Click on the map to see a larger map of Wiltshire (29,700 bytes)
or here to see an enlarged map of the Swindon area as it was in 1890 (273,987 bytes)
Much of the county consists of chalk hills, which on a map mark a broad strip across the county from north east to south west, with lower lying land to the north west and south east. The higher hills are in the north, with a steep escarpment overlooking the Vale of the White Horse and the infant Thames in the very north of the county. Further west the escarpment, still high and steep, looks over the somewhat broader lush valley of the Bristol Avon. To the south the altitude drops more gently across Salisbury Plain to the low lying valleys of the rivers which meet in and around Salisbury after cutting through the chalk hills to the city's north and west. From Salisbury the combined rivers flow, as the Salisbury or Hampshire Avon, to the sea at Christchurch. The high land of Salisbury Plain is divided from the even higher Marlborough Downs to its north by the Vale of Pewsey, which runs roughly west to east across the county to merge with the valley of the River Kennet as it continues eastwards.
Wiltshire is larger than the average English county in area, but smaller than average in population, a direct result of its largely agricultural nature and the inhospitable nature of the chalk hills. It has been referred to as the county of chalk and cheese, the latter being a reference to the traditional dairy farming of the lower lying areas. The uplands have been traditionally used for sheep, the main basis for the county's, and at one time the country's, prosperity. From early times wool was one of the main exports, following which manufacture of woollen goods became the staple industry on which many Wiltshire towns became prosperous, especially those in the west such as Trowbridge, Devizes, Melksham and Bradford-on-Avon.
With the chalk being porous, water has always been a scarce commodity on the hills, so all the main towns are in the lowland parts, mostly in the band round the north and west, with Salisbury and Wilton in the smaller piece of lowland in the south east corner. Villages are strung in lines along the fringes of the hills where springs emerge at the junction of the porous chalk and the lower lying impermeable clays, and along the rivers whose valleys cut through the hills, but the hilltops are practically uninhabited.
The biggest town by far is Swindon, in the north east corner, which is the only major industrial centre and was found by a recent government survey to be the most prosperous town in the UK. Second biggest is Salisbury, the only city in Wiltshire, and third the present county town Trowbridge in the west, where the County Council offices and the County Record Office are situated.
Certainly the circles at Avebury were ancient long before Stonehenge was constructed, and most experts now believe that it remained more important than Stonehenge when both were at their early bronze age peak of importance. As for the labour needed for its construction, the older Silbury Hill (photo on left), the highest ancient construction in Europe, exceeded Stonehenge in its requirement. The creation of a hill over 130 feet high and covering an area of 5.5 acres is estimated to have required about four million man hours. The nearby megalithic tomb known as the West Kennet Long Barrow, built to house the bodies of important inhabitants of the settlement at Windmill Hill, was constructed over 5,000 years ago, and was a sealed, disused, ancient monument before work began on the building of even the first stage of Stonehenge.
The Windmill Hill settlement was not just a collection of huts. It was surrounded by three concentric rings of banks and ditches, the latter up to ten feet deep. This was a large and wealthy community, using tools and pottery imported from far away. At the time of its discovery in the 1920s this was the largest and most complex neolithic settlement known in Europe, although others have been found since then. The associated West Kennet Long Barrow was constructed about 3000 BC, and was deliberately and very firmly sealed about a thousand years later, by which time it contained the remains of about fifty people, members of no more than half a dozen families.
Close to the settlement, construction of the Avebury rings was started 4,500 years ago by the digging of a ditch, initially about twelve feet deep, with a twelve foot bank beside it. A few centuries later it was deepened to thirty feet, and the bank correspondingly raised, and a ring of huge sarsen boulders was erected just inside it. In addition, two avenues of sarsens were constructed, each consisting of twin rows of stones for about two and a half miles, one going south west from the ring and the other roughly south east. The latter ended in another, smaller, set of rings, known today as the Sanctuary. The sanctuary consisted of four rings of wooden posts, one of alternating posts and sarsens, and an outer ring of sarsens, two of which were the end stones of the avenue. In the centre was a single upright stone. The three photos (click on each for a larger image) show respectively, a view along the ditch, one of the stones viewed from the bottom of the ditch, and the so-called "Swindon" stone standing beside the main Swindon-Avebury road just north of the village. Today the entire village is contained within just a part of the main circle and ditch.
All this is not to deny the significance, and impressiveness, of Stonehenge. In the photo on the left (click on the thumbnail for a larger, 53,435 bytes, image) the people are much closer than the stones, the upright stones of the trilithons being 18 feet (5.5 metres) tall by seven feet wide. Whereas the stones at Avebury are rough, raw sarsen, used in the same condition as they were found, those at Stonehenge were carefully shaped and cut to size, with ridges and grooves to form joints, so they could be used to make the great trilithons. When one considers that the sarsen used for the biggest stones is very difficult to work even with modern tools, it is amazing that so long ago people were able to do it at all. Moving the stones from where they were found was also a considerable task involving great organisation of many people over huge distances. The sarsens used at both Avebury and Stonehenge were transported some tens of miles from the Marlborough Downs of north Wiltshire, while the smaller (but still enormous) blue stones at Stonehenge were transported hundreds of miles from Pembrokeshire, in south west Wales.
All this construction work shows that in the early bronze age Wiltshire was a very wealthy place, with advanced engineering techniques. This has led some scholars to believe that at this time Wiltshire was the centre of Europe's most advanced culture, only later to be overtaken by that of Greece and later still Rome.
More information about all the places mentioned, and others in both Wiltshire and Dorset, can be found on Philip Dunn's The Wicker Screen site, which is devoted to ancient structures of this kind, especially those of Wessex.
Whether the people here when the Romans arrived considerably later were descended from the makers of the great monuments, or were later arrivals who had driven the earlier people out, remains the subject of scholarly dispute. Certainly the Romans found a Celtic people, living in small kingdoms, frequently at war with each other, in typical iron age communities. By this time many of the iron age hilltop forts, still visible to day, had been constructed, and more were built long after the Romans left, and were used for defence against the invading Saxons. Wiltshire has a number of such forts, visible for many miles as clearly outlined earthworks silhouetted against the skyline, especially along the top of the escarpment around the north and western edges of the downs. That at Barbury, near Swindon, is now a country park. Nearby Liddington (photo left, click for a larger, 10,371 bytes, image) has a joint memorial to the local writers Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams. The biggest such fort, Maiden Castle, lies just over the county boundary in Dorset.
Wiltshire was the scene of important battles between the Celts and Saxons, and again later between the Saxons and Danes, culminating in Alfred's final victory at Edington, Wilts., in 878 AD. Wiltshire also saw much fighting in the battle for supremacy between Stephen and Matilda, and again in the Civil War, especially at the major Battle of Roundway Down, near Devizes.
Right up to the 19th century Wiltshire remained the scene of conflict, being one of the counties most involved in the Swing Riots as agricultural workers attempted to defend their jobs by smashing threshing machines and other newly introduced equipment.
Apart from a few bombs on Swindon during the second World War, warfare in the twentieth century has impacted on Wiltshire soil only in the use of much of Salisbury Plain for army training, the development at Lyneham of the giant air base from which troops departed to fight in other lands and the use of various factories to produce armaments, especially Spitfires at South Marston.
Nowadays, outsiders mostly see Wiltshire as a quiet rural area they pass through on the M4 motorway between London and south Wales and south west England, few of them even noticing Liddington Castle clearly visible for many miles from that road, especially when approaching it from the west.
Local newspapers in Wiltshire maintain this site.
The Wiltshire Web
Exeter University's Wiltshire page
As with most counties, one of the main sources of help, information, indices, transcriptions, etc. for Wiltshire is the Wiltshire Family History Society.
All enquiries should initially be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Membership enquiries should be sent to email@example.com. Credit/debit card payments may be made through www.genfair.com.
Also, like other counties, the GENUKI Wiltshire page should be consulted as the main reference for addresses, resource locations, on-line links, etc.
Anyone with an interest in genealogy in Wiltshire should take a look at the Moonrakers web site. This is a newish, rapidly developing site, replacing the old one which has ceased to be available.
Various kindly people who have specific resources relating to Wiltshire genealogy are prepared to carry out lookups on a voluntary basis. The details of this Wiltshire Lookup Exchange are maintained by Bob Brewer, of Swindon.
There is a second Wiltshire Lookup Exchange service available on the Moonrakers site.
For those with a major interest in Wiltshire genealogy, you have a choice of several mailing lists devoted to the subject, two of which are:
The Moonrakers list, which you can join by going to http://lists.bcn.mythic-beasts.com/mailman/options/moonrakers .Fill in the details that you have to, including a PASSWORD of your own choice. You will find this list rather light-hearted in many ways, with lots of good-natured banter and discussion of marginally relevant topics (e.g. old recipes, old remedies, local dialect, etc.), as well as the serious genealogy. Some people like this approach, others find it objectionable - take your choice!
There is another, more strictly relevant, mailing list for people with an interest in Wessex genealogy which includes Wiltshire. The following introduction was supplied by the former list owner:
WESSEX-PLUS A well maintained & helpful mailing LIST for hobbyists who have an interest in genealogy or general and local history related to and incorporating the counties of Berkshire, Bristol, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Isle of Wight, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire, England. To subscribe to the list, send a message to:
WESSEX-PLUSfirstname.lastname@example.org to receive individual messages, or to
WESSEX-PLUS-Demail@example.com to receive digests approximately daily.
in the body of the message in either case (not in the subject line - anything you put in the subject line is ignored). You DO NOT have to leave the subject line blank. It is IGNORED except to quote it back to you if there is an error.
The Wiltshire Surname Interests Page gives you the opportunity to see who else may be researching the same surnames in the county as yourself. You can have your own interests added to it by sending the following details to Clive Henly:
SURNAME being researched (note: *surnames* only!)
DATES of interest
PLACE of interest (Wiltshire only)
POSTAL ADDRESS (optional)
TELEPHONE number (optional)
FAX number (optional)
Moonrakers Members Wiltshire interests page gives another oportunity to list surname interests in Wiltshire, but to use it you have to be a member of the Moonrakers mailing list (see above). It is currently run by Sue O'Neill, who writes (to the mailing list):
To submit names reply to me on the list - that way people see what you are searching for! Please list them in alphabetical order. You must specifically ask me to post to the website.
Tree Tops Family History Pages provides access to a TV family history query service on both Sky News and UK Channel 5, with a mailing list alternative for those who cannot receive those channels. The site also offers a family history news mailing list, lookups for indexed obituaries from Swindon's Evening Advertiser, sale of indices of Wiltshire parish marriages (from an increasing number of parishes), plus other items and services. Well worth a look.
Many useful archives are also held at Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society Museum & Library, 41 Long Street, Devizes, SN10 1NS. Telephone: (+44) (0)1380 727369
H.P. Wyndham: Wiltshire Extracted from the Domesday Book (1788)
J. Britton: Beauties of England and Wales: Wiltshire (part 2 of volume 15, 1814)
W. Cunningtom & R. Hoare: The Ancient History of Wiltshire (1810-1821)
R.C. Hoare: The History of Modern Wiltshire (1822-1844 - southern half of the county only)
J. Aubrey: Natural History of Wiltshire (1847)
Rev. E.H. Goddard: Wiltshire Bibliography (1929, Wilts County Council)
Victoria County History of Wiltshire (15 vols, 1953-1991)
Wiltshire Notes and Queries (quarterly, 1893-1916)
Wiltshire Record Society (formerly Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society) has published records roughly annually since 1947. Enquiries to the Honorary Secretary, Wiltshire Record Society, c/o Wiltshire & Swindon Record Office, Bythsea Road, Trowbridge, Wilts. BA14 8JG.
A.D. Mills: A Dictionary of English Place-Names (Oxford University Press, 1991, revised 1995), ISBN 0-19-869156-4.
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