A HISTORY OF CHANTRY.

By David Rawlins. M.B.,B.S.

 

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The ecclesiastical parish of Chantry was formed in 1846 from parts of the parishes of Whatley, Elm and Mells. In those days the parish of Elm was in two separate parts; Great Elm , where the church is, and Little Elm, some two or three miles distance. It is now part of the civil parish of Whatley and some fields to the north are in the civil parish of Mells.

 

Several hamlets went to form Chantry,- Little Elm, Stoney Lane, Dead Woman, Railford, Bulls Green and the houses around the church at Chantry, together with two outlying farms, Bangle and Pool House.

 

The driving force for the formation of the parish were members of the Fussell Family, who were prominent in the district, being factory owners producing edge tools, such as sickles, scythes etc. They had two works in Chantry, at Stoney Lane and Railford, powered by the Whatley stream, which was dammed to form two lakes, the upper of which is still in being.

 

In about 1820, Chantry House was built, probably by Pinch, with stables and a lodge. The house is shown on Greenwoods map, published in 1822. It is likely that this was on the site of a previous house, which was probably used as building stones for the lodge and stables and in the grounds. The area has been inhabited since pre-historic times. There are the remnants of a Neolithic/bronze age camp (about 5000 years old) just to the north of Castle Hill Wood. The quarry which was probably used to build this camp can be seen just below it in the steep escarpment leading down to the stream.

 

There was a roman villa on the Whatley/Nunney border just outside the parish dating to the middle of the fourth century A.D.

 

The Doomsday Book does not mention Chantry directly. Chantry was formed out of a number of manors which are mentioned in Doomsday; Middlecote – later French House Manor, Mells, Whatley and Elm. Later the manors of Samuels and Haidon were formed and parts of these became Chantry.

 

The Horners of Mells owned Mells, Middlecote, Haydon (there are several spellings) and Samuels manor. The borders and bounds of these manors were not coterminous with the parish boundaries. The Dead Woman estate was part of Middlecote manor.

 

The history of the manors of Elm and Whatley is even more obscure – not many documents survive.

 

For a period the main part of the village was know as Little Elm, although some of it was in the parish of Whatley.

 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Fussell family started to buy property in Chantry to build their iron works and house. It is not clear from whom the land was purchased. Some came from Rudge Common, which was enclosed and was on the Frome side of Stoney Lane. Their property was to the east of the parish. The Chantry House was built on the hill overlooking Whatley brook, also called Fordbury water. The lower lake has disappeared but the upper is now rented by a fishing syndicate. The stables have now been converted into a house. There was possibly a previous house on the site of The Chantry; this may have been a manor house. Just across the river, Manor Farm still exists.

 

In the nineteen- fifties, near the possible site of a demolished house, part of a carved stone was discovered, commemorating the aqueduct on the Coleford coal canal. It is dated 1801 and was presumably never erected, as the canal enterprise collapsed in 1802. James Fussell IV was an active promoter of and investor in the canal. He must have had property in Chantry at the time and was possibly living here.

 

 

DESCRIPTION OF CHANTRY.

 

 

Chantry is situated on the eastern Mendips, about five miles west of Frome. It is built on limestone shales and old red sandstone with an overlay of andesite (related to basalt), especially in the area of Bangle Farm. The andesite is the result of a lava flow from the volcano at Stoke-St.-Michael, (which is being quarried at Moonshill by Wainwrights.) some sixty million years ago when the area was under the sea. To the north and south of Chantry are beds of carboniferous limestone, which is extensively quarried for aggregate for road building etc. There are four active quarries closely surrounding the parish – Halecombe and Colemans, each extracting about one million tonnes annually, Torr Works at Merehead and Whatley Quarry, both extracting up to five million tonnes of stone each year. Westdown quarry is inactive at present, and Asham quarry is permanently closed.

 

The quarries have a considerable impact on Chantry, with blasting, noise, dust, light, and movement of stone. There have been road and path closures, and the landscape and environment are being irrevocably changed. Most of this activity has taken place in the last fifty years. As the quarries have become larger they have employed fewer people. At present only one or two parishioners work in the quarry industry.

 

Most of the parish is at least 500 foot (l50 metres) above sea level, excepting the steep sided valley of Whatley brook. The ground continues to climb to the west. Chantry is the beginning of the Mendip plateau (although the Mendips traditionally start at Cottles Oak in Frome).

 

To the south, the parish is bounded by Nunney from Collie Corner to Dead Woman’s Bottom, mainly on the line of the old road. The boundary then follows Castle Hill stream along Asham Wood which is in the parish of Downhead. Castle Hill Wood, to the north of the stream, is in Chantry but Shearmoor Wood is not. Some of Castle Wood has been cleared fairly recently. The boundary between the two woods is a small stream which flows in a mini ravine, over six foot deep in places. The boundary follows the track for about one hundred metres before going north along the hedgerow towards the main road. Here it abuts onto Leigh on Mendip. However, before it reaches the road, it turns east diagonally across the fields to the crossroads at Mary’s Grave, now abutting onto Mells. From there it continues east along field boundaries to what was Mells/Chantry Lane. It is a field or two north of the civil parish boundary that is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps and takes in the site of Pool House Farm. It meets the old Mells Lane, where there was a bend, and proceeds south- east along the lane to a small stream, which it follows to Railford Bottom. From there it follows a line to the west of Whatley Brook to Stoney Lane. It then goes south along Stoney Lane to Collie Corner. From Railford bottom to the east, is the ecclesiastical parish of Whatley.

 

 

THE PARISH ROADS.

 

The main east-west road is of considerable antiquity. In the mid eighteenth century it was converted to a turnpike. The milestone, c1775, opposite Yew Tree Cottage, was one of a number erected by the turnpike trust. At Railford one can still see the deeply eroded line of parts of the old track. This must have led from Frome to the central Mendips and a road appears on the old Mineries map of c 1600 as going to the north of Asham Wood, from Whatley to the mines around Charterhouse.

 

Bulls Green Lane, from Little Elm to Dead Woman is similarly ancient, as is Stoney Lane, both being deeply cut between the surrounding fields. The old lane to Mells is mentioned by Leland in c 1530 and appears on maps of the Mells estate from 1682 onwards. A turnpike to Coleford was formed in 1780, leaving the main turnpike at Mary’s Grave. The new Bulls Green Link was constructed in 1998, partially funded by the Holecombe quarry, destroying Coalpit Lane and part of Dead Woman’s Bottom and forming a barrier between the parish and Asham Wood.

 

 

AROUND THE PARISH.

 

 

The Castle:

The oldest known remains in the parish are the earthworks above Castle Hill Wood, which are probably about 5,000 years old, either late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. They now consist of a low two foot mound, about 40 metres long and twenty metres deep, forming a three-sided rectangle. The fourth is formed by the steep sided escarpment of Castle Hill Wood. There was a stone wall at their core. They have been ploughed several times in the last century. Just inside the wood, beneath the camp is an eighteen century boundary stone, inscribed MCL. In the camp is a concrete “dragon’s tooth” constructed c 1940 with the remnants of an inscription on its base.

 

Mary’s Grave.

I have heard four accounts of how these crossroads got their name.

1. A young woman, living in Bulls Green in 1850, murdered by a jealous wife, from Great Elm, was buried there.

2. A gypsy caravan containing a gypsy queen was cremated there.

3. A suicide, possibly who had the surname Mary, was buried there.

4. A highwayman, who used to dress as a woman, was tried by Judge Jeffries and hung in the Brewhouse (now the garage) of The Old White Horse, and was buried there.

The latter seems the most likely story. It was known as Mary’s grave before 1846 and highwaymen tended to be buried at crossroads of parish boundaries. I have found no evidence for the first story, apart from Rev.Alan Holts book, “East Somerset Romantic Routes and Mysterious Byways”. (1986.)

It is possible, of course, that all four stories are true. There used to be a large stone inscribed with a cross at the presumed site of the grave, but this disappeared in 1998 when the new road was built. It did not appear in Somerset County Council’s archaeological survey prior to the construction of the road!

 

Pool House Farm

was of great antiquity. It was mentioned in the 1515 terrier of Glastonbury Abbey, as part of the boundary of Mells. It was destroyed by fire c 1885 and the site is now being further destroyed by Whatley Quarry, as has been Mells/Chantry Lane.

 

Dead Woman’ Bottom:

This name Dead Woman dates back to at least 1542, appearing on an old lease of that date housed in the Horner archives in Mells. The last house (in ruins) was bulldozed in the 1970s, but it used to be a thriving community. Old maps show a mill there and the banks of the mill pond can still be seen by Asham Wood, to the west of Dead Woman. The 1882 map marks a factory there, making brushes.

In a book called “Somerset Birds and other Folk” by E.W. Hendy (1944) there is a chapter called, “A Somerset Woodman”, which gives a delightful account of James and Emma Georges’ life there in the 1880s and their work in Asham Wood, making hurdles etc. They were both baptised, married and buried in Chantry church. He died in 1941 at the age of 82.

 

Asham Wood:

Although outside the bounds of Chantry, this ancient woodland (a site of special scientific interest) has always been important in the life of the parish, with up to a dozen men working there from Chantry and exploiting the underwood. The blocks of coppice were sold annually by auction, alternating between the White Horse Inn in Chantry and The Tadhill Inn in Downhead.

In Castle Hill Wood there is a tufa spring; objects immersed in it are coated and impregnated with limestone.

The names Collie Corner and Coalpit Lane may well refer to charcoal burning rather than coal extraction.

 

The Dead Woman Estate

This estate belonged to the manor of French House, owned by the Horners of Mells. French House manor is shown in the Doomsday Book as Middlecote. In 1759 the Dead Woman estate was held by Robert Brown and consisted of a house, garden, orchard, malthouse, barn, stable and outhouses with three fields called Tapps Coppice, amounting to about 20 acres. In 1803 it was held by Mary Harris, who was probably Robert Brown’s daughter. I think it is likely that Green Farm was this estate. This farm, partly destroyed by the new Bulls Green Link Road, now has its building in the North West corner of the property. It was built in 1840 (as shown by the date on the front of the house) and extended in 1974. Arthur Perry , an old Chantry resident, said that some of the land in Bulls Green Farm could not be grazed, but only used for haymaking. This was due to the presence of the poisonous Autumm Crocus, which used to grow abundantly. When made into hay, it apparently loses its toxicity. It was eradicated eventually by the use of differential weed killers, but still grows in Asham Wood.

 

Bulls Green

used to be a thriving community of some ten houses. Asham House was the site of a grocer’s shop at one stage and was know as Hock’n’ Ham.

 

Inns:

There were two inns, the George and The White Horse, but sadly both are now closed and converted to private houses. They date back at least to the building of the turnpike and probably much earlier.

 

Fairs:

There were two fairs a year held in Chantry, behind the George Inn, but they died away at the beginning of the twentieth century and were finally killed off by the First World War (1914-1918). They were held on the first Tuesday after Trinity Tuesday, and the first Tuesday after 29th September.

Their presence is surprising. Neither Great Elm nor Whatley held fairs, nor did Downhead, though Mells and Nunney did.

On some of the old maps, the entire village is called Little Elm and it appears to have been more populous than either Great Elm or Whatley. It seems surprising that the parish was formed as late as 1846 as it was obviously quite an important place.

 

Schools:

The school was held in what is now known at the Old School House (or Little Acre) from the 1840s. In 1857 the building was much enlarged to provide accommodation for three other schools

1. A Lady’s College – this was a boarding school and attracted girls from all over the world as well as all over England, to be taught fine arts with native French and German speakers. It was at its peak about 1881 with sixty- seven scholars aged from ten to seventeen listed in the 1881 census. At this stage about half of them were lodged in Chantry House. Numbers declined to eighteen in 1901 and it closed about 1914.

There is an account in Helen Mather’s book “Coming through the Rye” (published in 1875) of her time there, the village being thinly disguised as Charteris. She describes school life, the church and Mr. Russell (Fussell) who owned the Charteris (Chantry) and introduced her to cricket (chapters 13 – 21 in Seed Time).

2. An Industrial School to teach girls to become domestic servants. There were usually less than a dozen scholars.

3. The Elementary School, later the National School. This closed in 1949.

4. The Infant School or Kindergarten, This took children from three years old or younger.

In 1851 there were forty six scholars in the last two schools aged from three to fourteen, though most left at about eleven. Absenteeism was always a problem.

The Fussell family were keen on education and inspired the formation of these schools. Rev. James Fussell was an inspector of schools.

 

Church Houses:

The Parsonage, now The Grange, near the church was initially inhabited by the vicar. The Vicarage (West House) in Little Elm, to the west of the village, was initially for the curate, but later the vicar lived there until 1936, when the village shared a vicar with Whatley. Since 1960, both parishes have been part of the Mells Group, sharing their priest now with four other parishes (at one stage this rose to eleven parishes!).

 

Orr Farm:

This is now situated next to the church and was originally where Bullen Mead is now sited. It was thatched and destroyed by fire c 1930. One barn remains.

The name is ancient (the spelling varies), and means that there are mines or pits for mineral extraction (almost certainly iron ore) on the farm. In 1530 Stephen Dorset of Ore Farm in the parish of Whitley was presented to the court of Donnehead (Downhead) for felling oaks and ashes in Sheremore (Shearmoor Wood) without licence. He appeared again in 1540 for trespass in Asham. He may well have needed the wood for smelting iron.

Some medieval lime slag has recently been found in the grounds of The Chantry in the stables garden. The names Coalpit Land and Collie Corner probably refer to charcoal burning. To this day the field above Chantry Lake is called Smiths field. In the next field, Buttermead, there are signs of old iron workings.

 

The Primitive Methodist Chapel

Dated about 1820, it was converted to a private house in the 1970’s.

 

The Chantry

This was built about 1820, possibly by John Pinch for James Fussell. It is a comparatively small house, though well proportioned. It is approached from the north and has an entrance porch with Doric columns. The principal rooms face south; the ground on which it was built, falls sharply away to the south and below the main floor, the semi-basement has ground-level access on the south side. There are three main ground-floor rooms. An annexe was added by Edward Tylee in the early twentieth century, to form a Roman Catholic chapel, and rather spoils the proportions of the house. This is now used as the kitchen. The stables have been converted to a private dwelling. The lodge was originally single-storied but was extended by Edward Tylee.

The grounds are still extensive, possibly originally laid out by Goodridge. There is a lake, a lily pond, two grottos and a secret garden etc. There are carriage drives around the grounds and lake. The ice house is quite a distance from the house on the opposite hillside (but facing north). There are still the remains of the water-wheel and pumps which pumped water from the lake to the house.

The first owner of Chantry House was James Fussell IV, who died in 1845 and it then passed to his nephew, Rev. James Fussell. However, he did not always live in the house and it appears to have been heavily mortgaged by the time he died. In 1891 it was used as dormitories for the girl’s boarding school.

In 1905 the estate was sold at auction and passed into the hands of Edward Tylee, though he lived there only part-time.

In 1952 it was purchased by Anthony Dymoke Powell.C.B., C.B.E., the famous author, who lived there with his wife, Lady Violet, until his death in 2002. Lady Violet died in 2002, and it is now owned by their sons.

Chantry and its inhabitants are described by Anthony Powell in some of his books, especially in “The Strangers are all Gone” and the three volumes of his journals.

 

The Fussells and the Ironworks

Some branches of the Fussell family had lived in Whatley parish since 1750. The Fussell family had been engaged in edge tool production since the mid eighteenth century. The lake in Chantry which powered the Stoney Lane ironworks was built in several stages. In 1806 an agreement was made between Edward Portman of Bryanston Dorset and James Fussell of Mells to construct a watercourse in Downhead to help supplement the stream flowing into Chantry, notably Castle Hill Stream. The stream on the east side of Asham Wood was unreliable in the summer. The first lake built probably in 1806, is now the southern part of the main lake, and is largely silted up. However some of the dam and sluices could still be seen until a few years ago. A map of 1822 shows that the lake had been enlarged and a canal, parts of which are still to be seen, was channelled under Stoney lane, the iron works being on the north side of the lane. The level of the lake was raised by about two feet at a later stage; the old banks, lined with stone, can still be seen in the waters.

Mr. Anthony Powell further raised the dam and re-enforced it during his tenure of the Chantry, as there was a danger of it collapsing.

A further lake and works were built at Railford at a later date, possibly 1830. The stone dam still exists, with a large hole in the centre, through which the stream flows. The canal from the lake to the works is well preserved and there is more to see of the Railford works themselves, than the Stoney Lane works which have almost all disappeared. There is a large tapering chimney fifteen metres high, with other walls, water ducts etc in the gardens of Railford cottage. Up to about eight years ago there was a plaque, thought to have read ‘Thomas Fussell 1840’. A number of the old grindstones have been halved and the resulting semi-circles used as steps throughout the garden. After the iron works closed the Railford premises were used as a saw mill until the 1920s.

Up to a dozen men from Chantry used to work in the edge tool factories until they closed in 1895. They produced tools of high renown which were sold not only in this country, but abroad. There is said to be a collection of Fussell’s tools in The Curtis Museum in Alton, and some of their pattern books are held in Winchester.

Unfortunately most of the Fussell family papers have not been located, and only the occasional property deeds have been discovered.

 

The name Chantry

is said to derive from the Chantry field, mentioned in the Whatley Tithe Book of 1797. In Whatley church, in the fourteenth century, a south chantry chapel was added by Elizabeth, widow of Sir Oliver de Cervington and dedicated in 1350 with an altar tomb, presumably that of Sir Oliver.

An enquiry by Edward III in 1365,” asked if William of Seavington assigns six messuages (dwellings), a caracate of land and four acres of meadow with appurtenances in Whatley next Mells for a Chaplain to pray for William, Alice, his wife, Walter of Monyton, Abbot of Glastonbury, David of Walcot, John of Mersshton and Jon Way, whilst they lived, and their souls after their deaths and for the souls of Oliver of Seavington, and Joan, his wife, would the king be caused any damage or prejudice?”.

The reply, about two months later, was that “there is no prejudice or damage to the Lord King or others. That the lands are held of the abbey of Glastonbury by Knights Service and valued yearly at four marks. There is no other tenant between the king and William and there remains to William one messuage and two caracates of land at Whatley beyond this gift, which is held at Glastonbury for Knights Service, worth eight marks – which is sufficient.”

According to “Spur of Mendip”, writing in the Somerset Year Book, 1932, pages 63-66, James Fussell, who built the Chantry, was living in Chantry Manor Farm, which was the manor house of Whatley-under-the Wall. Chantry Manor House came into the Fussell family by marriage with Miss ffolliot.

It seems fairly certain that there were two manors in Whatley (as in other villages) and one was sited in the Chantry area, but I suspect that the old Manor House stood near the site of the stables. The Fussells later purchased more land in Chantry, including parts of Rudge Common, on the other side of Stoney Lane.

 

Chantry People.

The 1851 census shows a population of 242. The main activity was farming, involving 47 people. There were seven farms (there are now three). Sixteen men worked in the woods and ten in Fussell’s ironworks. Ten people were employed as servants and there were also two gardeners and a coachman. There were three carriers, two painters and two carpenters. There was also a butcher and a shopkeeper. Surprisingly there were also three teachers and a professor of music. An army colonel lived in the Chantry.

The population collapsed when the iron works closed and only 149 people were listed in 1901 census, and there were then about fourteen empty properties.

Since then, there has been a further slow decline to the present day with now about 130 people living in the parish.

 

Copyright © 2003 [David Rawlins]. All rights reserved