Warminster is a town and civil parish in western Wiltshire, England, by-passed by the A36 (between Salisbury and Bath) and the partly concurrent A350 between Westbury and Blandford Forum. It has a population of about 17,000. The 11th-century Minster Church of St Denys stands near the River Were, which runs through the town and can be seen running through the town park. The name Warminster first occurs in the early 10th century.
The main settlement at Warminster dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period, although there is evidence of pre-historic settlements in the area, especially at the nearby Iron Age hill forts: Battlesbury Camp, Scratchbury Camp and Cley Hill. Two Roman villas have been discovered in the area, as have caches of Roman coins. By the 10th century, Warminster included a royal manor and an Anglo-Saxon Minster, with the residents largely associated with the estate. The royal manor was passed to new lords in the 12th century, during which time the township started to grow. During the 13th century, a market was set up at Warminster, and by 1377 the town had 304 poll-tax payers, the tenth largest in Wiltshire.
The town’s name has evolved over time; it was known as Worgemynstre in approximately 912 and it was referred to in the Domesday Book in 1086 as Guerminstre. The name may be related to the River Were, a tributary of River Wylye which runs through the town, and from an Anglo-Saxon minster or monastery, which may have existed in the area of St Denys’s Church, although the evidence for this is slight. The river’s name, “Were” may be derived from the Old English “worian” to wander.
The market at Warminster was the focus of the town’s prosperity, with significant wool, clothing and malting trades established by the 16th century and continuing to be the economic backbone of the town until the 19th century. The market also included a significant corn trade throughout the period and was regarded as the second largest corn market in the west of England in 1830. Unlike many markets of the time where farmers would take only samples to market, Warminster’s corn market required a sack from each load of corn to be available to customers; each purchase was to be agreed between 11am and 1pm and paid for by the end of the day.
The town had a large amount of accommodation for visitors to the market, and in 1686 it was ranked fourth for number of places to stay in Wiltshire, with 116 beds. By 1710 there were approximately fifty inns and alehouses in the town. The town was an early adopter of the Turnpikes Act to improve the roads around the town. Unlike many roads improved at the time which would link to towns, Warminster chose to improve seven roads around the town, all under three miles long.
Despite the prosperity, one settlement of houses near Warminster Common had a poor reputation. William Daniell wrote in 1781 that people were living in unplastered hovels with earth floors, and that piles of filth poisoned the stream bringing typhus and smallpox. The people were considered rude and drunk criminals. Daniell and members of the clergy were keen to help the residents, and by 1833 the area was considered clean and respectable.
The town centre was redesigned after 1807 when George Wansey, who was from a family of clothiers in Warminster, left £1,000 (equivalent to £71,775 in 2015) to improve the town, provided his money could be matched by local fundraising. The funding was spent on demolishing houses to widen roads. In 1851, a railway line from Westbury was opened, and then in 1856 the line was continued to Salisbury. The new railway had a devastating effect on the town’s market, which fell away almost to nothing, the shops and inns lost most of their business, and the local industries declined.