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The name it is thought derives from MEOLC, the old English word for milk and HAM, meaning a village. The town grew around a ford across the River Avon and at the time of the Norman Conquest, was a royal estate. In the Doomsday Book Melksham was described as having 8 mills, 130 acres of water meadow and 8 leagues of pasture in length and breadth. 189 landholders, 19 plowmen and 35 serfs, making a population of a couple of hundred. Melksham forest adjoined the farmland which, combined with Chippenham forest covered 33 square miles. The Constable of Devizes Castle administered the forest; it spread from Calne in the east to Semington in the west.

King John visited Melksham Forest in the early part of the 13th century to enjoy his favorite sport of hunting. In 1220 oaks from the forest were used in the construction of choir stalls for the new Salisbury Cathedral. Melksham also had a connection with the cathedral, in that part of the parish was endowed to support its Canons. In 1257 Henry III gave the main part of the manor to the Abbey of Amesbury. From then on, cattle, cheese and fleece were sent from Melksham across the plain to the Abbey until its dissolution in 1539.

Melksham was considered important enough by 1219 to be granted a Charter to hold a market every Friday and a fair on Michaelmas Day. Later the market was transferred to Tuesdays, and in 1491 the Prioress of Amesbury obtained a Charter for a two day fair in July. In the late 19th Century farm produce was sold on the first day of the fair. Horses were tethered down King Street and in the Market Place as far down as Bank Street. The second day a fun fair was held. The Home Secretary wound up the fair in 1910. The market continued on alternate Tuesdays, with Trowbridge but ended with the beginning of the Second World War. Recently there has been a move to resurrect the street market.

Melksham was well established as a busy weaving town by the mid 14th century, white broad cloth being the main product. This provided work for spinner, weavers, fullers and shearers. The wool came from North Wiltshire and the Cotswolds. The finished cloth was sent to Blackwell Hall in London and from there was dispersed all over England and the Continent. The Civil War disrupted the wool trade in the 17th century but it recovered and started making coloured cloth, with dyehouses near the Town Bridge.

It was impossible for weavers to make a living by 1726, as the piece rate paid for the cloth was cut so low. They made application to the magistrate for relief, but this was refused and troops were sent in to disperse the rioters. These conditions did not improve and in 1739 Henry Coulthurst, a Melksham clothier, had his house ransacked, his furniture destroyed and wool and yarn thrown into the River Avon. His grist and fulling mills were destroyed along with nine cottages. Eventually three ringleaders were caught, tried, found guilty and hanged.

There were several mills along the banks of the Avon, but by 1838 only two remained in business. Both were steam operated and employed just over 160 workers. Matravers Mill was the last working mill and this was auctioned off in 1888. It is now incorporated in part of the Cooper Avon Tyre factory.

Two wool drying houses remain, the Roundhouse in Church Street and an octagonal drying house in Lowbourne.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII sold the Capital Manor to Sir Thomas Seymour, Lord High Admiral for £28.15s.10d. Before a week was out he sold the entire property, which included Melksham, Woodmarsh, Inmarsh, Bowerhill, Sevenoaks and Berryford to Henry Brounker of Erlestoke for £1,737.5s.10d, who was Member of Parliament for Devizes, Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1558 and knighted in 1555.

Sir Henry Brounker was a founder member of the Muscovy Trading Company, formed to take advantage of the trade with Russia and Persia. Sir Henry Brounker had Place House, a large manor house in the middle of Melksham built for himself. Following his death, his eldest son, Sir William inherited his father's property, became Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1580 and Member of Parliament in 1586. His second son, became Lord President of Munster (Ireland) and was the grandfather to Viscount Brounker, first President of the Royal Society.

John Danvers, of West Lavington bought Place House in 1634. He is notorious for signing King Charles death warrant, though accepting a knighthood from James I. He died in disgrace, being shunned by Royalists and Parliamentarians alike. Place House passed on into the ownership of Isaac Selfe in 1657, a wealthy clothier from Beanacre, and remained in that family until the 19th century. By which time it had gradually fallen into a pour state of repair. In 1859 the house was sold to a building company and was demolished in 1864.
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Melksham Market Place

Melksham Market Place

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

2009 : The old creamery, Melksham

"The town of Melksham developed at a ford across the River Avon. The name is presumed to derive from MEOLC, the Old English for milk and from HAM, a village."

"Charles Maggs was the originator of The Wiltshire United Dairies at The West End Farm on Semington Road. It began as a collecting depot and butter factory, in 1897 amalgamating with The North Wilts Dairy Company and in 1900 moved to a site covering 3 acres adjoiningthe Avon Bridge. Eventually it became part of The Unigate Group with the business being transferred to Wootton Bassett in the 1980s but the remains of the large chimney for the condensery can still be seen."

© Copyright Maurice Pullin and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence