Daniel Defoe in Wiltshire

PUBLISHED: 15:33 31 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

The author of Robinson Crusoe travelled through Wiltshire in the early 1720s and published his account in 1724. John Hannavy gives us his own account.

The Wiltshire of the 18 th century was a very different county from what it is today, even if some of the landmarks are still eminently recognisable. Daniel Defoe drew a word picture of the county of his time in his travels through it.

Tis indeed a revered piece of antiquity, and 'tis a great loss that the true history of it is not known; But since it is not, I think the making so many conjectures at the reality, when they know they can but guess at it, and above all the insisting so long, and warmly on their private opinions, is but amusing themselves and us with a doubt, which perhaps lyes the deeper for their search into it'. So wrote Daniel Defoe after seeing Stonehenge for the first time during his journey through Wiltshire - probably in 1722 - gathering material for his acclaimed three-volume work A Tour Thro' the Whole ISLAND of GREAT BRITAIN. Just three years after publishing Robinson Crusoe, the author had embarked on a project about as different as could be from his epic account of life on a desert island.

The first edition of A Tour Thro' the Whole ISLAND of GREAT BRITAIN did not bear his name, the credit on the title page identifying the author simply as 'A Gentleman'. He would, perhaps, not be surprised to know that in almost three centuries since he wrote those words, dozens of writers, historians and many cranks have offered suggestions as to the purpose of the stones - listed amongst the most famous monuments in the world. Defoe's published 'Tour' was never intended as a guidebook, although it did set out to offer 'useful observations' on the 'Principal Cities and Towns, their Situation, Magnitude, Government and Commerce; The Customs, Manners, Speech, as also the Exercises, Diversions, and Employment of the People; The Produce and Improvement of the Lands, the Trade, and Manufacture' and 'The Public Edifices, Seats, and Palaces of the NOBILITY and GENTRY'. His tour was compiled as a series of 'Circuits or Journies', and because of the manner in which he crisscrossed the country, Wiltshire appeared in Letter Three, published in his first volume, and Letter Four, published in Volume Two. Salisbury and Stonehenge appeared in the former and most of the remainder of the county in the latter. The Wiltshire through which Defoe travelled was, of course, a county very different from today. Salisbury Plain was largely given over to sheep farming, and the predominant industry in many of the towns was cloth-making.

'We have the following market towns', wrote Defoe, 'which are principally employed in the clothing trade, that is to say, in that part of it, which I am now speaking of; namely, fine medley, or mix'd cloths, such as are usually worn in England by the better sort of people; and, also, exported in great quantities to Holland, Hamburgh, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Italy, &. The principal clothing towns in this part of the country are Malmsbury, Castlecomb, Chippenham, Caln, Devizes, Bradford, Trubridge, Westbury, Warminster and Meer.'

The manufacture of a range of woollen cloths was, he reported, split between the 'innumerable villages, hamlets, and scattered houses, in which, generally speaking, the spinning work of all this manufacture is performed by the poor people'. The mill owners - or 'master clothiers' as Defoe called them - sent their servants out to the outlying villages each week to deliver the wool to the home spinners, and to collect the yarn they had spun in the preceding seven days, which was then delivered to the weavers and 'fitted for the loom'.Devizes was 'full of wealthy clothiers' in Defoe's day but had, he noted 'run pretty much into the drugget-making trade; a business which has made some invasion upon the broad-cloth trade', adding that 'great quantities of druggets' were worn in England and also exported 'beyond the seas'. Drugget was a coarse-woven cloth used in the 18th century for clothing, but by the 19th century it had been largely relegated to use as table and floor coverings. It was made on a narrow loom rather than the larger broadloom, and was thus often as likely to be made by home-based weavers as in the mills. The name comes from the French word 'droguet' and while the Wiltshire cloth was exclusively wool-based, drugget cloth could also be made of a wool/silk or a wool/linen mixture.

Trowbridge and Bradford on Avon were renowned both for their cloth-making and for their fulling mills and dyers. Defoe had been told that the waters of the Avon were especially suited to these two finishing processes, contributing to the high quality of the finished fabrics. The area bounded by Trowbridge, Bradford, Westbury and Warminster, he believed, produced 'the finest medley Spanish cloths, not in England only, but in the whole world'. The money to be made from the woollen trade was considerable, and he was told in Bradford on Avon, that amongst the most successful clothiers in the first quarter of the 18th century 'it was no extraordinary thing to have clothiers in that county worth, from ten thousand to forty thousand pounds a man'. At today's prices, that would make them multi-millionaires. Then, as now, money bought status, and Defoe, in a not entirely approving vein, concluded that 'many of the great families who now pass for gentry in those counties' had originally been raised in the woollen trade!'

By the time he visited the county, the cloth trade was beginning to decline, and the tradition of sheep farming was slowly being replaced by arable crops - wheat and barley being the most widespread by the 1720s. Warminster had become, he said, 'without exception, the greatest market for wheat in England', whereas 'all the hill country from above Malmsbury to Marlbro', and on the side of the Vale of the White Horse' had been turned over to growing barley, which was malted locally and shipped to London. What he described as 'this prodigy of a trade' had, he concluded, supported most of the estimated 100,000 people who lived and worked in the county in the early 1700s. Britain, at the time, had an estimated total population of somewhere between five and seven million so the population of Wiltshire accounted for somewhere around three to four per cent of that total. With a population of 113 people per square mile, it was, surprisingly, the eighth most densely populated county in England. Today, Wiltshire's trade and industry has diversified out of all recognition, and the population had risen to approximately 438,000 by the time of the 2001 census.

Eighteenth-century Wiltshire regularly supplied huge quantities of food to London, a sometimes challenging trade as transport links with the capital were poor and slow. The canal network, which so revolutionised transport in England was still more than half a century in the future - the railways were a century away, and the M4 more than two and a half centuries - so the malt, Wiltshire bacon, and Wiltshire cheeses were transported east by cart to various jetties on the River Thames before being shipped to London by barge. Rural Wiltshire had, according to Defoe, 'arrived to that perfection of husbandry' where the land was used to its full extent. Sheep grazed on the plain and fertilised the land, and their wool was spun and woven locally. The land was then used to grow the wheat and barley which fed the locals and the cattle, the surplus being exported to London. The straw was used to roof the local houses in which the farmers, spinners and weavers lived. Cattle grazed the lower lands, their milk used to make a variety of cheeses. The whey and skimmed milk left after the cheese-making was used to feed the pigs, which in turn gave Wiltshire bacon its fine flavour. Nothing went to waste and, according the Defoe, other counties would do well to look to Wiltshire as a fine example of how to maximise the value of a rural economy.

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