Modern Wiltshire

Modern Wiltshire

The 19th century ended and the 20th century began symbolically for Wiltshire with a gale which blew down one of the great stones of Stonehenge. Its two great industries, farming and cloth manufacture, were in decline and it is surprising that the county’s population was not lower than the 271,000 which it had struggled to reach by 1901.In the first 30 years of the new century its population grew by 11 per cent, but this was still ‘stagnant’ by comparison with most of England, while the loss of population from the rural areas was considerable. Villages like Alderton and Foxley in the Cheese Country of north Wiltshire and Compton Chamberlayne and Imber in the Chalk south, lost nearly half their populations during that period. Seemingly big gains were made by Chippenham, which grew by 60 per cent, and Salisbury, which increased by 48 per cent, but in real numbers only the addition of 5,500 people to Swindon, which grew by 39 per cent, was large. Their growth reflected the continued prosperity of the railway and other engineering works at Swindon and Chippenham, and of the market function of the cathedral city.

The armed services

In the rural areas the only notable growth was on the eastern side of Salisbury Plain, around Durrington and Tidworth where the Army had now gained a considerable foothold. The Army had used the northern Plain for much of the late 19th century and had obtained training rights over some eight hundred square miles in 1872, in part to establish safer artillery ranges, for cannon-fire had been practised on Woolwich Common until a cadet was hit by a cannon-ball, and in part and more importantly for cavalry training exercises. It was certainly good galloping country though poor for other sports once the last of the Great Bustards which once roamed the Plain vanished in the early 19th century. The Army went on to purchase some forty thousand acres of this land in 1897, two-thirds to the west and one-third to the east of the Avon. They bought the downland involved for about £10 an acre, the going price at that time, though the price fell lower in the 20th century and only rose sharply after the Second World War. To improve communication between the two training areas they also bought some of the valley farms in the Durrington and Figheldean area, though at a much higher price. Some of the valley farmers resented approaches by the Army but the landowners of the impoverished downland were content enough to sell, and the general feeling was probably summed up by Sir Henry Malet, one of the owners, when he said ‘I rejoice to think that Salisbury Plain is likely to realise its manifest destiny as the training ground of the British Army’.

Permanent camps were established at Tidworth and Bulford, the ‘London’ end of the area, in 1902 and a permanent base was built for the School of Artillery at Larkhill, west of the Avon, in 1914. It was the steady enlargement of these establishments which accounted for the considerable growth of population in this formerly-isolated area, which Pepys had needed guides to reach from Salisbury. Most of the Plain was occupied by the Army during the First World War, and temporary camps were made and often connected to temporary railway lines round the fringes of its extended training areas.The total contribution of Wiltshire to the 1914 War cannot be measured. War memorials in every town and village show the sacrifice in lives. Of the Wiltshire Regiment, which served in many theatres of war, five thousand died.Following this war, activity in and around Salisbury Plain actually increased. Ordnance workshops were set up at Tidworth in the early 1920s and were greatly expanded in 1938 and 1939. Further workshops for the repair of all War Department vehicles were established at Warminster at the western end of the training area in 1938, more purchases of land having been made by the Department, increasing their holding on the Plain to some ninety-two thousand acres.In the preparations for the invasion of Europe, in the later stages of the Second World War, extensive road improvements south of the Plain were made towards the south coast and, in addition, the vehicle bases were lent to the U.S. Army. Both were returned to Southern Command in 1945 and Warminster became the Command’s main workshop.The air force too had its share of the Plain and spread over other areas during the Second World War. The first military airfield here, and the first in the country, was opened at Larkhill in 1909, and another, now the oldest active airfield in Britain, was opened at Upavon in 1912. The field at Boscombe Down near Amesbury, whose ‘Weighbridge Hangar’ is a dominant feature of the eastern approaches to the Plain, has played an important part in the testing and development of military aircraft. Another near Stonehenge posed a threat to that ancient monument when it was claimed that the stones were a hazard to aircraft. Many others which were more or less temporary were opened in the Second World War. Most of these were, like Boscombe Down, on old downland, but some like Castle Combe and Cricklade (and a large part of the Kemble field) were in the extreme north. North of the Marlborough Downs the field at Lyneham opened in 1942 was important as a transport centre (and played an important part in the Falklands War) while in the extreme south-west a less useful field near Zeals was opened where several aircraft came to a sticky end in its heavy clay subsoil.

The great estates

The increased taxes on inherited property, usually known as ‘DeathDuties’, had a growing effect on this county of large estates as the century progressed. They were first introduced by a Conservative administration in 1889, but were notably increased by following Liberal governments and particularly by Lloyd George in 1909, and they hit the large landowners heavily after each World War when so many of the young heirs were killed. They were influential in the break-up of the Antrobus estate, centred on Amesbury Abbey, in 1915, the sale of much outlying farmland on the Pembroke’s Wilton estate in 1917 and 1918, the vast reduction of the Thynnes’ Longleat estate in 1919 and again in 1947, and the sale of the Savernake estate round the Ailesburys’ Tottenham House in 1929. In addition taxes contributed to the St Johns leaving Lydiard Tregoze where they had been for some centuries, the Pophams selling Littlecote which they had acquired in the early 17th century, and the Longs leaving their huge mansion at Rood Ashton to sad decay. This of course had a knock-on effect on the farming of the county and greatly extended the number of owner-occupiers and the land they held, which was less than 10 per cent of the county in 1914 but had risen to 37 per cent in 1941 and nearly 85 per cent by 1983.


More widespread owner-occupation did not bring any greater prosperity to the county’s farming. The total acreage under cultivation declined slowly but continuously and the number of sheep, which had once been the mainstay of Wiltshire farming, declined by a third between 1870 and 1914 and was halved again by 1924. There was, however, an increase in milk-production which was in part due to the introduction of the movable milking parlour, invented by the Wiltshire engineer A. J. Hosier of Wexcombe, and some have said that ‘Friesians replaced sheep’. Cultivated land declined about five per cent in the first decade of the century and by another 10 per cent by the 1930s. Arable was halved in this long period of decline and fallow increased by a third. Sheep fell to their lowest total ever, 162,000, by 1939.

Wiltshire has not been renowned in the popular modern sport of identifying deserted villages. Some certainly faded to little in the Middle Ages and many, like Hill and Kingston Deverills, shifted their centres and lost some population without disappearing. The 20th century, however, produced two clearly deserted villages. The first was at Snap near Aldbourne, the second at Imber near Warminster, both in the Chalk Country.

The former small village of Snap and its surrounding fields were bought by a butcher from Ramsbury who converted them to raise cattle and slowly closed the houses of the village as their tenants died or migrated. While there is a local tradition that the village was lost because the water supply failed, this is not the case. The last tenant moved (probably breathing a sigh of relief) to Aldbourne and the now-redundant church and school were sold off about 1905. Only earthworks now remain.

A Twentieth Century Deserted Village Snap near Aldbourne, in 1885 and 1985

The loss of ‘Little Imber on the Down, Seven miles from any town’ is better known. It had a population of 500 at its peak in 1841, which is surprising for so isolated a place. This fell to 152 by 1931 and the village might perhaps have vanished from natural causes if it had not been in the middle of the large Army training area. Its inhabitants were virtually prisoners for times in the First World War when practice shelling badly damaged local houses. In 1939, after the War Department had bought most of the village, the area was again subject to dangerous bombardment and, in November 1943 with the imminent arrival of United States forces, the inhabitants were given six weeks to leave. Their hopes of returning later, which they felt they had been promised, were frustrated, for the area was retained after the war by the Ministry of Defence for active battle training. Soon only the medieval stone church rem2fined of the village’s former buildings, most of the rest, being of cob and thatch, having crumbled from shell-shock and neglect.

New industries

Employment in farming went on declining and provided only four per cent of Wiltshire’s total employment by 1981. The same was true of the cloth industry during the century. The last weavers closed in 1982. But new industries had risen from the old.

The trade in fresh milk to London and other big towns which had been made possible by the railways in the 19th century, now led to the development of the preparation of condensed and dried milk, sometimes in old cloth mills like those used by the Nestlé company at Chippenham and Staverton. This new trade helped to even out the supply and demand problems of the industry, and to mop up an increasing surplus of liquid milk. Unfortunately the older-established cheese industry, which included most of the ‘Double Gloucester’, actually largely produced in north Wiltshire, has been wiped out by the spread of the universal and often misnamed ‘Cheddar’.

An important bacon and meat-pie industry grew up at Caine and then spread to Chippenham and Trowbridge. In this the most successful firm was that of Harris of Caine, who had brought the railway there in 1863. Their factory had employed 2,000 in 1957 and was a landmark on the old Bath Road. The business had started with the killing of surplus pigs which were being driven from Ireland to the London market along the old road; Wiltshire farmers never supplied more than about fifteen per cent of its needs for bacon pigs when the industry was most flourishing. It declined in the 1970s, and the business at Caine was closed and the factory demolished in the 1980s. The industry still survives at Trowbridge where it has spread into the area formerly occupied by textile mills.

The silk industry, mostly spinning, which had been introduced in the early 19th century in many parts of the county, from Marlborough and Salisbury to Mere, to provide work for unemployed textile workers, could not stand competition from French imports once protective import tariffs were removed, and collapsed by the early 20th century, but many of the works were re-used for other small manufactures. The great cloth mill at Malmesbury, which was converted into the last big silk works, became an antique furniture showroom, but that at Crockerton was demolished. Its offshoot at Warminster was converted to engineering and other enterprises.

The railway industry, which was still maturing at the beginning of the century, spawned new demands which were met by the new small enterprises. Brake and signal works were successfully introduced down-line from Swindon at Chippenham (where some of the first locomotives for the London-Bristol railway had been made but found wanting), and the manufacture of rubber for railway and other vehicle springs was introduced into old mills at Bradford, Limpley Stoke and Melksham. From this rubber business arose the first production of rubber tyres for motor cars at Melksham in 1906.The engine of much of this scattered development, the giant railway workshops at Swindon, continued to expand right up to the great depression between the two World Wars and, indeed, its employment helped Wiltshire to weather this bad period better than neighbouring counties. By 1939 the railway works had spread over 326 acres, of which 79 were covered, and even then, at its downturn to a long decline, it employed some eleven thousand people. During the two World Wars the shops were converted largely to the making of munitions, but by 1950, when they were restored to their original purpose, they were servicing 4,000 locomotives, 8,000 carriages and 86,000 wagons. The works provided predominantly male employment, but good use was made in the mid-century of the tradition of engineering skill as well as the pool of underemployed females by introducing many other skilled jobs to Swindon. Before and during the Second World War many companies were evacuated here from London and vulnerable coastal towns, and stayed afterwards. After the war more were attracted and helped to fill the gap caused by the slow collapse and closure of the railway workshops, which ended their long life here in 1987.

Many of the minor engineering industries naturally had a close connection with farming and other local trades, like the agricultural engineers Brown & May of Devizes, Reeves of Bratton and J. Wallis Titt of Warminster, and the millwrights and heating engineers such as the Hadens, who concentrated at Trowbridge. But many of their products, like the wind-pumps of Wallis Titt, were sold throughout the world.

In spite of its early connection with rubber tyres, however, and its pre-occupations in two world wars with vehicles of all kinds from bicycles to tanks and aircraft, Wiltshire took no lead in the development of the motor car itself, though the small company of Scout at Salisbury made a few motor cars early in the century and then motor-coaches. With the general introduction of the car, however, there started a long drift of population back to the countryside. This took some time, for in the meantime the continued improvement of urban services such as gas, electricity, piped water and main drainage emphasised the towns’ superior environment and led to further losses of rural population.

It was only in the 1930s that the spread of motor cars, still a middle-class luxury, and the conversion of the former potholed and dusty roads to smooth clean highways, made the countryside a particularly desirable place to live (while, generally, earning daily bread in a nearby town). Unlike the railways, which had fostered dense settlements round railway stations, the rise of the motor car led to ribbons of bungalows along all the main roads of the county and ugly new villages on former army camps in still-beautiful downland around Salisbury. The inter-war scars of such development are only now being healed by the growth of garden trees and shrubs.

Farming and landscape changes

Immense capital investment was made in farming during World War Two, particularly to restore the fertility and increase production on the run-down Chalk Country where in many places rabbits were as valuable a harvest as crops. But with the addition of still more farm machinery, labour on the land steadily declined. Apart from loss of employment the chief post-World War Two changes have been the increase of arable land to its 1900 level and the increase of barley cultivation to more than four times its pre-war levels. The policy of ‘taking the plough round the farm’ has been extended so that between 1961 and 1985 the amount of ‘permanent grass’ was further reduced from some 39 per cent of the farmland to 29 per cent. The number of cattle remained fairly steady but the number of sheep doubled and the number of poultry greatly increased.

Because of all this very little of the old downland turf and its interesting flora was left, and the Nature Conservancy Council had to buy a farm at Winterbourne Stoke to preserve some of the last remaining. The average visitor did not greatly feel the significant changes in the Chalk Country, however, as he usually visualised both ‘Plain’ and ‘Downs’ as great unhedged prairies. To him, the changes in north Wiltshire might have seemed more startling because of the more noticeable and steady removal of hedges and the huge loss of elms, the favourite hedgerow tree of the area, due to Dutch elm disease. The county and district councils have, however, recognised the aesthetic and economic value of their landscapes and have devoted much time and money to tree planting and other restoration.

Three extensive ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ have been designated by the Countryside Commission (for the Cotswold fringe, the Marlborough Downs and for West Wiltshire Downs and Cranborne The M4 Chase) and 165 ‘Conservation Areas’ have been created by county and district councils in attempts to preserve their existing beauty and interest. These vary from the county’s best-known village, Castle Combe, to the railway works at Swindon designated on their closure in 1987.


Most of the county’s war-time ‘refugee’ industries have stayed and flourished, while the country villages, particularly along the chalk streams, have attracted the retirement of wealthier immigrants from the south-east. By 1981 the population had grown to 518,545, an increase of 17 per cent above the 303,000 of 1931. Of this one fifth lived in Swindon, which had reached 104,000 and was still growing fast. The growth of this town was distorting the county’s balance of industry and population, particularly after its expansion under a town development scheme agreed in 1952 with the former London County Council to take some ‘excess’ population from London. It was also greatly assisted by its success in bending the London to South Wales motorway, which had been planned to pass through the Kennet valley, to run instead over the Marlborough Downs and to give rapid access to both sides of the town.

Swindon is still three times larger than the next biggest Wiltshire town, Salisbury, which has woken from its somewhat somnolent prewar state to meet its potential as a market and business centre for the widest of such catchment areas in the county. In this it has attempted to rebuild its central area and, like Coventry, to pile its car-parks on top of its shopping development. Criticism of some of its cruder developments left it with a prominent central road and bridge leading nowhere, which were later removed at further expense. After Salisbury, the largest towns in 1981 were Trowbridge with 23,000, Chippenham with 19,000 and Warminster with fifteen thousand. Immigration accounts for much of these totals. Between 1961 and 1971 it reached 45 per cent in the Rural District adjoining Swindon, 27 per cent at Caine and 24 per cent at Warminster, where it was also assisted by the London County Council. But in spite of this immigration, which slowed down in following years, Wiltshire is still a very rural county with a population density of only 1.5 persons per hectare (every person having nearly two acres). Of the present English counties it is now thirty-ninth in total population and, from being one of the most populated areas of the country in the centuries before the Romans came, it is now one of the least, tenth from bottom of the English league.

Local government reorganisation

Modern Wiltshire

By 1974 it had been generally recognised that low and scattered populations in small units were difficult and expensive to administer, and there was a nation-wide re-organisation of local government. The county as a whole was not mutilated as happened to all its neighbours, but its 25 former local authorities, which varied in size and population from the 2,500 of Malmesbury to the (then) 91,000 of Swindon, were amalgamated into five new districts, which were named North Wiltshire, Thamesdown (largely Swindon), West Wiltshire, Kennet and Salisbury. Few have much in common with their district centres and it is doubtful if the changes have shown the economy and increased efficiency which was promised.


Wiltshire today is similar to its neighbours in its present age-structure and its population trends. In comparison with the whole of England, its birthrate is slightly higher and its death rate lower. It has a low rate of illegitimacy and a high ratio of cars to people (375 per 1,000 compared with 314 in England as a whole). Its gross domestic product per head in 1981 and its employment and earnings in 1987 were all above those of the neighbouring counties. The differences are not great, but its future does look brighter now than it has done for at least two centuries.