The History of Amesbury
The town of Amesbury sits in a curve of the River Avon in a picturesque location just six miles north of Salisbury . The area around Amesbury is liberally strewn with Neolithic earthworks. Many, such as Woodhenge , predate the better-known Stonehenge . These are all evidence of human habitation in the Amesbury region for many centuries before the Romans came to Briton. A large Iron Age hill fort, which became known as Vespasian’s Camp, overlooked the River Avon near the Avenue. There is plenty of evidence to support the theory that a large-scale Anglo Roman settlement existed in the Amesbury area.
A Saxon fort built there probably helped derive Amesbury’s modern name, as ‘burgh’ or ‘bury’ is the Saxon word for ‘fort’. A nunnery and abbey were established there but only parts of the Norman church can now be traced back to the abbey. The place now thought to be on the site of the old abbey has a classical mansion on it. Built in 1840 it is confusingly called Amesbury Abbey, but it is in fact not part of the old abbey structure. The original nunnery was demolished in 1540.
During the Middle Ages Amesbury received a charter allowing it to hold an annual fair in addition to the town’s weekly market. The town’s position along the main route from London to Exeter aided the local economy, travellers always need some service or another to help them along their way. Apart from farming and coaching, Amesbury had little industry of note. During the 17th century the town became famous for making clay pipes for smoking. Pipes manufactured by the Gauntlet family of Amesbury were well respected by smokers. But pipe making couldn’t support the entire town and Amesbury declined during the 18th century, it even suffered a slight fall in population. The first census conducted in 1801 recorded a population of only 721, which at the time made it little more than a large village. By 1851 the population had risen slightly to almost 1,200 but the town was still slumbering. By 1880 the town gave up the fairs, which had struggled on for the past century but had been unable to regain their former glory.
A little to the west of the town straddling the Amesbury bypass is a special piece of Amesbury history. Known as the Trafalgar Clumps it’s a spread of beech trees planted to represent the line of English and French ships at the battle of the Nile. This is thought to have been established 200 years ago at the bequest of Horatio Nelson ’s beau, Lady Hamilton .
The Industrial Revolution passed Amesbury by and it remained a sleepy Wiltshire market town for most of the Georgian and Victorian eras. Gas lighting arrived late in the 19th century and electricity didn’t come until 1922, along with sewers and a water main early in the 20th century. The railway finally reached Amesbury in 1902, over 50 years after many towns first received the revolutionary new form of transportation. The railway closed in 1963 as part of the sweeping closures to Britain’s branch lines.
It was the military who did most to revive Amesbury in the 20th century when they purchased large tracts of land on Salisbury Plain for training and firing ranges. Amesbury suddenly found itself in the middle of a large armed forces community, this meant a growing population as well as money coming in to the local economy from outside. Council housing estates were started in the 1920s with building continuing until the outbreak of World War II . More were council houses built just after the war. A bypass was built in 1970 to take the traffic away from the town centre and Amesbury got a new library in 1973. Despite the growth, prompted mainly by the nearby military airfield at Boscombe Down, the town is still relatively small with a population of about 8,000.