Westbury: Parish government and public services

Pages 186-188

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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Like many other royal manors of the Wessex kingdom, Westbury developed urban or semiurban institutions at a comparatively early date. There were markets and fairs by the late 13th century, (fn. 1) and a portmote by 1361. (fn. 2) Burgages are mentioned in the later 14th century and their origin is probably considerably earlier. (fn. 3) The burgages naturally did not occupy the whole area of the ancient parish but formed a number of small enclaves within it. Indeed at no time are 'Westbury' and 'the borough of Westbury' to be equated. Sixteenth-century tax lists distinguish between the tithing or township of Westbury on the one hand, and the borough of Westbury on the other. (fn. 4) This distinction persisted, and by 1835 the borough was held to include the ancient burgages, arranged in three blocks, but to exclude the adjacent tithings of 'the town', and the 'chantry'. (fn. 5) Burgages apart, there are other signs of the growth of a borough. The portmote was being called 'the portmote of the borough' in 1443 (fn. 6) and in 1448 the borough began to be summoned to Parliament and continued to be summoned thereafter. (fn. 7)

By the later 16th century there are some signs that the customary organs of municipal government had begun to grow up, a growth fostered perhaps by the knowledge that Westbury could claim to be 'ancient demesne of the Crown' and therefore ought to enjoy some privileges greater than those accorded to a rural estate. A mayor is mentioned in 1571, (fn. 8) a corporate seal was acquired in 1591, (fn. 9) and a guildhall and court house existed by 1599. (fn. 10) So far as is known, these organs of municipal independence, these trappings of civic pride, did not mature and were not multiplied. No charter was granted, nor was there even a declaration of privileges such as the burgesses of Calne secured in 1569. (fn. 11) Indeed from the early 17th century onwards the main function of the corporation— for such in name it was—seems to have been to conduct parliamentary elections.

The corporation is not described until 1835, on the eve of its dissolution. (fn. 12) It then consisted of a mayor, recorder, and 13 capital burgesses, who formed a deliberative assembly called the General Council. It also possessed a court. The only activity of the council was said to be that of filling vacancies among its own number and returning representatives to Parliament. The recorder was elected for life. The mayor was elected annually by the assembly, but any number of capital burgesses, however small, was considered competent to form a meeting for this purpose. No attempt was made to maintain the full number of 13 capital burgesses, and in c. 1835 there were 8, of whom but 4 were resident in Westbury. The borough court was presumably the old portmote, last mentioned under that name in 1599. (fn. 13) It had come to meet but once a year and to conduct business that was only formal. A steward of the borough, who until the 1830's was also the steward of the capital manor, presided with the mayor. A grand and petty jury were summoned. The grand jury appointed a borough constable and a number of inferior officers. (fn. 14) The constable executed warrants and summonses within the borough and also within the tithing of the town. The other officers were virtually without duties. The petty jury, usually composed of inhabitants of the borough only, presented nuisances and assessed fines, though the fines were not enforced.

It is difficult to make a story out of materials so scanty and disconnected. Certainly it seems as though Westbury was on the way to developing a conventional borough constitution by the reign of Elizabeth I. But at no time is there proof of any true autonomy. It was the lord of the manor who collected the profits of markets and fairs, (fn. 15) he who appointed to be steward and bailiff of the portmote the steward and bailiff of his own manor court, (fn. 16) he who appointed or acted as recorder in the 18th century. In 1460 (fn. 17) and 1599 (fn. 18) the town prison was his, and in the later year the guildhall and court house also. In these circumstances it must be supposed that most of the town's business was conducted, as in any rural manor, in manorial courts, or else by the parish officers.

Apart from the courts of the capital manor, mention should be made here of the courts, called 'an assembly of tenants', that Thomas Phipps held for his tenants in Chalford, Brook, and Westbury Leigh. (fn. 19) This met, under the chairmanship of a steward, in a house called Whitehall in Chalford, which in 1899 still bore the inscription:

'Here is a stone stand in the wall 'To testify this is Whitehall 'I.M.H. 1704'

It was reputed at one time to have been used for meetings of the local magistrates, and some cells behind could still be seen. (fn. 20) Presumably the magistrates took over the building after the manorial courts had ceased to sit and caused the cells to be put up.

Until the end of the 19th century the government of the ancient parish presented a number of peculiar problems. The parish comprised over 11,000 a. with a small urban community in the centre, two fair-sized tithings, each with a church, and a number of scattered rural hamlets. At the end of the 17th century, when the surviving parish records begin, poor relief for the whole parish was administered by the Westbury vestry. (fn. 21) The vestry was 'open', and there were at this date besides the two churchwardens, four overseers of the poor. Each overseer had a number of assistants, and was allotted one of the divisions into which the parish was split for purposes of poor relief. The divisions were Westbury, Westbury Leigh, including Brook, Dilton, including Chapmanslade, and Bratton, including Hawkeridge and Heywood. (fn. 22)

Dilton, and, it may be presumed, Bratton also, (fn. 23) had vestries of their own. In 1689 Dilton had two chapel-wardens. (fn. 24) In matters of poor relief the function of the Dilton vestry was restricted to nominating a number of persons as overseer for the division, one of whom was then elected by the Westbury vestry. Both Dilton and Bratton, however, appear to have elected their own surveyors of the highway. (fn. 25)

In 1652 the Vicar of Westbury was excused the payment of rates in return for the use of three houses in the churchyard for the poor. (fn. 26) The houses were still in use at the end of the century and in 1687 there was also a poorhouse at Westbury Leigh for the use of the poor of that division. (fn. 27) In 1732 the vestry decided to buy a house at Westbury Leigh as a workhouse and to employ a salaried master and mistress. (fn. 28) It is not known whether this was done, but in 1769 a site at Gooseland was bought for a workhouse. (fn. 29) Architectural evidence suggests that this mid-18th-century workhouse may have been incorporated in the Westbury Union Workhouse built on the same site in c. 1835. In 1687 the vestry ordered that those receiving alms should wear the badge of the parish on their shoulders, and that alms in kind should be distributed monthly from the parish church. (fn. 30)

In the late 17th, and throughout the 18th century, the vestry, although 'open', was apparently dominated by a few of the wealthier inhabitants, particularly the clothiers, who frequently held office as churchwardens or overseers, appointing deputies to discharge their duties for them. (fn. 31) Partly in the hope of remedying this state of affairs, statutory powers were obtained in 1786 for the appointment of a salaried additional overseer. (fn. 32) The churchwardens and overseers were to continue to make and collect rates, but all money was to be passed to the additional overseer, who was to have full authority for the care of the poor. The first appointment was not made until 1801, when a committee was also set up to investigate the state of the poor and the management of the workhouse. (fn. 33)

The early 19th century was a time of much unemployment in Westbury and the vestry was obliged to concern itself with attempts to alleviate the hardship and distress which abounded. (fn. 34) In 1801 it purchased boilers to make soup for the poor and employed a woman to make it. (fn. 35) Two years later the parish was divided into new divisions for poor relief, each under the management of a committee, and various measures were taken to provide employment. (fn. 36) The divisions on this occasion were Westbury and Hawkeridge, Bratton, Westbury Leigh with Dilton Marsh, Shortstreet, and Chapmanslade.

Gradually the vestry began to assume wider responsibilities. In 1814 it arranged for four women to receive training as mid-wives. (fn. 37) In 1827 it employed a constable to feed the prisoners and to clean and maintain the blindhouse. (fn. 38) This was presumably the prison under the Town Hall which in 1835 had recently been pulled down. (fn. 39) At that date there were neither police officers nor public watchmen in the town. (fn. 40) In 1837 a committee was formed to consider a scheme for lighting the town by gas. This committee appointed five inspectors and estimated that 46 lamps would be required and £150 spent annually on lighting the town. (fn. 41) A town fire brigade was first formed with 4 engines in 1861 after a disastrous fire had gutted one of the town's cloth mills. (fn. 42)

In 1886, under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1883, the corporation was dissolved, and the corporate property, then much diminished, was vested in the Town Trustees. (fn. 43) A parish council was then formed, but no record of its activities has survived. In 1894 Bratton and Dilton, and in 1896 Heywood, were made separate civil parishes, and in 1899 Westbury parish was created an urban district with a council of 12 members. (fn. 44) The council's first meeting was held at the Laverton Institute on 4 October 1899 when besides a clerk and a treasurer, a sanitary inspector, and a medical officer were appointed. A finance and a general purposes committee were immediately elected and the decision taken to adopt the former borough seal. (fn. 45) Among the first matters to concern the council was the supply of water to the urban district. Some houses along Church Street and in the neighbourhood of the Market Place already had a piped supply, brought by force of gravity from the springs at the foot of the downs to the east of the town. The public baths in Church Street opened in 1887 were supplied in this way from a spring at the Hollow, and continued to be so supplied until well into the second half of the 20th century. (fn. 46) In 1899 the Westbury and Dilton Marsh Joint Water Committee, with representatives from the urban and the rural districts, was formed to administer a water works scheme already prepared. In 1901 a pumping station along the Bratton road was opened with a reservoir at the junction of New Town and Long River. The Westbury and Dilton Marsh Joint Water Committee continued to administer the scheme until c. 1960 when its functions were taken over by the West Wilts. Water Board. A second pumping station was opened at Wellhead in 1929. (fn. 47)

Main water supply was extended only very gradually to the entire area of the urban district, and until quite late in the 20th century many residents remained dependent upon well-water. Throughout the early years of the century there were frequent reports of water pollution and contamination caused by the lack of any proper sewerage system or arrangements for rubbish disposal. In 1907 much of the town's sewage was discharged in its crude state into ditches on the north side of the town and thence made its way into the River Biss. Sewage from Westbury Leigh reached the Biss from ditches near Penleigh. This state of affairs was severely criticized by the Medical Officer of Health for the County in 1907, who also urged the council to introduce a rubbish disposal service. Between 1907 and 1911 his criticisms and recommendations were repeated several times, and were endorsed by representations from the Local Government Board. In 1909 the council was required to prepare a sewerage scheme and eventually in 1911 this was done. But the cost, £13,000, was considered by the council to be prohibitive. Nothing had been done by the time war broke out in 1914, and it was not until 1922 that a sewage works was built for Westbury at Frogmore to the north-west of the town. (fn. 48) In 1959–60 over £10,000 was spent on modernizing these works. (fn. 49)

The council formed a special committee in 1900 to report on available sites for working mens' houses, and in the following year plans were approved for the building of a few such houses at Eden Vale. Between the two World Wars 120 houses were built by the council and since the Second World War about 400 have been built. (fn. 50)

The town continued to be lit by gas until 1947 when electric street lighting was installed. After 1947 many improvements were made to the lighting of all the streets in the town. (fn. 51)

The swimming baths in Church Street, presented by W. H. Laverton in 1887, were taken over by the council in 1900 and have since been administered by it. W. H. Laverton also presented a public garden to the town to mark the Diamond Jubilee of 1897. But this was not used by the townspeople in the way Laverton had intended, and in 1903 it was closed. In 1938 a plot of ground called 'Grassacre' was laid out by the council as a recreation ground. (fn. 52) The Leighton cricket ground in Wellhead Lane, which W. H. Laverton had made, and on which many first-class matches have been played, was leased by the council for 21 years in 1951. (fn. 53)

The Westbury and District Hospital, also called the Cottage Hospital, was opened in Westbourne Road in 1897, but moved in 1931 to a building with 20 beds in Butts Road. (fn. 54) The Prideaux Hospital, with about 10 beds, was opened in Haynes Road in 1928, but was closed in 1950. (fn. 55)

The first record of a postal service in Westbury is in 1783 when Sarah Keevil was appointed postmistress. (fn. 56) In 1960 the post office was in Edward Street and there were sub-post offices in Leigh Road and at the Ham.

A court for the recovery of debts to the amount of £5 was set up by statute in 1808 (fn. 57) to sit alternate fortnights at Westbury and Warminster. It was abolished as such by the County Courts Act of 1846. (fn. 58) Westbury was, however, the centre of a county court district until shortly before the Second World War when it was included within the Trowbridge county court district. (fn. 59)


The seal presented to the borough in 1597 was of silver, oval-shaped, 1¾ in. & time; 15/8 in. It bore a shield, said to be of the town arms, quarterly or and azure a cross quartered patonce fleury within a bordure charged with twenty lioncels all counter-changed. The surrounding legend read: Sigillum Maioris Et Burgensium De Westburie The ivory handle, about 4½ in. long, was inscribed 'Matheus Ley Hoc Dedit Anno Domini 1597'. (fn. 60) The seal was destroyed by a fire in the offices of the urban district council in 1935. (fn. 61)


  • 1. See p. 175.
  • 2. It is mentioned among the possessions of Sir John Pavely, lord of the manor of Westbury (d. 1361): Cal. Pat. 1361–4, 162–4.
  • 3. Wilts. Inq. p.m. 1327–77 (Index Libr.), 388.
  • 4. See p. 139.
  • 5. Rep. Com. Munic. Corps. H.C. 116 p. 1377 (1835), xxiv.
  • 6. C 139/110/37.
  • 7. See p. 185.
  • 8. T. H. B. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. v. 141.
  • 9. W.A.M. xlix. 540–1.
  • 10. C 54/1621/Mountjoy and Ley.
  • 11. Calne Guild Stewards' Bk. (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), p. xii.
  • 12. Rep. Com. Munic. Corps. (1835), pp. 1377–79. All subsequent information about the corporation as it was in 1835 comes from this report.
  • 13. C 54/1621/Mountjoy and Ley.
  • 14. There were 2 serjeants, 2 ale-tasters, 2 surveyors of the fire-hearths, and 2 leather-sealers.
  • 15. See p. 175.
  • 16. Cal. Close, 1364–8, 457–8.
  • 17. Cal. Chart. R. 1427–1516, 137.
  • 18. C 54/1621/Mountjoy and Ley.
  • 19. MS. Cal. Deeds at Chalcot House, ff. 195, 201.
  • 20. W.A.M. xxv. 49; W.N. & Q. i. 321. For protests against the high-handed activities of the local magistrates in the 18th century, see p. 169.
  • 21. Parish Records (kept in parish ch.), Rate Bk. 1687– 1705.
  • 22. Ibid.
  • 23. Except for the registers the only record known to survive for the tithing of Bratton is an 18th-century bk. of the surveyors of the highways penes Miss J. S. Whitaker, Bratton, in 1960.
  • 24. There are 2 acct. bks. of the Dilton chapel-wardens 1689–1748 and 1777 to date among the Westbury Parish Records.
  • 25. Dilton Acct. Bk. 1689–1748 and Bratton Bk. of Surveyors of the Highways, see n. 31.
  • 26. Parish Records, Rate Bk. 1687–1705.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Ibid. 1729–76.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ibid. 1687–1705.
  • 31. Ibid. Rate Bks. 1687–1705, 1729–39.
  • 32. 26 Geo. III, c. xxiii.
  • 33. Parish Records, Vestry Min. Bk. 1801–26.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Ibid.
  • 37. Parish Records, Vestry Min. Bk. 1801–26.
  • 38. Ibid. 1827–39.
  • 39. Rep. Munic. Corps. (1835), p. 1379.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. Parish Records, Vestry Min. Bk. 1827–39.
  • 42. Trowbridge Advertiser, 18 May and 3 Aug. 1861.
  • 43. 46 and 47 Vic., c. xviii; Endowed Char. Wilts. (1904), p. 17.
  • 44. See p. 141 and V.C.H. Wilts. v. 258.
  • 45. Unless otherwise stated, information about the activities of the Westbury U.D.C. before 1912 comes from the Min. Bks. of the council.
  • 46. Letter from Mr. C. G. Ingram, deputy clerk of U.D.C., in Wilts. Times and News, 7 June, 1963.
  • 47. Ex inf. Mr. C. G. Ingram.
  • 48. Ex inf. the clerk of the Westbury U.D.C. Thanks are due to the clerk for much help with this chapter.
  • 49. Ex inf. the clerk.
  • 50. Ibid.
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. Ibid.
  • 53. Ibid.
  • 54. Char. Com. File 82836 and ex inf. Mr. H. Ross.
  • 55. V.C.H. Wilts. v. 344–5 and ex inf. Mr. H. Ross.
  • 56. Ex inf. the Postmaster General.
  • 57. 48 Geo. III, c. lxxxviii.
  • 58. 9 and 10 Vic., c. 95.
  • 59. Kelly's Dir. Wilts. (1931, 1939).
  • 60. W.A.M. xxviii. 56; Hoare, Mod. Wilts. Westbury, 6.
  • 61. W.A.M. xlix. 541.