A Brief History of Milborne Port

Milborne Port does not have a charter giving the date it was established, since no one knows when that was.  The closest it comes to such a document is from King John in 1212, when the men of Milborne held a market and the pleas of the town ‘at farm from the Crown’, and in 1213-14 the burgesses and freemen of the town were made ‘quit of all tolls, namely sac, soc, toll, team, passage, pontage, stallage, and picage in fairs and markets at home and abroad.’  This was also the time when the suffix Port appears in writing for the first time.  (Port originates in the Anglo-Saxon term for market.)

However, the high ground of Milborne Down and Poyntington Hill has yielded evidence of Neolithic and Roman activity.  The most northern part of the parish is the hamlet of Milborne Wick, which was most probably the original Romano- British settlement.   An earth bank across a spur east of Milborne Wick, known in the 19th century as the Barrow, is an Iron-Age promontory fort.

The Romans may well have camped at Wick to prevent the promontory fort being re-occupied.  While there is little evidence to support this, Roman finds are common and Roman burials were discovered immediately south of the churchyard on the southern edge of Milborne Port.  The Romans introduced the water mill into England, and the stream supported these, eventually giving a name to the settlement.

After the Romans left the Saxons came, they often established settlements close to the Romano-British and this may have happened at what is now Kingsbury Regis.  However it was begun, by the reign of Alfred the Great this was a royal manor, which was bequeathed to his youngest son in his will of 899.

(The manor remained with the Crown until 1528 when, with the hundred and borough, it was settled on Henry FitzRoy, duke of Richmond.  He died in 1536 and thereafter until 1547 or later the manor and borough were again in Crown hands.  It subsequently passed to Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk and was eventually inherited by the Seymour family.  From Edward Seymour it descended to Robert Bruce, son of Elizabeth Seymour, who agreed to sell the manor in 1694 to Sir Thomas Travell, already owner of Milborne Wick.)

The Anglo-Saxon thegns often established minster churches to teach Christianity and Kingsbury Manor was no exception.  By 950 a minster church, with dependent churches at Charlton Horethorne, Holwell , and Pulham stood where the church of St John the Evangelist still stands.  At some point between 1046 and 1086 this church was enlarged and ‘beautified’ by its priest, Rainbald of Cirencester, who was also dean of the college of canons at Cirencester (Glos.) and a member of both Edward the Confessor’s household and that of William the Conqueror.  Parts of this Anglo-Saxon church still exist, although the church was greatly changed and enlarged by the Victorians.  In and around the minster enclosure a town and market quickly grew.  Although it was not compiled until 1086, the Domesday Book can be used as a guide to the Anglo-Saxon town.  Milborne Port was wealthy; it had the fourth largest number of burgesses in Anglo-Saxon Somerset, only Ilchester, Bath, and Taunton having more. 

Since the manor belonged to the king, the town did not pay tax, but instead had to supply three quarters of the cost of a night’s lodging for the Court.  This would be a huge sum, but Milborne Port could afford it; there were a total of 67 burgesses in the town, and a further 112 burgesses from other towns, notably Ilchester, paid for the right to trade in Milborne Port’s weekly market, which was the most profitable in Somerset.  The town’s population was approximately 400, making it a large town for the time.  The town had wealthy craftsmen and merchants, a goldsmith was licensed to mint coins here in at least the reigns of Aethelred II, 978-1016, Cnut,1016-1035, Harthacnut, 1035-1042, and Edward the Confessor, 1042-1066, since coins from all these reigns have been found.  Many more may come to light as newly discovered hoards are studied          

This prosperity continued until1340 when it was the eighth wealthiest town in the county tax collection.  However, although no records remain to prove the case, following the Black Death of 1348 (in which folklore has it that some 75% of the town’s inhabitants died) in 1377, the town was not even listed among the eleven Somerset towns assessed. One reason the town managed to survive such a catastrophic loss of life was the existence of the Guild.  This had probably started as a means by which the various craftsmen and merchants could ensure their independence from the wealthy lords and the church they traded with.  During the plague many of its members left their businesses to the Guild as a way of ensuring any surviving family members would be cared for.  The Guild became the Commonalty, a charity that is still running today, operating from the Guildhall in the High Street, as it has since it began.

The town slowly recovered; it became a weaving centre, producing not only woollen cloth, but also linen from locally grown flax, and dowlais, a light canvas from the hemp plant, also grown locally.  As its name implies, from its earliest days there had been many mills on the stream that ran through the village, (six were recorded in the Domesday book) and now some of these were turned into flax mills.  The water power was used to pound the flax stems to extract the fibres that were woven into cloth.  Another local industry was brewing, with barley being a major crop locally from the 17th century.

As the town recovered and the weaving industry grew, many wealthy linen traders built large villas around the town.  These could not compete with Ven (from fenn, or muddy ground) which was built by James Medlycott, a wealthy lawyer.  The estate was one of the local burgages which had election rights, and in 1725 he started building Ven, a house in the Queen Anne style which was complete by 1731.    

One legacy from the town’s early prosperity was the right to send two representatives to parliament whenever it was called.  As politics became more important, and lucrative, following the civil war, this gave the nine burgages within Milborne Port, Kingsbury and Wick more importance.  By the end of the 18th century the Marquess of Anglesey had taken Ven and was the main political figure in the town but he soon faced a challenge from Lord Darlington.  The town benefitted as the two peers spent a great deal of money trying to gain control.  Both Newtown and East Street were built during this time, by opposing candidates.  The town lost the franchise following the reform Act of 1832, being declared a ‘Rotten Borough.’

Another, more lasting, benefit was the establishment of the gloving industry in the town. 

Local knowledge of leather treatments made the town ideal for the mass gloving industry, and in 1810, the first gloving factory was set up in Milborne Port.  Later in 1810, Edward Ensor, who was to become the first large-scale glover in the town, rented Cross House from the Marquess of Anglesey, at a reduced rate because he paid to erect the factory himself.  He lived on the premises with his younger brother Thomas, who became his partner in the business eight years later.  By 1831 the gloving industry was attracting people into the town.  In thirty years the population of Milborne Port more than doubled, to 2072, and in 1834, 25,000 dozen pairs of gloves were being produced in the town. 

Silas Dyke was another major success as a glove manufacturer in Milborne Port.  He had been one of Ensor’s first apprentices, and when Edward Ensor left in 1837, Silas Dyke decided to start his own firm.  In 1858 he bought land in Kingsbury where he started his own tannery, and by 1871 he had moved the glove factory to North Street, where he employed 98 men and boys and 1,100 women.  Most of the women worked at home, and would seldom list an occupation in the census, but even so the 1841 census listed 91 women as glove makers, and twenty years later there were 295 listed.  Working life started early; the youngest listed is Sarah Thorne, aged seven. 

Gloving supported other businesses in the town, such as glove box making, and leather tanning.  In the 1841 census the town had forty-one shopkeepers of various kinds.  Although gloving was now the major industry, Milborne Port still had forty-three businesses still involved in cloth production, and another thirty-one involved in the clothing trade.  There were twenty-five shoemakers or leather workers, and forty-five men in various building trades. 

The nineteenth century was a boom time for the manufacturers, but less pleasant for the workers.  Milborne Port was lucky in its employers as most were Christian men who did what they considered right for their workers, but housing was poor and wages fluctuated with the seasons as men were laid off as soon as work thinned out.  The social upheavals of the early 20th century were felt here, with meetings in support of unions and suffragettes being among the many reported.  Housing was improved as the Commonalty built sturdy houses for workers to rent like those on South Street. 

By the end of the 19th century, elected Parish, Rural and Urban district councils were set up.  Milborne Port ceased to be a town and was now considered a village, with its elected Parish Council, but part of Wincanton RDC.  The wealthy men who had run the town until now still had influence, but this was now diluted by those with more socialist leanings, and even by women, who could be elected to these posts.  The First World War took its toll.   By the end of the war out of 758 men in the parish 290 men from Milborne Port had enlisted, 250 of whom had served abroad.  Of these 23 had been killed in action, 14 had been discharged owing to ill-health or wounds, and two were reported missing.  The economic downturn that followed the war did not have a massive effect here, but the advent of the Second World War saw many changes.  Evacuees were the most obvious, with about 100 child evacuees from London arriving early in September 1939.  Many more children followed, many from Southampton following the bombing there.  The British military had soldiers billeted throughout the village and the Americans had camps at Limerick Field and Crendle Court, but by far the largest concentration was the American military hospital built at Haydon in 1943.

Following the end of the war Milborne Port’s gloving industry struggled.  Gloves were now worn for warmth, not fashion.  Cheap imports also undercut the prices and the glove factories closed.  The smaller ones went first, but on 20 November 1965, the Ensor Company ceased trading.  Dyke’s gloving business, now run by his eldest son Henry, had the distinction of being the oldest glove firm in the country still owned by the original family, until 1976 when it was sold to the Glove Corporation.  From then on the factory in North Street concentrated on sporting gloves, but production was scaled back until it finally closed in 1984.

Like other places throughout England, housing development has massively increased the numbers living here, while the numbers of cars has decimated local shops.  In spite of this the village retains a thriving centre, with a friendly population and numerous clubs.

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