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).
The town of Shepton Mallet is situated on the upper reaches of the River Sheppey, and just off the fertile shelf at the foot of the Mendips. It lies at the head of a narrowing of the river valley, with gently rising ground to the south and steeper scarps to north and east. The site gives access to the resources of both the Levels and the Mendips, including good agricultural land and sheep pastures, building stone and water power.
Archaeology is now demonstrating that, like the rest of the Mendips, Shepton's valley has been the scene of human activity since at least the neolithic period. No neolithic settlement structures have yet been located, but many artefacts have come from the rising ground south of the modern town; and in the same area the remains of iron age farmsteads have been found (at Cannard's Grave, near Field Farm and possibly underlying part of the Roman town). Whilst there is, therefore, an apparent concentration of prehistoric settlement on the higher ground between the Sheppey valley and the Levels, this may be a distortion caused by a high number of archaeological investigations in that area. Evidence of prehistoric burials from both sides of the valley suggests, for example, that activity was widespread.
We do not know how much continuity there was between the prehistoric settlements and the recently discovered Roman settlement which straddles the Fosse Way between modern Charlton and Cannard's Grave. The Fosse Way itself, the main Roman road into the South-West, was an important factor (perhaps the most important) in the Roman settlement pattern, however. Its artificial straightness was punctuated at regular intervals at first by military outposts and later by civilian service points and trading centres: the major reason for the location of Shepton's Roman settlement may therefore have been its position half way between Bath and Ilchester. Recent archaeological investigations along Fosse Lane have revealed many details of the markedly linear civilian roadside settlement, which survives well and is a find of great archaeological importance. But other finds, such as the early Roman kilns (possibly to be associated with early military activity) found well west of the Fosse Way in the 19th century, serve as a reminder that much remains to be learnt about the pattern of Roman activity in the wider area now occupied by Shepton Mallet, and of its relationship to the earlier settlement pattern.
It is not yet clear how long the Roman settlement continued to be occupied after the 4th century, though archaeology now suggests it was at least into the 5th century. It may be that the (slightly unusual) extension of the parish boundary across the Fosse Way at this point may imply that the limits of the Roman settlement retained some significance centuries later. There is, however, no evidence that the main site was still occupied in the Saxon period. Indeed, the settlement pattern may have altered substantially. Shepton itself is first mentioned by name, as Sceaptun (the sheep farm), in the Domesday Survey, though an 8th century charter granted the land in which it lay (part of the Pilton estates) to Glastonbury Abbey. By Domesday there were already many sheep, a mill, and, one assumes, a village, at Shepton, which was held from the Abbey by the Courcelles family.
In the medieval period, Shepton was one of a number of small settlements along the Sheppey valley (this may already have been the case before the Conquest: Charlton at least is recorded separately at Domesday as Cereletone, linked to Doulting manor). But it appears to have been deliberately developed as a commercial enterprise, either by Glastonbury Abbey or by the Mallet family (who held the manor from the Abbey by the 14th century). A market and fair charter was granted in 1235 and though this was subsequently suppressed after objections by Wells, further market and fair grants were made in 1260 and 1318. A planned urban core may have been laid out, and though no borough was ever established, the amounts of tax which were raised Shepton in the medieval period testify to its prosperity, which was firmly based on the woollen industry.
Though the overlordship of the town reverted to the Crown at the Dissolution (being granted to the Duchy of Cornwall in 1536), there was little disruption to the town's life. Shepton continued to thrive in the Post-medieval period, and its continued significance was underlined by the placing of the county prison there in the early 17th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries the town expanded eastward along the river, where were built the mills on which its prosperity rested. Shepton itself, and the outlying settlements, became populous, industrialised settlements. Collinson in 1791 describes an industry employing about four and a half thousand people in the valley (when the silk and crepe mills as well as the woollen mills are included). But the streets of Shepton, according to his account, were narrow and dirty.
By 1840, things had changed somewhat. The woollen industry was already declining by the late 18th century and this trend continued in the early 19th century. However, other industries, such as silk manufacture, brewing and cheese making, were growing to take its place. Braggs' 1840 Directory was able to describe Shepton as a neat and clean market town, and the other 19th century directories also give a picture of a town in recovery from the economic threat imposed by the failure of the cloth industry. Efforts were made to improve the urban fabric and the communications system, by, for example, the construction of the new Waterloo Bridge in the 1830s. The arrival of the railways from the 1850s onwards was a boost to the town's attempts to keep its head above water. In fact, population has remained fairly steady since 1801 (around five to six thousand), though it has expanded physically, absorbing the surrounding settlements.