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From the mid 19th century until the First World War Mere failed to prosper and became divided; by religion and the gap between the rich and poor. Mere became divided into two very distinct factions of church and chapel. There was great intolerance on both Church of England and non-conformists sides each organized their own education, social and sporting activities.
By the 1870s agricultural wages were only 50p a week and there was some migration to larger towns and some emigration. The population declined from a high point of 3,161 in 1871 and continued to fall until the Second World War. The agricultural depression greatly affected the Duchy of Cornwall farms, where many cottages fell into ruin. In 1907 it was estimated that 150 houses had disappeared in the Mere area within living memory.
Throughout this period the majority of the population continued to earn subsistence wages but in the second half of the 19th century a small wealthy class of well-to-do farmers, schoolmasters, ministers of religion and professionals emerged together with the facilities to support them. There were approximately 100 domestic servants, at least 20 shops and substantial redevelopment, with old houses being refurbished and a number of new ones being built by local entrepreneurs. The middle-classes prospered, the town filled with shops and became the commercial centre of a rural area.
The medieval Market Hall was demolished in 1863 and replaced by the present clock tower in 1868.
In 1872 there were two cases of small pox and the concern caused by this outbreak eventually led to the installation of a new sewage system in 1879. Mere had another traumatic experience in 1881 when the great storm of that year caused the town, like many other communities, to be cut off from the outside world for several days. The snow reached to the top of the hedgerows.
During the First World War Australian troops were stationed nearby and were frequently in the town. The Grove Building became a Red Cross Hospital.
By the middle of the 19th Century, British agriculture was enjoying great prosperity. However, population growth in counties such as Wiltshire & Dorset outstripped the demand for labour, so that rural wage rates in Wessex were the lowest in the country - and we were far from the new industrial towns, where the demand for labour drew off the surplus population, bidding up the price of farm labour.
The 1851 census shows that agriculture was still the mainstay of the local economy; of a population of just over 3,000 (900 more than 50 years earlier) 520 were directly engaged in it as their principal occupation - allowing for their families, this accounts for well over half of the working population. 20 farmers are listed, nearly all renting their holdings, which amount to 7,500 acres - the whole parish. They state that they employ 266 hands, and another 20 men also appear as family members working on the farm. Here the census throws up an apparent anomaly: while the farmers only declare 226 hands, the returns include 438 agricultural labourers, plus 36 paupers, mainly elderly. What did the other 170 do? Probably the farmers only declared those in regular employment, and depended on the pool of others for seasonal and casual work - these would also have been available for any other kind of unskilled manual work in other trades. What is clear is that such a pool of labour for casual work must have contributed to keeping wages at a notoriously low level which we today just cannot imagine - the weekly wage of a farmer's labourer in South Wiltshire ranged from 6s to 8s a week, less than half what his counterpart in Lancashire would earn. So a large part of the inhabitants of Mere would have little to spend in the 20 or so shops which were now open and life must have been very hard. It is no wonder that there was a constant stream of emigration by the younger people of the area - either to the industrial areas of this country or to America and Australia .
There were now only three inns congregated around the square, all of them surviving from the heyday of the coaching trade. The White Hart and the Swan had fallen victim to the decline of trade on the cessation of coaching; both bought by temperance sympathisers, demolished and redeveloped.
Mere and Zeals main industry, after farming, continued to be textiles. Although flax spinning had been out-competed by the powered northern factories, silk preparation required no power or technology.
Charles Jupe began silk production, initially at Hinks Mill and then Lords Mill. Silk arrived unwound from cocoons, it was cleaned, wound on to bobbins, graded and sent on to Warminster for spinning. At its peak it employed 170 people - mostly poorly paid young girls - who had the eyesight and slender fingers that silk working required.
In Zeals a significant number of mechanics worked in Maggs & Hindley's foundry & engineering works.
Mere was, as now, a grey stone-built town, the houses abutting directly on to the street. Brick quoining became fashionable at the end of the 19th century. As the railways developed it became possible to bring in slate to replace the flammable thatch roofs.
Although gas street lighting was installed in 1839, the vast majority of homes would still have depended on candles for their lighting. The town was supplied with piped water in 1909.
Landers’ Brewery in Salisbury Street was founded
but in 1884, possibly because of the Temperance movement, became a bacon factory
. Later it was a milk factory, being owned by Cow and Gate and then Unigate,
until it closed in 1970. The site is now occupied by Yapp Brothers.
One of the bright spots of the year was the August Bank Holiday Monday athletics and sports held at the Vicarage Field. This was the only occasion that both church and chapel folk came together for an event.
In 1899 the new Town Hall, or Assembly Rooms, was built. This had seating for 400 and also rooms for the Conservative Club. Employment prospects improved a little in 1906 when the former Water Street Silk Factory was reopened by the Royal Wilton Carpet Factory Ltd, who continued to use it until the Second World War.
If the agricultural depression had been bad enough, worse was to come - in 1859/60 the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway Company built the Yeovil-Salisbury line through Gillingham and so Mere had no station; a situation which was to have a detrimental effect on the local economy. The coach trade declined which led to the demolition of the White Hart in The Square in 1862 and the conversion of the Swan Inn to a house a few years later. Then in 1894 the centuries-old textile industry finally collapsed. Isiah Jupe had to give his employees at the silk mills two weeks notice because of financial problems in his industry. This day became known as ‘Black Saturday’ and resulted in many families moving out of the area in search of work elsewhere and a decline in non-conformist congregations, for many of the workers were, like Jupe, Congregationalists.
A brighter note was struck in 1899 when George Burden started as a nurseryman. Three of his sons continued the business and in the 1950s between 70 and 80 men were employed. Employment prospects improved a little in 1906 when the former Water Street Silk Factory was reopened by the Royal Wilton Carpet Factory Ltd, who continued to use it until the Second World War.