The village of Sutton Veny is situated along the river Wylye in western Wiltshire, next to Warminster. It covers six square miles and is a distinctive kite shape. The head of the kite covers a low area of Upper Greensand and follows the Wylye. The areas of settlement are all within this section.
On the western side are the Southleigh and Eastleigh Woods, which were once part of Selwood Forest. Situated at a height of over 400 feet, the land beyond falls steeply to the Wylye. The parish boundary follows the river for a short distance, and it is this flat, and in parts marshy, land that gives the village its name Veny. The name Sutton means the south farm. The tail of the kite sweeps up the chalk downs to a height of over 700 feet. The landscape offers a wide variety of soils and land use. In the past it mainly supported sheep, but in the 20th century farmers moved to arable and beef. Diversification is also evident in that 200 acres once farmed are now used to train racehorses.
There are numerous barrows in the parish, roughly divided into three groups. The first group is high on the downs, the second within the settlement area and the third to the north. As well as barrows, the latter includes earthworks and the remains of a Roman villa. Robin Hood’s Bower is an ancient earthwork within Southleigh Woods covering three quarters of an acre.
In Pit Meads, quite close to the Wylye, are the sites of two Roman villas. This is one of only three villa sites in the southern half of the county. During perfect weather conditions it is possible to make out a vague outline of where the villas stood and bits of building stone and tiles can still be found. The first discovery was made in 1785, when a local farmer uncovered a small patch of coloured stones. This was the first of four mosaics that would be uncovered, but unfortunately it was destroyed by souvenir hunters.
The first organised dig took place in the summer of 1785 when a second mosaic was found and again destroyed, this time by an attempted theft. Lord Bath took over the dig in 1786 when the third mosaic was found and taken to Longleat House. C.1800 William Cunnington heard that a man was digging up the stones in the field to sell for road mending. This prompted him to undertake a more organised dig, and he discovered the fourth mosaic and further evidence of the villa. All four mosaics have been lost or destroyed since re-discovery. Fragments can be seen at Wiltshire Heritage Museum at Devizes, and drawings were made at the time.
The first villa, where the mosaics were found, was about 100 feet wide and faced south. There were two small wings at the west and east, joined by a colonnaded veranda, with other rooms leading off it. This design is quite common in Britain and is known as a ‘winged corridor’ villa.
Some of the footings were of Bath stone but the main structure may have been timber-framed. We cannot be sure if it was one or two storeys. The roof was of hexagonal stone slabs, which were heavy and held by iron nails. The seven rooms were joined by a long corridor. The largest room was decorated with wall paintings and heated by a hypocaust. Some of the other rooms had mosaic floors. Next to the largest room was a sweat-room (sudatorium) or bath.
About 300 feet to the west of this villa was the second villa, which may have been used as slave quarters. An underfloor heating system was found here.
The coins and pottery found at the first villa can be dated. From this evidence it looks as if no one lived in the villa after c.380AD. A lot of black ash was found in several rooms, so the villa may have burned down. Two skeletons were found but it is not clear how they came to be there.
Once the heavy stone roof collapsed, the walls started to crumble. Gradually the building was reduced to a heap of rubble, overgrown by weeds, worn down by the weather, and burrowed into by rabbits. By 1820 there had been so much digging that there wasn’t much to see in Pit Meads Field. When Colt Hoare visited it that year he found nothing of interest.
At the time of the Domesday survey Sutton Veny was divided between three landowners. The manors were Great Sutton, Feny Sutton and Little Sutton. By the early 1300s there was a fourth manor called Newnham, which was land owned by Maiden Bradley Priory. These manors (apart from Little Sutton) changed hands many times until 1359 when Great Sutton was sold to the Hungerford family. They also acquired Feny Sutton in 1573. The next major change took place in 1684 when both manors were sold to Sir Stephen Fox. He immediately split them up into small parcels and sold them on, at which point they ceased to be manors.
This resulted in Sutton Veny being divided between many owners for 300 years. However, some areas stayed with the same family. Southleigh Wood, for example, is still owned by the Longleat Estate. The Hinton family were on the Greenhill estate from before the Reformation, originally as tenants of Maiden Bradley Priory, and later they rebuilt and enlarged the house that is now called Sutton Veny House. The Everetts of Heytesbury did well enough in their cloth business to buy the Greenhill estate from the Hintons. The two farms called Church and Polebridge, possibly the demesne farms of the manors of Great and Feny Sutton, were bought at the beginning of the 20th century by the Hon. W.P. Alexander. He lived in the Church farmhouse and called it Polebridge House.
Newnham remained a separate tything until the end of the 19th century when it joined Great Sutton to become what we know today as Sutton Veny. It is not possible to trace the descent of the estate after 1561. Little Sutton, now known as Sutton Parva, is still a separate tything. This belonged to the de Kingston family until 1539. Later, in1563, it was sold to Sir John Thynne of Longleat and stayed in his family until 1810.
The present church of St. John the Evangelist was built in 1866, replacing the old church of St. Leonard, which was founded in Norman times. The condition of St. Leonard’s had been causing the parish concern since the 14th century. The architect called in to restore it in 1868 boldly advised that the church be abandoned and a new one erected on a drier and more central site.
There was a free chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas at Little Sutton manor in 1291. It survived until suppressed in the 16th century. The site is unknown but is said to have been quite close to St Leonard’s.
An Independent Chapel was built in 1793 near Dymock’s Lane. This flourished throughout the 19th century and remained open for worship until the 1960s. It was demolished in 1970.
Polebridge House, near St Leonard’s Church, amalgamated the house of the two farms adjoining the church, Polebridge to the north and Church Farm to the south. It is a rambling stone house of many dates and incorporates on its north side a 14th century hall with an open roof, which was later divided into two storeys. It has been much altered and extended, lastly by the west wing (dated 1902) built by the Alexanders when they acquired the two farms.
South along Duck Street, past the former smithy and the original village school, is The Old Manor House. For centuries this was the home of Rectors of the parish, until a new Rectory was built in Best’s Lane in 1913. Following extensive additions by G. Powell, local historian and rector 1854-88, its architectural history was unravelled in 1921 by the then owner D. Cowle who revealed the medieval hall, uncovered its open roof with its curved wind braces and inserted or restored four stone traceried windows and its Tudor fireplace.
Close to the hamlet of Tytherington is Sutton Parva House, formerly Little Sutton Farm. Its 18th century stone exterior hides a 17th century timber frame. The adjoining outbuildings were kennels of the Wylye Valley Hunt from 1919 to 1927.
Sutton Veny House, formerly Greenhill and then Greenhill House until the 1920s, was the home of the Hinton family who had been in the village since the 16th century. It is a late Georgian ashlar-faced house, incorporating a 17th century part of the Hintons’ house, enlarged by the Everetts who acquired it in the mid-19th century, and resold it in 1898. There is an attractive domed semi-circular bay to the west front. The house was converted into a nursing home in 1982.
Apart from a small amount of cloth making Sutton Veny has always been almost exclusively agricultural. It was an important part of the large Hungerford estates, and in the early 15th century produced between 400 and 600 fleeces a year. In 1582, by which time the Hungerfords had acquired Feny Sutton as well as Great Sutton, there was pasture for 1140 sheep. In the 18th century the land was still mainly devoted to sheep farming. In the 20th century many of the inhabitants found employment in Warminster, although in the 1960s there were still five or six farms of over 150 acres. An industrial estate was built at Pound Barton on the Norton Rd in the 1980s.
There were two mills at Sutton Veny at the time of the Domesday Survey. Mount Mill stood on the Wylye north-east of the village. It derived its name from the family of Mount who held land in the district in the 14th century. By the 15th century it was a fulling mill owned by the Hungerfords. It was later bought by the Benetts of Norton Bavant and was used by Joseph Everett of Heytesbury as part of his cloth-making business in the 19th century. It was still in use in 1831, and may have continued until the end of Everett’s business in 1846. In 1849 it was empty, and had apparently been pulled down by 1861. The site of the mill is still visible but there are no traces of the buildings.
The other Mill was Job’s Mill, also on the Wylye. Boundary changes moved this area into the parish of Crockerton.
At the time of Domesday Sutton Veny was already a thriving community. The manor was divided between three landowners and the population was approximately 160-200. William of Mohun had one third of the land and kept 300 sheep. By 1801 the population had risen to 622. It peaked at 881 in 1871 and then dropped sharply to 571 in 1901. It is likely that, having sustained a large population through the early years of the agricultural depression, this could not be maintained and many people moved into the towns. A small rise occurred during the First World War due to the large army camp. The figure rose again through the 1980s and 90s when new houses were built. In 2001 it was 688.
No main roads enter the parish. Two secondary roads cross at the north west end of the village, one of which is the High Street. The oldest part of the village is probably the south east end, the area once known as Great Sutton. The parish church, the rectory, and, after 1850, the village school, all lay here until towards the end of the 19th century. Here, too, on either side of the lane leading to the church, were Church and Polebridge Farms, which were possibly the demesne farms of the two manors of Great and Feny Sutton.
The main part of the village is along the High Street. The new parish church, the school and the chapel were all built here in the late 19th century. Many of the houses here are early 19th century. The brick gutters running along either side of the road were constructed to replace earlier unpaved ditches in 1868 when the vestry was particularly concerned with the insanitary state of the parish. A number of the cottages flank the road so closely that at that date dirt and damp from these ditches sometimes seeped through their walls.
The biggest change in the 20th century was the onset of World War One when the Wylye Valley was chosen as an area for assembling and training troops. At one point there were approximately 55,000 men camped at Codford, Sutton Veny and Longbridge Deverill. Such a large number of men had a significant impact on the community. Residents of the time never forgot the sights they saw. One vividly described the sight of the troops leaving the Palace Cinema. ‘When they turned out of there at night…….you could have walked on their heads, they were just like a flock of sheep, they took every inch of the road you couldn’t walk against them.’
One good thing to come out of it all was a boom in the local economy. Many small shops sprang up to cater for the soldiers’ needs and local traders flourished. Some of the local civilian population found work with hut building or constructing the railway line from Heytesbury station to Sutton Veny and photographers supplied postcards for the soldiers to send home. Printers and stationers provided souvenir booklets of the men and the camps. It was, of course, also a difficult time. As well as the horrors of war, Sutton Veny suffered an epidemic of Spanish flu. This occurred in 1918 and 169 Australian soldiers were buried in St. John’s churchyard. Every year since, on Anzac Day (25th April) a service had been held in their memory and children from the school place flowers on the graves.
Leisure time in Sutton Veny was spent in much the same way as other villages. A cricket club was founded c.1900. The Women’s Institute began in 1920. A bowling club ran for many years and North End Farm had a tennis court. There were two pubs, The Woolpack and The Bell, the latter closing in the early 1960s. Duck Street had an off-licence, which closed in the 1970s. Booker Hall was given by the Rev. Booker c.1900 as a reading and lecture room. It was occasionally used as a meeting room. In the 1960s a thriving Youth Club met here several times a week. The village finally got a new hall in 1972. It was enlarged in 1982 and used by numerous groups, including Brownies, Cub Scouts, and a Youth Club. The cricket club also started again. In the year 2000 the Women’s Institute planted cherry trees on The Green to celebrate their 80th anniversary.