The fast growing town of Chippenham was first established in a loop of the River Avon in which the town centre still remains. From Saxon times the area was a royal forest and a king's country house, or hunting lodge, was maintained here. Other buildings were quickly attracted to this favoured site and a community was established. The town lies in the broad valley of the Bristol Avon in the low-lying claylands of north-west Wiltshire. This was an area of small family farms with a concentration on dairy farming and cheese making. The land within the loop of the river is Oxford clay while more recent development to the north has taken place on cornbrash. It lies 13 miles north-east of Bath, 33 miles north-west of Salisbury, 10 miles north-west of Devizes, 10 miles south of Malmesbury, 7 miles north of Melksham and is 94 miles from London.
To the east and south-east the land rises to Bowden Hill, Derry Hill and Bremhill, while to the west are the fringes of the Cotswolds at Colerne, Yatton Keynell and Castle Combe. A major early road ran from London, through Hungerford, Marlborough and Chippenham to Bristol. This was part of a highly developed national road system by the mid-fourteenth century and would have been of particular importance in the cloth trade. So important was this road to commercial interests in Bristol that various burghers gave money for its repair where it ran over marshy ground outside Chippenham and was raised on a Causeway. An early act of altruism provided the town with another causeway from Wick Hill, through East Tytherington, across the River Avon at Kellaways and through Langley Burrell into Chippenham. This was provided in 1474 by Maud Heath who gave land and property in Chippenham to provide income for the building of a raised path so that people going to market could remain dry shod. Maud Heath's Causeway remains to this day and her statue overlooks it.
By the 17th century the road from London to Bristol divided at Chippenham and ran through Bradford on its way to Bath and Wells. In the 18th century a series of turnpike roads radiated out from Chippenham towards Hullavington, Malmesbury, Sutton Benger, Lacock and Melksham as well as the well-established roads to London, Bristol and Bath.
There is some documentation of the early history. The Villa Regea (king's country house) of the Saxon kings is first mentioned in 853, and in 878 the Danes attacked the Saxons here. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles say, 'The force stole in midwinter, after Twelfthnight, to Chippenham. They rode over Wessex and occupied it, and drove many of the people over the sea; the other, greater part they overcame'. It is believed that King Alfred escaped from Chippenham and made his way to Athelney in Somerset while the Danes fortified the site at Chippenham. Later that year Alfred had his great victory over the Danes at Ethandune (Edington) and pursued the remnant to Chippenham where he besieged them for 14 days before a treaty was made and they withdrew from Wessex.
Chippenham was a Saxon administrative centre by the 10th century and probably had a minster church by the 9th century as King Alfred's daughter was married here. It had strategic significance for both Saxon kings and Viking invaders and, although comparatively low lying, was a good defensive site being surrounded on three sides by the river. There could have been a mint in the town by the late 10th century as some coins of Ethelred II (978-1016) have the name Cepen on them. It is also possible that the site was a defensive burgh or walled town but no evidence has yet been found for this. A theory has also been advanced that the bridge was fortified, as otherwise it would be the weak link in the northern defences.
Documentary evidence of a church is first recorded in 1042 and by the time of the Domesday Book there was a substantial population. Much of the forest land has been cleared and there are 113 holders of arable land although there are still 6 square miles of woodland on the manor, which would have been home to many pigs as there are 23 swineherds recorded. Meadowland came to 100 acres and there was the large number of 12 mills, although this was in the extensive Royal holding, not just the town. It has been estimated that the population in 1086 would have been between 600 and 800 for this area.
In the reign of King John (1199-1216) Chippenham was granted a market (on Wednesdays) and a fair on St Andrew's Day. The bounds of the royal forests of Chippenham and Melksham were declared in 1228. The forest now lay to the west and south of the town. The forests were disforested and enclosed in the early 17th century.
Two early land-owning families were the Gascelyns of Sheldon and the Husees of Rowdon. The Gascelyn family obtained two fairs for the town and their arms (a golden field surmounted by 10 blue billets (small oblong figures) and a red label (a strip with 5 hanging points) are on the dexter (right) shield. The Husee (Hussey) arms were a silver field surmounted by three black books and these are on the shield on the sinister (left) side.
As Chippenham was originally a royal manor local government was exercised by a bailiff or steward but his jurisdiction began to be challenged by other landowners and tenants. It was felt that for the peace of the town the true powers of this officer should be defined and a petition was presented to Queen Mary at the beginning of her reign. She granted a charter, dated 2nd May 1554 and a grant of 217 acres of land to the borough. This was a confirmation of borough status granted by Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet kings and these earlier charters account for the fact that the first mention of a Chippenham member of parliament is for 1295, although the earliest surviving document granting the right to send 2 burgess to Parliament is the 1554 charter.
Chippenham developed around its market place and burgage plots fronting the main streets. In fact, two authorities believe that the place-name derives from the Saxon 'cipan', to sell and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles spell the name Cippanhamme in 878. Other authorities believe that the double p might indicate a personal name, Cippa. 'hamme' would seem to refer to the land enclosed by the loop of the river instead of 'ham' meaning dwelling or property. It is also possible that there was a small Saxon suburb to the north of the river.
The medieval town remained in the loop of the river around the church and market place with further developments in this area and a small area on the northern bank of the river immediately across the bridge. The earliest surviving building is to be found in the Market Place where the Rose and Crown is of timber frame and cruck construction and dates from the 14th century. From the 15th century is the rebuilding of the church of St Andrew, the Yelde Hall and four buildings in St Mary Street, including St Mary House, two with former open halls and, one, a merchant's house including a warehouse or workshop. The medieval town would have about twice the size of the Saxon settlement although the lands of the manor were considerably reduced by the formation of subsidiary manors within it. The manor of Sheldon, in the west, was formed in early Norman times while Rowdon was a separate manor by the 12th century and Lowden was also separated in the 12th century.
During the medieval period encroachments were made upon the large open market place, as was common in most towns, with temporary stalls becoming permanent shops and buildings. The town remained a significant market town and weaving, as a cottage industry was well established while the earliest recorded fulling mill was at nearby Stanley on the River Marden. The market would have been an important feature of the town for the local rural area and at times there has been a separate pig market and cheese market - both important products for north western Wiltshire. The Butter Cross was removed in 1889 and re-erected in the grounds of the Manor House Hotel at Castle Combe; it has now been restored to Chippenham and stands in the newly pedestrianised old market place.
Like several other Wiltshire towns Chippenham tended to stagnate between the 16th and 18th centuries and there was little expansion of the town. Three large private estates were created at the time. Hardenhuish to the north-west was a separate manor from Saxon times and was not incorporated into the borough until 1952; The Ivy to the west and so called as these lands once provided funding for Ivy Church Priory in Alderbury; and Monkton Park to the east of the river. The cloth industry continued as a cottage industry but Chippenham was not one of the leading Wiltshire towns for the industry and the largest clothiers were in the towns of western Wiltshire to the south.
The expansion of Chippenham began at the end of the 18th century. In 1800 the Wilts and Berks Canal reached Chippenham and a wharf was built after a dispute when the Chippenham branch originally ended short of the town in 1798. The canal was officially opened on 10th Sept 1810 giving the town access to the markets of Bristol and London. This led to an expansion of the cloth industry as coal could be brought in for the new steam factories that were being built. In 1841 the GWR line from London to Bristol through Chippenham was completed and in 1848 the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway connected the town with Trowbridge and Westbury. Both the building of the railway and the access it provided to raw materials and markets brought a new range of industries to Chippenham. Only 2 factories of any size were built in the town, Bridge Factory sometime after 1796 and Waterford Mill. In 1811 four other smaller factories, three with dye houses are also mentioned. Chippenham was at a disadvantage to towns further south as the extra distance that coal, for the steam engines, had to be transported by canal added 10% to the cost. Cloth production was overtaken by engineering and other industries and although the industry survived in the town until 1930 it never dominated the economy as was the case in Bradford on Avon and Trowbridge. Two other mills were used for the production of silk and these were next to the Neeld Hall and in Wood Lane.
The arrival of the railway brought engineering to the town. Rowland Brotherhood made railway wagons, locomotives and bridges and maintained track for several railway companies. The company became internationally well known. A factory was built in 1894 by Evan O'Donnell to make signalling apparatus, which, in 1903 was acquired by Saxby and Farmer, who moved into the town from Kilburn. In 1920 they merged with other companies to form the Westinghouse Brake and Saxby Signal Co. Workers from Worcester moved to Chippenham in 1920 while the London works transferred in 1932 and the office staff from London in 1973.
For several decades the company was the largest employer in the town and still manufactures there although there have been recent changes of ownership and name.
Other industries included the Anglo Swiss Milk Company, later Nestlés, who had a condensed milk factory in the town from 1873 to 1966, Hathaway's churn factory and Slade's Brewing and Malting. There was a gun and cartridge factory in one of the old silk mills from the 1880's to c1920, a brick and tile works from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century and the Royal Wiltshire Bacon Co Ltd occupied one of the former Brotherhood foundries.
In the latter part of the 20th century the town has expanded greatly. Land at Cocklebury Farm was used for housing in the late 1950s while Monkton Park was developed as a housing estate in the 1960s. The market gradually moved from the town centre to a new site at Cocklebury, opening on 6th May 1951 and by April 1954 the whole market was on this site. Development continued to the north and south east towards Pewsham. The building of the western bypass brought about the development of land between the bypass and Hungerdown Lane and Hardenhuish Lane for Cepen Park South and Cepen Park North in the 1990s. Now the only substantial part of the civil parish of Chippenham that is not built up is the southern portion.
Various well known local families have been connected with the town. The Hungerfords were a very wealthy medieval family with interests in many counties. In Chippenham they bought Sheldon and Lowden in 1424 and Rowden in 1434; these remained with the family until 1684. They founded a chantry at the church of St. Andrew and provided the town with a member of parliament. The Goldneys of Bristol became clothiers in Chippenham in the 16th century and remained prominent in local affairs for 300 years. The Awdry family have provided the town with bailiffs, mayors, aldermen, and members of parliament for nearly 300 years. Joseph Neeld of Grittleton built Chippenham Town Hall in 1833/4 and owned property in the town. Chippenham is also part of the other 'Kilvert Country' as Francis Kilvert's father, Robert, was vicar of Hardenhuish from 1832 to 1855 when he moved to nearby Langley Burrell. From 1872, when he left Clyro, Francis was curate to his father at Langley Burrell until 1876 when he took up the living of St. Harmon.