1700-1850
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From Andrews’ and Dury’s Map of Wiltshire, 1810

Image Courtesy of Wiltshire Heritage Centre

Mere in 1810

The 'old castle' shown on Whitesheet Hill is the Iron-age hillfort.

The old road from Salisbury to Wincanton can be seen crossing East-West on Mere Down.  Several of the milestones shown still exist. The relatively new turnpike road which replaced it can be seen passing through Mere village.  It approached Mere via Hazzards Hill not following the old road into the Old Hollow and  Steep Street.

A road which now only exists as a track, but was apparently as important as the road to the Deverills, goes from Manor Farm northwards.

Three mills are shown on the Shreen.

Mapledore Hill Common (now Mapperton, bottom left) appears to be a large area of common but the common lands around White Marsh (now Southbrook) are largely restricted to roadside waste ground.

There appears to be a centre of population which no longer exists at 'White Marsh' .

 

Social

At this time the parish of Mere still included the whole of Zeals; the overall population of the two now is not much different from that of 1851.  Zeals was a separate little community, almost entirely agricultural, but with its own small shops and an inn which brewed its own beer; but linen weaving was a mainstay of its life. 

This period of relative prosperity also saw initiatives addressing education, alcohol abuse and poverty. The Congregationalists and the Church of England both established schools. The temperance movement, encouraged by the Quakers and other non-conformists, established a coffee shop and a lecture hall to provide an alternative to the pubs. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 had been passed and in that year the old workhouse at Castle Street was replaced. The often dismal conditions of working families also led to the formation of an active board of local Chartists by 1841, who attended meetings in Salisbury, Westbury and Trowbridge and also held meetings locally.

Between Mere and Zeals is Zeals House, in all respects the "big house" of the parish. 

The Groves and the nearby Faugoins seem to have been the only families in the parish to qualify for the status of gentry.  It is their names which one encounters as the benefactors of all the local good causes, but Mere, as distinct from Zeals, does not seem to live in their shadow. The Zeals estate is a large one but does not include the Manor of Mere, owned since Norman times by the Duchy of Cornwall, or by the  Bath or Somerset estates.

The workhouse as it appeared in 1935 - only the chapel (lower right) survives

Image: Colin Anderson

For most of this period the vicar was not resident in Mere and the Duchy rented the Manor to the Schutz family, who played no part in the life of Mere, leaving the management of their investment to stewards.  As a result, there was no local involvement by those who elsewhere would have been regarded as the squirearchy, so local political and social power lay with the farmers and those in commerce.

Mere and Zeals were little communities where most of the inhabitants wear tough serviceable clothes made locally - the men in fustian trousers or breeches and often in the traditional smock, made of the coarse local linen.  The town had a plethora of shoe and clothes makers. 

95% of the population had been born in the West Country, most of them within 10 miles of Mere, and few would have been exposed to any form of standard English.  As a result nearly all would have spoken the Wessex dialect of which we still hear shadows to-day, but far broader and with a plethora of expressions and usages which have disappeared.  Indeed, the local dialect would have been more akin to that of Dorset than that spoken in other parts of Wiltshire. Many would still have been illiterate.

At the end of this period, a quarter of the population were employed in work paying bare subsistence wages.  There were also 48 inmates in the new Union Workhouse and a considerable number of paupers outside receiving support. 

Agriculture

By the middle of the 19th Century, British agriculture was enjoying great prosperity. Because this area was so far from an industrial town, population growth outstripped the demand for labour, so that rural wage rates in Wessex were the lowest in the country.

The farms themselves varied immensely in size; those on or near the chalk - Zeals, Chadenwick, Manor and Mere Down, were around 1,000 acres each. By contrast, in the flat "cheese" country south of the town they ranged between 100 & 300 acres.  The "chalk" farms were mainly arable and sheep, with dairying prevailing on the "cheese" land. 

Farms came right into the centre of Mere, for instance in Church Street immediately opposite the church was a working dairy farm of 30 acres,  The farm buildings include an enormous mediaeval barn fronting Castle Street.

The enclosure of common land in the 19th century had a great influence on the landscape we see in and around Mere today and on its inhabitants. Nearly half of the total 7,400 acres (which then included Zeals) was the subject of enclosure and there was much discontent shown by the poorer people - those who benefited most from the common land.

Travel

Milestone on the old road over the downs - records the distance from Sarum (Salisbury) and London

Photo: Mere Museum

At the beginning of this period, traffic heading to the West Country used the high-level route over Mere Down - avoiding Mere and all the low-lying sticky clay of the Blackmore Vale.

By 1760 the Wincanton Turnpike Trust built a new road down Hazzards Hill and right into the centre of Mere.

But Mere's inns seem to have been established before the coming of the turnpike road so it is possible that, in dry weather at least,  some traffic diverted off the old trackway on the downs to use the facilities at Mere.

After 1760 Mere became busy with stage coach and commercial traffic going to and from Exeter and London.

At the peak of the trade, five inns provided accommodation and transport in Mere.

The Swan Inn in Salisbury Street, which lay opposite what is now The Lecture Hall, may have been the oldest inn in Mere since in 1647 it advertised stabling for 40 horses.

The White Hart Inn in the Market Place (now The Square) probably began as an hostelry in 1663 but was a private house and business  premises in the 18th century; it returned to being an inn between 1810 and 1860 (the site is now a Chinese takeaway). 

The Old Ship Hotel dates from 1711 and has a magnificent wrought-iron sign made by a local blacksmith and clockmaker. 

Mere Market Place c. 1850

Showing the Market House in the middle of the square (later replaced by the Clock Tower), The Talbot Inn (the George) behind (rendered but without the later fake wood framing), the White Hart Inn on the right.

Image: Mere Museum

The Angel was another well-established house, site of all the local auction sales; we do not know what it looked like, as the entire site was redeveloped, with a much smaller inn, later in the century, but with its outbuildings it occupied a very large area. In 1760 it had an advertisement saying in : “A Turnpike Road now runs through Mere and is the great road from Taunton and Exeter to London and is the nearest cross road from Blandford and Shaftesbury to Frome and Bath.” 

The George dates from the the 17th century - it had not yet acquired the mock Tudor facade we know - it was a rendered stone building. 

We know from Pigot's Directory of 1830 that the three coaches from London called at the Ship between 3 & 3.30 in the morning, and those from Barnstaple and Exeter to London at 10 pm & 1 & 4 am. Mere's position on the route was such that this was inevitable if departures from the termini were to be in daylight.  As a result, there must have been disturbed nights for those living in the Market Place, with the bustle of arriving and departing passengers, offloading of mail and the feeding and watering of horses and riders.

Travellers would have seen large arable fields all the way into the town, well farmed by tenants of the Duchy of Cornwall or the Duke of Somerset - our landscape, the pattern of which had been finally determined by the Enclosure Act of 1807, has changed little since that time.  

Industry

By the early 19th century, in the parish, there were more people engaged in trade and manufacturing than in agriculture. Mere and Zeals main industry, after farming, continued to be textiles. 

From the late 17th Century flax became an important crop locally and was spun and woven into linen in cottages in Mere, Zeals and the surrounding area. In the 18th century Mere became the centre of the local linen industry, which also involved the weaving of dowlas, a coarse form of bed linen. Some spinning of wool and cloth weaving continued alongside the new industry. Towards the end of this period, despite the linen industry now being in decline it was reckoned that most houses had a loom and produced linen.  Tick (bed sacks) and cheesecloth continued to be made at Lords Mead Mill until the mid 19th century. 
Flax, by then almost all imported, was dressed and spun at Lords Mead Mill by some 5 men and 30 women. The actual weaving was not a factory job here yet - 20 men and 15 women were linen weavers, working either in their homes or in small sheds; but the trade died fast, and by 1860 it was closed it down - ousted by the larger powered factories of the North of England, Scotland and Ulster.

From 1830 a new industry came to the town when Charles Jupe turned Hinks Mill into a silk mill and many people, including boys of 9 or 10, were engaged in silk throwing. Later another factory opened in Water Street and the Lords Mead Mill changed to silk production in 1868.At the beginning of the 19th century a silk industry employing more than a hundred people (nearly all female) was established in North Row and Hinks Mill.  Although the numbers employed were high, the wages were only about a quarter of those commonly paid to male agricultural workers so the industry provided pin money rather than bringing any prosperity to Mere. 

Gas was being produced in 1837 and the town was lit by gaslight by 1839. The gasworks were eventually sited on the Island at Edge Bridge.

Mere was, as now, a grey stone town, houses abutting directly on to the street, and almost no brick in evidence. At the end of this period  there were two builders in the town, but not one bricklayer working for them; rather there were still 20 masons, a reflection of Mere's isolation from the rail network.  The important buildings in the town centre had slate roofs but almost everywhere else there was still much thatch, despite all the fires which had occurred, and the town had 6 thatchers still working. Other roofs were of stone or tile; at Knowl, near Barrow Street there were 5 tile makers.  As well as these trades, there were 6 sawyers, 31 carpenters, 5 glaziers and 2 plumbers.