Keen to understand the obvious physical remains they saw all around them, the residents of the three historic western hamlets of Shepton Mallet, Darshill, Ham and Bowlish, resolved to find out more and so, the Darshill & Bowlish Conservation Society Heritage Project (HP for short) was born.
Commencing in September 2018 and concluding three years later, the HP aimed to understand the heritage of the hamlets and make what they found publicly accessible. There were four areas of study: architectural, archaeological, environmental and documentary and the results of each are reproduced here. Highlights include the discovery of the remains of a 13th-century mill; finding several species of flora and fauna previously unknown in this part of Somerset; a greater understanding of the impact of cloth-making on the locality, the town and on this part of western England; the historic importance of family dynasties; and the progress of gentrification in these hitherto industrial suburbs of this historic town. The full narrative of the HP can be found on these pages.
From the town of Shepton Mallet for over a mile the River Sheppey winds through the historic hamlets of Darshill, Ham and Bowlish which lie astride the valley bottom. Flowing through an open valley at Bowlish and between steep-sided cliffs and hillside at Darshill, this fast-flowing river was at the centre of the hamlets’ settlement and development and is key to understanding their story.
Like much of medieval England, Somerset made woollen cloth and contributed to an economy so dependent on its trade, that even today the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords (until 2006, the Lord Chancellor) still sits on the Woolsack in recognition. Shepton Mallet made a significant contribution by not only producing woollen cloth but also by innovating a new form of cloth, the renowned Shepton Cloth or Spanish Medley – ‘the greatest of all drapperyes’ – of the late 16th/early 17th century, which was sold into the royal courts of England and Spain and shipped as far afield as India and Persia.
The HP shows that parts of Darshill, Ham and Bowlish have been occupied since the mid-13th century at the latest, and may well have had the two working mills listed for Pilton parish in the 11th century Domesday Book. At that time, Pilton parish included Shepton. From those times until relatively recently, farming and farming-related occupations dominated local employment and the local economy, with the principal activity at Darshill and Bowlish being the making of cloth: firstly woollen until c.1800/1850, and then silk between c.1812 to the early years of the 20th century. Much of the wool for the former was reared in England, supplemented by finer wool from Spain and, later, from the Isle of Wight. The raw silk was imported from Italy and China. The intermediate hamlet of Ham largely comprised farms, but with the significant addition of a mill from the late 18th century at the latest, and a high-status house, perhaps associated with the Darshill mills.
The HP found that many of the buildings and ruins visible today were directly associated with woollen cloth making, albeit that some had been repurposed as dwellings. Of the fine houses remaining today at Bowlish and Ham, some are associated with the making of woollen cloth and some were built as gentry homes. The early 18th-century date of two of them marks the beginning of the gentrification process of the hamlets.
Darshill is different as all of the previous (2 or 3) clothier mansions have been demolished, and they may well have been the earliest built. The hamlet is well-provided with springs that were used in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries to provide water to local brewing and fruit juice-making industries. Together with diversification into local quarrying, this provided some much-needed employment to alleviate the destitution which followed the decline of the cloth-making industry.
DBCS owns an ex-mill pond at Darshill and that area formed the centre point of our biodiversity work. With a spring water stream and the River Sheppey running through it, this is a dynamic habitat of trees, shrubs and watercourses which the Society manages. Together with the studies carried out in locality gardens, we now have the evidential basis for building a future Environmental Management Plan.
One family dominates the history of the hamlets, and that is the Strodes and their relatives and successors the Brownes and Baileys. Theirs is a line which can be traced here from the beginning of the 15th century until the end of the 19th; a span approaching 500 years. However, their male line here ended around 1700, although other Strode male lines continued elsewhere in England.
The late 19th century and much of the 20th were times of decay, demolition and renewal, with many disused industrial buildings and dwellings having fallen into decay and ruin. From around the time of WW1, the piecemeal replacement of small cottages with larger, more modern, properties began and, later on, the larger mill and workshop buildings were either converted into flats or demolished to make way for modern housing.
Today, the fabric and ambience of the three communities overall have benefitted from the sustained dedication and commitment of local residents over several decades to preserve both the key historic buildings and the vernacular dwellings which surround them. Together with substantial financial contributions from a number of public and private donors, this palpable pride in the locality made the HP possible.
Our project not only sought to uncover the heritage of the area in which we live but also to pass that information on to others in the town and its surrounding communities as a legacy and there is a dedicated section for schools in particular elsewhere on this website.
Overall, the impact of the western suburbs upon the town of Shepton Mallet has been profound. Not only did they provide employment, innovation and international connections and trade, but also the wealth they generated funded or part-funded some superb monuments in the town centre which still exist today, including at the parish church of St Peter & St Paul, two sets of Alms Houses, the former Grammar School and the nearby Merchant’s House.
There are still mysteries to be solved and different interpretations to be made, for which we hope our work will provide both a solid foundation and an example of just what a committed local community can do.
Hopefully, our commitment will become your inspiration!
Old Bowlish House