Concise History: Wiltshire: A History of its Landscape and PeopleThis community has been included in John Chandler's on-going series and the full text is available here.
The name of Orcheston is probably derived from 'Ordric's farm' and 'tun' as the spelling of 1296 and 1315 suggests. The addition of St. Mary and St. George are from the dedication of the churches. The parish is situated one mile north west of Shrewton in the upper Till valley and comprises the two former parishes of Orcheston St. George and Orcheston St. Mary. It has been described as 'a long thin village set in a valley once famed for the luxuriance of its meadows.' You can find Orcheston by turning off the A360, travelling through pretty undulating farmland typical of Wiltshire, and by following Elston Lane you can reach the far end of Shrewton High Street which will then return you to the A360. It is therefore not served by a main A or B road, but by a small country lane.
Four estates had the name of Orcheston in 1086 and Orcheston St. Mary was formed from two of them. By the 13th century the parish was known as Orcheston Bovill referring to the name of the lords of the principal manor, but by the 14th century this had become Orcheston St. Mary. The other two estates mentioned in Domesday made up Orcheston St. George and this was united with Orcheston St. Mary by 1934 and then known simply as Orcheston.
The parish boundary with Tilshead is marked in the northwest by the prehistoric 'Old Ditch' while 'Sparrow Path' marks the boundary in the east with Shrewton. The north of the parish is sparsely populated and the main concentration of building is in the south of the parish where the river Till flows. There are chalk outcrops and gravel deposits in the valley and the settlement is surrounded by the rolling downland of Salisbury plain which rises to 158m in the north of the parish. Arable use of this land is dominant in the centre and the south while pastureland is dominant in the north and west. There is very little woodland, only about 25 acres in 1841, and 31 scattered acres by 1895, rising to only 35 acres of woodland by 1995. Between 1897 and 1935 much of the land was bought by the War Department and is now used for military training, especially artillery training based at Larkhill.
The northern part of the parish is the site of an extensive prehistoric field system measuring about 900 acres. This is crossed by a long ditch running from the northwest to the southeast, which can now only be seen from the air. A number of other ditches make up the parish boundaries and another ancient field system of about 80 acres exists on Orcheston Down. Two ancient barrows have been found on West Down and two on Orcheston Down, one of which is the site of Saxon burials. A prehistoric axe was found near Orcheston St. George in 1900 and is very similar to others found in the wider Stonehenge area; this item is made of Cornish greenstone.
In 1084 Orcheston was part of the Dole hundred. Branch and Dole hundreds were combined from 1236 but by the early 14th century they were separate hundreds again and stayed this way until 1487. The population at the time of Domesday was approximately 100 -130 people spread over 30 households. There are four entries in total for Orcheston and the tax paid amounted to £4 and 10 shillings, as listed in two of these entries. Lords of the manor were Osbern Giffard and Hugh and William, with Edward of Salisbury as tenant in chief. There was uninterrupted Crown ownership with Caen Abbey having rights in the early 12th century but these had passed to the King by the 13th century. By 1651 a hundred court sat, meeting every three weeks and a leet court was held on Lady Day and Michelmas.
Both Orcheston St. Mary and Orcheston St. George were held by Edward of Salisbury in 1086, it then descended with Shrewton to Edward's descendants and the earldom of Salisbury, this was held by Thomas Montagu in 1409. The estate of Orcheston St. Mary passed from the Giffards to the de Bovill family by 1169 and then reverted to the Rollestones, by 1332. In 1337 it was conveyed to Hugh de Audley, Earl of Gloucester, and descended, sometimes via marriage to the Earl of Stafford until 1403. It then passed via the Duke of Buckingham to the Darrell family, followed by the Downe family. In 1697 it was owned by George and Lucy Pitt and then by their son and grandson, also George Pitt, until 1780 when it had been acquired by Gifford Warriner who held much of the parish, apart from 600 acres. It was sold by this family in 1841 to Stephen Mills. His sister, Martha, later sold some of the land to the War Department in 1897. Other lands followed the same fate, so that by 1991 most of the land of what had been Orcheston St. Mary belonged to the Ministry of Defence.
The estate of Orcheston St. George, also held by Edward of Salisbury, became a manor called Littlecott's and William and Anne of Littlecott held land there in the late 12th and 13th centuries. In 1423 lands were granted by Thomas and Alice Quinton to John Pocock and his wife, for life. These estates made up the manor that was held after 1428 by John Littlecott, passing through this family to the Thornboroughs, by marriage, until 1590 when John Thornborough sold it to John Eyre; he and his wife later disputed the inheritance with Giles Tooker in 1616. In 1623, when Giles Tooker died, he was the rightful owner of the manor and it then descended with this family; by 1779 the lordship had passed to John Gibbs, but it is not clear how this happened. In 1785 the manor was sold to Gifford Warriner and then descended with Orcheston St. Mary.
In 1688 some of the land of Littlecott was inherited by Martha Ernle and passed with Winterbourne Maddington manor in nearby Maddington via her great granddaughter Elizabeth Drax and then her sons to Richard Erle-Drax-Grosvenor by 1815. It was held, by descent by Ernle, Baroness Dunsany in 1916 and she also sold land to the War Department in 1911 and this department acquired the rest of these manorial lands by 1934.
In the late 12th century William of Littlecot had given two thirds of his tithes to Bradenstoke Priory producing a pension of 16 shillings which was still being paid at the time of the Reformation.
Both Cozens Farm and Drax House were associated with the family of Ralph Cosyn and I. S. Drax.
The principal farm in the area was Rookery Farm, just north of the church of Orcheston St. Mary. This property was extensively repaired in 1753, sash windows were added on the east front, a new staircase constructed and roof tiles replaced the earlier thatch. By the 18th century a kitchen block had also been added and in the 19th century a new porch graced the south front.
'Quainton', 250m south of the church, was brick built in the late 17th century with stone
dressings, a symmetrical south front and a central doorway and end chimneys. There is a 17th century timber framed thatched cottage just east of the church and then 17th century Drax House stands a little further south.
The rectory was originally south of the church until 1827 when it was rebuilt south east of the church.
A number of cottages existed south and west of Broad Mere and some of these were destroyed by a flood in 1841. In 1842 two pairs of cottages were built to replace these but sensibly located on higher ground. Also in the 19th century, there was a school and school house built opposite the church. No more extensive building occurred until the construction of Whatcombe Brow; this was begun in 1910 with six houses, then expanded in 1948 with a further 10 houses and again in 1957 with another ten houses. This council housing linked the two villages of Orcheston St. Mary and Orcheston St. George.
By 1886 there were also three new farmsteads as well as 'new buildings' on the road to Tilshead; Prospect Farm was in the north corner of the parish and Keeper's Farm was located just north of the church. Prospect Farm was not used after 1899 due to the presence of the military and Keeper's Farm was demolished between 1899 and 1923.
Orcheston St. Mary had twenty six poll tax payers in 1377 and Elston had eleven. By the beginning of the 19th century there were 133 people recorded in Orcheston St. Mary and 160 for Orcheston St. George. In 1851 it was 175 for Orcheston St. Mary and 228 for Orcheston St. George and by 1921 had declined to 117 for Orcheston St. Mary and 189 for Orcheston St. George. Orcheston now contains about 120 houses and it has a single parish council. The population in the 2011 census was 330 people.
In the 17th century there were two sets of open fields and common pasture in Orcheston St. Mary and Littlecott. In Orcheston St. Mary in 1397 a farm within that parish held 168 acres of arable land, 3 acres of meadow and enough pasture for 200 sheep. There was a thatched hall house and barn and ten tenants held 13 yardlands each of about 24 acres. A windmill is known to have existed in Orcheston St. Mary in 1623.
In 1677 there are records of open fields in Littlecott manor and common husbandry continued here until the 19th century. Field names in the area include Garstones, Burnbake, Conygre, Pickled Acre and Three Halves for Orcheston St. Mary and Bakeland and Peaked Furlong for Orcheston St. George.
There was no formal inclosure but lands were eventually merged into a single holding; in 1780 Orcheston St. Mary manor was a single farm and Littlecott was spread over two farms, one worked from Drax House, and there was also a smaller glebe farm. By 1841 there was just a single farm and the glebe farm.
The land was made up of 870 acres on the downland in the west and north, 900 acres of arable in the south and centre and 50 acres of meadow alongside the River Till, with a hopyard north of the church of Orcheston St. George.
Stephen Mills, principal farmer, worked neighbouring estates as well as his own and he specifically employed labour to work on waste lands in order to improve them.
He owned Elston farm and land totalling about 5,000 acres; this was farming on a large scale. After his death in 1858, over 4,000 of his prize Southdown sheep were sold at one of the biggest auctions ever held in the south of England.
From the middle to the latter part of the 19th century some new farmsteads were built on the downland and some new land was ploughed but generally speaking, the ratio of pasture to arable land remained the same during this period.
In 1896 farms could easily cope with flocks of over 3,000 sheep as well as 550 acres of cereal and 400 acres of fodder.
War Department lands were less likely to be cultivated, so some production was lost. Drax Farm had about 500 acres in 1910 and this had been reduced to 313 acres by 1917; two thirds of this was arable.
By the 1930s most of the parish was pasture and by 1991 Rookery Farm was a dairy and beef farm of about 250 acres. The military land was rough grassland and used for training purposes only.
Aubrey says in his 'Natural History of Wiltshire' that in the 17th century grass in a meadow in Orcheston St. Mary grew as much as 17 feet in a season; this meadow was located beside the Till on a 2-3 acre meadow, mown once or twice a year and watered naturally when the Till flooded. In 1939 it was still famous for its growth.
Britton also mentions this in his 'Beauties of Wiltshire':-
"A system of watering meadows in the south of Wiltshire was begun in the early 1700s. Orcheston grass was situated in the lowest part of a very winding valley, sheltered by gradual chalk slopes, and providing a perfect channel for the floods that occurred in winter and came from Tilshead, three miles away. The water rests at 'some depth' and the site is 'swampy' for much of the year. A spring is only half a mile away and may well help keep the water slightly warmer than usual and the earlier the swell the more plentiful the yield. The soil is 'a bed of small looses pebbles, which are all of a siliceous nature, with a scanty covering of mould, formed from the decomposed relics of former vegetable generations."
The grass sends forth 'strong and succulent shoots, which fall, run along the ground, take root at the knot or joints, and again shoot, fall, and take root; so that the stalk is frequently eight or ten feet in length from the original root.'
Composed of most species of grasses that grow in other meadows, such as broad clover, ray-grass and trefoil or nonesuch, and a number of strong succulent plants, the winter floods produced abundant crops from these meadows. This succulent crop is first cut in May, then July, or even as late as the end of August. It has been described since 1782 and was investigated by Benjamin Pryce in 1790, who questioned William Ford of Tilshead, who had been tending the land for over 36 years. The crop was so fertile that it was described as 'a veritable food of the gods for the cattle which fed upon it,' and it was almost thought to contain magical powers.
According to Kelly's directory other businesses in the area included a blacksmith, beer retailer, shopkeeper and post mistress, as well as the Crown public house, now a residential property. By 1898 there was also a horse trainer at Elston and a surgeon and physician who worked in London. Stonehenge Cats Hotel existed in 1972 and a caravan and camping touring park 'Stonehenge Touring Park' has existed for the last twenty five years, run for the last ten years by the same family, and this has recently won an award from Practical Caravan and Motorhome. It has been listed as one of their top 100 sites, as voted for by the users and it is open all year round. Elm Grove is a holiday cottage available to rent as is Waterlake Cottage, on the lane to Elston.
The Devizes to Salisbury road was turnpiked in 1769, disinturnpiked in 1879, and closed c.1900 probably due to the military activity in the area. This road crossed the northern tip of the parish and resulted in the main route then becoming the road from Tilshead to Shrewton, located in the western part of the parish. There was once a road that linked Tilshead to the Bustard Inn in Shrewton, known as London road. In the 18th century there were a number of routes that crossed the parish; from Orcheston St. Mary south to Maddington and Shrewton, south east to Elston in Orcheston St. George, south west to Warminster, north to the Devizes to Salisbury road and north east to Netheravon. Now there is only the one main route, that being the Devizes to Salisbury road.
In the Middle Ages there was a manor court held once or twice a year, and an annually held leet court in the 15th century. A tithingman presented defaulters, the homage (body of tenants owing allegiance) presented boundaries and buildings in need of repair, and tenants were admitted. In the 1770s and 1780s poor relief cost the parish about £45 and in the 1790s this was given to nine people in the form of clothes, midwifery services and rents as well as money. By 1803 this poor relief was costing the parish £81 when 31 adults and 17 children received regular payments and 20 people were given occasional payments. In 1813, 12 adults regularly received money totalling £169 but then it began to drop and did not usually exceed £100 per year from then on. In 1835 Orcheston became part of the Amesbury poor law union. By 1974 the parish was included in the district of Salisbury.
In 1842 the Shrewton Flood Charity was established, after the disastrous winter flooding of the river Till, and four cottages were built in the parish, which was also entitled to one seventh of the income from the charity to spend on clothing and fuel for the poor. In the late 20th century the income was spent on repairing the cottages and they were transferred to a housing association in the late 1990s. The will of Martha Mills, proved in 1904, gave income of £250 to buy coal for the poor of Orcheston St. Mary and £6 was spent on this annually until 1949; now the fund is allowed to accumulate. In July 1890 a grant of books to the value of just over £2 was made to the village library by the trustees of Rebecca Hussey's book charity.
A post office in Orcheston St. George was closed by 1869 but a post office was opened in Orcheston St. Mary in that same year and was run by Charlotte Broad as postmistress.
One of the most dramatic events in the history of Orcheston occurred in 1841. The autumn of 1840 had been extremely wet and was followed by a spell of cold frosty weather with a number of snow storms. By the New Year the temperature was rising and there was a movement of warm air towards the east. This was then followed by a period of hail, rain and snow as well as gales and thunderstorms; all this combined to cause the River Till to rise to the level of the river bank. Another period of cold weather continued until January 15th and by January 16th 1841 there was a combination of heavy rain, a rising temperature, melting snow and frozen ground which resulted in a massive flood running from the downlands. The River Till burst its banks on the Saturday afternoon at Shrewton and continued to rise through the evening.
Many local houses were simply built of cob or clay and their foundations could not withstand the deluge. By 9 p.m. the river was 7-8 feet above its normal level. Three people drowned and many were made homeless. One woman was rescued from her brick chimney stack, the only part of her cottage remaining. The house of the local blacksmith was totally swept away, luckily after he and his family had reached safety. One villager took his pigs upstairs to save them from the flood. The local policeman and the mail cart driver gave help and assistance to many and were later described as heroes. By the Sunday afternoon, 17th January 1841, the flood had subsided, and the damage was assessed. 72 houses in the wider area had been destroyed leaving over 200 people homeless. The storm and flooding continued and also affected Salisbury, preventing the morning service in the cathedral. The 'Wiltshire Independent' newspaper commented that 'no more houses should be built of clay or cob in low situations....had they been built of brick lives would have been saved and damage minimised.'
Subscriptions were collected to help the victims and over £4,000 was raised, part of which was used to build three groups of cottages in Shrewton, Orcheston and Tilshead. They are known as 'Flood Cottages' and are still there today complete with a cast iron plaque on each group to commemorate the dramatic event. The remainder of the monies collected was invested and used to supply fuel and clothing for the needy. The level that the water reached is inscribed on a stone set in the wall of Mill House, Orcheston Road, Shrewton and marks 4 ft. 6 inches above ground level and 7 feet 6 inches above river level.
In 1914 special prayers were said in the village for the war and the church bell was rung daily at noon to call people to prayer. West Down was occupied by soldiers, territorial troops and Canadian troops and they often attended the church services.
In 1858 a fire occurred in a pigsty, thought to be started by children with 'Lucifer' matches. The insurance company paid £5 10s. 6d. to villagers who had fought the fire and prevented further damage. This money was then used as the nucleus of a fund to provide a church clock and following further subscriptions, a total of over £35 was collected. The eight day striking clock was erected in 1861 and was actually installed by the rector in order to save money.
In 1890 a social club existed which had twice weekly meetings in the school room, and also had two villagers appointed as librarians. A committee existed to 'keep order. Games were played and in 1921 two daily newspapers were provided for the use of the members.
In 1894 a parish tea was followed by an entertainment and dance at Christmas time and was very successful. The two parishes at Orcheston amalgamated for the Queen's diamond jubilee in 1897, meeting at Mr. Gay's barn; they formed a procession headed by a band to Mr. Mills' barn which had been decorated for the occasion. They then dined on roast beef and plum pudding, which was followed by an address from the rector of Orcheston St. Mary, a toast and the singing of the national anthem. This was followed by sports and cricket, tea for the children in the school and then a bonfire in the evening.
On April 9th 1920 the parish memorial to the local men who lost their lives in the First World War was dedicated. Later all the men of the parish who had served were entertained to supper in the schoolroom. The parish council was established c.1920.
In 1925 there were floods in the village resulting in the church at Orcheston St. Mary being cut off. People from a cottage near the school had to shelter in the schoolroom for one week and at the end of 1927 there was more severe weather resulting in the village being cut off and unable to receive postal deliveries.
Cricket was played regularly in the early part of the 20th century and a club existed. Often the troops at Greenlands camp helped at village fetes and events performing such feats as musical rides, tent pegging, and wrestling on horseback. The armistice service in 1921 laid wreaths on the new memorial and also on the graves of Canadian soldiers buried in the churchyard.
The two villages only really came together in the 20th century, despite the fact that the two churches are only 750 metres apart. All development tended to be along the lanes, as old maps such as Andrews and Dury's of 1773, show. In 1841 there was an open space called Broad Mere and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was a parallel lane constructed leading north from the western edge of this space.
In 1903 two army camps were built; West Down North, straddling the northern boundary with Tilshead and West Down South, situated on the north side of the road from Tilshead to the Bustard Inn. Both of these were demolished in 1925. By the mid 20th century however, Greenland Camp and another camp west of new buildings were built. Greenland Camp was partly demolished in 1979 and by 1991 only a crescent of huts remained and these are now used by the Wiltshire Army cadet force.