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Castle Cary by Miranda Richardson

This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).

Download Castle Cary report

A brief history of Castle Cary

Extremely little is known of Castle Cary in prehistory; the SMR records three  sets of fortuitous finds dating to the prehistoric period. Excavations took place from 1975-8 in Ansford that recorded both prehistoric material and Roman material Samian recovered from the site included Claudian and Neronian suggesting a possible military site and wall-plaster may indicate a later villa. Otherwise the evidence for the Roman period is slight consisting of a single coin (Antonius Pius) found in 1862 in South Cary Lane.

The Listed Building description mentions that the church of All Saints has Saxon origins, although it is not clear upon which evidence this suggestion is made; no Saxon structural elements remain in the present building and no mention of the church is made in the Domesday book. Cary (or Kary) is recorded in the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas (c.1291) as providing the name for the decanatus which may however, suggest that the church had early origins. It has been suggested that the raised mound on which the church is situated is reminiscent of a Saxon burh or defensible area. The Domesday Book describes a small settlement owned in 1086 by Walter of Douai and prior to the conquest by the Saxon thegn Elsi, which included three mills and 100 acres of pasture. McGarvie suggests that the Domesday description implies a population of c. 250-300.

It is unclear whether Walter of Douai or the following owners, the Perceval family, built the castle which was to give the town the first part of its name.  It is known to have been besieged by King Stephen in 1138, and again in 1153.  Little documentary evidence exists for the medieval town either.  By 1468 the castle had been abandoned in favour of a manor house, built beside it. At this time the estate was in the hands of John de Zouche who was granted a charter for a weekly market and two annual fairs by Edward IV in that year.

Court rolls dating to 1650 and 1687 give some information about the size and make-up of the population, in 1687 listing 129 heads of family. The 1687 Court Roll also adds colour to the picture of Castle Cary, listing the presence of three inns, eleven brewers, 7 butchers, mills and a quarry, the different standings at the local fairs and markets and local disputes over roads and thoroughfares.

Cary-cloth is known from the middle ages and by the early 18th century its production was the major industry of the town, whose affluence was therefore, directly tied to fluctuations in the cloth trade.  In 1773 the well-known local diarist Parson Woodforde describes a visit to Mr. Neil's 'grand machinery' an industrial woollen manufacturer, in South Cary but wool cloth production was gradually replaced by linen through the 18th century, with flax being grown locally. The cloth industry collapsed under the pressures of imported linen in the late 18th century and was replaced by sailcloth and twine manufacture. Charles Donne started production in Ansford in 1796, the hamlet to the north of Castle Cary and a second girth and twine producer, Thomas Mathews, opened works in Castle Cary in 1815. Mathews later extended production to include horsehair seating, which was to become a major industry. A third entrepreneur, Boyd,  set up in  Castle Cary in 1837,  taking Chapel Yard House opposite Mathews' factory in South Street. Horse hair weaving and twine expanded rapidly from cottage to industrial production for example in  1851 Boyd built the Ansford factory behind Ochiltree House, and in 1864 expanded into a new industrial complex by Beechfield House. In the 1890s the Donnes followed suit building Higher Flax Mills. The 19th century saw much construction within the town and improvements which reflect the prosperity of these industries. Although both industries prospered during the First World War, providing cloth and materials for the army, the post-war period was one of general decline. The Second World War was to further damage trade in horse-cloth although the twine industry benefitted. In 1957 both Donne's and Boyd's much reduced enterprises were to be found sharing space in Higher Flax Mills with Clarks leather board production and the latter industry moved to the Ansford Factory in 1960.

The relationship of the town to the settlement of Ansford, which lies immediately to the north, is confusing.  Ansford had its own church probably from the 13th century and thus its own parish, however, Ward's 17th-century map which describes itself as map of the manor of Castle Cary includes Ansford, and shows it as a minor settlement compared to its neighbour. Aston and Leech comment on the position of Castle Cary in the north-east corner of its parish, suggesting that there may be a more centrally located vanished settlement to be discovered.  Alternatively, the original parish of Castle Cary may have included the village of Ansford, thus the settlement of Cary would be fairly centrally located in this larger area. The limit between Ansford and Castle Cary has often been blurred evidenced by Boyd's Ansford factory being built within the parish of Castle Cary.