TOURISM

Melksham History

A Brief History of Melksham .....

The town of Melksham developed at a ford across the River Avon. The name is presumed to derive from MEOLC, the Old English for milk and from HAM, a village. It was a royal estate at the time of the Norman Conquest. In the Domesday (Doomsday) Book, Melksham was described as having 8 mills, 130 acres of water meadows and 8 leagues of pasture in length and breadth. There were 19 ploughmen, 189 landholders and 35 serfs making up a population of several hundred. Adjoining the farmland was the medieval forest of Melksham which, combined with Chippenham Forest, covered 33 square miles. The forest was administered by the Constable of Devizes Castle, it ran from Calne in the east to Semington in the west.

King John and the Forest .....

During the early 13th Century, King John visited Melksham Forest several times in order to enjoy his favourite sport of hunting. In 1220 oaks from the forest were used in the choir stalls of the new Cathedral at Salisbury. Melksham had a connection with the Cathedral, as part of the parish was endowed to support the Canons of the Cathedral. In 1257 the main part of the manor was given by Henry III to the Abbey of Amesbury and from henceforth cattle, cheeses and fleeces from Melksham were sent across the plain until the dissolution of Amesbury Abbey in 1539.

The Market Charter.....

In 1219 Melksham was considered important enough to be granted a Charter to hold a market every Friday and a fair on Michaelmas Day. Later the market was transferred to a Tuesday, and in 1491 the Prioress of Amesbury obtained a Charter for a two day fair in July. In the late 19th Century farm produce was sold on the first day of the fair, horses were tethered down King Street and in the Market Place as far down as Bank Street. On the second day a fun fair was held, unfortunately the fair was wound up by the Home Secretary in 1910. The markets continued to be held on alternate Tuesdays with Trowbridge but were ended by the advent of the Second World War. Recently there has been a move to re-establish the street market.

Weaving, riots and hangings .....

By the middle of the 14th Century Melksham was a busy weaving town, the chief product being white broad cloth. This industry provided employment for spinners and weavers, fullers and shearmen. The wool came from all over North Wiltshire and The Cotwolds; and the made-up cloth was sent up to Blackwell Hall in London and from there all over England and the Continent. The woollen trade was disrupted by the Civil War in the middle of the 17th Century but recovered and started to make coloured cloth. There was a dyehouse near the bridge. In 1726 the piece rate paid for the cloth was cut so low that it was impossible for the weavers to earn a living. Their application to the magistrates for relief was refused and troops were called in to disperse the rioters. Conditions did not improve, and in 1739 Henry Coulthurst, a clothier from Melksham, had his house ransacked, his furniture destroyed and quantities of wool and yarn thrown into The Avon. Nine cottages as well as Henry Coulthurst's grist and fulling mills were destroyed. Eventually the rioters were tried, found guilty and hanged.

The end of an era .....

There were several cloth mills beside The Avon, but by 1838 only two remained both operated by steam power and employing 162 workers. The last working mill, The Matravers Mill, was auctioned off in 1888 and is now incorporated in The Cooper Avon Tyre factory. Two wool drying houses remain in Melksham, The Roundhouse in Church Street and an octagonal drying house in Lowbourne.

Sold for £1000 profit .....

After the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII sold the Capital Manor to Sir Thomas Seymour, Lord High Admiral and Adventurer, for £28. 15s. 10d. Within a week Sir Thomas sold all the property, which included Melksham, Inmarsh, Woodmarsh, Sevenoaks, Bowerhill and Berryfield to Henry Brouncker of Erlestoke for £1737. 5s 10d. Henry Brouncker was a Member of Parliament for Devizes and Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1558, knighted in 1555. He was a founder member of the Muscovy Trading Company, one of the original joint stock companies, formed to exploit the trade with Persia and Russia. Sir Henry Brouncker built himself a large manor house in the centre of Melksham known as Place House. After his death, his eldest son Sir William inherited his fatherís property was Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1580 and a Member of Parliament in 1586. The second son became Lord President of Munster (Ireland) and was grandfather of Viscount Brouncker, the first President of the Royal Society. In 1634 Place House was sold to Sir John Danvers of West Lavington. Sir John leased Place House as he already had large houses in Wiltshire and Chelsea. He was notorious for signing King Charles death warrant despite having accepted a knighthood from James I. He died in disgrace shunned by both Parliamentarians and Royalists. Place House was bought from Sir John Danvers son in 1657 by Isaac Selfe, a prosperous clothier from Beanacre and it remained in his family until the 19th century, it gradually fell into a state of disrepair. At one time it was rented by Charles Maggs and the garden used as a rope walk. Eventually in 1859 the house was sold to a building company and demolished in 1864.

The staging post .....

In the early 18th Century stagecoaches from London passed through Melksham on their way to Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Devonport. By 1830 there were six coaches each day carrying passengers to London. The Royal Mail and The Emerald called at The Kings Arms, The Royal Blue and The Regulator called at The Bear, and The Old Company's Coach and The White Harte Coach called at both. The four coach horses were changed every ten miles so that there were commodious stables behind these hostelries. The fare was 24 shillings for those travelling inside and 12 shillings for those unfortunate enough to be travelling outside.

The Melksham Turnpike Trust was responsible for five gates, at Kings Street, Lowbourne, Shaw, Atworth and one adjoining Melksham Marketplace. The tolls from the turnpike were used to keep the roads in repair.

The Navvies are coming! .....

9.	1819 Wilts & Berks Canal opened – The Wharf in Spa RoadIn 1812 The Wilts and Berks Canal was excavated. Designed as a feeder canal for the Kennet and Avon Canal, it ran from Semington to Chippenham and linked up with The Thames and Severn Canal joining The River Thames at Abingdon. It ran through the centre of Melksham and traces remain eg The Wharf House adjoining the hump in Spa Road, and the relics of a bridge at the junction of Forest and Sandridge roads. The canal was abandoned in 1914.

And the Spa came and went .....

Melksham SpaIn 1813 several local gentry who had made money from the woollen industry, the Awdrys, the Longs, the Methuens and the Phillips formed the Melksham Spa Company with a capital of 7000 guineas in order to exploit the Chalybeate Spring discovered in 1770 to the south of Melksham. A well was sunk more than 300 feet deep and six large semi detached boarding houses and a hotel were built. The Spa was intended to rival Bath but unfortunately, after a few years of prosperity, it rapidly declined.

Brunel's branch line .....

1848 Railway came to MelkshamThe 1840s saw the fast growth of railways; one of the first was The Great Western designed by Brunel which went from London to Bristol, via Swindon and Chippenham, it was completed by June 1841. This railway was seen to be very profitable and a committee was formed, chaired by Walter Long of Rood Ashton, to raise money to build a line from Chippenham to Salisbury via Melksham, Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster, with branch lines to Bath and Frome. It was to be known as The Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway, designed by Brunel, the land was acquired, the lines laid, the stations built, all for £1 million. In February 1846 the railway contractors erected workshops in Melksham and on the 5th September 1848 came the great day when the line was opened to the public. The cheese market at Melksham was a particular attraction. Unfortunately previous monopolies prevented the line actually entering Chippenham and passengers were obliged to alight at Thingley. This problem was solved in 1850 by amalgamating The Wilts and Somerset Railway with The Great Western.

Rope, matting and tarpaulins .....

The 19th Century also saw the growth of many industries in Melksham. In 1803 Charles Maggs bought a former cloth mill adjoining Spa Road and used it for making rope, matting and tarpaulins (the present Rope Walk area). A subsidiary factory was built at Alleppey in southern India and as the business flourished two ship loads of matting coir were sent to Melksham every month. The business continued to succeed through two World Wars but eventually declined.

100 years of milk .....

Charles Maggs' grandson, another Charles Maggs, was the originator of The Wiltshire United Dairies at The West End Farm on Semington Road. It began as a collecting depot and butter factory, in 1897 amalgamating with The North Wilts Dairy Company and in 1900 moved to a site covering 3 acres adjoiningthe Avon Bridge. Eventually it became part of The Unigate Group with the business being transferred to Wootton Bassett in the 1980s but the remains of the large chimney for the condensery can still be seen.

From Cheese Market to Town Hall .....

The Melksham Market Company, formed 1847, acquired an orchard from the owners of Place House and erected a Cheese Market, which eventually became The Town Hall.

England's trellis .....

Another family business founded in the middle of the 19th Century was Hurn Brothers which started with a timber mill near the railway station. After 1900 the firm moved to The Ark Saw Mills across the river from the United Dairies. At one time they were the largest manufacturer of garden trellises in England but sadly this firm has closed.

From feathers to first homes .....

Messrs. Sawtell and Sons had a factory in the Old Broughton Road, dealing in straw but 10 years later in 1892 they began purifying feathers for pillows and eiderdowns. Feathers were imported from all over the world and in the 1960s it was one of the largest feather firms in the country. Unfortunately man-made fibres replaced feathers and the site of the factory is now Weavers Croft, a housing estate.

Spencers & GEC .....

Melksham also had an industrial and agricultural engineering firm which originated in a factory at the corner of Union Street and Bank Street. The business grew and Mr C J Spencer joined the company in 1878 and they moved to Beanacre Road in 1903. The firm was taken over by Elliot Automation in 1962 which later became GEC Mechanical Handling. The business closed in 1990 and part of the site is now a retail centre.

The age of the tyre (or tire) .....

The largest employer in the town is Cooper Avon Tyres. This started as a rubber company in 1885 at Limpley Stoke and the premises in Melksham were purchased in 1890. The factory buildings now cover more than 28 acres.

There used to be a fine house and garden on a island in the middle of the river but when the weir was built to avoid flooding, the house was later demolished and the area filled in and is now part of the Avon car park.

Grain, Grain, Grain .....

The large silos which used to stand adjoining the roundabout on the Bradford on Avon road were built in 1942 for storing grain and the original milling machinery was made by messrs. Spencer. They were owned by West Midland Farmers who took over a company which started in Atworth in 1916 originally called The Atworth and District Agricultural Society and later The Wiltshire Farmers Ltd. The large new mills were erected during the 1980s and the company is now known as Countrywide Farmers.

The hospital .....

Melksham has had a hospital since 1868 when it was in Lowbourne. In 1895 it was transferred to a site in Bank Street. The present hospital in Spa Road was opened in 1938, the entire cost of which was met by a bequest from Mrs Ludlow Bruges. It is now administered by the Wiltshire NHS Trust.

Rachel Fowler .....

In 1858 the Fowler Almshouses were founded and endowed by Rachel Fowler, a charitable Quaker who lived at 1 Bank Street, now Gompels, the Chemist.

She also gave money for the New Hall, adjoining the Market Place. Her name is commemorated in the Rachel Fowler Centre which was previously a congregational church.

The Quakers .....

Melksham was at one time an important centre of the Society of Friends. From 1669 onwards 80 Quakers met at the house of Robert Marchment. There was a Quaker School in Melksham from 1695 to 1721. A Friends Meeting House in Kings Street was built in 1734 behind which is a burial ground. Its use as a meeting house was discontinued in 1950 and up until recently it was used as a Spiritualist Church.

Isabel Ide.

The Creation of Town Councils .....

1. 1894 brought into being Municipal Boroughs (Calne, Malmesbury etc) Urban Districts (Melksham, Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge etc) and Rural Districts (Bradford & Melksham, Pewsey, Devizes etc) and these administered Local Government until 1 April 1974. The Wiltshire County Council exercised specific powers such as Education and Main & Trunk Roads and delegated certain of its powers to Urban and Rural Districts subject to overall power remaining vested in the County Council. The former Parishes comprising the Rural Districts retained certain Parish Powers as well as their former identities (Melksham Without, Seend, Semington etc) The Parish of Melksham Within became the Melksham Urban District.

2. The Local Government Act of 1972, effective from 1 April 1974, created District Councils (Kennet, West Wiltshire, North Wiltshire etc) and various powers became vested in those Districts but more particularly powers enjoyed by the former Urban and Rural Districts became vested in the new Districts, in the case of Melksham, The West Wiltshire District.

(West Wiltshire comprised the five former Urban Districts of Bradford on Avon, Melksham, Trowbridge, Warminster and Westbury and the two former Rural Districts of Bradford and Melksham R.D. and Warminster and Westbury R.D.)

Powers, properties formerly owned by the Urban Rural Districts were vested in the new Districts. Thus the Town Hall, Assembly Hall in Melksham and the former RAF Station at Bowerhill became by law the property of the West Wiltshire District Council.

3. The Act of 1972 contained provision for the former Urban Districts to become Parishes each with its own Parish Council. (In the act known as successor Parish Councils) The Act provided only for a Parish Council in the cases of Urban Districts of about 5000 population but application could be made to the appropriate Ministry for Urban Districts of much larger population to continue as Parishes and thus Trowbridge also retained that new status with Parish Powers as contained in the Act. Melksham was automatically entitled to Parish status with a population within the margins allowed by the Ministry.

4. The old Melksham Urban District Council members automatically comprised the first Council of the new Melksham successor Parish Council until elections took place about a year later for direct membership of the new Parish Council. The new Parish Council also retained user rights of former Urban Council office accommodation.

5. One schedule of the Act of 1972 provided details of the setting up of the new Parish Councils (as at 4) and the same schedule gave powers to the new Parish Council to resolve formally that the Parish Council should henceforth be known as a Town Council and this resolution was duly passed by the Melksham Parish Council. The same schedule also provided for the Town Council formally to resolve that its Chairman should henceforth be known as the Town Mayor and this resolution was also passed.

Those provisions (as at 5) applied only to former Urban Districts and not to the Rural Parishes.

Thus the Town Council of Melksham with Parish Powers came into being.

Since 1974 there will have been various amendments and delegations with regard to Powers but fundamentally remain unaltered.

P A J Brown
March 2009-03-12

Link to Wiltshire Council History

QUICK LINKS