Maiden Bradley, the home of the Duke of Somerset, is a village on the Somerset border. The B3092 road that joins Frome to Mere runs through the middle of the village. The parish lies on chalk and upper greensand, and was well known as an area rich in ‘chalk-greensand’ fossils. It gets its name from the leper hospital for maidens that was founded here in the 12th century. The word Bradley means a wide clearing or wood. One and a half miles southwest of the village is the deserted medieval village of Yarnfield. Formerly in the county of Somerset, it was transferred to Wiltshire in 1895 and is a hamlet of the parish of Maiden Bradley. As a manor in the 17th century it was held by Lieut. -General Edmund Ludlow, a member of the tribunal which condemned Charles I.
The earliest reference to the village is a Saxon land charter dated 878, but the community’s origins can be traced back thousands of years. There are numerous tumuli in Maiden Bradley, including a Bronze Age barrow opened by Richard Colt Hoare in 1807. It contained a complete skeleton accompanied by numerous items, three of which are on display in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum at Devizes. Other finds include an Iron Age gold coin, various Roman remains and a pagan Saxon barrow on Rodmead Hill. The latter suggests that the community continued to thrive after the Romans left. Another skeleton, enclosed in a lead coffin within a stone sarcophagus, was dug up in 1965 in Bradley House grounds providing further evidence of an established pagan Saxon community.
By the mid 11th century Bradley had become a large manor. The lord of the manor was Tosti Godwinson, brother of King Harold. The village was much bigger than neighbouring Horningsham or Baycliff. The Domesday Survey assessed it at 4000 acres worth £10 a year. The population consisted of six villeins, thirteen bordars and four slaves. Taking into account their families, the total would have been approximately 100.
Some time during the early 12th century, Bradley came into the hands of one of England’s great feudal nobles, Baron Manser Bisset, who owned over 200 Manors and whose principal estates were in Worcestershire. In 1154 he decided to found an asylum for girls suffering from leprosy, choosing a site where the present Priory ruins stand. A Proctor and his assistants ran the asylum. In 1189, when Bisset died, the Bishop of Salisbury changed the asylum into an Augustinian Priory, naming it St. Mary and St. Lazarus. The Priory was fortunate enough to enjoy Royal Protection, and continued to prosper until the Dissolution.
Little is known about the village during the 14th and 15th centuries. At some time in the mid 15th century the building housing the present Village Stores was built by the Lambert family, who were wool merchants. Other important local families owned land attached to the Priory, namely the Tropenhalls, the Ludlows and the Hungerfords.
By 1500 the village had grown and developed into two sections. The original village was between the church and the crossroads, and the priory village between the crossroads and the mill. The main street in the priory section ran from the Frome road to the priory. The many street names of the original village are recorded, but it is impossible to fix their location.
1505 saw the election of the last prior, one Richard Jennings. It is difficult to imagine a man less suited to the job, as he soon acquired an unhealthy appetite for both money and women! He must have guessed that the Dissolution was approaching, as he began disposing of the priory’s farms on long leases for large initial payments and low rents. This was how the Ludlows first came to Maiden Bradley, when they became tenants at Baycliffe. As to the young ladies, Jennings claimed they were always single, that he found them good husbands, and that the Pope had granted him a Papal Indulgence for his unchastity! Jennings also ingratiated himself with Cromwell, and after the Dissolution was given a living in Gloucestershire.
The sudden loss of the priory would have affected the whole village, as many people relied on it for their income. The priory had been an important source of employment, on its farm, at the brewhouse, the tannery and the mills. The medical care and knowledge would also have been missed. The priory site and lands were owned by Thomas Seymour, the brother of the 1st Duke of Somerset, and the property has remained in the family ever since.
After another quiet period during the village’s history, we reach the 17th century and the approaching Civil War. Although the village itself does not seem to have suffered greatly, two of its inhabitants were deeply involved. Edmund Ludlow was the son of Sir Henry Ludlow who lived at South Court. In 1642 he joined the Life Guard of the Earl of Essex and two years later was made Colonel of the Parliamentary Wiltshire Regiment. In 1645 he was promoted to Lt. General of Horse. Unfortunately for him, his military success as a Parliamentarian led to him being one of the signatories to Charles I’s death warrant in 1649. When the Royalists regained control in 1660 Edmund was charge with high treason. He fled the country and spent the rest of his life in Switzerland. On the Royalist side was Edward Seymour who led his regiment to fight in Exeter. He spent the years 1651-1660 under house arrest and had to pay a heavy fine to regain his estates.
In 1646 the village was hit by a severe attack of the plague and for ten months no one was allowed to leave the village. As trading was impossible, the villagers had to live on relief provided by neighbouring villages. In 1671 smallpox broke out, prompting the cancellation of the October fair and market. This was a major loss to the community, as the spring and autumn fairs held in the village were important as a source of income and a time for leisure. These biannual events continued until the end of the 19th century.
In 1660 Sir Edward Seymour was living in his house in Devon. A major fire destroyed much of the building, and he took the decision to build a new house at Bradley rather than rebuild his damaged home. Sir Edward’s eldest son, also Edward, was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in 1672. The new Bradley House was completed c.1710. It was a huge building, replaced in 1820 by a house only an eighth of the original size.
Church records of births, marriages and deaths are available from the Restoration onwards and show how far back some of the village families go. Examples are Adlam, Curtis, Miles, Mounty and Newbury. We do not know what the population was at this time. The figure remained in the 500s to low 600s for the whole of the 19th century, so in 1700, bearing in mind that Bradley House was being built, it was probably around 400. We know that, in common with most large villages, Bradley had several tradesmen as well as the obvious farmers and agricultural workers. There were blacksmiths, carpenters, charcoal and lime burners, publicans, thatchers, a wheelwright, a baker, a cartwright, a maltster, a fuller, a clothier and tailor, a cooper, a soap boiler and tallow chandler, a shoemaker and a shop keeper. There would also have been the household servants of the gentry. Bradley House alone employed almost 50 people when it was first completed, including a dozen gardeners. As recently as 1910 there were 35 indoor staff, several of them footmen who still wore wigs, brocade coats, white breeches, silk stockings and buckle shoes when serving at meals and attending church services.
Law and order was dealt with at the village court, presided over by the steward of the manor. This court was also responsible for sanitation, hygiene, fire precautions, general safety and trading standards. Each year the court would appoint from the tenantry a parish constable, two well wardens (watchers to ensure the safety of well covers and fences), two ale conners responsible for the correctness of measures and also the tasting of ale, two bread weighers to ensure that the baker’s goods were not short weight, two chimney peepers to ensure that chimneys on the thatched roofs did not catch fire, a hayward and a bailiff. Although there would have been 70 or 80 people eligible, it is unlikely there were any volunteers, as all the posts were unpaid. When the court was in session the villagers were able to attend and make any complaints. The most common subjects seem to have been the condition of well covers and short weight loaves.
The constable and his tythingmen dealt with all local offenders, either by fines or putting them in the stocks. He was also responsible, along with the churchwardens, for ensuring that everyone attended church on Sunday. This was the law, and anyone who stayed away was fined 12d. All dissenters, i.e. chapel folk, had to be registered as such. One of the duties of the churchwarden during the sermon was to visit the alehouses and make sure no one was there. Any miscreants were fined and put in the lock-up or stocks.
An important tradition that began in the 18th century was beating the bounds. Every male resident was required to attend, the purpose being to walk the whole parish boundary. It was important that everyone knew where the boundaries were, and in an age before maps and signposts, walking the route was the only solution. Food and ale was provided, and the men stopped at intervals where the boundary met a road. It was very unusual to meet any strangers, and any visitor unlucky enough to come face to face with the walkers was firmly dealt with. A story relates that the offender was stood on his head in a hole and spanked with a spade. This may not be true, but other parishes are known to have beaten their younger residents, in order to help them remember where important boundary markers were!
Monday was market day, and had been since 1267. The original site was near the priory, but it later moved to Church Street The stalls covered over 100 yards and offered a wide variety of goods. Local produce such as butter, eggs, cheese and honey were available. Occasionally there was fruit and sweets, or travellers with cheap trinkets. Coal from Radstock was sold at threepence ha’penny ( 1.5 pence) a bag. There was always ale available. People walked four or five miles to visit the market, or made use of a public carrier if they could afford it. Bradley was at the intersection of two important coaching routes – London to Barnstaple and Bath to Poole. In 1780 there were three coaching inns in the village. Between 1750 and 1800 three turnpike roads ran through Bradley, to Frome, Wincanton and Bruton.
In 1851 the population reached its peak at 619. It is interesting to compare the size of Bradley with that of neighbouring Horningsham, whose population was almost twice as large. The houses in Bradley were clustered around the High St., Church St., Frome Rd. area, whereas the population of Horningsham was more scattered. Kelly’s Trade Directory for 1855 tells us that there were ten farmers in the parish. There was also a post office, public house, mason, miller, shopkeeper, wheelwright and smith, baker, carpenter, carrier, plumber and painter. Some men had two trades in order to make ends meet. George Taylor, for example, as well as carpenter was also the village carrier. He would take passengers to Frome on Wednesday and Warminster on Saturday. Carriers passing through from neighbouring parishes went to Bath and Bristol. George Bush ran the post office and chemist’s shop.
The village school was built in1847, paid for by the Duke of Somerset. It was enlarged in 1888 to take 130 children. The average attendance at this time was 100.
The village shop was a branch of Walton’s Departmental Store of Mere, opening at Bradley in 1889. They sold most things – groceries, clothes, shoes, drapery, even furniture. Something not in stock at Bradley would be ordered from Mere and sent the next day. During the 1920s Walton’s Bakery was kept very busy, especially at Easter and Christmas. On the Thursday before Good Friday a team of bakers and helpers would spend all night making 1,000 hot cross buns.
A water supply to the village was installed by the Bradley Estate in 1896, sourced from springs at Dunkerton. Mains sewerage did not reach the whole village until the 1950s. In the early 1920s the only premises connected to the main sewer were the nurse’s house, the village hall, the school, the public house, the land agent’s house and Bradley House.
Paraffin street lamps were erected in 1920 in Church Street and High Street. They were lit at 5.00 p.m. in winter and put out at 10.00 p.m. Every Saturday afternoon they were filled and cleaned. The lamps remained in use until 1938 when electricity was installed.
The village hall was built in 1912 and given to the village by Lord Ernest St Maur (Somerset family name) in memory of his brother Lord Percy. During the First World War it was used as a military hospital. After the war it was returned to the village and used for whist drives, dances and concerts. The concerts were often attended by the Duke and Duchess. During its time as a hospital, three baths were installed . This proved very useful to the villagers who could have a bath on Saturdays for 4d ( under 2 pence)!
The Reading Room Club was formed in the 1920s and held at a cottage in the High Street. It was very popular with the young men of the village as anyone over 16 could join. Billiards, draughts, darts, table skittles and cards were all available. During the winter months Bradley would play other clubs in the district at billiards, draughts and cards. The older men in the village tended to frequent the pub for a quiet drink and a chat.
For 75 years Leather’s Coaches were a well known firm, covering an area that reached Gillingham, Salisbury and Bath. Basil Leather bought his first Model T Ford in 1923 at a total cost of £286.19s.1d £286.95). It was a dual-purpose vehicle with a removable body, so that as well as carrying passengers it could also carry coal from Radstock. The company gradually expanded, taking on school runs as well as regular trips to Frome, Warminster, Salisbury and Bath. On Saturday evening you could travel to Warminster to the pictures. In more recent years, there were summer day trips to the coast. The community had a deep affection and a feeling of loyalty for ‘their’ service, and were sad when Len and Sylvia Cooper retired in 1998.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the village population fell to its lowest in at least 200 years. In 1991 there were 328 people in the parish; this had risen to 335 by 2001. The steady decline from the mid 19th century speeded up in the 20th century and was responsible for the closure of the school, now a very pleasant village hall, in 1969. The Duke of Somerset still lives at Bradley House and the family coat of Arms is still displayed at the Somerset Arms on the main road. The village stores is now run by the Maiden Bradley Village Shop Association, while the post office is now housed in the same building. There is also a recently formed local history society in the village.