History of South Marston

Since the mid -1980s, South Marston has attracted housing development, and the population now includes industrial workers and commuting professionals. These days, farming is mostly turf and solar power, both satisfying very different needs in this modern world. Swindon itself has been undergoing substantial growth in the last 4 decades, driven by its strong transport links in the M4, A419 and the railway. South Marston’s proximity to Swindon has resulted in new cul de sac developments at Manor Park, Rawlings Close, Yew Tree Gardens and Bell Gardens. Employment opportunities grew with the Honda UK car factory, warehousing and retail parks that form the west and northern edges of the parish.

Despite this, South Marston has largely retained its rural aspect, and development has benefited from significant dedication of landscaping and planting. Church Farm Lane in the 1980s gave the Village Garden to the parish, and the war memorial was relocated at its centre.
A government initiative to create 14 Community Forests around the country resulted in South Marston acquiring Nightingale Wood and Oxleaze Wood as part of its hinterland. Further housing development in the early years of this century delivered St Julian’s Wood and Orchard Meadow.

Housing has already spread out west, north and south of the town, and now, finally, the New Eastern Villages are forming the next stage of Swindon’s expansion.

To continue the approach of ‘greening the village’, a Neighbourhood Plan was developed and approved by referendum in 2017. One of its primary aims was that, when the village expanded, it would include significant areas of publicly accessible green space and landscaping to reflect our rural heritage.

Safeguarding the built heritage is also important and the listed buildings in or close to the village include Nightingale Farm, Longleaze Farm, Manor Farmhouse, Red House, Church Farmhouse, Gordon Cottage and, of course, the oldest building in South Marston – the church of St Mary Magdelene.

South Marston has a rich history that includes Saxons, Romans, medieval farming, a Manor House, cheese, Spitfires, and the author Alfred Williams.

Village land was originally marsh, hence ‘Marston’, old English for ‘marsh farm’. As the marshes receded, people moved in to farm the fertile land. The remains of a medieval village can still be seen today, and evidence of iron age and roman remains are regularly found in the surrounding fields.

South Marston is not mentioned in the Domesday Book but has Saxon origins, mentioned as Merston in 1204. The settlement developed around the 11th century church of St Mary Magdalene, which still has the original walls of the nave, the north and south doorways and the font. The chancel is from the 13th century and the tower and west door were added in about 1615.

The open expanses of arable fields, marsh and meadow supported medieval villagers up to the 15th century. But these were then gradually enclosed to contain livestock, forming the field pattern which we see today. As demand for cheese and butter rose, dairy farming became more intensive and new farmsteads formed.

Throughout the 1600s, most of the village was part of ‘estates’ owned by landowners from outside the village, such as the Hippersleys, Hungerford and Freke families who had similar land throughout the county and beyond. Land was rented to local farmers, and the same names reoccur on historical records relating to the rent or improvement of land – the Burges, Bennet, Brynde, Cusse, Diper, Lewis, Munday, Stevens and Tuckey families each had several generations involved in farming village land. The most prominent family living in the village in the late 1600s and 1700s was the Southby family, which owned what is now Manor Farmhouse. There is a memorial plaque in St Mary Magdelene Church to Anthony Southby and several generations of Southby children were baptised in the church.

The economy and population of Swindon expanded rapidly through the latter half of the 19th century largely due to its potential as a transport hub. First came the Wilts & Berks canal from Abingdon-on-Thames to reach the Kennet and Avon canal in mid-Wiltshire. This (shown in blue on the map) passes south of the village and originally ran through into Swindon town centre. It took 15 years to complete with the official Opening Ceremony being conducted on 14th September 1810. The canal was abandoned in 1914 but the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust is gradually restoring parts of it.

The railway route (black line on map) opened in 1841. It runs close to the A420 at South Marston and travels east to west carrying goods and people between London, Wales and the southwest. The most significant event for Swindon in the 19th century was in 1843 when Swindon railway works (built by the Great Western Railway Company) became operational. A ‘new’ Swindon was born, north of the original hilltop settlement of ‘Swinedon’ which today is known as ‘Old Town’.

The 17th century farms were now concentrating on cows and cheese (not milk, which could not be kept), and many of the farms had a purpose built “cheese room”. A ‘halt’ station was constructed at South Marston, carrying perishable goods to market by rail. In fact, the railway heralded a golden age for the cheesemakers of South Marston. By the 19th century, Wiltshire cheese had attained some renown, becoming as famous as Cheddar. However, by the early 20th century, the population of the village reduced as farming declined and the agricultural community dwindled as employment opportunities grew in the Great Western Rail Works in Swindon.

In the mid-1800s, Alfred Bell moved into the village and became ‘Lord of the Manor’ and built a victorian gothic- style Manor House. This was demolished in the 1970s when Manor Park was developed. He paid for a substantial renovation of the Church, commemorated on a brass plaque in the Church – this explains the date of 1885 on the church clock. He built the Old Vicarage, which gave its name to the village road down to the A420, but this is also now demolished.

The Bell family also paid for the building of the schoolhouse, completed in 1873 with a bell tower, and the ‘Reading Room, which eventually became the Village Hall. Several houses around Pound Corner, including Cambria Cottage and Dryden House, bear Alfred’s initials. Alfred’s daughters sponsored the stained glass windows in the Church.

The Bell Estate, which included land in most areas of the village, was auctioned in 1918. The Auction Catalogue & Map lists numerous village farms and fields, “old fashioned” cottages, including Manor Cottages on Old Vicarage Lane and “modern” Victorian villas.

One of the most famous ‘sons of South Marston’ made his name as a result of being one of those railway workers at the GWR works in Swindon. Alfred Owen Williams (1877 – 1930) was a poet, author and a collector of folk song lyrics, who was born and lived most of his life in South Marston. He was almost entirely self-taught, producing his most famous work, Life in a Railway Factory (1915), in his spare time after completing a gruelling day’s work in Swindon. He was nicknamed ‘The Hammerman Poet’ reflecting the two sides of his life.

Alfred was born in Cambria Cottage, the son of a carpenter, and grew up in poverty after his father abandoned his wife and eight children. In 1881 the family moved to Rose Cottage, and at the age of eleven he left school to become a farm labourer. Aged fourteen he entered Swindon Railway Works, where he worked as a steam-hammer operator for the next twenty-three years.

He moved into Dryden Cottage when he married in 1903 and moved again in 1921 when the house was sold as part of the Bell Estate. He and his wife then built and lived in Ranikhet, at the junction of Chapel Lane, very close to Rose Cottage where he had lived as a youth. The map supplied in the Welcome Pack shows Pound Corner (look for the blue ‘C’), where the homes related to Alfred Williams can be found.

Alfred Williams’ first of book of poems, Songs in Wiltshire, was published in 1909. He eventually published six volumes of poetry and a series of prose books about his home villages and others nearby but died in poverty in 1930 in South Marston. ‘Life in a Railway Factory has been described as “undisputed as the most important literary work ever produced in Swindon, about Swindon.” There is an Alfred Williams Society in Swindon, and a website devoted to his life and works www.alfredwilliams.org.uk.

South Marston took on a very different role during the second world war. Vickers-Armstrong created a massive aeroplane manufacturing plant to the north west of the village, covering what is now Thornhill Industrial Estate and north of the village on land that eventually became the Honda UK manufacturing plant and South Marston Park industrial estate.

Spitfire production was moved here from Southampton after bombing destroyed the main south coast facility in 1940. The planes were constructed and tested on the nearby runway (now the Honda test track) before being flown to bases in the UK and all over the world.

121 Spitfires were built at South Marston, with a further 50 modified Spitfires bound for naval action. Short Brothers Ltd used part of the airfield for final assembly and testing locally-built Stirling bombers. Production of later Spitfire versions continued after the war until 1949, but the plant was producing.

Back to top