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Wiltshire Community History

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Steeple Ashton

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.

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.

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.

Map of the Civil Parish of Steeple Ashton:

Map of the Civil Parish of Steeple Ashton

Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

From the Ordnance Survey 1896 revision of the one inch to one mile map. The modern civil parish boundary has been superimposed.

Thumbnail History:

The village of Steeple Ashton has its origins in Saxon times, although parts of the parish have been occupied at different times since the Bronze Age. It is three miles to the east of Trowbridge, on a low plateau of Corallian limestone, providing a lighter soil than the adjacent lower ground. Most land in the parish is over 250 feet and the soil is favourable for arable farming. The original name was Ashton until the second half of the 13th century. This referred to the villages of Steeple Ashton and West Ashton; in 1248 the name 'Westaston' is recorded, while 'Stepelaston' appears in 1268. The steeple prefix was given as the church tower once had a steeple on top.
The ecclesiastical parish once had tithings of West Ashton, Great Hinton, Semington and Littleton; these are now three separate civil parishes, leaving Steeple Ashton as a small and strangely shaped parish. The village itself is very close to the eastern parish boundary with Keevil and this has been the case since Saxon times. In 1897 part of the parish, the houses and a factory on the outskirts of Trowbridge were transferred to Trowbridge Urban District Council. The factory, Ashton Mill had been built outside the town boundary to escape the higher town rate, which was one reason why the change was made.

The village lies on a minor road from Trowbridge and Hilperton to Bratton, but until the later 18th century this was a major route from Salisbury across the Plain to Tinhead and then through Edington, Steeple Ashton and Stoney Gutter to Trowbridge. Until the later part of the 20th century there was little growth in the village after the decline of the main road, and the centre is little changed since that time. Many of the houses have later facades covering much earlier houses. The village still has the aspect of the small town it once was. The High Street, Green, market cross and lock up, with a small network of streets to the east, and dominated by a magnificent church, is the nucleus of an urban area. There is a good variety of houses with cruck construction, timber framing and larger houses of imported stone from Bradford on Avon. There are cobbled pavements in some streets.

There does not appear to have been any long-standing settlement in the parish before the Saxon period, although there is evidence of occupation from the Bronze Age. At Elmsgate, to the south of the village, a Bronze Age cemetery has been found, while pottery of the period has found north of the village, south of Ashton Hill. This could indicate a small settlement with a burial ground beyond their cultivated fields. South west of the village a scatter of pottery and bone fragments at Spiers Piece Farm indicate a late Bronze Age or early Iron Age site. This could have been a single farmstead or may have been a few dwellings, coins from the Romano-British period have been found near Stourton Plantation, south of Ashton Hill and west of Southbrook farm; pottery has also been found at Loppinger Farm. This is insufficient to suggest much in the way of settlement at this period but it is likely that this area would have been under cultivation and it is likely that there was a farm here, probably near the site of the present Loppinger Farm.

Saxon settlement is likely to have taken place quite early, probably in the 7th century. The first record of a settlement here is in 964 when the estate was owned by King Edgar; it sets out the boundaries and shows that at that time the estate of Ashton included Semington, Great Hinton, West Ashton, North Bradley and Southwick, as well as Steeple Ashton itself. On his death this estate was given to the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Romsey in Hampshire. Most Saxon buildings and utensils were of wood and so little evidence has survived, or been found, to indicate the area of Saxon occupation. However it would seem reasonable to suppose that later Saxon settlement, from the 10th Century, was on the site of the present village. The estate itself surrounded the whole of the eastern and southern boundaries of Hilperton and Trowbridge, extending to the Somerset border, where Romsey Oak Farm on the county boundary preserves both the name of the owners and a former estate boundary marker.

At the time of the Domesday Survey (1086) the Romsey Abbey Ashton estate is listed as a single entity and it is not possible to determine any details for Steeple Ashton. However, it is likely that the 8 serfs would have been working the 9 plough teams on the lands the abbey cultivated itself near the village and one of the three mills is most likely to have been on the site of Ashton Mill. The total population of the estate would have been around 400 and it seems reasonable to suppose that around 150 of these would have lived in Steeple Ashton. Outside the village there were medieval settlements at Great and Little Albery Brook Farm and Loppings Farm that may have originated in the 12th century. What became Steeple Ashton manor was worked by the abbey and villagers (unfree tenants) who each had strips of land scattered throughout the large common fields. The villagers paid for the land they farmed by working for several days of the week on the Abbey's land. The open fields were surrounded by great tracts of common lands, particularly in the clay vale to the north of the village. Romsey Abbey also held the adjacent manor of Edington and the whole of this very large property was administered from Steeple Ashton. The manorial courts were held here, rents were paid and the abbey's bailiff lived in the village and administered the estate.

We do not know the date of founding of the original church but by 1252 the church was served by a vicar, the steeple is first mentioned in 1268, while the dedication to St. Mary the Virgin is first recorded in 1281. Until the 13th Century the people of North Bradley, Southwick and Semington had to come to church at Steeple Ashton but by then they had their own churches at North Bradley and Semington.

In 1266 the right to hold a weekly market, on Wednesdays and a three day fair on 7th, 8th and 9th September, was obtained by the nuns and provided an additional source of income for them. The village became a small market town and in 1334 it paid more taxes than either Trowbridge or Westbury. In 1377 there were 260 poll tax pages (aged 14 and over) in Steeple Ashton making it the 18th largest community in the county. There was much evasion of this tax however and so the position may be slightly different in terms of actual population.

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries there was an increase in the number of sheep being kept, which led to overstocking on the commons. Around 1400 the stone hall of the Old Parsonage (once the vicarage) was built while the hall range of The Sanctuary is 15th century or earlier. There were also houses in Dark Lane by the 15th century. Towards the end of this century the cloth industry became important in Steeple Ashton as it did in other local towns and villages. Besides spinners and weavers there were wealthy clothiers, men who owned the wool and cloth throughout its various processes in the workers' own homes. There was great prosperity around 1500 when Robert Long and Walter Lucas were flourishing. These two wealthy clothiers provided the money for building an aisle each of the church and as Long died in 1501 it would appear that his business must have been good for the previous 20 to 30 years. The town suffered a serious fire c.1503 and John Aubrey wrote in the middle of the next century, that this led to the decline of the market in favour of the one at Market Lavington. Around this time, and probably after the fire, the western side of the southern part of the High Street was built up with substantial houses for people of means. These included numbers 48 (Black Barn Farmhouse) and number 52, and possibly numbers 56, 58 and 60. Anthony St. Lemon, the son of the Romsey Abbey bailiff, also built Ashton House. By 1524 Steeple Ashton had fallen behind its neighbouring towns although there were still prosperous clothiers here in the 1540s. Unfortunately there were no streams in the village to power fulling mills that were necessary for pounding or fulling the cloth and, following a general tendency in the late 16th century the clothiers congregated in the larger towns. When Leland visited in 1540 he commented "a pretty little market town" and "it standith much by clothiers". This was probably the peak for the village and by 1600 all the prosperous clothiers were gone, although the domestic workers remained.

By the mid 16th Century much arable land lay in the six open fields. A weather boarded farm from this period still survives at Black Barn Farm. Just before Romsey Abbey was dissolved the manor passed to Thomas, Lord Seymour, but on his execution in 1549 it passed to the Crown. In 1557 the manor house and home farm were separated from the manor and this descended to William Paulet, the Marquis of Winchester. The tenant on the late 16th century was John Greenhill; around this time the dwelling house now known as Old Merchant's Hall was built.

In the 17th century several timber framed houses were built, including the Rose & Crown, while the stone built Longs Arms dates from the early 17th century. Walter Long of Whaddon bought the manor in 1630 and it remained in the family until the 20th century, by which time their main seat was at Rood Ashton. In 1601 the manor house and farm were sold to the tenant John Greenhill and he then seems to have begun enclosing common land. Other tenants brought a case against him for this in 1604 but he countered by saying that they had also been enclosing lands. It would seem that enclosure began in the early 17th century and certainly some lands were enclosed by the end of that century. Harry Greenhill sold the manor house and farm to John Bennett in 1624 and it may have been him who built the new three storey manor house and contemporary farm buildings in 1647. The market must have ceased in the latter part of the 16th Century but an attempt was made to revive it in 1679 when the present market cross was built.

During the 17th and 18th centuries cloth working - carding, spinning and weaving - was carried on in the workers' homes for the clothiers living in nearby towns. Carding and spinning became mechanised and moved to factories in the towns around 1790 but weaving continued on cottage hand looms until the 1860s. During these two centuries many weavers built cottages by enclosing small areas of common land at Common Hill, Ashton Hill and Bleet. By the 18th century the attempts to revive the market had failed, although there were often a doctor and a lawyer with a few minor tradesmen still living in what had again become a village. However the road through the village from Salisbury to Bath was still an important one; it was turnpiked in 1752 and only declined in the late 18th century when the Wylye Valley route (today's A36) was improved. By 1754 the Rose and Crown was licensed and the Coach and Horses, which later became the Longs Arms, were serving travellers in the heyday of this road. The 18th century also saw more houses built and some of the timber-framed houses given stone facades to make them appear modern. Such a facade was put on Ashton House in 1724, while brick infill also replaced wattle and daub in some of the timber-framed houses. Among the new houses were the former post office and shop on the green, Thorn House, and Bartlett's Farm. In 1773 the octagonal stone blind house, or lock up, was built on the green; this was probably because the Whorwellsdown courts were held here, and because of the situation on a major road, than for the size and importance of the village at that time. At the end of the century, in 1799, the Manor House and farm were sold to Richard Long of Rood Ashton, thereby uniting the Steeple Ashton part of the Romsey Abbey manor once again.

In early 19th century the process of land enclosure that had begun in the early 17th century was completed. The 1813 Inclosure Act for Steeple Ashton led to the enclosing of the open fields, High Field, Middle Field, and Moor Field, and the common pastures of Albury, Raydown, and Laydown, plus the common meadow at Dodsmead. In 1818 the large commons in the north and elsewhere were enclosed. New farms were built on the newly enclosed farmlands at Spiers Piece, Newgrounds, Raydon, Brach, and Green Lane. Around 1840 a school in the Tudor style was built to serve both Steeple Ashton and West Ashton. People from both villages were attending Steeple Ashton church until 1847 when a church was built in Rood Ashton Park for the people of West Ashton. Manor Farm, which had been let for £670 a year in 1844, embraced high farming techniques in the 1850s when a new large stone building was erected and a steam engine, was brought in to work farm machinery.

Non-conformity really took root in the mid 19th century; a Methodist chapel was built in 1854, while in the 1850s the village became a centre of Mormonism. In 1864 an early 19th century stone house was converted into a Baptist chapel. Some Mormons left the village and emigrated to the U.S.A. Other villagers who remained and worked for the Long family were re-housed in estate cottages built in 1877, 1879 and 1901, opposite the estate office and yard.

There was little other new building until the 1930s when a small council house estate was built to the north of the village. Ashton House had been carefully restored by Sir Harold Breakspear, who also added a new wing at the rear and removed the inserted hall floor and ceilings to expose the fine timbered roof. During World War 2 Keevil airfield was built, much of it in Steeple Ashton parish. This resulted in great improvements in local roads and transport. After the war many Poles had temporary accommodation in disused buildings at the airfield and this continued until the closure of the hostel in 1956. Houses at Newleaze were built after the war.

The Rose and Crown closed in 1969 but the Longs Arms continues to serve the village and a wider area. Individual and small groups of private houses have been built from the 1970s and the village is now a desirable residential location. Unfortunately numbers at the school fell, owing to some village children going to private schools and others attending the school at Keevil and in July 2003 the school closed. However, after the closure of the post office and shop, the village set up a very successful community shop, which involves a large number of local people.

CouncilWiltshire Council
Web Sitewww.wiltshire.gov.uk
Parish CouncilSteeple Ashton Parish Council
Parish Web Site 
Parish Emailstapc@btinternet.com

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

Schools: Information on both current and closed schools.

Population 1801 - 2011

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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.

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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 Steeple Ashton

Folk Biographies from Steeple Ashton

Folk Plays from Steeple Ashton

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 historic importance is 67. There is one Grade I building, The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and five Grade II*, The Manor House, the Granary at the Manor House, the Old Parsonage, Black Barn Cottage, and the Sanctuary.

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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