Zeals is the only place-name in Wiltshire beginning with a ‘Z’ although this should really be an ‘S’ as the name comes from the Old English ‘sealh’ meaning a small willow or sallow and the early name was Seale, Sela and several variants of these. In Wiltshire dialect small willows were called ‘sallies’, doubtless derived from the same early word.
There is evidence of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age activity in the area and there are bowl barrows on Mappledine Hill to the south east of Zeals House. The site of Pen Pits, which is partly in Stourton and Penselwood (Somerset) parishes shows early prehistoric and both late and post medieval activity. They were dug to quarry greensand querns for the hand grinding of corn.
It is likely that there were scattered settlements in this south western corner of Wiltshire, which was part of the Forest of Selwood. The area of Zeals itself was bypassed by an early east-west route across the downs to the north so there would have been no nucleated settlement but the presence of a range of agricultural holdings is very likely. The Saxon and Norman kings had a hunting lodge at Gillingham and the area will have been subject to the very strict Norman forest law.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086) the land that is now Zeals was divided between two owners Gozelin Riviere (Jocelyn Rivers) owned the estate of Lower Zeals, that later became known as the Manor of Zeals, Clevedon or Clivedon. Alvied (Alfgeat) owned the estate of Higher Zeals that later became the manor of Zeals Aylesbury. Apart from the area of pasture both estates were very similar with land for 3 ploughs, a small area of meadow, a similar area of woodland and a mill. In Lower Zeals there was only a small area of pasture but there was 40 acres in Higher Zeals. There was a considerable difference in population with Higher Zeals being twice as large as Lower but it is doubtful if the difference in pastureland would have accounted for many of these people. Using modern interpretation of Domesday it is likely that the total population was between 125 and 145, with 40 to 50 at Lower Zeals and 85-95 at Higher.
What became the manor house of Zeals Clevedon was probably on the site of the present Zeals House and there was a small village around it. This settlement later disappeared, possibly removed by the landowner or devastated by illness, and a new settlement seems to have appeared at Long Cross. The free chapel, under Mere Church, is recorded at Zeals Clevedon in 1585. This manor obtained its name from the Clevedon family who owned it at one time although its earlier owners were the de Seles (of Zeals) family. This manor was later bought by the Chafyn family in the later 16th century.
The manor of Zeals Aylesbury, again named after one-time owners, could have had a manor house at Winbrook and a mill at Wolverton. There seem to have been several small settlements here. After being held by various families it passed into the hands of Thomas Chafyn de Seals Clevedon, grandson of Thomas Chafyn of Warminster. It then passed to the Groves by marriage when John Grove married Mary, daughter of William (died 1695) and Mary (died 1712) Chafyn in 1686. The family rebuilt Zeals House, which still retains some medieval features although most of the house is 18th century and Victorian. The earliest record of a house on the site is from 1304 when it appears to have been surrounded by a defensive moat. The Chafyn family first appear at Zeals House in 1452 and the last member of the family only left in 1968.
Unfortunately there are few early records relating to Zeals and it is very difficult to deduce the development of settlement here. It was doubtless an agricultural community and by the late 17th century flax appeared as a crop in this area. Flax spinning and weaving developed first in Wolverton for bed ticking, linen bed sacks that that could be stuffed with hay, straw or other materials. This was a cottage industry controlled by merchants and importers of foreign flax that was mixed with the local crop. During the 18th century Upper Zeals was fairly densely populated with many cottages; most of the owners were employed spinning flax or weaving it into linen. In the 1820s, by which time the local industry had fallen on hard times, brown tick for mattresses cost one shilling (5p) a yard and linen for sheets cost 1/3d (about 6p) a yard.
By the beginning of the 19th century some of this work had gone and other employment was chiefly at Zeals House or on the Chafyn Grove estate or on tenanted farms. Later in the century some people worked in the silk mills at Mere. There were never many small businesses in the village although in the 1860s there was a draper and grocer, a butcher, brewer a painter and glazier, a plumber, a builder and blacksmith and two boot and shoemakers. In the second half of the 19th century watercress beds were established at Winbrook and Wolverton and the industry continued to the mid 20th century. The cress was exported in special hampers via Gillingham railway station. After 1971 the beds at Wolverton were converted to a trout farm. In 1880 the linen industry suffered its final decline.
The Chafyn Grove family proved great benefactors in the second half of the 19th century. In 1865 four almshouses, now known as Chafyn Grove Cottages, were provided by William Chafyn Grove. The other good works were carried out by his sister, Julia Chafyn Grove, who was also a benefactor to Mere, Wincanton, Salisbury Cathedral and the Chafyn Grove School at Salisbury. In 1875 she provided a two tier drinking fountain and a year later provided many fittings and a spire for the church of St. Martin that had been built in 1846. In 1888 she provided the village hall although only organisations of which she approved, and she was a strong Tory, could use it.
Zeals had always been a tithing of Mere but two years after the church was built, in 1848, Zeals became a separate ecclesiastical parish. At the end of the century it was to become a separate civil parish as well. A meeting was convened to discuss this in 1895 and parish councillors elected for Zeals in 1896. It was constituted a civil parish in 1897. Up to the 1880s all letters and other post had come through Bath, Mere, Wincanton and Warminster at different times. By 1889 Zeals had its own post office at the corner of Bell’s Lane. Later it was at Winbrook from 1920 until it closed in 1994, when it moved into Zeals Garage.
Zeals has grown substantially in the 20th century and has experienced much. The Zeals Temperance Band had been formed before the First World War and provided music at many local functions. By 1930 the abstaining zeal of its members had waned and it was renamed the Zeals St. Martins’ Silver Band. Flax was still grown locally and during the First World War women replaced the men, who were serving at the front, in pulling flax, and also worked in the munitions factory at Bourton. In 1933 the firm of Heals began their transport business, mainly transporting agricultural produce and materials. The business grew, particularly after the Second World War, and was eventually taken over in 1987 by another local firm. In 1938 water was piped to the village from Mere but many cottages continued to use their wells until after the war had ended.
On the outbreak of war, in 1939, part of St. Martin’s Farm and part of Manor Farm were taken over for an airfield. The total area was 530 acres and there was a great influx of workers and machinery. The airfield was operational by August 1942 as a RAF fighter base with Spitfires stationed here at first. In October 1944 it became No. 3 Glider Training School and in March 1945 was transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service as HMS Hummingbird, a satellite of Yeovilton. During the war Zeals House was requisitioned as the RAF Officers’ Mess and the old British School was used as a canteen for the troops. Evacuees from Portsmouth were also billeted in the village. The war years saw two communities here, the village and ‘the base’, which was on 11 different sites. In November 1945 all units were evacuated from the base.
The airfield was returned to agricultural use, the runways had been grass, and many of the huts provided homes for displaced people – up to 140 at one time. Council houses were built at Westfields later and accommodated people living in the huts. In the 1960s the old airfield control tower was converted into a house – Tower House – and a programme of house and bungalow building began. In 1970-75 a total of 74 bungalows were built at Zeals Rise and people from London were attracted to these. The village, which had suffered from the continual traffic on the A303 was bypassed and regained its peace from 13 July 1992. A tree was planted on the Green and the schoolchildren planted a time capsule there. Further changes included the replacement of prefabricated Woolaway houses by ones built in brick in 1994-5 and in 1995 Nectar Imports moved from Mere to the old hatcheries in Bell’s Lane. Today much of the commercial life is centred around Zeals Garage, which began as a taxi service in 1946, and which, as well as the post office, has a well stocked shop.