Newtown, Isle of Wight
Newtown Harbour, looking to the mainland
|Island:||Isle of Wight|
|Council:||Isle of Wight|
|Isle of Wight|
The town was originally called Francheville (which is to say 'Freetown'), and only later renamed Newtown. It was probably founded before the Norman Conquest. There is some indication that it was attacked by Danes in 1001.
The earliest known charter was granted by the Bishop-elect of Winchester, Aymer de Valence. He signed it at his ecclesiastical estate of Swainston Manor in 1256. The early hopes for its success are reflected in the names of its streets, such as Gold Street and Silver Street. However, it will have had competition from Yarmouth, Newport and Southampton. In 1284 it was somewhat reluctantly given to Edward I. Apparently there were about 60 families living in Newtown at the start of the 14th century.
By the mid 14th century, Newtown was starting to mature into a thriving commercial centre. In 1344, it was assessed at twice the value of Newport. Its harbour was busy and reputed to be the safest on the island. There was a prosperous saltworks and abundant oyster beds. There was an annual three-day festival on the "eve, the day and the morrow of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen", who was honoured in the name of the local thirteenth-century chapel. Then, the plague struck, and subsequently a French raid in 1377 destroyed much of the town, from which it never recovered.
By the middle of the 16th century, it was a small settlement eclipsed by the more easily defended town of Newport. A survey in 1559 noted that Newtown no longer had a market, and did not have a single good house still standing. Its harbour slowly became clogged with silt and inaccessible to larger vessels.
In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I breathed some life into the town by awarding the borough the right to elect two members to Parliament. A town hall was built in the 17th century.
After the town's decline into a quiet village, its continued right to elect two members to the House of Commons made Newtown one of the most notorious of the 'rotten boroughs': by the time of the Reform Act of 1832, which abolished the rotten boroughs, a survey found that Newtown had just fourteen houses and twenty-three voters.
The Newtown Arms Inn was closed in 1916. It was in an unusually shaped building referred to locally as "Noah's Ark."
Newtown remained small, but this has preserved its original layout, which is of historical interest. There are two square ponds by the boathouse, which were dug as salterns as part of the former local salt industry.
The village has a legend which is much the same as that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It is said that the people of Newtown hired a piper for 50 pounds to save Newtown from an excess of rats. He is said to have played his pipe and led the rats into the Solent, where they drowned. The townsfolk then refused to pay the agreed price, and gave the piper just 20 pounds, so he then led the children away. The town lost an entire generation, and so had no young people to defend it when the French attacked in 1377.
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