By Andrew Plaister
Published in B&AFHS Journal 162 December 2015
The parish of Farmborough in north east Somerset is bounded by the parishes of Timsbury and High Littleton in the south, Clutton in the west, Chelwood in the north-west, Marksbury in the north, and Priston in the east. The main village of Farmborough is situated on the A39 road (former turnpike road established 1763) from Bath (8 miles distant) to Wells (11 miles distant), set in a vale, mainly pastureland fed by a small stream Conygre Brook that rises to the west from a spring on Barrow Hill and discharges into the River Avon near Twerton, and for the most part of it lies to the south of the road. In the west of the parish are two hamlets of Hobbs Wall and Clutton Hill.
The present day name for Farmborough is a complete disguise for its ancient name as the spelling has succumbed to many changes throughout its history. The first mention of the place and earliest spelling, "Fearenbergas", is found in an Anglo-Saxon Charter of 901 AD. In the Domesday Book of 1086, it appears as "Ferenberge", a name probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for a stronghold which is supported and suggests that the Barrow Hill area at the western extremity of the village was a main defence point. The manor in the time of the Domesday was held by the Bishop of Coutances.
In the reign of Henry II, in the year of 1154, the manor was held by a family who took their name from the place; for it is recorded in a land conveyance, William de Ferenberge who, under the guidance of the king, gave certain lands to the Abbey of Keynsham. By the late 14th century, the manor had passed to the Stafford family, who held it until 1470 when the then Sir Humphrey Stafford, formerly a favourite of the king having been made Lord Stafford of Southwick in 1467 and Earl of Devon shortly thereafter, was beheaded at Bridgwater for treason. After his death, the manor passed through marriage to the Willoughby family, but reverted to the Crown on the death of Sir Robert. The king granted the land to Sir Percival Thirlevalle and his heirs, the manor and church living passing thereafter to John Selwood, abbot of Glastonbury and ultimately, after the Dissolution to the St. Lo family. It was held by the Martyrs Memorial Trust which was more recently absorbed into the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS).
A second manor in Farmborough, anciently named Fryenborough Manor, focused on Barrow Hill Farm and the Hobbs Wall area to the west, belonged to St John's Hospital, which stood on the site of the Quakers' burial ground in Redcliffe, Bristol. After the Dissolution, in 1545, the manor was granted to King Henry VIII's physician George Owen, who then sold it in 1547 to John Bush of Wiltshire. In 1563, Bush's grandson sold the manor to Matthew Smyth of Long Ashton. A century later, his great grandson, Sir Hugh Smyth sold the manor to Alexander POPHAM, whose family retained extensive land holdings in Farmborough and the surrounding parishes for several centuries. The Popham family seat had been established in Hunstrete House in the neighbouring parish of Marksbury and the family retained great influence for several centuries; there was at least one Popham serving as Member of Parliament until 1790 without a break. Others fulfilled important civic roles, such as Sir John Popham, the Recorder of Bristol, said to be one of the greatest judges of his age, who presided over the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh and of Guy Fawkes and his conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot. It was Alexander Popham who built the current Manor House in Farmborough in 1667 and Manor Farmhouse also being a 17th century construct. In 1842 the family still owned nearly half of the total acreage of land in the parish until 1911, when much of the estate was sold. A second sale took place in 1917 and the remainder was disposed of in 1956.
The parish church, dedicated to All Saints, is on an elevated position in the village. It is believed that Augustinian monks from Keynsham built an earlier church on the site of the present church founded in the 14th century. It underwent various repairs and modifications through the centuries and an enlargement in 1869, when the north aisle and organ chamber were added and north porch in 1874. Part of the original 14th century fabric is preserved in the chancel walls. The 14th century octagonal font is unusual, possibly unique, because the top is made of plaster. The list of rectors begins on an unknown date with one W de Troubrugg; his successor W de Wyke being appointed in 1328. One notable rector was 13th century incumbent John Stafford (recorded in the church as "J. Staffad") who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury (1443-1452). A list of 'handsome tombs' in the churchyard given by Edmund Rack's Survey of Somerset (1781-87), lists many of the families of that period - BUSH, COX, John DOWLING of East Harptree, KELSON, MAGGS of Timsbury, READ of Barrow Hill and SALMON, but some of their tombstones might have been removed during the Victorian enlargement of the church. The oldest surviving memorial in the churchyard is on the south chancel wall - a white lias tablet in memory of Samuel SMART (d 1694) and his wife Judith (d 1676). The foot of the tablet is ornamented with a skull and crossbones together with a pick and shovel probably indicating he was a gravedigger. On the east side of the vestry is a low upright gravestone, erected in 1707, in memory of Elizabeth and Christian TIDCOMBE.
The value of the parish records dating from 1559 is immense and a great deal of information may be gleaned from them. Many events that happened in the church and the parish have been recorded in the early volumes. The name appearing most frequently in the 16th century are those of HAYWARD and COX, both of which have entirely disappeared from the parish, whilst the names of BRIDGES and PARFITT have been most common in recent years, and first appearing in the middle of the 18th century. Some fifty per cent of the baptisms of that latter time were of illegitimate children. An entry dated 1753 relates to:
"Joseph and Lazarus, sons illegitimate of Mary CHILTON baptized October 27. Twins".
Lazarus in 1811 at the age of 58 and for many years was a respected churchwarden. An interesting item in 1758 reads:
"Several felonies, petty larcenies etc. are committed in the Parish of Farmborow and we have reason to apprehend there will be more, we whose names are subscribed being desirous to put a stop to it if possible, do consent that whoever is caught thus offending against the law should be prosecuted at the Parish expenses and that the party prosecuting should be refunded his charges out of the poor stock and this is agreeable to a resolution made at the General Vestry at this Easter Monday. Given under our hands the 27th March 1758; (signed by) Alex PAGES (the Rector), John READ, John BUSH, John Cox, William Read, John KING".
A further item reads as follows:
"Requesting seats and sittings in Church underwritten to should be appropriated to various landowners: George Kelson, William Kelson, Richard HUTTON, Jeremiah EMERY, James BIGGS, William CURTICE, Lazuras Chilton, William Biggs".
In 1836 the administration of the Poor Law was transferred from the Vestry to the Unions, and in 1839 the Clutton Union Workhouse was completed, and the poor houses in Farmborough were sold to James CLEMENT who used them for stabling, storage and annexation to the Bell Inn, being the last coaching inn on the Bath and Wells road.
The main employment in the parish at this time was agriculture and mining, the latter exploiting the coal measures of the Somerset coal field. The parish would appear to have been reasonably affluent at this time, as the listed building record reveals a number of farmhouses and other buildings were erected or rebuilt in the village during the 18th century, including the adjacent Holly Farm and neighbouring Richmond House, as well as the larger Conygre House opposite, on Loves Lane. The first colliery to be opened in the parish, by John Bush in 1753, was sited in the west, near Heighgrove Farm. The hamlet of Hobbs Wall consisted almost entirely of miners' cottages housing the workforce for the colliery, which operated for almost forty years before the coal was exhausted resulting in its closure in 1791. A second colliery, Farmborough Coal Pit opened in 1840, was far less successful, closing after only seven years of largely fruitless excavations. Despite the failure of this mine, a significant number of Farmborough men continued to work as miners in collieries located to the south around High Littleton and Timsbury until the early 20th century when many moved to the (better paid) Welsh coalfields.
There are several burials in Farmborough churchyard in connection with mining accidents. In 1845 three men from the Hayeswood Colliery disaster were buried. On 29th October, Joseph GULLICK aged 32 was interred but it was later found that the body was not that of him. This mistake was discovered when his body was found. He was buried on 7th December. George LEWIS was also a victim of the same disaster. The Hayeswood Pit was never again re-opened and many bodies were not recovered from the mine. 1895 saw yet another local pit disaster, an explosion at the Timsbury Colliery when seven men lost their lives, one of whom John GAGE was from this parish. Another accident occurred in 1913 at Bromley Pit which resulted in three losing lives including John CRICK from this parish. They were drowned when the cage, in which they were going up to the surface, fell to the bottom of the shaft.
Farmborough Parochial School was opened in 1857 having cost some £960 to build and entirely paid for by public subscription. The school was not the first to be established in Farmborough, as the parish register which records the burial in 1795 of William TUDOR - schoolmaster of this parish 28 years, show that a school had been variously housed in other buildings in the village since the preceding century. It did, however, represent the first purpose-built school in the village. Building started on glebe land on the south side of The Street in 1854 using stone from the demolished buildings at the abandoned Farmborough Coal Pit. The school was subsequently enlarged in 1894 and again in 1931 when the playground was increased and offices added, with a further building. It originally accepted all children aged 3 to 14 years, until 1934 when Timsbury Secondary Modern School opened and Farmborough became a primary school thereafter accommodating children aged 5 to 11 years. Author Dick King-Smith once taught at the school. He is best known for the 1983 novel "The Sheep-Pig" which was adapted as the movie "Babe" in 1995.
The non-conformists had grown in number by the end of 19th century. One chapel for the "dissenters" was situated at Clutton Hill, and the Free Chapel at Hobbs Wall, both have long since closed and been demolished. The Wesleyan Chapel at the Green was founded in 1812 and the building was erected on land donated by the Kelson family, who farmed Green Farm. The Wesleyan Sect later amalgamated with the Methodists and through dwindling attendances, the chapel closed in 1965 and was later converted to a dwelling house. The other Methodist chapel erected in 1895 and now closed, replaced the "Primitive Methodist Chapel" which was built in 1866 and was later used as the local bakery.
Farmborough is no exception as far as relics from the past are concerned. The most interesting and exciting find of all was that of the "Farmborough Hoard", which was discovered in 1954 and consisted of some seven to eight hundred 16th and 17th century coins and more recently 61 gold Celtic coins of the 1st century. A number of stone coffins, thought to be of Roman origin, have been unearthed in the locality. It is well established that there was a Roman camp at Stanton Bury and that the southern approach road passed through the village of Farmborough.
At the turn of the 20th century, Farmborough was vastly different to the village we know today. The majority of the working men were employed at the local mines. In the lower village many of the men were colliery workers although a number were employed as labourers on local farms. There were also a considerable number of tradesmen (butchers, masons, bakers and clobbers) in residence. Hobbs Wall was a cluster of some fifty miners' cottages with its own shop and off-licence. A bevy of small cottages at Crossways (Royal Oak) added yet another extension to the village. Farmborough had an abundance of licensed houses with the Butchers Arms, New Inn, The Bell Inn, and the Royal Oak at Crossways, just the first two have survived. The sale of alcohol was also permitted by "outdoor licence" from the Waggon and Horses at Hobbs Wall and the shop situated at the bottom of the Batch in the village.
Despite the lack of significant growth in the parish until recently, indeed the population declined somewhat as the collieries closed and the miners moved elsewhere to work, Farmborough appears to have survived as a vibrant community supporting, three football teams, a cricket team, a village band and drama groups, most organised by the church and as many as four chapels at one time attended in the village. This strong community spirit was still in evidence in the 1960s when, after nearly 20 years of fundraising by various local groups and sporting organisations, including the Farmborough Carnival that ran for 18 of those years, a new village hall, the Memorial Hall proposed in 1946 and dedicated to fallen of both World Wars, was finally opened. The Recreation Ground followed in 1970 after a gift of land from the Coal Board; the pavilion was opened in 1976 providing shower and changing rooms as well as a youth club on the site. The village itself had also grown during this period with the redevelopment of the former miners' cottages at Hobbs Wall in 1967 and the introduction of council housing.
Farmborough, with its various thriving businesses, farms, shops and public houses was self-sufficient and an important part of the local economy. In past days the village was noted for making superior Cheddar cheese. But with most businesses relocated and the shops, all four chapels and three of five public houses having closed, it has become a commuter village for Bath and Bristol and a parish with few facilities.
Holdings at Somerset Heritage Centre at Norton Fitzwarren near Taunton for the parish of Farmborough include:
● Parish registers dating from 1559 but there is a gap in the Commonwealth period
● Apprenticeship Indentures (from 1831)
● Churchwardens' accounts (1750-1870)
● Highway Rate books (1752-1851)
● Overseers accounts books (1681-1894)
● Removal Orders (from 1833)
● Tithe apportionment with map (1842)
● Vestry Minute Books (1833-1869)
● The Popham family's manorial records.
Source and further reading:
Farmborough 901-1977, a Jubilee Record, by P. Bridges & G. Jones (1977)
My thanks go to Patrick Bridges for providing the pictures.