The Romans developed an iron industry because of it, locally quarried stone for the building of the cathedral was delivered by it and its water was used to help numerous thriving trades. So much of Worcester’s industry and life over the last 2,000 years, since the Romans founded the city, has revolved – and evolved – around and along the River Severn. For Worcester has always been an industrious town, full of entrepreneurs, merchants and businessmen all using the river, the Roman road that passed through the city and, later, the railway and canal (the Worcester and Birmingham) to transport and trade goods – anything from leather and woollen cloth to porcelain, vinegar and Kay’s mail order catalogues.
At the heart of the city, right alongside the east bank of the river, is the cathedral. This mighty structure towers above everything around it, and despite its pastoral benefit to the county, has long been used for commercial gain too, as in several instances during the English Civil War when parts of the structure (lead and oak beams in particular) were removed by the Parliamentarians to profiteer from their sales, causing immense damage to the fabric of the building, and the need for a mammoth restoration project to save the cathedral from collapse.
However, the present day cathedral is not the first structure to have been built where it stands. Once the Romans left town the Saxons moved in and began building a wooden cathedral in AD680. Nothing of the original remains, but the crypt (which was the tomb of St Oswald, Worcester’s Anglo-Saxon saint) does and it was upon this that Wulfstan, the city’s highly-regarded Bishop of Worcester began building a new stone cathedral in 1084. His pastoral care and loyalty towards the city were noted widely and he was soon venerated as a saint.
Upon his death he was buried in the church, his shrine becoming an important place of pilgrimage.
One ‘pilgrim’, who visited Worcester on several occasions, was King John. He held special affection for St Wulfstan and as such, decreed upon his death in 1216, one year after signing the Magna Carta, that he wished to be buried in Worcester Cathedral. His tomb lies on the pavement of the Quire. Above him is the most beautiful vaulted ceiling, decorated simply in gold, red and blue.
Close by, another royal from a later era rests in a grand tomb, that of Arthur Prince of Wales, the elder brother (and therefore heir to the throne) to Henry VIII. He died, aged just 15, while on honeymoon at Ludlow Castle with his new wife, Catherine of Aragon, who, of course, went on to marry Henry nine years later.
During St Wulfstan’s bishopric and King John’s reign, and for 400 years more, the dominant industry in Worcester was the cloth trade, with the city becoming one of the largest producers of broad cloth in England. The trade prospered around the Dolday and Newport Street area by the river and at its peak, in the 15th and 16th centuries, half of the employed population worked within the cloth industry. Worcester gained an international reputation for its cloth with merchants coming from across Europe to buy it.
Even so, the cloth trade was just one of over 40 recorded trades and crafts occurring in Worcester during the medieval and Tudor period with a timber Guildhall built on the High Street, where the present distinguished looking 18th century Guildhall now sits. Consequently, wealthy merchant’s homes sprung up across the city, the best of which can still be seen along the beautiful half-timbered world of Friar Street, including the Tudor House and the spectacular townhouse known as the Greyfriars, owned by the National Trust.
The Wylde family continued to live in the house for over 200 years, although Charles II and his soldiers took over the building in 1651 as the headquarters during the final stages of the English Civil War. Worcester was acknowledged as the place where the Civil War truly began, with the first significant fighting taking place at Powick Bridge in 1642 and the city changing hands between the warring factions.
The city was badly hit, including the Cathedral, during the skirmishes of the War and at the hands of the Parliamentarians. As the headquarters during the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the Commandery stayed surprisingly intact with much of the fighting taking place just to the east of the building on the hill known as Fort Royal. The King’s commander, the Duke of Hamilton, died in the Commandery and is believed to have been buried for some days under the floorboards. He was later buried at Worcester Cathedral while Charles II escaped, hiding in safehouses as the Parliamentarians took hold of the city once more. The nave and cloisters of the cathedral are known to have been used to house horses and Parliamentarian troops.
As the cloth industry declined, virtually at the same time as the end of the Civil War, other industries evolved and they too kept Worcester firmly at the forefront of international commerce.
In 1751 Dr John Wall, an eminent surgeon and prominent local figure, managed to convince a group of men to go into business with him, to take advantage of the craze for porcelain that up until then had only been imported from the Far East. They built a new factory beside the river known as Warmstry House (now a college) and the company quickly built a worldwide reputation for manufacturing the very finest porcelain. Royal Worcester is still made in the very heart of the city in Severn Street, where a museum outlines a fascinating social history along with a unique collection of porcelain.
Meanwhile gloving, having been an important industry in the city since the Middle Ages developed rapidly as gloves became more and more fashionable. At the peak of manufacture, between 1790 and 1820, the industry employed 30,000 people among 150 manufacturers in Worcester. It fell into decline in 1826 when a government tax on foreign goods was removed – it had been illegal to sell or own a pair of foreign gloves until then.
Elsewhere the Great Filling Station, on St Martin’s Gate, became the largest brewery of its kind in the world. Established in 1830 by two local chemists, Hill, Evans & Co brewed vinegars and fruit wines. The company ran its own private railway line, called the Vinegar Express, which linked the factory and its huge vaulted cellars to nearby Shrub Hill Station. Though the company ceased trading in 1965, the decorative building still exists, although in need of restoration.
Two chemists in the city, John Wheeley Lea and William Perrins created the original Worcestershire Sauce, which first went on sale in their shop in 1837. Asked by a local aristocrat, Lord Sandys, to create a recipe that he had discovered while in India, the pair made an extra jar for themselves but thought it tasted disgusting. Returning to the forgotten jar some years later, the sauce had matured and become very palatable. Like so many other Worcester products, Worcestershire Sauce became famous and fashionable throughout the world. It is still made to a secret recipe in the city today, although Heinz now owns the brand. So much of Worcester’s past has disappeared through medieval fires that ravaged entire streets, Civil War skirmishes that flattened entire suburbs and questionable town planning that demolished historically important buildings. Yet, walking through the city centre, there is plenty of opportunity to gauge a flavour of time evolving over the centuries. And if there was one way in which to survey the urban landscape, it would be to compliment the cathedral’s stonemasons in their stunning restoration work by climbing the cathedral tower to take a bird’s eye view of the city.
Find out more from Worcester Tourist Information Centre, based in the Guildhall on the High Street. Tel: 01905 726311 or visit www.visitworcester.com