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The history section of this site is continuously 'work in progress'

This site has an hierarchical structure. The higher level pages, such as this one, are designed to be accessible to the layman; whilst as you drill down the hierarchy the pages will become more detailed and more designed for the researcher.

Detailed histories can be found by clicking on the subjects at the top of pages

For the later historical periods the author is enormously indebted to David Longbourne and Michael Tighe who kindly gave permission to quote from their extensive works.

Historical Overview

Four things have had major influences on the history of this area: the proximity of the chalk downland, the building of Mere Castle, the great fire of 1670 and the construction of the highway to the West Country.

The downs hereabouts show some of the most concentrated prehistoric activity of anywhere in Europe. From the Neolithic Age (late stone age approx 5000-4000 years ago) there survives long burial barrows and a causewayed camp at White Sheet Down. While the round burial barrows so characteristic of our downs date from the Bronze Age - approx from 4000 years ago. The thin well-drained chalk soil on the downs was easily cultivated by early civilisations. There was active land cultivation as evidenced by the small rectangular enclosures and boundary ditches. A ridge way across Mere Down provided an early-east west route that might have been used throughout prehistory and into historic times.

The Iron Age (approx 3000-2000 years ago) has left us several hill forts. That at White Sheet Hill which overlooks Mere encloses about 5 hectares and finds indicate an agriculture activity with cattle and sheep

Whitesheet Hill hill fort

Image: Mere Museum

This was the land of the Celtic Durotrige tribe, who occupied all of Dorset and southern Wiltshire. They resisted Roman rule after the conquest of 43 A.D but were crushed. The area around Mere does not seem to have been prosperous enough for aristocratic villas to have been built. But there have been many Roman finds, including two coin hoards (one from the present cemetery), Romano-British burials and jewellery.

Mere is a good example of a “spring-line” settlement. The heavy clay of the Blackmore Vale to the south of Mere meets the porous chalk of the downland to the north and it is here that numerous springs occur. The chalk downs favoured early settlement for reasons of ease of cultivation but suffered from a lack of water; so the abundance of water along the spring line must have favoured settlement here.

It seems likely that the site of Mere itself was first settled in Saxon times. The name probably comes from the Saxon ‘mere’ which can mean either a lake  or a boundary.  There is no sign of a lake but Mere is on the meeting place of the three Saxon shires of Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset. In 658 the Saxon lord Cenwalh beat the local tribes at the battle of Peonnum (thought to be Penselwood) and all this area fell into Saxon hands. Another battle was fought locally in 1016 when the Saxon king, Edmund Ironside, successfully fought off Canute and the invading Danes.

Just after the Norman conquest, the Domesday Book suggests that the Mere area was part of a royal hunting estate. Agriculture, or any activity that disrupted the hunting, would not have been encouraged and so it seems that the population density would have been very low. After the invasion the Normans did not confiscate the land as they did in many parts of the Kingdom, instead the land holders in Mere remained Saxon; they were Ulvric, Ulnod and Godric the huntsman (whose duties would have been in the hunting estate called the Forest of Selwood). 

By 1253 the manor of Mere belonged to the Richard the Earl of Cornwall - the younger brother of Henry III. He obtained permission to build a castle on a prominent hill (Castle Hill). It covered the whole of the top of the hill, was rectangular, had six towers, a chapel, a deep well and a dungeon.

A castle would require a large support system - food, fuel, horses, tradesmen, etc.  Mere probably grew to be a good-sized village to support, and profit from, the castle.

The castle began to fall into disrepair and when abandoned the stone from its walls was used in several Mere houses of this period.

By the early 14th century there were two corn mills and a fulling mill, which would indicate that cloth production had started by the late 13th century. 

There was much building in Mere in the late 14th century and early 15th century including extensions to the church and the new Woodlands Manor, c.1370-80.  The Chantry House was built in 1424 to accommodating three priests employed to pray for the benefactor's soul in the newly-built chantries adjacent to the chancel in St Michaels. The house became Mere’s first school as the priests also taught local boys.


Market House

Image: Mere Museum

The 16th century saw cloth making in Mere well established as a cottage industry with spinning and weaving taking place in peoples homes and the industry controlled by merchants and clothiers. The market house was on the site of the present clock tower in The Square, and was described as ‘a medieval structure of two stairs with open arches underneath’. The Cross House or Cross Loft was above this open, covered, space and was used as a court house. 

There was no fighting recorded in this area during the Civil War although there was some suffering. Two Mere men were fined for taking the king’s side and  the vicar, Dr Thomas Chafyn, was imprisoned in 1645. He was badly treated and died from his injuries shortly after his release. The churchyard cross and coloured glass and monuments in the church were destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers. In 1651 Charles II came to Mere in disguise when fleeing after the final battle of the civil war.  He took refreshments at The George Inn.  

From the late 17th Century flax became an important local crop and was spun and woven into linen in cottages in Mere, Zeals and the surrounding area. Four years after the Great Fire of London, Mere had its own great fire in 1670. A total of 54 houses were destroyed. It is likely that many of the houses lost were wood-framed tudor-style medieval buildings and so much of Mere now is of the characteristic local stone and dates from the late 17th century and later.

By the 18th century the roads were reasonably good and with Mere being on the main London to Exeter road there was a daily coach and wagon through the village. The older inns such as the Angel, The George, The Swan and the White Hart prospered and a house, rebuilt in 1711, became the Old Ship. 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. Despite the apparent commercial prosperity there was poverty in Mere and a poorhouse, later workhouse, was built.

By the first half of the 19th century there were more people in the parish engaged in trade and manufacturing than in agriculture.  The linen industry was in decline but it was reckoned that most houses had a loom and linen, tick (bed sacks) and cheesecloth continued to be made at Lords Mead Mill until the mid 19th century. From 1830 a new industry came to the town when Charles Jupe turned Hinks Mill into a silk mill. Later another factory opened in Water Street and the Lords Mead Mill changed to silk production in 1868.

Mere - circa 1850

Image: Mere Museum

This period of relative prosperity also saw social initiatives addressing education, electoral reform, alcohol abuse and poverty. The Congregationalists and the Church of England both established schools. The temperance movement established a coffee shop and a lecture hall to provide an alternative to the pubs. 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 campaigned for votes for all men.

A gasworks was built and the town was lit by gaslight by 1839.

But from the mid 19th century until the First World War Mere failed to prosper and became divided; religious intolerance increased - as did the gap between the rich and poor. Mere became divided into two very distinct factions of church and chapel. There was great intolerance on both Anglican and non-conformists sides - each organized their own education, social and sporting activities. 

By the 1870s agricultural wages were only 50p a week and there was some migration to larger towns and some emigration. The population declined from a high point of 3,161 in 1871 and continued to fall until the Second World War. The agricultural depression greatly affected the Duchy of Cornwall farms, where many cottages fell into ruin. In 1907 it was estimated that 150 houses had disappeared in the Mere area within living memory. Yet during this time the middle-classes prospered, the town filled with shops and became the commercial centre of a rural area. In the 1880’s there were around 30 shops including, 3 butchers, 6 bakers, 2 grocers, an ironmonger, 2 watchmakers and John Walton & Co who were drapers, tailors, grocers, ironmongers, furniture, carpet, glass and china dealers and many other things.

If the agricultural depression had been bad enough, worse was to come - in 1859/60 the railway extended between Yeovil, Gillingham and Salisbury - bypassing Mere; the railway caused the the coach trade to decline which led to the demolition of the White Hart in The Square in 1862 and the conversion of the Swan Inn to a house a few years later. Then in 1894 the centuries-old textile industry finally collapsed. A brighter note was struck in 1899 when George Burden started as a nurseryman. Three of his sons continued the business and in the 1950s between 70 and 80 men were employed. Employment prospects improved a little in 1906 when the former Water Street Silk Factory was reopened by the Royal Wilton Carpet Factory Ltd, who continued to use it until the Second World War. The town was supplied with piped water in 1909.

Following the First World War things began to improve. The rival church schools were amalgamated. This merger did much to unite the Anglican and non-conformist factions in the town. The Hill Brush Company was founded, which soon expanded providing more employment. The first council houses were provided at White Road, Clement’s Lane and Barnes’ Place. A regular electricity supply was provided by the Wessex Electrical Company in 1931.

Mere benefited from the increasing prosperity the country experienced following the Second World War, but in the 1970s the A303 bypass was built and Mere lost the passing trade and almost immediately half its shops.  Activity did not really pick up again until the 21st century when Mere's population and liveliness was boosted by an influx of affluent early retirees mostly from the Home Counties.