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The Parish of West Lavington has a rich history going back to late Neolithic or early Bronze Age times, and more 'recent' settlements are recorded in the Domesday Book.
The parish of West Lavington includes the settlements of West Lavington and Littleton
Panell, which now form a nearly continuous line of ribbon development along the A360 Devizes to Salisbury road. Today it is difficult to know where the boundary lies between the settlements but West
Lavington lies to the south, grouped around its church and former manor house while Littleton Panell is to the north, along the main road and around its former manor house, à Becketts. There does not
seem to have been too much difference in population size at the end of the 18th century, but from around 1870 West Lavington increased far more in size and outstripped its neighbour in population.
The population of the whole parish reached a peak of 1,589 in 1861 and then, in common with most villages declined, although there was an unusual increase in the 1920s.
The land declines from south to north on the northern slope of Salisbury Plain. In the south of the parish the land rises to over 600 feet on the chalk uplands, while in the north it drops to 200 feet. The Bulkington Brook flows through the villages rising to the south of the settlement. The villages themselves lie on the strip of gault and upper greensand at the foot of the Plain.
There is evidence of occupation in this area from late Neolithic or early Bronze Age times.
Early remains have been found on the downs to the south with two round barrows and field systems visible. An early to mid Bronze Age axe was found at New Copse Farm and late Bronze Age spearhead,
palstave, axe and awl on other parts of the downs. Early Iron Age material has been found in the same areas. There may have been early activity on the lower ground but the first settlement remains
are of a Romano-British site in the grounds of Littleton Panell Manor (now part of Dauntsey’s School). Both Samian and Castor- ware pottery were found here while six bronze brooches and a bronze
bracelet have been found on West Lavington Down.
Some clue to the early origins of the two settlements may be found in their names. Lavington was the Saxon Lafa’s Farm, covering both the present Lavingtons from the early 5th century. The main settlement would have been at Market Lavington and it is quite likely that the West Lavington settlement came two or three centuries later. Littleton is the little farm and might have been small in relation to either of the Lavingtons. It is even possible that it could pre-date the West Lavington settlement, with possible continuous occupation from the Romano-British settlement.
However there is no archaeological evidence for Saxon settlement in the parish but as both houses and most artefacts were made of wood, which will have left little trace, it does not mean that there was no habitation here. There was certainly settlement here by late Saxon times, as two were recorded in the Domesday Book. The main settlement in the area was at Market Lavington, to the east, and settlements to the west would have been dependent upon it. The most populous settlement was at Littleton Panell, where there was land for six ploughs, although only five were used. There were two mills and a population of around 100 people. The entry for West Lavington is more difficult to interpret. It was held from the king by Robert Blund, who farmed one hide and one virgate with one plough team. His two sons held seven hides and one virgate of land from their father and worked it with five plough teams and their men. Unusually there is no indication of numbers of heads of households although there was a mill of a fairly low value. Depending on the status of the working men the population could have been anything from 25 to 45 people and these are likely to have lived around the manor house. The value of West Lavington was 50% greater than that of Littleton Panell, which probably reflects the greater amount of land contained in the estate.
It is fairly certain that there was a Saxon church at West Lavington and if this is the case it raised the question of why no settlement is indicated in 1086. It could have been that a wooden church had been built for the Saxon owner Achi, his family and retainers and was also used by the inhabitants of Littleton. Whatever the origins the parish church remained at Lavington although its earliest features now date from the second half of the 12th century. This doubtless represents a rebuilding by the bishop of Salisbury as the estate of Lavington, with the manor of Potterne, was given to Bishop Roger in 1136. From then onwards Lavington was known as Bishop’s Lavington.
In the mid 13th century William Paynel married Maude Husse
and so acquired the manor of Littleton by marriage. In the time of William or his sons the suffix ‘Paynel’ was added, being recorded in 1317. In 1332 West Lavington paid more tax than Market
Lavington and in the 14th and 15th century the parish had the typical Wiltshire land use of sheep and arable (mainly wheat with a little barley and oats). The Dauntsey family had land in the parish
from at least 1474, eighty years before William Dauntsey’s bequest founded a school and almshouses. West Lavington Manor House was rebuilt in the earlier 16th century, as can be seen from the
evidence of a contemporary doorway in the present house. During that century there was extensive sheep farming in the parish, there were 1,394 sheep on one farm alone.
In 1630 Sir John Danvers acquired West Lavington by marriage and extensively rebuilt the manor house. He was very interested in garden design and created ornamental gardens in the Italian style. John Aubrey, in the mid 17th century, is very complimentary about Sir John Danvers of Chelsea and wrote the following about the garden.
‘The garden at Lavington is full of irregularities, both naturall and artificiall, sc. elevations and depressions. Through the length of it there runneth a fine cleare trowt stream; walled with brick on each side, to hinder the earth from mouldring down. In this stream are placed severall statues. At the west end is an admirable place for a grotto, where the great arch is, over which now is the market roade. Among severall others, there is a very pleasant elevation on the south side of the garden, which steales, arising almost insensibly, that is, before one is aware, and gives you a view over the spatious corn-fields there, and so to East [Market] Lavington: where, being landed on a fine levell, letteth you descend again with the like easinesse; each side is flanqued with laurels. It is almost impossible to describe this garden, it is so full of variety and unevenesse; nay, it would be a difficult matter for a good artist to make a draught of it.’
On Friday 26 April 1689 there was a disastrous fire in the village with 226 bays of buildings burned. A bay was normally the area between two sets of crucks or wooden fames that provided support for an upper floor, roof and the timber framing of the front and rear walls. The buildings represented by the number of bays would have been houses, barns, stables and other outbuildings. The number of people who lost buildings was 26 but this probably represented more houses as several would have been tenanted. For example Thomas Baxter, ‘his losses in houses consisting of 31 bays or building we prise at £450.’ This may have represented between six and twelve buildings. The parsonage house with barns, stables, etc. comprised 29 bays and was valued at £615. Altogether 34 people suffered losses in trade and household goods. These totalled £1608.18.8d and varied between £5 of the widow Alice Chilvester and £445 for William Bartlett. From this it would seem that 34 households were lost.
The only houses remaining in West Lavington today that pre-date the fire are the Old Manor House, West Lavington Manor and the Old House in Duck Street. There are several late 17th and early 18th century houses, including Dial House of 1691 that must have been built to replace those lost in the fire. There appear to be indications of more earlier houses in Littleton Panell so it seems likely that the fire was concentrated in the area around the church of All Saints.
In the 18th century it was noted that there was much flint digging in the parish for the repair of turnpike roads. Sheep remained pre-eminent and in 1766 there were 6,298 in the parish. The West Lavington estate was bought by the Duke of Marlborough in 1766, hence the Churchill Arms in the village today. By 1801 the main crops from arable land were wheat and barley, with some oats, peas, rape, turnips, beans and rye. Market gardening flourished in the 19th century and produce was sent to Salisbury and Bath. Chalk was quarried for lime burning. 1825 saw riotous celebrations in the village when toll gates on the turnpike roads were burned down and never replaced.
On October 21st 1839, highwaymen set upon one Mr Dean, of Imber, near Gore Cross on what is now the A360 just south of the West Lavington village. The Robbers Stone was erected to tell the tale, and is now a Listed Monument. Below is a transcript of the tablet affixed to the Stone:
AT THIS SPOT
Mr. DEAN, of Imber was Attacked and Robbed by Four Highwaymen, in the evening of Octr. 21st. 1839. After a spirited pursuit of three hours one of the Felons BENJAMIN COLCLOUGH fell dead on Chitterne Down. THOMAS SAUNDERS, GEORGE WATERS, & RICHARD HARRIS, were eventually Captured, and were convicted at the ensuing Quarter Sessions at Devizes, and Transported for
the term of Fifteen Years. This Monument is erected by Public Subscription as a warning to those who presumptuously think to escape the punishment God has threatened against Theives and Robbers.
In 1867 there was still a good range of businesses in both villages. The variety of shops included two grocers (one was also a farmer and one a draper), a baker and grocer, a butcher, three shopkeepers (one of whom was also a blacksmith and his wife ran the post office), while there were four public houses; the Black Dog and the Churchill Arms, with the Wheatsheaf and the Cross Keys in Littleton. Market gardening was represented by six gardeners (one was also a carrier) making use of the rich loamy soil above the greensand. There was a beer retailer, who was also a maltster, and four millers. There was another blacksmith, a saddler, two carpenters and wheelwrights, a stonemason, two bricklayers, a building and timber merchant and carpenter. Clothes were provided by two tailors and a stay maker and there were three boot and shoe makers. The parish contained ten farmers and a dairy.
In 1900 the railway line between Westbury and Stert was built across the northern part of
the parish and West Lavington station was sited half a mile to the north of Littleton. The licence from the Black Dog was used for the new railway hotel. The manor house at Littleton, à Becketts, was
rebuilt in red brick in 1904 and little trace of the original remains. In 1905 Lord Churchill sold the manor of West Lavington and much of the land to Mr. H T Holloway. Between 1910 and 1936 the War
Department acquired 4,203 acres in the parish, being the downs in the southern part.
The 20th century saw the substantial expansion of Dauntsey’s School from 1919 onwards and the buildings and grounds now comprise 100 acres in and around both villages. There have been small housing developments from the 1970s and the two villages have grown together.
A much more detailed history of the area, published in 1953, and taken from Victoria County History's publication "A History of the County of Wiltshire, Vol. 7" is available as a document below. Click here for online access from British History Online, and to note the historical significance of its original publication.
If you would like to learn more about family history, you may wish to explore the Wiltshire Family History Society website here.