The parish of Chirton can be found five miles south-east of the Wiltshire town of Devizes. The parish was also known by the name of Cherrington until the 20th century but then became known exclusively as Chirton. The parish itself is unusually long and narrow, measuring roughly 3½ miles from north to south and at its widest 1½ miles. The extreme north of the parish, which incidentally is the one of the lowest parts of the parish at 350 feet above sea level, is bordered by a small stream which flows in an easterly direction to eventually become the Christchurch (Salisbury) Avon. It is this river that provides the alluvial soil that creates the lush meadows to the north. From 1970 these fields have been used for cattle pastures although they were used for agricultural purposes as early as Saxon times although then the crop was almost certainly wheat, oats and barley rather than livestock. From there a mile wide expanse of lower chalk stretches as far south as Chirton Bottom. Further south, towards Salisbury Plain, the lower chalk is replaced by middle and upper chalk as well as clay-with-flints, with the land reaching a height of around 700 feet on the scarp slope of the Plain. In terms of settlements within the parish there are two. The first and most major settlement is the village of Chirton. The other is the hamlet of Conock which lies to the west.
The earliest signs of human development within the parish include, four bowl-barrows, three of which lie near the eastern border of the parish and the fourth just north of Conock. The bowl-barrows indicate levels of pre-historic activity in the parish, most likely Bronze Age. The presence of these barrows suggests that in pre-historic times the present area of the parish of Chirton was of some significance
The meaning of the name Chirton is the church settlement or ‘farm by, or belonging to, the church’, which could, if the meaning is ‘by the church’ indicate that a church existed by 1086, as in the Domesday Book the parish is referred to as Ceritone. Spelling of the name passed through many forms but by the mid 19th century it had become Chirton. Conock derives from an obscure Celtic word cunaco (high), which can be found in other place names in the United Kingdom such as Consett near Durham. However there is little in the way of a hill here but it is one of the few Celtic place-names in Wiltshire and would indicate that a British settlement survived here after the Saxon invasion and settlement.
In 1086 the estate of Chirton was held by Durand of Gloucester and it passed to his great nephew, Miles, who was created earl of Hereford in 1141. Two thirds of the estate was inherited by his daughter Margaret, who married Sir Humphrey de Bohun, and one third was inherited by his daughter Lucy, who married Herbert Fitzherbert. Margaret’s portion passed to Henry de Bohun, earl of Hereford, and was split in the early 13th century so that the original Domesday manor became three separate estates in Chirton. One was granted to Llanthony Priory, an Augustinian house remote in the Welsh Black Mountains, in the early 13th century and there is mention of a manor of Chirton in 1342. They held it until the Dissolution when it passed to the Crown, being granted to Sir Francis Neale in 1600. Shortly after this is was sold to Sir Richard Uredale and in 1635 was conveyed by him to Heytesbury Hospital (an almshouse foundation). In the early 19th century this estate comprised 490 acres, 193 of which were sold to the War Department in 1899. In 1903 the remaining estate of 295 acres included Manor Farm. This was sold in 1970.
The other part of Margaret’s inheritance passed to John Marshall and then Ralph de Ralegh, who entered the order of the Templars and conveyed this estate to them around 1220. Persecution of the Templars and their eventual disbandment in 1312 caused their many English estates to be taken over by the Crown – 1n 1308 in the case of Chirton. A year later, with all Templar lands it passed to Hospitallers and they held it until the Dissolution when it reverted to the Crown. It was granted to Sir Francis Knollys in 1564 and passed by marriage into the Vaux family. The year 1646 saw its conveyance to Abraham Chamberlain, whose son, also Abraham, sold it to Elizabeth Bing in 1663. Sarah, duchess of Somerset bought it in 1678 and it was one of the properties used to provide an endowment for Froxfield Hospital, almshouses set up by her will of 1704. In 1834 the estate comprised Chirton Farm, of 269 acres, of which 114 acres were sold to the War Department in 1900 and the rest to the tenant in 1920. For over 200 years the income from two thirds of Chirton were used to support two of the larger charitable foundations in Wiltshire.
The estate inherited by Lucy remained with members of the Fitzherbert family until 1357 when it passed to a ‘nephew’ of one of them, Edward St. John. It was held by John Carter in 1428 and then by John Norwood, who died in 1497. His daughter, Elizabeth, married Henry Barley and their son conveyed it to Thomas Ayliffe c.1555. In 1574 it was sold to John and Margery Bailey and their son Christopher. It was granted to the Browne family in 1592 but nothing is known of the ownership after 1613 until 1704 when, in his will, John Curll provided 140 acres in Chirton for the benefit of the poor of Bradford on Avon. Thus the remaining third of the Domesday Chirton estate was also used for charitable purpose for over 200 years. The charity sold 90 acres to the War Department in 1899 and the remaining land was sold in 1920.
In 1086 the estate of Conock was held by the Count of Mortain and held of him by the abbey of St. Mary Grestain (in the present department of Eure in Upper Normandy). By at least the early 14th century this was administered from the priory of Wilmington in Sussex, a cell of Grestain, but in 1324, along with the lands of other alien priories, Conock was seized by the king. In 1350 Conock was conveyed to three brothers of the de la Pole family and allotted to one of them, Thomas, in 1359. It descended in the family to William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, and in 1442 he and his wife Alice used it as part of the endowment of their newly founded almshouse at Ewelme, Oxfordshire. It was retained by them until the early 20th century although 310 acres was sold to the War Department in 1899. Therefore income from the remaining part of the modern parish of Chirton was used for charitable purposes for over 450 years.
Records indicate that there was a church here by the early 12th century and the existing nave and chancel, with priest’s door, are basically 12th century. The existence of aisles and the surviving decoration, such as the south doorway, suggest that this was a medieval church of some quality and this is probably due to the influence of the Augustinian monks of Llanthorny Priory.
From the late 17th to mid 20th centuries Conock was leased by the Ernle family and their descendents, the Warriners; their monuments and hatchments are to be found in the parish church. The house became known as Conock Manor (Conock House in the 19th century) and in 1945 was bought by Major General Sir Frederick Sykes, one of the founders of the Royal Air Force. The original house is thought to have been built in 1765 by Walter Ernle who was married to Mary Hungerford and was altered and enlarged in the late 18th or early 19th century; it is an imposing stone structure set in well wooded parkland. The extensions and improvements were mainly carried out by Gifford Warriner who lived there between 1789 and 1820.
Evidence indicates that up until the 18th century the main road in the parish was the road that ran south of the church providing access to Marden and Conock. The easterly portion of the lane remained in use as late as 1970 as a track. The first turnpike in the parish can be found as early as 1769 when a small section of road which runs to the south of Conock was completed. The next example of this came much later in 1840 when turnpikes were introduced to the southern end of Chirton and the lane leading off to Marden. The roads in the south of the parish including the former main road of Salisbury Plain that formed the boundary with Urchfont fell into disuse after all the land south of the ridge way in the parish was purchased by the War Department in 1899 for use as a military firing range, which is still in use to this day. The parish is also near the mainline railway for the west of England, although the actual railway line is a mile north of the parish in Patney. Until 1966 there was a station on that line called ‘Patney and Chirton’ therefore providing easy access to the rail network to the residents of Chirton. However in 1966 the station was closed down denying Chirton people that link.
The village of Chirton itself lies below the Devizes road in a shallow hollow. Due to the position of Yew Tree Cottage, which was formally the vicarage, and the position of the High Street it can be seen that the centre of the town lay on the east-west axis south of the church. However by 1773 (Andrews and Dury’s map) the village started to extend southwards from the church accounting for the long narrow nature of the village itself, much like the parish as a whole. Along that road stand 18th century cottages and a later handful of council houses, which are slightly higher than the lane itself and have grass banks between the buildings and the road. This gives that area of Chirton a spacious feel. In the 18th century the main street that ran southwards was the High Street, known to the locals as ‘The Street’, which is its name today. This expansion continued into the 20th century when a small council estate was built along the lane leading to Marden after the Second World War. The hamlet of Conock to the west of Chirton was mainly built up in the later part of the 18th century. In 1536 the hamlet is thought to have contained an area known as ‘west town’ however today the location of ‘west town’ is unknown. By 1970 only a few substantial houses remained and the hamlet became very isolated; this was increased by the thick woodland surrounding it. Today this is much the same with the hamlet containing only few residents. Manor Farm can still be found to the south west of the houses in Conock. Manor Farmhouse was built in the late 17th century, originally in brick but in 1750 extensions were made.
In 1086 Chirton and Conock were of similar size in both area and population. At the time Chirton was assessed for taxation at ten hides, seven of these were farmed by, or on behalf of, the lord of the manor, Durand of Gloucester. The estate itself could support five ploughs but there were only one and a half on the manorial farmland. Pasture was of equal size and also shape, but Chirton had 30 acres of meadow land to Conock’s 20 and also a mill, which may account for its slightly higher value. It can be estimated that between 75 and 90 people lived in Chirton and between 80 and 90 in Conock. In 1377, a generation after the Black Death, there were 73 poll tax payers (aged over 14) in Chirton and 59 in Conock. The first national census, in 1801, recorded 347 people living in the parish and a peak was reached in 1851 with 467 people. Then followed a long decline, typical of a Wiltshire rural parish, and a nadir was reached exactly 100 years later when only 250 people were in the parish. Between 1901 and 1971 the population remained in the range of 250 to 270 but with increased car ownership and new houses in the parish from the 1970s it increased and in 2011 406 people lived here.
In 1086 there was no woodland either on the Conock or Chirton estates but in the Middle Ages, and also more recently, a planting policy was adopted in the parish from time to time. In the early 16th century Thomas Keye who was the paymaster of Ewelme Almshouse felled and sold some 380 trees on the estate at Conock. By 1832 there was some 30 acres of woodland around Conock and the hamlet remains wooded to this day, although to somewhat a lesser extent. And almost none is to be found now around the village of Chirton itself. Downland towards the south of the parish was sold to the War Department in 1899 and 1900 and amounted to around 700 acres. Most of the land was previously leased to Mr Henry Horton of Wilsford at a nominal rate. By 1970 there were just three substantial farms of note in Chirton all of which were devoted to mixed farming.
A mill remained on the site of the Domesday one and became known as Church Mill. In 1841 it was occupied by the Chandler family, who were also maltsters and in 1848 they converted it to steam power. In the mid 19th century the parish was quite well supplied with shops and small industries. There were two shopkeepers at Chirton, one was also a brewer and beer retailer while the other was the postmaster, and one shopkeeper at Conock. Two blacksmiths, one of whom was a beer retailer, a carpenter, who was also the parish clerk, a miller and another beer retailer. One of the beer retailers probably became fully licensed and known as the Three Horseshoes, while another became the New Inn, now the Wiltshire Yeoman, on the Andover Road. An earlier small industry in the parish was the existence of a clock maker, W. Adams of Conock, in 1738. At the same time there was a bakery to the north of the High Street, which is now a private house called the Old Bake House. Today most of the residents, with the exception of those working the land, work outside the parish.
The first records of local government are to be found in 1275 when the prior of Llanthony claimed right of gallows and the assize of bread and ale in the manor of Chirton. Records of the actual courts in the area however begin in 1718. Until 1776 the courts were held once a year by the steward of Heytesbury Hospital. These courts dealt with surrenders of, or admittance, to copyholds tenancies. In 1776 Court Leet jurisdiction was renewed and until 1853 courts of view of frankpledge and customary courts were held on the same day, once or twice a year. Business included the appointment of several roles within the parish such as tithingman and sheep teller. These courts were held until 1886 but by 1840 they had become a mere formality but a hayward was appointed in 1870 although he was the last one in the parish to bear the title. In Conock it appears that the courts were usually held once a year, as in Chirton, although they ceased to function earlier, stopping in the later 18th century.