The first settlements in the Congleton area were in Neolithic times, and you can still see the remains of a chambered cairn built around 3000 BC just outside the town, on the road to Leek. Archaeological finds tell us people lived here in both the Stone and Bronze Ages.
There is little evidence of Roman occupation, though many relics, including coin hoards, have been found elsewhere in Cheshire.
The Vikings made their mark by destroying nearby Davenport, allowing Congleton to become the local market town.
In Saxon days Earl Godwin of Wessex held the land around Congleton, but by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, William the Conqueror had made his nephew Earl of Chester and granted him the whole of Cheshire. He in turn passed ‘Cogletone’, which had been laid waste by the king’s army, to his man Bigot. It’s believed the origin of the name Congleton is Saxon: cung hill (a round hill) and tun meaning farm or village.
In the 13th century Congleton belonged to the de Lacy family and Henry de Lacy, 3rd Earl of Lincoln, granted its first charter in 1272. This gave it the right to elect a mayor and ale taster, have a merchant guild and behead known felons. The people were allowed to travel throughout Cheshire without paying tolls, dig turves (peat), keep pigs and were obliged to have their corn ground at the town mill ‘on payment of the twentieth grain’. This provided the Corporation with its main income. The town could also hold fairs and markets.
Disaster struck in 1451 when the River Dane, which runs through Congleton on its way from Axe Edge in the Peak District to the River Weaver, flooded and destroyed the wooden bridge, the town mill and half the timber framed buildings. The town centre then grew up on higher ground, where the present day High Street is, and the river was straightened and diverted away from the town. Many Tudor buildings are still evident today.
Tudors and Stuarts
Congleton soon became prosperous again, with much of its wealth derived from leather working and lace making. Congleton “points” were leather strips with a silver tip, similar to modern shoelaces, which were used for fastening clothes.
Congleton was also well known for its cockfights and bearbaiting. On one occasion the town bear died just before the annual wakes, or holiday. The town had been saving to buy a new bible, but lent the bearward 16 shillings from the fund to buy a new bear. The story was immortalised in the inaccurate rhyme,
Sold the Bible
To buy a bear.
In the seventeenth century, Congleton was ravaged by plague. It was believed to have reached the town in 1641 in a box of clothes sent from London. The town became deserted and poor – but was still expected to provide for bands of soldiers as the Civil War began.
The townsfolk’s loyalties were divided. A former Congleton mayor and lawyer, John Bradshaw, became president of the court which sent Charles I to be beheaded in 1649 and his signature as Attorney General was the first on the king’s death warrant. There is a plaque commemorating him on Bradshaw House in Lawton Street.
The Industrial age
The first silk mill in Congleton was built by John Clayton in 1752, and by 1771 this industry had restored the town’s prosperity. Ribbon weaving began in the 1750s and cotton spinning in 1784. John Whitehurst, who was a founder member of the Lunar Society, was one of the clock-making family.
In 1860 a treaty with France allowed its silk to be imported duty free. The English silk trade began to decline and Congleton suffered accordingly. Its fortunes were revived when fustian and velvet cutting were introduced in 1867.
By the end of the 18th century, there were numerous textile mills in the town, and better communications were needed. Turnpike Trusts improved the state of the roads, the Macclesfield Canal was opened in 1831 and in 1848 the railway arrived, though neither is close to the town centre. Other improvements include the arrival of gaslight in 1833, a new town hall and hospital in 1866 and Congleton Park in 1871.
Different aspects of the textile trade continued to be important throughout the twentieth century. Congleton’s ribbons and tapes are still particularly well known.
Congleton gained a sewerage works in 1902 and a swimming pool in 1936. Electricity was switched on in 1931.
The second world war brought a number of children to the town, evacuated from cities at risk of bombing. Dutch and American troops were stationed here, and a number of Dutch surnames can be found here today. In the post-war heyday of town twinning, Congleton paired with Oosterhoot in the Netherlands and Trappes in France.
After the war until the 1980s, Congleton Carnival was an occasion not to be missed – a three day event, it featured a huge parade and many military displays. The 700th anniversary of the first charter was marked in 1972 by a visit from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The leisure centre appeared in 1975 and Daneside Theatre opened in 1986.
After 20 years of hard work by volunteers, Congleton Museum opened its doors on 29th June 2002, and was later officially opened by the Duke of Gloucester.
The Leisure Centre has been rebuilt, but the promised refurbishment of the Bridestones Shopping Centre has yet to happen. The Congleton Link Road, joining the Crewe, Holmes Chapel, Manchester and Macclesfield roads and bypassing the town centre, opened in April 2021. Its building sparked a huge increase in housing on or near all those roads. The population of Congleton is currently around 27,000.
In 2022 the town celebrated the 750th anniversary of its first charter.