The present civil parish of Melksham is fairly small and is largely built over, but the old manor of Melksham included all the area that is now the civil parish of Melksham Without. This covered the present villages of Shaw, Whitley and Beanacre, the farming area to the east that was the Royal Forest of Melksham and the modern estates, in the south, of Berryfield and Bowerhill, which are locally known as part of Melksham despite being outside the modern town boundary. The settlement lies in the broad valley of the Bristol Avon with higher land to the east at Bowden Hill, Sandridge and Seend. To the west the land rises more gently.
There was a settlement here in Saxon times and the name is believed to come from the old English meoloc meaning milk. This area has long been associated with pasture and dairy farming and the Saxon name of dairy farm or settlement would have been most appropriate. Settlement at this time would have been on the higher ground to the east of the river, around the site of the present parish church. Here there would have been at least a cross or, quite probably, a wooden church, the remains of which might well lie beneath the later Norman church. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086) the capital, or chief, manor of Melksham was held by the crown. It was a large and valuable estate, which eventually passed through many families, including the Brounckers and Danvers. There was a much smaller Rectory Manor, held in 1086 by Rumold the priest, which was held by the canons of Salisbury Cathedral from 1220. This was not a large area, originally being one hide, or about 100 acres, but it was valuable for the tithes that were attached to it. It was leased to many families who were well known locally including, from the 1750s to the 1870s, the Awdreys.
Reasons for settlement here are not easy to interpret but would include: level fertile land with some alluvial soil, a higher site for settlement, a river crossing point, possibly using the island to the north of the present bridge, and a forested area to the east. The earliest road is likely to have been that between Bath and Devizes but Devizes did not exist until the early 12th century so earlier traffic must have been fairly local. The main river bridge is first mentioned in 1415 when a sum of money was bequeathed for its maintenance, so it is likely to have existed by the 14th century at the latest. Another bridge, Lowbourne bridge, is mentioned in 1417. This crossed Clackers Brook, which would have carried more water than it does today.
In 1219 a Friday market and a Michaelmas Fair were granted to the town. It is reasonable to suppose that these were held in the present Market Place, which would have been the area of open land closest to the existing settlement and manor house. In 1250 a Tuesday Market and a three day Michaelmas Fair were granted. Medieval settlement is likely to have been concentrated in Church Street, Church Walk, High Street and Market Place. Fulling mills were working at Melksham by the 16th century and probably much earlier so there would have been a small settlement by the river. In 1491 the Prioress of Amesbury, then holder of the manor, obtained a 2 day fair for the 15th and 16th July, thus providing more commercial opportunities.
In the mid 16th century a manor house, later known as Place House, was built on the site of an earlier house between the church and the market place, probably by Henry Brouncker. This house was demolished in 1864 and the only secular 16th century building work that remains is in Church Walk. There must have been a reasonable number of new buildings at this time with the local prosperity of the cloth industry. Weavers are first mentioned in 1349 and by 1555 there were 2 fulling mills in the town. The industry was on a smaller scale than that at neighbours Bradford and Trowbridge; in 1570 it was recorded that Robert Marshman had 3 looms in his house, but whether he was locally accounted a clothier or weaver we do not know. Many of the early clothiers had become landowners by the 17th century, for example Isaac Self bought Place House in 1657.
The earliest buildings to be found in the town are of the 17th century with many examples in Church Walk. The origins of Melksham House are in the 17th century, as are Shurnhold House and Shurnhold Farm. The area of housing for industrial workers known as The City is likely to date from the 17th century when the town expanded to the north of the river for the first time. By the mid 17th century the cloth industry was in decline and many weavers were without work. The clothiers turned from the old undyed broadcloths to medleys, or dyed broadcloths. This saw a revival of the trade in the late 17th century.
In Melksham, unlike Trowbridge, the industry suffered further decline in the 18th century and it was also plagued with disputes and disturbances. In 1738 a leading clothier, Henry Coulthurst, had his house and mills wrecked by weavers during a dispute over wages and eventually troops were sent in, some of the rioters were tried and three were executed. There were further riots in 1747 and 1750 and dragoons were sent to the town to help keep order. Some clothiers went bankrupt in the mid 18th century and the industry continued to decline. This does not seem to have had too much effect on building in the town for, although there are no clothiers' mansions here, many of the buildings on the main streets date from this century. By this time the major route through the town, King Street, High Street and Bank Street, was built up.
Outside the urban area the land was chiefly used for stock rearing and dairying with the latter being particularly important. Enclosure of the open fields had begun in the 16th century and by 1815 when an inclosure award was made it was only concerned with the remaining 520 acres of over 7,000 in the old parish. Melksham market continued to be of importance serving the needs of this area and adjacent rural parishes with a weekly cattle market on Mondays.
The old Bath road had passed to the north-east of Melksham, descending Bowden Hill into Lacock but after the turnpiking of the Melksham roads in 1753 the route moved south thus avoiding the steep hill. In 1791 daily coach services to Bath and London, using this road, are mentioned. Archibald Robertson's 'Typographical Survey of the Great Road from London to Bath and Bristol' of 1792 says:
"Melksham is a small neat town, ninety six miles from London, pleasantly situated on the banks of the lower Avon, on which stand several cloth and corn mills. The houses are in general good, partly built of stone, and partly of brick; and a handsome house and pleasure-ground, belonging to the Thresher family, is situated close to the town on the left" [when travelling from London - this was Place House].
The Kings Arms was the coaching inn for Melksham, and in its heyday as many as ten coaches a day were stopping there for refreshment and a change of horses.
The cloth mills mentioned by Robertson were to prove a false dawn for the mechanisation of the cloth industry in the town. The Ark factory was built in the 1790s but closed in 1850 and was pulled down before 1865. Another factory near the bridge was built in 1801, and consisted of a stone-built range of 4 storeys to which a 5 storey block and a weaving shed had been added by 1861. This closed in 1871 bringing an end to the cloth industry in the town. However, the writing was on the wall at an earlier date for no water-driven factory had been built in the town in the 18th century, despite the considerable power source of the river Avon and, by 1793, the large fulling mill had been converted to a corn mill. Only the two steam-powered factories were built with the one near the bridge (later the Avon Rubber factory site) built by J.L. Phillips & Co. and later (1862) let to Matravers & Sons of Westbury.
Other industries were moving into the town. In 1803 Charles Maggs moved from Radstock and, with his experience of that coalmining area, set up a rope factory on what is now Spa Road. The Wilts and Berks Canal was cut alongside this site, connecting to the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington. By 1810 both canals were fully open bringing raw materials including coal and slate into the town and taking away finished products. In 1813 mineral waters were first noticed at Bowerhill and chalybeate and saline springs were used to promote Melksham as a spa. A company was formed in 1815 and a pump room and houses for visitors were built and Spa Road developed. The enterprise prospered until 1822 and in 1815 a reading room and circulatory library at Mr. Ward's printing offices was opened, primarily for visitors to the spa.
By 1830 there were coach services from London, Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Reading calling at Melksham. In 1832 there was a private gas company in the town; this became a public company in 1855 and in 1936 was bought by the Bath Gas Company. Radical political activity came to the town in 1839 when a Chartist meeting was held. A Chartist group was in the town between June 1841 and January 1843.
The railway came to the town in 1848, thus taking much of the freight from the canal, when the line from Thingley Junction, south of Chippenham, to Westbury was built through the parish. This was opened by the Wilts., Somerset and Weymouth Railway Co. with a station to the north of the river bridge. In 1854 Hurn Bros. took advantage of the new transport by starting a timber mill by the station before moving to The Ark site after the cloth mill closed there.
In 1847 a private company had built a Market Hall (later to become the Town Hall) in the Market Place and in 1859 a cheese market opened here, probably necessitated by the abundance of dairy farms and cheese making in the immediate area. Also in 1847, in the Market Place, a lock up was built which doubtless housed over-enthusiastic revellers from the market as well as people awaiting trial. The first reading room having closed after the spa succumbed to the nearby presence of Bath, another was opened in 1852 to provide the middle classes with reading matter.
Education was largely in the hands of the British and National Societies, although Melksham is unusual in having a project in which Anglicans and non-conformists co-operated. In 1828 the Melksham General School for the Education of Poor Children was formed with a committee of 8 Anglicans and 7 non-conformists who built a school at Lowbourne and ran it on the principals of the British and Foreign Schools Society (non-conformist) but with a Church of England Sunday School. In 1840 the National School was founded on a site by the churchyard.
There was also a local initiative in housing development. In 1864 Place House and its orchards were bought by a syndicate of local people who demolished the house and split the land into lots which were sold at auction. A private road, Place Road, was built through the middle of the site and villas built on either side. A more traditional development came at the end of the 19th century when an estate was built on the west side of King Street, the present West End. A cottage hospital had been founded in Lowbourne in 1868, was rebuilt in Bank Street in 1895, and rebuilt again in Spa Road in 1938.
The local cloth industry had never really recovered from financial troubles in the 1840s and in 1875 the last factory closed. Other industries were soon to move into the town to fill the gap. In 1875 a company had begun rubber production in a disused mill at Limpley Stoke, and in 1886 they had been taken over by Browne and Margetson. They made parts for railway rolling stock, an expanding business which moved into the disused cloth mill by the river in Melksham in 1889 and became the Avon Rubber Company. From the 1890s the company's main concern was the production of pneumatic tyres. Recently a new factory complex has been built out of town, between Melksham and Semington, but the Avon is still operating on its original site in the town. In 1892 the straw dealers, B. Sawtell & Sons, began in Old Broughton Road. They later turned to cleaning feathers and became one of the biggest feather purifying firms providing feathers for mattresses and pillows.
A small engineering business began on the corner of Bank Street and Union Street and was joined by C.J. Spencer, in 1878, and later by the brilliant engineer, W. Littlejohn Philip. They moved to the Beanacre Road in 1903 and became experts in mechanical handling. The company, known as Spencer's, expanded rapidly after the Second World War and fulfilled many international contracts. In 1962 the company became a member of the Elliot-Automation Group of Companies, later GEC. The Melksham works is now closed and part of the site re-developed (2002). Charles Maggs, grandson of the rope factory founder, opened a collecting depot and butter factory for local farmers at West End Farm. This grew with exports by rail to London and other areas and, in 1888, moved to a former dye works on the New Broughton Road. They amalgamated with the North Wilts Dairy Co. of Devizes and other smaller firms and became the Wilts United Dairies, later to become part of Unigate.
Public services were also coming to the growing town. In 1870 the Post Office Telegraph Service was introduced and in 1898 the National Telephone Co. brought a telephone service to Melksham. By around 1880 the first public water supply was provided by the Trowbridge Water Company. At the end of the 19th century Melksham was a busy small town with a range of industries and was well provided with means of communication and public services.
At the start of the 20th century Melksham was still surrounded by dairy farms and this situation was to continue for a few more decades. The population of the town continued to expand and in 1916 an estate of 48 houses was built at Roundponds. Also in 1916, in the village of Atworth, was founded the Atworth and District Agricultural Society. They moved to Melksham and became the Wiltshire Agricultural Co-operative Society and, in 1942, became Wiltshire Farmers. After expansion and several changes of name they are now part of Countrywide Farmers. In 1920 the Co-operative Wholesale Society established a large creamery opposite the railway station. In 1924 electric light and power were provided by the Western Electricity Distributing Corporation, making electricity available to all.
A sign of the decline of Melksham as an agricultural centre was the closure of the market in 1939, although new developments in other areas were on the horizon. Outside the town, at Bowerhill, a new RAF Station was built from 1940 onwards and many service personnel passed through the area during the war years with huts for accommodation at Berryfield.
After the war the Melksham Urban District Council built over a thousand new houses in the 20 years to the mid 1960s, having bought the Lambourne Farm estate of 66 acres to the east of the town. Private housing estates were also developed with many houses being built in the 1960s to 1980s. In 1964 the first purpose-built library of Wiltshire County Council was erected in the town. Attached to it was a welfare clinic and a building for further education was at the rear. Since the war much of the fortunes of the town have been tied to the Avon Rubber Company. The engineering firm of Spencers was taken over by G.E.C. and is now closed.
In the 1970s a ring road was built around the town to relieve traffic congestion and housing has now expanded outwards to this road.