‘Warminster is a very nice town: every thing belonging to it is solid and good’. This was the opinion of the great writer and journalist William Cobbett, whose ‘Rural Rides’ took him to Warminster in 1826.
Warminster lies in the south west of the county, at the foot of the downs on the Somerset border. It is ten miles from Trowbridge and just four miles from Longleat, the Elizabethan stately home belonging to the Marquess of Bath.
The area around Warminster was an ideal location for early man to settle, as there was a good supply of shelter, water and food. The shelter of the six hills, namely Cley, Arn, Copheap, Battlesbury, Middle and Scratchbury, which form a backdrop to the settlement, also provided security. Cley, Battlesbury and Scratchbury are Iron Age hill forts. The chalk downlands drain well and provide good, clean water. The river Wylye is a tributary of the river Avon, which reaches the sea at Christchurch, providing fertile land for growing food and a means of communication all the way down to the South Coast. The site was on the fringe of the great Selwood Forest, which provided wood and food. The chalk downlands were good for sheep pasture and the well watered land beneath was good meadow land. The community is built on greensand, which is excellent for gardening.
Geographically, Warminster is virtually at the centre of the old Kingdom of Wessex, so it is understandable that it became a great corn market. The surrounding high ground made travelling in winter easier. When tracks were sodden or even flooded, visitors to the town simply moved to the hills and reached the town that way.
Copheap is a hill to the north of the town, now covered with trees. There are fine views to the west, south and east, including the many tumuli and military earthworks of high antiquarian and historic interest. To the east of Copheap lies Battlesbury Hill. Three barrows have been excavated here, one containing two skeletons.
King Barrow is a very large tumulus, 200 feet long and 15 feet wide, behind Bishopstrow House Hotel. Three skeletons were excavated here, one still wearing his iron sword. A long barrow on Arn Hill also yielded three skeletons. All these barrows belong to the Neolithic period and were excavated in the early 19th century by Sir Richard Colt Hoare.
The most prominent memorial to the Iron Age in Warminster is the fortress on Battlesbury. It is formed on a high hill, covering an area of 24 acres. The ramparts are 60 feet high and it would have been almost impregnable on the south and east.
In 1768 ruins of a Roman villa were discovered at Pitmead, a large meadow between Bishopstrow and Sutton Veny. Investigations showed there were two villas on this site. Amongst the ruins were found traces of several rooms, with beautiful mosaic pavements.
The most recent excavation took place in 1979 at Emwell Street. Archaeologists felt certain that this area of the town contained the late Saxon urban nucleus of Warminster. Prior to the land being developed nine weeks were spent excavating and it proved a profitable site. Large amounts of pottery, animal bone, metal objects and worked bone and wood were found.
There are two tiny streams running through Warminster, and it is these that give the town its name. One rises at the foot of Cley Hill. As it flows along land to the north of Victoria Road it is joined by a second stream to form the River Were, known from the mid 19th century as the Swan River. It flows underground into the town park, where it leaves to join the River Wylye. The earliest settlement in the town was in Saxon times when the Minster Church was built within the loop of the Were. Hence ‘Wereminster’, ‘the church or minster on the River Were’.
The original settlement area is that now occupied by the Minster Church, founded in the 1100s. However, an 18th century manuscript mentions an earlier Saxon church built in a meadow just west of the present building. In 1979 archaeologists were able to undertake excavations at Emwell Street, believing this area, along with the Minster site, to be the late Saxon urban nucleus of Warminster. Their work yielded evidence of much activity there between the 9th and 12th centuries. This site would have been used for commerce and industry, deliberately separating it from the residential area around the church.
By the late 1100s the Emwell Street site was too small and a larger, more open site was created in the Market Place. The move was a success and the market steadily grew. In 1377 Warminster was the tenth largest town in Wiltshire, with 304 poll-tax payers. The town developed on the strength of the market, and there are houses mentioned in Church Street, West Street, Portway and the Market Place in the 13th and 14th centuries. By the 16th century the fame of Warminster market was well established, and the clothing and malting trades which, with the market, were to be the economic mainstays of the town until the 19th century, had begun. Some expansion may have resulted from the growth of these industries. Houses from this period survive in Vicarage Street, Silver Street, Emwell Street and High Street. The most substantial buildings in the town were perhaps the inns, with which the town was well supplied for the convenience of visitors to the market. In 1686 Warminster stood fourth for accommodation among Wiltshire towns, with 116 beds and stabling for 328 horses, and it was said that there were 51 inns and alehouses in the town in 1710. The best surviving example is The Old Bell.
In 1727 Warminster was one of the first towns in the country to use a Turnpike Act to improve its roads. The turnpike normally applied to a single through route, but the Warminster Trust was different, choosing instead to adopt seven roads across the town, none more than three miles long. The present routes of Portway, Sambourne Road and Pound Street are improvements made in 1759. Weymouth Street dates from 1830 and Station Road from the arrival of the railway in 1851.
The 18th century was a prosperous time in Warminster, the malting and woollen trades and the market all flourished. The period has left ample evidence of its prosperity in buildings. The most common building material was a roughly squared rubble stone. Ashlar was used for quoins and window surrounds in the larger houses. Portway House is one of the few buildings to be entirely faced with ashlar. Other examples of 18th century building are Wren House in Vicarage Street, Byne House in Church Street, Craven House and The Cedars in Silver Street and The Chantry in the High Street.
In the first half of the 19th century Warminster’s clothing trade collapsed, and malting declined somewhat, thought it still remained important. The market suffered for a time from the competition of other towns with better communications. In spite of this, the town seems to have suffered no permanent depression. Increase in retail trade and new occupations such as brewing and iron-founding made up for the loss of the clothing trade, while the silk mill at Crockerton provided employment for many women and girls. The railway from Westbury to Warminster was opened in 1851, and extended down the Wylye to Salisbury in 1856. Unfortunately, its coming marked the beginning, and was largely the cause, of a period of comparative depression. The great market declined almost to nothing, the retail trade suffered in consequence, and hardly any industry was carried on.
The early years of the 20th century saw little change. Combination in the brewing industry led to the closing of the small breweries which had grown out of the older malting businesses, and what little manufacturing industry there was in the town employed few hands. There was a tendency to regard the town’s future chiefly as residential. It was the approach of the Second World War which finally halted the economic decline. Camps and permanent barracks in the town were begun in 1937, and a large workshop for vehicle repairs was opened in 1940. After the war Warminster remained a permanent garrison town, housing the School of Infantry and a R.E.M.E. workshop. Large estates of married quarters were built. At the same time, several light industries were also begun.
John Leland was the first diarist to mention Warminster’s market, describing it in 1532 as a principle market town for corn. He was followed in later centuries by John Aubrey, Celia Fiennes and William Cobbett who all had something good to say about the town. John Daniell described Warminster in 1879 as ‘lying in the midst of a fine corn-country’. Its market was first mentioned in the 13th century, was well established by the 16th century and continued to flourish until the 19th century. As late as 1830 Warminster was second only to Bristol among corn markets in the west of England. It was famous not only for its size (often 500 wagon-loads), but also for the custom that a sack from every load of corn should be pitched in the street; that all bargains be made between 11 and 1 o’clock; and that all purchases were paid for in cash on the day. It was more usual for farmers to take samples of their corn in bags to a market. The market’s trade gradually declined due to the lack of a canal to the town, and the railway was blamed for diverting traffic away. By 1894 the corn market was almost dead.
Warminster’s market, together with its clothing and malting industries, was well established by the 16th century and there were already many wealthy families in the town. Richard Middlecott for example was a clothier from Bishopstrow who bought the manor of Newport or Portway in 1570. It remained in his family until 1820 when it was sold to Lord Bath. Edward Middlecott, described as probably the richest man in Warminster, built Portway House in 1722. The Wanseys were another family of clothiers whose business ran from c.1680-c.1820.
Dyers lived in Warminster as early as the 14th century, but little else is known of the existence of the woollen industry in the town before the 16th century. The richest clothier, and also the richest man in the town at this time, was William Middlecott, but much of his wealth must have derived from the freehold property which he had inherited from his father. His family carried on business for many years from Smallbrook Mill.
Our knowledge of most 17th century clothiers is limited to their names. However, there is one business about which we know a little more, as the accounts of George Wansey have survived from 1683-1707. Wansey made little cloth of the finest variety, so that he was able to buy much of his wool locally, occasionally mixing Spanish wool with it for his better pieces. He possessed his own dressing shop and dyehouse. The maximum capacity of his business was ten cloths a week, and he was able to spend as much as £1,400 in one year on wool. He left his widow and son a modest fortune.
George Wansey was probably typical, not only of his own generation of clothiers, but of Warminster clothiers until the final extinction of the trade there. There is no indication of large fortunes such as those that were made at Trowbridge and Bradford, but more of modestly prosperous family businesses which might be kept up for two or three generations. The Wansey family provided a succession of clothiers. A George Wansey who died in 1807 left £1,000 to endow a charity and another £1,000 for town improvements. The latter was spent on major alterations to George Street (hence its name). Henry Wansey who died in 1827 retired from his clothing business to follow mainly antiquarian pursuits. He was partly responsible for the account of Warminster hundred in Hoare’s Modern Wiltshire, and also wrote on economics and travel.
The woollen industry declined rapidly in the early 19th century, and there are two main reasons for this. The first is that there are indications that Warminster clothiers did not regularly make cloth of quite the same quality as other towns. Secondly the town was unable to take advantage of the mechanization of the industry from the late 18th century. There was no stream powerful enough to drive water-wheels, and there was no canal to bring coal. Consequently Warminster never developed factories as the towns further north did.
In 1801 there were 17 clothiers in the town. That same year riots began against the introduction of machinery, continuing until 1803. Warminster cloth could not compete with that or with the improved finish given by machinery. One clothier had a large quantity returned, and by 1809 several had gone out of business. By 1822 only three clothiers remained. George Wansey closed down in 1829, but he must have restarted his business, for he was the only manufacturer in the town in 1842. By 1848 there were none.
Other textile industries existed in the town. There were three feltmakers in the 18th century. A number of prosperous wool-staplers lived there from the 17th to the 19th centuries. A silk factory opened in Pound Street employing 150 people in 1883. Other small industries included the manufacture of horsehair articles, sieve-making and ropemakers.
Several small engineering businesses flourished in the 19th century. The most notable was John Wallis Titt, who is mentioned elsewhere in this article. Hall's manufactured paints in 1867, and were still in existence almost a hundred years later. A limekiln existed under Arn Hill in 1840 and was in use for most of the remainder of the century. Bricks were made at Brick Hill on the Bath Road. There were glovers in the town in the 17th century, and this is one of the few industries still in existence. Dent Fownes in Fairfield Road is a thriving business that includes the Royal Family among its customers.
Maltsters are known to have worked in Warminster in the 16th century. By 1750 the trade there was said to be bigger than at any town in the west of England, so that Bristol and much of Somerset were largely supplied by it. The trade continued to flourish until the 19th century when it gradually declined. At its peak in 1720 there were 36 malthouses in the town. By 1880 there were only two. One of these belonged to the Morgan family, whose business was taken over in 1907 by Dr. Beaven.
The importance of Warminster market must have ensured that it was a place of retail trades and services for the supply of a considerable area around it. A trade directory in 1822 described the shops in the town as select and attractive. As well as the usual shopkeepers a variety of services were available, including a stonemason, timber merchant, builder, ironfounder, cooper and blacksmith. The town has also been a centre for professional services, such as a surgeon, apothecaries, lawyers and bankers.
There was a printer in Warminster in 1798. The first local paper, the monthly Warminster Miscellany, began in 1854. In 1881 Benjamin Coates set up the Warminster and Westbury Journal and Wilts County Advertiser. This paper has appeared every week since except for one year at the end of the First World War.
The 20th century saw a change in emphasis. During the first half of the century farmers and nurserymen, the Urban District Council, the Post Office and the railway were among the major employers in the town. After the late 1930s the town became largely dependent on the Army and service industries for employment, but also accommodated other businesses as diverse as shoe components, banana ripening and chick rearing. Alongside them remained a few long standing family firms, John Wallis Titt and Dr. Beaven have already been mentioned. The building firm of R. Butcher and Son began c.1800 and was in business for five generations, finally closing in 1992. They were specialists in restoration and repair to period properties such as Longleat and Heytesbury House. Marston House in Frome was completely restored and won them an award. In Warminster examples of their buildings are the new hospital built in 1929, the Midland and Westminster banks in the Market Place, the north wing of Portway House and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
The development of the leisure industry has provided more recent employment. Many people work at Longleat, and a Center Parcs holiday complex opened on the outskirts of the town in 1996. Warminster has survived thanks to the variety of businesses, which have operated here during the years. As well as bringing work, they brought employees and, like the army, those who stayed have helped to create a cosmopolitan population.
Warminster has had several people whose fame has been more than local. The Strong family were master stonemasons. Egerton Strong was one of the West Country’s leading monumental masons and had his workshops in Portway. He could trace his family back to 1644 and had ancestors who were involved in the re-building of St Paul's Cathedral. His own family were responsible for the restoration work on St. Denys’s Church in 1887 and the building of St John's Church in 1865. Egerton Strong himself sculpted the War Memorial in Portway. .
Dr. E. S. Beaven was well known as a maltster not only in Warminster but across the world. Shortly after marrying into the Morgan family in 1881 Dr. Beaven took over the malting business. He later started a barley nursery to breed and test new varieties of barley. Single-handed and at his own expense he produced his Plumage Archer barley, which increased yields by 15% to 20%. His malthouse in Pound Street is still trading today.
George Wheeler’s father established a business as nurseryman in 1773. George took this over in 1819 and went on to become a noted cultivator. The spotted Calceolaria was raised in his nursery as was the first double fuchsia, which he named Sir Colin Campbell, and the variety of Cytisus known as Warminster Broom. He is perhaps best remembered for his Imperial Cabbage. Wheeler's Imperial was supplied as seed to the trade throughout the UK and overseas. It is still listed in current seed catalogues.
John Wallis Titt was an agricultural engineer. In 1875 he built himself a factory for producing agricultural implements. Around the turn of the century his main business was the manufacture of hay and corn elevators and apparatus for water supplies. By this time he had become one of the greatest authorities on wind engines. These engines were built at the Woodcock Ironworks and were adapted for raising water or providing the power for generating electricity. Mr. Titt was also an expert in water supply - finding the water, sinking wells and erecting pumps and mills. This water supply work led to contracts throughout the UK and further afield. The Warminster headquarters of this firm closed in 1986, but the Frome branch continues to operate.
Sir James Erasmus Philipps was vicar of Warminster 1859-1897. He was a remarkable man, and part of the result of his active ministry can still be seen in a number of important buildings in the town. He had a genius for fundraising, using his social contacts to the full and inspiring others with his vision. He was responsible for the foundation of St. Boniface College, originator and builder of St. John’s Church, Boreham, and its schools, of the Warminster Cottage Hospital, of the Orphanage of Pity, St. Denys’s Home, St. Denys’s College, St. Monica’s School and the Minster School. His greatest project was the restoration of the Minster Church, practically rebuilding it in the 1880s at a cost of over £10,000.
Harold Dewey was a long-standing teacher and public servant. In 1914 he was appointed Headmaster at The Close School. Later he was appointed Headmaster of the Avenue Secondary Modern School when it was built in 1931. He served that school as its Head until retiring from teaching in 1953. For 49 consecutive years he was a member of the Urban District Council and was chairman on three occasions. He left in his will a substantial sum of money in trust for the benefit of the Warminster community. His name is remembered by Dewey House, the home of the Town Council, and also the Dewey Museum, which is housed in the town library.