The parish of Great Somerford lies five kilometres east of Malmesbury. It was called Somerford Mautravers from the later 13th century. The suffix of the lord of the manor was replaced by the prefix of 'Broad' or 'Great'. The hamlet of Startley is included within the bounds of the parish.
The name Somerford has changed vary little; Sumerford (937), Somerford (956), and Somreford/Sumreford (1086). Later came Brode Somerford (1409), Somerford Magna alias Brode Somerford (1588), Somerford Magna al. Somerford Matravers al. Broad Somerford (1588) Little Somerford al. Somerford Mauditt (1681). The name 'Sumresford' in the Domesday Book seems to indicate the existence of a ford only being in use during the drier times of the year.
Startley was first spelt Stercanlei (688), Sterkele (1249), Sterkle (1409), Startley (1558-79), Starkley grove (1603), the word possibly meaning an unbending wood or forest.
An 1882 Act transferred small parts of the parish to Little Somerford and Malmesbury; the area of the parish is 672 hectares (1,660 acres). The northern boundary of the parish follows the Avon and Rodbourne Stream; this was also the boundary in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. In 1809 the eastern boundary was redefined as a straight line to the west of the earlier course of the river. The southern boundary probably follows the enclosure boundaries.
The soil consists of Kellaways clay, Oxford clay and Kellaways sand deposits. The clay lies mostly to the west, the sand to the centre. To the east can be found gravel terraces. Meadow land is situated on the alluvial deposits near the rivers.
The 'Mound' is the site of a possible motte and bailey castle. It can be found just west of the church close to the river. A large Bronze Age palstave has been found in the parish.
The road system is that of a stylised 'eight'. No main road crosses the parish. The road between Little Somerford and Sutton Benger links the village with the Malmesbury to Wootton Bassett and the Swindon to Chippenham road. In 1883 access was gained further east across a bridge. A new bridge was built c.1799. The road was turnpiked in 1809 and disturnpiked in 1876. Another north to south road ran from Malmesbury across, and through, Startley. An east to west road from Dauntsey ran through the village to Startley; in 1809 it was no longer in use so the eastern part was straightened at inclosure. A more northerly route to Startley in 1773 was a rough track by 1988. A path through the Manor field was originally called Cray Croft and later became Quickquack c.1960 but has more recently lost its name. A plot of land was used to extract gravel to be used for the maintenance of roads in the early 19th century. It was situated on the south side of the Dauntsey Road. Gravel was also dug behind the free gardens on both sides of Moor Lane.
Malmesbury railway line was built through the parish and opened in 1877 when the Great Somerford Band came out to welcome the first train. Somerford Station (later called Great Somerford Station), stood to the north of the village in the parish of Little Somerford. A Keeper's House was built at the level crossing in Dauntsey Road c.1877. The railway line and station closed in 1933 but the railway lines still remained as far as Great Somerford; they were used for storing carriages.
There were seven separate Domesday Estates in Great Somerford. Edwin held 3 hides and 24 acres that became the manor of Somerford Mautravers. Robert held the estate of Humphrey Lisle in 1086. A later owner Walter Mautravers was assigned the estate but forfeited it after taking part in Prince John's rebellion in 1193. It was later restored to his brother John Mautravers who also forfeited it by joining the rebellion of 1215, but who later recovered it. In the 13th century John was granted a free warren in his demesne lands. In 1561 the Arundells sold Somerford Mautravers to John Yew who was a clothier. The estate was greatly reduced in size in the later 19th/early 20th century.
In 1066 Arnold held 3 hides and 24 acres that became Somerford Bowles or Somerford Ewyas. Alfred of Marlborough held the estate in 1086. Siward held the estate of Alfred in 1086 and in 1300 it was passed to John of Seagry. Various families held the estate until it was sold in portions in the late 15th century. The surviving manor was still called Somerford Ewyas in c.1500. Somerford Bowles was owned in 1751 by Richard Serle. It was sold to various owners until being sold off in portions in c.1957.
Teodric held the estate of Somerford in 1086, and it was held by Kington St. Michael Priory, of Geoffrey de Sifrewast, in the 13th century and up to the Dissolution, when it was granted to Sir Richard Long. It was sold to John Yew the clothier in 1570 and descended to the Thynnes in the 17th century when it became the property of various owners right up to the mid to late 19th century.
Great Somerford Manor was held by Alwin the priest, Alwi and Saieva who all held two and a half yardlands, and Edward who held half a hide in 1086. The Drew family held it in the late 14th and 15th centuries, and the Mompessons in the 15th and 16th centuries.
There were 92 poll tax payers in Great Somerford and 10 in Startley in 1377. Courts held in the 15th century considered subjects such as the election of a tithingman, repair of tenements, impounding of stray animals, and the overstocking of common pastures. Tradition has it that a court was also held at Startley ash. The tree has long since disappeared but the field where it stood is remembered as the place of a village gathering.
In 1801 to 1841 the population rose from 358 to 556. It remained constant at c.540 until 1891 when it began to fall. In 1921 there were 421 inhabitants and in 1931 there were 448. By 1971 this figure had risen to 662 and had remained level by 1981.
In 1086 the seven estates had a total of 33 acres meadow and19 acres of pasture. It is probable that in the Middle Ages most land was in pen fields, common meadow and pasture. Arable would have been situated in the centre of the parish, east, west and south of the village. In the 13th century there were East, West and South Fields, so called when the road to Sutton Benger may have divided the parish from East to West. By the mid 16th century East Field had been divided into Broad and Down Fields.
By 1809 c.700 acres (almost half) of the parish had been inclosed. The main period of inclosure had been the early 17th century. North of the Rodbourne Stream and beside the Avon east and south of the village, meadow land remained common. Startley Marsh is a common and was reported to be where the hundred courts met in the Middle Ages. There was also a further area of common called Goose Green to the north west in 1773. All remaining open field and common was inclosed by the 1809 Act. This Enclosure Act prompted the Vicar Stephen Demainbray to insert a clause to ensure that a half acre was attached to each cottage. He also reserved eight acres of his glebe for annual allotment among villagers. This allotted land was to replace his tithes. He then did the same for neighbouring villages. His was the first allotment provision scheme in the country.
The only woodland in the parish was the extension of Seagry Wood in the south west corner. It was probably planted soon after the land became part of the Draycot Cerne Estate in 1865.
Sheep dipping took place in Rodbourne Brook - the site was in a deepened stretch of water behind the ruins of Whiteacre (Whitakers). The bridge just beyond the church was put up in the 1930s to replace an old three arched 'hump back' which was too narrow for traffic. The old bridge was c.130 years old. There were at least six little bridges across Rodbourne brook in the meadows. Only one was standing in the late 20th century, of ordinary household brick. Many ditches in the meadows hold the remains of control gates and hatches that controlled irrigation. Eels were collected when they became caught against the grids after a flood. It has been said that boats were rowed across at the old wooden gate of Show Field by the bridge. The baker's cart was once washed off the road; the horse unfortunately drowned. At least six people drowned near the village during the last century and in 1605 the Rector Richard Attwood drowned too, six months after he'd been married (according to Aubrey). In 1799 the Reverend Demainbray had to take a roundabout route to reach the church. Part of the watercourse on the Avon was slightly altered when a new 'Crump' weir was built in 1964 to control flooding and the land became better drained, providing good pasture for horses.
In 1086 there was a mill on Alfred of Marlborough's estate. Five other estates held a share in the mill but nothing more is known of the site.
By 1867 only one third of the parish was ploughed. Grain (mostly wheat), was grown on two thirds of the arable land and root and fodder crops on the rest. Clover and grasses were grown in rotation on a small area of pasture. There were 392 cows, 533 sheep and 346 pigs. Between 1876 and 1956 most of the parish was grassland and c.270 acres were arable. There was an increase in dairy farming and a decrease in sheep and pig keeping. After 1966 more land was ploughed and in 1985 there was c.700 acres of arable land with the chief crops being wheat and barley. There were 210 cows. Broadfield Farm was created in the 1960s. It included a chicken farm, market garden, commercial fishery, and in 1988 a lake for trout fishing.
A co-operative family society began in Great Somerford in c.1911 which owned 70 acres in Startley. Wiltshire County Council owned 142 acres in four small farms based in Startley in 1927. A chicken battery farm was established in the 1960s to supply the Sutton Benger factory Buxted Chicken Limited. By 1988 farming at the hamlet was mostly mixed with arable, pasture and dairy farms.
In the 17th century or earlier, farmsteads and cottages were built in West Street to form a group away from the main part of the village. West Street was diverted from the south to the north side of Manor House between 1853 and 1885. Manor House itself was built in the 17th century. Settlement began in Hollow Street after 1773. Only one building is earlier, from the early 17th century. In the 19th century the village developed southwards.
The Old Maltings in Hollow Street had been called the Red House for many years; the Parsloe family ran a brewery there from 1780-1903. A 17th century house of rubble stone with a stone slate roof can also be found in Hollow Street. In 1823 a schoolhouse was built on St. Mary's Land in Hollow Street. It was a stone building with a gabled porch in the middle and a slate roof. In 1853 a schoolroom was built at the front half of the building. It was extended in 1874. The school closed when the Walter Powell School opened in Dauntsey Road in 1982.
Shipton's Lane was so called because of the Shipton family who lived in a stone house at the end of West Street.
A 16th century house of painted brick with a timber frame and stone slate roof called Bevis can be found in Frog Lane. It has a c.1900 curved bay on the north end wall and was two houses in the 18th century; the right hand side one being a bakery. Between c.1910 to 1923 J. L. Osbourne, the author, lived there. There is also an early 19th century house, roughcast on brick with a stone slate mansard roof in the lane.
A church stood in Great Somerford in the late 12th century. The church of St. Peter and St. Paul is 14th and 15th century, built of rubble stone with a stone slate roof and coped gables and stands in Top Street. Also in Top Street is The Old Rectory, a former rectory with 16th or 17th century origins that was enlarged in the later 18th and 19th centuries. It is of rubble stone with a stone slate roof. There is also Brook Farmhouse, a 17th century farmhouse, refronted in 1803, roughcast with ashlar dressings and a stone slate hipped roof and dormers. The rainwater heads at the ends of the main range are dated 'TPW 1803'. The farmhouse is reported to have been bought by John Pyke in the 17th century and includes a later 18th century stable of rubble stone with a stone slate roof.
Also in Top Street is The Mount House, built on a site south of the mound. It is of 16th century date, refronted in the early 19th century, of rubble stone with a stone slate roof. The house was the original manor house of Somerford Mautravers and was probably rebuilt shortly before its sale in 1575 to John Yewe or Yeo, clothier. There is also a 16th century outbuilding (formerly a house) which is timber framed with red brick and a rubble stone base and stone slate roof. The Mount House was held by the Smith family from the late 18th century until 1940. One Saturday evening in September 1774 was the scene of a 'daring escapade', an attempt to carry off the 21 year old heiress Elizabeth Smith, who was due to inherit a considerable fortune. A parcel arrived to be delivered to Miss Smith personally but she became suspicious and locked her door. Mr Williams intervened and one man said he'd shoot him with his blunderbuss. Mrs Smith raised the alarm by beating a brass pan out of a window to alarm the neighbours. It was later discovered that the intruders had been hired by a Michael Hickey, master tailor of Bath, who had gotten a licence and planned to wait at Box and carry off Miss Smith to a place to marry her. Miss Smith died unmarried but adopted a young relative who changed his name to Smith and inherited. He practised as a surgeon at Tetbury for a period and afterwards 'gratuitously for the benefit of the poor' as his memorial in the church states.
The Inn on Seagry Road opened in 1822 and is of squared rubble with a slate roof. The house is reported to have existed in 1774 and was sold in 1839 by John Parsloe to his brother H. H. Parsloe. On the east side of the road to Sutton Benger could be found the New Inn, later the Mason's Arms. It was open from 1841 to c.1968 and the building was called 'Samara' in 1985.
West Street contains a 17th century house and two farmhouses. Manor Farmhouse is timber framed and was rendered in the early 19th century. It is reported to have been the manor house of the second Somerford manor, called Somerford Mompesson or Somerford Bolles. West Street Farmhouse has an earlier core and is part rubble, part ashlar fronted. It was known as Cockerells or Cottrills in the 17th century and was bought by W. Alexander 1687. Westerton Farm Cottages were originally one farmhouse, timber framed inclosed with rubble stone and chequered brick. All have stone slate roofs.
A 16th century barn can be found in Wilkins Lane on the west side. It has a timber frame and half hipped corrugated iron roof. There are four bays, some with a cruck truss and tie beam.
Walter Powell MP was responsible for building the reading room in 1872. It was of red brick with arched windows, a gabled roof with eaves and an ornate porch. A caretaker's house was attached to the side and heating, furniture, books and magazines were provided. After Powell died ten years later the building went up for auction and the Primitive Methodists bought it; it became a Primitive Methodist Chapel.
The 20th century saw council and private housing built in the village. In 1932, ten council houses were built along the Dauntsey Road; a new school was also built there in 1982. Sixteen council houses were built in Wilkins Lane between 1949-50 and six bungalows in 1951. Four council houses replaced two cottages in Hollow Street in 1955. A residential caravan site was opened in 1964. Bungalows were built in Shipton's Lane and Manor Park in the 1960s.
In the 17th century there was settlement around Startley Marsh and there had been encroachments on the common, including cottages at Goose Green. The majority had been demolished by 1985.
There is at least one remaining 17th century cottage in Startley, of red brick with some chequer work, and a Bridgwater tiled roof. It was reportedly once an inn, and has formerly also been two cottages. There is an early 19th century house, rendered with ashlar dressings and a slate roof, and a c.1840 farmhouse of squared rubble stone and a slate roof. A primitive Methodist chapel was built at Startley in 1854 and enlarged in 1860 with a 'Jubilee' schoolroom. It had a three-bay gabled front with round-arched windows. It was sold in 1983 and closed in 1985. In the early 1990s it had become a private 'studio'.
In the early 18th century there was a husbandman, butcher, blacksmith, shoemaker, carpenter, ploughman, and woolcomber in the parish. An old timber house at the top of Frog Lane was part bakehouse in 1783. In 1831 most of the occupants of Great Somerford were farm labourers. A building firm was begun in the late 19th century which specialised in making ornamental pinewood brick moulds for use at the Rodbourne brickworks. It was based at Startley. In 1988 it had become a general building firm. In the 19th century there was a saw pit in Frog Lane. Wood from it was used for the floorboards of the schoolhouse. Bowpine Limited, building contractors, were based at Manor House in 1908. In the early 20th century the parish had a midwife, doctor, postmistress, butcher, dairyman, grocer, shoemaker, saddler, blacksmith, builder, carpenter, coalman and undertaker. In 1922 there was a post office at the shop that was a Spar in 1980. Beyond the road junction past the 'Bartons' could be found the village stores in 1985. Further along again is the 19th century former poor house.
Piped water came to the village in 1953 and a sewage works was built on the old railway line in 1962. Official street lighting was put in in the late 1930s but as far back as 1888 Mrs Reynolds (who lived at the Manor) put a lamp on the green where the memorial now stands.
The amount spent on poor relief was large for a parish of this size. In 1802, £302 was spent on continuous outdoor relief for one third of the inhabitants. Other attempts to help the poor included the provision of allotment gardens, a poor house and subsidies to local farmers who employed paupers in 1822. The Vestry assisted paupers to emigrate to Canada in 1831 and to North America in 1849. The Bartons, situated in the Main Street, was an almshouse for elderly women in the early 19th century. A cottage and two and a half acres called St. Mary's lands were declared for general charitable purposes by the parish. A schoolhouse replaced the cottage c.1828. Most of the land was sold c.1954 and c.1964. In 1985 investments produced sums which were given to the school, youth organisations and clubs, the church and the Methodist chapel. At inclosure in 1809 around 2 acres of land at Seagry Heath and 6 acres south of Dauntsey Road, called the free gardens, were given as allotments for paupers through the efforts of the Rev. Stephen Demainbray. A poorhouse was built on part of the Dauntsey Road allotments. In 1835 it was converted to two cottages; the rent was paid to the overseers of the poor until 1867 and to Great Somerford School until 1894. From 1896 the cottages and allotments were administered by the parochial church council. There were 49 allotment holders in 1905. They were sold in 1978. By 1981 income was used for general charitable purposes and the upkeep of the free gardens, the upkeep of the churchyard and OAP's Christmas parcels. From 1967 the inhabitants of Great Somerford were entitled to be admitted to an almshouse in Dauntsey.
A friendly society met at the Volunteer public house from 1836 to 1912. The Somerfords Fishing Association had been established by the 1890s and continued into the late 20th century, if not beyond. There was a cricket club in the late 19th century but it did not make a century as there was no field available to play on! Players joined the Seagry club instead. Whist drives were in existence in the early 20th century and regular social events with programmes of songs and sketches were also performed. The British Legion was established in the village in 1931 and still existed in the late 20th century.
The Somerfords and District Show are held in August every year. Its origins can be traced back to the end of the 19th century. In 1893 it was classed as a flower show but also had horse and donkey racing and horse jumping, and there was a brass band for dancing in the evening. By 1907 there were prizes for cart horses and cattle. In the 1930s there were driving turnouts, gardens and separate industrial sections covering needlework, handicrafts and cookery but horticulture and horses were the main events. It was staged on Show Field, a flat meadow across the river from the church. There were also travelling roundabouts, stalls, shies and mechanical music.
Walter Powell was an MP for Malmesbury who lived in Little Somerford, but who also had an impact on the people of Great Somerford in the late 19th century. He bought a magic lantern and used it to show slides which he exhibited himself to various groups in the reading room and at the school. After one show the Reverend Andrews said "…this man of means and position ready to afford amusement and recreation to his poorer neighbours as Mr Powell has done on this and many other occasions. His many acts of kindness and generosity will always ensure him a hearty welcome in this parish".
Powell had his own balloon which made ascents from many places around Malmesbury and beyond, including Great Somerford. He invited Captain Templar of the balloon department at Woolwich to stay with him c.1880. Mr Templar cut out and made a balloon at the Malmesbury silkworks. He went up in a calico government balloon with Mr Templar as a passenger in 1881 to do some scientific research and was lost at sea.
The first parish council consisted of a landowner, house owners, shopkeeper, builder, farmer and shoemaker, cottager and the father of the school teacher when in 1894 the parish had to elect a parish council. Nineteen male candidates stood for nine places.
Sixteen horse chestnuts trees were planted in the 1890s to protect visitors walking from the manor to the church, following a footpath from Top Street. The trees were classed as unsafe by 1989 and were felled. Villagers cleared away the timber and planted ten lime trees and seven flowering cherry trees in their place.
Mills Farm provided horses for WWI. The war memorial lists the 13 men who were killed during WWI. Five died during WWII. Ammunition was stored along the unused railway line that stretched to Great Somerford and troops were also stationed there during WWII. Wardens were appointed, air raid shelters dug and a 'band of young women' ran the auxiliary fire service, doing regular practices with the fire trailer kept at West Street Farm. Colonel Palmer commanded the Home Guard which had regular drills and exercises. Pill boxes were placed at the site of the Dauntsey Road level crossing and by the river. Evacuees came from a school at Grays, Essex, and the Jewish Montifiore School in London. They were divided between Great Somerford, Dauntsey and Lea. Jewish religious education was conducted by a visiting Rabbi in the squash court at The Manor (built c.1925), which also doubled up as the Home Guard's HQ!