A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 10. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1975.
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The parish of Stert, one of the smallest in the hundred, lies about two miles from the centre of Devizes and on the west just touches the Devizes borough boundary. (fn. 1) In 1888 the area of the parish was 649 a. (fn. 2) In 1894 Fullaway Farm and 108 a. surrounding it, formerly a detached part of All Cannings lying immediately south-east of Stert village, were added to Stert. (fn. 3) There have been no other boundary changes so that in 1970 the acreage of the parish was 757 a.
Between 1801 and 1831 Stert was returned by the census enumerators as an ancient parish. From 1841 until 1871 it was returned as a tithing of Urchfont, but since it was found to be relieving its own poor, it was designated a separate poor-law parish in the 1870s and so became a civil one. (fn. 4)
The parish extends about two miles from east to west and roughly a mile from north to south. The eastern part lies on the Upper Greensand, which penetrates westwards as a narrow belt, forming a ridge between a protrusion of Lower Chalk in the north and the Gault Clay in the south. (fn. 5) On the chalk the land rises to nearly 500 ft. on the slopes of Etchilhampton Hill. It flattens out across the greensand belt and then drops quite precipitously to under 300 ft. on the Gault. The geological 'fault' which causes the steep contours in the western part of the parish has received considerable attention and has been described elsewhere. (fn. 6) The somewhat elongated shape of the parish, with its steep contours in the west, explains its name, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon steort, meaning a promontory, point, or tail of land. (fn. 7) Beneath the greensand ridge a small stream forms the western boundary of the parish and flows through a wooded valley, known locally as Stert valley. Bricks have been made in the past from the clay of this low-lying region. (fn. 8)
The arable fields of Stert lay on the chalk slope of Etchilhampton Hill. In the early 20th century a small area was still uninclosed and cultivated in strips. The flat eastern part of the parish was in 1970 mostly meadow land. There lay Hatfield Common, observed in the mid 17th century to be overgrown with fern, furze, and rushes. (fn. 9) The common was still there in 1773. (fn. 10)
Until 1768 the high road from Devizes to Urchfont followed a more northerly course over Etchilhampton Hill but that year a more direct route between Tinkfield in Etchilhampton and Lydeway in Urchfont was made across Stert. (fn. 11) Minor roads branch off that road northwards to Etchilhampton and south-westwards to Stert village and the church. The road to the church leads on as a narrow lane to the sites of the former mills and until the 19th century continued as a welldefined track up Stert valley to rejoin the main road. In the eastern part of the parish the track now leading to Hatfield Farm formerly led across the common to Lydeway. (fn. 12)
The Berks. & Hants Extension Railway Company's line between Devizes and Hungerford was built across the western part of the parish in 1862. (fn. 13) A bridge was then built over it to give access to the village from the main road. The line was closed in 1966. (fn. 14) The line from Patney and Chirton junction to Westbury, opened in 1900, runs for a short distance just within Stert's southern boundary. (fn. 15)
Stert never seems to have had anything more than a small settlement. In 1334 its contribution of 30s. to the fifteenth was the lowest in the hundred of Studfold. (fn. 16) It had 65 taxpayers in 1377 when only three places in the hundred had fewer. (fn. 17) To the benevolence of 1545 three persons contributed. (fn. 18) In 1801 the population was 130. It then rose somewhat, reaching 198 in 1851. Thereafter it began to decline. The addition of Fullaway in 1894 made little difference, since its population was only eleven. In 1921 Stert's population had fallen to 112. It then began to rise slowly and in 1971 was 130. (fn. 19)
The village lies on the greensand ridge where it narrows between the chalk and Gault. The church and Stert Farm stand close together towards the edge of the ridge and have an extensive view southwestwards over the vale below. Several timberframed and thatched cottages, dating from the 17th century, also lie along the edge of the ridge and beside the lane leading down to the mills. The southern side of the village street lay within the boundary of Fullaway until 1894 and on that side of the street lies Stert House, the largest house in the parish after Stert Farm. (fn. 20) A few bungalows and small houses of the 20th century lie along the road from the hamlet to the main road, but the contours of the land and the nature of the soil have restricted building development. In 1970 there was no school, chapel, nor shop in the parish. The Clock inn at Lydeway, once the home of the Raymonds, clock-makers, stands just within the bounds of Stert. (fn. 21) Originally it was a low thatched building, but an upper storey has been added and the building was much altered in the 20th century. (fn. 22) A clock with a diamond-shaped wooden dial is fixed to the wall above the main entrance and is dated 1773.
Before the Conquest 5 hides and 1½ virgate in Stert were held by Alfric. In 1086 the same estate was held in chief by Humphrey Lisle. (fn. 23) It then passed with the rest of Humphrey's fief, which included Castle Combe, to the Dunstanvilles and in 1242, as the manor of STERT, was held by Walter de Dunstanville as of his barony of Castle Combe. (fn. 24) Stert descended with the barony and was conveyed with it in 1309 by William de Montfort, son of Parnel de Dunstanville and Robert de Montfort, to Bartholomew of Badlesmere. (fn. 25) After the execution of Badlesmere in 1322 (fn. 26) the Castle Combe lands, including Stert, passed to the elder Despenser, but after his death in 1326 they were restored to Badlesmere's widow, Margaret for life. (fn. 27) In 1329, however, the king granted the reversion of the manor after Margaret's death to Henry Burghersh, bishop of Lincoln, so that unlike Castle Combe and some of the other lands of the barony, it did not pass to Margaret's son, Giles of Badlesmere. (fn. 28)
In 1334, after Margaret's death, Henry Burghersh entered into possession of the manor. (fn. 29) He died in 1340 and was succeeded by his brother Bartholomew Burghersh. (fn. 30) Bartholomew died in 1355 and was followed by his son, also called Bartholomew. (fn. 31) At this date Stert was said to be held of Devizes Castle by castle-guard duty. Bartholomew Burghersh, the younger, died in 1369, having settled the manor upon his wife Margaret. (fn. 32) His heir was his daughter Elizabeth, wife of Edward le Despenser, and in 1388 she conveyed the reversion of the manor, after the death of her mother, to William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester. (fn. 33) Margaret died in 1393 and Stert passed to New College, Oxford, to whom Wykeham had conveyed the reversion. (fn. 34) New College retained Stert until the mid 20th century when the estate was broken up and sold at sales of 1951 and 1963. (fn. 35)
Some of the lessees of the manor are mentioned below. (fn. 36) After the dissolution of the priory of Great Malvern the lessees acquired the tithes which had been paid to the prior since the 14th century. (fn. 37) In 1840 those tithes were commuted for a rent-charge of £150. (fn. 38) When offered for sale in 1905 the rent-charge carried with it liability for the upkeep of the chancel of the chapel. (fn. 39)
Stert Farm appears to date from the 17th century and consists of a central range with cross-wings. The east end of the house was built some time before 1662 by a member of the Topp family. (fn. 40)
In 1086 Stert was reckoned at 5 hides 1½ virgate of which 4 hides were in demesne. (fn. 41) The 1½ virgate belonged to a Frenchman who, it has been suggested, (fn. 42) may have been a free retainer of French birth. On the demesne there were 3 ploughs and 6 serfs. There were also 15 bordars. There were 30 a. of meadow, 10 a. of pasture, and 10 a. of woodland. Since the time of the Confessor the value of the estate had increased from £5 to £6.
When extended in 1311 the manor included a several pasture valued at £3 a year and a little grove which for its pasture and underwood was worth 3s. 4d. annually. (fn. 43) There were reckoned to be 246 a. of demesne arable and 58½ a. of demesne meadow. Vines were cultivated on the manor, presumably on the steep southern slopes at the western end of the parish. Among customary payments was one called 'Grastab', said to be worth 5s. a year. A payment known as 'my-money', or 'myth-money', also worth 5s. annually, existed in the mid 17th century but by then its origin was obscure and liability for its payment contested. (fn. 44)
As one of the manors making up the large estate belonging to the lords Burghersh in the 14th century Stert was involved in the sheep-farming economy of that estate. (fn. 45) There was frequent interchange of stock between Stert and Heytesbury, the chief breeding centre of the estate. In 1341 246 lambs and 3 whethers went from Stert to Heytesbury; in 1355 the whole of Heytesbury's ewe flock was sent to Stert, perhaps to stock that manor as a breeding ground. (fn. 46) Fairly large flocks continued to be maintained at Stert by New College after the college acquired the manor at the end of the 14th century. (fn. 47)
It is not known precisely when New College first leased the manor out. It was certainly leased in 1534 when the rent was £13 and the college received additionally £13 10s. 5d. from free and customary tenants. (fn. 48) In the later 16th century John Topp was lessee (fn. 49) and the Topps, who were lords of the manor of Stockton, continued to lease Stert for the greater part of the 17th century. (fn. 50) John Topp (d. c. 1659) lived at Stert before succeeding to Stockton and part, at least, of the farm-house at Stert seems to have been built by one of his ancestors. (fn. 51) The John Topp, lessee in 1666, probably lived at Stockton and seems to have taken a high-handed line with the warden of New College, failing to meet him on his progresses and taking wood from the estate without permission. (fn. 52) Eighteenth-century lessees included John Cooper, 1721–35, Prince Sutton of New Park, Roundway, in 1777, and James Sutton, his son, in 1784. From 1791 to 1840 John Gale was lessee. (fn. 53) Gale was an inclosure commissioner for Wiltshire and was recognized as one of the most progressive farmers of his day. (fn. 54) In 1846, during the tenancy of John Gabriel, the thatched farm buildings of Stert Farm were burnt by incendiaries, (fn. 55) and Gabriel claimed to have replaced them with 'some of the best in the county'. (fn. 56) Under Gabriel the farm was sub-let in two parts: Stert farm to George Cook and Hatfield farm to Maria Nash. (fn. 57) Thenceforth the two farms were leased separately and in 1951 the tenant of Hatfield farm, Mr. A. S. Hutchins, bought that farm and some 191 a. from New College. In 1963 tenants of Stert farm, Messrs. A. G. and F. Edwards, likewise acquired that farm and 465 a. from the college. (fn. 58)
Although New College ceased to farm Stert directly, probably not long after it acquired the manor, it retained a considerable measure of control by means of its court, the warden's annual progress, and the bailiff appointed from among the tenants of the manor. The bailiff was answerable for various matters, including the allotment of timber for building and repairs, and the collection of rents. (fn. 59)
The college was much concerned with the conservation of timber and permission to fell was sparingly given. In the mid 17th century the lease of the manor included the lop and shroud of trees but prohibited felling. (fn. 60) In 1770 there were 310 oaks, 158 elms, and 224 ashes on the manor. (fn. 61)
The lands of Stert farm stretched the whole length of the parish with the farm-house and most of the arable at the west end, and the pasture in the area known as Hatfield at the east end. Between 1573 and 1599 the lessee of the manor and tenants were given leave by New College to inclose their common and to make exchanges amongst themselves of arable, meadow, and pasture. (fn. 62) The common and a ground called Lower Lane were thereupon divided between the tenants, allotments being made in accordance with the number of beast leazes each held. Exchanges of other land, although permitted, seem to have been few, for there was little consolidation of either free or copyhold land.
In 1623 Stert farm had 80 a. of arable lying north-east of the farm-house at the bottom of Etchilhampton Hill. Above those demesne acres were the two common fields in which lay the tenants' arable. (fn. 63) At Hatfield there was a great pasture of 80 a., but other demesne pasture had recently been divided into smaller closes. In 1638 the demesne arable fields were called the Great Clay and the Clay. (fn. 64) In the mid 17th century the college refused to allow their lessee wood with which to fence the pasture at Hatfield along its northern boundary with Etchilhampton. In 1670 a ditch was dug and a withy hedge planted instead. (fn. 65)
Besides Stert farm, which c. 1775 measured 367 a., there was at that date 28 a. of freehold land divided into 4 holdings of 4, 9, 12, and 13 acres. Some 200 a. of copyhold land was divided among 15 copyholders. There were also small leasehold estates attached to the two mills. The largest copyhold had 75 a., then held by Gifford Warriner (d. 1787), and had a small farmstead in the village east of Stert Farm. All tenants' arable still lay scattered in the two fields called Upper and Lower furlongs. Their pasture was likewise mostly dispersed throughout the parish. (fn. 66)
By 1849 a little over half of all the copyhold land was either held by, or was farmed by Worthy Burry. (fn. 67) He farmed the Warriner farm, then held by Ernle Warriner (d. 1850), and also Hood's farm of 27 a. Hood's farm presumably derived from the holding of 18 a. with two strips in the common fields held in 1775 by Mary Hood. (fn. 68) In 1802 it was called Hood's Living. (fn. 69) Both those copyhold farms were later merged with Stert farm and were included in the sale of that farm to Mr. A. G. Edwards and his son in 1963. (fn. 70) Hood's farm was sold by Mr. Edwards soon afterwards. (fn. 71)
Throughout the 19th century freeholders' and copyholders' arable continued to lie in scattered strips in the two fields. (fn. 72) In 1918 when the vicar of Wilcot's glebe, which lay in Stert, was sold it included 6 small dispersed pieces of arable, 4 in one field, 2 in the other. (fn. 73) The last of the strips were acquired by New College in 1928 when the college was able to purchase 5 strips in Upper furlong and 1 strip in Lower furlong. (fn. 74)
There were two mills in 1086. (fn. 75) The mills of later times, perhaps the same, lay about ½ mile apart on the stream beneath the greensand cliff. The most westerly, which came to be called Upper Mill, was called in 1773 Witchley Mill. (fn. 76) It was held by lease from New College and among its tenants were Philip Ellis in 1667, James Godden in 1786, and Gratian Godden in 1800 and 1807, Thomas Nash in 1814 and 1828, (fn. 77) and Sarah Nash in 1849. (fn. 78) In 1849 it was valued at about £46. It had two pairs of stones, was built of brick and was thatched, and had a thatched house adjoining. (fn. 79) In 1970 the mill-house, much altered, was occupied privately and the former mill site had been made into an elaborate water-garden.
The Lower Mill was called the Home Mill in 1786 and Barn Mill in 1819. (fn. 80) It was also held by lease from New College. Among its tenants were Thomas Line in 1666, Benjamin Crook in 1730 and 1737, Jane Crook, his widow, in 1772 and 1779. Between 1786 and 1828 it was leased by Jonathan and James Puckeridge. Between 1847 and 1861 John Hookins was tenant. (fn. 81) In 1849 it was valued at £51. It had two pairs of stones and was a brick and timber building with house attached. (fn. 82) It was ruinous and deserted in 1970.
A series of court rolls exists for Stert covering the period 1370 to 1773. (fn. 83) Other court records for the same period also survive. (fn. 84) Courts were held once a year by the steward of the manor during the progress of the warden of New College and, fairly frequently, at one other time in the year. The court was concerned solely with agrarian and tenurial business, since New College had no leet jurisdiction. In 1609 the allotments made under an agreement to inclose the common and make exchanges of arable and pasture land were recorded in the manor court. (fn. 85)
Stert seems to have been relieving its own poor by the beginning of the 19th century. (fn. 86) Between 1833 and 1835 an average of £40 was spent annually on the poor. It became part of the Devizes poor-law union in 1835. (fn. 87)
A chapel at Stert is referred to c. 1232 when it was granted by the rector of Urchfont as part of an endowment to support a vicar to serve Urchfont church. (fn. 88) Stert thus became attached to that church as a chapelry and ecclesiastically has remained a chapelry of Urchfont ever since.
The vicar of Urchfont was required by the terms of the rector's grant to provide a chaplain to serve the chapel. (fn. 89) A chaplain appointed by the vicar is mentioned c. 1650 (fn. 90) and a benefaction of £200 was made for the chaplain in 1713. (fn. 91) No record of any other appointment has been found and by 1783 the benefaction had been lost. (fn. 92) Stert, therefore, seems usually to have been served by the vicar of Urchfont or his curate.
The chapel was said to be given to the vicar of Urchfont with all its revenues but at some date certain of the demesne tithes of Stert were allotted to provide for the portion due by 1291 to the prior of Great Malvern (Worcs.) from Urchfont church. (fn. 93) The portion was a charge upon those tithes at least by 1341. (fn. 94) In 1534 Great Malvern was leasing out the tithes for £2 annually. (fn. 95) In the later 17th century the vicar of Urchfont had all the tithes of Stert except the great tithes of the demesne farm and from a few other pieces of land valued at £20. (fn. 96) In 1840 his tithes from Stert were commuted for a rent-charge of £87. (fn. 97) It seems that the endowment made for the vicar of Urchfont c. 1232 may have included an acre of glebe belonging to the chapel. Certainly in the 17th century the vicar claimed to have an acre of glebe there. (fn. 98)
Stert was a peculiar of the bishop of Salisbury, and so exempt from visitation by the archdeacon. When the visitation records begin, Stert, represented by the vicar of Urchfont and one or sometimes two churchwardens, was visited as a bishop's peculiar by the chancellor at visitations held in Devizes. (fn. 99) In the 17th and 18th centuries the vicar of Urchfont complained that his duties to both church and chapel, which lay 1½ mile apart, were very arduous. (fn. 100) In 1783 he had the assistance of a curate and a service was held in each place every Sunday. (fn. 101) On Census Sunday in 1851 104 attended the chapel. (fn. 102) In 1864 the vicar was helped by the curate of St. James's, Southbroom. (fn. 103) In 1970 one service was held at Stert every Sunday.
The small church of ST. JAMES consists of a nave with spirelet, north aisle, and chancel. It was rebuilt in 1846 by J. H. Hakewill, (fn. 104) possibly after being damaged by the fire which almost destroyed the manor-house nearby in 1845. (fn. 105) An early picture shows the 19th-century church to have been a simple structure built on the same plan. (fn. 106) In 1970 the church had a highly ornate font designed by Hakewill.
A chalice of 8 oz. was left for the chapel in 1553 and 1½ oz. silver taken for the king. The church plate in 1970 included a cup and paten of 1577, a small paten, and a pewter salver. (fn. 107) In 1553 there were two bells. There was one in 1970. (fn. 108) The registers of baptisms and marriages begin in 1579 and those of burials in 1580. There are gaps in the entries of baptisms between 1656 and 1661, of marriages between 1656 and 1671, and burials between 1655 and 1670. (fn. 109)
At least two members of the Line family, who held land in Stert in the later 17th century, were Quakers. (fn. 110) John Fry, presented by the churchwardens in 1668 for not taking the sacrament for at least six years, probably also belonged to the local family of that name with land in Stert. (fn. 111) In 1831 a building belonging to Charles Wiltshire was registered as a meeting-place for dissenters. (fn. 112) A Baptist chapel was built in the village c. 1869. (fn. 113) In the 1940s efforts were made by members of the Devizes New Baptist chapel to keep the Stert chapel open for worship, but by c. 1951 there were no regular worshippers and the chapel was closed. (fn. 114) It was sold in 1956. (fn. 115)
There was an infants' school with 2 boys and 9 girls attending at their parents' expense in 1835. (fn. 116) A school was built c. 1841 with accommodation for 25 children. (fn. 117) In 1906 average attendance was 22. (fn. 118) In 1922 average attendance was 21; in 1927 it was 19 and that year the school was closed. (fn. 119)