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Wiltshire Community History

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Malmesbury

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 Malmesbury:

Map of the Civil Parish of Malmesbury

1890s
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, 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:


Malmesbury is an ancient place built on a steep hill almost encircled by the Tetbury and Sherston branches of the River Avon, which unite at the south of the town. The site is easily defended with the older parts of the town being on an outcrop of cornbrash at over 75 metres. Lower parts of the parish are on beds of Kellaway Clay and Oxford Clay. There has long been a tradition of an early defended site here and in 2000 an excavation revealed a section of a substantial Iron Age hill fort with a bank at least 4 metres wide.

It would seem that Mailduib, an Irish monk or hermit, settled here and gathered a group of pupils around him. This may have been the nucleus of the first monastery and it seems likely that the place-name is derived from Mailduib, although it has been suggested that confusion between his name and Aldhelm has resulted in the modern name. Certainly the earlier forms, from reliable 8th century texts, are Maildufi or Maldubiensis.

One of Mailduib's pupils was Aldhelm (c.640-709), a Saxon who was a member of the Royal House of Wessex. He took over the monastery and Abbey c.675 and after a visit to Rome the Abbey came under direct Papal jurisdiction. Aldhelm was a learned man, a writer, poet and skilful architect who began the work on the abbey buildings and also founded the church and monastery at Bradford-on-Avon. Around 700 he built what is believed to be the first organ in England at the Abbey. He left Malmesbury in 705 to become Bishop of Sherborne and four years later was buried in his beloved Malmesbury Abbey after his death at Doulting, Somerset. He was later canonised.

A settlement grew around the Abbey and this became a local trading centre by the 9th century. In 730 it was one of four places in Wiltshire listed among the 112 settlements of the Burghal Hidage. These were fortified centres and the town walls of Malmesbury could have extended to 1650 yards in length. Around 878 Malmesbury was sacked by the Danes for the first time but the Abbey was spared. The town recovered and continued to develop and was probably one of the most important in the county by the early 11th century when moneyers were working here.

Another national figure connected with Malmesbury was King Athelstan (925-940). He was a great Saxon king and a benefactor of the town. His standard bearer, Godwyn, came from the town and many Malmsburians fought for him in his battles. He endowed the Abbey library and gave common land, the King's Heath, to the freemen in 939, although the charter has been lost.

In the Domesday Book (1085) the town is placed at the head of the Wiltshire entry and has the most detailed description of any Wiltshire community. There are likely to have been 100 households or more and it was one of five mints mentioned in the county.

In 1100 the castle of Malmesbury was built by Roger Le Poer, Bishop of Salisbury, close to the west end of the Abbey with the intention of annoying the monks. The castle played an important role in the siege of Malmesbury in 1153 during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud. The town was held for Stephen but was captured by the Duke of Anjou (later Henry II), Maud's son. Owing to escalating friction between the soldiers and monks it was ordered that the castle be destroyed and much of it was in 1216. There are some remains in, and under, the Bell Hotel.

It is likely that a new town wall was built in the 1130s following the line of the earlier defences. The street plan of the town was established within these by the late 13th century and has remained little changed to this day. There has been much dispute over the claim that Marlborough is the oldest borough in England, dating back to 939, or 880 according to one erroneous writer. What happened was that in 1381 the burgesses sought royal confirmation of various exemptions and privileges that had been granted to them by King Athelstan. The charter they put forward was accepted by the authorities but modern scholars have found it to be a post-conquest forgery. This was a common practice and the earlier a fabricated charter could be dated the better as the clerks who judged it had little experience of Saxon charters. Doubtless Athelstan did give Malmesbury a charter but boroughs as such did not exist until after the Norman Conquest.

The early history of Malmesbury can seem a little confusing as there were three separate areas in what is now the town - the Benedictine Abbey, Malmesbury and Westport. Until the Dissolution of monasteries the Abbey was a separate area owning most of the land around Malmesbury under religious jurisdiction, after which it became part of the borough of Malmesbury. Westport was a separate settlement and parish outside the west gate of Malmesbury, with its own church from Saxon times. It remained separate until 1872 when most of the settlement was assigned to the new Malmesbury urban sanitary district and was included in Malmesbury municipal borough in 1886. The Westport part of the borough became the civil parish of Westport St. Mary Within in 1894 and remained so until 1934 when it was merged with other civil parishes to form a new Malmesbury parish.

With three separate administrations there were several markets and fairs. Until 1223 there was a Saturday market at the graveyard of St. Paul's Church but it then moved to the 'new market', which could have been the area where the market cross stands. This stone octagonal cross is late 15th century, is 41 feet high and is one of the finest in England. The market around the cross ceased in c.1890. A Thursday market for Westport was granted in 1252 and both the Triangle and Horsefair in Westport could have been the sites of markets and fairs. Malmesbury Abbey was granted a 3 day fair, later extended to 8 days, around St. Aldhelm's day in May by William I, while in 1252 there was a fair of St. James (25th July) on their Whitchurch manor. This abundance of markets and fairs would seem to indicate a prosperous and thriving community that was at the centre of a fair-sized farming area.

Other fairs were added by a borough charter of 1635 for March, April and October. Certain areas were known by the names of these fairs - Horsefair and Sheepfair (now the Triangle) - and there was a separate cattle market area. Although Malmesbury's importance as a market town became less over the centuries it remained one until the 20th century, with the Cross Hayes being used as a market place when the earlier market area proved too small.

The Abbey and monastery continued to exercise a great influence over the town. Apart from its abbots and a cellarer called Faritius, who had great medical skill and became Abbot of Abingdon, one of the best known of its people was William of Malmesbury. He was born near the end of the 11th century and died around 1143, and became librarian of the fine library of the Abbey. He collected many other books for the library and wrote several himself including ones on the histories of kings and bishops. He was a good Latin scholar and his style is vivid and interesting. Much of our knowledge of the late Saxon period is the result of his writings.

The Abbey had been completed in the reign of Henry II in the latter half of the 12th century and remained little altered until the second half of the 13th century. There were also several other small religious buildings - hospitals, almshouses and chapels - in the town. A very energetic abbot, William of Colerne, made many alterations and improvements, built new buildings and provided the monastery with a water supply via a 3 1/2 mile conduit in 1284. Extensive alterations were carried out in the 14th century and an ill-conceived centrol tower was built over the two western bays of the nave. This fell around 1660 wrecking the western end of the church.

On the dissolution in 1539 the Abbey was bought by the clothier William Stumpe. The production of woollen cloth was the chief industry of the town in medieval times and in 1542 John Leland reported that 3,000 cloths a year were woven here. Stumpe housed up to 20 looms in the monastic buildings and was instrumental in the town acquiring the Abbey church to use as a parish church. The cloth industry remained important until the mid 17th century but then declined and ceased c.1750. It was revived c.1790 and a new mill, Burton Hill Mill, was built outside the urban area. It was originally water-powered but had a steam engine by 1838 and continued with cloth production until the 1840s.

The mill was converted to silk production c.1850 with 56 power looms. It closed soon after 1900 but re-opened in 1923 and continued in operation until c.1950. It has now been converted to residential use. Leather working had also been a prominent industry in medieval times and gloving was also an early industry. Apart from these the other local industries were those typical of a small market town.

Malmesbury saw a fair amount of action during the Civil War. In 1642 it was apparently on the Parliamentary side but submitted to the Royalists on 3rd February 1643. On 23rd March it was taken by Sir William Waller for the Parliamentarians but their new governor, Sir Edward Hungerford, changed sides and surrendered the town to the Royalists on 5th April. It may have changed hands twice more before it was recaptured for Parliament on 24th May 1644 and a garrison of 1,000 was there until late 1646. The effects of these continued sieges and occupations would have been traumatic for both townspeople and local country dwellers and many buildings in Westport, including the church, also suffered as this was the only route by which the town could be attacked. A splendid 'birds eye' view of the walled town was drawn in 1646 and a limited edition of 175 copies in colour was produced in 1995.

Malmesbury was of some strategic importance, being on the route from Oxford to Bristol and the west, and parts of its castle and most of the town walls were still standing. Another major routeway was southwards to Chippenham, along a route that was called the Kingsway c.1100. The road northwards to Cirencester went via Tetbury until 1788 when the present, more direct, route was turnpiked. The road to Wootton Bassett and Swindon is recorded in 1773 but was doubtless in existence much earlier. It was turnpiked in 1809.

Malmesbury is believed to be unique in having two Corporations, the Old and the New. The Old originates in those freemen to whom the King's Heath was given and consisted of Commoners who elected a High Steward. The Old Corporation also chose the members of Parliament from 1295 until 1832, by which time it had become one of the more notorious rotten boroughs. In 1886 Malmesbury was incorporated as a municipal borough and the New Corporation took over the running of the borough while administration of many of the local charities was left with the Old Corporation who also continued with their role with King's Heath.

From the 18th century the town has been mainly a local centre for commerce, manufacture and administration. During this period one of the chief occupations was lace, which was made at home. This declined in the 19th century owing to factory competition but women and children were still making pillow lace at home throughout that century. There was a revival after 1900 under the Countess of Suffolk and a lace-making school opened. Most lace production ceased after 1914 however.

The 19th century saw an increase in population, although this was largely a case of more people in the same small area, and the usual introduction of modern services. A gasworks was proposed in 1835 and was started in 1848 as the Malmesbury Gas & Coke Co. It was taken over by the South Western Gas Board in 1866. A public cemetery was opened in 1884. Electricity became generally available through the Western Electricity Distributory Corporation in 1923. The Malmesbury Water Works Co. Ltd. had built a pumping house c.1864 and a water tower around the same date. The waterworks were transferred to the borough in 1900.

A railway line had been proposed in 1864 but Malmesbury did not have a rail link until 1877 when a branch line from the Great Western Railway line at Dauntsey was opened. A small station was built to the north of the Abbey church. The passenger service ceased in 1951 but a freight service continued until 1963 when the station was closed.

In the 20th century the town has expanded greatly beyond the old line of its town walls in the former parish of Westport, which is the only area of fairly level ground around the old town. The borough council built many houses between 1931 and 1956 and continued until 1972. Developments in the last quarter of the century were almost entirely private including an estate of 300 houses at Reed's Farm. In 1973 the town was relieved of some traffic when a bypass was built for the Chippenham to Cirencester road to the east of the town. The medieval streets are now protected by a 20 m.p.h. speed limit but, like most old towns, the streets are full of vehicles.

New industries have come to Malmesbury. Just before the Second World War E.K. Cole Ltd., later EKCO, relocated to Malmesbury, making radios and electrical and electronic equipment. They were absorbed in the Pye Group in 1963 but continued production in the town. In 1941 Linolite Ltd. set up in the town making light fittings and other electrical components. They became a subsidiary of the General Electric and Electronics Corporation. A more recent arrival has been the inventor James Dyson who has built an award-winning factory at Tetbury Hill and whose companies employ over 4,000 people. Much of the production is now (2003) likely to be relocated overseas.

Today Malmesbury is a magnet for tourists. Situated on the fringe of the Cotswolds its Abbey, early buildings and narrow streets are a considerable attraction. A range of establishments is available to serve the visitors and these include many of the early inns and public houses. One of the earliest surviving is the King's Arms, open in the late 17th century and named for the restoration of Charles II. A landlord at the turn of the century was so well-known that letters addressed to 'Harry Jones, England' or merely with a drawing of his trademark top hat were correctly delivered. The Old Bell was known as the Castle, on whose site it stands, in 1703 and the Bell by 1798.

Other settlements in the parish include Burton Hill, which has long been a small suburb of the town and included, in the 13th century, the hospital of St. Mary Magdalene. Houses for workers in the new mill were built here in the late 18th early 19th centuries. Cowbridge in the 18th century consisted only of a mill and a large house. Cowbridge House was rebuilt in 1853. Milbourne was a settlement in the Middle Ages and in the 17th and 18th centuries comprised farmsteads along the village street. There was little building in the 19th century and most other houses here date from the second half of the 20th century.

CouncilWiltshire Council
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Parish CouncilMalmesbury Town Council
Parish Web Site 
Parish Emailadministration@malmesbury.gov.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 Malmesbury

Folk Biographies from Malmesbury

Folk Plays from Malmesbury

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

Listed Buildings: The number of buildings, or groups of buildings, listed, as being of architectural or historical importance, is 282. There are seven Grade I listings, The Old Bell, St. Paul's Bell Tower, the Market Cross, the Abbey, Abbey House, Arch in Abbey House Gardens and Court House, and 13 Grade II* listings.

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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