Sutton Benger parish has grown up through an amalgamation of smaller parishes in the Vale of Dauntsey in North Wiltshire. The name Sutton Benger has been used from the later 14th century, although in the 15th century it was sometimes called ‘Sutton Leonard’ or ‘Sutton Leonard Juxta Christmalford.’ After the Middle Ages the village has been described as ‘Sutton Bengers’ and ‘Sutton Juxta Bradenstoke’, but in the 1890s it was occasionally reported as ‘Sutton Leonard’ once again. Part of the Draycot Cerne parish was added in 1884 and most of the village was owned by the Draycot estate until 1920. In 1934 the whole of Draycot Cerne and Seagry parishes were added, but the Seagry parish was split by the M4 in 1971 and the area to the north of the motorway became a new Seagry civil parish. In ecclesiastical terms 1967 saw the parish combined with Christian Malford and Tytherton Kellaways to create a united benefice. A new benefice was put in place in 1994 which encompassed Christian Malford, Draycot Cerne, Tytherton Kellaways, Kington Langley and Sutton Benger.
River deposits cover one third of the old Sutton Benger parish. The typography of the north and west is of Oxford clay, Kellaways clay and sand. The south east consists of a valley gravel terrace and alluvium deposits bordering the river Avon, along which the eleventh and twelfth parish boundaries followed. The north west sited open fields with gravel and sandy soils; there was woodland on clay to the north and alluvium under the meadow land. Vineyards were noted in the gravely soil at Sutton Benger in the 16th century.
The main roads through Sutton Benger run east to west. The Swindon to Chippenham road was turnpiked in 1756-1875 and the Great Somerford Road 1809-1876. Two further roads became disused between 1839 and 1885; one survives as a footpath parallel to Sutton Lane and the other is a farm drive (it previously linked Great Somerford Road and Oak Hill Lane). The bridge was built c.1756 and has three segmented arches separating the cutwaters, and was widened in the 20th century. There is a pedestrianised stone causeway to the west of the bridge.
Sutton parish was one of the highest taxpayers in the Malmesbury Hundred, but was moderately assessed in the 16th/17th century. In 1801-1821 the population was at a high of 458 but had decreased to 336 in 1931. Numbers were temporarily increased to 526 in 1841 due to the building of the Great Western Railway line which created additional lodgers in the village. Post 1950 further housing estates were built and in 1981 the majority of the 854 inhabitants lived in Sutton Benger village.
The archaeological record for Sutton Benger is sketchy; a Palaeolithic artefact was discovered south east of the church and an Iron Age/Romano-British settlement is thought to have existed between the village and the river Avon.
In 854 a charter from King Etherwulf mentioned Sutton Manor. The Parish was probably owned by Malmesbury Abbey long before the conquest and this continued, in most part, until the dissolution.
Sutton Benger church was built in the 12th century. It was once dedicated to St. Leonard but was named All Saints by 1763. It was built of stone rubble with ashlar dressing, with some masonry possibly surviving from the 12th century when the village was prosperous and contained several substantial farmhouses. In the 11th century the Sutton Benger great tithes belonged to Malmesbury Abbey and then to the Dean of Salisbury when they consisted of: one house, one yard land and all tithes arising from the parish. In 1342 the land, and in 1474 the small tithes, were assigned to the vicarage.
Draycot Cerne Church was built in the later 12th century and re-built and enlarged in the thirteenth century. Originally called All Saints, it was changed to St James in the later 19th and early 20th century and was also named St Peter’s in 1763 and 1915. The church is made up of the chancel, nave, north chapel, south porch and west tower. Weathering on the west wall of the chancel roof survives from the 12th century. A mortuary chapel for the Long family was built in 1692 and extensive restoration was undertaken in the mid to late 19th century by Lord Cowley. A brass of Sir Edward de Cerne, d. 1393 and his wife Ellen can be found inside the church. A bell cast in 1808 by James Wells of Aldbourne was still in situ in 1987. The church was closed in 1993.
Sheep and common husbandry became all-important in the Middle Ages. ‘Five customary tenants, including a miller, each held one yard land in 1283-4’. There were 36 others also owning small amounts of land. Tenants were alloted common meadow shares beside the river Avon south of the main road. In return they had to plough the fields of Draycot Cerne at three days notice. The demesne meadows of Brokenborough also had to be mowed by the tenants. A mill existed in 1283, and the later mills of the 16th and 17th centuries may have been built on the same site. There was an inn mentioned in 1540 and also older buildings built of stone. In 1540-1 there were: 25 customary tenants holding 31 yard lands. In 1622: 32 cottages or small plots of land, in 1647: 47 customary tenants, 21 of whom lived in Sutton Benger. The late 16th early 17th century saw timber framed thatched cottages built. There was a fuller in the parish in 1611 and in the later 17th a cloth worker too.
The sheep and woollen industry came into precedence in the decades preceding the civil war when Wiltshire was the sixth richest county. Sutton Benger was drawn into the civil war through its closeness to Malmesbury, which was of strategic importance. Sutton Benger’s inhabitants also had ties to their main landowner, James Long, who owned the Draycot estate. In 1644 the garrison at Malmesbury was ‘authorised to be paid for by the county’ and had to supplement its numbers with local men. From 1645-6 Sutton Benger was among the villages to pay for the upkeep of the garrison. Roundhead troops stabled their horses in the village church causing a loss of original window glass and statues (fragments now remain in a small window in the south aisle). Manor Farm House had its own chapel and was an arson target for parliamentarian troops, but they were unsuccessful. The church bells may have been kept in the house opposite the church for safekeeping (now called ‘Bell House’), but one bell was stolen!
Sutton Benger inhabitants were part of James Long’s Royalist contingent and in June 1645 he took his troops to help force the Parliamentarians out of Salisbury. In 1645 he was posted to the Devizes garrison and in March 1645 was defeated after ‘preparing to leave the safety of Devizes with a force of only 400 troopers.’ The Royalists (including Long) had later successes before the war ended but Draycot was taken from Long and only returned in 1649 on payment of a £700 fine and after he had ‘sued out his pardon.’
Sutton Benger was a very poor parish in 18th century surveys. Common animal husbandry continued until the open fields were closed by agreement in 1729. The Tylney-Long or Wellesley Arms Inn was built in the late 18th century and the Septennial Friendly Society also met there c.1845. In the late 1770s Sutton Benger contained bakers and maltsters.
In the early 19th century the heir to the Draycot estate died and Catherine Tylney-Long was due to inherit the fortune when she came of age. A survey of Draycot Cerne, Sutton Benger and Kington Langley was undertaken and maps drawn up between 1807 and 1808 for her coming of age. Kilvert’s diary mentions events happening at the Draycot estate during the time Catherine was choosing a husband, who would acquire all her wealth. She became infatuated with William Wellesley-Pole junior (nephew of the Duke of Wellington) who was only interested in her fortune. Catherine died a broken woman at the age of 35 and her family agreed that William had ‘killed her.’ Her husband had run up great debts and left her destitute.
In the 19th century the village grew and containedlots of good quality estate cottages and large farmsteads (smaller farms were engulfed by the larger ones in this period). The latter part of the century saw a quarter of land use as arable and three-quarters grassland, becoming three-quarters arable in the early 20th century. Average sheep flocks until 1880 were around 400 but then declined and cow husbandry became more prevalent in the early 20th century. Most villagers in the 19th century were agricultural labourers but in 1831 thirty three were tradesmen or artisans (more than normal for a small rural parish). Other occupations within the village between 1839-c.1911 included the Hull family, on Seagry Road, who ran a grocers, spirit merchants, cheese factory and wre also bacon curers. Later Alfred Britton & Co. bakers occupied the site until in 1920 they sold to Wadworth & Co. who incorporated it into a public house. Land between the church and the river Avon was also used for gravel extraction from 1822 until the 1960s. A blacksmith worked at a forge on the main road in the 1920s. A factory for broiler hens prepared for cooking opened on the north side of High Street in 1958. By 1987 the factory prepared c.400,000 chickens weekly reared in local broiler houses. Sutton Benger in the 1930s included three grocery shops, a butchers, a garage, an agricultural engineer’s business, a wheelwright’s yard (also funeral, carpenters, painters and decorators businesses), a post office and doctors. Cottage industries such as washing for the gentry, and a taxi firm, also existed.
Herbing was an important part of village life and supplemented household income. It began in Sutton Benger in the 19th century and ended in the early 1950s. The herbs grew in the countryside, sometimes quite a way from the village itself. People took all day to collect them, got them weighed and collected a ‘chit’ – they would be paid at the end of the season. Teachers at the school even involved the schoolchildren in this task; for example in 1920 the children were taken on a nature walk to find meadow saffron but were unsuccessful! Herbs would be put out to dry and then weighed and labelled. They ended up at “Potters and Clarkes” in London and Manchester to make medicines and ointments. After World War II factories such as Westinghouse and Nestles in neighbouring towns paid well, so the need of an extra income in herbing diminished. Herbs were also being brought in from abroad and more land was being developed for housing, and so led to the demise of the industry. ‘French’ gardens opened in Sutton Benger during the war using ‘hot beds’ to grow lettuces and carrots etc. very quickly. Electric lighting came to the village c.1940.
The village community was very active; in 1745 a parish officer was appointed to set poor and highway rates. The mid 18th and early 19th centuries saw good expenditure on the poor and a small workhouse was run from 1808-34. The village was included in the Chippenham poor-law union in 1835 which became part of the North Wiltshire District in 1974. A piece of land called the ‘Church Piece’ was also used for community purposes. In 1618 the income earned from the land was to be used “for and towards the maintenance and repair of the said village church and ornaments thereof and public good of the said parishioners.” In 1851 the land was gravelled out and the proceeds went towards the parish church. In 1993 the charitable status of the land was re-established, and the remainder of it continues to be rented out for summer grazing. In 1922 a part of manor estate was donated to the parish for use as a recreation field and village hall. The hall was used for wedding receptions, dances, whist drives, sports club and social events. There was a weekly ‘knees up’ with soldiers and airmen attending during World War II. It fell into neglect and a village collection was undertaken to restore it. A new hall was built at the beginning of the 21st century. A school was run for girls in 1783. There were four schools in 1833, for boys and girls. One, the National School, was the only one to survive. In 1876 a new building was used west of Seagry Road and in 1966 pupils were transferred to Chestnut Road.
Other community activities included summer outings run to Weston-super-Mare for parents and children, and there was a tennis court, bowling green, cricket pitch and a football pitch. Children swam in the river at Christian Malford and Seagry Mill. There was also a travelling fair which went from village to village. A harmonic society flourished in the 19th century and was a regular feature of village life. Other types of society also seemed to flourish in Sutton Benger: a Quaker group was established in the village by 1667, which later included separatists (1669) and non-conformists (1676). There were also Congregationalists in 1783 and Wesleyan Methodists in 1830 who built a chapel in 1850-1 and had an average congregation of 90. In 1727 John Fry’s new home (now the Vintage Inn in Seagry Road) became a Quaker meeting house. His son Joseph founded the Bristol chocolate making firm Fry & Co.
Draycot Park contained 610 acres within walled boundaries with Home Farm and sited 5 lodges and a kitchen behind the Wellesley Arms pub in Sutton Benger. Draycot House was built in 1784 in the Georgian Architectural style. It used by British and American servicemen during World War II. By 1942 the west end of the house was used by refugees from London who slept on metal bunk beds. The American Army stationed in the stables and outbuildings shared their chocolate with the children. The house was demolished soon after the war ended. Robert Valerian (now Lord Glentoran) lived at the house and became a gold medallist at the 1964 Winter Olympics on the two man bobsleigh. The estate also encompassed Seagry House which was destroyed by fire in 1949. Sadly the dowager countess who lived there was killed in the fire.
In 1939 the village suffered an outbreak of diphtheria. Two boys died and Sutton Benger was put in isolation. It was a national news story – the school was closed and milkmen couldn’t deliver. The source of infection was found to be the brook.