A Common problem – part 1: Marginal settlement in Warminster
How many people living in Warminster now are aware that certain streets on the south side of Warminster were once part of a completely separate squatter community? We recently completed a historic building study on the south edge of Warminster Common, and were utterly fascinated to discover its unique identity. This area is now rather quaint, with the stone and brick houses on a much smaller scale than those found in the main town. There are some regular streets running through the main settlement, but with scattered housing around the edges joined by little leafy lanes, giving a higgledy-piggledy appearance.
It is hard to think that this was the forerunner of a modern sink estate, and apparently legendary in its vicissitudes of human behaviour. A settlement had begun in the western section of Warminster Common by the 16th century. Animal herders built shelters along the Cannimore Brook, soon to be joined by vagrants, those seeking work and possibly outlaws. Small dwellings were constructed, the occupants being attracted by the availability of land and good sources of water; the brook itself and springs. Dwellings constructed overnight on common and waste land resulted in squatters rights, which were eventually converted to freeholds. By 1582, a number of homeless people had constructed substandard houses of mud and straw or rubble stone with roughly thatched roofs.
Extract from the Andrews and Dury map of 1773. Warminster Common is not named, but is shown below the title ‘Sambourne’ as a separate settlement along the Cannimore brook.
Attempts were made between 1739 and 1770 to stop the expansion of substandard and overcrowded dwellings without success. Lord Weymouth in 1770 made a specific attempt to take over the freeholds of cottages on Warminster Common by inviting his ‘tenants’ to dinner:
Quoting from the writings of William Daniell in 1850:
…Somewhere about the year 1770, it is said, an effort was made by the Lord of the Manor of Warminster, to make the whole of the said cottage property tributary or leasehold, the same as he had recently done at the adjoining village of Crockerton. For this purpose, on a set day, a public dinner was provided at the Bell Inn in the said village; a ticket of invitation was left at each house, and notice given that each proprietor was to pay a penny. Previously to the appointed dinner-meeting, however, some meddling officious person (there are always such you know to be found on such occasions, - I think I could name him) thinking his lordship’s splendid and extensive domain was quite sufficient to support him and his family in their wonted wealth and dignity, without his coveting of hovels of the poorest of the poor, came to the conclusion, forsooth, that the proposed transaction very much resembled the one recorded in scripture, of wealthy king Ahab and his poor neighbour Naboth; and therefore kindling with indignation at it, he immediately went round to them, and suggested the said invitation to dinner was only a snare to entrap them. Ignorant and depraved as they then generally were, they easily took the hint, and behold! the steward and his friends had all the dinner to themselves; for not one of the cottage-holders attended. And well and truly do they deserve the richest thanks of all their posterity, for this noble act of just and laudable independence: for thereby the whole of the said cottage property soon became their freehold, (excepting one cottage, of which it is said, that it did afterwards comply). And if any thing tends hereafter to raise this place into any measure of respectability and importance, surely this act had no share therein: so complete was the failure, that it was never afterwards attempted…
By 1781, 1,015 people were occupying 200 houses on Warminster Common.
William Daniell’s concern was not even the lord of the manor was in a position to eliminate the absolute squalor to be found in certain parts of the settlement by the late 18th century. Daniell had first-hand experience of living conditions as he was a parish officer, as well as being a Methodist preacher. He was very active at Warminster Common and set up a chapel there in Chapel Street in 1827. Daniell was a man of strong religious conviction and committed to improving the lives of his flock, he gained the nickname the ‘Bishop of Warminster Common’.
Daniell also provides in his book, some very harrowing descriptions of life in the settlement at Warminster Common at the end of the 18th and into the 19th century. [WSHC - Local Studies Library - WAR.940 - W. Daniell (1850) Warminster Common… - publisher Richard E. Vardy, London p.9-11] One account, not the worst, comes from a 70 year old woman in 1850 who was brought up in a typical hovel in the hamlet of Warminster Common at the end of the 18th century:
The following, I had from an aged widow now (1850) living, a native of Warminster Common:- “ I am upwards of seventy years of the age, I do not know my true age; all I know is, that I was a little girl when the men were hanged on Sutton Common: none of my family ever knew their ages. There were ten children, we could none of us read, we never heard the Lord’s prayer or anything else on religion all the while we lived with our parents; there never was any book kept in the house, we were never told of a Bible, we never went to any place of worship, we were never baptized; we wore no shoes or stockings, our clothing was chiefly ragged linsey, when it wanted washing mother did wash it while we were in bed and dry it against the next morning. We all slept in one bed-room, father, mother, and ten children lying together like pigs; our cottage, which was very small, had no plaster on the walls, no ceiling, no ground-floor, except the natural earth. It abounded with vermin; there were no ‘privies’ in any of the gardens in those days; scarcely anybody in the Common ever went to church: Sunday was always spent in all sorts of gaming, drunkenness, filthy conversation, backsword-playing, fighting, &c. ; then men lying in groups under the hedges in all their filthy working apparel, as ignorant of all good as the beasts that perish. Years after I left my father’s house, whenever I went to see my parents I was sure to carry-away plenty of vermin. All the filth of the house and family was placed in front, near the entrance of the cottage, the liquid part thereof always ran across the road, into the spring-water of which we all drank.”
Disease was ever present, typhus fever, small-pox and measles were suffered by inhabitants of the hamlet. The reputation of the place for crime was known as far as Devon. I wonder how many of the present day inhabitants have any inkling of how different life was once here?
Louise Purdy & Dorothy Treasure, Wiltshire Buildings Record