Oundle, has been occupied continuously since the Iron Age. In Roman times there was an extensive settlement at Ashton, near to Oundle’s old Railway Station. The first written reference to Oundle occurs in Saxon times: the Venerable Bede writing in the eighth century states that Saint Wilfrid died ‘in his monastery in the region of Oundle’. This suggests that Oundle was already a place of some importance.
From the late Saxon period until the middle of the sixteenth century, Oundle was one of the properties of Peterborough Abbey. Oundle’s large and beautiful parish church, much of it dating from the thirteenth century, indicates that this was a period of prosperity for the town. A charter issued by Peterborough Abbey in the early thirteenth century sheds some light on the life of the medieval town: the population was probably around 500, and it included clothworkers, a skinner, a smith and two masons. In the early 1530s Leland described Oundle as ‘al buildid of stone’, so medieval Oundle probably had many stone buildings. Oundle’s prosperity may well have been derived from what Leland described as its ‘very good market’, which had been held from before the Norman Conquest.
The 1565 survey by Thomas Austell, which lists street by street all the properties in the town, shows that the layout of Oundle has changed little over the last 400 years. Some street names have changed, but others – such as Mill Road and Jericho – have not. The site of the Jesus Church was known as Chapel End, after the chapel of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, which had stood there in medieval times. The survey also contains an interesting reference to the hall of the pre-Reformation guild of Our Lady of Oundle, which had been purchased by “Mr Laxton somtyme maior of London”.
Before the Reformation there had already been a modest guild school, held in part of Oundle Parish church, but Sir William Laxton, in the codicil to his will of 1556, instructed that the former guild house be acquired and used as a grammar school with accommodation for ‘seven poor honest men’. The guild house stood in the churchyard on the site of the present Laxton School. Double foundations of this kind were not uncommon at the time. Oundle possesses another example in Latham’s Hospital in North Street. In 1611 Nicholas Latham founded an almshouse for women and a school in these premises. Latham’s Hospital still fulfils its original purpose of providing a home for elderly ladies, but his Bluecoat school merged with Oundle Church of England School at the end of the nineteenth century.
The Elizabethan and early Stuart period has been described as the time of the great rebuilding, when many medieval houses were either extensively modernised or completely rebuilt. Oundle contains some fine examples of both. The fine buildings of this period show how prosperous the town was from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. The town houses, the first and the finest of which is Cobthorne, form a distinctive feature of Oundle today, reflecting the wealth and standing of such prominent local families as the Whitwells, Bramstons and Creeds. The general level of prosperity in the town can, however, best be gauged from the number and quality of the seventeenth century workmen’s houses, the best surviving examples of which are the Mill Road cottages. Throughout this period, additional buildings had to be crowded into the narrow space between the main streets and the back lanes: expansion on the town edge was impossible because the open fields were not enclosed until the early nineteenth century.
Eighteenth century Oundle, like many other small market towns, included a wide range of trades and occupations, such as shoemakers, fellmongers, a tanner, a turner, a Hemp Dresser, a Rope Maker, Slaters, Watchmakers, ‘Innholders, a Fishmonger, a Miller, Grocers, a ‘Jockey’ (who was probably a Horse Dealer), some Glovers, and a Gunsmith. John Clifton, master carpenter, perhaps sexton, and diarist, wrote vividly of the pleasures and hardships of the late eighteenth century, including floods, smallpox, fairs and bullrunning, the goings-on of his fellow townsmen, astronomy and gardening. His will shows that he had a considerable library.
Oundle developed little in the nineteenth century. The station was opened in 1845, but it does not appear to have made much impact. The Market House was built after the Improvement Act of 1825. Three Nonconformist Churches and the Jesus Church, built by the Watts-Russell family as an Anglican Church, were added. Oundle was the centre of a Poor Law Union, but its workhouse has been demolished and only the chapel remains, which has been converted into a private house. Smiths, the brewers, owned much of Oundle. Their brewery in North Street was built in 1775, and supplying the military camps at Norman Cross during the Napoleonic Wars boosted business, but it closed in 1962 and since has been demolished.
Nineteenth century Oundle had a strong Non-conformist tradition, stemming from the Elizabeth puritans. In a population of about 3000, roughly one-third supported one of the dissenting chapels. The former Congregational Church, now the Stahl Theatre, was built on the site of the Great Meeting, an earlier Independent place of Worship. A Baptist chapel was also built in 1852, but this was closed some years ago. A new Methodist church was opened in 1985 in the former Telephone Exchange: the old building has been used for various purposes, recently a shopping arcade, and a restaurant.
One of the most significant events in Oundle during the last hundred years was the appointment in 1892 of FW Sanderson as Headmaster of Oundle School. Before his death in 1922, Sanderson had transformed the school into the institution we know today, and in so doing he had a considerable effect on the development of the town. The Cloisters and the School House, date from before his headship, but the Great Hall, Science Block, the Yarrow and the four attractive houses in Milton Road were all built during his time. The school has also acquired some of Oundle’s finest houses including Cobthorne. Oundle’s position as the education centre of North-East Northamptonshire was confirmed in 1971 with the opening of the Prince William School and Oundle Middle School.
Oundle grew steadily after the Second World War. In the last decade of the 20th century the population increased more rapidly to a 2005 figure of over 5250. A display at the museum in the Courthouse charts Oundle’s development through the centuries. In addition to the markets Oundle still contains a wide variety of shops and provides a social and shopping centre for villages up to six miles away.
Oundle is notable for its schools. Flourishing play groups cater for pre-school children. The state school system became three tier in 1971.The primary school in Milton Road is a Church of England controlled school. Oundle and Kings Cliffe Middle school educates pupils from 9 to 13 years. The Oundle site moved to new buildings on the Cotterstock Road in 1980. Prince William School and Sixth Form Centre in Herne Road was opened in 1971, taking students from 13 to 18 years old from as far afield as Easton in the north and from villages to the south of Thrapston. The school is named in memory of HRH Prince William of Gloucester, who lived nearby at Barnwell until he was sadly killed in a flying accident.
Oundle School is an independent school, a foundation of the Worshipful Company of Grocers. It developed from Sir William Laxton’s benefaction of 1556 which gave rise to Laxton Grammar School for boys of 11-18. Most of the teaching facilities and boarding houses are in the centre of the town, so that Oundle has a distinct atmosphere in term time. Access to some of the extensive sporting facilities, such as the swimming pool is available through sports clubs. Laxton Junior School for pupils up to 11 moved to new premises on East Road in 2002.
Oundle is scarcely an industrial town, but it does have a small zone of light industry in East Road. Fairline Boats has a factory there as well as just out of town. Surprisingly for a town so far from the sea this is home to one of the country’s largest builders of pleasure cruisers.