The parish of Charlton is in Swanborough Hundred and lies on a north-east/south-westerly axis; it is some 5 1/2 miles long but, at its broadest point, only 1¼ miles wide. The village of Charlton itself lies in the most north-easterly section of the parish, approximately half a mile from the parish boundary and south of the river Avon. which meanders through the north of the parish. South west of the village, at the escarpment of Cleeve Hill, the parish rises to the uplands of Salisbury Plain, onto Charlton Down. The small section of the parish north of Cleeve Hill, and on which the village sits, is at the southern edge of the Vale of Pewsey, where the soil is Lower Chalk at the northern boundary and, by the river, has gravel and alluvial deposits. The total acreage of the parish is 1,734 acres.
The chalk downlands of the parish are at their highest point near Charlton Clumps south of the crest of Cleeve Hill; here, with their clay with flints covering, they rise to 622 feet. From the height of the downs the land slopes downwards in a south-westerly direction across Charlton Down to Water Dean Bottom, site of a now dried stream which in the past flowed eastwards into the Avon at a point north of Enford. From here the land rises again to a height of some 550 feet, descending again to 450 feet at the southern tip of the parish.
The main road through the parish is the Devizes to Upavon road, running from west to east at the northern edge of Cleeve Hill and a short distance south of Charlton village itself. This road was turnpiked in the early 1760s and is now classified as the A342; from it run two roads northwards to the village; one enters the village at its westernmost point and another enters its principal street, named in the 18th century “Charlton Street” at a point close to the church. Both of these roads are shown on the 1773 and 19th century maps and remain in existence today, although the westernmost route is now little more than a track. The village's main street lies parallel to the Devizes to Upavon road, also on an east-west axis. From the Devizes to Upavon road at a point by the inn previously known as Poore's Inn and subsequently the Charlton Cat, Charlton Drove cut south-westwards through the chalkland to the highest point of Cleeve Hill; this drove was in use by the early 18th century and it has been suggested that it was a route to and from livestock markets at Upavon which were established by 1283.
A number of lanes in the wider parish, surviving in the early 21st century as tracks, are shown on the 1773 and 19th century maps: from the village a lane ran eastwards to Rushall, at only some 500 metres distance; this was probably known as Broad Way. A track runs north-westwards from the village to Wilsford; another minor track follows the course of the river from the vicinity of Manor Farm, and crosses a footbridge at the parish boundary and also continues to Wilsford. A more sizeable lane leaves the north of the village and continues north-eastwards to North Newnton. According to the Victoria County History account of the parish, the bridge crossing the river by Charlton Manor was named Skilling's Bridge in 1536 and as Mundy's Bridge in the 17th and early 18th centuries, after the families holding the farm on the north-west bank of the river.
A Romano-British settlement was excavated on Charlton Down in the years 1897-1899 and other finds of this period have been found on the downland; these include brooches and coins. In the north west of the parish, evidence of a Romano-British villa has been indicated by the presence of relevant building materials and pottery fragments, with a geophysical survey confirming the presence of walls at the site. Aerial photography showing evidence of earlier settlement has indicated the presence of an undated ring ditch and the discovery of a Bronze Age tool on Charlton Down. Other ancient ditches appear on the uplands in the southern half of the parish. Traces of medieval settlement have also been found in the parish in the form of lynchets on Charlton Down and a brooch on Cleeve Hill.
The name Charlton derives from the terms “ceorl” and “tun”, signifying “farm of the churls [free peasants]”. Charlton is not mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1088 and it is suggested that its name explains this absence, the settlement lying within the royal manor of Rushall. The first mention of the name comes in the 12th century when an estate subsequently identified with the later manor of Charlton, was granted to the abbey of L'isle Dieu, founded by Reynold Pavely in c.1187. The Pavely family's overlordship of the estate, by means of which it received a yearly rent of two marks, continued until 1368. In the 14th century, the name was recorded with a suffix to differentiate the parish from that of Charlton in North Wiltshire; for example in 1302 it was recorded as Churleton next Upavon, in 1325 as Cherleton juxta Upavene and in 1368 as Charleton by Uphaven. On the Andrews and Dury map of 1773 Charlton is noted with an alternative name of Chaleton.
In 1377 the number of poll-tax payers in the parish was 86 and in 1294 the manor was recorded as worth £26 10s. 3¼d; this figure included manorial rents from freeholders, villeins, virgaters, half-virgaters and cottagers. The demesne land comprised 280 acres plus three acres of meadow and pasture for 500 sheep. From the late 14th century the manor, as an estate of an alien order, was subject to being taken into royal ownership on a number of occasions, with rents granted to Queen Joan, the widow of Henry IV (d. 1437), Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 1439, and to Eton College in 1441. In 1492 the manor was granted to Fotheringhay College, Northamptonshire, by which it was retained until 1545 when it was sold to the Crown.
When Charlton manor was granted to William Sharington in 1548, it joined Sharington's post-Reformation acquisitions which included Lacock Abbey and Avebury manor. Charlton manor subsequently passed to John Talbot, who died in 1714, and remained in the Talbot family until 1784 when Martha Davenport, the sister of the male descendant of John Talbot and wife of the Rev. William Davenport, sold the manor to Edward Poore who also held Rushall manor. Charlton subsequently descended with Rushall in the Poore and Normanton families until the 20th century, although much of its downland had been sold to the War Department in 1898. The former manor-house, which stands opposite the church at the principal entrance to the village street, was leased separately from the manorial landholdings in 1780 and little survives from the original building which was comprehensively altered in the 19th and 20th centuries. Subsequently it has been divided into two flats.
The manor's former demesne land, Charlton Farm, of 510 acres, was sold into private ownership in 1917 when Frank Stratton & Co. owned it for two years. It was subsequently acquired by J.H. Maggs, a director of Wiltshire United Dairies Ltd. who held land in neighbouring parishes. The farm was then dedicated to dairy farming. In 1945, when the farm was acquired by the Wookey family, the farm practice changed to stock rearing. In 1972 the Wookey family leased some 400 acres of land held by the War Department on Charlton Down.
In addition to the manor, other estates are recorded in the parish from the Middle Ages:
firstly, an estate noted in accounts presented to the Exchequer in the final years of the 12th century; secondly, an estate of one carucate in 1325 which would descend by inheritance and sale to William Fowle (died c. 1838). Thomas Ernle Fowle purchased this estate in 1893, and sold downland to the War Department in 1902. Thomas Ernle Fowle purchased the manor's Coombe Farm, comprising 77 acres, at the western parish boundary, in 1927; he had already purchased a freehold estate known as Drax Farm in 1917. Ernle Fowle's estate was now centred on the north-west of the parish at Charlton Manor Farm and the substantial Ernle Fowle family landholdings continued through the 20th century.
A further small estate, of 24 acres, was held in the 1730s and 1740s by Hugh Lavington, succeeded by his widow and subsequently his son Richard, who conveyed the estate to Thomas Walter in 1766. In 1809 the land was conveyed to Sir John M. Poore and became part of the manor holdings. The Lavington name is one recorded from the late 16th and 17th centuries: Charlton Down was leased to Richard Lavington in 1595 and in 1629 the demesne arable and meadow comprising some 193 acres, together with downland were leased to Roger Lavington.
The economic significance of sheep pasture on the parish downland is indicated by the fact that in 1588 the demesne pasture accommodated some 800 sheep; in 1763 the number of sheep to be allocated to c.30 acres was 73 sheep and 20 lambs on the demesne pasture and an observer remarked that, “the down on the south . . . seemes to be covered with sheep, and hath this excellent property that they never hath the rott among them”. In 1775 the tenantry's sheep pasture on the downland measured 326 acres and that of the demesne 225 acres; 58 acres belonged to the freehold estate later called Drax Farm.
Open arable fields and meadows are recorded in the 16th and mid-17th centuries. Arable fields included those named Heath, North, West, East and Combe; meadows included those named Nethon, Little and Home, Tophet and Holehames. In 1780, 1,601 acres in the parish were enclosed; these included lands named at this time as North, South, East and West fields, the Cleeve, Lammas meadow, Little Summer, Cow, Winter and Thornham downs, and Ruslet common.
Water meadows in existence in 1798, probably in the north-west of the parish north of the river, covered 18 acres.
A number of buildings associated with the history above remain in the village and are listed as being of historic or architectural interest. At the western end of the village street, named Charlton Street in the 18th century, the thatched and timber-framed house now known as Willowdene, was formerly Drax Farm and dates from the late 16th to 17th centuries, extended in the 18th and 19th centuries. Having been converted to three cottages the house has now reverted to single occupation.
An area of manorial waste known as Whites Lane ran south to the Devizes-Upavon from the west of the former Drax Farm, now Willowdene. Six cottages were built there in c.1615 and subsequently in the 18th and early 19th centuries cottages lined both sides of the lane. No buildings remain there in the present day; the lane was reported to be unpopulated by the end of the 19th century.
Manor Farm, now known as Charlton Manor, is unique in the village in that it lies north of the river. Constructed of brick, the building has a date stone of 1625; it was extended to the north-west in the 18th century and to the west in the 19th. In Friday's Lane, running between Charlton Street and Manor Farm are two thatched cottages dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries; these are part timber-framed and partly encased in brick.
A 17th century timber-framed cottage stands at the eastern end of Charlton Street.
The Charlton Cat inn stands on the north side of the Devizes to Upavon road at a point where Charlton Drove joins the road from Cleeve Hill on the south side; it is also at the junction of the lane formerly known as Whites Lane, today little more than a footpath. An alehouse was kept by Richard Davis at Charlton in the 1750s but it is not known if the Charlton Cat stands on its site. The inn was known until the early 1920s as Poore's Arms and is recorded as such on 19th century Ordnance Survey maps and Kelly's Directories; indeed, until the 1920 edition of the latter the name was given as Poor's Inn in successive directories. The inn was known as the Red Lion in the 18th and early 19th centuries and was part of the manorial estate at that time; this is likely to account for the subsequent name of Poore's Inn. It burnt down in 1821 but was rebuilt; it remained part of the manorial estate until 1920 when it was sold as a freehold property and became the Charlton Cat. Through the later 19th century the inn was not only a public house but also a posting house inn where post horses and carriages could be hired.
One theory relating to the modern name of the public house is that the element “Cat” possibly derives from the fact that the road runs through a cutting in the chalk at this point and that it was originally “Cut”; however, with the figure of a leopard featuring in the arms of the Poore family a confusion of the two words may have occurred.
The Charlton Cat inn is notable for at least two reasons: firstly, the inn is the location of a yearly dinner held to celebrate Stephen Duck, “The Thresher Poet”, who was born in Charlton in 1705. An agricultural labourer who received the most basic schooling in a charity school and subsequently strived for self-education, in 1730 he wrote “The Thresher's Labour” which describes the work of the labourer and his relationship with his master. Joseph Spence, who had been professor of poetry at Oxford, wrote to Alexander Pope in 1730 describing Stephen Duck:
“ 'Tis a Man without anything of what is cald [sic] Education, grown up into an Excellent Poet all at once. The man is yet a common Thresher: plain and modest in his behaviour; but when you come to talk to him, of particular good sense, and of more knowledge than could possibly be expected….”
Taken up as the protégé of Queen Caroline, Duck became librarian to her “Merlin's Cave” in Richmond Park and rapidly rose to fame at Court; commentators have described this as possibly his literary undoing as his subsequent verse on classical themes or praising royal and court personages did not match his earlier work and he was subjected to satire and criticism by other writers. Duck was subsequently ordained and ministered to the parish of Byfleet in Surrey. He drowned himself in 1756 but already, in 1734, Viscount Palmerston had purchased an acre of land in neighbouring Rushall (“Duck's Acre”) the rent of which would provide for an annual feast for agricultural labourers of Charlton parish at the Charlton Cat each June, in celebration of the Thresher Poet. Duck himself described an early such celebration in 1736 in his Poems on Several Occasions,
“None can your gen'rous Treat with Want reproach;
All eat enough and many drank too much:
Full twenty Threshers quaff abround the Board;
All name their Toast, and ev'ry one, my lord”.
In early 2014 the Charlton Cat is offered for sale and its future, together with the annual celebration, is unknown.
Secondly, in the 20th century it was the regular watering hole of servicemen based at the former RAF Upavon, now transferred to the Army since 1993 and named the Trenchard Lines.
Charlton St. Peter joined the Pewsey Poor-Law Union at its creation on 8th December 1835.
Since the second half of the 19th century the population of Charlton has steadily declined; at its highest point, in 1861 the population stood at 222; in 1921 136, in 1951 103, and in 2001 89 individuals. This latter figure in itself shows a slight increase on the figures from the 1961 to 1991 inclusive censuses when population ranged between 74 and 77. This decline no doubt partly reflects the mechanization of labour in an agricultural community. The 2001 figure of 89 individuals is notable for almost matching the 1377 number of poll-tax payers, which was 86.
Unsurprisingly, this decline in population together with altered agricultural practices and transport opportunities, is reflected in the decrease of services offered by tradesmen in the parish, limited though these were even in the 19th century, when they were embodied in only one or two individuals: In 1848 there was a carpenter and wheelwright, together with a shopkeeper and the “Poor's Arms Inn”; these facilities continued throughout the 19th century and by 1867 a carrier was offering a service to Devizes three times a week. At this date the Poor's Arms appeared as brewer and posting house. In 1915 the principal landowners noted included the War Office, who by this date held substantial areas of the parish downland.
In the early 21st century Charlton village remains a compact settlement with only limited 20th century development.
Concise History: Wiltshire: A History of its Landscape and PeopleThis community has been included in John Chandler's on-going series and the full text is available here.