Alton (St. Lawrence)

ALTON (St. Lawrence), a market-town and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Alton, Alton and N. divisions of the county of Southampton, 17 miles (E. N. E.) from Winchester, and 47 (S. W. by W.) from London; containing 3139 inhabitants. The name of this town, which is a slight modification of Auleton or Aultone, is descriptive of its great antiquity. It was a royal demesne in the time of Alfred the Great; and is noticed in the Saxon Chronicle as the scene of a sanguinary battle which was fought between the Saxons and the piratical Danes, who, having landed on this part of the coast in 1001, plundered and laid waste the country till they reached this place, at that time called "Aethelinga-dene." Here the men of Hampshire had assembled in order to oppose their further progress; but notwithstanding that great numbers of the invaders were slain, the latter remained in possession of the field of battle, whence they afterwards marched northward. At the time of the Norman survey, the town belonged to the abbot of St. Peter's, Winchester; and in the reign of Edward I. it returned one member to parliament. During the civil war of the seventeenth century, the place was occupied by a detachment of the royal army, under the command of Sir Ralph Hopton; but, in 1643, it was taken by the parliamentarian forces under Sir William Waller, after an engagement in which Col. Bowles was killed at the church-door, and his regiment taken prisoners.

The town is situated at the source of the river Wey, and consists of three principal streets, which are lighted under an act obtained for that purpose; the houses are in general neatly built, and of pleasing and cheerful appearance. A public library, on a plan calculated to meet the wants of the working mechanics, was established in 1837; it is in a state of prosperous advancement, and lectures are occasionally given to the members. The environs are beautifully picturesque, and the adjacent district richly fertile; the lands are watered by a fine stream, which crosses the town under the streets and houses, and in the surrounding scenery the church forms a conspicuous and interesting feature. The parish comprises by measurement 3896 acres; the surface is generally hilly, and the soil consists principally of chalk and gravel. The manufacture of bombazines was formerly carried on to a very considerable extent, but is now totally discontinued; a great quantity of hop bagging is made, and a paper manufactory is set in motion by the Wey, at no great distance from its source. There are also two large breweries in the town, and in the vicinity are about 200 acres of ground laid out in the cultivation of hops, the malt and the ale of Alton being in high repute. An act was passed in 1846 for the construction of a railway to Farnham and Guildford, 19 miles in length. The market, formerly held on Saturday, but since 1840 altered to Tuesday in every alternate week, is chiefly for cattle and sheep, and, from the great agricultural resources of the neighbourhood, is rapidly increasing: fairs for horses and cattle take place annually on the last Saturday in April, and Sept. 29th, the former for the manor of Alton Westbrook, and the latter for that of Alton Eastbrook. The county magistrates hold petty-sessions here for the division; and a court leet is held once a month by the steward of the manor, at which debts under 40s. are recoverable. The powers of the county debt-court of Alton, established in 1847, extend over the registration district of Alton. The townhall, situated in the market-place, was rebuilt by subscription in 1812.

The living is a vicarage, with the livings of Binstead, Holybourne, and Kingsley annexed, valued in the king's books at £15; patrons and appropriators, the Dean and Chapter of Winchester. The great tithes have been commuted for £770, and the vicarial for £496. The church is a spacious structure, in the later style of English architecture, with some portions of earlier date; it has a square embattled tower surmounted by a spire, and has been enlarged by the addition of a north aisle; on its northern wall is a curious painting of our Saviour's life. There are places of worship for the Society of Friends, and Independents. The free grammar school at Anstey, in the parish, was founded in the reign of Charles I., by John Eggar, and has an endowment of £74. 10. per annum. The poor law union of Alton comprises 19 parishes or places, and contains a population of 11,299. Roman urns, coins, and other antiquities have been found in the neighbourhood; and in cleaning the church, in 1839, portraits of Henry VI. and several bishops were discovered. William de Alton, a Dominican friar, who lived in the time of Edward II., and wrote a treatise on the universality of the pollution of mankind by original sin; John Pitts, an eminent biographer, author of a work entitled "De Illustribus Angliæ Scriptoribus;" and William Curtis, an eminent botanist, author of the "Flora Londinensis," editor of the Botanical Magazine, and founder of a botanical garden near the Magdalene Hospital, and afterwards of a more extensive establishment at Brompton; were natives of the town.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.