Bradford on Avon lies at the southern extremity of the Cotswold limestone where it joins a bed of Forest Marble, which is mainly clay with shelly limestone and sandstone. The settlement itself grew up around the 'broad ford' on the River Avon, which gave rise to the place-name of 'Bradford'. The Avon runs from east to west through the parish and so the fording point was for north-south traffic travelling between Bath, Corsham, Chippenham and Malmesbury and Trowbridge, Westbury, Warminster and Salisbury. The valley of the Avon would itself have been an important communication route giving easy access to Bath, Bristol and the Bristol Channel and would have been navigable in prehistoric times.
In 1540, when John Leland visited the town, he mentioned that Bradford Bridge had nine fair arches of stone, as it still does today. Two of these arches, on the eastern side, under the blind house, are of the 13th century and the rest are 17th century. Architectural evidence therefore shows that the bridge existed in the 13th century and there could have been one here at an earlier date. The documentary evidence comes in 1400 when the Pope issued an exhortation to the faithful to give alms for the repair of the bridge. There is also an earlier mention in a deed, believed to be of the time of Edward II (1307-27), which mentions a property 'at the head of Bradford Bridge'. The original ford existed, and was used, up until the 19th century.
The first krown settlement was in the Iron Age and is represented by a fort at Budbury, on the northern hill above the town, where defensive earthworks appear to have sheltered a community on about a 10 acre site. The Romans also settled this site and in 1976 the remains of a good-quality Romano-British house were excavated. It seems to have been especially prosperous in the 2nd century A.D. and more recently, in 2002, a splendid mosaic of the c.360 has been uncovered. From this and other finds it would appear that there was a well-organised Roman or Romano-British landscape in the Bradford area, but settlement is likely to have been of a scattered rural nature rather than nucleated. It is possible that a small community could have existed here at the crossing point on the River Avon, to the south-east of Aqua Sulis (Bath).
The earliest documentary evidence for the place comes in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle when, in 652, Cenwalh, the King of Wessex, fought a battle at Bradonforde be afne. We also know that a small monastic settlement existed here by 705 and that St. Aldhelm was abbot. This existed along the north-western bank of the river, westwards from the site of the present Holy Trinity church. The foundation of the Saxon church of St. Lawrence could originally date from this early period and would have served both monks and the secular community.
The village itself was to the south of the river at this time, on and around St. Margaret’s Hill. If there was a bridge alongside the ford it is likely to have been a wooden footbridge, as at nearby Trowbridge. It is quite possible that Bradford had no bridge, as had there been two wooden bridges in the area, it is less likely that Trowbridge would have been named from its 'tree bridge'. We do not know the size of the Saxon village but the monastery gave the community an importance in church matters and assemblies and councils were held here. At a royal council here in 954 Dunstan, later Archbishop of Canterbury and chief adviser to King Edgar, was created Bishop of Worcester. Previously to that, in 955 King Eadred had given the settlement to the foundation of Nunnaminster at Winchester.
In1001 King Aethered II gave the estate of Bradford to Shaftesbury Abbey. He also proposed the relocation of the bones of King Edward, the Martyr, to Bradford, as being a safer place than Shaftesbury during the escalating Viking raids of the early 11th century. This did not happen but it is believed that the present Saxon church could have been built to accommodate the relics. What is now the lower part of Woolley Street, running parallel with the river on the northern bank, was originally St. Olave's Street. This commemorated a church with a dedication to a Scandinavian saint, indicating Viking influence, and possible settlement, in this area in the 11th century.
When the Domesday Book was compiled (1086) the estate was still owned by Shaftesbury Abbey and would have consisted of several modern villages and parishes besides the modern parish of Bradford. This was a fairly prosperous community and was one of only ten places in the county to have burgesses, who might be supposed to be town dwellers, although many were also farmers, and who certainly paid their share of the borough dues. There were 33 in Bradford and these would have been heads of families with an estimated average of 6 family members. All figures in the Domesday Book refer to the head of the household only.
There were also 36 villiens (normally having 30 acres worked by the family with a plough team), and 40 bordars (smallholders who averaged 5 acres each, probably with no plough animals, who may have lived in the borough). There were also 22 swineherds; such large numbers only occurred on 3 other holdings in Wiltshire. On the land directly farmed by the Abbey there were 9 serfs (landless men who worked full-time for the lord of the manor) and 18 coliberts (who were similar to bordars). There were two mills, but no mention of millers, who may have been burgesses, and one servant.
It is very difficult to estimate population size from Domesday Book entries as family or household sizes are unknown and it has been suggested that up to 50% of the population were not included. With Bradford there is also the problem of not knowing how many of the recorded population were in the settlement and how many in the large rural area. Using modern estimates of differing family size for different social and economic groups would give a population of 747 but if 35% had not been included in Domesday the actual population would be 1,009. For the nucleated settlement it would be reasonable to suppose a population of 33 burgesses, 1 servant, perhaps 12 bordars and maybe 3 serfs and 4 coliberts. This would give a population of 271 or, including the missing 35%, 366.
The church is not mentioned, possibly because it belonged to the Abbey, but Bradford had one of only 4 vineyards in Wiltshire, and the second most northerly in south-west England. After the Norman Conquest the Abbey of Shaftesbury continued to hold the manor of Bradford (about 5,000 acres) and changes would not have been too noticeable. A large Norman church was built alongside the Saxon one and this could have happened in the mid 12th century although a case has been argued that it might have occurred earlier. The Norman period also saw the building of the first stone bridge.
The settlement was developing in the 13th century and we have the earliest evidence for the cloth industry in 1249 with a reference to a fulling mill owned by Adam le Fohur (the fuller). Fulling, the pounding of wet cloth to produce a shrinking and thickening effect, was the first of the processes to be mechanised using water powered mills. In 1235 a leper hospital, dedicated to St. Margaret, was founded to the south of the river along what is now Frome Road, but was then called St. Margaret's Street. By now settlement was concentrated to the north of the river and the leper hospital would have been about one mile away from other dwellings. In 1280 the Abbess of Shaftesbury claimed the right to hold a three-day fair over the feast of the Holy Trinity (the first Sunday after Pentecost), so Bradford now had an annual fair as well as its weekly market.
The settlement was prospering and in 1295 it was accounted a borough and had to send two representatives to a parliament called by Edward I. However, this seems to have been the only time that Bradford was accredited borough status and there was never a charter to confirm this, so Bradford, like the other four west Wiltshire towns, never become a borough. The urban boundaries were moving outwards and in 1288 a chapel of St. Olave (a Scandinavian saint) is mentioned in Seynt Olesstret, which name evolved into Woolley Street, showing an eastward expansion.
In the 14th century Shaftesbury Abbey built the tithe barn, to the rear of Barton Farm, for the storage of tithes due to the Abbey. Barton Farm itself is referred to as the 'manor house' in the 16th century and it is likely that it was the centre of operations for the Abbey's farming and the tenants in their manor from an early date. Barton Bridge was built in the 14th century to connect the Barton Farm complex with its lands to the north of the river and there is likely to have been a fair sized administrative and agrarian settlement here to the west of the town. Some other houses in the town have their origins at this time; these include the buildings on the Post Office side of The Shambles and number 11 Silver Street. The Shambles themselves were originally medieval market stalls which gradually became more permanent until they were shops and houses.
Further out along the present Frome Road, from St. Margaret's leper hospital, were the St. Catherine's Almshouses. This is believed to have been a substantial foundation with its own chapel. It is likely that much of this medieval development was stimulated by the fact that the landowner was the very powerful Shaftesbury Abbey. It is possible that they were responsible for the founding of the chapel of St. Mary the Virgin on the isolated heights (now Tory) above Bradford, which would have been a hermitage at some part of its existence.
Commercial development was also taking place in the town and in the second half of the 15th century the cloth industry expanded and became really important. At this time the industry was concerned with the production of undyed broadcloth and the most important Bradford family were the Hortons. Thomas Horton (died 1530) built the Church House, endowed a chantry (1524) and built the chantry priest’s house on the site of the present chantry, added an aisle to the church and built the church and manor house of Westwood. It was around this time that Bradford witnessed the barbaric spectacle of a public burning at the stake. One resident, Thomas Tropnell, denied the doctrine of transubstantiation - the fact that the bread and wine taken at the eucharist literally were the body and blood of Christ - and was burned to death in the market place at the bottom of Market Street.
Eight years later, in 1540, John Leland visited the town. He found 'a town all made of stone' with a 'good market once a week', standing on the north bank of the Avon. He wrote that 'All the town of Bradford standith by clothmaking' and when he left he travelled across 'A little street (paved way) over Bradford Bridge and at the end of that is a hospital of the Kings of Englands' foundation' (believed to be the leper hospital). He also commented on a 'quarry of fair stone on the right hand side of the road to Trowbridge'. By the mid 16th century the clothier Thomas Yerbury was flourishing in the town and he was the founding father of an important family in the cloth trade.
At the end of the 16th century The Hall, the finest building in the town, was built by the Hall family, who had been prominent local landowners from at least the mid 13th century. The new building replaced a medieval 'hall' house which Leland had noted as 'a pretty stone house at the east end of the town'. The early 17th century saw a severe outbreak of the plague in 1609 and continuing decline in the old undyed broadcloth industry. It seems likely that Bradford was gradually changing to the production of the new coloured cloth for in the early 1630s Anthony Wither, of the Royal Commission for the reformation of abuses in cloth-making, was thrown into the river at a place he claimed was 20 feet deep. The interpretation placed on this is that he was checking on complaints from the Merchant Venturers who were keen to protect their exports of undyed broadcloths and Bradfordians did not wish it to be known that they had largely given up this less profitable industry.
Most of the earlier domestic buildings date from the 17th century, which seems to have been a time of expansion and rebuilding, with surviving examples in Coppice Hill, White Hill and elsewhere. By the mid 1660s there were meetings of Dissenters (non-conformists) in the town and the new generation of clothiers were prospering by introducing the weaving of fine coloured broadcloths (medleys). The great clothing families in Bradford were the Yerburys (strong Royalists) and the Methuens. In 1659 Paul Methuen brought in Richard (Derricke) Johnson, a spinner from Amsterdam, and his family to introduce new techniques to the local industry. In 1674 James Brewer of Trowbridge brought three Dutchmen to Bradford and from them Dutch Barton, where they lived, gets its name. These were the only foreign workers introduced to the local trade and the reason was to modernise the cloth industry, which revived greatly in the latter part of the century.
New buildings continued to be erected, with weavers’ houses evident in Newtown and Middle Rank. In 1698 the Grove Chapel was built for a Presbyterian congregation, and is the oldest serving non-conformist chapel in the town. In 1700 John Hall built the new almshouse for men that still exists at the junction of Trowbridge Road and Frome Road.
The 18th century saw some fine houses (such as Westbury House, Moxhams, and St. Olaves) built in the town but Bradford did not have the large number of clothiers’ mansions of this period that are to be found in neighbouring Trowbridge. Expansion continued up the hillside in Newtown and Middle Rank, extending to Tory right at the top, and creating the spectacular vista that reminds modern visitors of some Italian towns. Most of these houses were occupied by the handloom weavers whose families wove the cloth for the great clothiers. From the end of the 17th century there had been considerable immigration into the town from the surrounding area and it has been estimated that the population more than doubled between 1640 and 1730 when it is believed that there were over 4,000 people living in the whole parish.
Some of the increase in population and the wealth in the town can be seen from the following events. In 1712 the vicar, Rev. John Rogers, opened a school for 65 children. In 1734 the wealthy clothier, Francis Yerbury, commissioned John Wood the Elder, of Bath, to extend and alter Belcombe Court, thus creating the magnificent building that exists today. When John Wesley came to the town in 1739 he preached to 1,000 people at Bearfield on 17th July. Carrier’s wagons from London had operated a service from around 1740, roads were improving and in 1752 came the first turnpike road act involving Bradford, when Combe Bridge in Somerset was joined to the Trowbridge/Steeple Ashton turnpiked road via Winsley, Bradford and Staverton. In 1769 John Rennison was appointed Postmaster; this is the first record of a postal service in the town.
The cloth trade continued to flourish in the town and the main clothiers besides the Yerburys were the Threshers, Cams (Chantry House), Tugwells, Shrapnells (Midway Manor) with John Rennison, Francis Hill and Joseph Phelps. The latter was involved in a riot in 1791 which resulted from the introduction of scribbling machinery (for teasing out wool before spinning). Phelps converted a wool carding machine for scribbling and, although machinery such as spinning jennies had been used in the town for four years, local people protested that the hand scribblers would be thrown out of work. A mob of nearly 500 gathered outside Westbury House, the home of Phelps, and demanded that he should give up the machine. When he refused stones were thrown, windows broken and people injured. Phelps and his friends fired on the mob, killing a man, a woman and a child and seriously wounding two other people. The situation worsened and eventually the machine was handed over and publicly burned on the town bridge.
Despite this, the introduction of machinery continued and it is said that there were 32 factories, including the converted chapel of St. Mary, Tory, in the town in 1800. We may not recognise many of these as factories in the modern sense of the word, but they were certainly buildings, some purpose-built, containing machines. These machines used human or horse power – Joseph Phelps had a horse mill at his workshops. Machines for finishing the cloth – gig mills and shearing frames – were opposed in Bradford from 1788 and in 1807 an attempt was made to burn down Kingston Mill, which had just been built. The greatest impact on the town at this time was the building of factories for powered machinery, some major ones being:
Greenland Upper Mill c.1804 (John Hinton, later Thomas Tugwell)
Greenland Middle Mill c.1807 (Stoddart, Gale, Howell & Co)
Kingston Mill c.1807 (Divett & Co.)
Abbey Mill (not present building) c.1807 (Saunders, Fanner & Co.)
Greenland Lower Mill c.1808 (William and Philip Shrapnell)
Steam power (with beam engines) was swiftly introduced into these new and substantial factories and many were purpose-built for such powered machinery.
Services in the town were improving and in 1808 the first coach service from Bradford to London was introduced. In 1810 the Kennet and Avon canal was opened for its full length and by 1823 there was a ‘handsome and commodious’ wharf at Bradford. Passenger boats, known as fly boats, were operating a daily service to Bath, Bristol and London from 1802. In 1830 the British School was first established and in 1831 a local board of health was set up to combat the threat of a cholera epidemic. They enforced personal cleanliness, ventilation, whitewashing walls and the clearance of cess-pools and middens. By 1834 part of the town was lighted by gas.
The Chartist movement came to the area in 1838 when the first Chartist meeting was held at nearby Holt in July. In September 2,000 people, mainly from Bradford and Trowbridge, attended a meeting on Trowle Common, between the two towns. The movement was strong locally and a Bradford Working Men’s Association and a Female Patriotic Association were formed with many meetings being held. The presence of troops in the town seems to have prevented violent events such as happened in other towns but Chartism was active in the town until 1842.
The cloth trade was prospering in the early years of the century but by the 1830s it was in decline. A disaster for the town occurred in 1841 when the local bank failed, because it was very heavily involved with two of the local mills. Many people were out of work and it was said that 400 had to go to the workhouse. Many of those out of work were handloom weavers and some went abroad or to the textile towns in the north of England. Public works were started for 300 able-bodied men who were employed in road making and other improvements.
Expansion of the town stopped and some rows of houses for handloom weavers were left unfinished. Many factories closed during the next few years and the 1840s were a time of great depression. The only major textile company to survive this period was Edmonds & Co. of Abbey Mill. Despite this local disaster, Christ Church was built in 1842 and Stephen Moulton took advantage of the empty factories to start a rubber industry in the town in 1848 in association with Captain Palairet of Woolley Grange. He bought Kingston Mill and other factories plus The Hall as his own residence. 1848 also saw the building of the railway station although there was no railway line until 1852 when, on 2nd February, the Bradford loop opened providing rail links to Trowbridge and Bath. Brunel described this as a ‘tedious and difficult operation’ which involved building 7 viaducts.
The mid-nineteenth century was a good time for public works with the town hall built in 1855, the cemetary opened in 1856 and the old almshouses were rebuilt by John Bubb in 1868. In 1870 a telegraph service was provided to the town. The cloth industry survived and in a late spell of prosperity the present Abbey Mill was built. At a cost of around £12,000 a new waterworks was constructed at Avoncliffe, replacing the earlier town supply which came from Ladywell. The town continued to expand with new houses being built in the northern part of the town with some villa development along main roads such as the Trowbridge Road. In 1897 both the Fitzmaurice Grammar School, in Junction Road, and the public baths, on the corner of Bridge Street, were built. A year later, in 1898, the National Telephone Co. opened an exchange in the town and by 1904 the Western Electric Distributing Corporation Ltd. Was supplying electricity to rural and urban districts.
In 1905 an era ended when the last cloth mill in the town shut down, bringing to a close an industry which had sustained Bradford for around 700 years. On a happier note, one of Bradford's great benefactors, Edmond Fitzmaurice, was created 1st Baron Fitzmaurice of Leigh in 1906. Meanwhile, the population was falling from a high point of 4,922 in 1881 to a low of 4,501 in 1911 and the 1881 figure was not to be surpassed until the 1951 census. This decline meant that few new houses were built in the early 20th century although there was some ribbon development along the main roads leading out of the town.
During the First World War 488 Bradfordians served in the armed forces, mainly in the army, although 38 of these were in the Royal Navy. The town war memorial (dedicated on 2nd August 1922) in Westbury Gardens has the names of men who gave lives in the war. As in most other towns, council houses were built between the wars and in 1923 the first urban branch library in the county was established by Wiltshire County Council in Westbury House, later moving to Church House. In 1936 extensive alterations to the Post Office created one of the few post offices to be built in the short reign of Edward VIII. In 1939 Bradford on Avon Maternity Hospital was opened at Berryfield on the Bath Road but plans for a general hospital were shelved owing to the outbreak of the Second World War. It was 1947 before the Bradford and District Hospital opened in Frankleigh Road.
The centenary of rubber production in the town, in 1948, was greeted by the opening of new laboratories and in 1956 the company, George Spencer Moulton & Co., became part of the Avon Rubber Company. Production at Bradford continued until 1992 when the main factory closed and just a few items were produced at Abbey Mill for a little longer. Dr. Alex Moulton, great grandson of the rubber pioneer, Stephen Moulton, is an innovating engineer and has invented various suspension systems, including the Hydrolastic suspension and a rubber suspension system for the British Leyland Mini. In 1962 he introduced the small wheel Moulton bicycle to the world. He is the fourth generation of Moultons to live in The Hall.
In 1957 an urban district council proposal to clear Tory, Middle Rank and Newtown of all buildings and erect council flats attracted local and national outrage. By 1963 a campaign to save these houses had been successful and the council was converted to repairing and renovating the houses. The campaign saw the birth of a preservation society which was later reconstituted as the successful Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust which has restored many buildings in the town. Most Bradford houses were safe although the Quaker Meeting House in the town centre and some 17th century houses on St. Margarets Hill were demolished in the 1960s.
From having a reputation in the first half of the 20th century as a rather rough town, with certain roads that people would not willingly walk along, Bradford became quite different in the second half of the century. Seen as an attractive place for early retirement it gained many new residents in the 1970s and 1980s while the proximity of Bath and a successful secondary school brought in a younger age group in the 1980s and 1990s. The town has always been popular with tourists and the number of visitors increased with the restoration of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The town is a stone town and all new buildings have to be constructed or faced with stone or, as is most often the case, reconstituted stone. Some former mills have been converted to flats, apartments and housing developments but at the moment (2002) the biggest problem the town has is over the development of the central Kingston Mill site; an issue which has generated much controversy over the last four years.