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Wiltshire Community History

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This page is one of 261 pages covering every community in Wiltshire, and is provided by Wiltshire Council Libraries and Heritage. A project to provide a fuller picture of each community is in progress, working on the larger communities first. When these 261, which are modern civil parishes, are completed we will begin work on a further 180 villages and hamlets to provide comprehensive coverage of Wiltshire communities large and small.

Map of the Civil Parish of Sherston:

Map of the Civil Parish of Sherston

Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

From the Ordnance Survey 1890s revision of the one inch to one mile map. The modern civil parish boundary has been superimposed.

From Andrews' and Dury's Map of Wiltshire, 1773:

From Andrews' and Dury's Map of Wiltshire, 1773

Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham

From Andrews' and Dury's Map of Wiltshire, 1773:

From Andrews' and Dury's Map of Wiltshire, 1773

Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham

From Andrews' and Dury's Map of Wiltshire, 1810:

From Andrews' and Dury's Map of Wiltshire, 1810

Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham

This is a corrected and updated edition of the 1773 map that includes the recently built canals.

Thumbnail History:

Sherston is a very attractive village set in the north-west of Wiltshire. The large parish includes the hamlets of Pinkney, or Sherston Parva, to the north east, and Willesley and Knockdown on the northern boundary. The parish once extended further to the north and included Silk Wood, now part of the Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. Other settlements are farms, with their associated buildings. The village is about 5.5 miles from both Malmesbury and Tetbury. The older part is on a spur of land formed by the Sherston branch of the River Avon, with the earliest settlement on the flat top of this spur around the church.

Geologically most of the parish is on Forest Marble, with the main settlement on a harder shelly limestone part of the bed. The present chief route is the road from Malmesbury to Acton Turville and Chipping Sodbury and this has been the case for many centuries. An earlier route is the Roman Foss Way and this forms the south-eastern boundary of the parish. The name is Saxon and means a rocky hill with a steep slope but it is unknown whether this was a defensive site or merely one taking advantage of higher ground near a river crossing.

There is little evidence of prehistoric activity although there was a bank and a ditch to the west of the church. This could have been defensive or it might have been a land boundary. Flint arrowheads have been found in the area with remains suggesting flint working, although flint does not occur naturally in the area. Roman coins have been discovered locally since the 17th century, not a surprising fact considering the Fosse Way is only 2 or 3 miles from the village. In 1987 a Romano British farm house was discovered near Vancelettes farm, to the north of the village. This was originally (c.350) a small house with one room for humans and two for animals although it was enlarged a little later. Farming was mainly sheep and cattle and some evidence of iron working was found. A stone sarcophagus containing the lead coffin of a child was found with other burials, mostly infants. The farmstead was attacked, possibly in the early 5th century and the remains of the owners were found under the fallen buildings. This may have been in an early raid following the withdrawal of Roman troops or it could have been a local dispute following the breakdown of law and order.

Undoubtedly there was a Saxon settlement here and the first written record occurs in 896 when the name Scorranston is first mentioned. It is most likely that the settlement pre-dates this. The contentious matter of Rattlebone dates from the Saxon period, in the early 11th century. In the mid 17th century John Aubrey records the following piece of doggerel from Sherston;

"Fight well Rattlebone,
Thou shalt have Sherston".
"What shall I with Sherston doe,
Without I have all belongs thereto?"
Thou shalt have Wych and Willesley
Easton towne and Pinkeney".

Sherstonians have always believed that Rattlebone was a famed local Saxon warrior who fought for King Edmund Ironside against the Danish Cnut, or Canute, in 1016 in a local battle. Rattlebone is said to have been wounded and staunched the flow of blood with a stone tile held over his abdomen. A statue on the church was said to represent this and there was also a chest in the church labelled 'R.B.' Alas, the statue is now considered to be that of a priest holding a book while the chest was some centuries younger than the 11th century. Authorities also now believe that the battle was in Hampshire, though not far from the south-eastern border of Wiltshire.

As there is often some basis in fact for most folklore it is possible that the rhyme is an oral tradition preserving the acquisition of land by a Saxon. The chest and statue would have been added to the tale later, long after their original purpose had been forgotten. Saxon Sherston seems to have been a fairly small settlement and this remained the case in Norman times. In the Domesday Survey of 1086 the foreign Abbey of St Wandrille held the church with 3 virgates of land, while Humphrey de Insula held the 6 1/2 hides of Sherston. The total population of the whole estate was only between 55 and 65, although there were also two mills.

The expansion of the community took place in the late 12th century and early
13th century. The new church was built around 1170 and at some point between then and 1241 a borough was planted here by the landowner. This was laid out to the south of the church and the early village and consisted of a large main street or market placed, flanked by burgage plots on either side. These were let to tradesman and craftsmen for a monetary rent, instead of labour on the land of the manor's estate. The slightly awkward nature of the site, on top of a spur, is evidenced by the somewhat narrow entrance to the new market place from alongside the church.

In 1241 a Tuesday weekly market was granted to Matthew Bezill, and it may have been him who created the new borough. He was granted a yearly fair in 1248 on the eve, day and morrow of St Cyrus and a further one in 1252 on that of St. Matthew. Thus had Sherston moved in status from a small village with a Saxon church to a new borough with a larger church, craftsmen, artisans, markets and fairs. The latter would have attracted people from all the surrounding villages. The burgage plots can still be clearly seen in the properties fronting the High Street and smaller houses were built at the backs of these plots with Back Road, now Cliff Road, to the west and Back Lane, now Grove Road, to the east being established.

The one remaining building from the medieval period would seem to be Balcony House, rebuilt in the late 17th century, other buildings doubtless contain medieval masonry and foundations, while the Tolsey is probably on the site of an early small market house. In the 14th century there were 221 poll tax payers in Sherston Magna and 20 in Sherston Parva. As many evasions of payment took place this made Sherston a fair sized place, being larger than Box, Calne, Castle Combe and Corsham. As an indication of the calibre of rector at this period, Henry Chichele, appointed in 1400, became Archbishop of Canterbury from 1414-1443.

So Sherston progressed as a fairly successful small town until a disaster occurred in 1511. As happened in most communities, at some time or another, there was a widespread fire that destroyed most of the town. Many houses would have been timber framed and thatched, although even stone ones were damaged. The town was rebuilt over the next few years with mainly stone houses on the original burgage plots. One of the first to be rebuilt was the Church House in the High Street. By 1511 the market seems to have taken place on a Friday and it did not resume after the fire. It had probably been declining for many years in the face of competition from those of Malmesbury and Tetbury and it was not worth continuing.

Later in the 16th century taxation records show that there was a reasonable spread of wealth in the community but no really wealthy person. This would fit the picture of a small town that did not really develop beyond its initial medieval limits. Two inn buildings date from the late 16th century, the substantial Swan Inn and the fairly large Angel Inn, both of a size fit for a small town.

References to Sherston in the 17th century include the game of stoolball being played in 1630 and an occasional fustian (cloth made of linen and cotton thread) weaver. During the Civil War a party of 240 Royalist horsemen were surprised by William Waller in 1643 at midnight. Around 15 were killed and 25 taken prisoner. Court records that remain from the 1670s paint a picture of minor transgressions. Rubbish and dung were dumped in the High Street, roads were not repaired and the one to Alderton was ploughed up, while broken railings on bridges were not repaired. There were frequent complaints that ditches and water courses were silted up and not cleared while pigs were sometimes kept in the highway. A long standing matter seemed to be that the pillory and ducking stool were defective and eventually it was ordered that a whipping post be set up. In 1678 it was reported 'Door of dungeon to be faulty' - presumably this was the local lock up. Not a great deal seems to have been done about many of these matters.

In the late 17th century there was much rebuilding, especially in the High Street; this is part of the national pattern for this period. The Rattlebone Inn, occupying an important site at the entrance to the market place, the Carpenters' Arms and The Bell (closed late 1930s) all date from this period. This building and re-fronting of earlier houses continued in the 18th century and included the Foresters' Arms (1710 and closed c1950). In 1705 Queen Anne slept in Balcony House on her way to Bath and Sherston must have exhibited an air of quiet prosperity at this time.

From the 1773 Map of Wiltshire, by Andrews and Dury, it can be seen that there were houses in the High Street, Bath Road, Back Lane, Court Street, Silver Street, the area to the east of the church and down the hill to the river, along the Luckington road by the river, a scatter at Pinkney and a more nucleated settlement along the road at Willesley. In both the 18th and 19th centuries there was housing built to the south east of the village.

In 1835 Sherston lost its borough status and officially became a village. Industrial activity came late with a silk mill built in 1872 by Joseph Davenport and Sons providing silks and ribbons. By the 1890s cotton as well as silk was used and weaving continued until 1922. The tannery closed in the early 20th century but the village gained a service being supplied with piped water in 1904. At first this was brought to stand pipes, pumped by a windmill from a bore-hole, and it was not until the inter-war years that most houses were individually connected. In 1905 it was reported that the old Rectory, behind the Rattlebone Inn and dating at least from the 15th century, was derelict and it was pulled down.

After the First World War the village experienced many changes. The Sherston Men's Club started in the British Schoolroom in 1920 while on 1st June that year the Trinity Fair, suspended in 1914, was held once again. This was a pleasure fair in the High Street during the day and the official Court Leet and Court Baron were held at 6.30pm. Later this became a two day fair and c.1953 it was moved to the Recreation Ground. In the early 1920s George Evans started the first garage while in 1922 the silk mill closed with both looms and many of the workers moving to Malmesbury. On the community front the scout movement was established locally in 1929 and in 1933 Pennymead was bought for the village Recreation Ground. It was opened in 1934 and in 1935 the walls were voluntarily rebuilt by 3 villagers whose average age was 69.

After the Second World War the Plant Engineering Co of Birmingham brought the silk mill and established a new factory. A long established business ceased when the corn mill closed in the early 1950s but the village was more than compensated when a sewarage scheme was completed in 1952. During the 1950s the Beaufort Hunt Race Day, on the course at Alderton, gave occasion for a fair and side shows in the High Street while housing developments began to the north west and south east of the village. More housing estates followed in the 1960s and 70s while in 1969 Tubbs Elastics bought the former silk mill and established a new business there weaving elastic.

Sherston has continued to grow slowly with new businesses such as the Sherston Wine Company (1981) and Wiltshire Tracklements (at first in the High Street but now at Pinkney). More houses and a new school are under construction in 2003.

CouncilWiltshire Council
Web Sitewww.wiltshire.gov.uk
Parish CouncilSherston Parish Council
Parish Web Site 
Parish Emailclerk@sherston.org.uk

Churches: Information on both current and disused churches and chapels.

Schools: Information on both current and closed schools.

Population 1801 - 2011

Photographs: If images have been added for this community they are available here.: We hold a collection of over 50,000 photographs of places in Wiltshire in the County Local Studies Library. These may be viewed at this library and copies of out of copyright material may be purchased. We can search for a picture of a building or event if you e-mail us with details.

Historical Sources: A select list of books and articles is listed in 'Printed material'. You may go directly to the actual text from some of these.

Printed Material: This is a select book-list for the community but in the case of a town there may be hundreds more books, pamphlets and journal articles.

The full text of some items is available to view on this site.

The Victoria History of Wiltshire (opens in new window) is a partnership between local authorities and the Institute of Historical Research at London University. The History of Wiltshire is now the largest county history in the country and is still growing. The volumes are divided between general and topographical with Volumes One to Five covering subjects such as prehistory, ecclesiastical, economic and political history. The Volumes from Six onwards are topographical and will ultimately provide a comprehensive and systematic history of every single town and parish in the county.

(opens in new window) Explore Wiltshire's Past web site

Newspapers from 1738: These newspapers covered this community at different times. Newspaper titles in bold text are either the ones you should check first for information about this community.


Maps: listed are maps on which you can find this community. All maps are Ordnance Survey maps.


Archaeological Sites: A Sites and Monuments Record (opens new window) is maintained by the County Archaeology Service and covers some 20,000 sites. The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society was formed in 1853 and have been publishing an annual journal since 1854. The journal contains both substantial articles and shorter notes on archaeological excavations, finds, museum objects, local history, genealogy and natural history.

Folk Arts:

Folk Songs from Sherston

Folk Biographies from Sherston

Folk Plays from Sherston

History of Buildings: The collections of the Wiltshire Buildings Record are housed in the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre at Chippenham.

Listed Buildings: There are 76 buildings, or groups of buildings, in the parish listed as being of architectural or historical importance. There is one Grade I listing - the Church of the Holy Cross - and 4 Grade II listings - 1 and 3 Cliff Road, Court House, 19 and 21 High Street, and Old Swan House.

English Heritage and National Monuments Record

Local Authors: There could be an author who was born or has lived in this community.

Literary Associations: Some communities have featured in novels or may have been the main setting for a book.

Registration Districts: If you want to obtain a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate you can contact the local registrar.


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