Georgian Wiltshire

Georgian Wiltshire

During the mid-17th century the county had been a battleground. Its industry had been disrupted and its population had stagnated for much of the succeeding period. But at the end of the century the population rose sharply. No accurate figures exist but it has been reasonably estimated from the Protestation Returns of 1642 and Compton Census of 1676 that the population in the middle of the 17th century was about 113,500, and that one hundred years later, in the mid-18th century, it is thought to have risen to a hundred and fifty-seven thousand. By the end of the 18th century (and the figure is based on the first national census of 1801, corrected for the crudest errors) the population had reached nearly a hundred and eighty-four thousand. In the national context the county’s growth had kept pace with the nation’s throughout the 17th century, but during the 18th, while following similar trends of slower growth at the beginning and faster at the end, it lost ground relative to the rest of the country.

Georgian Houses & Parks

Inside the county, Salisbury, its most important town, stagnated for more than a century and its population only reached 8,000 by 1801, which represented an addition of less than one fifth in 150 years. There was continuous emigration from the more rural areas, most of the migrants going to the manufacturing towns and villages of Western Wiltshire, where sharp rises in population enabled the county to keep pace, in population density, with neighbouring counties. In wealth too it kept pace with its neighbours. The general assessment of 1707 estimated its taxable wealth at £38 per square mile, as high as its industrial neighbour Gloucestershire, higher than Dorset and Hampshire, and only a little less than Somerset, though considerably below that of the Home Counties such as Berkshire at £58 and Surrey at £89. But the uneven growth of population, losses from the more rural areas and rapid growth in the manufacturing areas, led by the end of the century and for most of the 19th to the familiar problems of regional unemployment, poverty and overcrowding.


The revolutions of the 17th century had brought new men to the top and new blood into the county. Thomas Pitt for instance, a wealthy East India merchant, bought most of the burgess plots at Old Salisbury and the neighbouring Stratford sub Castle, and so controlled the election of the M.P. for this now ‘rotten’ borough. His famous grandson, later Earl of Chatham, was its M.P. in 1734. The Bouveries, who had been foreign immigrants in Elizabeth’s reign, had replaced the Gorges family at Longford Castle and, having consolidated their influence there, controlled the election of M.P.s in southern Wiltshire for many years. The more successful of the 17th-century clothiers had become gentry and used their estates to exercise political muscle in the north-west of the county. John Methuen, of the former clothing family of Bradford, had become Lord Chancellor of Ireland and achieved immortality by making the ‘Methuen’ or ‘Port Wine’ treaty with Portugal in 1703.

The older-established families of How and Hyde (relatives of Lord Clarendon) dominated the two county parliamentary seats for some three decades before 1722, but were displaced by the families of Goddard (which had purchased monastic lands around Swindon) and of Long of Draycott Cerne.

The boroughs of Salisbury and Devizes continued to return local men as M.P.s, but in the other boroughs the proportion of candidates who were local men fell until the Reform Act of 1832, even though their choice and management could be in the hands of important county landlords such as the earls of Pembroke, of Wilton, and the Seymours and Ailesburys of Savernake. Management of elections could be an expensive business and certainly proved onerous and damaging to the Ailesburys in trying to control the Marlborough contests.

Below this level county government was managed by government-appointed magistrates and continued almost unchanged, though the quarter sessions became more peripatetic in a worthy effort to deal with business on a local basis. Unfortunately it caused some confusion when cases were adjourned to the next sessions, held elsewhere, and there were occasions where no justices appeared at the latter to hear them. Courts of Request to deal with petty debt were introduced in the reign of George III and greatly reduced the work of higher courts. Hundred constables continued to serve the courts as forced but unpaid labour, and were made responsible for the returns of the first national census of 1801, a fact that accounts for much of its inaccuracy.

The new post of county surveyor was created to ensure that bridges designated as of some importance were kept in repair – it had previously been the duty of adjoining parishes and they were only too often in default – and this led to a better standard of bridge maintenance. The extensive improvement of the roads came late in the century.

Manorial courts continued to decline, particularly in the Cheese Country, and growing numbers were held only when the lord’s agent could show that there was profit to be had from the fines of tenants. Business was often conducted by the agent writing out the draft agreements and getting any available labourer to witness them. Nevertheless there were instances, especially in the Chalk Country, where a full meeting of tenants was useful in settling the management of lands held in common. One court, at Great Cheverell south of Devizes, survived until 1908.

Church and education

The Established Church was in some disarray after the revolutions of the 16th and 17th century and, in spite of efforts of such post-Restoration bishops of Salisbury as Gilbert Burnet (1689-1715), settled down to a somnolent but reasonably tolerant life. At one extreme of the religious spectrum, Dissenters were now well established in West Wiltshire and were building their own churches. At the other were some Anglican ministers’ families, and it became increasingly difficult to get young after they had sworn it to James II. Seven Anglican ministers were lost from this cause, but the majority accepted the Revolution easily and Bishop Burnet treated his lost clerics with kindness.

While many clergymen lived in handsome houses, those of the 18th century were built not from parish funds but from the resources of the ministers’ families, and it became harder and harder to get young ministers to take on rural and impoverished parishes. Out of the 290 parishes, about a hundred and ten had lost their great tithes to outsiders, usually laymen like the Thynnes of Longleat, so that incumbents struggled to obtain the remaining lesser tithes from parishioners who were hostile to tithes and often in addition to the Established Church itself. The Church was much criticised then and later for non-residence and for pluralism among its clergy, and there was much to be criticised. Nearly half the incumbents in the county were not resident in their parishes and some were resident only in the summer months and retired, like the vicar of Longbridge, to more congenial places for the winter. And some justified their living far from their parish by their desire to get large families well educated. None of this is surprising but it had increasingly bad effects.

The first ‘visitation’ by Bishop Barrington revealed the state of each parish in 1783. The catechism of children was not even attempted in 30 per cent of the parishes because the children did not come to church and in any case could not read, while in half of all the parishes no schooling of any kind was available. This reflects on the indifference of both the Church and the landlords and was a state of affairs not remedied until the early 19th century, when first the Dissenters and then the Established Church (in self-defence) founded free schools.

There were of course some schools. Salisbury Cathedral had long had its own school and three other free schools had been founded by bequests in the 16th and 17th centuries: Dauntsey’s at Lavington in 1542, Marlborough Grammar in 1550 (partly with monastic property) and Bentley’s at Caine in 1664. One great landowner, Lord Weymouth of Longleat, founded another at Warminster in 1707, modelled on the early schools at Stanwell and Harrow (Middlesex), with a residence for the headmaster in the centre of its rectangular block, decorated with an unwanted doorcase from Longleat.

Dissenters built a number of important chapels, notably the Quaker chapels at Corsham and Melksham and the Presbyterian edifices at Horningsham (which claims to be the oldest in the country) and Crocker-ton; the Established Church built only two new churches, of which only the severely classical church of 1779 at Hardenhuish, built by John Wood the younger of Bath for David Ricardo’s in-laws, has survived.


The introduction of water meadows in the mid-17th century had now produced its own revolution in the chalk valleys and their adjoining arable fields, greatly increasing the amount of stock which could be maintained there, but there was a further decline in the number of family farms so that in the early 18th century less than half the farmland was in such hands. The difference between the Chalk and Cheese Countries was still widening for in. the Cheese (and the Butter) areas small family farms could be buttressed by the labour of part-time craftsmen and traders. There the trends were to dispersal of land and to subsistence farming. In the corn and sheep areas the reverse was true. There most of the farms were market-oriented already, and the families and part-time farmers who had occupied nearly a third of them in the mid- 17 th  century had been reduced to very few by the early eighteenth. Manorial management was still widespread here and ownership was being concentrated in a new breed of gentlemen-farmers, like the Tulls of Shalbourne (Jethro Tull was internationally famous for his pioneer methods), who did much to improve husbandry by example and education.

Farm rents, which had been relatively depressed from the mid-i 7th century to the mid- 18th, started to rise sharply so that by the end of the century and particularly with the stimulus of the French wars the average was some five times above its mid-century figure. The income of the large landowners was thereby enormously increased. The prices of farm products, however, rose slowly and were at the end only double the figure at mid-century. Relatively depressed prices coupled with faster-rising rents further exacerbated the loss of family farms. Meanwhile the introduction of the spinning jenny into the cloth industry and its use in the new town-based factories took away the simple hand and wheel spinning which had been done by women and girls on hundreds of farms. The loss of this source of ‘pin-money’ was hard enough on the small Cheese Country farms: it was the last straw that broke the economy of family farms in the Chalk Country.

The inclosure of formerly common-fields added to the flight from the land. But even at the end of the 18th century, Board of Agriculture surveyors with a jaundiced view of common-fields and subsistence farming identified huge areas which they classified as ‘waste’, putting the figure for Wiltshire as high as 23 per cent, more than any southern county outside Cornwall (figures for Somerset and Berkshire were nine per cent, for Gloucestershire three per cent, and Hampshire, which included most of the New Forest, 18 per cent). Wiltshire’s figure must have included most of the remaining unenclosed land, for huge areas had already been enclosed. Most of the Cheese and Butter countries had long been fenced and hedged and exhibited a landscape not so different from today’s.

There is little recorded of early enclosures. The earliest documented agreement to survive is dated 1632 and covers 1,806 acres of marshy ground at Hannington, which it was intended to drain and improve. Other early examples are also in the northern Cheese Country like the 986 acres at Highworth in 1749. Most of the Chalk Country was enclosed more sweepingly by parliamentary acts at the end of the century, at Chicklade in 1781, Warminster and Corsley in 1783 and Heytesbury in 1785, for example. Nearly seventy such acts were passed before 1800 and another 140 were passed before 1870, by when there was little left to enclose. In all this the smallholders lost much, and the landless labourers all, of their claim to fuel and pasture, but most landowners and improvers thought that the commons around which the poor struggled to survive had made them ‘shiftless and idle’. Thomas Davis however, the perceptive steward of the Longleat estate at the end of the 18th century (he wrote an excellent treatise for the Board of Agriculture on farming in Wiltshire), showed some sympathy for the losses of the poor, for his estate had inherited a special problem, which it had permitted by inaction rather than intent, in the growth of a large squatter colony on common land south of Warminster. On the edge of this area of furze and rough grazing a few cottages had been built in the early 18th century. By 1781 nearly two hundred rough hovels had been put up along a little polluted stream which provided drinking water for 1,015 inhabitants, who now comprised a quarter of the population of Warminster. Attempts by the estate to legalise these squatters when the common was enclosed under the Warminster and Corsley act were met with suspicion, and they thereby lost all claims to compensation for the enclosure. The settlement remained a haunt of the poor and unruly for many years after.


Wiltshire clothiers concentrated more than ever in west Wiltshire. Little cloth was now made in the outlying centres of Malmesbury and Marlborough, or at Wilton, where weavers had taken up the specialised carpet trade assisted by the earls of Pembroke. Clothiers now specialised in lighter ‘medleys’ or ‘Spanish’ cloths, made from fine wool much of which came from Spain, for production had outstripped the supply of fine English wools. The chief market was now at home rather than abroad and while export was still nationally important and probably five times the value of the other major exports put together, the clothiers were less dependent on the Merchant Venturers of Blackwell Hall in     London, whose trade with northern Europe was interrupted so often by war. They were using instead the younger Levant Company which traded with the Mediterranean and the Near East, and they were also exporting direct to the American colonies. Even modest clothiers like the Wanseys of Warminster were learning to export directly. The Wanseys even accepted payment in West Indian sugar for some of their cloth, and might have made a fortune in the West Indies if it had not been for their distaste for slavery.

As these moves succeeded, complaints from clothiers about unfair competition became less, but those from merchants about the quality of medleys grew to such an extent that in 1727 the Government appointed medley inspectors for nine areas of the county, viz.: Trowbridge, Wing- field and North Bradley; Bradford on Avon; Crockerton and Horning- sham; Boyton and Norton Bavant; Westbury; Melksham, Seend and South Newton; Bremhill and Chippenham; Lacock and Corsham; and Kingswood (now in Gloucs.). These areas show the distribution of the medley clothiers, but few records survive; the scheme did not work well and was soon forgotten. Salisbury’s cloth industry was not included. It had been in relative decline for some time but had a resurgence in the 18th century by concentrating on finer cloths.

The clothiers had their ups and downs and many of the western ones did very well, as can be seen in the fine town houses designed by Bath architects in Bradford, Trowbridge, Chippenham and even Warminster, and from other grand houses in such villages as Seend and Steeple Ashton. Workers in the industry had more downs than their masters. There were riots during most of the frequent depressions in the industry as clothiers tried to relieve overheads by reducing wages. In 1726 there were serious riots at Bradford, Trowbridge and Melksham, when a man was killed by troops firing on an angry mob. But the rioters were exonerated at the subsequent inquiry, as local justices thought there were good grounds for grievance. This conciliatory attitude was unique in 18th-century industrial relations and after further riots in 1738 at Trowbridge and Melksham over similar grievances three of the ring- leaders were hung.

Machinery to speed production in spinning, carding and weaving was introduced in the second half of the century and led to more trouble. The first spinning jenny in the West was introduced at Shepton Mallet (Somerset) in 1776. It was perceived as an immediate threat by workers in Somerset and Wiltshire and workers from Warminster joined in a riot there. But nevertheless its use spread rapidly and by 1783 there were petitions against it submitted by landowners and parish officers (mostly from rural areas) who complained it was causing widespread unemploy- ment and overloading local poor rates.

The introduction of a power-driven shearing machine at Horningsham in the same period has been immortalised by Karl Marx. In Das Kapital (1867) he says (and I quote a communist-approved translation): ‘in 1756 Everet constructed the first wool-shearing machine to be driven by water. It was burnt down by one hundred thousand workpeople who had been thrown out of work’.. In fact William Everett (with two Ts) did not acquire this mill until 1766, and it was smashed in 1767 by perhaps five hundred rioters. You can still see the conical roof of its drying shed. The first carding machine, at Bradford in 1791, caused another riot and the machine was burnt, but the first fly-shuttle had already been introduced in 1790 at Malmesbury, where it was thought the workers were less violent.

While wages were low clothiers were loth to introduce expensive machinery, and it was not until increased competition from the fast-rising Yorkshire industry, where machinery had been accepted, that the Wiltshire clothiers pressed ahead with their own. Failure to modernise has been seen as the cause of the total loss of the Wiltshire industry by the mid-20th century, but while Wiltshire lost some of its early advantages in the 18th century due to bad industrial relations, it did not fail to modernise in the nineteenth. Meanwhile not only the better clothiers but still more the great landowners had become very rich and all were anxious to improve their houses, parks and life-styles.


Major roads were being improved to the spa at Bath, the ‘resort of the sound rather than the sick’ as Defoe put it. The population of Bath grew from only 2,000 in 1700 to 34,000 by the end of the century, far outstripping any Wiltshire town, and the first toll-roads (the ‘turnpikes’) were made on routes to the city. The success of Bath’s spa had an effect on north-west Wiltshire comparable to the spread of villas into Wiltshire from the Roman city, and led also to its imitation where there were other springs of possible medical interest. Soon there were spas at Seend, where the waters had been recommended by Aubrey in 1684, at Middlehill (Box) and Holt. None were successful for long. At Holt only an elaborately framed pump remains, and efforts in the 19th century to create new spas at Melksham and Purton Stoke were also failures.

Bath satisfied the needs of those who could find little entertainment in Wiltshire towns, though many of the county’s inns built ‘assembly rooms’ for their winter seasons, but the display of houses and gardens at Bath and notably Ralph Allen’s Prior Park, made most of Wiltshire’s seem dowdy and unfashionable. The 18th century therefore saw a surge in building and landscaping unparalleled since late-Elizabethan days. Longleat and Wilton already had extravagant gardens but they were altered to suit the new fashions. The Bolingbrokes rebuilt their house at Lydiard Tregoze, the Seymours rebuilt their house at Marlborough (now the nucleus of the College), the Earl of Suffolk modernised his Bowood House twice in the century. Corsham Court was rebuilt by the Methuens and filled, like Wilton, with works of art, and the Arundells of Wardour built the largest Georgian house in the county one mile from their ruined castle, which they preserved as a romantic feature complete with a grotto from a grotto specialist at Tisbury. In Savernake Forest, where the Seymours’ interest had passed to their relatives the Bruce (later Brudenell-Bruce) family, the latter converted the estate into part farmland and part commercial forestry, but planted enormous avenues of beech focussed on the hunting lodge of Tottenham which replaced the decayed Wolf Hall of the Seymours. Aubrey had described the lodge as a ‘pile of good architecture’ but the house was rebuilt in the 1720s in grand and Palladian fashion (only to be rebuilt again at vast expense in 1825).

In addition to these houses two of the most extravagant displays in the country were made by City merchants in the south of the county. The Hoares at Stourhead built a new house near the site of Lord Stourton’s decayed home, and then a series of great lakes, waterfalls, a grotto, bridges and temples, together with 2,000 acres of trees, to produce a landscape akin to a Claude Lorraine painting. It is now one of the finest gardens in the world. At Fonthill the Beckfords, not content with their ‘Splendens’ house and lake, produced a gigantic mock-Gothic ‘abbey’. It was started ‘at a monstrous rate’ in 1796 but never completed, though work included large plantations, a lake and a 12-foot wall around its extensive park. It was used to entertain Nelson for three spectacular nights in 1800, and abandoned by the younger Beckford in 1823. It collapsed in ruins in 1825.

Much landscaping was done by gifted amateurs like the Hoares but more was done by the great professionals of the age and their work was imitated by lesser men. William Kent (1685-1748) was employed at Wilton, Lancelot Brown (1715-83) at Longleat, Bowood, Tottenham House and Longford Castle, and when fashions changed Humphry Repton was called in at Longleat, Corsham and Bowood to ‘modernise’ the landscape. In addition at Stourhead and at Erlestoke parts of the village were incorporated as romantic objects in the estate’s landscape.

These are the great monuments of the Georgian Age in Wiltshire.