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Royal Wootton Bassett is a market town located in North Wiltshire. It is some 4 miles south west of Swindon, and lies 10 miles from Malmesbury, 4 miles from Lyneham, 8 miles from Calne and 14 miles from Chippenham. In its earliest days the town would have bordered on Bradon Forest. Until the mid 1800s the towns of Cricklade and Wootton Bassett were larger and more important locally than the relatively small Swindon. Since the coming of the railways in the 1850s, however, that all changed and development then centred on Swindon.
Early records usually start with 681 AD when a Malmesbury Abbey charter granted to the Abbot, by the Saxon king Ethelred, 10 hides of land to a place called Wodeton. (A clearing in what is probably now Braden Forest). However this charter was lost by 1066 when the Doomsday Book shows Wodeton belonging to Levenod as a manor with a Norman lord, Milo Crispin. The manor descended to an Alan Bassett in 1200 A. D. and his signature can be seen as part of the Magna Carta Preface. In 1219 Alan Bassett gained permission from Henry III to hold a market weekly in the town; there is still one today on Wednesdays. The town had a small priory probably in Wood Street, run by a priest (the prior) and lay brothers (presbyters) to feed 13 old men of the parish. This was originally called the hospital of St John and was set up in 1254 by a son of Alan Bassett, Philip. Another manor house was built called Vastern and the two manor houses were run by one lord.
In 1405 the Priory of St John was transferred to Bradenstoke Priory and so only continued for approximately another 50 years. The first known Mayor of Wootton Bassett in 1408 was John Wollmonger. This name suggests that there may have been a good trade in wool at that time.
Various changes took place over the years as to the land and ownership of Wootton Bassett. In 1446 just before the start of the Wars of the Roses, the town sent two MPs to parliament. The king at the time was Henry VI; rumour has it that Henry VIII had a mistress at Vastern Manor, Wootton Bassett. Certainly the manor house and land belonged to Catherine Parr his widow, until her death in 1548.
In the 17th century the Hyde family (Earls of Clarendon), to possibly further their political careers, renewed the charter for Wootton Bassett and also presented the town with its Town Hall. It did not always look as it does today. The usual plan of the Town Hall was an upper room or council chamber built on 15 pillars. Under this at ground level was a store room for market commodities, maybe even an area to sell them from. As the Mayor kept law and order there was a lock up or Blind House for keeping drunks overnight. Folklore goes that the drunks were more drunk in the morning because in secret midnight ale was passed through the grating by means of the churchwarden pipe. The Blind House disappeared in 1889 with some restoration work. The national school may have used the Town Hall temporarily until their new premises in Station Road were ready. Over the years many uses and changes have taken place. Now the town has a very interesting museum open on Saturday mornings. The silver Maces in the Town Hall date from 1603 though it is unclear how they came into the boroughs possession and therefore their significance is also unknown.
Wootton Bassetts coat of arms was possibly borrowed from the Clarendon coat of arms when they owned the manor. It appears in a window at the House of Lords and also on the scabbard of the mayoral sword presented to the borough in 1812.
Wootton Bassett is a typical market town with a long High Street, which broadens to allow space for a market. The main road runs along this street and, until the development of post-war decades, much of the housing is very close to it. The High Street offers a mixture of buildings, many of which date back several hundred years.
The charter granted by Charles II in 1679 and procured for Wootton Bassett by Lawrence Hyde allows the town to again hold a weekly market on Wednesdays (still held today), three fairs and a court of pie powder to execute summary justice on disturbers of the peace. The mayor was also the clerk of the market with power to set tolls. The market continued but dwindled due to managerial apathy and by 1810 was in a sad state. Then in 1832 when the town lost its borough political status the more affluent townsmen joined together to form a committee and held a grand monthly cattle market. This flourished well, so was added to with a Christmas fat stock show, and two hiring fairs held in the Spring and Autumn. The first hiring fair took place on 4th October 1836 when people in the agricultural and domestic field of work gathered to be hired as servants. There was music and dancing and a generally pleasant day with no trouble on the way home. However these fairs disappeared by the end of the 19th century and in 1939, with the outbreak of war and the general increase in traffic from Chippenham to Swindon through Wootton Bassett, the market or shambles closed. The market building stood where the Town Hall now is, at the entrance to Wood Street, but when it couldnt be sold after falling into disrepair the building was pulled down in 1813 and the timbers disposed of.
With the dissolution of the monasteries, when Elizabeth I was on the throne she decreed that each parish should have responsibility for its own poor, raising funds locally to look after them. The 1793 Wootton Bassett census records a small workhouse for 12 people in Old Court (off Station Road) This was followed in 1836 by a much larger building at Purton to serve both Purton and Wootton Bassett All these workhouses were disused by 1948.
Schooling for all came at about the turn of the century, and the present Civic Centre is a site given by the Earl of Clarendon to teach both children and adults of labouring, manufacturing and other poorer classes in Wootton Bassett. The schoolmasters house was next door and the school was opened officially in 1861 by the Bishop of Salisbury. In line with its growth during the latter part of the twentieth century several new primary schools were added. In 2001 Wootton Bassett Comprehensive school moved to a new building, opened in 2002 by HRH Princess Anne.
The Town Library had two initial sources of stock. Part came from the Mutual Improvement Society who, when it closed down, donated its stock. Donations were generously given by people including Lady Meux and the borrowing stock at the national school was transferred making by 1890 a total of some 1000 titles. Lady Meux officially opened the town library in the Town Hall and presided over the library committee. The library was open on Mondays 7 to 8:30pm and cost two shillings to belong. When the county decided to operate a free service the competition was too great and the town library closed around 1935. The county branch library was situated at the Lorna Doone centre, in temporary accommodation at Borough Fields and, since 1991 has been in purpose built premises in the Borough Fields shopping centre.
Wootton Bassett had a Railway Station in the early 20th century when the milk was transported from nearby farms to the London market. The Station was closed in 1966 when Dr. Beeching reformed the railways.
On the site of what was until recently the St Ivel Dairy, was a brewery known as the Beaufort Brewery, set up to exploit the latest techniques and run a school of scientific brewing. Another brewery was located where the present Conservative Club is on the High Street and the well for drawing water can still be seen in a garden behind. This was the Wootton Bassett brewery. The third was the Lamb or Caldwells in lower High Street.
The town boasted brickworks using local clay until the deposits ran out. These were located in Vale View, and Church Street where there are now allotments. It also had a bacon factory where the pigs were driven in, slaughtered cured, and made into sausages, black puddings, lard, faggots, polonies and of course bacon. The North Wilts Bacon factory was behind the Curriers Arms and evidence of it exists today. The Gas, Coke and Light Company was formed in 1859 in Station Road, operating the supply for the town. The managers house was next door to the gas holders. It was his job until the late 1960s to light the gas mantles in the street lamps. This has all gone now being replaced by a plumbers merchants opposite the entrance to the St Ivel factory. The Gas House still stands, although with much alteration. Wootton Bassett also had its own blacksmiths, wheelwright and rope maker. There is mention in the Doomsday Book of a water mill, but now demolished. The town also had three windmills used for pumping and driving machinery.
Until 2002 St Ivel, under the name of Uniq, operated a dairy in the town and was one of the largest single employers. This business has now closed. Most employment opportunities in the town rest on the industrial estates, Woodshaw and Whitehill Trading Estate, and in retail on the High Street.
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