Concise History: Wiltshire: A History of its Landscape and PeopleThis community has been included in John Chandler's on-going series and the full text is available here.
Aldbourne is a large downland parish, in the east of the county, where most of the land is over 150 metres. Most of the parish is chalk, with clay-with-flints covering parts of the higher ground. Aldbourne village is in the east of the parish while there are shrunken or deserted settlements at Woodsend, Upper Upham and Snap in the west. The hamlet of Preston, in the south-east is shared between Aldbourne and Ramsbury. Aldbourne village is at the junction of five dry valleys, near where a tributary stream of the river Kennet rises to flow south-eastwards in a sixth valley. On this site the local geological formation had caused a lake to form which once covered the area of the present Square and the sites of some of the buildings. The present pond is all that remains of this lake.
It is the pond that has brought about the nickname of Dabchick for anyone born, or living, in Aldbourne. Legend has it that long ago a dabchick was found on the pond and, not surprisingly in an upland village, no one could identify it. They brought out the oldest inhabitant, who declared it to be a dabchick and forever after that has been the local nickname. Some of the earliest bells made in Aldbourne in the first part of the 17th century bear the engraving of a small long-necked bird that is supposed to be a dabchick.
Land in Aldbourne has been occupied, if not permanently settled, for around 8,000 years. Earliest occupation and usage was in the upland areas and it was not until Saxon times that the site of the present village was substantially settled. There are good assemblages of Mesolithic flints dating from around 6,000 B.C., which would seem to indicate temporary settlements over a period of time. Many Neolithic artefacts have been found to the north of the village and it is believed that there was a reasonable population for the time in this part of eastern Wiltshire. This continued into the Bronze Age and 20 round barrows top the downs in this area; they include the well known Four Barrows. At this time there were settlements at both Upham and Woodsend. Occupation at Upper Upham continued through the Iron Age and into the Romano-British period.
The Roman Ermin Street crosses the Sugar Way while to the west the road from Cirencester to Mildenhall (Cunetio) runs roughly north to south. There are also substantial villa sites nearby, such as Littlecote, and Aldbourne parish seems to have been well farmed at this time. Apart from settlement and a field system in the Upper Upham/Shipley area there was a settlement in the valley between North Farm and Lottage, and there may have been a farmstead just outside the present village centre. Farming on the uplands and in the valley was intensive.
Saxon settlement has left far fewer traces, as most buildings and utensils were made of wood. It is thought that earliest settlement may have been on ground near the stream, to the south of Lottage Road. Later a wooden church was built on higher chalk land to the north-west of the stream. Upham was the centre of a royal manor, with a hunting lodge on the edge of Aldbourne Chase. The main house or hall in the village is likely to have been on the site of Court House, to the north of the church. It is thought that a wooden church may have existed here as early as the 7th or 8th century and by 1086 the church held two hides of land, sufficient for two plough teams, to provide for the church and priest.
The Domesday Book (1086) gives us the best picture of the community at the end of the Saxon period. Aldbourne was held by the king and had enough land for 45 plough teams, although this was not fully exploited as only 36 were being used. Of these the tenants had 26. There were four mills in the parish and a certain amount of meadow (probably outside the parish), pasture and woodland. Over the whole estate, roughly the modern parish, the population is likely to have been between 670 and 740 people. This included the present village site, then settled to the south and south-east of the church, and what were still probably substantial settlements at Upham and Woodsend.
In medieval times there were originally two open fields, probably the large North Field, up the Lottage Valley, and West Field, between the Ogbourne Road and Southwood Lane. The smaller East Field, on the top of Baydon Hill, and South Field down the valley from Farm Lane, were probably later Some earthworks, Lewisham Castle, to the south of Stock Lane were occupied as a fortified house c.1216, while also in the early 13th century a market was granted and probably held on the Green. It is likely that a fire c.1220 destroyed the church, which was rebuilt, and it is possible that there may have been houses on part of the Green that were burned and not rebuilt to increase the area of the market place. By the middle of the century the name Lottage was in use, and this could indicate an early extension of the village. It is quite likely that Aldbourne feast was held from around this time, on the first Monday after 22 July (St. Mary Magdalene’s Day). It continued for eight centuries. The warrens were important, providing a source of fresh meat, and Aldbourne conies (rabbits) were recognised as being of good quality. Hurdle making is mentioned here in the late 13th century and the village was also expanding at this time.
In the 14th century the manor descended to John of Gaunt and later became Crown property again as part of the Duchy of Lancaster. Deer hunting over the Chase remained important, as did the warrens that were part of the manor. Much of the land was sheep pasture but there was a fair amount of arable for corn growing and a windmill for grinding the latter is recorded by 1311. A Thursday market is also recorded in that year. In 1377 this was a wealthy parish with 332 poll tax payers, of whom 253 lived in the village itself. Upper Upham was a small village with 40 while Snap was a very small settlement with only 19. In the main village, overlooking the Green, was an inn on the site of the Blue Boar from the 15th century.
A farmstead existed at Pickwood, probably the Laines site, from medieval times and there was a deer park at Snap until the early 16th century. Dudmore Lodge was built in the early 16th century, probably on the site of an early 19th century farm, and there was an inn mentioned in the village in 1516. Houses had been built in Castle Street by the 16th century and in 1549 it was estimated that about 400 adults lived here. By 1553 South Street is mentioned, probably indicating dwellings there, and a market was being held on Tuesdays. By the late 16th century there were fairs on St. Edward’s Day (10 March) and St. Mary Magdalene’s Day (22 July). She was then the patron saint of the church and the fair continued to the mid-18th century. Upper Upham House was first built in 1599, but was much altered and expanded later; there were still about 200 deer in the Chase at this time. The last deer was killed in the Chase in 1636.
The village expanded in the 17th century. West Street is first mentioned in 1614 and an inn, in or near Grasshills Lane, in 1617. A grid pattern of houses was built to the south-west of the Green and this may have diverted the Swindon to Hungerford road, the natural course of which would have been on a north-west to south-east line through the village. It now turns 90º to the south and then 90º to the east before heading south-east. The population in 1637 was reckoned to be 800 adults and was the same in 1676. In the early years of the 17th century the market was said to be poor but it revived later in the century, only to be ended by the fire of 1760. Between 1627 and 1631 much of the manor land was broken up into smaller areas and sold with the warrens.
The Civil War had some impact upon this area. In 1643 a Parliamentary army, travelling from Gloucester to London, was attacked by Prince Rupert’s cavalry to the north of Dudmore Lodge, retreated into the village, where they blew up their ammunition wagons and then withdrew to Hungerford. A muster of 10,000 Royalist troops took place on Aldbourne Chase in April 1644 and in May there was a skirmish near the village. The village was again unfortunate in 1648 when visited by plague. Despite all this, expansion continued and new cottages were built at the southern end of Lottage Road. In the 1660s a new cottage industry began when fustian (a heavy mixture of cotton and linen) weaving began here. Being distant from main centres of population the parish was used by up to 300 dissenters, meeting in 1669, to hear parsons who had been ejected from their livings. Around 1649 another well-known local industry began when William and Robert Cor established their bell foundry in the ground of Court House. Eighty-eight bells had been cast here by 1724.
The village continued to prosper as an industrial centre in the 18th century and a fustian factory was built in South Street. Two inns were recorded, The George to the south of the Green (closed in the early 19th century) and The Crown (1735) in The Square. In the middle of the century the community suffered greatly from two fires. In 1760 a total of 72 houses and other buildings, including a fustian warehouse, were destroyed, with a total loss of buildings valued at £20,000. Ten years later a further 80 houses and 20 barns were burned. Between these events Robert Wells, a relative of the Cors, opened a new foundry at Bell Court, which produced church and smaller bells until 1825. Bricks were also made from 1767 and there were still two small brickworks in 1851. After the fires houses were rebuilt around the Green and cottages were also erected on the east side of Baydon Street. Cottages were also built on waste ground at the Butts and this continued in the early 19th century. In the 1790s a straw plaiting industry was introduced into cottages by the Society for the Betterment of the Poor. The resulting ‘tucsin’ was supplied to local milliners while a hat making industry also existed by 1830. Later willow squares were woven for milliners until 1880. In 1857 there were 140 people, mainly women and children, employed in this work in the parish.
The 19th century saw many changes in the village. An Enclosure Act of 1809 meant that most of the open fields and downland were enclosed, creating many small farms. Most of these were absorbed into larger ones by the mid-19th century. Three more disasters struck the village. In 1811 there were severe floods when a waterspout is said to have broken over the houses while in another fire 15 cottages, 3 barns and 2 malthouses were burned in 1817. Two years later the Workhouse, at the north-west end of South Street burned down. Not surprisingly in 1826 the village was said to be in decline. However on a brighter note the Blue Boar was open by 1822 and in 1829 James Bridgeman opened a new foundry at High Town, that continued working until c.1858. In 1835 a brass and reed band was formed by Richard Bunce. It later became an orchestra and is now well known as the Aldbourne Silver Band.
Apart from bells, Aldbourne became well known for dew pond making when four generations of the Walters family engaged in this craft, making the last one at Barbury Castle just after the First World War. Thomas Orchard set up a chair factory to the south-west of South Street in 1854, producing hand-made chairs for 60 years. New buildings continued to be erected – houses further out along Lottage Road, Manor Farm, and a school and chapel at Woodsend, while in 1867 the church was restored. Although the blind house, or lock-up, between Lottage Road and Baydon Street, was pulled down in the 1880s (it was last used in 1880), a Reading Room, subscription 1d (0.4p) a week, was opened at Wall Cottage in 1892. Also in that year William Brown gave the Green to the village. In the late 19th century Baydon Street was renamed Oxford Street. The general agricultural depression in the late 19th century and early 20th century caused local emigration to Canada, Australia and Argentina while in 1900 the windmill was pulled down.
Malting ceased in 1900 and the end of Snap was in sight in 1901 when Mr. Wilson, a Ramsbury butcher, began buying up farms around Aldbourne. He bought both Snap and Leigh Farms in 1905, converted them from arable to purely pasture, thus putting the Snap villagers out of work. They drifted away and only two elderly people remained in 1909 and by 1914 the village that had lasted for over six centuries was gone. Woodsend also declined but revived later in the century. In Aldbourne itself there was infilling in the village centre and c.1911 an iron foundry and agricultural engineering business was begun; in 1939 it became the Aldbourne Engineering Co. Around 1911 water from the public pumps was being sold at 6d (2½p) a barrel by water carriers. In 1910 Charles McEvoy, a London dramatist then living in the village, converted the malthouse in South Street into a theatre and put on a new play, ‘The Village Wedding’, based on countrymen and local speech. George Bernard Shaw attended the production in 1910 and it was a success in Manchester, but London audiences failed to understand Wiltshire dialect. The theatre closed in 1912.
During the First World War over 100 men from Aldbourne served in the forces, 48 did not return. Racing stables were opened at the Old Rectory and at Lottage but in 1921 the Hightown stables burned down. This was the last time that the village ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ fire engines were used. Barnes’ Coaches began business in 1920 and the carnival started in 1925, although chair making ceased in 1927. During the Second World War 13 Aldbourne men died in the forces and American troops were stationed in the neighbourhood. One shot down the weathercock from the church. After the war mains electricity came to the village and in 1949 an egg packing station was built to the north of Stock Lane for Wiltshire Poultry Farmers. This was extended in 1960. In the 1950s the village received a mains gas supply but mains water was not available until 1960. The Bell Inn closed in 1958.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a large expansion of the village to the north with bungalows east of Lottage Road, private houses to the west of it – Cook Road, Cook Close and Grasshills Lane. A small factory was also built near the southern end of Lottage Road. Private houses were built in St. Michael’s Close and council housing to the north of Castle Street and to the south and east of The Butts. A public lavatory was also opened in The Square in 1971.
Today Aldbourne is an attractive thriving village, with many interesting houses. It won the Best Kept Village Award in 1973-4 and again in 1975 and 1980. There is a lively and interesting parish magazine, The Dabchick, and Aldbourne Library, next to the old blacksmith’s forge, serves the village with books and information. In 1999 it was found that about 40% of the working population works within the parish, over half of them in their own homes. A high percentage for a village.