Transport in and across Wiltshire was probably at its worst in the 17th century, for the old pack-horse routes which had served royal progressions and the trade of earlier centuries had now been cut to muddy pieces by increasingly-heavy wheeled traffic. This is amply testified by Samuel Pepys, Celia Fiennes and many other travellers of the period.
In 1668 Samuel Pepys travelled with his family from Oxford to Bath by way of Salisbury and Wilton. It was not of course a direct route but he was anxious to see Stonehenge, which was, as always, one of the great curiosities of the age. From Salisbury he had to hire guides to lead him to Stonehenge. Leaving Salisbury for Wilton he complained of the exorbitant charges of the inn and the cost of hiring horses, and when he left Wilton, without guides, he got lost on the Plain. As darkness fell he was lucky enough to stumble on an inn at Chitterne where the landlord smartly turned a pedlar out of a room to make space for Pepys’s family.
In 1687 Celia Fiennes too travelled from Salisbury to Bath, but by coach. She did not get lost, but beyond Warminster her coach was soon stuck fast in sticky mud, from which it had to be lifted by a large party of men. As she commented, the way was only fit for packhorses ‘which is the way of carriage in those parts’. But even half a century later Defoe would have been lost on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain if he had not met the many shepherds there who could direct him on his way.
The introduction of toll roads, the turnpikes, from the early 18th century, the improvement of rivers and then the construction of new waterways at the end of the century revolutionised transport throughout England, but the drive for these improvements came from outside this inland county, for example from the national postal system introduced by Ralph Allen of Bath. Wiltshire was to many traders and travellers simply a rural interlude in journeys between urbanised areas such as Bath and Bristol to the west and Reading and London to the east.
Prehistoric trading routes had radiated from Salisbury Plain but it, as described above, lost its central importance before the Roman invasion. The Roman road network was centred on the provincial capital at Cirencester north of the county and even the junction of the main road south with the west-to-cast ‘lead road’ from the Mendips at Old Salisbury failed to create an important settlement or make Wiltshire a magnet for trade routes. When the Romans withdrew, the Saxon kings reverted to a more natural and modest pattern of routes, the ‘herepaths’, for the movement of the county militia, and these became the king’s highways.
The mid-13th century map named after Gough shows a national network of roads radiating from London. Two of these crossed Wiltshire, a southern route through Winchester and Salisbury to Exeter and a northern one through Hungerford, Marlborough and Chippenham to Bristol. Both were important to Wiltshire’s cloth industry down to the 19th century, but the northern route running to Bristol was even more important to the latter’s traders, who often complained of obstructions on the Wiltshire section of the road. In 1281 a parson at Chippenham actually enclosed part of this road for his own use.
Ogilby’s road atlas of 1675, the first of its kind, shows in considerable detail the older main roads to Bristol and to Exeter but also designates as important a road from London to Barnstaple which winds through Amesbury, Warminster and Maiden Bradley, and a number of cross-country routes, for example from Oxford to Bristol through Highworth and Malmesbury, from Marlborough to Norton St Philip (Somerset) through Devizes and Trowbridge, and from Salisbury to Lechiade (Gloucs.) through Marlborough and Highworth. It shows a branch from the Bristol road diverging at Chippenham to reach Bath via Bradford on Avon. A further road to Bath leaving the Bristol road and going more directly to Bath was not considered by Ogilby as important, although it was already in use by coaches from London to Bath and Bristol, and was soon to be known, as it is today, as ‘the Bath Road’.
The first act for the construction of an improved toll-road for through traffic was passed in 1663, a few years before Ogilby’s atlas. The first three acts for ‘turnpikes’ in Wiltshire were passed in 1706-7. They were all on the route to Bath and Bristol. Further turnpike acts covered roads radiating from the market towns of Salisbury, Devizes and Warminster, and created a network that covered the county by the 1760s. The Macadam family, of international fame, were surveyors or advisers for most of these new roads. On the Bath Road the turnpike trustees installed water pumps to lay dust by the mid-1750s, but most of the other new roads were simply improved chalk or gravel tracks. In the clay vales the general state of roads continued to be notoriously bad. As late as the 1830s Cobbett was finding his own way across Wiltshire, averse to paying tolls, but he found plenty of trouble on his way and was often lost.
The best use of the new roads was made by stage-coaches, and speed between towns improved notably, as we can tell from their timetables The average speed of the run from London to Salisbury improved from seven to ten miles per hour between 1771 and 1836, and a similar improvement was made between London and Devizes.
In the clay country of North Wiltshire there was little improvement in transport until the introduction of canals. The first of these, the Thames and Severn Canal, which crossed the northern tip of the county between Marston Meysey and Inglesham, was completed in 1789, long after many other canals outside Wiltshire. Of course Wiltshire did have two important rivers, the Bristol and the Salisbury Avons, and an early ‘navigation’ on the Salisbury Avon was made under an act of 1664 between Christchurch (now in Dorset) and Wylye. But due to difficulties with adjoining land and mill-owners on the river it was abandoned by 1730.
More important, and the most significant waterway improvement in the county’s history, was the Kennet & Avon Canal, designed to connect Bristol and London. Again the impetus came from outside the county. The canal had been mooted since 1626 but was not begun until 1794 when it was spurred on by the necessities of the French wars. From the east it reached Bedwyn in 1799, but from the west it did not reach the steep incline west of Devizes until 1807. It was finally made navigable throughout when an impressive flight of locks, only surpassed in the canal system by a flight near Birmingham, was completed at Devizes in 1810.
The less valuable Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal, branching from the Kennet & Avon near Semington, reached Wootton Bassett in 1801 and was completed to the Thames at Abingdon in 1810, while a branch to the Thames at Cricklade, called the North Wiltshire Canal, was added in 1819.
The success of all was assured for some decades by the opening in 1805 of the Somerset Coal Canal, for this halved the cost of coal to the west-Wiltshire factory towns and to other towns on its course like Devizes, as well as east as far as Reading. By the 1830s, which were the heydays of the canal, the Kennet & Avon was carrying nearly 350,000 tons of traffic a year, of which half was coal. Most of this came from the Somerset coalfield via the Somerset canal, but some also from the field north of Bristol which was connected to the Avon by a tram-road (as were the Bath stone quarries). At the same time the Wiltshire & Berkshire canal was carrying another 70,000 tons a year, of which over two-thirds was Somerset coal, to Swindon and other places in north Wiltshire and in Oxfordshire. In addition both canals carried ‘Bath’ stone from Box and Corsham and many items imported through the port of Bristol, such as Irish timber, Welsh slate and West Indian sugar. Of the local products transported by the canals wheat and barley formed the major part.
For these canals, which were a great stimulus to north Wiltshire’s economy, the railway era arrived too soon and few canals paid their way, let alone any good return to the shareholders for their massive investment. The Kennet & Avon, for example, had built a broad canal (unlike the majority of English canals) 57 miles long, with 106 locks, of which 29 were in the two miles west of Devizes, handsome aqueducts, a tunnel, bridges and two pumping stations required to maintain sufficient water in the canal’s top level at Bedwyn.
Bristol merchants were the midwives of the Great Western Railway, which transformed the economy of much of north Wiltshire for the second time in 50 years. This railway company was formed in 1833 to link Bristol to London, hence the heraldic shields of both cities incorporated in its coat of arms, and its line was chosen by its young chief-engineer, I. K. Brunel, to run through the clay vales rather than the shorter but hillier route through the downland valleys. It was started with vigour from the London end, reached a point near Wootton Bassett in 1841, and was extended and opened to Bristol in the following year. In the same year (1842) a branch line to Gloucester and Cheltenham was started from a junction with the main line about two miles northwest of Old Swindon. In addition a new station with a hotel and restaurant was built at thejunction, while workshops for the maintenance of the railway, halfway between its London and Bristol terminals, were started in 1843 on an adjoining site. Water was provided from the now-doomed Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal while stone for building the hotel, the workshops and a complete new village, ‘New Swindon’, with its own church and school, was brought from a vein of Box stone found when the two-mile tunnel under Box Hill was built. A minor curiosity, but probably not deliberately designed, is the fact that the sun can shine right through the Box tunnel on Brunel’s birthday.
In 1848 the Wiltshire, Somerset & Weymouth Railway with the assistance of the G.W.R. built a line from Chippenham, on the Bristol line, to Westbury, and this was extended to Warminster in 1850. It was taken on to Salisbury’s Fisherton Street in 1856, where the city had been joined to London (more or less) by the rival London & South Western Railway, whose line from Eastleigh reached Milford on the east side of the city in 1847. The L. & S.W.R. built a more direct route from London in 1857 which ran via Andover and the Winterbourne valley, and this line was extended by way of Fisherton Street and the Nadder valley to Yeovil in 1859. In the same year a short line was built from the 1857 Fisherton Station to the Market Hall in the centre of the city, while the Fisherton stations of the rival railway companies were rebuilt as a joint station. Salisbury was now blessed with three stations.
Other lines, including a major route from Andover to Marlborough, Swindon and eventually Cheltenham by the L. & S.W.R., soon formed a network over the county so that only the more remote chalk uplands were more than a few miles from a railway station. One minor line demonstrated some enterprise locally when the Harris family, bacon producers of Caine, raised the capital to build a link between Chippenham and Calne, which provided the Marquis of Lansdowne with a private halt where it crossed the Bowood estate.
The Great Western and its subsidiaries had, at Brunel’s insistence, used a broad gauge for their lines. This was just over seven feet between rails instead of the ‘standard’ gauge of 4 foot 8½ inches adopted by all other companies. Increasing friction at points of contact led the Great Swindon railway museum Western to accept the standard gauge and consequently their tracks were converted between 1872 and 1875, with impressive speed on great sections of the line.
The growing demand for fresh milk by the London market led to its exploitation by the railways. Wholesale milk depots were set up at Semley on the L. & S.W.R. in 1871 and at Chippenham and Stratton on the G.W.R. in 1873 and 1879 respectively. There was a consequent increase in dairy farming in north Wiltshire; the number of cattle there increased by 35 per cent between the 1870s and the 1910s, and the industry inverted the former economic disparity between the Chalk and Cheese Countries. For the first time in its history the latter, with its dairying, became more important than the sheep and corn country on the downlands. In addition access to railways and distant markets encouraged market-gardening on the poorer, sandy soils around Bromham, south of Caine.
This access to large but distant markets provided by the railways no doubt gave rise to some difficulties for the small local markets, and the effects have been disputed. Warminster, which had the largest corn-market in the west outside Bristol, was first served by railway in 1851 (although there was no through line till 1856) and went on growing for some years.
In 1854 the monthly Warminster Miscellany stated firmly that there was an ‘increase [in local trade] due to the railway’, but at the time of the 1871 census, when much of the downiand was in economic decline, the registrar blamed a fall in Warminster’s population since 1861 on ‘railway communication’, which he thought had ‘diverted traffic’ and led to ‘inns closed, sack carriers etc. seek employment elsewhere’. At Wootton Bassett on the main line to Bristol, however, the registrar attributed growth to the ‘general prosperity of trade’ encouraged by the railway. It seems likely that in each case the railway assisted an economic’ trend rather than made it.
While the canals had little effect on the turnpiked roads, the railways had an immediate and disastrous effect on them. There was a temporary increase of traffic on such roads feeding railway stations, but a 75 per cent drop in traffic between most towns connected by railway. Every kind of agricultural as well as mineral and military traffic was taken by rail. In 1882 a flock of nearly two thousand sheep from the Scottish Borders arrived in two special trains at Trowbridge before being taken 16 miles south to repopulate the downland pastures at Kingston Deverill. Rabbits from these downs were sent to Smithfield, and Irish heifers came by train from Fishguard to refill Wiltshire valleys.
But even if the railways contributed to rural depopulation in the south, the establishment of the railway works at Swindon led to a compensating and rapid growth of that town. It had been a ‘village’ of 1,198 inhabitants in 1801. It was a small town of 4,879 in 1851. Before 1861 it had overtaken Trowbridge and about 1862 overtook Salisbury.
By 1901, with a population of 45,000, it was by far the largest town in the county.
Other industries, while not stagnating, had shown nothing like the growth of the railways, and the Swindon workshops of the Great Western alone employed 13,000 people (more than the population of Salisbury) at their zenith. The cloth industry had been given a boost in the early 19th century by the opening of the Somerset Coal Canal. The cost of coal had severely inhibited the use of steam power in Wiltshire, but with the opening of the canal it was halved and within a month a steam factory had been opened at Trowbridge. New factory sites along the river Biss had been made available at Trowbridge after the sale of the site of its medieval castle, but the river could not supply much more of the power required and by 1821 about ninety per cent of the cloth industry’s needs there were being supplied by new steam engines. Most of the engines were provided by the Birmingham makers Boulton and Watt, but some were made locally by Haden, a former apprentice of Boulton and Watt, and some by an inventive native, John Dyer. Trowbridge had now weathered the post-Napoleonic War depression and, with the building of 500 new houses, the population grew from 6,000 in 1811 to 9,500 in 1821, overtaking Salisbury and becoming temporarily the largest town in Wiltshire.
The county’s textile industry embraced steam power on an extensive scale and faster than its rivals. By 1838, 64 per cent of the power in its factories was (or was capable of being) generated by steam. By 1850 it was 77 per cent while at Trowbridge it had risen to 90 per cent, but in most places the steam power was additional to existing sources of water power and steam was generated most often when extra demand or, more commonly, low water levels made it desirable. Nevertheless not all the clothiers turned so happily to steam, more particularly those who were further from coalfields. One at Warminster kept a horse-mill for his textile processing and used his steam-engine solely for shredding root-crops for his horses.
The returns of factory inspectors for 1838 showed the further concentration that had taken place in the cloth industry. Of 53 factories inspected, 19 were in Trowbridge, eight at Westbury, four each at Bradford on Avon and Calne, three at Bratton, two each at Chippenham and Melksham and one each at Christian Malford, Malmesbury, Holt and Heytesbury. Except for one silk factory at Calne these were cloth mills. There were also silk mills at Crockerton, Mere, Chippenham and Devizes. Little was left of the once flourishing textile industry of the Salisbury area, only two mills at Wilton and one at Harnham. The largest single employer was the mill at Crockerton, which was converted to silk spinning about 1805 by the Everett family, whose mill at Horning-sham had been attacked in the mid-18th century.
Conditions in the mills were hard and large numbers of children were employed, particularly in silk spinning, working ten to twelve hours a day. Many of the owners made it clear to the factory inspectors that they thought they were performing a public service by employing children and making them work long hours, helping them to support their parents and keeping them out of mischief, while the factory inspectors had to admit in their reports that such children were at least as healthy as those outside. Even when restrictions were placed on the employment of children in factories they were not enforced as they should have been, as the inspectors recognised how dependent some of the poorer families were on the tiny earnings of their offspring. Unrest in the factory towns rarely ceased; though there was little recurrence of the violent riots of 1802 following which the 19-year-old Thomas Helliker was hung for criminal conspiracy, there were attacks on factories at Trowbridge in 1816 and 1817 when gigs – shearing machines – had been installed, and there were more widespread riots against the introduction of spring looms and about the reduction of wages in the 1820s. The latter protests were less common or violent than they were in the Frome valley in Somerset.
At the beginning of the 19th century the county had a population of about one hundred and eighty-four thousand. Wiltshire then still included some outlying areas in Berkshire and Gloucestershire, which were transferred to those counties in 1844. The original census return for 1801 totalled 185,107 persons, but this was corrected later to 183,820. By the time of the more accurate census of 1851, after minor boundary changes, the total had risen to 254,000, and in 1901, after further changes (the parishes of Damerham and Martin were transferred to Hampshire, and Kilmington parish and part of Maiden Bradley were incorporated from Somerset), the total had risen to two hundred and seventy-one thousand. In Wiltshire, therefore, there was an increase of about forty per cent in the first half of the century. During the second half it was only seven per cent. For England and Wales as a whole the increases were 101 per cent and 81 per cent, and the difference between county and nation in the second half of the century is dramatic.
It had many causes. The most significant were the decline in farmwork on which the county was particularly dependent and the collapse of English corn prices nearer the end of the century. Next was a long depression in the county’s main manufacturing industry, the cloth manufacture of west Wiltshire.
There had been net immigration to this area in the last half of the 18th century. This trend was reversed in the first half of the 19th century and emigration to other areas and abroad became massive during the last half. It has been suggested that population losses were more severe in the Chalk Country than the Cheese. This suggestion is true of the most isolated downland areas but not so of the small towns and villages outside these special areas. If we exclude Swindon, population changes in Chalk and Cheese areas were closely parallel.
From 1801 to 1851 the growth in both Chalk and Cheese Countries outside the isolated downland parishes was about sixty per cent and the peak population of the century in most Wiltshire towns, villages and rural areas was reached between 1841 and 1861. From 1851 to 1871 there was little change in the population totals for either, but taking the whole second half of the 19th century there was a drop of about eight per cent in both Chalk and Cheese. The apparent difference between them is accounted for by the growth of Swindon in the last half of the century from five to forty-five thousand. Salisbury, which had been the largest town in the county at the beginning of the century and for some five centuries before that, grew by less than ten thousand in the century and was now well down the league table of English cities.
Wiltshire had always been a county of large estates. Most grew larger at the expense of small farmers during the 19th century. Their peak may well have been reached about the time of the parliamentary inquiry into land-ownership which was set up in 1872. The figures for Wiltshire, based on the valuation lists for each parish in the county, were printed in 1875. They show that out of the 13,000 owners of land, 9,600 owned less than an acre and 4,400 owned more. There were 10 estates with more than 10,000 acres each, and they covered 23 per cent of the county (not 36 per cent as stated in Bateman’s commentary on the report). Estates between 1,000 and 10,000 acres in extent occupied another 46 per cent of the county. Two hundred and nineteen owners obtained gross rentals of more than £1,000 per annum from lands in the county. The largest estates in order of size were:
Gross rental £ p.a.
|Earl of Pembroke (Wilton)
|Marquess of Ailesbury (Savernake)
|Marquess of Bath (Longleat)
|Earl Radnor (Longford)
|S. Watson Taylor (Erlestoke)
|Richard Long (Rood Ashton)
|Sir John Neeld (Grittleton)
|Sir Henry Meux’s trustees (Vas tern)
|Marquess of Lansdowne (Bowood)
|Earl of Suffolk (Charlton)
Of these landowners, Lord Bath owned another 8,000 acres in Somerset and even larger estates in Shropshire and Ireland, while Lord Lansdowne owned altogether 133,000 acres mainly in Scotland and Ireland. Lord Ashburton of the Grange, Hampshire, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and Lord Normanton (another Hampshire resident) owned almost ten thousand acres each, while both the Duke of Somerset, of Maiden Bradley, and Sir Henry Hoare of Stourhead owned estates of about twelve thousand acres which straddled the border of Somerset and Wiltshire.
The inquiry did not reveal the extent of tenant holdings nor the rise of a dynasty of Strattons who, starting in the Vale of Pewsey, had made fortunes from early exploitation of the London milk market and were now spreading south to take on the prairies of the downland. Nor does it reveal the extent to which some estates, such as that of the Ailesburys, were burdened with debt and impoverished by their own extravagance.
By accidents rather than design, Wiltshire’s representation in the parliament from feudal times down to the great Reform Act of 1832 was overweighted and eccentric. It started, as in other English counties, with two ‘knights of the shire’, who were elected by freeholders of the whole county, and two M.P.s for each borough. As there were 16 ancient boroughs in the county, it was represented by 34 members in all. Thus in the Reformation Parliament, which made Henry VIII undisputedly head of the English Church, Wiltshire had nearly twice as many M.P.s as its nearest rival and more than twice as many as Cornwall, Devon or Surrey. The neighbouring county of Gloucester had only four. The order was changed when kings created new boroughs, usually at a price for the benefit of the royal treasury. By 1563 Cornwall had taken first place from this cause alone, and in 1689, when Wiltshire still had 34 seats, Cornwall had 42, Yorkshire 28, Devon 26 and Hampshire twenty-four.
None of this bore much relation to the size of county populations and the imbalance continued with little change right up to 1832. But Wiltshire was not only over-represented; the representation was also badly distributed. The borough of Old Salisbury (now called Old Sarum) had virtually ceased to exist and tiny boroughs like Bedwyn, Heytesbury and Hindon had little claim to separate representation when flourishing towns like Bradford, Trowbridge and Warminster lacked it. Overrepresentation got worse as the population of other areas of England grew. In 1801 Wiltshire’s 34 Members represented a population of 184,000; Lancashire’s 13 represented 673,000, i.e. one for 48 thousand people, while Middlesex had two for about half a million.
Perhaps worse, the representation of the boroughs became itself unrepresentative of them. Boroughs were expected to maintain their own M.P.s, and the small boroughs found it a considerable hardship. Thus within a short time most, and the city of Salisbury was generally an exception, were content to elect a gentleman who had little connection with the borough but was prepared to sit at his own expense and, with luck, might also pay his electors for the privilege. It was for this reason that various noble and important families were able to dominate the parliamentary representation of many boroughs for decades. Old Sarum continued to return two members from its empty borough, and the village borough of Heytesbury, which only included about half the settlement, was noteworthy for having no contested election for over 130 years: from 1689 down to its abolition in 1832.
County representation followed the same patterns. From the Reformation to the time of Charles I county representation was dominated by Seymours, Herberts, Hungerfords and Bayntons, then from Charles II to George II by the How and Hyde families, and from 1722 to 1812 by Goddards and Longs. There was more diffusion of power in the 18th century, however, when newer names such as Astley of Everleigh (but formerly of Staffordshire), Benett of Pythouse and Methuen of Corsham came to command borough representation.
By the 1832 act seven of the Wiltshire boroughs lost their seats altogether, while the overall representation of the county was reduced to eighteen. The abolition of what Cobbett called ‘these vile rotten holes’ was so long overdue that it was not unwelcome even to John Benett of Pythouse, who was one of the most reactionary and hated men in the county because of his savage attitude to the poor. Wiltshire’s representation was reduced by later acts to 15 seats in 1867, to six in 1885 and five in 1918.
Monuments to this era of change are everywhere in the county though many are not appreciated as much as they deserve, perhaps because they are so numerous. The greatest are those of the railways which produced the most widespread and dramatic change in the history of the county. Particularly notable is the London-Bristol railway, whose line through Wiltshire includes the heaviest engineering works on its route: deep cuttings and the tunnel at Box, which was the longest in the country when it was made. Associated with the railway is the ‘railway village’ at Swindon of 243 houses designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt.
Another industrial housing estate of note is Prospect Square at Westbury. It was built in 1870 by Abraham Laverton, the Liberal cloth-manufacturer, to rehouse his work-people who had been evicted by his successful Tory rival after an election. Most other 19th-century housing is undistinguished, but a few country houses are worth mention: John Benett’s new Pythouse, of 1805, and its imitation at Philipps House, Dinton, of 1816, which are both in a ‘Grecian’ style, and Tottenham House, rebuilt by Cundy in 1825 for the Ailesburys. Finally at the end of the century there is Philip Webb’s ‘Clouds’, built for one of the Wyndhams at East Knoyle but now sadly mutilated.
There was considerable building and alteration of churches. Between 1837 and 1887, 45 completely new churches were built. These included Wyatt and Brandon’s grand, Italianate, new church for the Herberts at Wilton, and Pearson’s churches at Sutton Veny and Chute Forest. In addition 32 others were enlarged in the same period and 98 restored, most by the advisory architect to the diocese, T. H. Wyatt.
Other monuments are the town halls, symbols of rising civic pride, at Devizes, Melksharn, Westbury and Warminster, nearly all of the early 19th century; the larger mills, particularly Laverton’s Angel Mill at Westbury, Greenland Upper Mill at Bradford and the mill at Quemerford; and last but not least the bank premises in almost every town in the county. These latter represent the rising wealth of the country as a whole, of which Wiltshire did not receive a proportionate share.