Warminster is a market town lying in close proximity to Salisbury Plain. Its history starts with the discovery of two Roman villas at Pit Mead, Bishopstrow. In Anglo-Saxon times it was a royal estate and residence, but it was not until the 13th century that it began to develop into the town we know now.
The earliest settlement was likely around the parish church of St Denys and nearby Manor House (now embedded within Manor Gardens), but nothing else survives. The town grew east from the site of the old Emwell Cross, an open space which tradition says was an old market site originally and now contains a grade II* stone obelisk commemorating the enclosure of the parish in 1783. At that time the eastern limit of the town was at the junction of George Street and High Street. In the early 13th century the ‘market of Warminster’ with a shop ‘covered in stone’ appears to have been a separate area based around the chapel of St Lawrence, a chapel-of-ease for St Denys (the Minster) which had become isolated on the north-west fringes of the town.
Very little is known about the medieval development of the town apart from the mention of houses in Church Street, High Street, West Street and Portway, and until fairly recently, only hints of older buildings behind later fronts have been coming to light. During inspection and recording when town centre buildings are redeveloped, more evidence has been uncovered of the survival of early fabric that could be medieval or early modern.
Historic England have long understood that there is more to many ordinary or modern-looking towns than meets the eye and are actively fostering groups to uncover their history through the physical fabric of bricks, mortar and timber. It has recently been discovered that the row of buildings between the Athenaeum in the High Street and North Row contain the substantial remains of jettied timber-framed houses, probably shop-houses of the late medieval/early modern period. No. 16 (Bon Bon Chic) was dated to 1513 in 2014. No. 6 High Street (Café Journal) was found to date between 1499 and 1531. Cordens (no. 4 High Street) is likely to be the oldest in the row from architectural details evident. Fragments of earlier buildings have been uncovered at the Bath Arms (now Wetherspoons) and 32 Market Place (Coates and Parker) which hint at the type of buildings that preceded the present shops.
Warminster has been underappreciated as a town in architectural terms. Wiltshire Buildings Record is hoping to bring out knowledge of exactly how Warminster is unique and special, and this should foster greater interest in our town. Thanks should be given to the Warminster Preservation Trust who have kindly donated £2,000 so we can kick this project off with dating some key buildings using dendrochronology. Watch this space!
Dorothy Treasure Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record
Wiltshire Buildings Record held its 40th AGM in Bratton on the 22nd June. The weather was beautiful and a miraculous interlude in a succession of grey, stuffy days that had come before. After the business meeting Mike Manson of the Bratton History Association gave us a Powerpoint presentation on the origins and development of Bratton, which was apparently once three separate settlements. The wealth of fine houses hidden down picturesque lanes were derived from the woollen industry in the 17th and 18th centuries. West Wiltshire was dominated by a small group of entrepreneurs who controlled the woollen industry as landholders, buyers and employers. The most prominent family in Bratton and Westbury was the Whitakers; wool merchants whose impressive home was the Courthouse in Court Lane, dating from the medieval period and onwards. Iron replaced wool in the 19th century, as Dennis Gardner, another BHA member explained in a separate presentation. Reeves ironworks produced agricultural machinery and was the largest employer in Bratton until the early 20th century. We went out, fuelled by much cake and tea, down a positive rabbit-warren of unexpected leafy lanes, guided by Mike. Owners of houses were moved to come out and investigate at the sight of a large bunch of strangers all staring steadily in their direction. All were friendly though, and a mine of information. Much of the timber-framing we saw appeared to be 17th century, or 17th century improvements of earlier buildings which in at least two cases included a chute at the front, possibly to load fleeces directly into a wool loft at the top of a house (as found in a WBR recording of Court Lane farmhouse a few years back). There was much speculation over this, with the conclusion that many villages had their own peculiarity in building which was influenced by the prevailing economic activity, in Bratton’s case, its woollen industry in the 17th century and possibly later. As usual though, more research is needed to prove this link.
Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record
Hello! I’m Louise a long serving volunteer at the History Centre in Chippenham. I have worked on and off in a voluntary capacity since 2005. I first discovered the Wiltshire Buildings Record (WBR) when it was located within the Wiltshire Record Office at Trowbridge. Dorothy Treasure, who is responsible for the day to day running of the charity, recognised my real passion for old houses and recruited me to her keen band of volunteers. Over the years my contribution has varied due to the needs of my family but I have always been encouraged to continue. Dorothy is also our Principal Building Historian; she is a real expert in her field and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with her.
Volunteers at the History Centre come from all walks of life and work the hours of their choosing. In my case I had worked as an HR professional prior to having a family rather late. Some volunteers are still in paid employment and join us when they can. This is the case with some of our committee members. Some volunteers work with the WBR for a while in order to gain experience to advance their careers in the heritage sector. What we all have in common is an interest in our country’s heritage and a wish to rub shoulders with like-minded people and those working in professional roles. There are four strands to my voluntary work - documentary research into the history of individual buildings, building recording, data entry into the Historic Environment Record (HER) and committee work.
Typically I begin the week with the Archaeology Service, entering data from the WBR archive records onto the HER database. With 18,000 buildings records to work through, I think I’ve gained a job for life! Tom, the HER Manager is always nearby to guide me through the more complex aspects of the system. I am one of four volunteers he manages each week. We all do different things based on our interests and skill sets. I love the challenge of locating buildings particularly when building names have changed, buildings have been altered and only sketchy address details are given!
Tom the HER Manager and I at the History Centre and Martin one of the archaeologists in action at Avebury (photo taken by Terry Waldron)
Working alongside the Archaeology Service has given me a real insight into the challenging work the team undertakes, the county of Wiltshire not only has an important World Heritage Site, Stonehenge and Avebury, but also many other important historic assets to protect. I always enjoy listening to the office banter, the team are a lively and adventurous bunch. The team even has its own Morris dancer!
On a Tuesday, I work with Dorothy and spend my time researching the history of individual buildings. It is a day when I am able to catch up with other office-based volunteers over coffee or lunch. As a charity we need to generate an income and we do this mainly through commission work for individual house owners. Each report we produce includes a comprehensive recording of a building and some documentary history. Documentary research is my main area of expertise, built up over a number of years. It did help studying for an Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Local History from Oxford University. All the study was done via the internet which was fantastic. The Archives team has always provided me with great support when I needed it, along with the WBR.
Studying maps in the Archive room to locate a particular cottage in the village of Netheravon. The building I am looking at is identified by No.90 on the 1790 Enclosure Award map for the parish
During a visit to Cricklade I was asked to pop in to see a cottage in Swindon. This cottage and another similar one nearby were all that were left of an ancient hamlet and were now surrounded by modern houses, giving a very suburban flavour to the area. The cottage had once been a prosperous farm but was subsequently divided into two cottages, a not unusual development for a farmhouse in the 19th century.
On the ground floor were two original rooms, the core of the cottage before it was extended. A heavy 17th century beam ran from the gable end fireplace to the cross wall and this immediately aroused my interest; when an open medieval hall with a central hearth is floored over, the beam supporting it often has one end lodged in the chimney breast, which is added at the same time.
By the time I got to the first floor I was excited to see the start of a heavily-plastered cruck blade with arched brace of what must have been a hall truss emerging from the stone wall, and disappearing through the ceiling. Crucks are a very distinctive form of timber-framing not seen in Wiltshire after about 1530: our dendrochronology project is collecting data on this very subject. Barely containing myself, I arrived at the attic floor via a steep, winding stair to be confronted with the massive and heavily smoke-blackened top parts of a 14th century roof. There were two main frames complete with characteristically skinny wind-braces, some original chunky rafters, and smoke-blackened battens, though the thatch had been replaced.
Image: Apex of one of the cruck trusses
The timbers had been cut about to allow circulation within the attic space, but originally the impressive cruck frames would have been only viewed from the ground. To get some idea of what a medieval dwelling house would have been like when built, go into an old tithe barn such as that at Lacock or Bradford-on-Avon and be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the timbers and height to the roof. A farmhouse would have been smaller, but still impressive. The hall truss over the open fire would have been the most decorative, with chamfered bracing, parts of which remain. In the 17th century the old hall was clad in stone, hiding or replacing the original timber-framing and its wattle-and-daub panels. Houses like this had to change with the times to stay useful, or be replaced. I suspect there are many more hidden medieval halls out there just waiting to be discovered, even in the most unlikely places!
Late last year Wiltshire Buildings Record was asked to look at Westbury Leigh Baptist Chapel. Now lying empty, this was the first of two Baptist chapels to be established in Westbury Leigh, an ancient village now within the town boundaries of Westbury. As there was no Anglican church until 1880, the Baptist church was the established church in the village, having a strong nonconformist tradition encouraged by the Baptist stronghold in Southwick.
Stephen Self, a clothier, allowed the use of a barn, called ‘Self’s Barn’ near his dwelling house in Leigh as a meeting place for Baptists after 1693. According to William Doel in his book, ‘Twenty Golden Candlesticks!' they continued to worship until 1714, when Mr Self converted the barn into a chapel, fitting it up with seats, galleries & c. This barn stood on part of the site of the present chapel, the freehold of which belonged to Granville Wheeler Esq.
By 1796 the congregation had so increased as to make it necessary to build a new Chapel. A meeting was held and a resolution passed to undertake the work, which was carried out at a total cost of £1,361. The new chapel was able to accommodate five hundred people, which gives an idea of the many devout souls in Westbury Leigh alone, not counting those in the main town of Westbury!
On Friday 28th September Helen Winton and I gave a talk to the Corsham Civic Society at the Pound Arts Centre. Helen outlined how many fine 17th and 18th century stone houses there are in the High Street resulting from the wealth generated by the cloth trade. John Leland, when he visited in 1541 described ‘Cosham’ as ‘a good uplandisch toun’, which suggests that it was a thriving place even then. But what remains of this earlier town, if anything? Corsham seems to have sprung fully-formed in stone with no apparent trace of timber-framing.
Dorothy Treasure Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record