National Gazetteer (1868) - Devizes

"DEVIZES, (or The Vies), comprises the parishes of St. John the Baptist, St. Mary the Virgin and part of the parish of Rowde, being a market town, municipal and parliamentary borough, having separate jurisdiction, but locally situated in the hundred of Potterne and Cannings, in the county of Wilts, 23 miles N.W. of Salisbury, 20 E. by S. of Bath, and 88 W. of London by road, or 111 by the Wilts, Somerset, and Weymouth railway, which joins the Great Western line at Chippenham. Two branch lines connect Devizes with Bath and Reading. The town, which is situated on the Downs, near the Kennet and Avon canal, is supposed to be of great antiquity. It first rose into importance in the reign of Henry I., when Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, built the spacious and strong castle described by ancient writers as unequalled in Europe for magnificence, extent, and strength.

In the succeeding reign this warlike prelate, with his two nephews, Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and Nigel, Bishop of Ely, were suspected of conspiring against Stephen, and were ordered to be arrested. Before the sentence could be executed, Nigel threw himself into the castle with his retainers, which was besieged by William D'Ypres, the king's minister, but without success, until Stephen ordered a gallows to be erected before the castle gates, on which to hang the son of Bishop Roger, if Nigel should persist in his rebellion, and ordered Roger and his nephew Alexander to be kept without food. This had the desired effect, and after three days the fortress, together with the bishop's treasures, amounting to the value of 40,000 marks, were surrendered to the king. About three years after this event, in 1141, it was seized by Robert Fitz-Hubert, on pretence of holding it for the Empress Matilda, and in the latter part of the reign of Edward III. it was dismantled.

In the reign of Henry VIII. the town had a large clothing trade, and is mentioned by Leland under the appellation, "The Vies", by which it is still known to the Wiltshire peasantry. A battle was fought here, in 1648, between Sir William Waller and the royalist forces under Prince Maurice. The woollen manufacture, which in the 16th and 17th centuries was carried to great perfection, has ceased entirely. The malting and corn trades are extensively carried on, and there are large ale breweries, and a snuff mill.

The town itself is situated nearly in the centre of the county, on a table-land, 500 feet above the level of the sea. The streets, which are well paved and lighted with gas, are irregularly built; many of the houses are spacious buildings, chiefly of red brick. The market place is of triangular form, near the centre of the town, most of the streets diverging from it, including the main street, which forms the continuation of the Bath road. The market cross, designed by Benjamin Wyatt, is of Bath stone, and was presented to the borough, in 1814, by Viscount Sidmouth, who held the office of Recorder for 30 years, and represented the borough in six successive parliaments, previous to his elevation to the peerage.

The townhall is a handsome modern edifice, having a semicircular front, with four Ionic columns resting on a rustic basement. The new prison, erected in 1810, stands on the Bath road, at a short distance to the N.W. of the town. It is constructed on the radiating principle, with the governor's house in the centre. In the market place there is a large and convenient market house, which was rebuilt and enlarged in 1839. It is now used for poultry, butter, cheese, and vegetables, there being a separate market for corn and cattle. The new corn exchange was erected in 1857 by means of a rate; it is 142 feet long by 46 broad; part of the roof is of glass. The front consists of a handsome cornice supported by four Corinthian columns, and surmounted by a statue of Ceres, with agricultural emblems. The savings-bank is a building of stone erected in 1848, near the townhall. There are also three private banks, a dispensary, and a literary and scientific institution, the latter established in 1833.

Within one mile of the townhall is the Wilts County Asylum, in a sheltered spot overlooking the valley of the Avon. It is built of Bath stone in the Italian style of architecture, from the designs of Thomas Wyatt, Esq., and was opened on 19th September, 1851. The gas-works are the property of the Commissioners for paving, draining, and lighting, appointed under the Local Act of Parliament obtained in June, 1825.The corporation, previous to the passing of the Municipal Reform Act, was governed by a mayor, recorder, and 36 capital burgesses, forming a common council under the charters of James I. and Charles I. The government is now vested in a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 town councillors, with the style of the "mayor and burgesses of the borough of Devizes".

The borough is divided into two wards, and has a revenue of £1,502. The municipal and parliamentary boundaries are coextensive, comprising an area of 883 acres, with a population, according to the census of 1861, of 6,639, inhabiting 1,389 houses, against 6,554 in 1851, thus showing an increase in the decennial period of only 85. The borough returned members to all the parliaments of Edward I.; to those of the 1st, 8th, and 19th of Edward II.; and to the 4th of Edward III., since which time it has regularly returned two members to parliament. The right of election was formerly vested in the corporation, including a few honorary members, but by the Act 2 William IV., cap. 45, non-resident electors have been disfranchised, and the privilege extended to the £10 householders of an enlarged district, now incorporated within the borough. Devises is also a polling-place, and the principal place of election for the northern division of the county of Wilts. Meetings for the nomination of coroners for the county are held in the town, which is a royal manor.

The Epiphany sessions, and the Summer assizes for the county, recently transferred from Salisbury, are held in the new county assize court, erected in 1835 at a cost of £7,000. Here also are held the quarter sessions for the borough, and petty sessions for the Devizes division of the hundred of Potterne and Cannings. Devizes is the head of a Poor-law Union, embracing 28 parishes, and of County Court and Superintendent Registration districts of nearly the same extent. By the Reform Act the new borough comprises, besides the old parishes of St. John the Baptist and St. Mary the Virgin (which are distinct for parochial purposes, though ecclesiastically united), part of the chapelry of St. James, and part of the parish of Rowde.

The living of St. John is a rectory* in the diocese of Salisbury, value with the curacy of St. Mary annexed, £510, in the patronage of the lord chancellor. The church of St. John is a noble structure in the form of a Latin cross, partly in the Norman and partly in the later English styles, with a square embattled tower, 73 feet high, rising from the intersection. It contains several marble monuments to the families of Heathcote and Sutton, and in the tower is a peal of eight bells. St. Mary's church, which stands in the north-eastern part of the town, has a tower crowned with pinnacles, 91 feet high. This portion of the edifice was rebuilt in 1436 by William Smyth, but the chancel is believed to be older, being in the early Norman style. At the eastern extremity of the town is the church of St. James, which stands within the borough, on the Green. Both these churches have been recently restored. The living is a perpetual curacy in the diocese of Salisbury, value £150, in the gift of the Incumbent of Bishop's Cannings, of which parish it was a chapel-of-ease.

The Independents and Wesleyans have each a chapel, and the Baptists two. There are two (National) town schools for boys and girls, one British school for both sexes, and two infant schools, besides denominational schools, and various charitable foundations for education. The charities are very considerable, being estimated at about £800 per annum, of which the church lands produce £300. The town supports three newspapers-the Devizes and Wilts Gazette, the Wiltshire Independent, and the Devizes Advertiser. Roman coins, &c., have been found in digging foundations. The site of the ancient castle, of which there are no vestiges, has been converted into pleasure-grounds.

Richard of Devizes, a Benedictine monk, who wrote a chronicle of English History in the 12th century, was a native; also Joseph Allein, the Nonconformist divine, Sir Thomas Laurence, President of the Royal Society, and Stephens, the physician. Thursday is market day, when business is transacted in corn and cattle. Fairs are held on the 14th February, 20th and 21st April, and 20th and 21st October, for cattle, toys, and pedlery."

"NEW-PARK, a seat in the hundred of Potterne, county Wilts, at Roundaway Hill, near Devizes. It was built by Wyatt, for the Suttons, and contains a valuable collection of pictures, by Gainsborough, and other ancient masters."

[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868) - Transcribed by Colin Hinson 2003]