A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 8, Warminster, Westbury and Whorwellsdown Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1965.
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TOWN GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC SERVICES.
Warminster had the status of a borough in late Saxon times, and still contained burgesses in 1086. (fn. 1) In the 14th and 15th centuries a court called a portmote was held in the town every three weeks; in 1348-9 it was kept by a portreeve. (fn. 2) It was distinct from the manorial courts, and no doubt only had jurisdiction over the urban area, perhaps even only over the area east of Almshouse Bridge which, it is suggested above, formed the 'new port'. (fn. 3) Nothing is known of any other burghal institutions, and the town was never represented in Parliament.
In the mid-13th century William Mauduit was holding a court in which he claimed the liberty of trying and hanging thieves. (fn. 4) Later in the century the lord of Warminster had a gallows called Alkemere, which it was said interfered with the jurisdiction of the Abbot of Glastonbury in Longbridge Deverill. (fn. 5) A three-weekly manorial court and a twice-yearly court-leet were being held in the late Middle Ages. (fn. 6) No records remain to illustrate their work before the 17th century. They were then described as the courts of Warminster town and liberty, or of the in-hundred, and were attended by the tithingmen of Warminster, Avenel's Fee, and Boreham. In the 17th and 18th centuries they appointed haywards, bread weighers, shamble wardens, leather sealers, ale tasters, viewers of commons, viewers of firehearths, and constables. The chief business was presentment of breaches of the agricultural custom, of strays, and of nuisances. (fn. 7) It is not known how long the three-weekly courts continued to be kept, but the court-leet was still held in the mid-19th century. (fn. 8) Its meeting was only annual, and was largely occupied with food and drink. (fn. 9)
Sir John Thynne was high steward of Warminster in 1553, (fn. 10) and Giles Estcourt in 1574. (fn. 11) No more is known of this office, and the chief manorial officer in later times was the bailiff. From the 16th century it was customary to lease the bailiwick of the town on lives, generally though not always with the hundred bailiwick. (fn. 12) The lessee occupied, or could underlet, the office, and enjoyed the profits of the courts leet and baron, of the fairs and markets, of the guildhall and the stalls and shambles in the Market Place, and of certain houses near Almshouse Bridge. (fn. 13) The lease was clearly profitable and was held by men of substance; lessees for a large part of the 17th century were the Sloper family, tenants of the manor farm. (fn. 14) In the early 18th century the tolls of the markets and fairs were deducted from the lease, although the profits of the stalls and shambles remained. The last lease of the bailiwick on lives fell in hand in 1758, and the profits were afterwards let at rack with the tolls added again. (fn. 15) They were still held like this in the mid-19th century, (fn. 16) and the office of bailiff was held by the manager of the corn market in 1903, (fn. 17) long after it had ceased to have any significance in local government. Of the other manorial officers, the high constable was still performing some minor functions in the 1860's, (fn. 18) and a hayward was still exercising his office in 1868, when he was involved in a lawsuit about impounding cattle. (fn. 19)
A 'tolseld' stood in Warminster in the late 14th century. (fn. 20) In the middle of the next century rents were received both for a novam aulam placitorum, with shops beneath it, and a vetus aulam placitorum. (fn. 21) The latter was probably the same as the old tolseld repaired in 1563-4. (fn. 22) It may have stood near the eastern corner of the Market Place and Weymouth Street, for the 'Plume of Feathers', later the 'King's Arms', which stood there until the 1830's, was traditionally said to be a former town hall. (fn. 23) The new hall was no doubt that called in 1516-17 the 'yelde hall' and council house, (fn. 24) and later generally the Guildhall. (fn. 25) It stood in the centre of the road where High Street and the Market Place join, opposite the entrance into Common Close. The medieval building was subsequently added to. A 'little shed house' which stood at the west end in 1575 (fn. 26) had been replaced a century later by a 'newerected' hall, with an open place underneath it. (fn. 27) The date 1711 which appeared on the west wall when it was demolished may have referred to a further extension or to repairs. (fn. 28) The building was used for public meetings ranging from the holding of the summer Quarter Sessions to balls and assemblies; part of the lower stage was used as a blind house or town prison, and the poor were customarily paid there. (fn. 29) Market stalls stood beneath it, and part was used as a wool hall. (fn. 30) It was a serious obstruction to the highway through the town, and was demolished in 1832; the present building at the junction of the Market Place and Weymouth Street was provided by the Marquess of Bath and opened in the same year. (fn. 31) It was designed by Edward Blore. The stone front is in a Tudor style reminiscent of Longleat. The building was given to the town by the fifth marquess in 1903.
The vestry, which shared the government of the town with the decaying court leet, was active from at least the early 17th century. (fn. 32) It was always 'open', and in the 19th century was evidently attended by considerable numbers of ratepayers, sometimes as many as 200. (fn. 33) There were overseers of the poor in 1616, when the manor court ordered that certain poor cutters of wood should be taken before them to decide their fitness for that liberty. (fn. 34) The overseers were no doubt the same as the collectors for the poor, who were appointed in the vestry in 1620. (fn. 35) There was a poor man's box, in which a few shillings a year were collected, in the later 1620's. (fn. 36) Little is known about poor relief, however, until near the end of the century, when a volume of overseers' accounts begins in 1687. From that date expenditure rose gradually and intermittently, from under £200 in the 1680's to a figure generally over £400 between 1710 and 1720. (fn. 37) About 1727 a poor house was built at Warminster Common by Lord Weymouth, apparently in exchange for consent to his inclosing some waste lands. An offer by him to undertake the perpetual relief of all the chargeable poor of the parish in return for permission to inclose all the waste lands was rejected. The workhouse was a failure in the end, (fn. 38) although it was perhaps responsible for a fall in expenditure between 1732 and 1736, when the highest figure was only £318. For the next two decades it was generally over £500, and more than twice that sum in the worst years. (fn. 39) In 1757 Lord Weymouth paid the parish £300 for the right to inclose some more common lands, and the money was used towards building a workhouse at Warminster Common and inclosing some land near it for a garden. (fn. 40) Salaried masters were appointed for the remainder of the century, and there is no evidence of farming out the poor there. (fn. 41) Expenditure on the poor rose slightly in the 1770's and 1780's. The average from 1774 to 1782 was £1,138; the appointment of a salaried assistant overseer from 1783 resulted in a slight improvement for a few years, and a committee of the vestry found that further improvement might be made by reducing the number of inmates in the workhouse, whose upkeep cost over 2s. a week each, while those on outdoor relief cost less than 1s. (fn. 42)
In 1790 distress in the town was so great that £140 was subscribed and distributed in money, bread, and fuel to 466 families. (fn. 43) From that time expenditure on the poor increased rapidly, reaching over £5,500 in 1801 and being generally between £3,000 and £5,000 between then and 1835. (fn. 44) In 1821 the workhouse, 'a most grievous concentration of every species of vice', usually contained from 90 to 100 paupers, but by 1824 rigid scrutiny had reduced the number to about 30. (fn. 45) An account of the administration of the poor law in Warminster in 1832 is probably typical of most of the period of large expenditure since 1790. The vestry appointed four overseers, chiefly tradesmen, who with the churchwardens assessed and levied the rates and spent the money. They were assisted by a salaried assistant overseer, and subject to the scrutiny of the vestry at its monthly meetings. Only 18 poor were in the workhouse, mainly aged and impotent; their upkeep cost the parish about £12 each a year. Some 70 or 80 labourers were wholly on the parish during the summer and 120 or 140 in the winter. They were employed upon the roads when possible. A much larger number, 900 in September 1832, (fn. 46) received out-relief because their earnings were not sufficient to support their families. The parish objected to employers paying under 9s. a week; with that sum, a man was given 1s. 6d. a week if he had four children, and 2s. 6d. for five, but nothing for less than four. (fn. 47)
The vestry appointed surveyors of the highways by 1620, (fn. 48) but they were probably able to do no more than deal with the worst places, for the roads of the town were generally in a miserable state. (fn. 49) The appointment of scavengers in 1736 with power to raise a 6d. rate (fn. 50) was probably ineffective, and the earliest real improvements in the town probably date from the establishment of a turnpike trust in 1727. The trust's activities were largely confined to roads within the parish; some of its road improvements have been described above. (fn. 51) In 1792 the trustees were given additional powers to provide and repair pavements in some streets and to order the removal of nuisances. (fn. 52) The surveyors appointed by the vestry still remained responsible for most of the parish. Together they seem to have achieved a certain amount. In 1809 a barrel-drain was made in the Market Place. (fn. 53) William Daniell, the Methodist overseer, was appointed surveyor in 1822, and after great exertions was able to remove the heaps of filth which stood before most of the doorways at the Common and to prevent them from being replaced. (fn. 54) In the early 1830's the parish improved many roads, the money coming from the poor rates and labour from the unemployed poor. (fn. 55)
In 1835 the parish was able to set up a more effective authority for the repair of the roads. This was a Highway Board, a committee of the vestry appointed under the Act of that year. (fn. 56) The board was active in its early years; William Daniell was appointed as salaried assistant surveyor, and between 1836 and 1840 the board laid several drains in various parts of the town and widened the road in East Street. In 1840 it successfully opposed the renewal of the turnpike commissioners' powers relating to pavements and the removal of nuisances. (fn. 57) In 1856 it proceeded against tradesmen who obstructed the pavement with their goods. (fn. 58) In 1859- 60 it spent £386, (fn. 59) presumably on the maintenance of minor roads, pavements, and drains, and these were probably its chief concern until it was replaced in 1867. The vestry also delegated some of its local government powers to a body of Inspectors of Lighting and Watching appointed under the Lighting and Watching of Parishes Act of 1833. (fn. 60) In the early 1860's its chief functions were the supervision of the lighting of the main streets of the town by gas and of the town's fire engines. Between £300 and £400 were spent each year, most of which was paid to the Gas Company. (fn. 61) Beside these two permanent bodies it was customary to appoint boards of health to deal with outbreaks of disease in the town. Such a board was appointed in the cholera outbreak of 1832; (fn. 62) in 1858 a board of health was compelled to undertake the abatement of the nuisance created by the sewage in the Swan River, and the vestry appointed a committee to co-operate with it. (fn. 63)
Thus before the formation of the Local Board of Health, the government of Warminster was shared between the vestry and its committees, the turnpike trusts, and the ad hoc boards of health. Little money was available, and some of the greatest permanent improvements, such as the reconstruction of George Street from 1807 (fn. 64) and the supply of water to the Common in 1849, (fn. 65) were the result of private efforts. In 1860 the road from Portway to the station, now the Avenue, was repaired by subscription. (fn. 66) Even normal services were given grudgingly; in 1859 the Highway Board decided not to water the streets at the expense of the parish, but to make the carts available to private people who wished to do so. (fn. 67)
A Local Board of Health was set up in 1867. (fn. 68) It consisted of 15 members, a third of whom retired each year. It immediately appointed a clerk, a treasurer, a surveyor, and a rate-collector, none of them apparently full-time officials. The practice of appointing permanent committees was begun in 1869, when finance and general purpose committees were formed; other committees followed as the work of the board increased.
The board at first simply assumed the functions of the Highway Board and the Inspectors of Lighting and Watching. An inspector of nuisances was appointed, and some show of ordering their abatement was made, particularly the cleaning of water-courses, the fixing of gutters on houses, and the cleansing of slaughterhouses. The three town fire engines were found to be in as good order as their age would allow, and a proposal to buy a new one was dropped. The largest items in the first year's estimate of £743 were £324 for street lighting and £210 for highways and cleaning the streets. Only £30 were allowed for drains and pavements. An outbreak of smallpox was dealt with by the old expedient of a temporary board of health. The town board had little inclination to seek new responsibilities. In 1869 it resolved that it had no present intention of altering the system of drainage, and it would only proceed with the reconstruction of the Common water-supply if half the cost could be raised by subscription. (fn. 69) In 1873, however, the board appointed a medical officer of health. Three years later the Local Government Board asked what the board intended to do about the unsatisfactory privies mentioned in the medical officer's reports. Between 1876 and 1878 there were outbreaks of scarlet fever and typhoid, and the government began to complain repeatedly about the lack of sewerage and the pollution of the Swan River. It was the threat of action under the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act of 1876 (fn. 70) that eventually forced the board into tardy action in 1880.
The sewerage committee appointed by the board produced a scheme amended from one which had been prepared for the former Highway Board in 1867. It involved collecting most of the town's sewage in a sewer, running down the Swan River from Almshouse Bridge, and taking it to meadows near the Wylye on the Bishopstrow boundary, where it would be filtered by being spread over several acres of land. Smaller schemes were to take sewage from Boreham to the same area and from the Common to another site at Henford's Marsh. After much discussion the lease of a piece of land was secured from Lord Bath, and the scheme came into use in 1883. The board experienced much difficulty in making property owners connect their houses to the scheme; in 1884 few cesspits had been done away with, and in 1886 the river was still very foul from sewage which ran into it from the Manor House. In spite of the imperfections of the system, Warminster was the first of the smaller towns in the county to have one at all. (fn. 71)
The other main problem which faced the local board was that of water supply, and on this it was also slow to act. We have seen that the Common supply was left to private initiative and only received partial support from the board. In 1872 its extension to the Marsh side of the Common was carried out in the same way, and even in the late 1880's, after the inauguration of the town supply, the Common scheme was still run by a private committee. The first move to supply the town itself came from a London civil engineer in 1882. This provoked a public meeting in the town the following year at which a motion in favour of having a supply was defeated. A majority of the members of the board at this time wanted a supply, and an engineer was called in, and negotiations begun with Lord Bath for the use of a spring at Aucombe near Shearwater. At the 1884 election four of the five members returned were opposed to having a supply, but this still left a narrow majority in favour. A public enquiry was held, and much evidence given about the pollution of the wells from which the town was supplied; in the courts off East Street the water was the colour of porter. Nevertheless a majority of ratepayers, led by Sir James Philipps, the vicar, were violently opposed to being supplied by the board. The plans were approved by the government, and pushed on with as fast as possible; by the next election in 1885 they were well advanced, but again four opponents of the scheme were returned, including Philipps himself. A resolution was immediately passed that the works should be transferred to a private company, and Philipps began to negotiate privately with Lord Bath for him to take it over. This action, taken without the knowledge of the board, evidently caused much offence to the other members, and was probably the reason why several of the opponents changed sides and enabled the board to carry out the original scheme after all.
The minor activities of the board can be quickly dealt with. The houses of the town were numbered in 1876. Three years later the board bought a house in South Street at the Common for an infectious diseases hospital to replace the old practice of using any empty house available. Medical opinion in the town was against the site, and the Local Government Board refused a loan. The collection of house refuse was begun in 1880, and in the same year a Fire Brigade committee was formed. In 1886 a Volunteer Fire Brigade was established, to which the board agreed to contribute. An anonymous donor gave a second-hand manual engine which required 22 men to work it, (fn. 72) and the three old engines were sold.
Warminster Urban District Council was formed under the Local Government Act of 1894. It consists of 15 members of whom a third retire annually. As with its predecessor, the first problem which faced the council was one of sewage disposal. There were still parts of the town not served by the system, including The Furlong and new houses on the Imber road, beside more outlying parts such as Woodcock and Hillwood Lane. At the Common some sewage still ran into the stream. There were also frequent complaints about smells from the sewage farm, and the government urged that the whole system should be reviewed. When this was done it was found that the farm was illarranged and too small. After much consideration it was decided to pump the sewage to a more suitable area. Smallbrook Mill was bought for the purpose, and a piece of sloping land north-east of Butler's Coombe Farm was adopted as the new farm. The work of laying new sewers in areas not previously served was still going on in 1901. Since the turn of the century the council has taken many new responsibilities which can only be briefly summarized here. In 1904 it took a lease of the markets and fairs from Lord Bath, and bought them from him in 1920. (fn. 73) A housing committee was established in 1911 and the first housing scheme was begun in 1919.
The Volunteer Fire Brigade was taken over in 1913, and the Lake Pleasure Grounds were laid out in 1924. (fn. 74) In 1955 the council bought Portway House for use as offices, and in 1960 the sewage works were reconstructed.
In 1895 the council adopted for use on its seal the device of the Mauduit family as depicted by Hoare, an armed knight on horseback. A grant of this device as arms was obtained in 1948. (fn. 75)
A cottage hospital was built in 1866 on the site of Portway Farm; (fn. 76) it was enlarged in 1892 and 1899, (fn. 77) and replaced by the present building in 1932. The Isolation Hospital on Bradley Road was built by a joint committee of the urban and rural councils in 1915, and transferred to the Trowbridge committee in 1934. (fn. 78)
In 1840 the inspector in charge of the newlyformed county police at Warminster lived at the London Inn. (fn. 79) Two years later the police office was in Weymouth Street; (fn. 80) it was subsequently moved to the yard ajoining no. 6 Market Place. (fn. 81) In 1857 a police station was built in Ash Walk; (fn. 82) it remained in use until 1932, when the present one in Station Road replaced it. (fn. 83) The building in Ash Walk was in 1963 used partly as a Christian Science church.
In 1723 the deputy-postmaster of Hungerford (Berks.) had the supervision of the postal service at Warminster. (fn. 84) In the early 19th century the post office was in George Street; it moved to the building now no. 6 Market Place c. 1862, and thence to part of the Savings Bank building opposite in 1903. (fn. 85)
The Warminster Gas and Coke Company was founded in 1834, (fn. 86) and a gasworks built at Brick Hill. Lighting of the streets was begun in the same year. (fn. 87) The company obtained fresh powers in 1889. (fn. 88)