Middlesex in Roman Times

Middlesex in Roman Times

It is now generally recognized that whatever the intentions behind Caesar’s invasions, the actual conquest of Britain did not begin until A.D. 43, under the Emperor Claudius. London must have been founded shortly after this, perhaps growing out of a riverside settlement at the north end of the first, and for many centuries the only, bridge over the river. The creation of the port and city of London must have had a lasting effect upon the region as a whole, if only because the city then controlled all movement along the river. From this time Middlesex must have been closely linked with London, the more so because then, as earlier, the belt of forest along its northern and western margins still cut it off from the people in the country behind it.

Some part of the population still inhabited river-side villages: at Brentford (Old England), for instance, remains of Romano-British huts have been found below the present high-tide level of the river. They make use of the same building techniques as the earlier huts and also show that since Roman times the river has undergone changes in level—a fact for which there is other evidence—since in present conditions the site would be continually flooded. Other hut-groups and villages no doubt await discovery, and there should also be villas, some of which might be the successors of earlier settlements. Their occupants would live mostly by their agriculture, sometimes with subsidiary industries added; but part of central and northern Middlesex also seems to have been more definitely industrialized, producing pottery and tiles largely for the use of London itself. The centre of this area was Brockley Hill (Sulloniac), where the local potters of Roman times are now beginning to be identified by the stamps on their wares. But there are surface traces of many tileries of which as yet little or nothing is known.

Brockley Hill lies on the Watling Street, the great Roman road which runs by way of Verulamium (St. Albans) across the Midlands. Other important roads took the first part of their course from London through Middlesex: the Ermine Street northwards through Edmonton (where traces of another Romano-British village have come to light); and the Bath road through Brentford making by way of the bridges at Staines (Pontes) for Silchester (Calleva) and the south-west generally.

Little is known of the Roman site at Staines, but the double earthwork first recorded by Stukeley in the eighteenth century, and recently re-discovered by air-photography on Greenfield Common (actually in the parish of Laleham), may in some way have been associated with it. The dark green marks left in the grass by its ditches are all that can be seen of it to-day, and that only in times of drought; but their regular straight outlines suggest a Roman date and possibly a military use. The site is now permanently preserved in the playing-field of the Matthew Arnold School. The Roman site at Westminster may have been associated in some way with the early river-crossing referred to above. Roman buildings certainly existed on the site of the Abbey: though little is known of them, they seem to have been more impressive than most, and perhaps foreshadow the importance of Westminster in later times.

Middlesex must therefore have shared in the general prosperity of Britain in the first two centuries of the Roman occupation and on the industrial side at least this wellbeing may not have depended entirely upon its proximity to London. The position is not yet quite clear, but it seems very likely that the wares of the Brockley Hill potters were reaching other parts of the province, including the northern frontier, at any rate in the late first and early second centuries. The industrial activity of Brockley Hill seems to have continued down to the end of the second century; but the later picture is blurred, and from the end of the following century onwards the people of London and “Middlesex” lived against a background of growing uneasiness. The collapse of the Roman Empire was ultimately brought about by the pressure of the barbarian peoples beyond its frontiers, but the process was hastened by internal disintegration, of which the rising of the usurper Allectus in A.D. 296 was but one sign. London was saved from the rebels in the nick of time: its relief is celebrated by an unique gold medallion found in 1922 in a great hoard of treasure at Beaurains in France; but the effect of the disturbance upon the inhabitants of the countryside can only be surmised. The official ending of Roman responsibility for Britain in the early fifth century was preceded by a long period in which the province as a whole was threatened by Saxon and other invaders. The people of “Middlesex” must have suffered, if only indirectly and because of the close connection with London, which was one of the chief objectives of these attacks.