Economic history

Pages 1-6

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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Wiltshire in the closing years of the 11th century stood tenth among the English counties in order of recorded population. It formed part of a large tract of more or less rewarding farming country that included Oxfordshire to the north and Berkshire to the east, with an average population of perhaps fifty to the square mile. Much of the county was still forested; and three acres out of every five were open downland, only thinly peopled by human beings but rich in sheep and wool. Thus the county was much more important in the English economy than its human population would suggest. In the 14th century it still remained tenth in order of recorded population (as reflected in the number of poll-tax payers in 1377) (fn. 1) but in taxable capacity it stood fourth, well behind Norfolk and Kent and only a little behind its neighbour Gloucestershire, with a very similar economy of good farmland, an important wool trade, and a growing cloth industry. (fn. 2)

The beginnings of towns in Wiltshire may be discerned before the end of the 9th century, above all at the gates of ancient monasteries such as Malmesbury and Wilton. Old Salisbury and Cricklade had also acquired distinctive urban features well before the Norman Conquest. By the time of Domesday there were ten boroughs in the county, but the information given about them is too meagre to speak of their relative importance. The borough of Tilshead, in the vast spaces of the central downlands, is in some ways the most remarkable and symptomatic of the developing Wiltshire economy. Its existence can only be explained by the rapid extension of sheep farming in late Saxon times (of which there is ample evidence elsewhere in England) (fn. 3) which necessitated a new collecting centre in this lonely upland. Nor can we doubt that the need for a new marketing centre for sheep and wool in the northern downlands in the century preceding the Norman Conquest played an important part in the emergence of Marlborough as a borough.

By the early 13th century, when the documentary evidence effectively begins, sheep farming and the marketing of wool was highly organized. There were considerable movements of sheep from manor to manor on the large lay and ecclesiastical estates, some attempts at selective breeding, and central organizations for wool sales. Demesne flocks of well over a thousand sheep were not uncommon from the 13th century onwards. Even more remarkable perhaps was the existence of tenants' flocks totalling over a thousand on some manors, and over 2,500 at Martin in 1225. Indeed, in seven villages for which we have the necessary figures, the peasantry between them owned four times as many sheep as their monastic landlords, in some places seven times as many. The wool from tenant flocks was not only a vital contribution to the English wool supply but it laid the foundations at an early date for profound social changes. With the ready money from wool sales villeins and cottagers were able to buy their legal freedom and also to buy or to rent additional land as opportunities arose.

Wiltshire lay within what may be called the classic type of open-field economy of medieval England. Most villages farmed their arable under a simple two-field system, though three fields were to be found on many manors. No geographical distinction seems to be involved here: it seems to be mainly an historical change whereby some manors advanced from a two-field system to three fields at some date in the 14th century, and often as late as the 15th or 16th century. On many manors the population doubled between Domesday and the Black Death, and there is consequently abundant evidence of the extension of the cultivated area by the clearance of woodland, the draining of marshland, and the breaking up of moorland. There is equally abundant evidence also of the more intensive cultivation of old acres as the generations passed.

Though Wiltshire wool was chiefly important as a raw material for foreign industry, the local cloth industry was far from negligible. Fulling mills appear in the Wiltshire countryside as early as anywhere in England. There was a small textile industry in the towns to meet mainly local needs from at least the 12th century, but the most marked industrial advance came during the reign of Edward III when Wiltshire shared to the full in the general growth of the English cloth industry. The farm of the aulnage for the county rose from £60 a year in 1362 to £100 some 40 years later; and the quality of the local cloth rose from a cheap coarse fabric (burel) to middle-price qualities of which rays were the best known. Salisbury was by far the greatest centre for both manufacture and marketing, and was indeed one of the leading industrial and commercial cities of the realm. In the taxation of 1334 Salisbury is revealed as the ninth wealthiest provincial town, wealthier than Boston, Lynn, or Ipswich, and yielding to the exchequer nearly as much as all the other 'taxation boroughs' of Wiltshire put together. In population Salisbury ranked as the sixth largest provincial town in 1377, and again was bigger than all the other Wiltshire boroughs together. It was about five times as big as Wilton, the ancient capital, and nearly ten times as rich.

By the end of the 15th century the cloth industry of western Wiltshire rivalled that of Salisbury and the older centres. The rise of Castle Combe, especially, as an industrial centre under the 50 years' lordship of Sir John Fastolf (1409–59) is a remarkable example of industrial growth fostered by a shrewd medieval landlord. The Bradfordon-Avon district became especially important in the late 15th century, notably at Bradford itself and at Trowbridge, Steeple Ashton, Devizes, and Westbury. The Wiltshire cloth industry became increasingly dependent on overseas markets (through London and Bristol, and to a lesser extent through Southampton). The white broadcloths of Wiltshire were particularly famous in these generations and were in great demand abroad. The growth of the cloth industry stimulated the production of wool locally. Even so, supplies were inadequate and the larger clothiers were buying from as far afield as Northamptonshire and the Welsh border before the end of the 15th century.

In the lay subsidy of 1523–7, the most comprehensive and searching tax since that of 1377, Wiltshire had fallen back relatively and now stood sixth in taxable capacity. The leaping advance of her cloth industry had been more than matched by that of East Anglia, Essex, Somerset, and Devon. But the pre-eminence of Salisbury within the county was even more marked. Together with the city of Exeter, which it so closely resembled in many ways as an ecclesiastical and administrative capital, and as a commercial and industrial centre for an extensive hinterland, Salisbury ranked as the fifth wealthiest city in England outside London, surpassed only by Norwich, Bristol, Newcastle, and Coventry. This was indeed the zenith of its importance as a commercial centre. Like the Wiltshire cloth industry as a whole, it went into a relative decline from the second half of the 16th century onwards. (fn. 4)

By the early 16th century Wiltshire farming had become specialized to a more marked degree perhaps than that of most counties. One can indeed detect the signs of specialization much earlier than this, as in the growth of cheese-making on a large scale in the 14th century and above all in the sheep-and-corn husbandry of the chalk country. But by 1500 the north of the county was almost entirely devoted to dairying— the famous cheese country—and formed an equally distinctive farming region. There were lesser regions also, such as the butter country of the extreme south-west, but the Chalk and the Cheese were predominant. Not only had they quite distinct plans of management, their own distinct life and history, but each had also a distinctive landscape. Three acres out of four in the cheese and butter countries were already inclosed by the 17th century, much of it earlier, whereas the sheep-and-corn country remained largely open until the parliamentary inclosures of the Georgian period. The characteristic scene in north Wiltshire was the small field inclosed by hedge and ditch and grazed by cattle; in mid- and south-Wiltshire it was the pale, rolling sea of chalk downland apparently unbroken for league after league and dotted with sheep. But the scene was not static: in the extreme north-west (the Cotswold country) there was a good deal of inclosure and some depopulation in the 17th century, while in the dairying country proper there was much inclosure of open fields and commons, new closes created from heath and woodland, and generally an increase of people in the countryside. This inclosure was usually carried through by agreement. There was in Wiltshire little or none of the contention and bitterness that marked the Tudor and early Stuart inclosures in the Midland counties. Even in the chalk country, inclosure had made some slight advance, in the lower ground especially, before Georgian days. At the same time there was a steady fall in the number of family farmers in this kind of country, mainly because of the obvious economies in working costs of the larger sheep-and-corn farms. Here, by the middle of the 17th century, the capitalist farmer occupied most of the land. By the 18th century rural society had generally stratified here into the gentleman farmer at the top and the wage-earning labourer at the bottom, with little in between; whereas in the dairying country the family farmer and the self-employed man remained characteristic figures right down to recent times.

The old open-field husbandry was far from stereotyped or static. Every open village had its own regulations or by-laws, which laid down in broad outline the kind of farming that best suited the parish while allowing individual farmers a great deal of freedom of choice within the general scheme. These by-laws could be, and were, amended from time to time to meet changing circumstances. They were designed to prevent bad husbandry, to enforce minimum standards of farming, and inclosure sometimes produced bad results (for example, the excessive ploughing-up and dereliction of the sheep downs) when it ignorantly destroyed the ancient machinery of the village by-laws and all the wisdom and experience they had embodied.

From the late 16th century onward there were other notable advances in farming technique in all the regions, most vital perhaps being the floating of water-meadows in the chalk country, which overcame the long-standing shortage of fodder and so greatly enhanced the number of sheep that could be kept. In Wiltshire, at least, the improvements in technique, in implements, in land-use, and in management generally, amount to an early agricultural revolution.

The other great occupation of Wiltshire—the cloth industry—had reached its zenith during the first half of the 16th century. Since it was now so dependent on foreign markets, it was henceforward disrupted or injured by continental wars, by the competition of French and Dutch woollens, and by such ill-conceived schemes as the Cockayne project. The outbreak of the Thirty Years War in particular brought considerable unemployment to the Wiltshire towns and countryside. Nevertheless, new types of cloth were being developed and the picture was far from one of general stagnation. Once the troubles of the Civil War and the Restoration were over the famous fine-cloth of Wiltshire developed strongly, notably at Bradford-on-Avon from the 1670's onwards, an advance that was greatly assisted by the arrival of a colony of skilled Dutch workers. This new trade was especially important because its chief market was at home, and for the next hundred years it remained the mainstay of the Wiltshire textile industry.

The ship-money assessments of 1635–6 and the hearth-tax assessments of the third quarter of the 17th century enable us to place Wiltshire in the national economy once more. (fn. 5) Wiltshire's assessment of £7,000 for the former levy puts it ninth in taxable capacity at that date (counting Yorkshire and Lincolnshire each as one county). The hearth tax of 1662, showing a total of 39,121 hearths in the county, reveals a further slide down the scale, the Wiltshire total being twelfth in order of magnitude. Salisbury, too, with only about 3,500 hearths, had fallen far behind the rival textile centre of Exeter (with well over 5,000 hearths), though as the twelfth largest provincial town it had at least maintained its Elizabethan level. When the first national census was taken in 1801, Wiltshire was seventeenth among the English counties in order of population. Such measures of relative wealth or importance, crude though they are, serve at least to show the broad changes in ranking within the national economy. Wiltshire was not stagnating in the 17th and 18th centuries; but other counties were leaping ahead. Thus the aulnage for Gloucestershire in 1689 was worth twice that for Wiltshire, and the Wiltshire cloth industry was probably not so important in the 18th century as it had been a hundred years earlier.

During the 19th century the relative decline of Wiltshire in the national economy continued unchecked. By the middle of the century it stood twenty-fourth in order of population, (fn. 6) at the end of the century twenty-eighth. This relative decline lasted until the Second World War. It is in the light of these figures that we must examine the stagnation, for such it now was, of Wiltshire agriculture and industry over the five generations between 1800 and 1940.

By the end of the 18th century the Wiltshire cloth industry had lost ground to Gloucestershire; and then came the Industrial Revolution and the mechanization of the Yorkshire mills and a further steady decline in the face of this competition. Bradford-on-Avon was stagnant by the 1820's, though Trowbridge and Westbury faced the bewildering changes with more resilience. There were still 6,000 people engaged in the cloth industry at the end of the thirties, half of them in the mills, half outside. But the 50 or more mills of 1838 had fallen to 17 a generation later (1871) and the last decades of the century saw mill after mill shut its doors. The fundamental causes of this collapse are not entirely clear: Wiltshire was not unduly slow in adopting the new machines and the new sources of power (the first steam-engine had been installed at Trowbridge in 1805), and was not far from a coalfield. Possibly it was the long concentration on cloths of high quality that was Wiltshire's undoing in the end, for it was a class of trade that could not by its nature expand and take advantage of the changing and mass-demands of the urban multitudes. Now only five mills survive, all producing cloth of a fine quality.

Wiltshire agriculture during the 19th century followed much the same lines as English agriculture as a whole. The Napoleonic Wars stimulated inclosure, as they did elsewhere. By 1815 less than 5 per cent. of the county lay in open field, but as late as 1873 it was reported that there were still some 44 parishes containing some open field and the last vestiges have only disappeared within living memory. There was, too, a continued decline in the numbers of small farmers, which was by no means wholly attributable to the parliamentary inclosures (though they produced that result in some villages). Again, the Wiltshire arable declined steadily in the second half of the century as in England generally. For every 100 acres of arable in 1870 there were only 40 in 1930, and permanent pasture rose accordingly. Indeed, this reflected the one bright side of Wiltshire farming—the development of an important trade in liquid milk for the London market, a development made easy by the excellent railway connexions between the dairying country and the metropolis, above all after 1870. There are now two and a half times as many cattle as in 1870, but fewer than one-tenth the number of sheep. The ancient sheep-and-corn husbandry was shattered.

The new factories for milk products took over some of the disused cloth mills. So, too, did the rubber factories which, from 1875 onwards, established themselves in northern Wiltshire for no obvious geographical reason. Doubtless the empty floorspace and the abundant local labour brought about this unforeseeable development. Then, too, the bacon-curing industry, for which Wiltshire had long been noted, became a factory industry from the 1850's onwards (chiefly due to the enterprise of one great firm), and there was some growth in tanning, glove-making, and agricultural engineering.

The most remarkable growth of industry came directly from the new railways in the 1840's. Swindon, a market-town of 1,200 people at the beginning of the century, was chosen by the Great Western Railway in the autumn of 1840 as the site of its railway works for purely geographical reasons. In the seventies the G.W.R. concentrated its other railway works (then at Wolverhampton, Saltley, Bristol, and Exeter) at Swindon, which consequently nearly doubled in population during that decade. There was a further doubling (to 45,000 people) by the end of the century, by which time Swindon had become the largest town in the county, far outstripping the now-somnolent cathedral city of Salisbury. The Second World War, by attracting industry away from the dangerous large towns, at last arrested the long economic decline of Wiltshire. The engineering industry now employs more workers than the whole of Wiltshire farming. One in three of these work at Swindon. Another new factor in the economic life of the county came into being at the end of the 19th century when the War Department made its first substantial purchase of land on Salisbury Plain. Since then there has been a gradual encroachment by the army and air force upon the Plain, absorbing much agricultural land but also bringing a certain amount of trade and employment to the neighbouring towns and villages.

In the 1830's one in seven of the total population was employed in farming. A hundred years later it was only one in fourteen; now it is only one in twenty, partly because agriculture itself has become vastly more mechanized in the last twenty years. The horse has virtually disappeared in our own generation, and in the early 1920's there were four times as many as there are now. In the Wiltshire pastures the Friesian cow has almost completely supplanted the immemorial sheep. Swindon is twice as big as Salisbury, but Salisbury has now awakened from its uneasy Victorian sleep and is now lively and prosperous. The ancient capital of Wilton, in spite of a slight enlargement of its boundaries, has hardly any more people than it had 150 years ago. Since 1939 Southern Command has had its headquarters either in the town or on the outskirts, but the effects of this have probably been felt more in nearby Salisbury, and today Wilton can only be said to be busy when the summer tourists make their multitudinous way through its streets to the seaside places of the far south-west.


  • 1. For the ranking of counties by population in 1086 and 1377, see J. C. Russell, British Medieval Population, 54, 132–3.
  • 2. See the table of the gross yield of fifteenths and tenths in 1334, W. G. Hoskins and H. P. R. Finberg, Devonshire Studies, 215–16. Yorkshire and Lincolnshire are counted here, as they are in the assessment, as 3 distinct counties.
  • 3. See, for example, W. G. Hoskins, Sheep Farming in Saxon and Medieval England, and H. P. R. Finberg, Roman and Saxon Withington, 20, 21, and Gloucestershire Studies, 13.
  • 4. W. G. Hoskins, 'English Provincial Towns in the early Sixteenth Century', Trans. R.H.S. 5th ser. vi. 4–5. Fifty years later Salisbury had fallen to 13th or 14th place in the provinces. B.M. Stowe MS. 570, no. 11, gives the total subsidy paid by 33 towns in 1576. This list does not for some reason include Newcastle, Coventry, and Reading, of which the first 2 were certainly wealthier than Salisbury. Possibly Reading was also by this date.
  • 5. The ship-money assessments are given in Trans. R.H.S. 3rd ser. iv. 141–62, and the hearth-tax figures are conveniently summarized by C. A. F. Meekings, Dorset Hearth Tax Assessments 1662–64, 107–10.
  • 6. By 1844 some changes in the boundaries of the county had taken place, the result of which was to reduce the total area of the county slightly. For details of these and later changes see below, p. 315.