Trowbridge is situated in the low-lying claylands of the Bristol Avon, astride the River Biss, which flows into the Avon to the north of the town. The reason for the establishment of the settlement is a low ridge, known as the Trowbridge Anticline which is only about 40 to 50 feet above the clay, but which consists of Cornbrash, a brashy limestone which provides a lighter and better drained soil than the clay. The River Biss cuts this ridge, creating a crossing point for travellers along the higher ground.
The ridge itself proved attractive to early settlers, and excavators in 1986-88 found Bronze Age pottery, worked flint and antler, and animal bone. Post-holes and evidence for ploughing were found and although this is not firm evidence for a settlement it does show that the area was being worked and managed between 3,500 and 3,000 years ago. The area was also used in the later Iron Age and the Romano-British centuries but the first evidence of actual settlement (post-holes for timber buildings) indicates permanent settlement from the 7th century. It is likely that the Saxon villagers lived on an east to west route along what is now Roundstone Street and Silver Street continuing down to the River Biss and the tree bridge which gave the town its name.
The boundaries of Trowbridge seemed to have been in place by at least the 10th century but because it belonged to a wealthy layman there is no charter detailing these and they have to be defined from charters for Bradford and Steeple Ashton. Archaeological evidence has shown that the Saxon church here had a nave 50% longer that the existing Saxon church at Bradford and there are indications of an impressive timber house for the landowner.
At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Trowbridge (referred to as 'Straburg') was held by a Saxon, Brictric, whose father had held it before him. He was the most important Saxon landowner in Wiltshire. From the Survey, Trowbridge is seen as an agricultural village of average size and value which, from the number of households given, would seem to have had a population of around 100. It may be that not everyone was included in the Survey; certainly the priest was not, and the population could have been between 150 and 200.
Soon after 1086 all Brictric's property passed to the most powerful lay landowner in Wiltshire, after the King; Edward of Salisbury. He gave Trowbridge to Humphrey de Bohun as a part of the dowry of his daughter, Maud. The de Bohuns chose Trowbridge as the headquarters of their estates in this part of Wiltshire; these were referred to as the 'honour of Trowbridge' and courts would be held in the town. It is possible they chose Trowbridge because it was Brictric's main residence, but we do not know for certain.
To mark the importance of Trowbridge to them the de Bohuns built a castle. The first mention of this is in 1139 when it was held by Humphrey de Bohun, on behalf of the Empress Maud, against King Stephen. The siege was not successful and Stephen, an impatient fellow, took himself off to Bristol. It is possible that the castle was only built for protection in this Anarchy period. The castle was of the motte and bailey type but archaeological excavation has not yet shown much detail of its construction or whether it was of timber or stone. The fact that it withstood Stephen's siege engines could argue the case for it being a long-established castle and not a hasty construction.
The building of the castle and the removal of part of the village from the castle grounds altered the layout of the settlement. The former east-west route had gone past the church, still within the castle grounds and down to the river. Now the route turned to the right as it approached the castle and skirted the castle walls to a river crossing near the present Town Bridge. This was the origin of Fore Street (before the walls) and gives us the shape of the castle layout as a semi-circle on the eastern side of the river.
The development of village into town could have begun in the late 12th century. At this time the 'new church' (it was so called until the early 19th century even though the site of the old one had long been forgotten) was built the other side of the market place from the main castle entrance. This new and large church would have been required by an increasing population and most probably villagers and castle dwellers were tired of the former having to enter the castle for frequent services. In 1200 Henry de Bohun was granted the right to hold a weekly Tuesday market and an annual fair on the vigil, feast and morrow of St. James (24th-26th July), the patron saint of the new church. The market place was large, now part of Fore Street and Red Hat Lane, and at some point a stone market cross stood near the middle. It was octagonal in shape and covered, similar but inferior to the one at Malmesbury, but it was pulled down in 1780 as it 'was of no further use'. The stone ball from the top is in the porch of the parish church.
At some time burgage plots were created which tradesmen and artisans could rent and build themselves houses. This could have happened in the later 12th century but the earliest surviving documentary evidence for burgesses is in the early 1240s when Adam the Goldsmith sold a burgage in the town. Other references indicate the existence of a small borough under a powerful Lord of the Manor. By 1300 the castle was falling into disuse but its shape determined the layout of the town. Fore Street was in existence with burgage plots on the far side from the castle. The inner side was then built on in the old, filled in castle ditch while Castle Street was probably routed through the outer bailey of the castle.
The urbanisation of Trowbridge continued with burgage plots in Silver Street and Castle Street, while at the back of the plots on the northern side of Fore Street a lane (Back Lane, now Church Street) grew up to serve the backs of these properties and, later, the smaller houses that were built at the ends of these plots. Trowbridge was now recognisably a small market town with an urban centre and a large parish church. Although it had burgesses and was technically a borough no system of municipal administration seems to have evolved. It has been suggested that this is owing to the comparative smallness of the borough coupled with powerful Lords of the Manor and the agents against whom burgesses would not assert their corporate independence.
The first reference to the town's greatest industry - cloth - comes in 1306 and the trade was doubtless well established by then. By the mid 15th century several important clothiers, such as John Wyke and James Terumber, lived in the town. These left money to improve roads, create new works in the church and endow a school. The latter was transferred to Salisbury in 1569 on the grounds that Trowbridge was an 'upland town with little resort of gentlemen and merchants'. Despite this act of appropriation, Trowbridge was a prosperous medieval town, although, apart from the church and a recently restored timber-framed building in Church Street, little remains of this period.
The prosperity of the local cloth trade continued through much of the Tudor period and the wealthy 15th century clothiers employed spinners and weavers who worked in their own homes, thus increasing the number of smaller houses around the edges of the main urban centre. When John Leland came to the town, circa 1540, he wrote that the town 'is very well builded of stone and flourisheth by drapery'. He mentioned the clothing families of Horton, Langford and Bailey. Many of these clothiers invested their money in property, married into the county gentry and became landed gentry themselves. The most successful were the Langford family who turned to practising law and Marie Langford, daughter of Edward and granddaughter of clothier Alexander, married Henry Hyde of Dinton in 1597. Her son, Edward, became Duke of Clarendon and chief minister to Charles II, his daughter was Duchess of York and her two daughters were both Queens - Mary (wife of William of Orange) and Queen Anne. Part of the Langford home still survives at the top of Wicker Hill, though hidden behind a stone façade of 1700.
With such wealthy inhabitants, including the Yerbury, Long and Wallis families, Trowbridge was a desirable manor and in 1536 Henry VIII gave it to Edward Seymour, later Duke of Somerset. The cloth trade at this time was the production of unfinished white broadcloth for export, but by the late 16th century this trade was in a period of stagnation owing to difficulties abroad.
The clothiers of both Trowbridge and Bradford changed to a new type of cloth - the medley - made from fine wool (Spanish at first), which was dyed and mixed before being spun into yarn and the cloth was finished to a very high standard locally. Trowbridge and Bradford gained a great reputation for this cloth with clothier families such as the Mortimers and Houltons. Another, William Brewer, was said to be the greatest medley clothier in England in 1670 and he was responsible for bringing some skilled Dutchmen into the two towns to introduce improved methods.
After 1660 the town expanded beyond its medieval boundaries. In the north the Conigre area was developed and by 1692 Duke Street had been built. Other cottages were built on waste ground, as at Upper, Middle and Lower Studley, at Stallard's Corner and at Islington, and in gardens, courts and alleys behind the main houses of the town. Living conditions for these working poor were atrocious and the large populations of Bradford and Trowbridge were regarded with fear by the rest of the county as they were quite likely to erupt and riot. The population had grown considerably from an estimate of 1,200-1,500 around 1600 to an estimate, by a contemporary clothier, of 3,000 in 1739. In the later 17th century non-conformity was taking a hold in the town, with four separate meetings and a strong influence from the large early Baptist congregation at the village of Southwick. There were Baptists and Presbyterian congregations which mainly attracted the upper grades of Trowbridge society. By the 18th century there were many more chapels which had a wider appeal and exerted something of a calming influence in the town, although throughout the century the town was still regarded as a potential hotbed of unrest. In 1796 barracks were built on the Bradley Road so that cavalry could be stationed there to quell any disturbances which might arise from ideas imported from revolutionary France.
The 18th century provided the finest secular buildings remaining in the town with wealthy clothiers building houses on The Parade and the present Lloyds Bank between 1700 and 1730. Others in the first half of the century were the present HSBC bank (the only fine house in the town not built by a clothier), Lovemead House, Westcroft and many others. The cloth industry was still largely a domestic one with many processes carried on in the homes of the workers and others at the clothiers' houses or in workshops adjoining them.
It was not until around 1790 that machinery began to appear, firstly for carding and spinning the wool and then, around 1800, for raising the nap and shearing the cloth. The introduction of machinery provoked unrest, particularly among the shearers, who were the strongest and best organised group of work people. Most of the early machinery was powered by human, horse or water power. Trowbridge was not well provided with water power as the River Biss is slow moving. One water-powered factory - Stone Mill - was built in the 1790s, but it was not until steam power was introduced that large numbers of factories were built. Weaving was still done on handlooms and new weaver’s houses were built in the 1790s in Newtown and Yerbury Street where narrow looms were placed on the top floor (of three) illuminated by large ‘weaver’s’ windows. A larger development occurred in 1814 when Thomas Timbrell laid out Timbrell Street, Thomas Street, Charlotte Buildings and Prospect Place, incidentally creating a new route into the town. The area known as 'The Courts', Castle Street and Court Street, was also covered by weaver’s houses at this time.
In 1808 the first steam-powered factory - Bridge Mills - was built in the town and this was followed by Court Mills in 1812. Others followed in Court Street between 1814 and 1820. Around 1815 a new road, the present Mortimer Street, was created with two-storey houses, especially for the factory workers. Until 1850, when a stone road bridge was built, the route between the houses and the factories was a wooden footbridge – Cradle Bridge – across the river. The building of the powered factories created a demand for a large labour-force, which meant that many people migrated to the town from the surrounding area. Between 1801 and 1821 the population increased from 5,799 to 9,545, when it was the 80th largest town in England.
The Kennet and Avon canal passed just to the north of the town and from 1810, when this was opened, it provided the means of transport for bringing coal to the town from the Somerset coalfield. Thus was provided a reasonably cheap source of fuel for the steam-powered factories.
By 1820 Trowbridge was a factory town of some importance with some 15 factories. It was comparable to medium-sized northern industrial towns such as Rochdale and the later description of Trowbridge as ‘the Manchester of the west’ was only an example of ambitious daydreaming by its inhabitants. The town failed to develop further owing to a general decline in the west of England woollen industry. This was a gradual decline and there were good periods, especially in the 1860s and 1870s, when there was general prosperity.
Trowbridge suffered from inadequate local government, as it was a fair-sized town with no corporation. A local board of health, with elected representatives, was set up in 1864, which slowly accomplished the job of cleaning up the town, providing a sewerage system and carrying out other improvements. This was converted to an urban district council in 1894. The town was provided with gas by 1824 and the railway, with a Brunel-designed station (now demolished) in 1848. William Stancombe provided a market hall in 1862 but the town did not have an adequate piped water supply until 1874 and much of the town was supplied from public pumps, such as those in Conigre and at the town bridge.
Until 1854 the blind house, or lock up, at the Town Bridge had been the only means of confining prisoners. Built in 1757 it had originally had both stocks and a ducking stool alongside it. In 1854 a police station was opened in Stallard Street near the railway station; a police force had existed in the town from 1839. In 1799 a body of ‘Improvement Commissioners’ was set up with powers to pave, light and scavenge the streets of the town and provide watchmen. Previously, from 1752, the main roads had been managed by Turnpike Trustees. Relief of the poor and the repair of minor roads were carried out by the parish vestry. In 1856 a public cemetery was opened, which relieved pressure on the overcrowded church and chapel graveyards. These all closed down in 1856 and 1857.
The decline of the textile industry allowed other industries to develop in the town during the 19th century. When Boulton and Watt were supplying engines to the early steam powered factories they sent George Haden to the town in 1814 to erect an engine. He decided to settle here and made and repaired engines, but soon expanded into the provision of heating and catering equipment for large buildings such as stately homes, warehouses, hospitals and prisons. In the latter part of the 19th century Hadens became one of the foremost control heating companies in Europe. The various small breweries that Trowbridge had in the 19th century eventually developed into just two; J.H. and H. Blake in Union Street, which was absorbed by Thomas Usher, who began brewing in Back Street in the 1820s. Ushers became one of the larger West Country brewers, had substantial industrial sites in the town and renovated the fine Georgian houses on The Parade.
Later in the 19th century a bedding industry grew up in the town, initially using flock from waste at the cloth mills. At some time in the late 1870s Hedley Chapman arrived in Trowbridge and set up the wholesale bedding manufacturers that is now Airsprung Furniture Group PLC. The food processing industry also moved into Trowbridge in the 19th century. Abraham Bowyer had moved to Trowbridge around 1816 as a grocer, miller and provision merchant. The firm moved into bacon curing and sausage making in the 1850s. The company became one of the larger employers in the town and in the later 20th century were taken over by Unigate and then acquired by Northern Foods.
In 1821 Trowbridge overtook Salisbury as the largest place in the county; a position it maintained until the census of 1871 when the expanding railway town of Swindon just edged ahead. The substantial expansion of the town’s population had ended by 1821 when most of the factories had been built and new industrial workers attracted from the rural areas. Population increased by only 10.6% in the 100 years between 1831 and 1931 although the area covered by the town increased dramatically. Trowbridge was becoming more prosperous and people were looking to move out of the crowded and often insanitary town centre. Between 1850 and 1870 many terraces of small houses (2 up, 2 down) were built for people working in the factories. These were mainly in three areas: the Frome Road-Park Street-Bond Street district, the Ashton Street-Harford Street area, and in Dursley Road.
A better class suburb had appeared along the Hilperton Road from the 1790s to the later 19th century and Victoria Road was built in 1860. A little below this in standard were the houses of Wingfield Road and West Ashton Road, while for the rather less wealthy there was the villa type housing of Westbourne Road (1870s) and Avenue and Clarendon Roads (1890s). By the close of the 19th century the worst courts and slum tenements of the town had gone and the number of houses had increased by 800 in 60 years.
Until the 19th century there were no real public buildings, as Trowbridge was a ‘non corporate’ town. Public meetings and events took place at the two principle inns, the George and the Woolpack. In the 1860s assembly rooms appeared as did the very popular Hills’ Hall. The Town Hall was presented to the town by Sir Roger Brown in 1889 to mark the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria. The century also saw the provision of educational institutions. There had been a charity school in the corner of the churchyard but the National Society provided Holy Trinity (1836), Parochial (1846), Studley (1854) and Park Street (1872) while the British Society provided schools at British Row (1832) and Newtown (1900).
In 1898 Wiltshire County Council built its first offices in the town and in 1900 decided that all its future meetings should be held here. The decision to remain here was taken in the 1930s and the new County Hall was opened in 1940. Trowbridge became the administrative, and then the county, town of Wiltshire.
In the 20th century the town again began to expand, especially after 1930. Housing was provided by the urban district council just after the First World War at Pitman Avenue and continued in the 1920s at Studley Rise, and in the 1930s at Longfield and Shails’ Lane (later the Seymour Estate). After the Second World War they built extensively at Studley Green. The town council pursued a successful policy of attracting new industries on land at Ladydown and Bradley Road while older firms, such as Bowyers, Airsprung and Waldens, expanded.
In the 1930s much of the Conigre had been demolished (this was completed in the early 1950s) along with courts of small houses in the Newtown, Mortimer Street and Union Street areas. In those years many private houses were built in developments at The Croft, Rutland Crescent, Clarendon Avenue and along the Frome and Bradley Roads. During the Second World War many factories made parts of Spitfires, which were assembled and flown from Keevil. The Barracks was extended by extensive hutted camps. The town only suffered from stray bombs, the worst being in 1942 when bombs near the Town Bridge partly demolished Bridge House, killed two people at The Bear and took the roof off the blind house.
After the war the population increased significantly but the woollen industry slowly ended with five factories reduced to one by 1974 and that final one closing in 1982 when Samuel Salter and Co. ceased production in Home Mill. The building is now partly occupied by the new Trowbridge Museum, which opened in 1990. There are fine collections on the cloth industry, with examples of most types of machinery used, and much other local material. The town has continued to expand outwards and recently some of the old local authority housing has been replaced by more attractive modern housing.