Saturday 19 May 1990

A History Of Wiltshire


"The county of Wiltshire is roughly rectangular, about thirty miles broad and fifty miles from north to south. It is unique in Southern England in having neither direct access to the sea nor common border with the 'Great Wen' of Greater London. It has comparatively very little manufacturing or extractive industry today, though its former cloth industry was renowned until its demise in the 1980s, just as were the great railway works at Swindon up to 1987. It was once one of the most heavily populated counties in the country and is now one of the least."

And so begins A History Of Wiltshire, a long-awaited volume on what is perhaps the oldest surviving English county. This book is the first comprehensive account of the social and economic changes which have affected the county over 6,000 years, from ancient times to the 20th century.

The author, Bruce Watkin, lived until recently at Crockerton, and is a former chairman of the Warminster Civic Trust. He is no stranger to local history, and his enquiring intellect coupled with his accurate interpretation of much research, has resulted in an excellent and readable account of Wiltshire's evolution. To chronicle everything in a single volume is no mean feat and A History Of Wiltshire provides an essential background for further in-depth studies.

There are several references to Warminster and the surrounding villages in the text. For instance, the Wansey family of Warminster (mentioned in Chapter VIII - Georgian Wiltshire) are described as modest clothiers who were learning to export directly. Bruce Watkin informs us that the Wanseys even accepted payment in West Indian sugar for some of their cloth, and could have made a fortune in the West Indies had it not been for their distaste with regards slavery.

Wiltshire is "the" county of archaeology, with not only the two famous stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury, but also the greatest concentration of burial mounds in the British Isles. One such mound is the Golden Barrow at Upton Lovell, whose exceptional contents included the interment of a woman "with gold ornaments of great beauty and delicacy, and an amber necklace derived from the Baltic Sea trade."

There is much to be learned from A History Of Wiltshire. Complimenting the text are over 50 photographs, some in colour, and many diagrams, maps and drawings. Both author and publisher are obviously aware that a single diagram can often explain at a glance when hundreds of words often only confuse. A nice touch are the variety of line illustrations in the margins. Indeed, the layout of the book is particularly presentable, and gives the factual content a most attractive appearance.

Reviewed by Danny Howell.

A History Of Wiltshire. Bruce Watkin. Hardback. 128 pages. Published by Phillimore & Co. Ltd. £9.95.