TEWKSBURY — Last week, the Tewksbury Public Library took a virtual trip across the pond to visit our unofficial “sister city” in the United Kingdom. More than 40 residents of both Tewksbury, MA and Tewkesbury, England, which is in Gloucestershire County (northwest of London), participated in the program.
Tewkesbury resident John Dixon, a member of the Tewkesbury Historical Society, presented the talk. He is from the north of England but moved to Tewkesbury to teach high school history.
Dixon first visited Tewksbury, MA in 1998 when he led a school trip to the United States, and was hosted by Carol and Gerry Callaghan.
“The contrast [of Tewkesbury] with Tewksbury is amazing,” said Dixon, reading from recollections he wrote following his trip, noting how much larger — in population and space — Tewksbury, MA is compared to its sister city.
Several residents have visited back and forth over the years, including Tewkesbury’s mayor and town crier — a traditional English job whose role is to make public announcements to the community.
The centerpiece of Tewkesbury is its abbey, the biggest Norman non-cathedral in the country.
One of the few abbeys still standing in England (spared from Henry VIII’s destruction), it was bought by the townspeople several hundred years ago. Tewkesbury Abbey was named after its founding monk Theoc and will celebrate its 900th anniversary in 2021.
One of the hidden secrets of Tewkesbury Abbey is a replica of longtime Tewksbury resident Mico Kaufman’s sculpture “Touching Souls” — you can see it along Route 38 in front of Tewksbury United Methodist Church.
Tewkesbury sits at the confluence of the River Severn (the longest river in England — “it’s like our Mississippi River,” said Dixon) and the River Avon. The area experiences severe flooding as a result; however, the abbey has never flooded due to excellent engineering.
Tewkesbury is limited by land that is not within the floodplain, and has three main roads — one goes north to Worcester, one northeast to Oxford and London, and one east to Gloucester.
Besides the abbey, Tewkesbury has a rich religious history; the town had a large Quaker presence and one of the first Quaker chapels in the country. Additionally, several pieces of classic British literature were written by Tewkesbury residents or based on Tewkesbury; author John Moore and “John Halifax, Gentleman” by Dinah Craik are major tourist draws.
Dixon spoke about several moments in history and places that put Tewkesbury on the map.
Charles Dickens visited the town in the 1800s and got very drunk at a local watering hole. King George III (the “mad” king of Revolutionary War fame) also stopped by in 1788 and was declared mad shortly after — “I don’t know if there’s any connection at all” between his “diagnosis” and visit, said Dixon.
He noted that one of George’s Hanoverian sons was Baron Tewkesbury, and Tewksbury, MA, may have been named after him. Dixon pointed out Tewkesbury’s unique architecture; most of the town is made from bricks pulled from the River Severn.
Several historic buildings were torn down to build shopping centers or apartments, though in the 1960s, townspeople formed a civic society to protect historic sites. Other buildings have been converted from their original use — one old shop is now a Subway, though Dixon said he prefers Dunkin Donuts.
Similar to Massachusetts, Tewkesbury architects tried to harmonize the styles of new buildings with the historic style, including the library — fitting as the program was developed in partnership with Tewksbury Community Librarian Robert Hayes and the Tewkesbury, England librarians.
In discussing Tewkesbury’s claims to fame, Dixon explained that the town was a major producer of men’s stockings prior to the Industrial Revolution. Railways were very important for the market trade; Dixon declared Tewkesbury’s station “the second most beautiful station in the country.”
The town was also famous for boatbuilding in the early 1900s. Speedboat racer Bill Shakespeare (no, not that Shakespeare) was from Tewkesbury and helped pioneer the building of fiberglass boats, setting many world records for speed racing until his tragic death in 1971.
Dixon said much of the machinery used on D-Day was built in Tewkesbury and shipped down to the coast; both General George Patton and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the site.
Another famous longtime resident was American Victoria Woodhull-Martin, an author and suffragette who was the first woman to run for president in the 1872 election (she was ultimately unsuccessful). Woodhull-Martin married Tewkesbury banker John Biddulph Martin and lived for many years in the town; a memorial now commemorates her time in Tewkesbury.
Today, many Tewkesbury residents are employed by the nearby British Government Communications Headquarters, a British intelligence agency, and Moog Aerospace.
Fans of William Shakespeare (yes, that Shakespeare) may be familiar with the phrase “his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard” from Henry IV, Part 2. Dixon explained the phrase is not meant to insult one’s intelligence (“thick” as in “dense” or “stupid”), but is actually a compliment — Tewkesbury mustard is made with horseradish, so the line refers to one’s sharpness.
The biggest difference between the two towns?
“There’s very little snow here,” said Dixon, speaking about Tewkesbury’s mild and rainy climate, a contrast to Tewksbury.
Dixon also says the of-ficial pronunciation of Tewkesbury is “tchucksbury” (try it with a British accent).
The library program will available to watch and share online at youtube.com/TewksburyTV along with other wonderful library programs.