Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Secret Romsey by Ian Dickerson

The jam factory chimney. (Courtesy of the Vine family collection, Secret Romsey, Amberley Publishing)

Romsey is a small market town nestled on the River Test and caught roughly midway between Winchester, Salisbury and Southampton in the South of England. It may be small but it has a lot of history. Sure it’s not as old as nearby Amesbury, which is just twenty five miles or so away and dates back around five thousand years, but with an Abbey that’s been around for over a millennium there’s plenty to tell.

And therein lies a problem for unsurprisingly in a town this age, there have been plenty of people keen to tell the town’s story, starting perhaps in the eighteenth century with Dr John Latham, who amongst other things prepared for publication seven quarto volumes on the history of Romsey Abbey. Then there’s a local history society that’s been around for over forty years and who have published numerous books on the area and aspects of its history. Was there really room for one more?

Having lived in the town for nigh on two decades and written a number of books on various subjects I was really hoping there was. I wanted to do something to celebrate a town that my family and I love.

The research was fun; I dug into the history books and learnt about Ethelflaeda, who used to run the town’s nunnery and stand naked in the River Test in the middle of the night reciting religious chants for hours on end…which was interesting. Then I delved into one of the local history group’s publications called ‘So drunk he must have been to Romsey’ which was a great title for what turned out to be simply a list of pubs that used to be and could still be found in the town. Not really a book, more a catalogue.

So I picked up another one, The Story of Romsey, which tried to encapsulate three thousand years of history—yes, it started with the history of the area in 1000 BC—in, erm, seventy-six pages. Granted it mentioned the likes of Jane Wadham, a niece of Queen Jane Seymour and Henry VIII’s third wife (in case you were wondering), who was a nun at the Abbey. She married John Foster, a local priest, causing great scandal. I’m sure they’d both be bemused to discover that they both have roads named after them on a new local development, and that you can walk from one to the other in just a couple of minutes. But when trying to tell a story of that scale in just a few pages, well let’s just say it lacked narrative.

Front page of the Daily Mirror commemorating the death of Florence Nightingale. (Secret Romsey, Amberley Publishing)

We even went on a tour of the town given by one of the leading lights of the historical society. It was interesting enough but only after the event did I realise what bugged me about it; it was all about the buildings, the river and their respective histories. It wasn’t about the people. We met in the town centre, under a statue of Lord Palmerston, a nineteenth century British Prime Minister who was born and indeed died at Broadlands, a stately home on the outskirts of the town. He didn’t get a single mention in what was quite a lengthy talk.

I realised that was it; the crux of my book and what was missing from the talk; the secret Romsey was the people and the community. Sure, buildings play a part, after all they don’t just build themselves. But it’s the people who live in them, the people who make them what they are.

So with renewed focus I set about my work and I discovered more stories about the people of Romsey; poor Mrs Arter, a dung collector in the early 19th century who drowned when she dropped her kettle in a local stream and tried to rescue it; Arthur Gregory who was hauled into court for exceeding the five mile an hour speed limit with a 12 ton steam engine; and more well-known local folk like Florence Nightingale, David Frost and the Rev. W.E Awdry.

And I spoke to people, many of whom had lived in Romsey all their life. One mentioned the smell of warm strawberry jam that would creep through the town on a summer’s day thanks to the jam factory that was on the main thoroughfare. Another mentioned how the community came together to build a boat for the boy’s brigade and yet another, well, she was the widow of the town’s newspaper editor for many years and boy did she have some stories. And some photos—many of which she was kind enough to let me use in the book.

I learnt a lot about my home town in writing this book. Hopefully readers will too!

Ian Dickerson's new book Secret Romsey is available for purchase now.