For any reader that would like to construct a physical book of our activity, we have laid out the proposed structure and directions on where the content can be found throughout this website.
- Introduction (below)
- The Detailed Material chapter of the website
- What we knew before we started
- What we did and found
- Narratives by species
- Houses by name or number
- Public buildings
- Architectural reflections
- Abbreviations (for property document research)
- Resources and bibliography (for property document research)
- Our thanks (below)
This book is a compilation of the research outputs from the Darshill and Bowlish Conservation Society (DBCS) Heritage Project. The full story of the project together with much more material can be found on the Project’s website www.dbhp.org
Keen to understand the visible physical remains they could see 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.
Beginning in September 2018 and concluding three years later, the HP set out 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 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 the hitherto industrial suburbs of this historic town. The full narrative of the HP can be found on the website www.dbhp.org
For over a mile from the town of Shepton Mallet 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 not only by producing woollen cloth but also by innovating a new form of cloth, the reknowned Shepton Cloth or Spanish Medley – ‘the greatest of all drapperyes’ – of the late 16th/early 17th century. Such was the quality of this cloth that it was sold into the royal courts of England and Spain and shipped as far afield as India and Persia.
We now know that parts of Darshill, Ham and Bowlish were occupied as early as the mid-13th century if not before. It’s quite possible that the two working mills listed for Pilton parish in the 11th century Domesday Book were here; at that time Pilton parish included Shepton. From then until relatively recently, farming and farming-related occupations dominated local employment and the local economy. The principal activity at Darshill and Bowlish was cloth making: firstly woollen until c.1800/1850, and then silk between c.1812 to the early years of the 20th century. Much of the wool 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 was largely given over to farming, 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, although some had been repurposed as dwellings. Of the fine houses remaining today at Bowlish and Ham, some are associated with woollen cloth making and some were built as homes for the gentry. The early 18th century date of two of them marks the start of gentrification of the hamlets.
Darshill is different; all the two or three clothier mansions that once stood there have been demolished. They may well have been the earliest built. The hamlet is well-provided with springs which provided water in the second-half of the 19th and early 20th centuries for local brewing and fruit juice-making industries. These industries, together with diversification into local quarrying, provided much-needed employment to alleviate the destitution following the decline of the cloth-making industry.
DBCS owns an ex-mill pond at Darshill and that area formed the centrepoint 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 – the Strodes – dominates the history of the hamlets together with their relatives and successors, the Brownes and Baileys. Theirs is a line which can be traced here in this locality from the beginning of the 15th century until the end of the 19th, a span approaching 500 years. The male line ended here around 1700, although other Strode male lines continued elsewhere in England.
The late 19th, and much of the 20th, century were times of decay, demolition and renewal as many disused and neglected industrial buildings and dwellings were left to become ruins. From around the time of WW1, the piecemeal replacement of small cottages with larger, more modern, properties began. Later on, the larger mill and workshop buildings were either converted into flats or demolished to make way for new housing.
Today, the overall fabric and ambience of the three communities has 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 sought not only 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 on the website www.dbhp.org
Overall, the impact of the western suburbs on the town of Shepton Mallet has been profound. Not only did they provide employment, innovation and international connections and trade, but 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
This project would not have been possible without the active participation of the Darshill, Ham and Bowlish community. In particular, over thirty volunteers who gave their time and enthusiasm to the great range of tasks involved. Much fun was had alongside the hard work.
To our sponsors, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Medlock Family Trust, Wessex Watermark, the Mendip Hills Fund, Tesco Bags of Help and anonymous individuals, our sincere gratitude. Without you our scope would have been far narrower, our outreach curtailed and our legacy minimal.
Every project has its heroes and ours have been Sue Shaw, who researched without pause and critiqued without mercy; John Rickard and his team from the Somerset Vernacular Building Research Group; the team of highly-qualified biodiversity specialists too numerous to name assembled by Jane Williams; Sue Dickerson, Jane Nicklin and Amanda Hirst who together negotiated and organised our work in schools; our fundraiser, Brian Allen; and the members of the project management team G3 – Eddie Oram, Alan Marter and Ian Keys – who kept the show on the road.
The project has been a high watermark of our community and that is a matter for pride and celebration. We owe nothing less to the dozens of generations who lived, loved and worked here and made where we live what it is today. For that we are truly thankful.