The scattered parish of Horningsham is part of the Longleat Estate, owned by the Marquess of Bath, and lies on the Wiltshire/Somerset border between Warminster and Frome. The soil is light and sandy with some clay sub-soil, part gravel and part chalk. It has an entry in Domesday but was very small, being occupied by one cottager and four small holders, and covered c.120 acres. The name ‘Horninges-ham’ means ‘Horning’s homestead’. The personal name probably comes from the uncomplimentary noun ‘hornung’ meaning ‘bastard’. The hamlet called Little Horningsham lay to the south of the present village, beyond Pottle Street. This was probably one of the two entries in Domesday. It became part of the manor of Horningsham in the 15th century.
There are no tumuli within the village itself. Close to the parish boundary on the road to Frome are the remains of Woodhouse Castle. In the 17th century it was owned by the Royalist Arundel family and consequently attacked during the Civil War. The damage was so severe that it was impossible to return to the castle when peace was restored. The family moved into Horningsham and built themselves a fine manor house below the church. At Baycliff Farm, near the boundary with Maiden Bradley, is the site of an early Iron Age settlement. Colt Hoare found ‘evident signs of a British village’ here. (Until 1884, when the parish boundaries were changed slightly, Baycliff was part of Hill Deverill).
The parish changed hands several times before the Thynnes purchased it for the second time in 1716. The Vernon family, who held it during the 1100s, were the founders of the village church. The Stantors then held it for the next 200 years, selling to Sir John Thynne c.1550. After the Civil War the manor was in the possession of the Arundels, the family who were forced out of their castle at Woodhouse and built themselves a new manor house near the church. Sir John Thynne (Longleat’s builder) had already increased the size of the parish by buying more land. His descendant the 1st Marquess of Bath was very interested in forestry, and engaged Capability Brown to plant large plantations of beech and pine. Gradually forestry and farming were established as the two main sources of employment. The situation did not change until the late 20th century, when tourism took over.
Horningsham has two places of worship, both of ancient origin. The parish church was founded in the 12th century. The only part surviving from the Middle Ages is the perpendicular tower, and even this has undergone some restoration. The church has been virtually rebuilt twice, the first alterations taking place in 1783 and further changes in 1843. The latter involved enlarging the church and took a year to complete. The older building had room for only 400 people. The population figure in 1841 was 1290, so the church was too small. The new church could accommodate 700 people. This was important, as at this time all Lord Bath’s tenants were expected to attend church every Sunday. The church continued to thrive until the Second World War, having a team of bell ringers and a choir. It was in the 1950s that the situation started to change, the ringers, choir and congregation gradually disappearing. The church still remains open for worship every Sunday, but the congregation has now sadly dwindled to ten.
Horningsham also has a Congregational Chapel, known as the Old Meeting House. The story is that the Chapel was built in 1556. It was used by the Scotsmen employed by Sir John Thynne to help build Longleat House. The claim that this is the oldest Free Church in England was questioned some years ago, but it is believed to be the oldest still in use for worship.
Like the church, the chapel was enlarged in the 1700s and 1800s. The box pews were replaced in 1863, but the pews in the two side galleries are still intact. A large faced clock hangs above the gallery. The outside dimensions of the chapel are just 45 feet by 27 feet and there is seating for approximately 250 people. In 1988 an appeal was launched for £25,000 in order that extensive repair work could be carried out. The roof was re-thatched, the windows re-leaded and external and internal decorating took place. This work took three years, culminating in a Thanksgiving Service in 1992 attended by craftsmen and donors. Although the present congregation is very small, a service is still held here every Sunday.
There are several buildings of interest in the village. The Vicarage in Church Street. was built in 1901. It replaced the old vicarage that had been pulled down the previous year when Canon Jacob retired. The demolition was mentioned in the press, who lamented the loss of the old building. Part thatch and part tiles, showing distinctly different building periods, it was a much loved building full of character and greatly missed by the villagers.
Across the road are three cottages attached to the school, which were built c.1700 as a manor house. In 1737 this was the home of the 2nd Viscount Weymouth who left Longleat after the death of his young wife. He died a broken man in 1751 and is buried (at his own request) in Horningsham churchyard. Next to the church in the grounds below is The Manor House, a fine 17th century building occupied by the Arundel family when they left Woodhouse Castle. The fireplaces in the house are said to have come from the castle.
Further on down the road are the village almshouses. Three ‘one up, one down’ cottages were built as a terrace during the 17th century and cost one shilling a week to rent in 1910. Close by is the area known as The Island. There was a large woollen mill and blanket factory here, owned by the Everett family in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. William Everett built Holywell House (78 The Island) for himself c1750. It was later occupied by the village doctor, Dr. Bothwell. The Round House next door was a wool drying house during the 18th century and was originally attached to a cottage and workshop.
Mill Farm in Water Lane was a working mill until 1909. Before that the village flour was ground here and also barley for pheasant food. The water wheel and machinery were dismantled and sold in 1910. Earlier there was a silk mill near here, probably owned by William Mears whose initials are on the wall of 86 Water Lane – WM1711. As we progress further up Water Lane we come to the Village Hall. This was built in 1930 by the 5th Marquess of Bath in memory of his wife. The building was originally the gymnasium belonging to the Reform School at Tascroft in Warminster. When the school closed the gym was dismantled and taken to Horningsham. It replaced a tin hut, which had been used by the Women’s Institute and Men’s Club since 1920.
The village pub, The Bath Arms, is on The Common. Built in the 17th century it became a public house in 1732 when it was called The New Inn. It later changed to the Lord Weymouth Arms and then the Marquess of Bath’s Arms. In 1850 this was one of four pubs in the village, as well as an off-licence. Across the road, 122 Scotland is one of three locations for the village Post Office. From c.1850 the Maxfield family ran the Post Office, moving to 122 in 1894. The Post Office stayed here until 1971, when it moved to the village shop. There are also some cottages of interest built in the 18th century, in particular those along White Street.
In the 19th century most men were labourers, either on farms or in the woods. In 1850 Thomas Pope alone employed 50 men on his 800 acre farm. In the 1920s Horningsham still had numerous small farms. Gradually they disappeared as machinery replaced men, and it was only the bigger farmers who could afford to compete.
Forestry was the second main source of employment. This has always been a major interest of the Thynnes. The 1st Marquess of Bath was particularly interested and by his death in 1796 over a million trees had been planted. The work was seasonal and during the winter provided work for every labourer in the area.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the two main shops in Chapel St and Newbury supplied the villagers’ groceries, and there were also other smaller shops that tended to combine this with another service. One sold beer, another bread, another drapery. The village tailors made clothes for the keepers and the school children. The carriers would take you to Warminster or Frome.
The chair factory and woollen mill were other sources of employment. Four generations of Thornes made chairs, bedsteads and brushes at their factory in Chapel Street from 1789-1936. The Island was the site of the woollen mill and blanket factories owned by the Everett family from Heytesbury in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There were two fulling mills, one of which was converted into a gig mill, by which one man and a boy could do as much work in two hours as thirty men could do in a day. This was destroyed by a mob of shearmen from Wiltshire and Somerset in 1767. The riot was so celebrated that it was mentioned not only in the local press, but also Marx’s Capital. The upper mill was pulled down before 1820. The lower mill was converted for the silk trade by 1812. On the upper site the fine clothier’s house still stands, and there is a range of buildings, now converted to houses, which probably formed part of the dye-house, for at one end stands the hexagonal former drying stove.
At the time of Domesday Horningsham was very small, with an estimated population of just 25. The next official figure is 1025 in 1797. The population reached its peak of 1323 in 1831.The enclosure of the commons and the decline of the cloth trade both contributed to major unemployment in the early 1800s. The 2nd Marquess of Bath actively encouraged emigration, particularly to Canada, and contributed £1000 to the costs.
Generally speaking, the village houses were in good repair. During 1797-1799 the 2nd Marchioness chose to conduct censuses. As well as making a note of the people living in each house, she also described the condition of each house and garden. For example, ‘Very decent man and woman. House decent and well kept. Garden tolerable’. Thomas Davis, who did the survey, was not afraid to be uncomplimentary when necessary. ‘House in good repair. Very idle, lazy fellow, uses his wife ill. House very dirty and slovenly condition.’ The number of households during the 19th century averaged 250 with approximately four people in each house. Today many of the houses have been converted from two or three into one. There was a workhouse in the early 19th century, but the few residents were given money to maintain themselves, which is quite unusual. It was closed by 1841.
During the severe winter of 1819 Horningsham’s poor were given a ton of beef and three tons of flour. The 2nd Marchioness also gave a copy of a selection of Cobbett’s writings on self-sufficiency to every household on the estate. She was very concerned for the welfare of the cottagers and her visits helped forge closer links between them.
There have been numerous charities set up down the centuries, the most well known being that of the dissenter and High Sheriff of Wiltshire Jeremiah Crey. He left land in Kingston Deverill, from which the interest pays for the education of poor children. It is still in existence today, but each child is allowed to use the money to buy a book. The other four charities have now been wound up, but were used to give items such as coal or bread.
Large numbers of local Friendly Societies sprang up during the latter half of the 18th century and Horningsham was no exception. The first Society was founded in 1791. Its name changed at various times, but the Society continued until the 1960s. In return for contributing a small weekly sum, members could draw on the fund in times of sickness or financial hardship.
The village was fortunate enough to have its own doctor for 50 years. Most small villages at the turn of the 20th century were not so lucky. James Bothwell, who came in 1878, was a well-liked and respected man who spent the whole of his working life in Horningsham. For 24 years a parish nurse helped him. After 1930 patients were looked after by the Warminster practice.
During 1875 there was an outbreak of diphtheria, resulting in 17 deaths out of 54 cases. The Government Inspector’s report stated that, in general, Horningsham was a very healthy community with good housing, adequate drainage and clean water. The inspector did not reach any conclusion as to the source of the outbreak.
The provision for organised recreation began in the 1890s with the Reading Room. This was a cottage in Church Street where the men could play billiards or read the newspaper. Early in the 20th century cricket and football clubs were started. Since 1920 there has been a village hall where numerous clubs and groups have existed.
Horningsham as a community has changed dramatically since the war. There are few people in the village who were actually born there, and those who can remember what it was like sixty or more years ago are scattered the length and breadth of the country. In 1901 the population was 742 and until 1940 the land was the main source of employment. Numbers declined as machinery was introduced and farmers were forced to cut their labour to meet falling prices. Longleat Forestry did not buy its first mechanical equipment until c.1950. From 1940 all the small farms in the village gradually disappeared. Today there are only five farms in the parish; Mill Farm, Parsonage Farm, Lower Barn, Round Hill and Baycliffe.
After the Second World War the forestry department was the main employer and as recently as 1950 employed up to 100 men. However, costs escalated in the 1990s and in 1999 the Timber Yard was sold to an outside company. By this time the main source of income was tourism and therefore also the main source of employment.
Horningsham was self-sufficient until c.1939, as it had all the necessary cottage industries. 1n 1903 we had a doctor, a nurse, a policeman, six farmers, four dairymen, three shopkeepers, two carriers, two tailors, a wheelwright, an undertaker, a beer retailer, a butcher, a blacksmith, and a postmistress. Often a man would do several jobs to make ends meet. George Beauchamp, for example, was a farmer, thatcher and beer retailer. Gradually, as people had easier access to the towns and mechanisation improved, these small businesses folded, as they were unable to compete. Today, apart from the pub and bed and breakfast at Mill Farm, there is just one shop in Chapel Street.
The first water supply was sent to Longleat in 1883. A pipe from the old Malt House spring along Pottle Street was installed to send water to the House purely for fire precautions. A supply from White Street was installed in 1904. A pump was put on The Common c.1914. A picture postcard of this view clearly shows three well-worn paths all leading to the pump. Electricity was available in 1938, when it was installed in the church. The House at first had its own generator but was connected to the national grid in 1939 when The Royal School arrived.
In 1900 Longleat House was still a family home. 43 people were employed in the House, 14 in the stables and 25 men in the kitchen garden. Although the outbreak of the First World War had little effect on the lives of the country gentry, the situation in 1918 was very different. The vast social upheaval caused by the war had made the final collapse of the country-house way of life almost inevitable. Every available young man in Horningsham joined up. The end finally came in 1939, when Lord Bath offered to lend Longleat to the Royal School for Officers of the Army, a girls’ public school near Bath whose buildings had been requisitioned by the Admiralty. Longleat’s indoor servants were dismissed and the staff reduced to 14.
When the 5th Marquess died in 1946 his son was faced with some difficult decisions. There was a £700,000 bill for death duties to be paid and after eight years occupation by the Royal School the House was badly in need of renovation. The sisters of the 6th Marquess opened the House for one day in aid of charity, and it was so successful that he decided to open to the public as a commercial enterprise. This was followed by the creation of the first safari park outside Africa in 1966. Later, in 1975, the present Marquess planted the longest maze in the world.
On the social front, Horningsham was very busy. The first village hut was built in 1920. The Marchioness of Bath was very interested in the new Women’s Institute movement, and was keen for Horningsham to set up a branch. This was soon followed by a Men’s Club. In 1930 the present village hall was built. The height of popularity of self-made entertainment was in the late 1940s and 1950s, and numerous groups and clubs were set up. Football, cricket, bowls, Mothers’ Union, Women’s Guild, Women’s Institute, Flower Show, Youth Club, Social Club and a pantomime all flourished at this time.
Horningsham is very lucky that the village hall is still open and used. Village communities everywhere are changing, and many halls have had to close. A new youth club has recently started, and also a cricket club. Every year we have a successful village fair, and church festival services such as harvest and Christmas are always well attended. Community spirit is still present in this small village.