Friday 23 June 1989

100 Years Of Warminster


'One Hundred Years Of Warminster' was the theme of a well-attended slide show presented by Danny Howell at the Athenaeum last week [Monday 12 June 1989], as part of Festival '89.

His two-hour lecture documented some of the commercial changes in the town and also showed how local people during the past century have celebrated special events in the town's history with music, drama, sport, carnivals and fairs.

In the 1880s Warminster was a thriving commercial centre, with its own corn trade, malthouse, silk factory, and three iron foundries. The weekly market was held on Saturday mornings in the main street and the Corn Exchange in the Market Place was a very important trading place.

By 1900 Warminster's commercial life had waned and business was in the doldrums. Warminster's corn trade, once one of the largest in the West Country and second only to Bristol, was over.

The output of the town's iron foundries had dropped and many men were laid off due to lack of orders. Silk production ended and the works, off Pound Street, changed to shirt production.

The Urban District Council suggested tourism as a solution to the town's problems and proposals were made to build holiday villas on the slopes around Copheap but this never happened because of the cost and the risk involved.

In the First World War there was an upturn in the town's fortunes when thousands of troops, including Scots and Australians, were billeted at Sutton Veny, Longbridge Deverill, Knook and Codford. The huge influx of men temporarily 'saved the day' for Warminster's shopkeepers and traders but the prosperity was short-lived.

The 1920s in Warminster, like elsewhere, proved to be hard times. Those who returned from the war found themselves not only injured or mentally scarred, but also out of work. The depression offered no consolation and there was little in the way of jobs, the only employers locally being the Station Saw Mills, the Warminster Motor Company, Jefferies glove factory, and John Hall's paint and varnish works.

A cassein works, operated by an Irish firm and based in the old brewery building at High Street, offered work for some but wages were low and there were always those who would work for less money just to secure a job and feed a hungry family.

The council boldly went ahead with a scheme to convert the town rubbish dump at Weymouth Street into a park. This gave work to several unemployed men, who dug the lake, using only spades and wheelbarrows. The Lake Pleasure Ground was opened in 1924 and today's visitors to Warminster comment that it is the best they have seen in all their travels around the world.

Hard times continued into the 1930s, particularly for agriculture, but there was a glimmer of hope during the latter part of the decade with the expectation that Warminster was to see new life and status as a garrison town.

The establishment of the Tank Barracks (now the School Of Infantry) at Oxendene in 1937 was the 'saving grace' and the following year saw the official opening by Leslie Hoare-Belisha. Soon afterwards came the REME Workshops at Beggars Bush, which are probably the biggest employer of civilians in Warminster today. Battlesbury Barracks at Woodcock were built in 1956, and the town owes much of its present prosperity to its continuing role as an army garrison.

New industry came to the town after the Second World War. C. & J. Clark Ltd., the shoe components manufacturers from Street, moved into ex-American army huts at Prestbury House in Boreham Road in 1955, and the council, anxious to keep this business in the town, made it possible for Clarks to expand with the acquisition of new premises on the old sheep fair and market site in Fairfield Road the following year.

Geests, the banana importers, arrived at Copheap Lane in the late 1950s. This site, used for ripening bananas, is midway between the ports of Southampton and Avonmouth, but Geests have now changed their mode of operation and are leaving the town.

Tourism returned to Warminster in the 1960s with the 'sightings' of unidentified flying objects. Flying saucer watchers gathered at Cradle Hill and Middle Hill (then referred to as Star Hill) to watch the night skies, and local journalist Arthur Shuttlewood penned several books on the 'Warminster Thing'. Warminster's new-found fame made the front pages of national newspapers and local people appeared on the television news talking of 'cigar-shaped objects flying over the town'.

The opening of the Longleat Lion Reserve, a collaboration between Lord Bath and Jimmy Chipperfield, also brought crowds to the area. One of Mr Howell's slides showed game-warden Mike Lockyer sat beside an adult male lion called Pacer. This particular cat obtained his name from his early days in the reserve when he was extremely restless and had to be constantly watched as he paced up and down the perimeter fence.

Change came to Warminster in 1964 with the opening of the town's first supermarket (Gateway), and the provision of a car park off Station Road. Previously, the number of cars was low and parking at the sides of the streets was possible everywhere because there were no restrictions.

In 1973 the Three Horseshoes Shopping Mall was built, which Mr Howell referred to as "functional but architecturally bland".

In the 1970s there was also new housing, a trend which has continued on a grand scale into the 80s, particularly with the blocks of apartment homes for the elderly.

Homeminster House in Station Road has been built on what was a scrap yard but during the 19th century this area was known as Bleeck's Field and it was here in 1881 that the first Warminster Rose Show was held.

The construction of the long-awaited Warminster Bypass, which opened last year, has relieved the town centre of much unwanted traffic, and Warminster, once again, has set its future on tourism and leisure.

Another shopping mall, behind the old Stiles ironmongery shop, is planned and new industry should arrive with the establishment of the Crusader Business Park at Gas House Farm in the near future.

Mr Howell offered his services for the evening free and there was no admission charge but a collection afterwards raised £60 for Festival '89 funds.