The village of Downton straddles the Avon valley about 7 miles south of Salisbury. The major early settlements were in, or close by, this valley on the fertile alluvium and gravels, which are broader on the western side of the river. On either side is the Upper Chalk downland, on which settlement came later. The present main road is the A338, running north to south, from Salisbury to Fordingbridge and Ringwood. Early routes between settlements survive as minor roads or tracks and the only road to have been turnpiked, in 1837 by the Cranbourne Chase and New Forest Road Trust, was the Downton to Cadnam road on the ridge between the valleys of the Avon and the Test.
The modern civil parish of Downton contains the villages of Wick and Charlton, Barford Park and Trafalgar Park (formerly Standlynch) but the ancient parish and early estate was much larger. It contained all of the present modern Redlynch civil parish and nearly half of Odstock civil parish.
There are signs of early settlement in this favoured area with one of only a very few large Mesolithic settlement sites known in Wiltshire in Castle Meadow. Occupation would have been in the 3rd or 4th millennium B.C. The site was also occupied in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods. Settlement in this area was probably continuous from late Neolithic times with farming in the river valley but in the more unsettled Iron Age the construction of a defensive hill fort on Clearbury Down, to the north-west, became necessary. During the Roman occupation some of the downs were ploughed and a villa, built in the late 3rd or early 4th century A.D., controlled a large farming estate here. The villa was of medium size and the chief crops were corn and pulses. There was also a Romano-British settlement to the north on Witherington Down.
Major settlement at Downton began in the Saxon period, probably closer to the river than the Roman villa. By the 7th or 8th century Downton was the principle local village with other settlements at Charlton, Wick, Witherington, Walton, Standlynch and Barford. From the late 8th century, and probably earlier, the large Downton estate was an endowment of the Bishop of Winchester and became the centre of his manor. There would have been a bishop's palace and probably a Minster church here. The Saxons used the alluvial soils as meadowland, the gravels for pasture and arable, and the chalk for arable and sheep pasture; a system that was to continue to the 19th century.
The assessment in the Domesday Book (1086) depicts a large estate of 100 hides with land for 461/2 plough teams. There were seven mills in the valley, 60 acres of meadow, pasture measuring 2 x 1 leagues and woodland of 11/2 x 1/2 league [a league varied but was longer than one mile]. On the estate there were 64 villeins and 27 bordars with 40 serfs on the bishop's estate. The population for the whole estate was probably in the region of 540 to 600 of which 450 to 510 were probably concentrated in and around the river valley. It is possible that population was higher as there do not seem to be any officials listed on the bishop's estate. There is also likely to have been a manor house on the site of the old Court.
The 12th and 13th centuries saw considerable expansion of Downton. In 1138 Bishop Blois was said to have built a castle here. The Moot, which may have had earlier uses, is most likely to have been a motte and bailey castle although no traces of masonry have been found so it is unlikely that any permanent structure was built. It is more likely that a fortified bishops' palace was rebuilt, for the Bishops' of Winchester continued to live in Downton until the later 14th century. Certainly a new Norman church replaced the Saxon one in the late 12th century and was considerably enlarged in the early 13th century.
In the early 13th century Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, tried to create a new market town on his manor of Downton by planting a borough here in 1208. Burgage plots were rented to the craftsmen and tradesmen, with 19 filled in the first year, 30 in the second, 72 by 1215 and 89 by 1270. By the 1230s a total of 120 burgage plots were taken and this later rose to 127 bringing in an annual income of £10 per year. This settlement was across the river to the west of the original village, grouped around the church and Old Court, and it still has the name of the Borough. All holders of burgage plots could later vote in parliamentary elections and the large open area between the lines of burgage plots was used for markets and fairs. Fairs were taking place by 1249. Downton never grew into a town, possibly because of the early competition from the Bishop of Sarum's planned new city of Salisbury.
Two early inhabitants of the Borough were weavers and a fulling mill, for pounding and 'felting' the cloth is mentioned in 1215 - one of the earliest in Wiltshire. Obviously this mill and the corn mills were waterpowered but the river was important in other ways, as there were valuable eel fisheries here in the early 13th century. Apart from Downton growing in size and prosperity the local villages and hamlets probably reached their highest population in their entire history at this time.
By the mid 13th century there was probably continuous settlement in Downton from the area around the church, crossing the two bridges, through the Borough to the main Salisbury road. The village of Charlton was now a street village and had probably been rebuilt as a planned settlement for the farming tenants of Downton Manor. The first parliament was summoned in 1275 and from then until 1437 Downton was sporadically represented, after which two members represented the borough until 1832. A market must have been granted when the borough was established and in 1289 the Bishop claimed a Thursday market, which survived until the late 14th century, which could have been the re-establishment of the original market or an additional one. He also claimed a three-day fair on the eve, day and morrow of St. Laurence but this did not last long.
By 1334 the borough was well established and substantial but it failed to grow further. Barford was well populated and prosperous while Charlton was also wealthy and prosperous. In the later 14th century the villages around Downton had shrunk, Barford declined greatly as was reduced to only two farmsteads in 1500, and Downton itself had declined somewhat. The obvious cause of this would seem to be the Black Death, from 1348-50, and Downton being in a river valley that led to the south coast could have been affected in the early stages of the plague.
The village itself recovered in the 15th century and by the 1450s the original eastern end had become more urbanised than the Borough, which failed to develop back streets and lanes behind the burgage plots. There were tailors here, using the locally woven cloth, from this time to the early 20th century, and in the later 15th century the number of properties in the original village increased, with more settlement in the High Street (first mentioned in 1452) and industry concentrated around the mills.
The first hostel, or inn, is mentioned in 1503 and this was possibly the White Horse in the Borough. It is likely that one existed before this but no record of it has survived. By this time the village of Charlton had a group of substantial farmers of very similar means and resources, a fact which ensured the prosperity of this community. Shoemakers are mentioned in the 16th century although tanning on a commercial scale is not mentioned. In 1599 the White Horse is mentioned by name and it was well used at election time, for outside was the borough cross, as it still is today, at which members of Parliament were returned at the hustings.
Industry expanded in the 17th century and a tanner is mentioned in 1606 while linen was woven alongside wool. Basket weaving began and this industry continued until the Second World War with basket chairs being made in the 19th and 20th century. In the middle of the century Sir Joseph Ashe created extensive water meadows with many weirs, hatches and much ridging of meadowland. This provided an early bite of grass for ewes, helping survival rate and encouraging earlier lambing. By 1628 the King's Arms was open as an inn in the original village while for most of the century the Raleigh family, including the brother of Sir Walter, were at the Parsonage Manor. They were brewers and wine merchants.
In 1676 two annual fairs on 12 April and 21 September were granted to Giles Eyre and were held on land along the western part of the Borough. From 1679 the tolls from these were part of the endowment of the Free School, founded by Sir Joseph Ashe and Eyre. Although the Borough was not particularly prosperous at this time several thatched cottages were erected in the late 17th century and housing expanded in the area around the main road - the Headlands. There were also attempts to make the Avon navigable through Downton to Salisbury but this failed, possibly because of the extensive water meadows and the mills. Lace making did develop though, providing a cottage industry for women and children alongside the tanning industry in the factories. By 1698 there were 336 people making lace in Downton and this remained a major source of employment through the 18th century and into the first half of the 19th century.
In 1700 Barford House was rebuilt by Sir Charles Dunscombe and in 1703 he petitioned for a revival of the Thursday market. This was being held in 1720 and continued for much of the century but it had gone by 1792. Early in the 18th century the area around the main road, the Headlands, became much more built up and in 1726 The Bull was opened on the main road. In the Borough itself the White Horse was rebuilt and numbers on the houses in the Borough and the island indicated the properties to which votes were attached. These numbers correspond to numbers on a map of 1784 but not to modern postal numbers. New houses were built in the Borough and eastern Downton and these contain high quality brickwork.
A paper mill was working by 1710 and continued in use until the First World War. Weaving, particularly of linen continued and a ticking (linen woven for bed sacks) factory was established. From the 18th century to the later 19th century several maltsters became established in the village, which by 1768 also had a fire engine. In the late 18th century houses were built in Barford Lane, Moot Lane, Lode Hill (called Node Hill in 1539) and Slab Lane as the original village began to expand outwards from its central core. The King's Arms was also rebuilt at this time. In the 1790s there were fairs in the Borough on 23 April, for cattle and peddlers' stalls, and on 20 October for sheep and horses.
During the 18th century ploughing of the upland pastures on the chalk began and this continued into the 19th century. Later in that century an increase in dairy farming led to the replacement of arable fields on the valley gravels by pasture. The pattern of settlement changed very little in area during the 19th century but much rebuilding went on in the existing occupied areas. There was further expansion along Lode Hill and Slab Lane.
The borough was disenfranchised under the Great Reform Act of 1832 but more people in Downton were given the vote. Communication with the outside world improved in 1866 when the Salisbury and Dorset Junction Railway built Downton station half way up Lode Hill on the Salisbury to Romsey line. Doctors were present in the village from the late 18th century and in the 1860s and 1870s a cottage hospital existed. From 1890 street lighting (oil lamps) was provided by subscription payment. At the end of the century there were considerable boundary changes and Downton parish was considerably reduced in size. The large area of Redlynch in the east became Redlynch civil parish in 1896 while in 1897 Charlton and Witherington were united with Standlynch to form the civil parish of Standlynch with Charlton All Saints in the north. The latter only lasted until 1934 when Charlton and Standlynch were re-united with Downton.
Lace making died out at the end of the 19th century and papermaking ended in c.1914. Tanning had been an industry from the early 17th century and in 1919 the Southern Tanning Co. Ltd., built a new tannery on the old site. The company failed around 1930 and was replaced by the Downton Tanning Co., which continued in business until 1998. Bacon curing began in the 1920s and in 1929 the South Wilts Bacon Curing Co., converted the workhouse to a factory. The business expanded and remained in the village until 1968. In 1929 the former paper mill and corn mills became part of an electricity generating station for the tannery and by 1931 this was supplying electricity to the village.
In 1934 Downton Engineering began as a motor garage at Mesh Lane. Later they became world famous for their Cooper version of the Mini car - the Mini Cooper. During World War II land mines were dropped in the water meadows, an aircraft crashed in Barford Lane and a dummy 'city' was constructed on the western side of Clearbury Down to divert enemy bombers from the real city of Salisbury during night attacks. Later in the war there was a large American camp on the site of the present industrial estate with the U.S. headquarters at Longford Castle.
Back in 1916 Downton had achieved a first when the Women's Institute was established - the first one in Wiltshire. In 1923 Morgan's Vale and Woodfalls were removed from Downton and became a civil parish in their own right for a few years until being merged with Redlynch in 1934. After World War II a sewerage works was built to the south of the village and most houses connected to it. On the river itself the fishing rights were now in the possession of the Longford Castle estate and commercial fish farming began. In the mid-1970s Trafalgar Fisheries were established, farming trout on 50 acres of former water meadows in Barford Park.
In the 1950s and 60s both council and private housing was built at Moot Lane while housing estates were also built on the western side of the Salisbury road at Wick. Here both bungalows and houses were put up in the 1960s. More recent developments have seen the creation of the industrial estate, which now contains several small companies using advanced technology. Colour Care, a Salisbury firm, has the largest independent processing laboratory in the UK at Downton while in 1992 Hopback Brewery became established in the village. The Cuckoo Fair was revived in the Borough in 1980 and has become a large and well-established event.
The tannery closed in 1998 and the site is being used to provide new housing and apartments for the over 55s while the main tannery building is being converted into luxury apartments. A new village library, with public on-line computer access has also been built on the site.