A Brief History of Wickwar
W ichen or Wyken, simply meaning “a settlement” (later shortened to Wick), originated in the Saxon period, though there are Roman remains in the area. In the Domesday Book it contained about 30 families and was worth £12 – a prosperous village for the time. The settlement would have been by the church, which is now on the very edge of the village.
The present geography is explained by the fact that in 1285 Roger de la Warre, whose ancestor John had been granted the manor in 1185, obtained a charter for a market from Edward I and created a new planned settlement, now the High Street, which became known as Wickwar. The earlier village, apart from the church, disappeared (in the early 17th century the de la Warres were involved in the founding of Virginia and Delaware in America). Until 1883 Wickwar was legally a borough with a Mayor and Aldermen, although the population was never more than about 1,000 until the late 20th century; the mace of 1709 is still preserved.
The old part of the village was designated a Conservation Area in 1973 and contains 67 listed buildings.
The existence of Wotton-under-Edge four miles to the north, and Chipping Sodbury four miles to the south, probably explains why Wickwar never developed into a sizeable town.
The old part of the village was designated a Conservation Area in 1973 and contains 67 listed buildings. Although parts of some houses in the High Street date back as far as the 15th century, the street’s appearance today is predominantly 18th century, since many dwellings were “modernised” in that period with sash windows and, in some cases, classical door-frames, although the traditional lime rendering has been removed from many houses in recent times to expose the attractive (and extremely hard) local stone. The properties are on typical long medieval burgage or half-burgage plots, though some have been sub-divided with houses at the other end. To the east, the original boundary of Back Lane still survives.
The clock, which strikes a bell in the turret hourly, is said to be the oldest town hall clock in Britain
Wickwar had a weekly market on Mondays, and fairs on 6th April, 2nd July and the first Monday in November. There was probably a market building of some kind in the middle of the High Street, replaced with the increase of road traffic in the late 18th century by the present Town Hall of 1795. This had an open market area and the village lock-up on the ground floor, with a meeting-room upstairs which is still used for the parish council and other meetings. The clock, which strikes a bell in the turret hourly, is said to be the oldest town hall clock in Britain, and may have been in the previous building: in 1676 the Mayor was ordered to wind the clock, and it is still wound daily.
The parish church of Holy Trinity stands on high ground on the northern edge of the village, reached by a raised footpath called the Stank (meaning dam – there were fish ponds here until the 19th century). The present handsome building, with a prominent tower, dates from around 1300 with additions and alterations in the 14th and 15th centuries; a major restoration in 1881 has left its mark. There is an early 14th century statue of St. John the Baptist on the north side, and inside are a Jacobean pulpit, a magnificent brass chandelier of 1728, the Chapel of the medieval Guild of the Weavers and Dyers of Wickwar, and the Gunston memorial window depicting the history of the village, given in 1977 by Sir Derrick and Lady Gunston in memory of their son John, killed in World War Two.
In the late 19th century the village had several schools, of which the National Girls’ School of 1860 is now the Village Hall and the Board School of 1878 is the Youth Centre.
Until the 18th century, Wickwar prospered through the woollen industry; John Leland’s “Itinerary” in the 1530’s called it “a pretty clothing townlet”. One reminder of this is the Alexander Hosea Primary School. Hosea (pronounced “Hosey”) was an apprentice in the 17th century who went to London and became a prosperous merchant: the story is that he ran away after dropping the dish of whitepot his master had sent him to fetch from the cook-shop. At the end of his life he endowed a school in his birthplace, and the original building of 1684 still stands at the north end of the High Street.
In 1991 the school moved to new premises, which have been twice extended; it now has about 280 pupils, and the hall and community room are well-used by village organisations. In the late 19th century the village had several schools, of which the National Girls’ School of 1860 is now the Village Hall and the Board School of 1878 is the Youth Centre.
In the 19th century Wickwar had a reputation for drunkenness; there were at least nine public houses, of which only the Buthay (formerly the New Inn) survives.
With the decline of hand spinning and weaving, Wickwar suffered a period of decline in the 18th century, although the manufacture of clay pipes seems to have prospered at this time: one maker, the appropriately-named Obadiah Ash, was Mayor five times between 1714 and 1723. From 1800, malting and brewing developed, mainly thanks to the Arnold family who owned two breweries, John Arnold & Sons in the High Street and Arnold Perrett in Station Road. The malthouse behind the High Street is now part of the premises of Wilcox’s Garage; the Arnold Perrett buildings became a cider factory for part of the 20th century and now house the Heritage Wine depository and the Wickwar Brewery set up in 1990, which brews real ales and is a flourishing business. The cider-bottling building is now occupied by English Country Pottery.
Perhaps it is not surprising that in the 19th century Wickwar had a reputation for drunkenness; there were at least nine public houses, of which only the Buthay (formerly the New Inn) survives – the actual buthay, where archery was practised, is off the High Street and has been greatly encroached upon by houses and garages. The Beaufort Arms is now the Social Club. On the other hand, in a village of less than 1,000 people there were, in addition to the parish church, three nonconformist chapels. The Wesleyan one closed in 1870 and is now only remembered as Chapel House; the Baptist Chapel of 1865, in the Buthay, is now a private dwelling; but the Congregational Chapel, built in 1817 with attractive buildings in the High Street, is still very active.
In the late 18th century a turnpike road was set up passing through Wickwar. Tollgate Cottage still exists at the south end of the village, and the White Horse gate at the north end is remembered in the modern road Turnpike Gate. The railway arrived with the opening of the station on Brunel’s Bristol – Gloucester main line in 1844. This had a big impact, not least with the building of Wickwar tunnel, which cost ten lives and led to the draining of the lake near the church and later to the demolition of Pool House, the Tudor house belonging to the lord of the manor. Several ventilation shafts mark the line of the tunnel. The station closed in 1964 as part of Dr. Beeching’s “axe” and unfortunately was totally demolished. There was a Station Hotel nearby which is now a private dwelling.
The Arnold Perrett Brewery was early in utilising electric power from a hydro-electric generator, and the excess capacity was used to provide lighting to the High Street in 1888, making Wickwar one of the first places in the country to have electric street lighting.
The manor passed from the de la Warres to the Ducie family in the 17th century, and the present Earl, who was born and brought up in Australia, lives locally, though not in the massive Victorian mansion of Tortworth Court built by his ancestor, which is now a hotel. In 1864 the then Earl built a large new rectory near the church, his sister having married the Rector, and this is one of the most notable houses in the village – though no longer lived in by the Rector! Another important house is the Queen Anne period Hill House, where the brewer John Arnold lived in the 19th century and Sally, Duchess of Westminster from 1968 until her death in 1990: during her time there were many parties and important visitors, including Prince Charles. The inappropriately-named Castle Farm House at the south end of Wickwar is an imposing 18th and 19th century building which is now a residential home for the elderly.
The Arnold Perrett Brewery was early in utilising electric power from a hydro-electric generator, and the excess capacity was used to provide lighting to the High Street in 1888, making Wickwar one of the first places in the country to have electric street lighting. The original poles remained in use until they were removed in 1999 and the cables put underground, ending a link with the past but improving the appearance of the street.
Thank you, to Mary Isaac’s for the book “Wickwar through the Ages” which has proved an invaluable source of reference.
Booklets are available about the Parish Church, the Congregational Chapel and the Lower Woods.