Brixton Deverill

The village of  Brixton Deverill is part of the Deverill Valley. This encompasses six villages on the Wiltshire Downs where the western edge of Salisbury Plain dips into Somerset. Longbridge is the principal village and its parish includes neighbouring Crockerton. The other Deverills are Hill, now in Longbridge parish, and the parish of Kingston Deverill which includes Monkton.

The name Deverill refers to the River Deverill which flows through the whole valley. It rises to the west of Kingston and flows north, passing through the six villages. At Crockerton it meets the Shearwater stream and becomes the River Wylye. The name Deverill literally means ‘diving rill’. There are points along its route where it peters out and flows underground, hence the disappearing rill or stream.

The name Brixton refers to an 11th century landholder named Brictric. By 1435 the name had changed to Brightson, leading to the opinion that this was the site of Ecbrighte’s stan or Egbert’s stone. This is the site where King Alfred is said to have gathered his men before Ethandune, although the actual site may well have been at Penselwood, on the Somerset-Wiltshire-Dorset border. King Alfred has long been associated with the Deverill valley in legend and folklore, an example being the dedication of Monkton church.

The story of Alfred and the cakes is supposed to have taken place in a field south of the rectory in Brixton, and tradition says that Alfred prayed for victory in the church on the eve of the Battle of Ethandune.

The earliest evidence of settlement in the valley is in Brixton. The Deverills have been continuously inhabited by farming people since at least 3500 BC. The first settlements were on high ground, as this was drier and easier to clear. Archaeological evidence has been found on Cold Kitchen Hill, a name which is possibly Celtic for ‘Hill of the Wizard’. Another suggestion is that the site was given this name after it was abandoned – a cold kitchen because no one lived there. The site was continually occupied until c300BC. A large quantity of small objects has been found here, indicating extensive occupation from the Early Iron Age through to Roman times.

The recent discovery of a Roman vilal in the village has provided likely evidence that the community here was at the centre of an agricultural estate at that time. On nearby Whitecliffe Down is a religious site that was used well into Roman times. There are numerous tumuli in Brixton parish, a few to the west of the village and the majority on Pertwood Down. The downland is not suitable for ploughing, and its fine examples of the Celtic field system are clearly visible. This type of field is a small irregular enclosure ditched and banked for protection.
The only other visible sign of activity on this down is the Lead Road built by the Romans from Old Sarum to the Mendips.

Prior to the Reformation the Church was the main landowner in the Valley, and Brixton was held by the French Abbey of Bec. However, during the long period of the wars with France, the abbot of Bec gradually lost control of his English estates. During the 1440s Brixton passed to King’s College Cambridge, who held it until 1941. Brixton was part of a larger economic unit of manors held by the Abbey. This meant that the parish was able to make full use of its combination of downland and sheltered valley by specialising in the production of sheep and corn.

The parish church of St Michael the Archangel was built in the late 13th century. There was an earlier church on this site, at which Alfred the Great is said to have prayed for victory on the eve of the Battle of Edington. The building consists of a nave, chancel, north-east vestry and west tower over the entrance. It has been restored twice, in 1730 and again in 1862. An independent Methodist Chapel was established here in 1843.

There are ten listed buildings in the village, including the church. Manor Farm was formerly the Manor House. It was built in the 15th century, with 17th and 18th century additions and alterations. Whitecliff Farmhouse was built c. 1700. The Old Rectory was built in the 17th century with later additions. It ceased to be a Rectory in the 1970s. Attached to the front of the building is an early 19th century former schoolroom.

There are also six listed cottages in Brixton, five of which date back to the 17th century.

Until World War II the main source of employment in the valley was farming. The chalkland is excellent for growing corn, and large numbers of sheep were kept to fertilize the soil. By combining the growing of crops with keeping cows and sheep, making cheese and butter and selling milk, the farmers have always managed to make a living. As early as 1289 there were 1143 sheep on Brixton Downs.

These sheep were traded at local sheep fairs and the thriving market at Warminster, and continued to be a good source of income down the centuries. By the early 19th century corn prices had risen; times were good in the Deverill Valley. Unfortunately this was soon to change. In the 1880s corn began arriving from abroad, soon to be followed by more foodstuffs. The Wiltshire farmers saved themselves by turning to fresh milk production instead.
After the Second World War the farmed acreage of the Deverill parishes more than doubled. This was achieved by using land cleared by tanks that had used the Downs as a training area.

At the time of the Domesday survey the estimated population figure for the whole valley is 605. The largest community was Monkton with approximately 285 residents, and Hill Deverill the smallest with only 45. A survey conducted in 1676 showed Longbridge to be by far the largest community, with Kingston in second place. This pattern has remained constant ever since. Brixton’s population at Domesday was between 80 and 120 people. At the time of the first census in 1801 it had risen to 144.

Its peak was 227 people in 1871. Since then it has gradually dropped to 59 in 1981, rising slightly to 89 in 2001.

During the 18th century the population figure for the whole country rose dramatically, and the end of the Napoleonic Wars produced a large number of discharged soldiers. The result was a huge labour surplus, to which the Deverill valley was not immune. Wages were reduced, and many families suffered great hardship. The Parish Officers decided that one option was to help people to emigrate. This began in the 1820s with 100 people going to America. More left in 1861, some going to Canada or New South Wales. Longbridge alone lost 181 people.

Despite this emigration and some people moving to the towns, village life in the 19th century for those left behind remained essentially the same. The valley continued to be self sufficient with its farms and dairies, and villagers exchanged goods such as eggs or vegetables. In general this was a healthy place to live, although there was an outbreak of cholera. The doctor visited once a week, coming from Mere or Horningsham. The introduction of the road wagon during the late 18th century saw the arrival of carriers and village shops.
Two turnpike roads were built, one from Heytesbury to Bruton, the other from East Knoyle to Warminster, meeting at the George Hotel.

Like many villages, the Deverill Valley provided most of the services that people needed at the beginning of the 20th century. Farms were the main employers, and most services, such as a blacksmith, shoemaker or carpenter, were available at Longbridge. Brixton was able to support a village shop until 1915.

There were Post Offices at Kingston and Longbridge, carriers at Kingston and Crockerton, and pubs at Monkton, Longbridge and Crockerton. There was a Reading Room at Crockerton, where men could read the newspaper or play games such as billiards or cards. Mains water and electricity were brought to the north of the valley in the mid 1930s, but did not reach the south until after World War Two. The children at Brixton attended the school at Longbridge.

The War brought great change everywhere, and the Valley was not immune. Mechanisation meant fewer men were required on the land. Those who stayed expected better living conditions, which prompted a new house building programme funded by the farmers and the council.

The Valley continues to be a thriving community, although most people travel to work. It is able to support three churches, two pubs and a primary school. There is a garage with a Post Office, two small trading estates at Crockerton and nearby Sutton Veny, and a vineyard.