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The River Trent and the Great North Road were the keys to Newark’s prosperity and importance from medieval times.

Where the Foss Way Intersects the Great North Road

by Patrick Mercer, MP


For me, Newark has proved that there really is a grand design in life. In 1948, my father was ordained from a theological college near to the town. Sometime later, it was sold and became the headquarters of the District Council—the spot where elections of all sorts are organized, the votes counted and results declared. So it was that 53 years after my father had been there, I stood on the same spot and swore to serve the people of Newark as their Member of Parliament—which sparked my deep affection for the place.
Newark was once one of the most prosperous towns in eastern England, and I wish that were still the case now. In medieval times, it was the most significant market town between London and York, principally because of its position on the River Trent. This mighty river runs from the heart of England to the coast, with Newark standing astride a major ford. People have always congregated at fords, because they are natural funnels, making trade and commerce the focus of the town from ancient times until now.
A substantial castle was built here to dominate and defend the river crossing, and around which a thriving community grew up. When you look at the castle and admire it, the typical Newarker’s response would be, “Aye, it’ll look nice when it’s finished!,” but it does contain the remains of King John, who died there in the early 13th century. At least, parts of him are there; his entrails were removed from his body and taken to be buried in Worcester Cathedral, following the theory that a man’s soul was contained in his innards rather than in his mind!
Then came Newark’s most celebrated chapter, when the town became the seat of King Charles I during the English Civil Wars. The town was besieged three times, with Charles’ surrender to the Scots army in nearby Southwell effectively marking the end of resistance to Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces. And that’s what I always tell anyone who’s interested—that it was really events in Newark that laid the basis for democracy as we know it today in Britain.
Since then, the town’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the centuries. The Napoleonic Wars saw the town expand hugely with a large number of people settling there due to the increased demands of local agriculture and the series of mills that had been constructed in town. About this period, the town grew out toward the nearby village of Balderton, the two becoming almost one place.
The 19th century gave rise to Newark’s most famous political son, William Gladstone, prime minister of Britain more times than I care to remember. Gladstone started as a Tory, but switched to the Whigs, apparently without causing much comment in Newark. In the town hall square there’s a blue plaque commemorating where he made his first acceptance speech to represent the town in Parliament. Whether you regard Gladstone as the “Grand Old Man” or the “Murderer of Gordon” probably doesn’t matter very much, but the museum contains a splendid variety of his ephemera.
Violent times begat a number of different things for Newark in the 20th century. She lost a record number of her sons during World War I, but it was really the events of 1939 to 1945 that created the area’s contemporary social and economic structure. Britain’s move toward total war in the mid-1930s is a remarkable story, with Newark showing its impact more clearly than most other places. To supply the growing Royal Air Force, a substantial ball-bearing production plant was built in the town that continues in business today. To house the workers and their families, a housing estate sprang up that was christened Hawtonville. At one time, this was the largest such housing estate in the Midlands, a model of its kind. With diminished demand for aircraft parts after the war, however, the estate became increasingly run-down.
Today Hawtonville is the single largest concentration of my constituents, and the neighborhood can only be described as “challenging.” The quality of housing there was initially very good, but incremental “improvements” have not always been of the highest quality. As a result, this sprawl of a couple of thousand dwellings is fine in parts, but many areas are less than lovely. What is so interesting about Hawtonville, though, is the social make-up of the place.
Just over 10 years ago, there was a celebrated criminal case where a man called Tony Martin was approached by two young men on his dilapidated farm in Norfolk, which had been subject to several burglaries in recent years. As the two youngsters entered Martin’s property, he opened fire with a shotgun, killing one and seriously wounding another. The case became something of a cause célèbre and encouraged me to introduce a Private Member’s Bill that gave greater protection to householders in such circumstances. Both these young men came from the Hawtonville and were habitual criminals.
I’m not suggesting that criminality is widespread in this housing estate, but in the 21st century, relatively prosperous, east-middle England, Hawtonville does still stand out as an area of remarkable diversity. Most of Newark’s drug crime is clustered here, for instance, but by the same token, so too are most of Newark’s churches and religious community. In short, it has the feel of an area that is at least 20 years behind the times, and one upon which a very great deal of social and local government resource is expended.
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