If you are interested in English history, then Bridgwater is an incredibly rich part of the country. And if you haven’t had an interest in history, then come and experience what we have to show you in our local area, and we would be surprised if you don’t become fascinated and want to know more.
Here is a potted history of some of the events that happened here over the past 2000 years, and what you can find if you look around.
Bridgwater began as a Saxon village called Brygg meaning jetty or quayside. There was no bridge here, and ships would sail upstream to Taunton and Langport. There was a watermill where grain was ground to flour to make bread for the villagers, perhaps the same site as the one at the top of Blake Street.
878 AD – the Danes landed at Combwich leading to a major battle at Cannington. These raids continued up the rivers and deeper into Somerset until Alfred finally beat them at Edington.
The last Saxon lord of Brygg was Earl Merlswain. He is believed to have built the first Christian church here on the site where St. Mary’s now stands.
The parish included the neighbouring settlements of Hamp in the south, Haygrove and West Bower in the west, Horsey island in the north-east, East and North Bower, and Dunwear was a scattered riverside settlement occupying much of the east bank of the Parrett.
After William the Conqueror divided England up between his Norman barons, Brygg was allocated to Walter from Douai in France. It was known as the Brigg of Walter, or Briggwalter, which in time became Bridgewater. That is why Bridgwater has no “e” and the “l” is now missing.
The Domesday Book of 1086 records that Bridgwater probably had a population of about 160, which made it a fairly large village with five extended families.
By 1200 it came under the stewardship of William Brewer, a close friend and hunting partner of King John, who visited the town on 5 occasions between 1204 and 1210. This William Brewer is believed to have carried the ransom money to pay for Richard I’s release when he was held prisoner on the continent.
On June 26th 1200 King John granted Bridgwater two charters, which gave the inhabitants town borough status with the right to raise taxes, to hold a market, and the right to build a bridge over the river (which enabled them to intercept much of the trade that previously went upstream.) Once the market was up and running craftsmen and merchants came to live in Bridgwater and it grew into a town.
The castle was built between 1200 and 1210, with walls 12-15 feet thick, and a 30 foot moat. You can find remnants of the castle in different parts of the town, although it was thoroughly demolished in 1644 after the Civil War.
William Brewer allowed an Augustine Priory, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, to be built around 1216. This was the first hospital, caring for infirm persons plus travelling pilgrims and religious persons, with the exception of lunatics, lepers, pregnant women and those with contagious diseases!
By 1246 one of William Brewer’s sons had founded a Franciscan priory in the town. They were called Grey Friars because of the colour of their habits. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. Their priory was in Friarn Street. In Silver Street is a medieval door believed to belong to the old priory which housed the order for 300 years.
These establishments continued for 300 years until they shared the fate of other religious buildings when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and seized their wealth.
In 1249 the first Bridgwater Fair was held, ranked as the second largest in England after the Nottingham Goose Fair. It began as a horse and cattle fair, lasting 8 days, around St Matthew’s Day (September 21st), and attracted buyers and sellers from all over Somerset. It now takes place at St Matthew’s Field on the last Wednesday in September and lasts 4 days.
In 1362 a local lady from Clare Street, Isolda Parewastel, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was captured by the Saracens, held captive and tortured, but managed to escape. In gratitude for her deliverance she requested permission from the Pope to build a chapel in St. Mary’s Church.
During the Second Baron’s War of 1264-1267, led by Simon de Montfort against Henry III, Bridgwater was held by the barons against the king. In fact, Bridgwater has a reputation for standing up against the unfair dealings of monarch and government, often to the local people’s cost.
In 1381, during the reign of Richard II, Bridgwater was affected by the peasant’s revolt. A mob forced entry to the hospital, seized the master, and destroyed various documents detailing the debts owed to the hospital. They then attacked Sydenham Manor, before going on to Ilchester Gaol, where they killed the head jailor and released the prisoners. His head was placed on a spear on Bridgwater’s Town Bridge, a stone bridge with 3 arches just downstream from where the present TownBridge stands today, together with that of another official from Chilton Trinity.
In the middle of the town was the corn market whose name later changed to Cornhill. There was another market for livestock at Penel Orlieu, originally 2 streets, Pynel Street and Orlove Street (both of which were named after people).
In the Middle Ages Bridgwater was protected by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden stockade. (It was too small for stone walls). There were 4 stone gates where tolls were charged on goods entering the town. Northgate stood where the street of that name meets Angel Crescent. East Gate stood across the river where Broadway meets Eastover. South Gate stood South of St Mary Street, and West Gate at the crossroads of Penel Orlieu with Broadway.
Bridgwater was an important inland port in the Middle Ages but until 1402 it was officially part of the port of Bristol. Wine from France was imported into Bridgwater. Other imports included cloth, grain, beans, peas and hides. In Bridgwater the main industry was cloth manufacture, and there were many drapers and tailors in the town. Wool was woven, then fulled and dyed.
In the 14th century Bridgwater probably had a population of about 1,600. In 1468 Bridgwater was given a mayor and corporation to govern it. By the 15th century it had grown to about 300 houses.
In the 16th century Bridgwater was still a busy port. Fish were brought there. Millstones were brought by water from the Forest of Dean. The cloth trade declined in the 16th century but a shipbuilding industry grew up.
In 1497 Bridgwater joined the Cornishmen in the Western Rebellion. An army of 15,000 marched peaceably towards London, apart from one isolated incident in Taunton where a tax commissioner was killed. The protest ended with the Battle of Deptford Bridge, when the Cornish army was slaughtered and its leaders subsequently hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.
In 1539, along with the nationwide dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, both the hospital and the friary were closed.
In 1577 the Bridgwater ship Emanuel was one of three that took part in Martin Frobisher’s search for the Northwest Passage, and in 1588 another Bridgwater ship, the “William” sailed to join the English fleet against the Spanish Armada.
Stuart and Parliamentary Times
In 1605 Bridgwater along with many other towns and villages celebrated the failure of the gunpowder plot with bonfires and firework displays. It is believe that Robert Parsons from Nether Stowey masterminded the plot. But for some reason in Bridgwater this tradition developed into what has become the world’s largest night time carnival.
In 1642 civil war broke out between king and parliament. Bridgwater mostly supported parliament. Nevertheless the town was captured by royalist troops in June 1643. It remained in royalist hands until July 1643 when it was besieged by parliamentary soldiers under Cromwell and Fairfax. The governor of the castle was Colonel Sir Francis Wyndham, and his wife, Lady Crystabella, very nearly shot Oliver Cromwell with a musket from the battlements. After heavy fighting in which Parliamentary artillery destroyed all but two houses in Eastover, the Royalists surrendered, and the following year the castle was destroyed as a reprisal for the town’s resistance.
Robert Blake (1598-1657) was one of the most important military commanders under Cromwell. The eldest son of 13 siblings born to a Bridgwater merchant, in 640 he was elected as MP for Bridgwater in the Short Parliament until it was dissolved by King Charles I after just 3 weeks. When the civil war broke out, he began his military career on the side of the parliamentarians with very little experience of military or naval matters. His victories included the siege of Taunton (1645) which proved a turning point in the Civil War. In 1649 he was appointed General at Sea and is often referred to as the “Father of the Royal Navy.” He was responsible for building the largest English navy hitherto with well over a hundred ships, was the first to keep a fleet at sea over winter, developed new techniques to conduct blockades and landings, and to attack successfully despite fire from shore forts. He led the navy to victory over the Dutch in 1652-53 and the Spanish in 1656-57 before dying from his wounds just before reaching England. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, until after the restoration of the Monarchy when his body was exhumed and dumped in a common grave.
Robert Blake (1598-1657)
In 1685 James Scott, the First Duke of Monmouth, rebelled against James II and announced that he was the real king. The people of Bridgwater supported his claim and declared him king at Cornhill. He was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor on July 6th, the last land battle fought on English soil. Not only was Monmouth beheaded at the Tower of London, but many local people were found guilty of treason at Judge Jeffries “Bloody Assizes” and either executed or deported. In Bridgwater 9 people were hung, drawn and quartered.In the 17th century brick making began in Bridgwater and remained an important industry until the 20th century. Bath Brick, the forerunner to scouring pads, were exported in large quantities throughout the British Empire.
The site of Bridgwater castle was purchased by James Brydges, Marquis of Carnavon and the First Duke of Chandos, with the salary he acquired as Paymaster-General for the forces abroad. In 1721 he became major and lord of Bridgwater, and used his wealth to patronize arts and building. He attempted to establish Bridgwater as an important industrial centre from 1721-1735, building Chandos and Castle Streets (one of the finest Georgian streets in the south-west), a distillery, soap factory and glassworks. Unfortunately they were not a financial success.The Chandos Glass Cone was a huge circular building, built mostly from local bricks, 64 feet across and 125 feet high. Between 1726-1733 window glass and bottles were made here in an attempt to establish a glass industry in Bridgwater, but it failed, and the Cone was subsequently converted into a pottery kiln.Another eminent statesman during these years was Anne Poulett who served as MP for Bridgwater for 16 years until his death in 1785. He was the fourth son of John Poulett, the First Earl Poulett, and received his unusual first name in honour of Queen Anne. In 1780 he presented the painting “The Descent from the Cross”, apparently taken from a captured Spanish warship, to St Mary’s Church, where it is now used as the altarpiece.Bridgwater was never involved in the slave trade. Perhaps the fact that 612 Somerset men were transported into slavery in the West Indies after the Bloody Assizes contributed to this, together with the influence of local Quakers, but Bridgwater became the first town in England to petition the government to ban the African slave trade in 1785. It was presented to parliament by Lord Anne Poulett and Alexander Hood, Lord Bridport, but ordered by parliament to “lie on the table” – i.e. considered unworthy of debate. However, it was the first of many attempts to abolish slavery, which eventually brought an end to British involvement in the slave trade in 1807.In 1798 the first iron bridge was built over the river, replacing the old medieval bridge. In 1791 a Market Hall was built, where goods could be bought and sold under cover. A dome and pillars were added in 1827. In 1875 it was made a corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold.
Georgian and Victorian times
In 1801, at the time of the first census, Bridgwater was a fair-sized town with a population of over 6,600. By 1841 its population had risen to over 10,000.In 1831 Bridgwater’s first theatre and an infirmary were opened. The latter grew into a general hospital by the late 19th century. Gas street lighting was introduced in 1827, and in the same year the Bridgwater and Taunton canal was built. In 1835 Bridgwater gained its first real police force.
The railway from Bristol reached Bridgwater in 1841, which was disastrous for the canal until the Great Western Railway bought the canal in 1866 and some commercial traffic continued on it until 1907.The last of Bridgwater’s stone gates was removed in 1822 as it interfered with traffic. King Square was laid out in 1807. Angel Crescent was built in 1816. A new town hall was built in 1823. Albert Street and Victoria Street were both built in the early 1840s. An Art College was founded in 1860.
In the 18th century there was a piped water supply in Bridgwater but you had to pay to be connected. A public supply was provided from 1879. In the late 19th century drains and sewers were built in Bridgwater. The new town bridge was built in 1883.In 1896 the trade unionists of Bridgwater’s brick and tile industry went on strike, and the first use of the Riot Act in the UK in an industrial dispute was evoked when the Salisbury government sent troops of the Gloucestershire Regiment to the town in a bayonet charge to clear the barricades on Penel Orlieu.
20th Century Bridgwater
In 1901 the population of Bridgwater was almost 15,000. A public library was built in 1906. The Admiral Blake Museum opened in 1926 in the house in which Admiral Blake 1599-1557 was born. The cinema was opened in 1936.In the by-election of 1938 Vernon Bartlett was voted in as an independent anti-appeasement candidate, and enabled the town to send messages to the government and to Hitler.Bridgwater was involved in the Second World War. Bombing destroyed houses in the Old Taunton Road with several casualties, and later an Italian prisoner-of-war camp was established at Colley Lane. The Taunton and Bridgwater Canal formed part of the Taunton Stop Line with pillboxes along its length, designed to prevent the advance of a German invasion.The first council houses were built on the Newtown estate, Kendale Road and Bristol Road from around 1925-1935. Further council house estates were built at Sydenham and Rhode Lane in the 1950s and 1960s.The port went into decline during the 20th century, shipbuilding came to an end, and the docks closed in 1971. Warehouses were converted to flats. However, Bridgwater is still the major industrial town of Somerset. From the 1930s there was a preserves industry and British Cellophane moved there. In the late 20th century industries in Bridgwater included heavy engineering, making electrical equipment, brick making, tile making and brewing.
Today the population of Bridgwater is 36,000. Despite being a commercial town with lots of industry it has a character of its own with a very rich history. It continues to be innovative. In 1992 Bridgwater was the first British town to twin with a Czech/Slovak town (Uherske Hradiste) after the Velvet Revolution.There is much interest in preserving its historical heritage, and lots to see and visit. Lower Lakes is an ideal place to stay, amid the beauties of the countryside, but within a few minutes of being able to see for yourselves what our ancestors have left behind.At Lower Lakes we are glad to show you where to go, and can even arrange guided tours for you so that you can make the most of your time here.