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).
Chard is the highest town in Somerset, and is situated in a well-watered gap between two uplands. The area is geologically complex, with many faults: several different building materials (including greensand, chalk and chert) as well as limestone and the Axe gravels, have therefore been available for exploitation. There have also been (futile) attempts to find coal seams in the lias east of the town.
The Axe gravels to the south of Chard are the source of a number of prehistoric artefacts, including flint axes, and a hillfort exists on the ridge to the south-west. However, there is as yet no evidence of prehistoric settlement at Chard itself. By the Roman period there seems to have been some level of occupation, with a number of finds of Roman artefacts and occupation debris having been found on the fringes of the modern town. Chard is within a few miles of the Fosse Way and several villas are known in the surrounding area - at Wadeford, Whitestaunton and South Chard.
The core of modern Chard was in existence by at least the Saxon period, with a small, non-urban settlement probably clustered around the church and at a crossing of routes. This area is now known as the Old Town, though its appearance was altered in the Mediaeval period and before the 16th century it was known simply as the settlement in Oldchard tithing. At the time of the Conquest, Chard was part of a large estate belonging to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. This may have been a late purchase by the notoriously acquisitive Bishop Giso (1061-1088), who is named as the holder in the 1084 Gheld Inquest, though there is a charter 'of doubtful authenticity' which lists Chard amongst the Bishop's possessions in 1065. The rapidity of population increase in the later 11th century may mean that the bishops were capitalising on existing growth or growth potential. Whilst the nature of this early development is uncertain, later patterns of growth suggest that sheep farming, quarrying and market functions were the key.
After the Conquest, the manor remained in the Bishop's hands and included Tatworth, Langham, Forton and Crimchard. In the 13th century, steps were taken to increase the profitability of the estate. The Borough was established in the first half of the century with a charter of Bishop Jocelyn in 1236 granting "a free borough for ever" and setting out the Borough limits and conditions of tenure. The establishment of the Borough involved either the realignment or the re-use of existing routes (one of them the main Exeter through route) in order to lay out the new market areas and burgage plots. The Monday market and fairs were then formalised in 1253 by a charter of Bishop William Button. In 1285, the King confirmed and enrolled the burgesses' privileges, the wording implying a formal acceptance of established practices and promises, which included self-government via the Portreve. In the first half of the 14th century, Chard was represented in Parliament, though it soon ceased to exercise this expensive privilege; the town was taxed as a Borough in 1334.
Chard's economy in the medieval period was based on the cloth industry. Records show that large flocks of sheep were held by the manor long before weaving is first documented. By the post-medieval period, a large area around Chard depended on these activities, with the town acting as the centre of the local cottage industries and managing the trade in and exporting of their products (to France in particular). But the town was devastated by fire, probably in 1577, with most of the cloth stores - and indeed most of the centre of the town - destroyed. The appeal subsequently issued refers to the important role of the town in supporting the labours of "many a thousand poor people within ten miles compass in working the said trade". Recovery in the town was rapid, with many new buildings having been constructed by the time of the 1602 manor survey (not all necessarily as a result of the fire). It remained a centre of woollen cloth production and the number of commercial finishing mills in the town gradually grew: by 1790 there were as many as sixteen.
In the post-medieval period, the Borough became at least partially independent of its ecclesiastical roots and was farmed out to the Pouletts (R Carter & L Hoskins, in litt.). Chard manor and Borough - being still bishops' land and also farmed by the Royalist Pouletts - were seized and sold by Parliament's Commissioners in 1646 (they were returned after the Restoration). Otherwise, the townsmen did not suffer particularly from the Civil War, though both Royalist and Parliamentarian armies passed through the town in 1644-5, and troops were billetted nearby. Later in the century, Monmouth twice passed through Chard, and the town was a scene of executions following his defeat in 1685: the infamous Judge Jefferies hanged twelve men (only one appears to have been local) on the Hang-Cross Tree.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Chard continued to be a local market town, despite changes in the road network which had isolated it from the main Exeter route (which now ran through Axminster). Collinson (1791) states that the potato market was the largest in England. There was a corporation seal by 1570; Charles II's charter of 1683 reconfirmed the corporation and granted three fairs and four weekly markets. This charter may also have begun a conflict of portreeve and mayoral systems of municipal government which continued in Chard until the early 18th century.
The setting up of the turnpikes in the late 18th century improved the town's communications: Chard now lay not only at the hub of the local network but also on the main London-Exeter route. There were a large number of coaching inns in the town at this period. Collinson (1791) describes a town still consisting chiefly of two intersecting streets, with many fine houses, but with several grist and fulling mills.
The local wool and cloth industry was badly hit by competition from northern textile mills and Indian cotton in the 19th century. Lace making had virtually replaced it by the 1820s, thanks to the relocation of the Nottinghamshire lace manufacturers. Old mills were converted and new ones established, the industry expanding rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. Lace-manufacturers remained Chard's staple employers until the early 20th century (though linen and rope manufacture was also carried out), but it was an unstable industry locked into a cycle of boom and depression. Indeed, throughout much of the 19th century Chard was an uneasy mix of industrial expansion and deprivation. Bragg's 1840 directory declares that "there are few towns whose outward appearance has undergone such a radical change as that of Chard within the last ten years", and yet in 1842 there were disturbances and a widespread strike in Chard (though these were partly associated with the Chartist movement). The directory entry is referring principally to the recent refurbishment of the market place, but there were other changes. The rapid expansion of the industry in the first half of the 19th century created a need for housing, and Chard contains some early industrial suburbs close to the mills. Elsewhere in the town, Hope Terrace was a construction project intended to create jobs in one of the depressions.
From the mid 19th century onwards, the townsmen made various efforts to stabilise the town's economy, including desperate attempts to leap on the canal and rail bandwagon. There had been many ambitious (and abortive) canal, and later rail, proposals from the late 18th century onwards, many focussing on the idea of joining the Bristol and the English Channels. In the 19th century, a number of local canal and rail ventures were undertaken, but in the context of the rivalry of the railway and canal companies, with each hurrying into schemes in order to prevent the other gaining access to potentially lucrative routes. The townspeople achieved a short-lived canal link to the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, via the Chard Canal which opened in 1842 but became a financial disaster. Meanwhile, the principal rail route established by 1860 ran east-west and bypassed Chard town. Rail branches to south and north eventually reached the town in 1863 and 1866: the railways were more successful than the Canal and continued to operate until the 1960s.
The population of Chard has risen steadily since 1801 and has continued to rise in the 20th century, despite the loss of the town's major industry and its rail links.