By Andrew Plaster
Published in B&AFHS Journal 141 September 2010
Bathampton is a parish in the hundred of Bath Forum in North-East Somerset, and lies two miles east of the city of Bath. The parish consists of the main village and a mixed area of heathland, scrub and woodland in Bathampton Down to the south and is bounded by the river Avon on the north and east with parishes of Walcot, Batheaston and Bathford on the south by Claverton, and the west by Bathwick. The river flood plain gave rise to the once famous fertile meadows. The Great Western Railway, the Kennet and Avon Canal, and the Warminster turnpike road (A36) pass through the parish.
Bathampton is known variously as Hamtun (956 AD); Hanton (1086); Bathentuna (1292); Hampton (1327) and Bath Hampton (1794), the prefix Bath being added to distinguish the place from many others of the name. The earliest evidence of man in the parish is 'Caer Badon' an earthwork in Bathampton Down comprising of a mound and ditch dating to the Iron Age but as yet no evidence has been found to prove occupation, it is generally thought to have been used as a stock enclosure. The northern boundary of this earthwork is believed to have been utilised by the Romano-British as part of their 'Wansdyke'. Extensive Celtic field systems are much in evidence throughout the hilltop and surrounding slopes. There is also evidence that the Romans quarried Bathampton Down for building stone (Carboniferous Limestone- 'Bath Stone'), as did future generations during the 18th and 19th centuries. The stone here, however, was of poor quality and such enterprises were short lived. Bathampton Down is one of the sites which are considered as possible locations for the Battle of Mons Badonicus, King Arthur's decisive victory over the Saxons. Recent excavations in the meadows (to the north of the parish) revealed occupation from the Iron Age through to the Roman and Mediaeval periods.
Prior to the Reformation, the lands and church belonged to the Prior and Convent of St Peter in Bath and a vicarage was ordained c.1317. Evidence of these early 'monastic' days can be seen in the fishponds that still exist. In the 13th century John STAFFORD, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the vicar of Bathampton.
Bathampton Manor belonged variously to the families of HUNGERFORD, POPHAM, BASSETT and HOLDER. In 1731, the manor was acquired by Ralph ALLEN through marriage. He is famous for developing national postal services and the promotion of Bath Stone, leading to the creation of the famous Georgian buildings in the city of Bath and elsewhere. Although it is highly probable that he never lived here, preferring his town house. He placed his brother as Lord of the Manor and it stayed in the possession of descendants of the ALLEN family until 1921 when the estate was sold.
The parish church dedicated to St Nicholas, whilst reported to have Norman foundations, is much rebuilt and altered. There are signs of Norman work in the chancel and the tower is in part prior to the seventeenth century. The Trefoil Cross, on the east end of the chancel roof, is from the original monastic Tithe Barn. The present fabric began in the eighteenth century with the arrival of Ralph ALLEN, who largely rebuilt the church in about 1750. The building was further restored and the north aisle built in 1858 by Henry GOODRIDGE and the chancel was restored in 1882 by C.E. DAVIS. The south aisle contains memorials to the ALLEN family and to Admiral Arthur PHILLIP, the first Governor of New South Wales. The Australia Chapel was constructed here in 1974 with donations from the Federal and State Governments of Australia, organisations and individuals. The floor is of Australian Wombeyan Marble and the memorial screen made of Australian Blackbean wood. The windows of the sanctuary carry the coat of arms of the Federal Government and the six Australian States. The kneelers were given by Tasmania. In recent years, the High Commissioner for Australia performs an annual wreath laying ceremony on or about 11th October, the date of Arthur PHILLIP’s birth. Extensions of the church, including the Miller Room were made in 1993.
The parish register dating from 1754 for marriages and 1765 for baptisms and burials (though the Bishop’s Transcripts commence in 1599) and other records are kept at Somerset Record Office.
There are many famous names associated with the parish including Rear Admiral Arthur PHILLIP, Viscount DU BARRY, William HARBUTT, Kenneth MURCHISON (the father of Sir Roderick MURCHISON) and Walter SICKERT to name but a few. They all are buried at the church:
o Captain Arthur PHILLIP landed in Australia in January 1788 at a site he named as Sydney in honour of Lord Sydney and he was officially appointed Governor-in-Chief of New South Wales on 7th February 1788. When he retired he lived in Bath and Bathampton where he died in 1814. It was not until the year 1897 that any real interest in his achievement started, and the discovery of his grave led to a more worthy memorial.
o Adolphe, Vicomte DU BARRY, the French aristocrat was killed on Bathampton Down in 1778 in the last legal duel in Britain, with an Irish adventurer, Colonel RICE of Claverton Down. His grave is just north of the west door.
o William HARBUTT, the art teacher formulated Plasticine in 1897. He wanted a non-drying clay for early advertisment use by his sculpture students. Although the exact composition is a secret, Plasticine is composed of calcium salts, petroleum jelly, and long-chain aliphatic acids. It is non-toxic, sterile, soft, malleable, and does not dry on exposure to air. It cannot be hardened by firing; it melits when exposed to heat, and is flammable at much higher temperatures. A patent was awarded in 1899, and in 1900 commercial production began in an old steam flour mill by the canal in Bathampton. The original Plasticine was grey, but the product initially sold to the public came in four colours. It was soon available in a wide variety of bright colours. Plasticine was popular with children, widely used in schools for teaching art and found a wide variety of other uses (moulding for plaster casts for example). The HARBUTT company promoted Plasticine as a children's toy by producing modelling kits in association with companies responsible for popular children's characters such as Noddy, the Mr. Men and Paddington Bear. The original Plasticine factory was destroyed by fire in 1963 and replaced by a modern building. The HARBUTT Company continued to produce Plasticine in Bathampton until 1983. Its site is commemorated by a plaque set in the wall round a most attractive modern housing development.
o Kenneth MURCHISON was the general of the East India Company, and was the father of Sir Roderick MURCHISON, the famous geologist of the 19th century who surveyed the Russian Empire and predicted the discovery of gold in Australia.
o Walter SICKERT, 1860-1942, an apprentice of Whistler and a friend of Degas and President of the Royal Academy is buried with his wife, Therese Lessore. He lived his last years in St Georges Hill House.
In 1791 the parish is recorded as having 28 houses. The Kennet and Avon Canal was first projected in 1796 and was built around the edge of the village by John RENNIE in 1810. Brunel’s Great Western Railway with its station (closed in 1966) was built alongside the canal in 1839-40. The 1871 census shows 71 houses and a population of 387 and that of 1891 shows 87 houses and a population of 402. The main development, as we see it today, was brought about by the final dispersal of the manorial estate in 1921. By 1971 the population had grown to 1,615 and at the beginning of this century totalled around 1,800. Sadly today's farming activities are much reduced. There were five working farms within the 932 acres but any farming activity is now carried out by absentee landlords.
Above the village is a steep slope, heavily quarried for Bath stone, near the top in the area now called Bathampton Rocks, leading to Bathampton Down. Until the late 1950s the tramway used for bringing stone down to the canal near Holcombe Farm could be seen. It crossed the main A36 road over a short rock bridge known as the Dry Arch. This was demolished in 1958 as it was too low for double-decker buses and other traffic. Bathampton Rocks was the site of the Bathampton Patrol (Auxiliary Units) Operational Base during the Second World War. The Down once provided excellent sheep feed, and part of it is now covered by a golf course. On the west of the Down is Sham Castle, a folly built in 1762 by Richard JAMES, master mason for Ralph ALLEN, "to improve the prospect" from ALLEN's town house in Bath. It is a screen wall with a central pointed arch flanked by two 3-storey circular turrets, which extend sideways to a 2-storey square tower at each end of the wall. It is illuminated at night.
Behind the canal, from the village, are the church, a school and a public house called “The George”,
which is a 12th Century building originally a monastery, established by the Prior of Bath and has the traditional priest hole running across to the church. Further up towards the river after the railway line and the new A4 road (Batheaston by pass), are Bathampton Manor (now converted for use as a Residential Home) and an old 17th century watermill (now converted to a pub and restaurant called ‘The Bathampton Mill’. There was a rope/chain ferry operated until the completion of a toll bridge built in Gothic style in the late 19th century. This bridge is one of the few still privately owned, and leads to neighbouring Batheaston.
Today Bathampton is a picturesque village. Visitors from across the centuries have all left their mark. The scenic canal meanders through the parish offering pleasing walks along the towpath and out into the surrounding countryside and Bathampton Down.
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