Dauntsey is a civil parish in the north of the county of Wiltshire and is approximately six miles to the south east of Malmesbury and eight miles north east of Chippenham. There is no centre or village or such, but rather a scattered collection of farmsteads, homes and hamlets. These are chiefly Dauntsey Green, Dauntsey Common and Dauntsey Lock, but none of them in particular have a centre. Earlier in the parish’s history, Smithcot, Sodom and Idover were hamlets which once existed, but now remain only in the names of farms, houses and roads. The M4 motorway cuts through the parish and so now perhaps adds to the scattered feel of the community. The parishes of Little Somerford and Brinkworth are directly north of the parish boundary while Great Somerford is found to the west of Dauntsey and Lyneham to the south. The northern boundary with Brinkworth is marked by Brinkworth Brook and the Swindon to Chippenham railway line bisects the base of the parish. Geologically Dauntsey lies on Oxford Clay and is essentially in the shape of a rectangle, made up of 3,258 acres of land. This is a reduction from what it measured in 1884, after which 42 acres was transferred to Brinkworth parish. The parish is a fairly low and level one with its highest point being 122 metres above sea level.
The population of Dauntsey has risen over the years, with a dip in the mid 1800s when many people left to find work in less rural areas. 357 people lived in the parish in 1801 and 623 in 1851. By 1921 the population was 351. This grew to 456 by 1981 and was 532 in 2001.
In 850 there was an estate called Dauntsey belonging to Malmesbury Abbey; this more or less approximates to the Dauntsey of today. At around the time of the Domesday survey there was a large area of woodland. The manor of Dauntsey remained with Malmesbury Abbey until the 12th century, although in 1086 at the time of the Domesday survey, it had been leased to Robert, having previously been leased to Alward before 1066. There were six plough teams on the estate at Dauntsey and the population would have been between 110 and 130 people. A mill was also recorded as existing at Dauntsey in 1086. There was another mill in 1487 known as Smith’s Mill. The Dauntsey family took their name from the parish in the 13th century, when the Dauntsey name is first recorded. There are a few generations of Miles of Dauntsey. The family became quite large landowners in the subsequent centuries. Their property included Winterbourne Dauntsey in Gloucestershire. Records from the 14th century show that Dauntsey was a well off parish; certainly it was one of the wealthiest in the Malmesbury Hundred and there were 111 poll tax payers in 1377.
The Dauntsey family name died out with Walter, who died childless aged 22 in 1420.
His sister, Joan, was married to Sir John Stradling, who was her second husband. The Stradlings became the owners of Dauntsey following Walter’s death. Although Joan went on to marry for a third time, her son Edmund was a Stradling and he carried on the name as owner of the manor. The manor next came into the hands of the Danvers, who were related to the Stradlings. There is some confusion as to exactly this occurred. Edward Stradling’s sister, Anne, who was married to Sir John Danvers, certainly succeeded Edward and thus the estate later passed down through the Danvers family. There is a story that Edward met his death through murder, perhaps during a robbery at the house, and it was the death of Edward and his family, that meant Anne became the heiress and the Danvers family became the lords of the manor.
Sir Henry Danvers is an important figure in the history of the parish. He was born in Dauntsey on 28 June 1573 and was the second son of Sir John Danvers and Elizabeth Nevill. He became the Earl of Danby, created so by Charles I in 1626. He was effectively banished from the country in 1594 when he was involved in the death of Henry Long. It is said that Henry Danvers shot Henry Long, of South Wraxhall, in an inn in Corsham. There are several stories that differ as to why this happened; some say it was in self defence, others that it was a deliberate killing after a long running quarrel. He spent time in France, enlisting in the French army, and receiving a pardon from Elizabeth I for his bravery. He was made Lord Danvers by James I after spending time fighting in Ireland for the king after his return home. He then became an earl. He died in 1643 and is buried at Dauntsey, in a tomb in the church of St. James.
Sir John Danvers, younger brother of Henry Danvers, was a member of the committee who judged Charles I. His name is upon the death warrant and therefore was known as a ‘regicide’; being someone who was responsible for the death of a king. Upon the restoration of the monarchy, it was ordered that all regicides should be put on trial and then hung, drawn and quartered. Sir John, who died in 1655, was buried at Dauntsey Church. In order to prevent any damage being done to his remains, it is said that friends dug up his body from Dauntsey and re-buried it somewhere else. There is certainly no record of Charles II’s men finding his body. In later years, theories that his body was buried at Bradenstoke Priory and also that it was re-buried deep within Dauntsey’s church-yard were proposed. The third brother, Charles, was also involved in a well known royal story; he served under the earl of Essex in Ireland and became part of the plot against Elizabeth I and the Cecil family. He was tried and beheaded on Tower Hill on 18 March 1801. After the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, the manor of Dauntsey was under the dispensation of the crown, and was given to the Duke of York, the King’s brother. It was the Crown’s to give once again in 1691, and was granted to Charles Mordaunt, the Earl of Monmouth. In 1697 he also became the Earl of Peterborough, and this is where the name of the parish’s public house, The Peterborough Arms, comes from. The manor was sold a few generations later to the Meux family. Sir Henry Meux and his wife Valerie moved to Dauntsey in 1877 and lived at the manor house where Sir Henry became involved in the politics of Wiltshire and became a local magistrate. He also became High Sheriff of the county in 1866.
At the couple’s estate in Hertfordshire, Theobalds, Sir Henry is said to have kept live bears, zebras, ostriches and an elephant but despite this interest in keeping exotic animals, he also enjoyed hunting while in Wiltshire. Sir Henry died in 1900 and his wife, Valerie, in 1910 when the manor became the property of Mr Ferdinand Marsham-Townshend, who sold it in 1915. Dauntsey House and all its contents were sold by auctioneers in London on 6 April 1915.
Very little building from before the 18th century still stands in the parish, with the oldest and most imposing building being Dauntsey House; it is thought to date from the 14th century and is a Grade II * building. It was remodelled late in the 17th century and once again in around 1800. It was originally built for members of the Dauntsey family, who owned the manor at that time. In the 19th century a stair hall and kitchen wing were built.
Since the sale of the manor, which included Dauntsey House, the house has been owned by a succession of private owners.
In 1770 there were two main hamlets in the parish; Dauntsey Green and Dauntsey Common. At Dauntsey Common in 1773, there were around 12 buildings, including an almshouse and school. Most of the building in the parish dates from the 19th century, especially in Dauntsey Green which became the main village street known as The Green.
Some cottages and a house were built in Greenman’s Lane in the 19th century. In 1932 some four pairs of council houses were built near to the school, with many more houses built in the latter parts of the 20th century. In the 1950s an estate of 22 council houses was built to the west of the southern road to Lyneham. It was called St James’s. Despite the relatively recent age of most building, there are a fair few listed buildings in the parish. The delightfully named Good Mondays Farmhouse is Grade II listed, as are Great Smithcott Farmhouse, Great Dairy Farmhouse, Evergreen Farmhouse and Dauntsey Park Lodge.
Farming in the parish was traditionally centred on a pasture economy. In 1846 only 130 acres of land were arable and nearly all the rest used for grazing cows. Between 1870 and 1940 there was an average of at least 800 cows in the parish. Open fields were enclosed during the 17th century and the early 18th century and any remaining parts of Dauntsey common were enclosed by the 1760s. At the end of the 18th century there were around 20 working farms at Dauntsey. Many of these were relatively small. By 1846 there were 18 farms, most of which had increased in size from the previous century. The number of cattle kept in the parish had soared to 1,800 by the 1960s; around half of these were for dairy and the other half for beef.
The Wilts and Berks canal, opened in 1810, was built across the southern tip of the parish being built from east to west. A wharf was built soon after the opening of the canal; it is to the south west of Dauntsey parish. The name Dauntsey Lock, given to one of the mini-hamlets that make up Dauntsey, was named after the canal. This name was in existence at least from 1884. The canal closed in 1914, but in the 21st century efforts are being made to re-open the canal and Dauntsey Lock is an important structure in this project, with the canal through Dauntsey to be restored on its original line. The railway line, the GWR line from London to Bristol, which opened in 1841, was built to run parallel to the canal. A station was built in the parish after the line opened; it was near the boundary with Christian Malford and opened to passengers in 1868. Farms and outhouses were built near to the station, but half of these were technically in Christian Malford. A milk station was built north of the station in the 1880s. By the 1890s it had become part of Wilts United Dairies Company, sending milk to London on the train. It closed when the station did. There was also a branch line to Malmesbury, which opened in 1877, but shut in 1933. The station itself closed in 1965.
There was an almshouse, with accommodation for five residents, in Dauntsey by 1420. Sir Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby, also gave money and a site for an almshouse and school in his will of 1643. They were built at some point in the 1660s. In the 1860s a new school was built, and this included almshouses; in 1905 there were eight residents in these almshouses, including two married couples. In the 1720s the poor of the parish were fairly well looked after; in 1727-28, the overseers of the poor spent £18. In 1747-48 the overseers spent £85 and burials were often paid for. In the 19th century the cost of caring for the poor continued to rise; £398 was spent in 1802-03 with 40 people getting regular relief. Dauntsey became part of Malmesbury Poor Law Union in 1835.
The end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries saw a succession of shows and pantomimes performed in Dauntsey. The Dauntsey Dramatic Society started out with a production of Ali Baba, with the main role taken by the school master of the time. Productions in the 1900s included ‘The Goose Girl’, ‘The Three Bears’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ This last show was especially impressive, engaging some professional actors and even being performed twice in Malmesbury Town Hall, as well as at Dauntsey. The productions ceased prior to the outbreak of World War One.
The only public house in the parish is The Peterborough Arms. It dates from the early 19th century - probably 1820 - and is a Grade II listed building.