The history of Rushden goes back about 10,000 years to the beginning of the present landscape, which was formed at the end of the Ice Age. Rushden covers about 3,500 acres and its name means “rushy valley”.
Signs of Bronze Age settlement have been found in the area. The Iron Age site, excavated near Boundary Avenue about 1970, is mainly in Knuston. Evidence of Roman sites has been found in the Hayway area and at Higham Park. Records indicate that there were Saxon settlements in the area, but no Saxon finds have been made at Rushden. It was first mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, as “Risdene”. There are remains of the medieval field systems still to be seen today.
From ancient Saxon times, the area including Rushden, together with Higham Ferrers, Irchester, Raunds and Wollaston, was known as the Higham Hundred.
Higham Park was developed in the early 12th century, near the Bedfordshire border, and was used mainly for deer hunting – most of its area was in Rushden. It was enlarged in 1166 – with trees and open spaces to chase deer. Remains of the moat can still be seen.
Rushden was a Duchy of Lancaster village, from the 14th century, so was merged with the Crown and administered from London. Rushden once had two Manors. Evidence shows that the Manor House of William Peverel, an early land-owner, was on the site of Rushden Hall. The Crown Manor was probably Scanthorpe, believed to have been on the site of the present Duck Street car park near College Street.
Manorial Courts were held at Higham Park – hence the name of the nearby “Court Estate”, between Newton Road and the present Bedford Road.
By the 16th century, the three-field system was in use. Fields were fallow for one year, grew wheat and barley for the next year, and peas in the third year. Land was divided into strips. People cultivated strips so that no-one had all the best land. The ridge and furrows, produced by this system, can still be seen in Hall Park and Spencer Park. The fields were enclosed in 1778, so the 50,000 strips were re-allocated and the 18th century hedges were planted. Some of the old field names are still in use today – including Nippendale and Short Stocks.
As roads developed, tolls were paid. There were several toll-gates in Rushden. There were two gates near the present “Toll Bar”, between Rushden and Higham Ferrers – one for the turnpike (recently the A6), and one for the road to Northampton (until recently the A45).
The Pemberton family, who lived in Rushden Hall, came from Somershall in Lancashire around 1460, and remained at Rushden for nearly two hundred years. The Sartoris family were the last ones to reside at the Hall.
Rushden St Mary’s Church was endowed by the Priory of Lenton in Nottinghamshire, which was founded by William Peverel in 1105. Today the church at Rushden has a Rector (a Rector had all the original tithes – with a Vicar the tithes went to a monastic house). Rushden has a magnificent church which includes recently restored monuments to the Pemberton family.
While Rushden was still a village, the main occupation was agriculture. Lace-making, which was very popular in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, was introduced for the women and girls. Brick-making took place – there was a large clay-pit in Wellingborough Road. In the last two decades of the 19th century, shoe-making developed, first in homes and small work-shops, later in factories. The village expanded rapidly as factories rose in most of the streets and Rushden changed from a rural village into a thriving town. Along with the rise of the shoe trade, there was a corresponding rise in the number of chapels and churches – many of the prominent businessmen were members of the non-conformist churches. The increase in the number of factories reached its peak in about 1920, after that, there was a period of consolidation into larger firms and larger premises, but even in the 1950s, 44% of Rushden trade was boot and shoe making.
The story of how Rushden developed from a village to a town has been recorded elsewhere by several local historians with the help of photographs and memories.
Rushden is situated in the County of Northamptonshire, approximately 16 miles from Northampton. The southern limits of the town border on the County of Bedfordshire and to the north lies the river Nene (locally pronounced Nen), which flows into the Wash. The parish of Rushden covers nearly four thousand acres and is governed by a Town Council of twenty-one members, which meets in Rushden Hall.
Rushden’s roots and prosperity have resulted from a number of industries, including farming and lace making, but the mechanisation of the boot and shoe manufacturing industry and associated trades was responsible for the expansion of the town in the nineteenth century. In the industry’s heyday there were over a hundred boot and shoe factories in Rushden. Today only a handful of these survive. Some of the redundant factories have been converted into flats. Today industry in the town is varied and mostly situated in out of town industrial estates.
The town has three large parks and several “pocket” parks. There are many clubs and organisations appealing to different tastes and ages many of these take part in the “Party in the Park” every year. Of particular note is the Rushden Historical Transport Society (RHTS), based at the Rushden Train Station, which holds several events throughout the year.
As with most towns, shopping in Rushden has changed with the advent of out of town supermarkets but there are still many interesting small shops in the high street.
In 2011, according to the census, there were almost 30,000 people living in Rushden, and with the new housing estates being built on all sides of the town the increase in population which began in the nineteenth century looks set to continue.
In July 2017 the Rushden Lakes development was opened on the edge of town. This groundbreaking project has a large retail park alongside a nature reserve and the River Nene. The first ever Wildlife Trust visitor centre is situated on the boardwalk at the edge of the lakes and is the starting point for many walks out into the local countryside. There is a short path that runs around Skew Bridge lake which is accessible to all and also a facility for canoe/boat hire to get out onto the water.