Atherstone is a market town in north Warwickshire, which dates from Anglo-Saxon times. Situated on Watling Street, it lies a mile west of the first century Roman fort at Mancetter, and close to a west-east packhorse route which linked Bristol and Lincoln. At the Norman Conquest the land at Atherstone formed part of the estates of the Countess of Mercia, Lady Godiva, but was given by William the Conqueror to his nephew, Hugh, Earl of Chester. The Domesday Book records the town as having 14 families, all farming under the feudal system and owing service to a manorial lord. In 1100 Hugh gave Atherstone to the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, and the Abbot, though absent, became the lord of the manor. He obtained a market charter from the king and laid out the first burgage plots around the market place to attract free tenants. Despite this the town did not prosper or become a borough. The number of burgage plots increased over the years, and by the late 18th century most had been sub-divided.
11th century until 17th century
From the late 11th century until the beginning of the 17th century, the manor passed through the hands of a number of ecclesiastical and noble owners, all of whom regarded the land as an asset and had little regard for the people who farmed it. Most of the townsfolk lived by agriculture, but from the 16th century onwards some were also engaged in trading activities, and by the time the open fields were enclosed in 1765, the majority were dependent on trade.
Tanning was the dominant activity, using the watercourses which flow into the town from the high wooded land of the Warwickshire Arden on the south. From the 16th century wool-felt hatmaking also developed, as a cottage industry. Relying on a good supply of soft water, it eventually supplanted tanning, taking over use of the watercourses. At the end of the 18th century the demand for cheap felt hats rose because all slaves working on the plantations in the West Indies were equipped with a felt hat. The growth in the trade drew young people from elsewhere to work in hatting. However, the size of the town was constrained by the two neighbouring landowners, so development was forced into the burgage plots behind the houses, creating the Yard houses that were a distinctive feature of Atherstone’s layout.
The first hatters
The first hatters worked singly in their cottages. Later, on a communal basis, they rented space in ‘bow and basin’ shops in the yards behind the houses in Long Street. As the population grew, these yards were intensively developed with poor quality houses, creating some of the worst slums in the country, which were cleared from the 1920s onwards and particularly after the Second World War. The first hat factories were established in Long Street, but it was unusual for them to be purpose-built. Generally they took over existing premises, such as a tannery or an iron foundry. Late to industrialise, the industry was never sufficiently prosperous for major capital expenditure. By 1900 there were seven hat factories, but by the late 20th century all traces of hatmaking had gone.
Because Atherstone has never been a prosperous town, it did not suffer the extensive redevelopment in the 1960s which deprived many other towns of their historic centres. Although there was some demolition, stretches of Long Street retained their Victorian and Georgian frontages, and the market square area was left almost intact. In the late 1970s an area south-east of the town centre was demolished to make way for the offices of the newly-formed North Warwickshire Borough Council, and a new road was constructed, Woolpack Way, which links Long Street with the Back Way. Then in the late 1980s at the south-west end of the town, the hat factory of Vero & Everitt in Station Street (Back Way) was demolished and the street re-aligned to make space for a supermarket.