The parish of Bower Chalke lies on the southern county boundary, 15km west-south-west of Salisbury. The outline of the parish forms a wedge shape, broadening in size from 1.5km in the north to 4.5km in the south. It is probable that Broad Chalke was originally part of a larger parish called Chalke, which was under the jurisdiction of the church at Broad Chalke. Bower Chalke had become a separate parish by the early 14th century; a church was built there c.1300. The parish boundary changed slightly in 1885 when the southern part of Fifield Bavant, a narrow strip of land running the length of Bower Chalke's western boundary and comprising 283 acres, was transferred to Bower Chalke, increasing its area to 3,260 acres. The soil here is mainly chalk with a small area of greensand; the subsoil is chalk. The name Bower Chalke was given to that part of the original estate belonging to Wilton Abbey, where lands were in 'bower hold tenure'.
Evidence of prehistoric activity has been found in the parish. Groups of barrows stand on Marleycombe Hill and on Woodminton Down, where some 50 burials of the late Bronze Age have been identified. Part of Grim's Ditch, which may date from the same period, runs along or parallel with the parish boundary for 1km south-west of Cobley Lodge. Other ditches, probably associated with Grim's Ditch, run approximately north and south, and another winds for 250 metres across Marleycombe Hill. A field system of 28 hectares is east of the burial sites on Woodminton Down, and one of 53 hectares is on Marleycombe Hill. South-west of this hill there may have been an Iron Age settlement. Ox Drove, an ancient ridge way, runs east and west across the parish and is metalled only on Woodminton Down.
There were four manors and other estates in Bower Chalke. Chalke manor was owned by Wilton Abbey. After the Dissolution it was granted to Sir William Herbert (created Earl of Pembroke in 1551) and the land remained in the Pembroke family until it was sold in 1919. The estate was then divided into six farms.
Bingham's Farm was owned by Robert Bingham in 1431 and remained in the family until after 1860. After 1910 it was absorbed into Knowle Farm in Broad Chalke.
An estate in Woodminton called Burley's was held by William Burley in 1553. In 1613 his successors sold it to the Chalke family, who held it until c.1756. It then changed hands numerous times until it was absorbed by Woodminton Farm in 1929.
An estate formerly known as Tilshead's was held c.1553 by Thomas Gawen. By 1705 it was held by Robert Short, and in 1780 by John Rebbeck. This family owned it until at least 1860. The land had been sold by 1910 and by 1929 had dispersed.
Until as recently as the 1980s there was a church and two chapels in Bower Chalke. Holy Trinity church dates back to the 13th century. The present building dates largely from the 15th century; in 1886 the church was restored and the new south aisle added.
There are 14 listed houses in the village, most of which date from the 17th century. Bingham's Farmhouse dates from the 1600s, but the Bingham family were landowners 200 years earlier. In 1567 the farm comprised 120 acres with pasture for 200 sheep.
The Bell Inn also dates from the 17th century, but was not known as such until c.1918. The house was occupied by the Habgood family from c.1850 through until the 1940s. In 1851, Elizabeth, a widow living in Church Street, was a shopkeeper. Twenty years later she was also keeping a beer house. Later, the business was taken over by her son, Isaac, who was a carpenter and beer retailer, assisted by his wife Sarah. The family are listed in Kelly's Directory as beer retailers until the last directory was published in 1939. The name 'The Bell Inn' does not appear until the 1931 edition as only houses with a fulllicense were listed, but the Wilton House archive suggests that the name was in use from c.1918.
Almost all the men in the village were employed in agriculture or an associated trade. The censuses show that from 1851 through to 1901 the situation did not change. In 1842 the parish comprised c.1,000 acres of arable, c.850 acres each of downland pasture and woodland, and c.120 acres of meadow. There were seven farms of 100 acres or more. In the early 20th century there were four farms of 450-550 acres. Some farms had dairies or kept sheep, but they were mainly arable, as they are today. Watercress beds were constructed north of Bingham's Farm c.1890 and remained in use until 1972. They were then converted for trout farming.
The 19th century censuses give an insight into the lives of the people who were living in each community. Prior to this, it is difficult to discover much information on the life of a labourer and his family, but one source that occasionally survives is an Incumbent's Visiting Book. The clergy were encouraged by the Diocese to keep notebooks about their parishioners. They were a useful reminder of names, who went to church, who the vicar shouldn't visit (mainly families of a different religious persuasion). The vicar could also note any particular subject that he should or shouldn't talk about. Most of the books do not survive, as they were destroyed out of consideration for the people mentioned in them. Some, however, found their way into the parish chest.
The Bower Chalke book was compiled between 1834 and 1836. The information on each family concentrates on religion; did they attend church regularly, take communion, own their own prayer book and Bible. It also mentions the father's occupation, whether or not each member of the family could read and if the father belonged to the Benefit Club or Penny Club. Most villagers could read, but many were not regular worshippers.
Probably the most influential person to have lived in Bower Chalke was the Rev. Edward Collett, who arrived in the village in 1878 as curate. At this time Bower Chalke was united with Broad Chalke as one living, but Collett quickly established himself in the community and was rewarded in 1880 when the two parishes were divided and he was offered the vacant living. Collett stayed in Bower Chalke until he died in 1924, hardly ever leaving his parish during the 44 years he was there.
Collett was a 'high church man' living in a community with a strong non-conformist tradition. On his arrival, he found a distinct lack of enthusiasm for services; Holy Communion was held just once a month and only eleven communicants attended his first celebration. Collett was not to be put off, and the villagers gradually accepted him. He immersed himself in village life, making great efforts to improve the quality of life for his parishioners.
His arrival in the village heralded a period of change in which he was the prime influence. The Post Office first opened in 1881. A Coal Club was started, subsidised by the better off. A Clothing Club already existed. The Pig Club was flourishing; it enabled the poorer cottagers to include pork in their diet. The Club held an annual celebratory supper that often attracted 60 members.
Collett is well known locally for his village newspaper, the Bower Chalke Parish Paper. This first appeared in monthly form on the 1st July 1880, changing to a weekly publication in April 1882. The paper was printed on a single-sided sheet of paper sold at a farthing a copy. It was used as a method of informing villagers about church services and functions, but also commented on local activities and occasionally voiced criticism of local or national events. The paper was printed on a printing press set up in the vicarage and the whole process of writing, type-setting and printing was done by Collett himself every week. It appeared regularly until the end of the First World War, by which time paper was becoming scarce and expensive. Collett also began to experience health problems and the last copy of the paper was produced on 12th April 1922, with no notification that this was to be the last issue. When Collett died two years later, his lifelong friend John Linnell collected together his printing tools and ink bottles and buried them at the end of his garden.
As well as advertising in the paper all the usual village events such as the harvest supper, Choirmen's Supper and Sunday School outing, Collett oversaw the setting up of many groups and events. The villagers were encouraged to amuse each other by singing songs, and whole evenings of entertainment were organised this way. Occasionally there was a magic lantern show, or a gramophone recital (in 1905 one man in the village owned a gramophone). From 1911, winter activities were provided in the form of indoor games such as draughts, dominoes and cards. Cricket did not become a regular sport until 1920, when a suitable field was given for use as a pitch. Prior to this, the young men amused themselves with quoits and rifle shooting.
The Village Club was started in 1864. Its full title was the Bower Chalke Union Friendly Society and its purpose was to help its subscribing members cope with major difficulties in their lives, such as death or illness. The Club also provided the village with one of its main annual recreational events, namely the Whitsun Feast Day. When Collett first came to Bower Chalke this Feast was an excuse for two days of drunkenness and high spirits, but financial difficulties curbed these excesses in the 1890s. The format of the Feast day changed very little over the years. First the local brass band led a parade to the church; after the service the parade continued around the village, ending at Bingham's farm for a grand feast. Speeches and toasts followed, then members were entertained with songs. The village children were also included in this event. Isaac Sheppard, a generous village benefactor, presented each child with a bun and an orange. The Feast Day was the focal point of the summer, and the Club thrived until 1911. The passing of the National Insurance Act threatened its existence and the outbreak of War made survival impossible. The Club closed in March 1915.
The first national census was taken in 1801 and the figures for Bower Chalke show that this was a stable community, each succeeding decade showing only a small change in numbers. Broad Chalke was approximately 30-50% larger than Bower Chalke throughout the 19th century. The latter reached its peak of 509 people in 1851. There were no major factors that affected the population figure, such as moving to the towns to look for work, or emigration. Agriculture was the main source of employment, either as a farm labourer or in one of the associated trades.
The Domesday survey gives an indication of the size of a community in the 11th century. Broad Chalke and Bower Chalke were surveyed as one estate known as Chalke, held by the Church of St Mary at Wilton. It was a large and prosperous parish with an approximate population of 720-780. The two communities seem to have become divided into separate estates by 1327, when a taxation list refers to 'Great Chalke' (Chalke Magna) and Bower Chalke (Bourchalke).
As well as paying into the Coal, Clothing and Pig Clubs, the villagers were also encouraged to consider the medical help they may need. The men payed into a 'Slate' club and the women and children were cared for by a Medical Club. The nearest doctor was in the neighbouring village of Broad Chalke. Whenever his services were required a man was paid 3d to take a message to the doctor's surgery. The surgery was at Brook House in Broad Chalke from 1880-1988, apart from a short break. Until 1984 it was run single-handed by Dr. Brown, who came to Broad Chalke in 1947. The surgery amalgamated with Sixpenny Handley in 1984. A new surgery at Dove's Meadow opened in 1988.
Although the villagers had access to a doctor, hospital care was more of a problem. Treatment at Salisbury Infirmary could only be obtained through the purchase of In-patient or Out-patient Orders. The Harvest Festival offertory was always used to obtain a supply of these for the poor and needy but there were many occasions when the certificates ran out before the end of the year. Collett would often put a piece in the paper, hoping that some generous readers would buy more Orders.
In 1917 the wife of the vicar at Broad Chalke decided that a trained nurse was necessary. The Wiltshire Nursing Association provided a nurse to cover Broad Chalke and Bower Chalke. Each household contributed a quarterly sum of 7 1/2 d entitling them to her services. Their services were greatly appreciated. There are many references in the Parish Papers to Nurse Smithers; from 1926-1966 the villagers were cared for by Nurse Lily Habgood. She was also the midwife, and during her career delivered over 800 babies.
Another well known villager, all be it from much earlier times, was the poacher Harry Goode. The baptism of Henry (known as Harry) Goode in 1694 is the earliest surviving parish register entry. The Goodes were a wealthy Bower Chalke family, well known in the 18th century. As a young man, Harry was a notorious deer hunter and his activities are described in the book 'Anecdotes and History of Cranborne Chase' by William Chafin. The woodland known as Vernditch in Broad Chalke was part of Cranborne Chase. In the 18th century Forest Law was still very strict. The deer and the land on which they lived were both protected and the penalties for poaching were severe. However, this protection was resented by both land owners and farmers, and there were plenty of men willing to take the risk. A portrait of Goode forms the frontispiece of Chafin's book and the original can be seen in Dorchester Museum.
After the dark days of the First World War, village life gradually returned to normal and the villagers began to think about enjoying themselves again. In 1920 the school was the only available place in which to hold a village function, and this was not always convenient. The following year a wooden hut was acquired from the old army camp at Fovant and erected in Church Street. As soon as it opened a whist drive was held, followed by a dance attended by over 100 people. A Social Club quickly followed, with a variety of games available and regular dances, whist drives and dramatic entertainment.
By this time it was becoming easier to travel in search of entertainment. From the late 19th century it had been possible to travel to Salisbury three times a week with the village carrier. In 1919 Bowerchalke acquired its own bus, manufactured by the Scout Motor Company at Salisbury. It travelled to Salisbury twice daily, and was also used by the farmers to transport their produce.
After the Second World War there was a great change in farming. Many of the farm labourers had moved away to search for work and the farmers who stayed had to change their approach. Sheep returned to the village, a dairy herd increased in size, a vineyard was planted and the watercress beds were converted into a trout farm.
Pupil numbers at the school gradually decreased and it unfortunately closed in 1976. The old wooden hut was still the village hall at this time. The villagers decided to keep the school as a new village hall and the alterations were achieved in one year. Numerous groups still use it today.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were a few shops in the village. The Kelly's trade directory has adverts for a grocer and draper, beer retailer, shoemaker and shopkeeper. By the middle of the century only Penny's stores survived. This later joined with the Post Office and remained open until end of the Second Millennium.
John Linnell, who came to Bowerchalke in 1878 aged 14, continued to be an important member of the community until his death in 1961 at the age of 92. He was church organist and sexton, Clerk to the Parish Council, Local Rate Collector, Bandmaster of the Bower Chalke Band, Secretary of the Flower Show and captain of the cricket club. Like his friend Edward Collett, Linnell devoted his life to his community. Today, it seems impossible to think of anyone taking on so many responsibilities.
From the early 1930s modern houses began to appear in the village. In 1945 the houses in Church Street called The Plough were built. Two years later the first Council Houses were built at Southfields; in 1967 bungalows for the elderly were built at Holly Bank. Newer developments include the small estates at Foyle's Yard and the housing trust homes at Holly Close.
To mark the Millennium the parish raised £35,000 to restore and augment the church bells, which had not been rung for 60 years. The three bells were increased to five and a new frame built.
In 2005 a rather uncomplimentary article appeared in a national newspaper. The opening paragraph includes the following. 'It's a pleasant spot to wander through on a sunny June morning. And yet by the ancient test of what a village needs to be a real village, Bowerchalke fails. No school any more; no pub; no shop. Of the four focal points that bind a village together, only the church remains.' Not surprisingly, this prompted a reply from another journalist who lives there, pointing out all the positive aspects of the village. The children at Bower Chalke travel to the next village to attend school; the Post Office is also there. There is a thriving village hall used by lots of local groups, including a Saturday market. Every year the Flower Show is well supported by the whole village. It has its own cricket club. There are also lots of activities in neighbouring Broad Chalke, and various Chalke Valley groups. To quote the resident journalist, 'Bower Chalke is a close-knit community and a very happy one.'