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Rewriting Chippenham History - by John Chandler

John Chandler Chippenham talk

 Rewriting the History of Chippenham

This is an edited text of a lecture given in June 2018 by John Chandler, VCH Wiltshire Consultant Editor, to Chippenham Civic Society and the Friends of St Andrew’s Church.

It was eleven years ago, almost to the day, that I last had the privilege of giving this annual lecture, and then I spoke about Chippenham’s roads. If you were here and have a good memory you may recall that I revealed what may have been the earliest recorded parking fine in the history of the area, levied on a Mr Webb of Sandy Lane in 1752 for leaving his cart within four feet of the middle of the main road. Some of what I told you then found its way into Richard Baines’s history of Chippenham, which I had a great time helping to see into print on your behalf in 2009.

          They say that history repeats itself – so do historians, I guess, as now I find myself speaking to you again, and involved in working on another history of Chippenham. What’s more, and for the sake of continuity, I’ll pick up where I left off, and use as my first example the story, not of a road this time, but of a bridge – Back Avon Bridge, a footbridge which stood at the bottom of River Street. There is still a road sign indicating River Street – the top of it – it leads from the High Street by Burton’s down into the car park by Little Waitrose, but then it disappears. Until the 1970s it continued to the river, where the flood prevention dam is now, and that was where the footbridge was.

          At the beginning of January 1788 William Deverill was crossing the river in flood by Back Avon bridge when he fell in. A week or so later his body was found and an inquest was held. The coroner was so critical of the state of the bridge that he adjourned the inquest, and shamed the parish vestry (as highway authority) into holding a meeting, and deciding to widen and strengthen it. This is the evidence, which was published in 1981 in a volume of coroners’ travelling expenses:

            11 Jan. 1788. Chippenham. William Deverill: upwards of a week before was lost in the river, supposed to have fallen in passing over a very narrow foot-bridge called Back Avon Bridge. 10 miles. £17s. 6d.

            25 Jan. 1788, an adjournment of an inquisition begun at Chippenham on 11 Jan. and included in the last bill. William Deverell: drowned by falling from a very dangerous and presentable foot-bridge over the Avon at the back of the town. As well by reason of many past accidents as the present and to prevent future ones, it was judged highly necessary to adjourn until after a Convention by vestry of the chief inhabitants of Chippenham, the result whereof is to widen and strengthen the bridge and render it safer in time of floods. 10 miles. £17s.6d.

And if we trawl back through other published editions of records we can find earlier references to what may be the same bridge. For instance in 1653 the inhabitants of Chippenham are hauled up before the county quarter sessions and ordered to spend £8 13s 8d on repairing a certain decayed bridge in the parish. And then in 1669 the parish highways supervisors splash out 12s 10d for timber and work done at the wooden bridge. But I doubt whether, apart from seeing old pictures of it in books, anyone here tonight has any memory of Back Avon Bridge – it was washed away, for at least the third time in 50 years, in 1927, so you would have to be well into your 90s now to have walked across it. It is now an easy matter to find out about its various misfortunes during floods, and the heated debates after 1927 about whether it should be replaced, because of the powerful search facility on the British Newspaper Archive website. In fact most of River Street had been razed to the ground by 1974, to create the car park and the previous supermarket in Borough Parade, so anyone much younger than 50 now can have no memory of a whole area of Chippenham that has disappeared. We must turn to maps and the plethora of old photograph books for evidence of how it looked.

          I’ve told you this little story, and shown you these pictures, not because bridges are my subject tonight (though I hope like me you find them quite interesting), but because I want to read you four short sentences, part of the draft text written for the Victoria County History account of Chippenham, which we are working on and which definitely is tonight’s subject. Here we go:

A second bridge, decayed and repaired in 1653, may have been the wooden bridge referred to in highway surveyors’ accounts in 1669. It is perhaps to be identified with Back Avon bridge, which crossed the river from the end of River street. The cause of many drownings, the vestry in 1788 determined to widen and strengthen it. After floods swept away part of the bridge in 1881 and its iron replacement in 1882 it was rebuilt again in 1889, washed away in 1927 and, despite prolonged discussion and campaigning, was not replaced.

And in the draft each of those four sentences has a footnote, giving references to support what they say. That’s all we intend to publish about Back Avon Bridge (far less than I’ve told you this evening), but if anyone ever wants to know more, the sources to augment the basic facts are there in the notes. We will have put down a marker, a point of reference, about one small feature in Chippenham’s history, and we’ll do the same about hundreds, if not thousands, of others.


So now I need to tell you a little bit about the Victoria County History (which in my experience very few people have ever heard of) at national and county level.

          Well you know how it is – you go to some kind of party, a gathering of strangers, and someone asks you what you do. I start to tell them that I work for a national organisation that was dreamt up in 1899 to write the history of everywhere in England, parish by parish, that it planned to complete its work in ten years, that in Wiltshire (as in some other counties) we didn’t actually get started for fifty years - until 1949 – and we had our first volume ready to publish in 1953. We called it volume 7. Then in quick succession (for us anyway) within a decade we did volumes 2 (1955), 3 (1956), 5 (1957), 1 (1957), 4 (1959), and 6 (1962), in that order. At last we got the hang of numbering, so that volumes 8, 9, 10 etc followed in the right order, and I’m now working on 19 and 20, with another five or six to go. And when I let on that until very recently we dedicated them all to the memory of Queen Victoria, who died 117 years ago, and that at this rate nationally it will take another 117 years at least before we finish. Well, when I tell people this they think I’m distinctly odd, and go off and talk to someone else. Even fellow historians sometimes think that we should be consigned to history, where we so clearly belong.

          But that is only part of the story, of course, and perhaps we need to spend a few minutes thinking about what history is about. Imagine that you are a stranger visiting a town for the first time, let’s say Malmesbury or Tetbury, and wish to know something about it. You pick up a leaflet from the tourist office with a few paragraphs of history. But where did that information come from? Most likely it was copied from a rather fuller guidebook, and that was culled from a popular history of the town, which was itself derived from scholarly books and papers. Their authors in turn will have consulted the Victoria County History (where it exists), to find out what original sources – local and national documents, maps, contemporary published accounts, archaeological discoveries, and the like – they can use to inform their research. The buck, if you like, in this cascade of history, stops with us. And you can see that the quality of those few sentences that explained to you Malmesbury’s history very likely depends on the accuracy of the information and the competence of its various purveyors who have filtered it down to you. In the case of Malmesbury it used to be incompetence, I’m afraid, because for a long time the town claimed to be the oldest borough in the country – which is actually a ludicrous claim, and was based on a booklet by an amateur historian who misunderstood the ambiguous remark of an earlier historian who, in fairness to him, was writing long before scholarly attention was directed at a particular Anglo-Saxon document, a list of strongholds known as the burghal hidage of about 900 AD, which is the source of the misunderstanding, and therefore the culprit.

          Take some more, hypothetical, examples. For a school project a teenager is trying to find out about the history of the Methodist chapel where her parents worship, or when the street she lives in was built. She visits her local library or the archives office and (I hear this whenever I’m eavesdropping) the staff direct her first to the Victoria County History, to obtain the basic background information and details of the principal sources – we are the signpost pointing the way. Or a planner, filling in for his committee the background history of the site of a proposed development; or a professor, interested in comparing landholding at the time of Henry VIII across the whole of the west country; or a couple who have been tracing their ancestors and tracked them down to a Cotswold hamlet and want to know how they would have lived. Just as, if you want to know what a word means you look in a dictionary, if you want to find out about someone important you consult Who’s Who or Wikipedia, if you are trying to visit somewhere you study a map – so if you need to find out about the history of a place you turn to the Victoria County History – either on paper or online (which we’ll come to in a moment).

          This all touches on what history is for, and whether it matters. In this era of fake news we hear a lot about facts, including ‘alternative’ facts. Facts seem to be important. And yes, in this kind of work we deal in facts all day long, just as a banker deals in coins, or a baker in loaves. But history is so much more than facts. Facts are like bricks – or carrots. To be an architect it helps if you can recognise a brick – a good brick indeed – and know about its properties and where to get them from. To be a master chef you need to be able to recognise a carrot, a good carrot, and what happens when you cook it. But architecture is so much more, it is about design, function, wellbeing; cuisine is about taste, flavour, nutrition. So for a historian it is not the facts themselves, but their selection and interpretation that matter, and how you use them; and that is the pathway for us all, from schoolchildren onwards, to put our lives and surroundings in context, and so to make informed and rational decisions that affect us and the communities in which we live. We in the VCH are the purveyors of some of the facts, facts that we have hunted down, the significant facts (in our judgement) that help to answer the big questions as well as the small questions that people find interesting about their local history.


Well this is in danger of turning into a sermon which, despite our ecclesiastical surroundings, is not my intention. Let’s return to Chippenham history. I’ve given you an example of a small question – the demise of Back Avon Bridge – which our research has tried to inform. Before I tell you more about the VCH Chippenham project, let’s look at a rather bigger historical question, the effect of railways on suburban expansion. Let’s choose the effect of the GWR on the towns it touched in the 1840s.

          Ask anyone which town was most affected by the coming of the GWR and they would almost certainly (and quite rightly) say Swindon. Plenty of literature about that, including a proper academic study by the organisation that has become Historic England. But might – in fact, did – something similar happen to Chippenham? A casual look at an Ordnance Survey map of, say 1900, 60 years after the railway arrived, would suggest that it did. Away from the historic core of the town an entirely new community sprang up, ranged like a kind of star centred on a new church, St Paul’s, and with railway station, railway works, and terraces of houses and shops along new streets. Just like at Swindon. It’s as if the St Paul’s district was to Chippenham what New Swindon (the railway village, works and station) was to Old Swindon. So here’s a rather big question – how far should we regard Chippenham as a railway town like Swindon, a mini-Swindon in fact? Discuss.

          Our job in the VCH, however, is not to enter into discussions and theorise about these big questions, but to be aware of them and to present the evidence – the facts – which will help other people to inform their debate. I’ve only just started on this question, but one of my tasks over the next few months, in chronicling the facts and figures about Chippenham’s physical and topographical expansion over the centuries, will be to look at how and why the St Paul’s district developed in the way that it did.

          When a town expands it creates a palimpsest – a favourite word of landscape and townscape historians, which originally meant a wax tablet that had been written on, then partly wiped smooth, written on again and so on. Imagine a school blackboard incompletely rubbed off, so leaving traces of the previous lesson and perhaps the one before. Let’s look at the St Paul’s district in that way, on a map or by walking round. The engine of change, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the railway line, which imposes itself dramatically on the previous pattern. It’s not hard to pick out the earlier road pattern – four lines in particular, Foghamshire; Monkton Hill to Old Road; Foundry Lane to Cocklebury Road; and Maud Heath’s causeway. This suggests that the striking star pattern was not in fact an artificial creation of Victorian town planners. It was the point (known as Chippenham Clift) at which the road up from Chippenham bridge divided into roads for Malmesbury and Wootton Bassett (the latter also Maud Heath’s causeway), and was crossed by a (perhaps ancient) lane from Rowden to Cocklebury. Both the old ways out of Chippenham to north and west were blocked by the railway, so one might imagine that New Road, running straight from the bridge, then bending to lead up to the ‘star’ junction, was their Victorian replacement. But in fact it was built in 1792, presumably to cater for increased traffic once a new town bridge was completed in 1795 – so predated the viaduct by nearly 50 years.

          Apart from the truncated roads, our palimpsest reveals another determinant in the way that the St Paul’s district developed, the field and parish boundaries that cross the area, in particular the east-west boundary running along the north of the St Paul’s district. Old boundaries, or rather the different ownerships on either side of them, are key to the layout of streets and houses in suburbs, then and now. My task, in unravelling for the Victoria History the stages in the development of this area, will be to look at these fields, see when and in what order they are sold off and developed, what is built there by whom and what sort of people moved in or set up business.

          And when I’ve done that for the first major expansion of Chippenham I’ll do the same for all the others, Rowden, Pewsham, Cocklebury, the Hungerdown Lane area, and into Hardenhuish and the estates bordering the western by-pass. So I shall use maps, deeds in the archives, local authority records, newspapers and the evidence of my own eyes.


All of which brings me back to our work on the Chippenham area and what remains to be done. The end result will be a big red book, volume 20 in the series, and it will include Chippenham (the town and the outlying parish, including Pewsham), Hardenhuish, Kington St Michael and Kington Langley, Langley Burrell, Bremhill and Christian Malford. The scope and contents were decided over three years ago by the charitable trust who took over administering and – most importantly – fundraising for the project after local authority and university funding came to an end. Since then a historian from Winchester University, Rosalind Johnson, has researched and written up the social and religious history of Chippenham, and I have written the introductory sections, having moved on from similar work in Gloucestershire. Rosalind is coming back soon to work on the rural parts of the large ancient Chippenham parish, including Allington, Sheldon, Pewsham, Stanley, Nethermore and Tytherton Lucas. We have issued a contract to another experienced historian, Matthew Kilburn, to work on the local government and parliamentary representation of Chippenham, and he is beginning work about now. Later in the summer another Winchester historian, a medievalist, Gordon McKelvie, will begin work on the manorial history of Chippenham parish, which is particularly important in understanding the early history of anywhere; and I shall work on aspects of the town’s economic history – its trades and industries – as well as looking at the way in which it has expanded (as I described just now). We are also participating in a joint initiative with a group in Bremhill to write a community history tied in with our VCH research, and another historian, Louise Ryland Epton, is overseeing this. So between us, in a year or two, we should have covered most aspects of Chippenham’s (and Bremhill’s) history in the conventional way that the Victoria History works and lays out its results.

          To achieve all this we explore a daunting range of source material. We have checklists which between us we work through, we make use of notes compiled on paper slips in the early days of the VCH, and we make our own notes, using laptops and databases of course these days. Some of the sources we check are standard published works, printed editions of archives and maps, but very many are unique manuscript sources, in the Wiltshire & Swindon Archives, in The National Archives at Kew or elsewhere, and they will range from typed minutes taken a few years ago, to wills written and feebly signed a few days before death, estate maps, letters and leases, to medieval deeds which are laborious to read, and are often in Latin. Increasingly we are able to use online resources, such as printed books now available to download, indexes and some original archives.

          I have given you the example of my sentences about Back Avon Bridge to show the rather clipped, concise style of writing that we aim to achieve, and I mentioned that everything we say in the text is footnoted, so far as we can, to its primary historical source. I should also say that, once a draft text on a topic has been completed, we post it online, on both the main VCH website and on the local MyChippenham site. The full text of most published VCH volumes are now available at the British History Online site. Please have a look at what we have done so far. You will find that the VCH style does not exactly make for bedtime reading, but the footnotes lead you on to find out more on any specific subject. We mention places, dates and people in profusion, but we do not say much about individual people – a sentence or so about an unusual vicar, an overbearing squire, a dishonest politican or a notable tradesman, but nothing more. In the case of William Deverill, who fell off Back Avon bridge, I do not mention him by name. But of course it is the people, and the human stories behind everything that happens in history, which are the core of our work. We read their handwriting, note their coming and going, their successes and tragedies, and if we are good historians we develop an empathy with them. If I had time I expect I could find out who William Deverill was, how old, how he made a living, what family grieved for him after his death, and so on.


So I’ll end with one more example. She probably won’t make it into our volume, but stories like hers are at the heart of the local historian’s work, and are what has made my forty years and more at this game so rewarding. Not only that, she is just over there. One of the monuments on the west wall of the south chapel, and usually hidden by a stack of chairs, commemorates Mary Brookes. It tells us, in Latin that she was the wife of John Brookes and the daughter of Thomas Fereby, a distinguished former vicar of Bishops Cannings. She died on the 17 October 1666 and was buried two days later. And then a touching character sketch: ‘She was loved by God, dear to the Godly, Most precious to her husband, and sympathetic to her poor neighbours’.

          Well, as Dr Johnson pointed out, ‘in lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath’, but even so this sounds to be a genuine expression of a grieving husband’s lost love. Beneath her monument is another, to John Brookes, presumably that husband, who survived her by over fifty years, dying in 1722, so I suspected that she died young. But my eye was caught by the name of her father, Thomas Fereby, and I’ll tell you about him in a moment. But first, standard genealogical sources reveal that Mary was born in 1640, so was 26 when she died. On the same day as her burial, here in this church, was baptised the son, John, whose delivery two days before presumably resulted in her death. She had been married a little over a year, so this would almost certainly have been their first and only child together. The boy survived, as we find him marrying in Devizes twenty years later and having a son of his own in Marlborough when he was 26.

          It is almost unbearable to imagine the turmoil felt by John Brookes and Mary’s relatives in this church, on this spot, on 19 October 1666 – the corpse and the newborn, the grave and the font. But what about Mary’s short life? She was brought up in Bishop’s Cannings, child of the vicarage. Her father, Thomas, had succeeded his brother George as vicar, but had died in 1651, when Mary was 11, and so it may have been then that the family moved to Chippenham. George Fereby became famous locally in 1613 when he organised an entertainment for the queen of James I and her retinue as they passed along the road across the downs. He composed a song for the occasion, which was printed. He put on the same kind of show for the king while he was staying nearby with Sir Edward Bayntun, and for him also rang the church bells and organised a game of football, for which the king made him a chaplain in ordinary. This parish, John Aubrey remarked, in those days would have challenged all England for music, football and ringing. Mary as a child would undoubtedly have been told about these great occasions, about the football match and the other exploits of her uncle George, who had died before she was born.

          Incidentally, Sir Edward Bayntun, who died in 1657 and is buried a few yards away from Mary over there, ‘a man of arrogant and uncertain temper’ was the squire of one part of Bishop’s Cannings parish, Chittoe, and during the civil war, which ravaged around the area when Mary was a young child, he had 644 sheep, two-thirds of his flock, purloined off the downs by Royalist forces. As she grew up Mary would have been awe of Sir Edward, and has had to spend the last 350 years a few metres away from him.

          We can hazard a guess as to why Mary and her siblings moved to Chippenham. She had a much older step-sister, Elizabeth, who in 1635 married Henry Bull of Chippenham, described as a gentleman, so presumably the Bull household took them in after their father’s death. The Bulls were prominent in local affairs – Henry was bailiff of Chippenham in 1646 and 1655, and died in 1659 owning many houses and much property in and around Chippenham, including his own dwelling-house in High Street.

          And what of the grieving husband. He too had been born in or about 1640, the same year as Mary, but he lived to be 82. He remarried, another Mary, who survived him by five years, and in his will he described himself as a currier, a curer of leather. Was he a currier when he buried his young wife? Did he know Latin (unlikely, perhaps) and pay for this expensive and touching memorial? More likely it was the Ferebys or the Bulls, I guess.

          I’ll stop this little story there, although there is probably more to be found out. My task in telling it was helped by a book (Round About the Little Steeple) written some years ago about George Fereby by Ida Gandy, who was also a child of Bishop’s Cannings vicarage, so a kindred spirit to Mary. Her book mentions Thomas Fereby, and even notes that Mary died in childbirth. So she had trawled the sources before me, and done the work for me. And that is precisely what we are trying to do in this new history, trawling the sources of Chippenham’s history so that someone else can tell the stories – human stories – out of them.