Before the Saxons
Mother Nature was kind to the early settlers of Chippenham for
she provided a raised spur of Oxford clay, surrounded on three sides
by the River Avon. This horseshoe shaped meander around the
elevated clay deposits provided an attractive natural defence position
for early settlers who were protected by the river.
The continued growth in town centre developments has shown tantalising
glimpses of prehistoric activity in the form of remains of cooking
pits from temporary camps with numerous flint tools. Evidence
of Romano-British occupation has been observed during building work
in the Museum and Heritage Centre, in gardens to the rear of the
Causeway, and a small farm building, discovered during building
work behind the new Magistrates’ Court. All these finds
point to farmers occupying the higher ground above the flood plain
of the River Avon.
King Alfred and Chippenham
The earliest documentary
evidence and archaeological finds indicate a Saxon date in the 7th
Century for the first urban settlers of Chippenham. The Anglo
Saxon Chronicle records the town as CIPPANHAMME and this could refer
to CIPPA, who settled here with his kin or CHEPPEHAM meaning trading
and market at the settlement. Archaeological excavations in
gardens in the Causeway and the Market Place have recently recovered
handmade Saxon pottery dating from the 7th to the 9th Century, part
of a Saxon clay loom weigh and a bronze writing stylus.
In 853 ETHELWITHA, the sister of King Alfred, was married in Chippenham
and there are further documentary references to a hunting seat.
The Royal settlement would have had a wooden Royal Hall, Church
or Chapel and a built up urban area surrounding the market plain.
In 878 the Danish army under King Guthrum occupied the town, which
strongly suggests that the settlement was fortified. The Royal
settlement of Chippenham was referred to in land charters by the
Wessex kings as a VILLA REGIA. There may have also been a mint with
the name of CEPEN under King Ethelred II.
The Royal holding in Chippenham refers to a church in 1042, and
in the Domesday tax survey of 1086 to a substantial urban centre.
There was a population of 144 males to which you must add an unknown
number of females and children making a total population of about
650. The large amount of ploughs indicates extensive areas
of arable land around Chippenham that were under cultivation on
the north and west sides.
During the Norman period the Crown property in Chippenham was split
up into the small manors of; CHELDON, ROWDEN and LOWDEN and were
acquired by the Barons and religious houses. Ancient remains
and a mound to the rear of the Heritage Centre at 10 Market Place
may indicate the site of an undocumented mott and bailey castle.
Early Town Growth and Market Charter
Few records survive from Chippenham’s medieval past and
as yet there has been little archaeological excavation to flesh
out the town’s missing history. The urban centre expanded
into LANGSTRET from 1245, which may be the earlier name of The Causeway.
Further expansion occurred into LE NEWESTRET from 1406, which is
possibly New Road.
As a parliamentary borough, Chippenham was represented from 1295.
The right to hold fairs existed from 1320. Edward II granted four
fairs and two markets to the Lord of the Manor Edmund Gaselyn.
The medieval timber framed Yelde Hall is situated in the Market
Place and dates from between 1446 - 1458. In 1554 the town
was granted a Charter of Incorporation from Queen Mary. After
1570 the shambles were erected in the centre of the Market Place
backing up to the Yelde Hall which became the centre for the butchery
By 1604 there were 129 burgesses’ houses mainly fronted onto
the High Street and Market Place with gardens at the rear.
Some of these strips are still preserved in property boundaries.
The existing woollen industry grew in the 16th Century making good
use of the river for fulling mills and the island for drying the
cloth on racks or tenter frames.
Plague, Civil War and Scandal
During the 17th Century the plague struck in 1611 and 1636, which,
combined with a recession in the wool industry, caused hardship
in the town’s population. A further hardship to the
population was a drop in corn production in the years 1622 and 1623.
During the Civil War, Chippenham did not play a principal role but
was involved in small-scale skirmishes between 1643 and 1646.
The cloth trade suffered as a result of a Royalist proclamation,
banning the export of cloth to London, which was run by the Parliamentarians
and was the main centre where finished cloth was sent.
In 1747 Chippenham was at the centre of a parliamentary scandal
involving bribery and corruption of the two members for Chippenham.
This led to an election petition that brought down the government
led by Sir Robert Walpole.
Weaving, Canals, Cheese, and Railways
The wool trade continued to grow and prosper and in 1792 the burgesses
cemented their fortunes in the industry by working closely with
Sir Samuel Fludyer. He guaranteed their supplies of wool and
a market for the finished cloth. The burgesses used their
"new found" wealth to improve their houses along the High
Street, Market Place and St Mary Street, using local stone and Bath
stone, which led to Chippenham being called "little Bath".
Trade in the town was further advanced with the building of a canal
spur off the Wilts and Berks canal in 1798. The principal
trading commodity arriving at the wharf (now the site of the bus
station in Timber Street) was coal from Somerset. Further
stimulus to the town’s trade occurred with the construction
of the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, which reached
the town in 1841. Many new industries arrived in the town
and created a need for new
housing north of the railway line. As the new industries of
iron founding for the railways, wagon makers, brewing, farm machinery
and butter churns grew the cloth industry entered it’s final
decline. Extensive housing was developed which encouraged
the production of local bricks and use of the local limestone. Additional
Welsh slate and Bath stone were brought in by the railways.
By the mid 19th Century agricultural products of milk, cheese and
ham and then the Nestles factory utilised the railway to export
its products. The area to the north of the railway station
prospered as railway engineering works, with the arrival of Rowland
Brotherhood in 1842. In 1894 Evans O’Donnell Limited
took over part of his works and in 1904 they joined up with Saxby
& Farmer who eventually merged, in 1920 under the name of Westinghouse
Brake and Saxby Signal Company Limited. In 1935 the name was
changed to Westinghouse Brake and Signal Co Ltd, and was the main
employer in Chippenham in the 20th Century.