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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.

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.

Map of the Civil Parish of Bratton:

Map of the Civil Parish of Bratton

Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham

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 civil parish of Bratton, created in 1895, lies within Westbury Hundred and extends over 3,695 acres. The long, narrow shape of the parish is characteristic of the "springline parishes" which lie along the northern edge of Salisbury Plain from Westbury, through Bratton, Edington and West Lavington. Approximately two thirds of the parish lies on chalk downs to the south, rising to a height of over 750 ft. near Bratton Castle Iron Age camp. The northern section of the parish is low-lying clay land, with hedge-enclosed fields. Between chalk and clay lies a belt of Upper Greensand, and the village of Bratton is located at a point where springs emerge from the porous Greensand between the meadow land of the clay vale and the arable and downland above.

The chalk escarpment behind the Upper Greensand belt has set a limit to the village settlement to the south. The eastern boundary of the parish has been determined by the course of the stream known in the Middle Ages as the Milbourne and later as the Stradbrook, fed by the the Luccombe and Church Springs, and by a steep slope of the downs. The medieval name "Milbourne" has led to the section of the east-west, West Lavington to Westbury road which runs through the centre of the village being given the name of "Melbourne Street". The western boundary of the parish largely follows a ridge between two dry valley systems.

The West Lavington to Westbury road runs at the foot of the chalk downs. A road from Steeple Ashton in the north joins this road at the western end of Bratton village and a former toll-house stands at the junction; another tollgate was located near the Court House. The road from Imber was turnpiked in 1778 and a gate located at Stradbrook. Minor roads within the parish include a track running south-west from the village to join the Westbury-Chitterne road; this was a turnpiked road between 1751 and 1775 but is now merely a track. A road running from Bratton to Westbury north of the present east-west road, is also now a track. A number of roads in the parish originated as drove roads, by means of which livestock were moved to water and pasture.

The figure known as the Westbury White Horse is cut out of the chalk on a slope of Bratton Down, in the west of the parish. It has been suggested by a number of historians that the earthwork of Bratton Castle above it, an ancient camp of 23 acres protected by a double row of earthworks rising in parts 35 feet high, might be the site to which the Danes retreated after their defeat by Alfred at Ethandun. Others have repudiated this theory. No evidence appears to exist to connect the horse with Alfred.

The white horse is 180 feet long and 107 feet high. In 1778 Lord Abingdon had the horse remodelled; the existing horse was the oldest white horse in Wiltshire. Drawings of the horse show that it faced right rather than left, and the early twentieth century traveller, A.G. Bradley, described the impression gained from drawings: "[it] had a long narrow body on short legs, long up-curled tail forked at the end, an upstanding, arched and thick neck, a small head with a sharp-pointed snout, and enormous eye - a nightmare-looking animal". The horse was further repaired and partly re-cut in 1872 and in 1957 kerbstones and concrete were added to the figure.

The Domesday survey makes two references to holdings which, it has been suggested, relate to Bratton and Dilton: the first reference describes the wider "Westberie", held by the king, having been held before the Conquest by Queen Edith, of which a smaller portion is held by William Scudet. The second reference alludes to William Scudet as holding the (apparently) same portion of land ("Wesberie") as a servant of the king. Here it is stated that Ulward held the land in the time of King Edward and it paid geld for 4 and a half hides; there was land for 7 ploughs, with 4 ploughs in demesne. The population at this time for both Bratton and Dilton may be estimated as between 80 and 100. Poll-tax payers in 1377 numbered 149 in Bratton. There were 20 acres of meadow, 4 acres of woodland and 2 mills paying 25s.

In 1086 the king held the manor of Westbury, as successor to Queen Edith. Subsequent fragmentation of the manor included grants by Henry II in the 12th century which gave rise to manors which included that of Bratton. In 1256, at the death of Walter Pavely who held the manor of Westbury, the hamlet of Stoke was still part of the manor. In 1368 Stoke and Milborne were included in the holdings and assets which were allotted to two of the grandaughters of Sir John Pavely, descendant of Walter Paveley. These holdings descended by inheritance until Charles, Lord Stourton, owner at the time, was executed in 1557 for the murder of Thomas Hartgill, at which point the lands were forfeited to the Crown. In 1570 the estate, now known as Westbury Stourton, and continuing to include land in Bratton, was granted to Edward Dyer who conveyed it to Stephen Whitaker, also in 1570 and it passed to Stephen's son Henry in 1576. The estate passed by sale and purchase to Sir. James Ley, created Earl of Marlborough in 1626.

Other land in Bratton was held in the early 13th century by Geoffrey de Mandeville and passed through succession to the widow of John de Mandeville in approximately 1336. In 1361 she conveyed the estate to the Bonhommes monastery at Edington. The house had been founded in 1358 and the Bonhommes acquired and held further land in Bratton until the Dissolution. The manor of Bratton was granted to Sir Thomas Seymour of Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire in 1543 but after his execution in 1548-9 the estate reverted to the Crown until granted to Richard Knollis and Richard Swale. The estate subsequently descended by inheritance and sale to the Marquesses of Bath who sold their holdings shortly before the Second World War.

After Sir Thomas Seymour's execution, an estate known as Bratton Grange or Farm, comprising some 346 acres of arable and 62 acres of meadow or pasture in the south of the parish, passed to Sir William Paulet, who was created Marquess of Winchester in 1551. In the 17th century this estate was sold to Sir Walter Ernley and descended by marriage to the Drax Grosvenor family until it was sold by lots in 1829, the farmhouse and part of the estate being bought by George Watson-Taylor of Erlestoke Park. It had been farmed by the Whitaker family since the 18th century and they continued as tenants. In 1870 Bratton Farm was among local properties purchased by Charle Paul Phipps. The farmhouse still stands at the corner of Court Lane and the road to Westbury, recently renovated and known as the Manor House.

The land of the ancient parish of Westbury was therefore divided between numerous manors and estates, all quite small. Few of these formed compact holdings, but comprised lands often scattered over the whole area of the ancient parish, agricultural activity being divided roughly equally between the sheep and corn farming region of the chalk uplands in the south east and the pastoral, dairy farming region of the clay vale in the north west. It is a feature of springline parishes that they are disproportionately long in comparison with their breadth; each parish contains meadow, arable and rough grazing downland and in a number of cases farms extend over all three soil types. The agricultural activity of Bratton, however, was based on corn-growing and sheep-rearing. In the seventeenth century the demesne lands comprised 151 acres used for arable production on the downs, 36 acres of arable on the lower land, grazing land for 1,000 sheep in summer and 600 in winter, and common pasture for 16 animals. Although in 1682 the arable lands were being extended, improvements were also being made to the meadowlands in order to offset the loss of grazing capability. Most of the best grazing for sheep within the ancient parish of Westbury lay in or near Bratton, on the chalk downs to the south of village. Grazing rights were strictly regulated. The Greensand belt running through the parish was particularly suitable for market gardening and in 1815 fruit and vegetables from the region were sent regularly to Trowbridge. In 1842 there were 40 small orchards, and some of these continued in existence into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In the early 19th century Bratton was still composed of three tithings: Stoke, or Little Stoke, which lay around the church, Melbourne which lay along the route of the stream flowing from the Stradbrook and along Melbourne Street, and Bratton, the area around the Court House. The location of a fourth tithing, known as Headinghill, now identified as Lower Dunge, was first referred to in 1166; it was an important element of the manor of Westbury in the 13th and 14th centuries and was assessed under Bratton for land tax in the 18th century. In 1845 the ecclesiastical parish of Bratton was formed, having hitherto been a chapelry within Westbury parish.

In the first decades of the 19th century the larger part of the population of Bratton was employed in agriculture. In 1831, 200 out of 300 families were occupied in farming. Flocks of 1,000 sheep and more were still maintained on the downs by farmers who also grew corn on a large scale. The acquisition of much downland by the War Department in the second half of the nineteenth century to form part of the Salisbury Plain Training Area led to a great diminution of arable farming in the twentieth century.

The existence of two mills noted in the Domesday Book in lands assumed to represent Bratton and Dilton has been noted above. A fulling mill is known to have been in existence in Bratton by 1348. In the early seventeenth century a fulling mill in Bratton was occupied successively by the Whitaker and Aldridge families. By the late 18th century the two mills in the village were grist mills, the lower of these so remaining until it ceased operation. The higher of the two mills, at Stradbrook, belonged to the Longleat estate and was leased to a miller, James Newman and also to an edge tool-maker, Thomas Miles, in 1770. By 1805, the approximate date of its conversion to clothing machinery, it was occupied by Thomas Jarvis and a partner, and after 1808 by Jarvis only. In about 1807, Jarvis built another water powered factory further downstream near the bridge in the village. At this new site the wheel was supplemented by a 6 h.p. steam engine, purchased from Boulton and Watt. When two years later Jarvis built Luccombe Mill, with an extensive millpond, near the springs from which the Stradbrook rises at Luccombe Bottom, dependence on steam power at his lower works increased and by 1819 the factory near the bridge was using 14 h.p. of steam power.

As well as its economic activities in Bratton, the Whitaker family was active in the wider ancient parish of Westbury: John Whitaker was a clothier in the town itself in the late 15th century, in approximately 1545 Richard Whitaker, clothier, enclosed some 160 acres of land in Westbury and in 1570 Stephen Whitaker, who already had considerable land holdings in Westbury, acquired the manor of Westbury Stourton and Bitham fulling mill. Stephen's sons and grandsons continued as mill owners in Westbury and Bratton but as the family continued to acquire land, mostly in Bratton, the focus of its activities gradually shifted from the clothing industry to corn and sheep farming.

In the early 18th century meetings of Baptists were held in the home of William Whitaker and his family before their chapel was built in Bratton 1734. At the beginning of the 19th century, in 1800, Philip Whitaker was one of two leading figures in the Baptist Community elected as deacons. In 1833 Joshua Whitaker was elected deacon and John Whitaker in 1880.

Another family established in Bratton by the 18th century was that of the Peplers. In 1774 Eve Pepler married Robert Reeves in Bratton Church. Reeves was a blacksmith, possibly from Dilton Marsh, who would be employed in the enlarging of the Baptist Meeting House in 1786. The son of Robert and Eve, Thomas Pepler Reeves was also working as a blacksmith in 1799. However, he, together with his two younger sons, Robert (born 1810) and John (born 1815) would develop the foundry producing agricultural machinery such as corn-drills and ploughs which was already a flourishing business when its stock was valued at the death of Thomas Pepler Reeves in 1849. Besides the foundry itself, the stock included a paint shop, saw-pit and other buildings. After Thomas Pepler's death the firm, now known as R. & J. Reeves, developed further and its earliest surviving catalogues, from 1853, 1859 and 1863, indicate a wider product range, including ploughs, harrows and water-carts, and more extensive markets. Goods were exhibited and won awards at regional and national shows, including a bronze medal from the Great Exhibition of 1861. They also exhibited internationally, winning medals in Paris in 1855 and at the Concours International at Lille in 1863. From the 1860s company stationery included the banner, "Patronised by His Royal Highness Prince Albert". In 1864 the company became known as Bratton Iron Works, although 20th century entries in Kelly's Directory refer again to R. & J. Reeves & Son Ltd..

The firm continued to prosper through the whole of the nineteenth century, and earned a reputation for turning its hand to a wide range of work. Writing of her ancestors, Marjorie Reeves says: "They attended to pumps and wells, put in water supplies and heating apparatus, built greenhouses, soldered kettles and pans, and made almost any piece of domestic equipment to specification, even cages for parrots. They made coffins for the village and acted as undertakers. On one occasion they supplied "straining apparatus" for a soup kitchen. In 1864 they made the wrought-iron chandeliers and candlesticks for Steeple Ashton chapel…Robert Reeves was even willing to turn architect and builder. He built cottages at Grants Farm and the Jubilee Hall out of material from the old Infant School".

The firm set up a Sick Fund in 1863, requiring at that time a subscription of a penny a week from men and boys earning 6 shillings per week and above. All fines imposed on the workforce, for a number of listed offences, were paid into the Fund which was re-established in 1880 and 1891 following deficits incurred and settled by the firm. In 1913, in the early days of National Insurance the Fund was closed and the small balance passed to the Cottage Hospital.

Census returns of 1851 and 1871 show the results for Bratton's population of the firm's requirement of craftsmen as employees: workers came from the Midlands, Wales and Ireland. Another consequence of the presence of a thriving firm in Bratton was the comparatively early introduction of services such as gas, telephone and telegraph. Guaranteed consumption by the Iron Works led the Westbury Gas and Coke Company to lay a pipe to Bratton in 1904. A telegraph service had been obtained for the village in 1892 and in 1907 a telephone service followed.

The Reeves works continued to be an important presence in the village into the 20th century: In her reminiscences of childhood life in Bratton in the late 1920s and 1930s Stella Ashton recalls that "The Reeves''s hooter dominated the life of the village; in the morning, at lunch time and in the evening…". As the century progressed, however, the firm declined in the face of the development of ever larger and more complex agricultural machinery in the farming industry, and finally closed in 1970.

The Reeves family were also prominent members of the Baptist community in Bratton and the surrounding area. Robert Reeves joined the Baptist Church in 1836, was contributing to the minister's salary in 1840 and to the building of the British School in 1844. In 1847 he was elected a deacon. His son Henry would later act as architect for Cheverell chapel and the family continued to contribute to Baptist life and development.

There are a number of other buildings of historical significance and of varying architectural style and construction in Bratton. Court House, possibly of medieval origin with an upper storey addition of the 17th century, was probably the court house of the manor of Bratton. Like Yew Tree Farm, and Ivy Cottage amongst others, Court House is timber framed; other buildings, such as Manor House, parts of which date from the 17th century, are of brick with stone dressings. An important house of the 18th century is Bratton House, home of the Ballard family to the 19th century. At Yew Trees, the home of the Whitaker family from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the western part of the house was probably built as an extension to the boarding school for boys, which was run by Jeffery Whitaker in the house between 1718 and 1775, and subsequently by others to approximately 1789. Yew Trees, also, was the site of early Baptist meetings in the 18th century.

Both the Reeves and the Whitaker families, which by means of the marriage of Edith Whitaker to Robert John Reeves joined together in 1900, have been mentioned in these notes. However, other families also have a history of several generations living and working in the village; for example, the Burgess family who were in Bratton from the 17th to the 20th century, the Ballard family already there in the second quarter of the 16th century, the Aldridges, one of whom appears in the first year's baptism register of 1544, the Snelgroves of whom Nathaniel (1783-1873) paid for the erection of the Methodist Chapel. The names of other families feature repeatedly in the parish registers.

One notorious 19th century resident was Rebecca Smith, who was hanged outside Devizes prison in August 1849 for the murder by poisoning with arsenic of her 27 day old baby. She was 44 years old and had had eleven children, of whom she confessed she had earlier poisoned seven when they were in early infancy; one child, the eldest, survived and one, the second, had died of a bowel complaint. Her husband, it was alleged, was a drunkard and barely contributed to the costs of the household which depended on her earnings of 4 shillings a week from labouring in the fields.

A more eminent, twentieth century, native of Bratton was Detective Superintendent George Smith. He was born in 1905, the son of an agricultural labourer, but left the village in 1921 to go into service as a "pantry boy" in a large house in Langport, Somerset. After spending time in London at his employer's town house, George Smith left the household to join the Metropolitan Police. He subsequently became a senior officer within Special Branch, working successfully on a number of important counter-espionage cases including those of John Vassall and Gordon Lonsdale. After 36 years' service with Special Branch he retired and returned to Bratton. He died in 1970.

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Population 1801 - 2011

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Folk Songs from Bratton

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