Mere is an attractive small town that has grown up in the south western corner of Wiltshire, on the fringe of the great forest of Selwood. On its borders three counties meet and the town has many links with Dorset and a few with Somerset. Geologically it is on the dividing line between the chalk and the clay. A fault line, along which there are numerous springs, runs through the settlement itself, with chalk and greensand to the north and Kimmeridge clay to the south. Thus there are the impressive scarp slopes of White Sheet Hill and Woodlands Hill cut into by Great Bottom, Chatcombe Bottom, Aucombe Bolton and Ashfield Bottom; while further east are the gentler slopes of Charnage Down. Several of the steep slopes have strip lynchets from prehistoric and medieval cultivations. Many of the older buildings in Mere are built from local stone.
To the south are the lowlands which lead into Dorset, and on these are the settlements. The town of Mere is compact but there are many small hamlets and settlements to the south. Some of these have developed from farms, such as Charnage and Barrow Street but most are still farms and farm cottages. The Ashfield Water and Shreen Water carry away some of the outflow from the springline and it was on these that most of the mills were sited. The modern parish of Zeals was once part of Mere and the four communities of Mere and Zeals (Wiltshire), Bourton (Dorset) and Penselwood (Somerset) form a close knit community that looks towards the towns of Gillingham and Shaftesbury, although some Mere residents travel to Warminster for employment and shopping.
Within the Mere area there is evidence of prehistoric activity with Neolithic long barrows at various sites and a causewayed camp as White Sheet Down. These date from between c.3000 and c.2000 B.C. while the round barrows, including 21 on Long Hill are from 2000 century B.C. onwards. There was active land cultivation and stock farming in the area, as evidenced by the small rectangular enclosures and finds of domestic animal bones. A ridgeway across Mere Down provided an early-east west route that would have been used throughout prehistory and into historic times.
Bronze Age cremations and other finds occur in the area while the Iron Age has left the promontory hill fort on White Sheet Hill. This encloses about 14 acres and finds indicate an economy of agriculture, cattle and sheep in the final centuries B.C. This was the land of the Celtic Durotridges, who occupied all of Dorset and southern Wiltshire. This area would have come under early Roman rule after the conquest of 43 A.D. but it does not seem to have been prosperous enough, or near enough to a cultural and economic centre, to have engendered the building of villas. There have been many Roman finds, including two coin hoards (one from the present cemetery), Romano-British burials and jewellery. It would appear that the area has been settled and farmed for at least 5,000 years but it is impossible to know if the occupation was continuous in the earlier millennia.
It seems likely that the site of Mere itself was first settled in Saxon times but the date is uncertain. The name probably comes from the Saxon ‘Mere’ meaning a marsh or boundary; Mere is on the meeting place of three Saxon shires. In 658 a battle was fought near Penselwood by Cenwalh, King of Wessex, against the Britons. Another battle was fought here in 1016 when Edmund Ironside defeated Canute and the Danes. Later in that year, after the battle, there was an agreement that Edmund should rule Wessex and Canute the rest of England.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086) Mere was a royal estate that did not pay taxes and was not assessed in hides. For this reason it was not included although the two estates that make up the modern Zeals parish and three small holdings in Mere are included. The holdings in Mere were of Godric the huntsmen (whose duties would have been in the Forest of Selwood), Ulvric and Ulnod. It is possible that one of the latter may have been a priest as there is evidence of Saxon architecture in the church. The total population of these holdings would have been around 40 to 50 people, but there would have been many more in the village of Mere. Even so the village would not have been that large and is not likely to have grown greatly until the 13th century.
In 1253 the manor of Mere belonged to the Earl of Cornwall, Richard the younger brother of Henry III. He obtained permission to build a castle on a hill (Castle Hill) in his manor of Mere, and to fortify that castle. He was granted timber from Blackmore Forest and the castle was built in Chilmark stone and roofed with lead. It covered the whole of the top of the hill, was rectangular, 390 feet long by 102 feet deep, and had six towers, a chapel, a deep well and a dungeon. The castle was built fairly quickly in anticipation of the troubled period that pitted the barons against the king and in 1300 it needed extensive repairs after the north tower fell down.
It is most likely that Richard obtained a market for his manor and created urban growth by leasing land for merchants and craftsmen to live in Mere. It is from this period that Mere began to take on the aspects of a small town. There were two corn mills and a fulling mill by the early 14th century, which would indicate that cloth production had started by the late 13th century The Earl of Cornwall used the manor as a stud farm for his war horses and also emparked an area for deer. This would have created a number of royal servants and retainers alongside the farmers, labourers and the increasing number of manufacturers and tradesmen. On the farming side we know that oxen, cattle, sheep, pigs and fowl were kept, wheat and oats were frown and cheese and butter were made.
By 1408 Henry, the Prince of Wales, held Mere and he was granted a Wednesday market and two fairs in that year. The market grant would have been confirmation of an earlier one but it is not known if there had been a fair before this time, although, this would seem likely. The fairs were on 6th May and 24th August and although there is no record of the latter fair, the May fair and the market were held into the 18th century. There was much building in Mere in the late 14th century early 15th century including extensions to the church and the new Woodlands Manor, c.1370-80, which had a chapel on the upper floor, Chanty House was built in 1424 and besides accommodating three charity priests it became Mere’s first school as the priests also taught local boys..
The castle began to fall into disrepair and stone from its walls was used in several Mere houses of this period. Two buildings, The Triangle, a ‘Tudor’ residence that had deeds back to the mid 16th century and was only demolished in 1962, and the Grange, are thought to date from this period. At the end of the 15th century national events impinged upon the town when two local men were fined for their part in Perkin Warbeck’s rebellion.
The 16th century saw cloth making in Mere well established as a cottage industry with spinning and weaving taking place in peoples’ homes and the industry controlled by merchants and clothiers. The market house was on the site of the present clock tower in The Square, and was described as ‘a medieval structure of two stairs with open arches underneath’. The Cross House or Cross Loft was above this open, covered, space and was used as a court house. In 1550 there arose a dispute over land between two of the chief local landowners, Lord Stourton and Mr Chafyn. For a time there were various incidents, including armed conflict between the servants of the two men but the dispute was eventually settled in court in Lord Stourton’s favour.
From this period we know of ‘The King’s Riding’, when a procession of horse riders with rogation banners paraded around the area. This was held on St George’s day, two days before the major Rogation Day on 25th April, and was ceremony to ask for good growing and harvest. Two important buildings were erected around 1580. The Church House, for all the secular functions of the church, was built near the church in Church Street. It was in a dilapidated condition in 1890. The George Inn was also built; it is now called The Talbot from the crest of the Grove family who owned it in the 19th century. One of Meres’ more famous son’s was born at the vicarage in 1592. Francis Potter became a philosopher, scholar, writer, Bible interpreter and an inventor of mechanical appliances.
There was no fighting in the area during the Civil War although there was some suffering locally. Two Mere men were fined for taking the king’s side and the churchyard cross and coloured glass and monuments in the church were destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers. They also imprisoned the vicar, Dr Thomas Chafyn in 1645. He was badly treated and died from his injuries shortly after his release. In 1651, on 6th October, the future Charles II came to the town when travelling the country after the Battle of Worcester. Around the time of the Restoration in 1660, Dewes House was built in Mere as a private residence. Four years after the Great Fire of London, Mere had its own great fire in 1670. A total of 54 houses were destroyed and the losses were estimated at £6,700. It is likely that many of the houses lost were medieval ones and so much of Mere now dates from the late 17th century and later.
By this time the Wiltshire based traveller Celia Fiennes wrote that the Castle Hill was all grassed over but that a small cell or vault had been uncovered in the hill. This seems to have provided the stimulus for further use of stone from the castle in the early 18th century when dressed stone was dug out from the castle foundations for use for new buildings. From the late 17th Century flax became an important crop locally and was spun and woven into linen in cottages in Mere, Zeals and the surrounding area. In the 18th century Mere became the centre of the local linen industry, which also involved the weaving of dowlas, a coarse form of bed linen. Some spinning of wool and cloth weaving continued alongside the new industry.
By the 18th century the roads were reasonably good and with Mere being on the main London to Exeter road there was a daily coach and wagon through the village. The older inns such as the Angel, The George, The Swan and the White Hart prospered and a house, rebuilt in 1711, became the Old Ship. It has a very fine scroll wrought iron sign that was crafted by Kingston Avery, who lived in Mere between 1730 and 1763. Despite the apparent commercial prosperity there was poverty in Mere and a poorhouse, later workhouse, was built at Woodlands.
By the early 19th century there were more people engaged in trade and manufacturing than in agriculture in the parish. Despite the linen industry now being in decline it was reckoned that most houses had a loom and linen, tick (bed sacks) and cheesecloth continued to be made at Lords Mead Mill until the mid 19th century. From 1830 a new industry came to the town when Charles Jupe turned Hinks Mill into a silk mill and many people, including boys of 9 or 10 were engaged in silk throwing. Later another factory opened in Water Street and the Lords Mead Mill changed to silk production in 1868.
The 1830s saw the formation of active branches of national movements in Mere. The temperance movement began in 1834, encouraged by the Quakers and other non-conformists, and this did much to help change the habits of drunkeness, which were a result of increasing hardship and poverty. To contain this poverty the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 had been passed and in that year the old workhouse at Woodlands was pulled down and a Gilbert Scott designed one erected on the site. The often dismal conditions of working families also led to the formation of an active board of local Chartists by 1841, who attended meetings in Salisbury, Westbury and Trowbridge and also held meetings locally.
There were improvements in other areas and gas was being produced in 1837 and the town was lit by gaslight by 1839. The gasworks were eventually sited on the Island at Edgebridge. Improvements in agricultural methods and practices were taking place and the Duchy of Cornwall, which owned most of the land in Mere, also reorganised its farms and erected new buildings. By the mid 19th century several coaches passed through Mere daily and there were also a fair number of private carriages. It was not until 1859 that the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway Company built the line between Salisbury and Gillingham; although this line reached Sherborne and Yeovil in 1860 it did not run through Mere, as originally planned, and so Mere had no station; a situation which was to have a detrimental effect on the local economy. It is possible that the decline in the coach trade brought about the demolition of the White Hart in The Square in 1862 and the conversion of the Swan Inn to a house a few years later.
The medieval Market Hall was also demolished in 1863 and replaced by the present clock tower in 1868. In this second half of the 19th century Mere became divided into two very distinct factions of church and chapel. There was great intolerance on both Church of England and non-conformists sides each organized their own social and sporting activities. By the 1870s agricultural wages were only 10 to 12 shillings (50p to 60p) a week and there was some migration to larger towns and some emigration. The population declined from a high point of 3,161 in 1871, which had been brought about by the prosperity of local trade and industry and continued to fall until the Second World War. The agricultural depression greatly affected the Duchy of Cornwall farms, where many cottages fell into ruin. In 1907 it was estimated that 150 houses had disappeared in the Mere area within living memory. After this most farms were only let to large farmers although the parish council did lease 80 acres for allotments and a successful Small Holders Association was formed.
In 1872 there were two cases of small pox and the concerned caused by this outbreak eventually led to the installation of a new sewage system in 1879. Mere had another traumatic experience in 1881 when the great storm of that year caused the town, like many other communities, to be cut off from the outside world for several days. The snow reached to the top of the hedgerows. It was a mixed time for industry in the town Landers’ Brewery in Salisbury Street was founded but later, possibly because of the Temperance movement this became a bacon factory in 1884. Later it was a milk factory, being owned by Cow and Gate and then Unigate, until it closed in 1970. In 1894 Isiah Jupe had to give his employees at the silk mills two weeks notice because of financial problems in his industry. This day became known as ‘Black Saturday’ and resulted in many families moving out of the area in search of work elsewhere and a decline in non-conformist congregations, for many of the workers were, like Jupe, Congregationalists. A brighter note was struck in 1899 when George Burden, former gardener to Mr John Rutter, started as a nurseryman. Three of his sons continued the business and in the 1950s between 70 and 80 men were employed. The business is still thriving as H. Burden & Sons Ltd. of Townsend Nurseries.
During this time Mere was very much the commercial centre of a rural area. In the 1880’s there were around 30 shops including, 3 butchers, 6 bakers, 2 grocers, an ironmonger, 2 watchmakers and John Walton & Co who were drapers, tailors, grocers, ironmongers, furniture, carpet, glass and china dealers and many other things. There was also a good variety of crafts including wheelwrights, a blacksmith, a brewer, shoemakers, a cooper, a thatcher and many more. The shops were open, from 8.00 a.m. to 8.00 p.m. and on Saturday until 10.00 or 11.00 p.m. Saturday was pay day and the Town Square was thronged with people shopping for groceries and other foodstuffs in the evening. One of the bright spots of the year was the August Bank Holiday Monday athletics and sports held at the Vicarage Field. This was the only occasion that both church and chapel folk came together for an event.
In 1899 the new Town Hall, or Assembly Rooms, was built. This had seating for 400 and also rooms for the Conservative Club. Employment prospects improved a little in 1906 when the former Water Street Silk Factory was reopened by the Royal Wilton Carpet Factory Ltd, who continued to use it until the Second World War. The town was supplied with piped water in 1909. During the First World War Australian troops were stationed nearby and were frequently in the town. The Grove Building became a Red Cross Hospital. Mere made 11 acres of Burton Field into a Recreation Ground as a lasting Peace Memorial to the war; its running was taken over by the Parish Council in 1931.
In 1922 the National and British Schools were amalgamated with Mere Infants and Junior Schools occupying the former British School buildings and Mere Senior School in the former National School. This merger did much to unite the Church of England and non-conformist factions in the town. The year was also auspicious for the founding of the Hill Brush Company, which soon expanded providing more employment and is still at Woodlands Road. The first council houses were provided at White Road in 1926 and a further 54 followed at Clement’s Lane and Barnes’ Place. A popular annual event started in 1928 when Mere Carnival was founded. After having an early supply of gas Mere had to wait until 1931 before a regular electricity supply was provided by the Wessex Electrical Company using overhead wires from Southampton.
In the early years of the Second World War men of the Royal Corps of Signals were billeted in Mere and a camp was built beyond Manor Farm, which was occupied in succession by the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Military Police and the Americans. Within Mere local ladies organized a canteen for the troops in the Triangle, there was an active Home Guard and ARP and, later in the war, the threat of flying bombs (V1s) brought evacuees from Wimbledon. A few bombs fell around Mere. In October 1945 Polish troops came to the Manor Road Camp and remained there until early 1947.
The council built further housing after the war with 42 houses off Manor Road, later to be named Denes Avenue. In the 1950s there were a further 26 houses and bungalows off Manor Road, under Castle Hill. The 1950s and ‘60s also saw private housing built, in Castle Street and Pettridge Lane for example, as Mere expanded in population in the post war years. The union workhouse, which had become a furniture warehouse, was demolished in 1968-9 and further housing was built including the Lynch Close development in 1970. This contained 28 bungalows and bedsits for the elderly, with a resident warden.
In 1970 the library moved from the Liberal Club in Salisbury Street to the former National School in Church Street, where it has since been joined by the Mere Museum, a tourist information centre and service information points. In 1973 Robin Yapp, a dentist in Gillingham bought the former brewery and milk factory and sympathetically restored the site into a nationally known wine importing business. Loire, Rhone and Provencal wines are imported in the bottle and a close relationship with the wine producers has been developed since 1969. Much business is mail order and in 1985 Robin gave up dentistry to concentrate on wine full time.
Mere is fortunate in still having banks and a wide range of businesses and small industries. It was bypassed by the A303 in 1976 and there is a very pleasant small country town feel to it as you walk around the relatively traffic free streets.