Amesbury is a small town that has seen its major growth in population occur since the 1920s; in 1921 the population was 1,530 and in 2001 it was 8,907. Over two millennia it has veered between being a small town and a large village on several occasions. Set in the valley of the River Avon, to the north of Salisbury, it lies at an important river crossing for the road from London to Warminster, Bridgwater and Branstaple, with a road to Mere and Exeter branching off to the west of the town. The town itself is built on an area of gravel, on the bank of the Avon, and gravels and alluvium make up most of the valley floors. There are outcrops of chalk all over the parish and these soils have led to the predominant sheep and corn husbandry that existed to the end of the 19th century.
The town is surrounded by an ancient landscape. There was settlement on the downs in neolithic times, between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago, when the first Stonehenge and many of the surrounding earthworks were created. Stonehenge, as we know it, was built around 3,900-4,100 years ago and was probably the major religious and ceremonial structure in southern England at this time. The surrounding area was heavily farmed and the area was densely populated in neolithic and bronze age times, although there was no settlement at Amesbury.
Major settlement near Amesbury first occurred in the iron age at the wrongly-named Vespasian’s Camp. This large hill fort of c.500 B.C., to the west of Amesbury on the west bank of the river, could have enclosed 1,000 people from a substantial area around. During the Roman period Romanised iron-age Celts would have continued to live and farm in the area, although there were no estates based on villas here as there were in other parts of Wiltshire. It has been plausibly suggested that the name Amesbury comes from a personal name ‘Ambri’ and that the hill fort could have been one of the strongholds of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a landowner who led resistance to the Saxons.
The area is likely to have been settled by the Saxons by the 7th century and Amesbury became a reasonable-sized community, and later a royal estate, on an important early river crossing. It was a notable settlement by the 10th century when, in 979, a nunnery was founded for the Benedictine order. Although the nunnery owned some local estates it owned nothing in Amesbury itself and did not attract great gifts of land, being one of the poorer foundations.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Amesbury was owned by the King and there were 8 mills along the River Avon here. By using modern interpretation of Domesday figures we can estimate that the population of the estate was between 700 and 900 people, although only 217 heads of households are listed. These would have been scattered over a large area and it is impossible to estimate the size of Amesbury itself at this time. It was probably fairly small as, despite the nunnery, Amesbury failed to develop in the 11th century.
The town probably stagnated until the late 12th century when the nuns were accused of irregular living and their Abbey was appropriated by Henry II. He replaced it with a lavishly-endowed double Priory (for nuns and monks) of the Fonteuraldine order. This was their fourth, final, and largest house in England and was part of the King’s penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. The Priory prospered and Amesbury prospered with it. In 1219 a Thursday market was granted to the Lord of the Manor and land opposite the present Abbey Lane was used as the market place. By 1252 a 3-day fair on the vigil, feast and morrow of St. Melor was granted and local people would have enjoyed the stalls of traders from far afield.
By the early 14th century the Priory contained 117 nuns and would have been served by many lay officers and servants, living in the Priory or the town. In 1317 the Priory was granted a Saturday market and a 3-day fair, which are likely to have replaced the earlier market and fair. The medieval town grew around the gates of the Priory and, to a large extent, provided servants and goods for it. The town would have grown outwards from its High Street, so named by 1364, with farmsteads flanking the outskirts.
There were various disputes between the Prioriess and the Prior which, by the early 15th century, resulted in the Priory having nuns only and reverting to the Benedictine rule. The buildings were substantial and there has been much dispute over whether the Priory church became the parish church. John Chandler has produced good evidence to show that there were two separate churches here, with all the Priory buildings being on the site of the present Amesbury Abbey. It is, however, likely that the Priory church was used as the parish church until around 1400.
Life remained prosperous here but a great change happened in 1540 when the Priory, along with all other monastic institutions, was dissolved. Most of the buildings were demolished or unroofed between 1541 and 1542 and the community had to face life without its centuries old centre. By the 1540s a market house had been erected (it was demolished in 1809) and it would seem that the town survived, although the loss of its main employer must have been a disastrous blow. The market town had 4 or 5 inns - the George was first mentioned in 1522 - and there would have been small local industries and a number of tradesmen. Between 1595 and 1601 a new mansion was built on the Priory site, providing a new source of employment and a new market for local tradesmen.
By the 17th century the High Street was probably fully built up on both sides and the number of inns had increased. In 1614 a Wednesday market and two new fairs (on 11th June and 23rd December) were granted. The market probably replaced the earlier one but there were now three fairs taking place in the streets. The fairs continued into the 1880s, by which time they were mainly for livestock.
A new mansion was built around 1660, designed by John Webb in the Palladian style. It has been described as his ‘triumph in country house design’. It passed through various owners, including the Seymours and Douglases before being bought by the Antrobus family in 1824 for £145,000. It remained in the family until 1979, being greatly rebuilt by Thomas Hopper in the 19th century with further work by Detmar Blow in 1904. It has now been subdivided to form flats.
In the latter part of the 17th century the Gauntlett family made excellent clay pipes in the town and achieved a reputation for them over a wide area. By the end of the century there were still farmsteads ringing the central area of the town but these were reduced in number in the 18th century, possibly by amalgamation. The town continued to expand slowly and several new inns opened early in the century. Between 1725 and 1778 the Duke of Queensbury occupied Amesbury Abbey with up to 47 servants and this concentration probably aided the prosperity of the town. There was an hiatus in development in 1751 when a fire destroyed or damaged around 25 buildings in the High Street. The town had a fire engine by 1771 but whether this was acquired as a result of the fire is not known.
By the beginning of the 19th century the town was in decline and several inns had closed. In 1801 the population was only 721 and, although this rose to nearly 1,200 in mid-century, it had fallen back to 981 by 1891. So, the town’s prosperity slowly increased with some large houses, such as Wyndersham House of 1848 (now the Antrobus Arms), built and small developments of cottages with, unusually, some new farmsteads in and around the town. Other developments included a lock-up, in the north-east angle of High Street and Market Place, a cemetery in 1860, gas works in 1878 (demolished in 1922) and a police station in Salisbury Street in the 1880s.
Development really took off in the 20th century owing to nearby military installations from 1899 at Bulford and Durrington. The railway was opened in 1902, road traffic increased and the town began to awaken from its 19th century somnolence. There was much new building, especially after 1918, to the east of the town. A new school and police station were built and many townspeople found employment in the army camps. There were substantial developments of council housing, erection of the Experimental Cottages by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, army married quarters, ribbon development and small estates.
In the 1920s a recreation ground, to the south-west of the town, was opened while, in 1925, Antrobus House was opened for public use and included a museum and library. Public sewers and disposal works were built from 1905; from 1922 electricity was generated by the Amesbury Electric Light Co. at South Mill (closed 1948) with mains cables laid from 1927 and power also brought in from suppliers. Water mains were laid in the town in 1926 and in the mid 1930s a bus station was built (the depot closed c.1971).
After the Second World War the town continued to expand, with many people being employed at Boscombe Down. In the 1950s 314 council houses were built and housing development continued through all the succeeding decades. In 1973 a new library was opened, a sports hall and youth centre were built in 1974 and new shops and a supermarket were built in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s many more private houses were erected.