A Brief History of our Parish
Ashwick shows evidence of human activity through a very long time period. At Beacon Hill – the highest point of the Parish – there are about 14 tumuli dating from the Neolithic period, somewhere between 4,000 and 2,500 BC. In the Nettlebridge Valley there are two Rock Shelters in Cockles Wood with the earliest traces of human occupation; artefacts dating from 2,500 BC have been discovered there. Just outside the Parish to the west is the Maesbury Hill Fort, a major Iron Age site. Ashwick’s eastern boundary is the Roman Fosse Way; this is crossed by another Roman road running from Charterhouse to Old Sarum (Salisbury).
Ashwick was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Escewiche’, but the earliest known document relating to the parish comes from shortly before Domesday: it is a Charter from 1061 for land at Ashwick granted by Edward the Confessor to Abbot Wulfwood of Bath Priory, who then granted it to St Peter’s Monastery at Bath. They held it until the Reformation when it passed to Thomas Horner of Mells.
In the 900’s AD Ashwick had become part of the Kilmersdon Hundred (an administrative area) within which it was part of Kilmersdon Parish. Ashwick’s parish church, St James’, was originally a Chapel of Ease under Kilmersdon. The tower is the oldest part of the church (records date from 1483) although the rest of the church was rebuilt in 1825, when it became an independent parish. Following the Reformation and religious upheavals Ashwick became a strongly non-conformist area with many Chapels of different denominations: the parish has seen a total of 16 places of Christian worship during its history. Today it has three churches: St James and All Saints Oakhill (built 1862), both C of E, and the Methodist Church in Oakhill (1825).
During the 17th and 18th Centuries the major part of the parish belonged to the Fortescue family of Devon, who sold off their interest in the early 19th Century. Other historic sites include The Pound at Ashwick, which predates 1632 (this site was renovated by Parishioners as one of the community Millenium Projects). Coombe House, at the eastern end of Oakhill High Street, is mentioned in documents dating from 1366 and is thought to be the oldest property in the Parish , although it is not known if any of the original building remains.
Ashwick lies at the southernmost edge of the Somerset coalfield. The earliest coal record is a Lease of 1605. There were two main collieries in the area – Old Moorwood, which closed in 1860 and Moorwood, which closed in 1932 due to faults and water. The latter had a rope incline and a narrow gauge railway to take tubs of coal to the Somerset and Dorset railway sidings at Moorwood. The promised canal was never built.
Oakhill village is today the main concentration of population. Having been a very small hamlet it grew significantly following the founding of Oakhill Brewery in 1767 by Jordan and Perkins. The Brewery prospered due to the natural spring water which was used to produce the famous Oakhill Stout. At one time Oakhill Brewery produced more stout than Guinness and had its own narrow gauge railway – the only Brewery owned light railway in the country – taking beer from the Brewery to Binegar Station on the Somerset and Dorset Railway. The Brewery also owned a substantial number of public houses in Somerset and beyond. During its time the Brewery was the main employer for the village; the company built and owned a large number of its houses. The non-conformist owners and directors were notably philanthropic, improving conditions for employees and other villagers and providing them with coal in hard winters, and a free water supply, gas lighting and sewage system, at a time when even settlements as large as Shepton Mallet had none of these advantages. A disastrous fire in 1925 saw the Brewery’s demise.
Oakhill Church School, on the Bath Rd, recently celebrated its 150th year anniversary (it was previously called The National School; there was also a non-conformist British School for about 100 years). The High St in Oakhill once boasted a number of shops, sadly, all are now gone. There were also several ale-houses in the parish, only the Oakhill Inn on the Bath Rd and the Mendip Inn on the Bristol Rd now survive. Other important trades in the village included clock-making (Richard Hardwick and three generations of Nicholas Ropers), plus clay-pipe making and stocking manufacturing.
Other important buildings in the district include Ashwick Court (near St James’ Church, a much-altered house initially a farm, thought by some to have once functioned as Ashwick Manor); Oakhill House, once the home of Ashwick’s first vicar, Rev. John Davis who moved in in 1825; Pondsmead (now a care home) and Hillylands (now Oakhill Manor) were also relatively grand houses owned by the Spencer brothers whose family were long-term Brewery owners and directors. All these houses had numerous servants and landscaped grounds. The Beeches dates in part from the seventeenth century. It once served as the Brewery offices and was not quite such a grand affair, though still a substantial house.
Ashwick Grove, now in ruins, was probably the most significant house in the parish, thought to date back to the 1600’s. It was originally home to the Billingsleys, a prominent non-conformist family which included the agriculturalist John Billingsley (1747-1811). He described himself as ‘a speculative man turned farmer’ – in reality he was much more: a very energetic and talented man who was an early co-owner of Oakhill Brewery, active in draining the Levels and enclosing Mendip, a Vice-President of what is now the Royal Bath and West Society and author of a government-commissioned book on agriculture (1797) – among other things. After his death Ashwick Grove was sold to the Strachey family, again major land-owners in the district. The Strachey Estate was broken up and sold in 1937 following the death of the ‘Last Squire’, the third Richard Strachey.
Oakhill and Ashwick Local History Group