ABINGDON, a borough and market-town having exclusive jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the hundred of Hormer, county of Berks, of which it is the county town, 6 miles (S.) from Oxford, 26 (N. W. by N.) from Reading, and 56 (W. N. W.) from London; containing, exclusively of that part of the parish of St. Helen which is without the borough, and actually in the hundred of Hormer, 5585 inhabitants; of whom 4947 are in the parish of St. Helen, and 638 in that of St. Nicholas. This place, according to a manuscript in the Cottonian library quoted by Dugdale, was, in the time of the Britons, a city of considerable importance, and distinguished as a royal residence, to which the people resorted to assist at the great councils of the nation. By the Saxons it was called Scovechesham, or Sewsham; but it acquired the name of Abbendon, "the town of the abbey," on the removal hither, in 680, of a Monastic institution previously founded at Bagley Wood, now an extra-parochial liberty in the vicinity, by Cissa, viceroy of Centwine, ninth king of Wessex; on which institution Ceadwalla, the king's son and successor, bestowed the town and its appendages. After the establishment of the monastery, Offa, King of Mercia, on a visit to Abingdon, was so much pleased with the situation that he erected a palace here, in which he and his immediate successors, Egferth and Cenwulf, occasionally resided. The monastery continued to flourish till 871, when it was destroyed by the Danes; in consequence, Edred, grandson of Alfred, in 955 laid the first stone of a new monastery, which was completed after his death by the abbot of Ethelwold and his successor Ordgar, and which, from the extent of its endowments and privileges, subsequently augmented by Edgar and Canute the Great, was raised to the dignity of a mitred abbey. William the Conqueror in 1084 celebrated the festival of Easter at Abingdon, where he was sumptuously entertained by Robert D'Oilly, one of the most powerful barons of the time, under whose care the king left his son Henry to be educated in this convent, where the prince imbibed those acquirements which afterwards procured for him the surname of Beauclerc. At the Dissolution, the revenue of the abbey was £1876. 10. 9. A nunnery was also founded here by Cilla, niece of Cissa, who presided over it till her death, when it was removed to Witham: the site was afterwards given, by Edward VI., to Christ's hospital in this town. The Guild of the Holy Cross was instituted in St. Helen's church prior to the reign of Richard II., and appears to have been refounded in that of Henry V., when the brethren erected bridges at Burford and Culhamford, where the ferry across the river Thames was so dangerous that passengers and cattle had been frequently lost. It was dissolved in 1547, at which period its revenue amounted to £85. 15. 6.
In the early part of the civil war of the seventeenth century, Charles I. garrisoned Abingdon, where he established the head-quarters of his cavalry; but on the retreat of the royal forces to Oxford, in 1644, the Earl of Essex took possession of it, and garrisoned it for the parliament; and a few days afterwards, Waller's army, which had been stationed near Wantage, entered the town, and among other excesses destroyed the cross in the market-place, at which, in 1641, the accommodation with the Scots had been celebrated by 2000 choristers. This cross is particularly noticed by Camden for its beauty, and was the model of one afterwards erected at Coventry. Sir Stephen Hawkins in 1645, and Prince Rupert in the following year, attacked the garrison unsuccessfully: on these occasions the defenders put every Irish prisoner to death, without trial; whence the expression "Abingdon law."
The town, which is pleasantly situated at the influx of the small river Ock into the Thames, is handsomely built, and consists of several spacious streets diverging from the market-place; it is well paved and lighted, under a local act of the 6th of George IV., and is amply supplied with water. The several bridges near the town have been widened and improved by voluntary contributions, and the causeway connected with Culham bridge forms a pleasant promenade. An act for inclosing lands was passed in 1841. Races take place in September, at which time, also, assemblies are held in the council-chamber. The manufacture of woollen goods was formerly carried on to a great extent, but has quite declined; and during the late war, Abingdon had a good trade in sail-cloth, sacking, and coarse manufactures of a similar description; but, owing to the competition of the establishments in the north of England and in Scotland, this source of employment has also declined. The trade now consists in corn and in malt, which are sold to a considerable extent. Several wharfs and warehouses have been constructed, where the Wilts and Berks canal joins the Thames, near its confluence with the Ock; and the Oxford branch of the Great Western railway has a station three miles south-east of the town, in the county of Oxford. The market-days are Monday, chiefly for corn, and Friday, for provisions only: fairs for horses and horned-cattle are held on the first Monday in Lent, May 6th, June 20th, Aug. 5th, Sept. 19th, the Monday before Old Michaelmas-day (a statute fair), Monday after Oct. 12th (a great market), and Dec. 11th; and there is also a fair for wool.
The borough was incorporated by Philip and Mary in 1555-6, and other charters were granted by Elizabeth, James I., and George III., chiefly confirmatory of the original, by which the corporation was styled the "Mayor, Bailiffs, and Burgesses of the borough of Abingdon." Under the Municipal act of 1836 the corporation is now styled the "Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses," which has been adopted as the motto of a new seal; and consists of a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors: the burgesses are about 300 in number, and the mayor, late mayor, and recorder, with four others, are justices for the borough, of which the municipal and parliamentary boundaries are the same. There is a court of sessions quarterly, with jurisdiction over felonies and misdemeanors; the magistrates hold a petty-session every Tuesday; and courts leet and view of frankpledge are held by the mayor within a month after Easter and Michaelmas. The county debt-court of Abingdon, established in 1847, has jurisdiction over the greater part of the registration-district of Abingdon. The old borough gaol has been converted into a police station-house and other uses, and the borough justices have the privilege of committing prisoners to the county bridewell; the prisoners, however, being supported out of the borough rate. The town returns a member to parliament; the mayor is returning officer. The members for the county are elected at Abingdon; and the county magistrates hold a petty-session on alternate Mondays for the Abingdon division. The market-house is a spacious and elegant building of freestone, erected by the corporation in 1678, having a commodious hall in which the Nisi Prius court at the assizes is held, and public business connected with the borough or county is transacted. The county bridewell, a handsome stone edifice, erected in 1811, at an expense of £26,000, comprises a courthouse, in which the crown court at the summer assizes, and the July county sessions, are held; the October sessions take place here and at Reading alternately.
Abingdon comprises the parishes of St. Helen and St. Nicholas; the former including, in the out-parish, part of the townships of Shippon and Northcourt, and the whole of Sandford, Barton, and Pumney; and the latter, the remainder of Shippou and Northcourt, with some lands in Sunningwell and Bayworth, which are all without the limits of the borough. The living of St. Helen's is a vicarage, with the rectory of St. Nicholas and the chapelry of Drayton annexed, valued in the king's books at £29. 11. 3., and having a net income of £255; it is in the patronage of the Crown. The church is a handsome structure in the early English style, with a square embattled tower surmounted by a lofty spire. The church of St. Nicholas, built about the close of the thirteenth, or commencement of the fourteenth, century, has some remains of Norman architecture. Mr. Wrigglesworth left lands and tenements, in Abingdon, for the support of a lecture in St. Helen's church, to be delivered every Saturday evening from Michaelmas to Lady-day, and at the church at Marcham (a village two miles and a half distant) on every Sunday morning from Lady-day till Michaelmas. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, and Wesleyans. The Free Grammar school, for the education of "Threescore and thirteen" boys, was founded in 1563, by John Royse, and endowed with two messuages in Birchin-lane, London, now occupied by part of the premises belonging to the London Assurance Company. In 1608, William Bennett, of "Marlborowe," left land in "Brodeblunsdon" for the maintenance of six poor scholars in Royse's school; these are elected by the master and governors of Christ's hospital in this town, and, from the increase of the funds, are clothed, and instructed also in writing and arithmetic. In 1609, Thomas Tesdale gave certain lands in the county of Warwick, to maintain an usher, whose salary is £120 per annum. The school is entitled to six scholarships at Pembroke College, Oxford, established by Thomas Tesdale, two to be filled by the founder's kin, and the others from the school at large; and to four more scholarships at the same college, instituted by Richard Wightwick, two for the founder's kin.
Christ's Hospital, on the west side of St. Helen's church, erected in 1446, originally belonged to the fraternity of the Holy Cross, on the dissolution of which establishment, in 1547, the inhabitants applied through Sir John Mason, to Edward VI., for the restoration of their lost estates, and the foundation of an hospital for the relief of the poor of the town. In compliance with this application the monarch, by letters-patent in 1553, founded the hospital under its present name, and incorporated twelve persons for its government, called "The Master and Governors of the Hospital of Christ." It consists of almshouses for six poor men, six women, and a nurse, with cloisters, and a handsome hall, where prayers are read morning and evening to the inmates. An almshouse was built in 1718, for eighteen men or women; and there is another, near the river Thames, for six men or women, to which Mr. Beasley, in 1826, bequeathed £600 stock, the interest to be paid weekly, and Thomas Knight, Esq., in 1836, left £600 three and a half per cents. St. John's hospital, in the Vineyard, was endowed before the Reformation, for six poor men, and rebuilt by the corporation in 1801; B. Bedwell, Esq., was a liberal contributor to it, and Mr. Beasley added £600 stock to the endowment. An almshouse near St. Helen's church was erected in 1707, by Charles Twitty, for the maintenance of three men and three women; bequests of £200 each, by John Bedwell in 1799, and Samuel Cripps in 1819, and of £600 three per cent. stock by Mr. Beasley in 1826, have been added to the original endowment. There are also houses for four men and four women, endowed in 1733, by Benjamin Tomkins. The union of Abingdon comprises 27 parishes or places, in the county of Berks, and 11 in that of Oxford, and contains a population of 18,789. The remains of the abbey consist chiefly of the gateway entrance, which, though greatly mutilated, displays some beautiful details of the later style of English architecture. St. Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury; Sir John Mason, British ambassador at the court of France, and chancellor of the University of Oxford; and the late Lord Colchester, were natives of this place; which confers the title of Earl on the family of Bertie.