Trowbridge is the county town of Wiltshire, England on the River Biss in the west of the county, 8 miles (13 km) south east of Bath, Somerset, from which it is separated by the Mendip Hills, which rise 3 miles (4.8 km) to the west.
Long a market town, the Kennet and Avon canal to the north of Trowbridge has played an instrumental part in the town’s development as it allowed coal to be transported from the Somerset Coalfield and so marked the advent of steam-powered manufacturing in woollen cloth mills. The town was foremost producer of this mainstay of contemporary clothing and blankets in south west England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by which time it held the nickname “The Manchester of the West”.
The civil parish of Trowbridge had a population of 33,108 at the 2011 census. The parish encompasses the settlements of Longfield, Lower Studley, Upper Studley, Studley Green and Trowle Common. Adjacent parishes include Staverton, Hilperton, West Ashton, North Bradley, Southwick and Wingfield; nearby towns are Bradford on Avon, Westbury, Melksham, Frome and Devizes. The origin of the name Trowbridge is uncertain; one source claims derivation from treow-brycg, meaning “Tree Bridge”, referring to the first bridge over the Biss,while another states the true meaning is the bridge by Trowle, the name of a hamlet and a common to the west of the town. On John Speed’s map of Wiltshire (1611), the name is spelt Trubridge.
There is evidence the land on which Trowbridge is built was being farmed more than 3,000 years ago. In the 10th century written records and architectural ruins begin marking Trowbridge’s existence as a village. In the Domesday Book the village of Straburg, as Trowbridge was then known, was recorded as having 24 households, very well endowed with land, particularly arable ploughlands, and rendering 8 pounds sterling to its feudal lord a year. Its feudal lord was an Anglo-Saxon named Brictric who was the largest landowner in Wiltshire. He seems to have administered his estates from Trowbridge.
The first mention of Trowbridge Castle was in 1139 when it was besieged. The castle is thought to have been a motte-and-bailey castle, and its influence can still be seen in the town today. Fore Street follows the path of the castle ditch, and town has a Castle Street and the Castle Place Shopping Centre. It is likely the Castle was built by Humphrey I de Bohun; his family dominated the town for over a hundred years.
Within Trowbridge Castle was a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon church. Henry de Bohun turned this to secular use and instead had a new church built outside the Castle; this was the first St James’ Church. In the base of the tower of the present day church, below the subsequently added spire, can be seen the Romanesque architecture of the period.
Trowbridge developed as a centre for woollen cloth production from the 14th century. Thus before the start of the Tudor period, the towns of south-west Wiltshire stood out from the rest of the county with all the signs of increasing wealth and prosperity during the period of trade recovery led by exports begun under Yorkist Edward IV and, still more, during expansion under Henry VII, when England’s annual woollen exports increased from some 60,000 to some 80,000 cloths of assize[clarification needed].
During the 17th century, the production of woollen cloth became increasingly industrialised. Â Many Bodmans drifted towards Trowbridge and these industrialized jobs at the end of the 18th century as they lost their jobs as agricultural labourers as a result of enclosure. However, mechanisation was resisted by many workers in traditional trades; there were riots in 1785 and in the era of Luddism owing to the introduction of the flying shuttle. Nevertheless, at one point in 1820 Trowbridge’s scale of production was such it was described as the “Manchester of the West”. It had over 20 woollen cloth producing factories, making it comparable to Northern industrial towns such as Rochdale. The woollen cloth industry declined in the late 19th century with the advent of ring-spinning and this decline continued throughout the 20th century. However, Trowbridge’s West of England cloth maintained a reputation for excellent quality until the end. The last mill, Salter’s Home Mill, closed in 1982. Â Clark’s Mill is now home to offices and the County Court; straddling the nearby River Biss is the “Handle House”, formerly used for drying and storage of teazles used to raise the nap of cloth. This is one of very few such buildings still known to exist in the United Kingdom.