The village and parish of Lacock lies between the towns of Melksham and Chippenham. The River Avon runs north to south through the middle of the parish giving a broad valley of alluvium with clay on either side. To the east the land rises to Bowden Hill and Naish Hill while to the west there is a more gentle rise towards Gastard and Corsham. This western part of the parish lies on cornbrash, a rubbly limestone. There is lower greensand on Bowden Hill.
The modern major routes through the parish are north to south – the railway-line and the present A350. Earlier, however, east-west routes were important until the late 18th century. The southern boundary of the parish is the course of a Roman road between London and Bath while, for several centuries from the medieval period, the London to Bath road came over Naish Hill and crossed the river at Reybridge. The area to the east was part of the royal forests of Melksham and Chippenham and subject to forest law, although the people of Lacock did have some rights here.
Today Lacock is very much a preserved village, mostly owned by the National Trust, and with very few structures in the main village later than the 18th century. There are no television aerials or other obtrusive features of modern life and this has made it an ideal setting for period films and television programmes. Despite being a National Trust tourist attraction most of the houses are lived in by people whose families go back several generations in the village. The village also still has a school, shop and post office and a bakery. A family business of goldsmiths and silversmiths, now spanning two generations, has been in the village since 1972, there is a pottery, good inns and tea-rooms. Apart from visitors to the village, Abbey and the Fox Talbot Museum of Photography this is a thriving local community, a fact that is often forgotten. To the north of the village is Lackham College of Agriculture, occupying one of the two manors in the parish; the other became Lacock Abbey.
Earliest finds in Lacock have been Roman, with coins found at Wick, Lackham and the appropriately-named Silverfield. With a major Roman road in the south of the parish, a settlement at Sandy Lane and several villas nearby it would seem most likely that people were living here at that time although there may not have been a nucleated settlement. The Saxons definitely settled here around the small stream called the Bide Brook that flows eastwards into the Avon. The name Lacock could come from Lacuc, a small stream. There was another Saxon settlement at Lackham, whose name could be old English for the village where leeks, or garden plants generally, grew.
At the time of the Domesday Book, 1086, the settlements at Lacock and Lackham were roughly similar in size although Lacock possibly had a small church. Estimating population from the Domesday returns is difficult but modern interpretation of the record would suggest a population for Lacock of between 160 and 190 and for Lackham between 170 and 200. Lacock had 2 mills and ½ an acre of vineyard while Lackham also had 2 mills.
The manor of Lacock came into the possession of the Norman, Edward of Salisbury, and by the early 13th century it had descended to Ela, Countess of Salisbury. She began legal measures to set up an abbey here in 1229 but the accepted date of the foundation is 1232 when, on 16th April, Ela founded the Nunnery of Lacock in the morning and the Priory of Hinton in the afternoon. She was already 45 years old, which was a good age in the 13th century. She had already given the whole of her manor of Lacock to God and St. Mary in 1229 and now proceeded to build an Augustinian house on an area called Snaylesmeade between the river and the church. She received a quarry of stone at Hazelbury from Henry Croc and oaks from the royal forest of Chippenham. It is likely that the major building work took place between 1240 and 1280.
Ela herself became a nun in 1237 and took over as abbess in 1240. She was very energetic in building her abbey and did not retire until 1257 when she appointed her successor. Even after retirement she remained very active and obtained the rights of markets and fairs from the Crown. She died in 1261 at the age of 74. In the time of the second abbess, Beatrix of Kent, water was brought to the abbey from a conduit on Bowden Hill. Lands were given to the abbey up until 1300 and in the 14th century the churches of Lacock and Clyffe Pypard and, a little later, Shrewton, were made over to the abbey. The community had its own mill, brewhouse and bakehouse, while its chapel of St. Edmund was served by three chaplains. Later a confessor was also appointed.
The religious community was never larger and probably did not exceed 25 nuns at any time while, in 1473, there were only 14. Originally the nuns were mainly noblewomen but later less exulted ladies came to this abbey. The number of abbey servants was high and included, at various times, a steward, reeve, bailiff, hayward, ploughmen, shepherds, cowherds, goatherd, wagoners, swineherd, fisherman, forester, swanherd and carter. There was also a head porter, head launderer, janitor, hosteller, palfreyman, porter, smith, granger, miller, baker, brewer, larderer, poulterer, dairymaid and many lesser servants.
The nunnery appears to have been well-conducted, although many of its records have been lost. In 1536 there were 15 nuns, 3 novices and 36 servants. The order and knowledge of the nuns was said to be good and the abbey was allowed to continue on the payment of a substantial fine. However, three years later, on 21st January 1539, the abbey became one of the last monastic possessions to be surrendered during the dissolution of monasteries.
Outside the abbey was the medieval village and manor. The village had developed to the west of the late 11th century church of St. Cyriac with the market-place lying immediately west of the churchyard. A grid pattern of streets was created with Church Street and High Street running parallel to one another, east to west, joined by East Street and West Street parallel to one another north to south. This grid pattern gives Lacock the appearance of a small medieval town and it was often referred to as the town of Lacock. The road between Melksham and Chippenham passed along West Street and continued up Cantax Hill, while another important route would have been over the packhorse bridge, or through the ford, from the market place, to the London to Bath road near Reybridge.
There seems to have been no settlement to the east of the church, the site of the abbey, which could indicate that the original manor house of Lacock was here. People would have been tenants of the abbey and paid for their land in work or goods. For example, they would have to move and lift grass from ½ an acre of abbey land a day before mowing their own during haymaking. They would be expected to spread dung on ½ an acre a year and, during harvest, reap and cart daily until the third hour. Ela obtained various charters for fairs and markets during her lifetime. In 1237 a fair was granted on the feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury (7th July) while in 1242 came the grant of a Tuesday market. In 1257 the nuns were granted a substantial fair on the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (29th June) and for the following six days, while the right to a Monday market was also given. In 1261 came the confirmation of a Friday market.
This indicates a really thriving community, and in the latter part of the 13th century and early part of the 14th century the village was also becoming a prosperous wool and cloth centre. This prosperity was aided by the proximity of the London to Bath road and Reybridge remained the only bridge in the area across the Avon until the 17th century. Pottery and tile kilns operated on Naish Hill from the 13th century, doubtless controlled by the abbey, which obtained its encaustic floor tiles and vessels from them. Remains of all major types of medieval vessels have been found at the kilns – cooking pots and bowls being the commonest, followed by pitchers with feet and bung holes, jugs and skillets. Greenish glazes were used. The tile kilns produced both floor - plain flat glazed and unglazed, mosaic and encaustic – and roof - plain, flat and crested ridge-tiles. They also probably produced chimney pots.
Houses in Lacock at this period were often of cruck construction and an example from the 14th century can be seen in Church Street. At this time Bowden Hill and the area to the east was still well-wooded but, this being a royal forest, timber may have been obtained from elsewhere.
After the dissolution the abbey buildings were stripped of most of their lead (it was sold for £193 and 12 shillings) and handed over to William Sharington, who completed the purchase of the abbey lands on 26th July 1540. He demolished the abbey chapel but retained most of the other buildings of the nunnery and made some good additions which showed both Italian and French influence. These included an octagonal tower and a muniment room that are still there. Much of the feudal system had now ended and tenants made payments for their land and labourers were paid for their work. In 1590 a Lacock labourer would have earned 7d (about 3p) a day in summer and 6d (2½p) in winter.
The abbey passed to the Talbot family by marriage but the most substantial change came in 1618 when the royal forest was sold, allowing private development to the east of the river. There had been limited development on the lower slopes – Bewley Court was a 15th century hall house – but now trees could be felled for timber and more dwellings built. By now there were tanning pits near the packhorse bridge and in the 17th century the bridge near the abbey was built bringing the London to Bath road off Bowden Hill and into the High Street, instead of off Naish Hill and over Reybridge. During the Civil War Lacock was occupied by both Royalists and Parliamentarians and although the Royalist Talbots were fined they managed to keep their land. After the restoration Charles II visited the Abbey as, at a later date, did Queen Anne.
In the 18th century John Ivory Talbot made extensive changes to the abbey house and the grounds. His first alterations to the house were in the Georgian style but he later changed to the Gothic style when rebuilding the great hall in 1753, with an impressive flight of steps outside, approached through a Gothic arch. By at least the early 1700s the market had outgrown its original site by the church and the High Street had become the New Market Place. At this time the market cross was moved from the Old Market Place to the new, near the Red Lion. It is likely that both market places were used for different markets for some time.
One of the first Wiltshire roads to be turnpiked, in 1725, was that on Bowden Hill on the route from Sandy Lane to Corsham, Kingsdown and on to Bath. The rates at the Bowden Hill turnpike in the 1730s were: coach or wagon 1 shilling (5p), a cart 6d (2½p), a horse 1d (½p), 20 cattle 10d (4p) and 20 sheep 5d (2p). In the 1730s the red brick part of the Red Lion was built onto the earlier rear part, possibly as a result in the increase of coach traffic. There had been a poor house, now completely gone, near the church and in 1726 this was replaced by a workhouse for 20 poor people. In 1766 a house on the north side of the church (now cottages) was made into the workhouse as the previous one proved too small. Inmates were employed in carding and spinning for the cloth trade from 6.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m. with only ½ an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. They had to be in bed by 9.00 p.m. in summer and 8.00 p.m. in winter and wear the bitterly resented pauper’s badge. Rooms were swept 3 times a week, clothes changed weekly and bed linen monthly.
By the mid 18th century the nun’s tithe barn was being used as a market hall for perishable goods alongside the outdoor market in the High Street. A pest house for victims of infectious diseases, such as smallpox, on Bowden Hill continued to be used through the 18th century. At this time Lacock was a thriving small town with industries of spinning, weaving, chair-making, tanning and hurdle-making, set in a prosperous farming community. This situation was to change from 1783 when a new road to Bath (the present A4) was created and the old route that passed through Lacock fell into disrepair.
The 19th century saw the extinction of the cloth industry as factories were built in the nearby towns and Lacock became fossilised architecturally with virtually no new buildings after the 18th century, giving us the wonderfully preserved village that we see today. The markets did survive well into the 19th century. In 1833 a larger workhouse was built, near the tanyard, a gaunt factory-like building that still survives. This accommodated an increasing number of local people as work declined and in 1841 the large total of 136 Lacock men from the workhouse were working in railway gangs on the G.W.R. line being built in the west of the parish. In 1861 the poor were moved into a new building in Chippenham, thus removing them from their own community.
Before the coming of the railways the Wilts and Berks Canal had been constructed through the parish at the foot of Bowden Hill and a swing bridge was put in on the lane coming down Naish Hill. At Bowden Hill dwellings were built along Wharf Road, a special coal wharf constructed and stone also imported via the canal. The Lacock Brewery was on a side road from the Wharf and in 1893 they were selling beer at one shilling (5p) a gallon (8 pints). The canal was superseded by the railway in the 1840s and, because of the desire of the Talbots to keep the line well away from the Abbey, the line was built in the east of the parish with a small railway station, Lacock Halt, for local people. This resulted in an area of new housing developing around the railway, thus preserving the earlier character of the village. In the same area the Parish Ground was created where men, who were out of work, were given land to cultivate.
It was during the first half of this century that Lacock produced its most famous person. After several years of being let the abbey was once again occupied by a Talbot – William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) – in 1827. He was a botanist, mathematician, astronomer and Egyptologist, a member of the Royal Society and he spent the 1830s researching photographic processes. As a result, in 1839, he was able to publish details of creating photographic negatives, from which any number of positive prints could be made. His first negative was of the inside of an oriel window at the Abbey; you can photograph the same view yourself if you visit the Abbey today. For this invention he can justly be called the ‘Father of Modern Photography’. He later devoted himself to Egyptology and the management of the estate, showing great interest in improvements in the village and surrounding farms. Later in the 19th century Charles Henry Fox Talbot, a somewhat reclusive historian and archaeologist, carried out important and careful restoration of the Abbey with Sir Harold Brakspear.
Life was fairly self-sufficient in this estate village where the shops and trades included shoe and china shops, a grocers, a drapers, 2 bakers, 2 pork butchers, 3 cobblers, a tailor, a cider-maker, a saddler, a joiner, 2 smiths, a builder, a timber-yard, a brewery, a tannery and a coal-yard. Corn was threshed in the tithe barn, which made East Street very dusty during threshing and the village cats replete with mice that they caught as the corn was moved. In the days before piped mains water villages who did not have wells obtained their water from taps on The Brash (the high pavement in West Street), by the tithe barn and in Church Street.
Changes in the late 19th century included the building of the cemetery in the early 1860s and the closure of the churchyard, renovation of the cross outside the Red Lion in 1876, and, in 1887, the erection of the Jubilee Clock on the wall of the old post office. In 1889 the Lacock branch of the Order of Oddfellows built a hall in East Street that was also used by other village organisations. In the 20th century, after the Lacock branch closed, the hall was bought by the National Trust, leased to the parish council and renovated and re-opened as the village hall in 1968.
In 1916 Charles Henry Fox Talbot bequeathed the Lacock estate to his niece, Matilda Gilchrist-Clark, who took the name of Talbot. She was a distinguished and remarkable lady who, in 1944, presented Lacock Abbey, Abbey Farm, all of the village that she owned and 284 acres to the National Trust. She still lived at the Abbey and during World War II housed many people, including an evacuated school and troops, there. In 1946 she presented the Lacock Abbey Magna Carta (in the final form of 1225) to the British Museum. A copy of this is now held at the abbey.
In the village itself the tannery had closed in 1928 and the little Bide Brook flooded disastrously in 1935 (it flooded badly again in 1968). More houses were built in the east of the parish on the Corsham road. In 1964 the Lacock bypass was built taking all through traffic away from the village which, in 1969, received gas, piped down Bowden Hill. In 1975 the Fox Talbot Museum of Photography opened in a building (used as a Scout Hall in the 1930s and 40s) at the gates of Lacock Abbey.
During all these centuries the manor of Lackham had continued as a typical separate country estate. In 600 years it changed hands only twice, and then as the dowry of its heiresses. Its owners were the Bluets, Baynards and Montagues, the latter built the third and final Lackham House between 1793 and 1796. In the 19th century the estate passed through several hands until it was bought by a famous Wiltshire soldier, General Llewellyn Palmer, who built many houses and other structures on the estate. His successors sold the house and 600 acres of the estate to Wiltshire County Council in 1945 to form the County School of Agriculture.
Lackham College of Agriculture is now the Wiltshire College, Lackham and offers full-time and part-time courses in a wide range of subjects. It retains a 400 acre farm, gardens and orchards, now has a museum of rural life and has several themed open days during the year.