Alleys extended from Barton Street and High Street into this area. Similarly, they extended to the Back of Avon and St Mary’s Lane (then the home of the tanning businesses). Most, though, were not thoroughfares, and remain private places, generally behind a closed door.

In addition, new alleys were built in the 19th century in the Oldbury area. These were just narrow streets and have no relationship to burgage plots, or the medieval alleys. Gravel Walk dates from about 1833, whilst Trinity Walk was built to allow access to the new elementary school in about 1870. Gas Alley ran beside the town gas holders. It is not clear why these were built as alleys rather than roads given that there was no shortage of land.

Alleys started to disappear with changes in the town. A rash of major breweries off the High Street had an early effect. Road widening as the Oldbury was developed meant loss of alleys in the area of Nelson Street, the old Sun Street and Trinity Street. Big changes came with supermarkets, on both sides of Smiths Lane, the building of a new post office, now M&Co, and new police station. The most dramatic losses came in what is now Bishop’s Walk, where eight alleys and courts were demolished.

After that, changes were much rarer and heavily resisted. Alleys are now treated with much greater respect.