The Cheltonian > Articles

Anthea Jones

Local author’s new book: Cheltenham, a new history. crack

Historian, author and Charlton Kings resident Dr Anthea Jones has just penned a fascinating new history of Cheltenham, offering readers a chance to look beyond the town’s Regency legacy.

Anthea first came to Cheltenham in 1958 on a family holiday, then returned in 1976 as head of history at Cheltenham Ladies’ College!

Anthea read modern history at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and then went to work in the London County Council, as it then existed. A few years later, teaching offered a more flexible working week and quickly became a source of much enjoyment and fulfilment for her. Anthea’s interest in local history was stimulated by attending WEA classes with the late Lionel Munby.

Throughout her career as a historian and a teacher, Anthea has taken a particular interest in social and economic history (the subject of her PhD thesis) and has written many articles on a variety of historical subjects and in various journals. She also gives lively and engaging talks on local history topics – indeed anyone attending the Literary Festival this year should look out for Anthea’s talk on Sunday 17 October, entitled “Dethroning George III”.

Her previous books are Tewkesbury (published in 1987), The Cotswolds (1994) and A Thousand Years of the English Parish (2000) and all were well received. Her latest work, Cheltenham: A New History builds on knowledge gained from these earlier studies, and on further extensive research in the archives.

Cheltenham: A New History is a big book, handsomely illustrated with lots of modern photographs as well as drawings and prints from the past, but is much more than an interesting set of pictures. It tells the story of Cheltenham’s development from a number of new angles as well as describing aspects which are well-known, and there is new material on the famed visit of George III.

The villages within the modern Borough, Charlton Kings, Leckhampton, Prestbury and Swindon have been closely associated with, even integrated with Cheltenham itself since William the Conqueror called parliament to Gloucester and ordered the Domesday survey of his new kingdom. Their history is woven into the story of Cheltenham. Throughout, too, Cheltenham is placed in the context of other market towns in the area.

Cheltenham’s medieval history was more significant in its later development than might be supposed. Her book A thousand years of the English parish had explored the importance of the church as a landowner, and this theme is developed to show the effect which the church had on the development of Cheltenham.

Of immense importance was the lord of the manor’s action in laying out ‘burgage’ plots in Cheltenham, which made it a market town, and which underlie the modern High Street and even the ring road. The first record of the market is in 1226.

Aristocratic favour was a feature of Cheltenham which the first spa built on and extended. Captain Skillicorne was a notable entrepreneur; his name is well-known partly because in the parish church of St Mary there is what may be the longest epitaph in any church in the country. Not known before is his association, and possibly partnership, with Lady Frances Stapleton; she had lived for a number of years in the West Indies and set the trend for denizens of hot countries, both east and west, to retire to Cheltenham.

The book includes for the first time a detailed examination of a fine fan painted in 1740 by Thomas Robins, who lived in Charlton Kings at the time. This fan, in private ownership, is mounted on delicately-carved ivory sticks, and Anthea has established both its date – it is the earliest known picture of the first spa buildings – and the lady for whom it was painted, Lady Frances Stapleton.

Partly because of the strong impression that George III’s visit, nearly fifty years later, made on the way the history of the town is told, Cheltenham thinks of itself pre-eminently as a ‘Regency’ town, even though many of its best-known streets were built after the Prince Regent had become King George IV, and indeed after he had died. Success as a retreat for the leisured, and the efforts of energetic entrepreneurs, ensured that Cheltenham grew amazingly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1801 and 1851 Cheltenham experienced a ten-fold increase while the population of England and Wales merely doubled.

A large proportion of the population serviced the affluent residents or visitors, and after the First World War this economy collapsed. The Borough Council embarked on a programme of house-building which continued until 1991, a less well known aspect of the town described in this book. The Borough Council was also successful in the 1930s in attracting industries to the town. The Second World War marked another turning point, with the establishment of headquarters buildings for enterprises such as insurance companies and GCHQ. The book brings this story right up to date with the construction of the ‘doughnut’ and the housing erected on GCHQ’s former Benhall site.

The final chapter of Anthea’s new book describes many of the features of Cheltenham which make up its distinctive ethos: municipal enterprise (particularly in creating numerous parks and gardens – Cheltenham was at one time known as ‘the garden town’) the races, the festivals, music and theatre. The book ends with a discussion of conservation; Anthea believes that the legacy of the past is the challenge for the future.