Who built the new village of Milton Abbas?

It is not certain who was responsible for the design and building of the new “model” village of Milton Abbas. The names that have vied for credit are Sir William Chambers, one of Lord Milton’s architects, and Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the designer of Lord Milton’s park. Thanks to our recent research into Lord Milton’s account at Hoare’s Bank, it is now possible to add another two names to that list, that of William Bragg, Milton Abbas carpenter, and George Lillington, Milton Abbas mason. Clive Barnes explains in our latest blog.

Still in business today, C. Hoare & Co. describes itself as “the United Kingdom’s oldest privately owned bank”. Joseph Damer had an account there from 1768 until his death in 1798; and its record survives in the bank’s archive at its headquarters in Fleet Street.

As a historical source, bank accounts are not very revealing, just lists of names and sums of money, with rarely an indication of what the payments or receipts are for. When I visited the bank archives, I hoped that I might find some record of Damer’s payments for the leases that he bought from his tenants before clearing the Old Town, but there were no names of leaseholders that I knew. However, I did find a cluster of relatively substantial payments to two names that I recognised, mason George Lillington and carpenter William Bragg.

Most of these payments took place between late 1778 and early 1781, sometimes to the men separately, sometimes together, and usually in round sums of £100 or £200. Altogether the two men were paid nearly £1,500 in 12 payments between December 1778 and February 1782. An equivalent sum today would be well over a hundred times that amount. The payments suggest that Bragg and Lillington were being paid as leaders of work gangs rather than for their individual work. This is the period in which other sources place the building of the new village, so it is a fair assumption that it was Bragg and Lillington who were in charge of the building work.

This discovery adds a new dimension to the question of who was responsible for how the village looks today. Both William Chambers and Capability Brown submitted plans for the village: Chambers in 1773i and Brown a year laterii, after Chambers had resigned as Damer’s architect. Neither of these plans have survived but the plan of the houses and the shape of the street and its location seem to suggest that the vision of both men may have played a part in the final shape of the village and its houses. But the village’s most striking aspect, the traditional cob and thatch construction of the buildings, is typical of neither Chambers or Brown. Of the two men, Brown is thought to have been more likely, since he sometimes retained an example of older vernacular architecture within his parks. However, if cob and thatch was his idea, it seems it was left to two local men to carry out the work.

William Bragg was the fourth generation of a family of carpenters and wheelwrights working in villages around Milton Abbas. He served on the Milton Abbas parish vestry as churchwarden and overseer, as his father John had before him. George Lillington was the son of another George, also a mason in the Old Town. Both men brought generations of skill and experience to the task of building the new village. At this time, it appears to have been usual for carpenters and masons, who also counted bricklaying among their skills, to work together in this way on the erection and repair of traditional buildings, supported by other craftsmen like glaziers and thatchers and a team of labourers. Generally, there would be no need for supervision from master builders or architects, although in the case of the new village there was clearly some direction to the men’s work.

The memory of the role of these men in the building of the houses lived on in the village for a hundred years or more. Relying on what he was told by local families, Herbert Pentin, the antiquarian vicar of Milton Abbas, and a chronicler of village history, recorded in 1904 that “when Lord Milton built the “new town” of Milton he intended the houses to be of brick and tile, but he allowed Mr. W. Lillington to build the first two, on the north side, of cobb and thatch, which so pleased his Lordship that the whole of the houses were built of the same material.  The builder was paid £100 a house, with permission to use what materials he could get from the demolished buildings of the old town.” iii

The detail of this does not exactly match the evidence in Hoare’s bank account but the assertion that Damer engaged local men directly to build the village is entirely supported by the payments in the account; while the question of why Damer decided to have it built in this way remains open.

It may have been his choice simply because it was cheap. Most of the material for the walls and roof, mainly earth and straw, were to hand, only sand had to be imported; lime for the render was in constant production on the estate, which may also have been able to produce bricks for the chimney stacks. There was timber growing on the estate, but typically carpenters would re-use sound salvaged timbers if these were available, and, as suggested by Pentin’s account, there was a wealth of reusable demolition material from the Old Town site.

While the cottages were no doubt meant to enhance Damer’s reputation as an estate improver, the people who lived there were, after all, only craftsmen and labourers, and the traditional style of the cottages suited their lowly status. Damer gave Bragg and Lillington leases in the new village and they lived and worked in the village they had built until their deaths, William in 1792 and George in 1809.

It was Joseph Damer’s money and ambition that made the village possible, and it was almost certainly both Chambers and Brown who had a hand in shaping it. Now the entries in Hoare’s bank account provide convincing evidence of the role of the villagers themselves. It was the traditional skills of Bragg and Lillington and their fellow workers, now largely forgotten men, that contributed so much to the picturesque quality of the village and which have excited the admiration of visitors for over two hundred years.

i Letter from Chambers to Milton April 3 1773 quoted in Arthur Oswald, Market Town to Model Village, Country Life September 29 1966, p. 764

ii Lancelot Brown Account Book, Royal Horticultural Society, Lord Milton’s Account, p 25

iii Handwritten notes on an article in Milton Abbas Parish Magazine May 1904, supplied as a photocopy to the Milton Abbas Local History Group by Peter Traskey and transcribed by Pamela Phillips. Record 1284 in the History Group database.

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