The ancient hill-top town of Highworth occupies a pre-eminent position above the Upper Thames valley, standing 133 metres or 436 feet above sea level it is the highest town in Wiltshire. It appears to have seen almost continuous occupation for 4000 years. Archaeological evidence of Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman, Romano British, and Saxon remains have been found on and around its hill top.
During the 6th century the area was settled by the Saxons and by the late Saxon period the sub-divisions of the shires, the hundreds (including the hundred of Worth), had been established. Their main purpose was to maintain local law and order through the hundred courts which were held every three to four weeks. Many hundreds were known from their meeting places, often on royal estates, many of which show signs of some antiquity, such as fords, crossroads, barrows, famous trees or prominent hills.
The name ‘High Worth‘, applied to the hundred was in use before 1300 but more often it was simply called the hundred of Worth. ‘Worth' was in fact the name used for the area containing not only Highworth but also Sevenhampton, Eastrop, Westrop, Hampton and South Marston. Highworth itself refers strictly to the hill-top area on which stand the church and market town, bounded by Brewery Street, Swindon Street, the upper part of Lechlade Road and Cherry Orchard Lane. Its name derives from the Old English ‘worth‘, a common term for a settlement, probably an ‘enclosed settlement' or a relatively small enclosure. This may refer to the ancient meeting place of the hundred.
Between the 11th century and 1194 the separate hundred of Scipe, known only from the Geld Rolls, was merged with Worth. Later the hundreds of Staple and Cricklade were added. The hundred then came to include an area in the north-east corner of Wiltshire, largely bounded by the rivers Thames, Cole and Ray, comprised of thirty tithings. The hundred was attached to the large manor of Sevenhampton in the 13th century at some point before 1255.
Such evidence that does exist of the early history of the hundred reveal that it belonged to the manor of Sevenhampton and that the association was of ancient origin. A manor to which a hundred belonged was likely to have already been the royal manor of a large estate at the time of Domesday. Sevenhampton's history cannot be traced continuously back to Domesday, but there are indications that the Crown had the manor in 1086. Sevenhampton, the rest of Highworth, Eastrop, Westrop, South Marston and Inglesham are not mentioned in Domesday although all the rest of the hundred is accounted for. It therefore appears that these places formed part of the royal estate mentioned in the Geld Rolls of 1084.
By the 11th century a minster church had been established in Highworth. Minsters were almost invariably found on Saxon royal estates, and would have served the surrounding area. Highworth's church was built in the typical cruciform plan of that period and had two chapelries, or daughter churches, at South Marston and Blunsdon.
Mention of the priest is made in the Domesday survey of 1086, ‘Ralph the priest holds the church of Wrde and to it belong 3 hides which did not pay geld in the time of King Edward. Land for 2 ploughs. These the priest has, with 6 bordars; meadow, 10 acres. Value 100s.' This is the estate represented in the hundred by the ‘tithing of the parson of Worth'. The 1091 charter of St Osmund, Bishop of Old Sarum, shows that the chapter already held the church of Highworth and that the tithes belonged to the canons.
Warin FitzGerold the younger, hereditary chamberlain to both King Richard and King John and whose name appears on the Magna Carta, was granted the right to hold a weekly Wednesday market and an annual fair at Highworth on the feast of St Michael (29th September) by King John on the 20th April 1206. A later grant to hold an annual fair on the feast of St Peter ad Vincula (1st August) was made to his great grandson, Baldwin de Redvers, 8th Earl of Devon, by King Henry II on 12th June 1257. By the 17th century the market had become ‘the greatest market for fat cattle in Wiltshire.'
Considerable profits were to be made from successful markets and annual fairs, from the granting of permanent property rights in a town and from the jurisdiction of a town court. Many lay lords, including FitzGerold, sought to create towns on their properties. Highworth was established as a planted town, possibly grafted onto an already existing small community. It formed a local market centre serving the surrounding hinterland.
It is not known exactly when Highworth became a borough. It is possible that its charter may have been granted at the same time as the one to hold markets and fairs. Certainly by 1262 Highworth is recorded as a borough with fifty tenants holding burgages or part burgages. Remnants of the linear pattern of the medieval burgage plots, long narrow strips of land, which these tenants would have held, can still be seen between the High Street and Brewery Street, and Sheep Street to Cherry Orchard. The houses on the north side of the High Street and in the centre of the market place appear to be later encroachments and infills.
By the late 13th century Highworth had corporate status becoming a parliamentary borough having the right to elect members of parliament. Medieval representation in 1298 and 1311 can be found in the parliamentary papers of that time. The town lost its privilege of sending members to parliament through disuse and the corporation has ceased to exist.
Highworth's hundred court met fourteen to sixteen times in the year, probably in its early history in the church and later elsewhere. It dealt with routine matters such as the fining of brewers against the assize, nuisances such as the flooding or obstruction of a road or the diversion of a water course, quarrels leading to bloodshed, thefts and housebreaking. The lord of Highworth hundred possessed the special liberty of the right of infangtheof, the summary hanging of a thief taken with stolen goods on him, and usually applied to experienced thieves taken at fairs and markets. The Borough and Hundred Court was held regularly up to June 1847, chiefly in latter years as a court for recovering small debts, but was eventually abolished when County Courts were formed, not withstanding a petition by local inhabitants to retain it.
The manor, together with the borough and hundred, passed into the de Redvers family on the death of Warin FitzGerold the younger in 1216. His only child, Margaret or Margery, had married Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon, in about 1215. They stayed in the family until Isabel de Forz passed them to Adam de Stratton in November 1276. On his disgrace in 1289 his lands and goods were forfeited to the Crown. From this time it is unlikely that few of its lords came near it. During that period it was administered by keepers for Margaret, the second wife of Edward; Isabel, the widow of Edward II; Phillippa, widow of Edward III; John de Montfort, duke of Brittany; Edmund, duke of York; his second son Edward; Cicely, duchess of York, who was mother of Edward IV; Elizabeth, queen to Henry VI; Catherine of Aragon; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleeves and Catherine Howard. Sir Thomas Seymour acquired the manor in 1541 and the following year this passed to John Warneford. It was at about this time that its association with the borough and hundred appears to have ended.
The borough and hundred of Highworth continued in the king's hand until 1544, when they were granted to Queen Catherine Parr for life as part of her dower on her marriage to King Henry VIII. The reversion was granted in 1547 to Sir Thomas Seymour, now baron Seymour of Sudeley, who married the widowed queen. When he was attainted in 1549 they reverted to the crown.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Richard Grobham of Great Wishford owned the Borough and Hundred of Highworth. Sir Richard had made a very large fortune as steward to the George family of Longford Castle and he and Sir Thomas George had shared in the Treasure ship of the Spanish Armada.
Sir Richard died childless in 1628 and left his estate to his sister's son, afterwards Sir John Howe Bt, and it remained in the family until 1804 and the death of John Howe, 4th and last Lord Chedworth, from whose trustees they were purchased in 1806 by Mr Wm Crowdy, a solicitor of Highworth, who had built and occupied Westrop House. His descendant Mr Robert Edward Laurence Crowdy sold the estate to John Kenney in 1969. By this time there were no pecuniary rights other than the ownership of several houses in the Borough including the three interesting old stone built houses at the East end of the High Street now remodelled into
1 - 5 the High Street.
In the first half of the 17th century outbreaks of plague had occurred in Highworth and the surrounding area. The Civil War of 1642-1649 caused enormous upheaval throughout the country involving towns in great distress and disruption to both their economic and social life.
By 1643 traders coming to Highworth's cattle markets were experiencing difficulties caused by the Royalists quartered in the area and in the September of that year the townspeople were under pressure to accommodate the sick and wounded from the siege of Cirencester.
The royalist, Major General Astley decided to fortify Highworth in April 1644. The church was selected as a strong point. St Michael's tower provides an excellent lookout over the Thames valley and a lofty firing platform. The fortifications were not started until December of 1644 and appear to consist of an earth work bank and ditch about six feet wide, which included an arrow shaped projection called a bastion from which flanking fire could be given. This is thought to run under the present Methodist Church Hall to the north of the church running in an east - west direction. The town was then given a permanent garrison of around 200 men, under Major Henry Henne who was appointed, by the King, as governor of Highworth on the 10th January 1645. They would not be there for very long.
Five months later, on the 27th June 1645, the garrison fell to the parliamentarian forces under Sir Thomas Fairfax. They were to remain in command until an order was passed in the House of Commons on 14th August 1646, ‘that the garrisons of Malmesbury and Highworth were to be slighted and dismantled and the forces be disbanded or disposed for the service of Ireland‘. The garrison was dismantled some two months later in October.
The town was affected by the high mortality rate at this time caused not only by the inevitable loss of life which war brings but also by the epidemics carried by the troops and by general malnourishment. Highworth's burial registers record a high level of deaths in 1646 when the town was hit by a severe outbreak of plague. As a garrison town, Highworth would have been burdened with free quarter, the practice of having soldiers billeted with a householder who was obliged to provide them with board and lodging and fodder for their horses. This often meant food being taken from the mouths of the townspeople. As the war progressed and armies ran out of money the households would have to provide this free of charge hoping that they would be reimbursed at a later date. In practice this very seldom happened. Business too was seriously affected. The presence of troops in the town greatly discouraged the dealers and graziers from attending the market and trade moved to more peaceful places such as Swindon.
Recovery was slow after the hostilities but there was a resurgence in both the market and the economy which appears to have strengthened by the end of the 17th century. Many of the buildings in the centre of the town were either rebuilt or remodelled in the early 18th century and this is reflected in their Queen Anne and Georgian appearance. Recent archaeological work carried out on the site of the new Barrett homes before building started has revealed the existence of 18th century brick kilns which would have supplied materials for the houses in Highworth and the surrounding area.
In the early 18th century the last of Highworth's waste land was taken into cultivation and in 1778 the common fields were enclosed by Act of Parliament. This eradicated the last rights of poorer country folk to graze their livestock on what had formerly been ‘Common Land'. This common grazing was divided up among the large local land-owners, leaving the landless farm workers solely dependent upon offering their labour to their richer neighbours for a cash wage.
The economic effect of this on smallholders and cottagers began to be seen when in 1791 another Act allowed the town to build a workhouse ‘for the town is very populous and the poor thereof exceedingly numerous'. The workhouse, built along Cricklade Road, has now been turned into private residences.
Throughout England the industrial revolution and the agricultural depression of the 1820's together with the introduction of horse-powered threshing machines which could do the work of many men led to the outbreak of the Swing Riots in the August of 1830. Not only were the targets of the rioters perceived oppression, such as the workhouses, tithe barns and threshing machines destroyed but the more underhand rick-burning and cattle maiming were used to reinforce their demands for higher wages and the cessation of the introduction of threshing machines.
In Highworth the riots broke out on the 24th November 1830. A mob of about 40 to 50 gathered at Highworth workhouse, where they broke windows and took the parish waggon. Moving on from there they went to the farms of Mr George Moore Edwards, Mr Thomas Smith of Common Farm, and Mr Wyld, the magistrate, breaking machines as they went. The same mob was at Maggot's Mill where a thrashing machine was broken. At about nine o'clock they arrived at the farm of Mr. William Henry Richards moving at around midnight to the farm of Mr. William Smith at Highworth where they broke more machines.
The following day, Thursday, 25th November, 1830 early in the morning, Lieutenant Cally, at the head of the Swindon troop, marched into Highworth. Around midday nearly 200 farmers, on horseback, also arrived at Highworth. They were headed by the magistrates Mr.Thomas Cally and Mr. H. N. Goddard. Mr Cally read the Riot Act and then the whole body of horsemen proceeded to Hannington, Cricklade, Stratton and Sevenhampton where there had been disturbances. They succeeded in taking many of the ringleaders of the various mobs that had been active in the area. The prisoners were escorted to Swindon where they were fully committed by the Magistrates.
Some of those indicted got off completely or had only short sentences of around a year but the following Highworthians were transported to New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land:
William Legg aged 28 farm labourer, sailed on the Eleanor in February 1831 for New South Wales.
The Eliza sailed in February 1831 for Van Dieman's Land (modern Tasmania) carrying George Ball aged 23 ploughman, Robert Barrett aged 26 groom and kitchen gardener, Joseph Edgington aged 38, William Kibblewhite aged 20 ploughman, and Robert Willoughby aged 28 carpenter and joiner.
The Proteus sailed in April 1831 for Van Dieman's Land carrying John Legg aged 18, ploughman, Thomas Legg aged 21 farm labourer and butcher, and Jeremiah New aged 16, farm labourer. Poor Jeremiah was to die only seven weeks after his arrival.
The high unemployment led to a drift away from the land towards the industrial towns. Emigration from Highworth occurred, some going only as far as Swindon but others moved as far afield as America, Canada and Australia, many of the poor being encouraged to migrate to the United States, their expenses during 1830-34 being paid for out of the Poor Rate. At its peak up to a hundred people left the town every year.
At the time of the first census taken in 1801 Highworth was the most important township in north-east Wiltshire with a population of 2000, larger than Swindon, Wootton Bassett or Cricklade. In common with the rest of England the population continued to grow, peaking at 4000 in 1841. The opening of the Wilts and Berks Canal, which by-passed Highworth, in 1810, and the advent of the Great Western Railway works at Swindon in 1843, leading to the growth of the town in the 19th century, contributed to Highworth ' s decline.
A slight upturn in the economy took place with the opening of the Oriental Fibre Mat and Matting Company in the early 1870's and the arrival of the branch railway in 1883. However, the population continued to fall and by the 1920's stood at around 2000.
Expansion in the form of council housing began in the 1920's. Planned housing expansion on the north and east side of Highworth from the 1960's on has meant that the town has grown tenfold and its population has doubled since 1960 to 8,347.
It was during the development of the Biddel Springs housing estate that the town lost its healing well, famous for its curative properties for eyes and sprains. The wall which once contained the well is thought to have been of Roman origin. Now the only remaining evidence is a manhole cover and street sign reading Biddel Springs 1-11.
The area around Highworth was of great importance in the training of members of the British resistance movement during the second World War. Known as the Auxiliary Units, some thousands of male civilians, more than a hundred army officers and six hundred other ranks were to train at nearby Coleshill House. Hannington Hall became the first Headquarters of the female Auxiliary Units 'Special Duties Section - the ‘Secret Sweeties‘. They all reported to the Highworth Post Office, then located at No. 23 High Street, where they were met by Mrs Stranks, the postmistress, who telephoned through for a car to collect them. It must have been one of the best-kept secrets of the war as no one in Highworth or the surrounding area, at the time, knew of the use to which Coleshill House and Hannington Hall were being put.
Highworth centre retains its great historical attraction. The houses are mostly built of stone from local quarries with a sprinkling of elegant Georgian brick properties all centred around the church. John Betjeman, the one time poet laureate, wrote that ‘Highworth is extraordinary because it has more beautiful buildings than ugly ones', and ‘I have never seen Highworth given due praise in guide books for what it is one of the most charming and unassuming country towns in the west of England‘, a description which we cannot better today.