Comments upon Hinckley by visitors over the past centuries, travelling into the town upon horseback or in carriages, give a useful picture to the local historian. The comments are revealing both in what they have to say about the town and about the commentators themselves. The comments are not always favourable but are worth reading in order that Hinckleyans today might, 'See themselves as others saw them.’
The first comment still available must be that made by the Domesday survey in 1086. 'The same earl (Aubrey) held Hinchelie. There are 14 carucates of land. In demesne there are 4 ploughs and 8 serfs, and 42 villeins with 16 bordars and 3 sochman have 91/2 ploughs. There is meadow 6 furlongs in length and 3 furlongs in breadth. Wood, one mile in length and 3 furlongs in breadth. It was worth 6 pounds, now 10 pounds. (Harding with his men held this land. Earl Aubrey had it afterwards, now it is in the King's hand.' Apart from noting that the value of the land had nearly doubled since the Conquest, perhaps through inflation or improvement, it is also possible to calculate the size of the town. The measurements of land, when examined, give the total area of arable at about 1,274 acres and a population of approximately 250. Francis gives this interpretation in his 'History of Hinckley, which still remains the most up to date account of the local history of the area.
Medieval travellers may have left comments upon the town but I have been unable to trace them. By the time of the seventeenth century travel and comment were becoming more frequent. At the same time that Shakespeare was writing and commenting upon, ‘sacks lost at Hinckley fair’ the Commissioner on Charities stated that in 1603, Hinckley was, ‘a poor market town with many poor inhabitants.’ Nineteen years later Burton commented, 'The town standeth upon the decline of a hill, upon a good and pleasant air. The streets and buildings I cannot commend having no neatness or uniformity in them.' In the two centuries that followed travellers by road increased especially with the development of the turnpike. People from all walks of life came to Hinckley and commentators varied from men of the Church to politicians and their comments varied accordingly.
In 1782 Wesley wrote, 'In the evening I preached in Hinckley, one of the civilest towns I have seen'. The question one inevitably asks is why such civility existed and the answer is not far to seek’ On a later visit to Hinckley Wesley observed that one inhabitant who forgot his civility and cursed the preacher was rewarded by being struck blind.
Canning, briefly Prime Minister in 1827, commented on his first visit to Hinckley in January 1807 in a letter to Mr. Leigh. 'I am in the vilest inn, in the nastiest town, in the dirtiest county that imagination can conceive'. Perhaps the weather was bad or the beer poor in the Bull's Head because like many politicians Canning later altered his view of the town and found it, 'tolerable'.
Nichols, the historian and admirer of the town, redressed the balance when he wrote in 1811 that Hinckley was, 'In point of population the second market town in the county. Since Mr. Burton's time the town has been greatly enlarged, the streets and buildings are now neat and uniform.'
Perhaps the best perspective of the town in the years before the coming of the railway can be derived from the comments of the numerous directories published in the early nineteenth century. Slater's directory, giving the figures for the 1841 census states, 'It is situated close to the border of Warwickshire, on ground said to be the highest in England, and from the extreme eminence upwards of fifty churches may be counted within the range of sight’ It is a place of considerable antiquity'. One visitor at any rate gave un¬qualified praise although what he thought of the local inns is purely factual.
In 1846, two years after the scathing Commissioner's report on the hosiery industry with its average wages of f5 shillings and threepence per week1, a more flattering account was given in White's directory. 'Hinckley, an ancient market town, extensively engaged in the hosiery manufacture. Good turnpike road to Leicester. A bill is now in Parliament for a projected railway which will no doubt be a source of prosperity to the town.’ Melville1 s directory of 1854 stated that, ‘The streets are well paved and lighted with gas and there are some good shops.’ The directory added, no doubt for those who did not find the shops good enough, that, 'There is an omnibus to Leicester.'
By the l860fs the long awaited railway had arrived, visitors were too numerous to mention and the cavalcade of riders and travellers who had commented on Hinckley was history itself.
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine