South Stoke, a Somerset parish little more than a square mile in area, now lies within the county and district of Bath and North East Somerset. In 2008 it had a population of 408. The parish first entered the written record in 961 AD with the re-grant of a charter by King Edgar to the Church of Blessed Peter at Bath of five hides of land at Tottanstoc. This suggests that a Saxon noble called Totta held the tenancy of the ‘stoc’ or outlying dependency from Bath Priory. The land defined by King Edgar’s charter, entitled De Sudstoca, later became the manor and parish of South Stoke; the parish boundaries have changed little since that time. To the north South Stoke parish adjoins the southern boundary of the city of Bath and follows the line of the Saxon Wansdyke. Lyncombe, Monkton Combe, Hinton Charterhouse, Wellow and Combe Hay parishes also bound South Stoke. The parish has within it the village of South Stoke and much of the hamlet of Midford.
Being close to both the Fosse Way and the Roman rest and recreation centre of Aquae Sulis (Bath), the settlement of South Stoke would have been a desirable agricultural centre. Archaeological excavations in the grounds of Hodshill House and in the gardens of Southstoke House, together with artefacts found at the latter in the 1930s by then-owner Colonel Robert PITT, support that proposition.
Although it was held by the Benedictine Abbey of Bath, South Stoke does not appear in the Domesday Book. Perhaps that was because South Stoke and Monkton Combe were closely twinned, ie. Monkton Combe was a chapelry of South Stoke and together could have been considered a single estate under the entry Combe (Monkton Combe).
The church of St James the Great was built in about 1160, dated by the form of the fine Romanesque portal on the north side. The portal is all that remains visible of the original Norman stone structure that would have dominated the small wooden-built village that clustered around it. The first record we have of a vicar being appointed to the church was in 1210 when Robert, Prior of Bath Abbey, granted to John DE TUSSEBURI the chapels of Siccstoc and Cumba (Monkton Combe). After 300 years of constant use, for both ecclesiastical and secular purposes, by the beginning of the 16th century the church needed extensive rebuilding. To engage in such renovations the church would have needed a benefactor and it would appear that John CHAUNCELER (vicar 1501-1527) and his family, who were wealthy Bath weavers, took on that responsibility. Two hundred years later, the ‘Great Storm’ of the winter of 1703 severely affected the fabric of the Tudor church, with damage to the masonry of the tower and loss of the greater part of the roof. During the same storm the parish also seems to have lost its registers, which only start in 1704. The Reverend John Deere THOMAS had a gallery built in 1773 and also blocked the south door requiring the replacement of the Norman arch to the north but, the final major building works came during the incumbency of the Reverend HenryCALVERLEY (later BLAYDS) (1839- 1874). His first act was to erect a school, then in 1845 he added a south aisle, rebuilt the chancel and re-roofed the nave.
The medieval boundaries of the manor of South Stoke and the parish were the same. The earliest record of a grant of land in ‘Suthstok’ was to Robert BROUNYNG and his wife Joan in 1296. Thomas PRIOR, also made a lifetime grant of corn and the gift of a robe to tanner Thomas REYNALDING of Mere. Clearly he had provided some considerable service to the priory. The first recorded bailiff (1319) of the monastic manor of South Stoke was parish priest Henry DE FOXCOTE who was also given land in Southstoke and Mydford. In about 1326 he was granted a pension for his work as bailiff but retained his position of vicar until 1349. In that year it is probable that he, along with two successors, succumbed to the ‘black death’. The agricultural turmoil that followed the great plague has left a void in the history of the manor but by the 1480s a fine tithe barn had been built and the manor was thriving. However, at the same time, Prior John DUNSTER was not only accused by his successor, Prior CANTELOW, of mismanaging the manor but there were also undertones of corruption.
In 1537, shortly before the property of Bath Priory was subject to the excesses of Henry VIII’s reformation, Prior HOLLOWAY, perhaps in an attempt to conceal some of the lands, leased the Manor of South Stoke to Thomas SMYTH and his wife Jane of MIDFORD who kept the property until 1540 by which time the king had taken control. In the reign of Elizabeth I, the Crown lease of the manor was granted back to the Smyth family, to a Thomas Smyth, possibly the son of Jane and Thomas. The manor, which remained the property of the Crown, passed through many hands until it became part of the marriage jointure of Queen Anne. Charles II, on his restoration in 1660, gave the property to Montague, 1st Earl of Sandwich and until quite recently the Earl’s descendants collected the fee farm rent. The tenant of Manor Farm in 1662, Richard GAY, as quasi-Lord of the Manor, believed that he had the right to create a door (that still remains) through the southern stone wall of the churchyard as a private short cut to the church from the manor for him and his family. Vicar Francis MINN and churchwardens complained to the Bishop of Bath and Wells who fined Gay five shillings. Richard Gay’s will of 1671 is full of detail showing the trappings of modest wealth and the nature of his farming business. He was a dairy farmer and cheese-maker who also operated a small brewery. The modern era of the manor began in 1711 when the estate was purchased by two ‘stuff makers’ from Bristol, Augustine ROCK and John TEAGUE and their partner William John JONES of Dundry, later of South Stoke. Since 1936, Manor Farm has been owned by the HIGNETT family.
From medieval times until 1884, Southstoke Hall was the parish vicarage, although the first vicar- resident is not known. A terrier of 1606, when Vicar John HARRIS lived at the Hall, described the oldest part of the building. Over the centuries the Hall has been enlarged with the most extensive transformation, to a ‘Georgian’ dwelling, occurring during the incumbency of the Reverend Charles JOHNSON who also held in plurality the Rectories of Berrow and South Brent (now Brent Knoll) and for ten years from 1808 was also Chaplain to the Prince Regent. The last vicar to reside at the Hall was the Reverend William ACWORTH who retired in 1884. Two cottages known as ‘South Cottages’, possibly built by Richard Gay, were converted to a residence for Vicar William SAMLER and became known as ‘The Old Vicarage’. William Samler built a lecture hall for the parish in 1885 but in 1899, when the school built by Calverley was condemned, the Reverend Samler gave the new hall to the village of South Stoke as a school. The building is now the Village Hall.
There are several other properties of interest in the parish including Hodshill House that started life as a modest farm over 200 years ago but has been greatly extended being called ‘Lodge’ and ‘Hall’. During the Second World War, when the property was owned by Geoffrey Hignett, it was used as a hospital and convalescent home for servicemen. Southstoke House (formerly Villa), built in 1848 by William HILL, a canal engineer, was acquired later by the PITT family. During WWII and up to the 1960s the house functioned as a children’s orthopaedic nursing home.
Between 1770 and 1775 the Black Dog Turnpike Trust completed the Bath to Warminster turnpike road (B3110) from the Cross Keys Inn through Midford giving comparatively easy access to land upon which Henry Disney ROEBUCK built his splendid country house and pleasure gardens, Midford Castle. The ‘castle’ was based on a design by John CARTER published in the ‘Builder’s Magazine’ of 1774. Physician Dr Benjamin PUGH bought the castle in 1788 for his and his wife Ann’s retirement. Although little-known today, Pugh saved countless lives through his inventions of the curved obstetric forceps (1754) and respiratory bellows to inflate the lungs of babies. After Dr Pugh’s death and a long legal wrangle over his will, Midford Castle was sold in 1808 to Irish barrister and activist for Catholic emancipation, Charles CONOLLY who, followed by his son and grandson and families, occupied the house for most of the 19th century. After the death of the last Conolly owner of Midford Castle, by a will reversion, the castle and its estate and other lands passed to Monsignor Charles PARFITT (no relation!) the Conolly’s resident priest and then, to the Catholic church. Reflecting the external appearance of Midford Castle is ‘Kapunda’ on South Stoke Lane built in 1907 by antique dealer James OWEN. Following brief ownership by Reginald BISS and his family, in 1936 the property was bought by RAF pilot Edgar DAVIS and his wife Dorothy. Kapunda remains in the Davis family today.
The yeoman tenant farmers and small landowners of the 17th and 18th centuries – CHARMBURY, CLEMENT, MERCER, SMITH etc. – were the backbone of the parish holding the offices of churchwarden and overseer and employing farm labourers. Until well into the 19th century farming dominated the lives of parishioners. However, by the 1980s two long-established farms, Parsonage Farm owned by Cyril WILSON and his daughter Sylvia and Packhorse Farm, worked by the HEWLETT family for more 50 years, ceased to operate. From the 17th century, the latter’s farmhouse was also the original Packhorse Inn, notorious for being a centre of tea smuggling when owned by Ann GRACE in the 18th century. Both properties are now family homes. In the 20th century, Manor Farm and associated lands worked by the Hignett family was the largest farm in the parish. More recently, upper Midford Farm has been revived and developed from a cottage and earlier farm buildings that were tenanted formerly by Thomas WHITE. Since 1960 the farm has been expanded by the HONEY family who have installed a micro-brewery that makes fine cider.
At the age of 22 Thomas HUNT, carver and gilder, son of Thomas Hunt senior, a printer of Bath, married Ann LOVE, the 40-year-old widow of South Stoke land-tax collector Richard Love. The couple were to become the parish’s most important land developers of the 19th century. Ann’s life-interest in property bequeathed to her by her first husband gave them the opportunity to engage in several successful enterprises. In 1829/30, Thomas built five cottages in South Stoke village. Snowdrop Cottage and the four Rose Cottages. Then around 1830/5 he developed a brewery with a malt house and a residence on land owned by Ann. The Tithe apportionment of 1842 showed that Thomas had become a gentleman farmer owning Hodshill Farm and leasing Packhorse Farm and Inn. The beer-house business and name of ‘Packhorse Inn’ were relocated in about 1850 to the present building, now closed, on what is now Old School Hill. The house, owned by the Charmbury family in the early 18th century and formerly known as ‘The Breath’, was built in 1674 at the latest. The final development of Ann and Thomas was the building of ‘The Priory’ overlooking the Green as their own residence in 1850; they were at home in 1851 with servant Grace HILLMAN. Both Thomas and Ann died of natural causes within two days of each other in August 1853.
The Hope and Anchor on the B3110 is the only remaining public house in Midford. An inn has stood on the current site from at least the 17th century. Previously called the White Hart, its name was changed to the present boating eponym when the nearby Somerset Coal Canal was completed in 1801. In the mid-19th century, the hostelry was held by Job CHANCELLOR then by Elizabeth Chancellor. A short distance away, just past the turnpike gates on the turnpike road, William Chancellor ran The Fox public house, now a private residence.
During the last decade of the 18th Century William Smith, ‘the father of English geology’, lived at ‘Tucking Mill’ in Midford. Observations he made of rock formations while surveying and supervising the construction of the Somerset Coal Canal, led to his revolutionary proposal on the ‘order of strata’ that is now one of the basic tenets of modern geology.
Industry came to the parish in the 19th century; the Somerset Coal Canal was built following the southern boundary of the parish and passing through Midford. Between 1815 and 1840 the Canal Company became prosperous carrying 100,000 tons of coal a year at its peak. However, from 1863 the coming of the Great Western Railway and Somerset and Dorset Railway through Midford to connect at Bath with GWR’s Bristol to London line meant that the Canal Company lost much of its coal business from the Somerset mines to the speedier more economic railway. The Canal Company was wound up in 1893. At about the time of the demise of the local canals, the demand by other industries for high-quality fuller’s earth was increasing. South Stoke lies at the south end of the Cotswolds, part of the limestone ridge running from Dorset to Yorkshire that bears seams of fuller’s earth. Although from Roman times the ‘earth’ had been used to de-fat wool, by the late 19th century the demand burgeoned and several mines and associated refineries began to operate across the parish. To accommodate industrial growth, the parish population rose from 177 in 1801 to 410 in 1891.
Now the parish has returned to its green and pleasant past with only vestiges of the industrial flurry remaining. Architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner commented on South Stoke as “The happy sight of a village still entirely unsuburbanised, though only two miles from the main station of a city, but for how much longer?”
Holdings at the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton for the parish of South Stoke include the Parish Registers dating from 1704 (though the Bishop’s Transcripts commence in 1589) and Churchwardens’ Accounts and transcription (1662-1893). Bath Record Office has a transcription of all these records and monumental inscriptions and images and also holds six boxes of South Stoke archive.
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