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Devizes in 1837

DEVIZES, a borough and market town, having separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of Potterne and Cannings, in the county of Wiltshire ; 22 miles N.W. by N. from Salisbury, 19 E. by S. from Bath, and 89 W. by S. from London.

Before the Boundary Act, the borough of Devizes was considered to be coextensive with the parishes of St. John the Baptist and St. Mary the Virgin, including an old disparked park and the site of the ancient castle ; but since the passing of that act, for the purposes of parliamentary representation, the town extends into the chapelry of St. James and into the parish of St. Rowde, which adjoins that chapelry.

In ancient records this place is called Divisae, De Vies, Divisis, &c. The origin of the name seems to be a supposition that this place was divided by the king and the bishops of Salisbury.

In the reign of Henry I a spacious and strong fortress was erected here by Roger, the wealthy bishop of Salisbury, which his nephew Nigel, bishop of Ely, garrisoned with troops and prepared to defend until the expected arrival of the Empress Matilda ; but Stephen having besieged it, declared that in the event of its not surrendering, he would hang the son of Bishop Roger on a gallows which he had erected in front of the castle. On this being made known to Nigel, he surrendered the fortress, together with all the bishop’s treasures, amounting to the sum of 40,000 marks. This castle was afterwards seized by Robert Fitz-Herbert, on pretence of holding it for Matilda, but on her arrival he refused to deliver it up, and was subsequently hanged as a traitor to both parties. About the end of the reign of Edward III the castle was dismantled, and the site has lately been converted into pleasure-grounds.

It appears from Leland, who calls it ‘The Vies,’ that in the reign of Henry VIII Devizes was celebrated for its market. It was besieged by Sir William Waller in the parliamentary war, but just as the royalists were preparing to capitulate, Lord Wilmot, who had been dispatched by the king from Oxford, appeared on Roundaway Hill, with 1,500 horse and two pieces of artillery. Sir William withdrew his forces from the town, and immediately attacked Lord Wilmot, but was totally discomfited and obliged to fly to Bristol, having lost a considerable number of men, together with all his cannon, baggage, and ammunition.

The first charter of incorporation was by the Empress Matilda, granting to her burgesses ‘De Divisis’ freedom of toll throughout all England and the ports of the sea. This charter was successively confirmed by all the Henrys and the Edwards. The present governing charters were granted by James I and Charles I. The corporation have power to hold a Court of Record on Friday for debt or damage not exceeding £40. The quarter sessions of the county are held here in rotation with Salisbury, Warminster, and Marlborough. Petty sessions are held quarterly before the mayor, recorder, and justice, or any two of them. Devizes returned members to the parliaments of Edward I, to two of Edward II, and constantly since the 4th of Edward III. The revenue of the corporation is only £434 per annum.

This town is situated nearly in the centre of the county, on the Kennet canal : it consists of several streets, well paved and lighted with gas, and contains many good houses. There are no buildings of any consequence, except the town-hall and the churches. The former is a handsome modern building, in the basement of which a cheese-market is held.

The parishes of St. John and St. Mary the Virgin form a united rectory, in the archdeaconry and diocese of Salisbury ; the net revenue of which is £518 per annum. St. John’s church is built partly in the Norman style and partly in the later English style of architecture, with a square embattled tower, and consists of a nave, transept, chancel, and two chantry chapels. The chancel is very handsome, and the tower is supported by two circular and two pointed arches enriched with foliage and mouldings of different periods. St. Mary’s is situated in the north-eastern part of the town. The chancel is supposed to have been built soon after the Conquest, but nearly all the rest of the structure was rebuilt by William Smyth, who died in 1436. There are places of worship for the Society of Friends, Baptists, Independents, Presbyterians, and Wesleyan Methodists.

The woollen manufacture, once of considerable importance, is now extinct. There are at present three manufactories of silk, which afford employment to about 400 persons : the weaving of crape and sarsnet is on the increase. The malting business is carried on to some extent, and there is a large snuff manufactory. The market is on Thursday, and is the largest in the west of England for corn. A large cross, which is said to have cost nearly £2,000 was erected, in 1815, in the market-place by Lord Sidmouth, for many years member for and recorder of the borough. Fairs are held, on the 4th February for horses ; Holy Thursday and April 20th, for cattle ; and June 13th, July 5th, and October 2nd and 20th, for cattle, hops, cloth &c. Devizes contains 1,200 houses, and 6,367 inhabitants. At the first election after the passing of the Reform Act there were 277 registered voters.

A national school was erected at the expense of John Pearse, Esq. There is a charity school called the ‘Boar Club School,’ in which 40 boys are instructed and clothed for three years, and then apprenticed to various trades, &c. There are also schools on the Lancasterian system and infant schools.

Richard of Devizes, a Benedictine monk of the twelfth century, who wrote a chronicle of English history, was a native of this place.